In Romans 11:17-24 the Apostle Paul likens Gentile believers to a wild olive shoot grafted into a cultivated olive tree. The obvious question is, what is it that Gentiles are grafted into? Less obvious, it would appear from the widely differing interpretations, is the answer. Consequently there is considerable division among Christians over the relationship between the Church and Israel. This post explores this issue. It is rather lengthy (I do, eventually, get to an answer), but that's because I'm often asked about this so it makes sense to post something with a little detail I can people them to. Forgive me if the answer already seems somewhat obvious to you, while for those who disagree do please comment with your own views.
Incidentally, this issue is not simply a disagreement over some or other aspect of doctrine, having wider ramifications across the Church. For example, consider the nature of the current polarised (and sometimes quite bitter) debate among Christians. Quite shocking, too, is how some Christians will gladly align themselves for strategic reasons with forces that believers would never normally share a platform with to further their theology and aims in this regard. For some, too, the issue of Israel has become a test of orthodoxy, making it a basis for fellowship (for my part, while I believe it represents a major doctrinal issue for Christians today, I don’t consider it a test of orthodoxy). Then there are the wider detrimental effects of this issue, for example upon Messianic identity, the relationship of both Jewish and Arab believers to the wider Church, and Jewish evangelism. So don’t let anyone suggest it’s a minor issue best ignored. Such statements are born out ignorance of the detrimental effects, or else feeling theologically ill-equipped to deal with the Pandora’s Box opened when the relationship between the Church and Israel is first explored.
Anyway, back to the olive tree and what Gentile believers are grafted into. Some Christians believe they are grafted into the promises given to Abraham and Old Testament Israel. A variation of this viewpoint is that we're all grafted into the Church. Thus ultimately the Church is seen as the new inheritor of God’s covenant with biblical Israel. This view can take several forms, whether that Israel’s spiritual inheritance was taken away as a punishment and given to Christ’s new bride, the Church, or else that in Christ the old is done away with, so that Israel’s calling and purpose is fulfilled, and “lives on” through the Church.
Both views are essentially supersessionist in nature – Israel is, in some form or other, superseded by the Church – it’s just that one version is somewhat less harsh than another. Thus we differentiate between “hard” and “soft” supersessionism or, to draw on R. Kendall Soulen’s terminology (his book is detailed below) punitive versus economic supersessionism (Soulen also identifies a third expression which he names structural supersessionism). Incidentally, some Christians espousing soft supersessionism prefer the term “fulfillment theology”, which they regard as less pejorative than "supersessionism" or "replacement theology".
Another interpretation of Paul’s olive analogy is how it is ultimately Jesus into which the branches are grafted. This viewpoint associates the Johaninne narrative where Jesus likens Himself to a vine (John 15:1-6) with Paul’s olive tree passage as one and the same analogy. In John the branches that do not bear fruit are removed, while those that remain and bear fruit represent the True Israel of God. The language employed by proponents of this view sometimes makes it difficult to differentiate from soft supersessionism. But actually it goes beyond supersessionism, arguing that God never actually chose ethnic Israel as a people in the first place. Rather, the term "Israel" represents an ideal, a spiritual people belonging to God throughout history, so that biblically it never referred to national Israel (it is, if you will, a kind of replacement theology on steroids). Holders of this view often claim not to be supersessionist because, technically, they argue, God never chose a people on the basis of ethnicity so there’s nothing to replace. The Israel of God in the New Testament stands in direct continuity with the Israel (composed of people in general rather than ethnic Israel) of God in the Old. This position is really a variation of the viewpoint mentioned above which states the Church takes over the promises given to Israel. However, I mention it here because it specifically claims to identify the olive tree in Romans 11.
A completely opposite interpretation of Romans 11 from the views outlined so far is that the olive illustration refers to national, ethnic Israel. Thus Gentile believers represent a wild olive which is grafted into national Israel (the cultivated olive tree). This position states that God has not finished with the Jews, who remain God’s chosen people. There are several expressions of this viewpoint, which we refer to as nonsupersessionism.
So in summary so far, there are those who identify Paul’s olive tree with either the promises given to Israel, the Church or Jesus. But the outcome is the much same: through Christ’s work at Calvary, it is argued, the Church becomes the New Israel, or else the Church is a continuation of biblical Israel. This position is known as covenant theology. On the other side, nonsupersessionists believe God retains a plan and purpose for the Jewish people and that Gentile believers are grafted into Israel, which is the cultivated olive tree in Romans 11. There are various expressions of nonsupersessionism, one of which is dispensationalism (which we will discuss further shortly). I say this because there is a tendency by supersessionists to regard all nonsupersessionists as dispensational, but this is far from the case.
Aside from the olive tree as the promises, the Church, Jesus and national Israel, I’ve only come across several other views, and upon closer examination they all seem to be slight variations or modifications of one of those detailed above. I asked a colleague who studied Romans for his PhD if he knew of any other views, and he suggested most modern commentaries on Romans 11 simply assume Paul was talking about national Israel before discussing at great length the apostle’s horticultural and arboricultural knowledge. But if you feel I’ve missed something do post a comment.
So which is it: promises/Church, Jesus or national Israel? Actually there is a sense in which each of the viewpoints (if not their interpretation of what the cultivated olive actually is) has some merit, otherwise why would the Church remain so bitterly divided over this issue after twenty centuries? Thus with Calvary something changed, and with it inclusion of the Gentiles into the promises given to Israel. Ephesians 2:11-22 makes it clear that formerly the Gentiles were separated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers of the covenant of promise. Yet now, through the blood of Christ, those of us who were afar have been brought near, so that we are no longer strangers but fellow citizens and partakers of the promise (Eph 3:6). In this sense, then, the promises given to Israel have been extended to all peoples, which actually is not a theological view exclusive to Christianity. Consider, in the Old Testament, those passages that point or allude to universalism over particularism and how Israel will bring salvation to the world (a theology still maintained by Judaism today).
The problem is not so much seeing Gentiles as having become fellow partakers of the original promises (which is biblical), as believing the Church has taken over those promises so that they are no longer Israel’s (which, I believe, is not). As Darrell Bock pointed out at the conference which Chosen People Ministries and King’s Evangelical Divinity School organised and held at LST in October 2010, the problem is not that through Christ’s work the promises were extended to the wider world and humanity as a whole, but rather the suggestion that such an extension of the promises is at the negation of Israel.
Interpreting the olive tree as the promises or the Church is to approach the text in a highly allegorised manner, as well as ignoring that throughout Romans 9 – 11 Paul is speaking about ethnic Israel (a point upon which biblical scholars today seem to have reached a consensus). But what about this argument, on the basis of the “I am the Vine” passage in John 15, that in fact the cultivated olive tree in Romans 11 is Jesus? After all, at first glance there seems to be some similarity between the two, with branches being removed in each case. But upon closer examination comparing Romans 11 with John 15 seems a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Consider:
1. John’s narrative refers to a vine, while Romans is about an olive tree. (I recall, while speaking on Romans 11 at a conference, how a well-known Reformed scholar brought up the vine passage. When I pointed out Romans 11 in fact refers to an olive tree there was a long, embarrassed silence as he looked up his Bible with a puzzled look, having been so used over many years to conflating both passages.)
2. In John the vine branches not bearing fruit wither and are thrown into the fire (v. 6), but in Romans there is a strong emphasis on the eventual re-grafting of the old branches. Thus one is presented as final and permanent, the other as temporary.
3. In John Jesus prunes the vine branches to bear fruit, while lack of fruit-bearing results in vine branches being removed. So the emphasis is on followers of Christ bearing fruit (indeed they are pruned to bear even more fruit). Yet Romans does not seem to be concerned with producing fruit at all, quite the opposite: the branches rely on the root for sustenance (vv 17-18).
4. Finally, in John Jesus is speaking to His disciples, while Romans is concerned with a specific issue within the Roman church where some Gentile believers had become conceited towards Jewish believers, perhaps even now seeing themselves as the new chosen people. The context and aim of both is quite different. One passage (John) draws on an analogy of a vine as a warning against fruitlessness, while the other (Romans) draws on an analogy of tree surgery to discourage arrogance.
In short both illustrations are very different, and while Paul may have had the basic pictorial aspect of Jesus’ analogy in mind (branches being broken off for one reason or another), equally he may not. At the very least one wonders why, if they are indeed one and the same analogy talking about exactly the same thing, how someone as theologically and rhetorically learned as the Apostle Paul would use a different analogy to cause confusion on something he considered of vital importance (indeed, so important to him that he devotes one-fifth of his defining theological treatise – Romans – to the issue). Thus basing one’s interpretation of the olive tree on Romans 11 on conflating it with John 15 is, to say the least, hermeneutically problematic.
This leaves the interpretation of the olive as national Israel. After all, it’s pretty clear that throughout Romans 9-11 Paul is discussing national, ethnic Israel, while the natural reading of the text is to associate that into which Gentiles are grafted is Israel. Anything else seems overly allegorical and forced. Meanwhile, given Paul’s use and definition of Israel (= national Israel) immediately after the olive tree passage, and indeed throughout Romans 9 – 11, it is even more unlikely that all of a sudden the olive denotes some kind of spiritualised Israel. So we concur with the viewpoint that Paul’s cultivated olive illustration refers to national Israel.
But this raises a major theological problem that some pro-Israel Christians don't really deal with, namely, how can Gentile Christians be grafted into something that is currently in unbelief (especially when in Paul's illustration unbelief seems to be the cause for some of the branches being broken off)? Or put another way, how do Gentile believers belong to a national Israel which has, on the whole, rejected her Messiah?
Dispensationalists tend to deal with this issue by positing the existence of two peoples of God: the Church (composed of believing Jews and Gentiles) and national unbelieving Israel, to whom God will reveal their Messiah at the end of time. Despite dispensationalism’s strong tradition of nonsupersessionism, I wonder if there is a sense in which this explanation, albeit unwittingly, can lead to a mild supersessionist theology. I say this because by positing two peoples of God, as well as focusing all of God’s dealings with national Israel in the eschatological future, it almost blurs the olive tree analogy so that, for the time being at least, it represents the Church in the present. In the meantime, it seems to limit God’s dealings with Israel at any time other than in the future. (This is why I think the question, “Does God have one people or two?” is somewhat artificial and not that straightforward, as I indicated in a recent television debate.) And at last we come to what I believe Gentile believers are grafted into (it took some time but we eventually got there!).
It’s not that God can’t have two peoples (that’s up to God, He can do what He likes). But saying God has two peoples – Jews and Christians – ignores the problem of where we locate those people who fall within both camps. “No problem”, say two-peoples proponents, “they’re doubly blessed”. Actually they’re missing the point. If God deals with one people (the Church) only in the present, and will deal with the other of his people (the Jews) only in the future, then what about God’s dealings with the Jewish remnant who have been saved now? We must recognise that the remnant saved today is of huge theological significance because, as Paul makes clear (Romans 9:6, 11:1-7) these represent the true Israel. In a sense they're the fulfilment of God's dealings with ethnic Israel, so we can't relegate the Jewish people simply to the eschatological realm (however important the consummation of the age is in the canonical narrative, as Soulen explains). Recently I touched upon some of these issues when I posted on Messianic Jewish identity, and I can’t help but feel that a strict dispensational separation of two peoples only contributes to this identity crisis and misunderstanding of Messianic–Christian relations. If God called the nation of Israel to be His chosen people, a calling that finds its ultimate expression in following Yeshua HaMashiach, how can Messianic believers not see themselves in distinct continuity with biblical Israel? And how can Gentile believers ignore that fact also?
So I think it is important for nonsupersessionists to seek a more nuanced understanding of Israel as the olive in Romans 11, not least because it doesn't only have a bearing on how we view the Jewish people and Jewish state, but also Jewish believers in Jesus. I am increasingly seeing that all of these issues are not only closely related, they are inextricable.
An important starting point, I believe, is to consider how in Romans 9:6 Paul does not widen (as some supersessionists believe) the definition of Israel, but rather narrows it, so that what he is saying is that not every Jew is a true Israelite ("For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel" see also Romans 2:28-29). Likewise, then, those of us who believe God retains a plan and purpose for the Jewish people as His chosen people should recognise that not all who are descended of Israel are true Israel (or put another way, spiritual Jews). And for those who are unsure about the Pauline "Israel within Israel" concept it is important to note this was always the case within Old Testament: breaking the covenant meant exclusion or worse. These were ethnic Jews but not of the true Israel (a classic example being the rebels of Korah).
Importantly, this differentiation between true Israel within Israel brings an essential element to our understanding of the olive analogy, namely, how we deal with the question of how Gentile Christians are grafted into something that yields unbelief. The short answer, we aren’t. In the lead-up to his olive tree analogy Paul discusses remnant Israel, those saved at the present time, a remnant which has been chosen by grace (11:5). These, then, at the present time, are the true Israel, the ultimate expression of Israel as God intended, that segment of national Israel which at this moment in time has accepted Jesus as Messiah. When we understand this, straight away one sees terms or ideas such as the Israel of God, spiritual Israel or a spiritual Jew - allegorised and used so often in the past to support a supersessionist agenda - immediately take on a quite different, non-allegorical and really quite literal meaning: saved Jews (“fulfilled” Jews). It is to this remnant – believing Israel - that we Gentile believers are grafted into to form the new man Paul discusses in Ephesians 2. But note, we Gentiles who were separated from the commonwealth of Israel join them, not the other way around. And just because Gentile Christianity now far outnumbers Messianic believers nonetheless we do not replace, supersede or subsume believing Israel.
Neither does this grafting into believing Israel homogenise our identities. Galatians 3:28 doesn’t mean there are no longer makes no females, so why should it mean there are no longer Jews or Gentiles in Christ? Personally, I think it is inevitable that spiritual, believing Israel will see herself in continuity with biblical Israel, and as such it will (and is having) a bearing on Messianic discussions about identity, ecclesiology and praxis (which is fine provided the result is not a division in the body of Christ between believing Jew and believing Gentile so that "ne'er the twain shall meet"). Meanwhile, though Gentiles are grafted into remnant Israel and become partakers of certain promises, we’re not Jews and should not try to aspire to be Jewish. I do think this desire by a minority of pro-Israel Gentiles to try and be Jews is theologically problematic, while talk of Gentiles being "spiritual Jews" misses the point made above: a spiritual Jew is one who has accepted Yeshua, not a Gentile who joins Israel and loses his or her Gentile identity. If, as stated above, Jews retain their identity, it seems odd that Gentiles lose theirs. The calling of the Jewish people is unique, one which, as God’s chosen people, has brought with it a long history of hardship, suffering and rejection, and in some ways I'm glad this isn't my calling. (From ancient times religious Jews have a prayer thanking God for not making them a Gentile, a woman or a slave… but actually I’m rather thankful to God that I was made a Gentile and not a Jew).
So where does this leave the remainder of national Israel, unbelieving Israel? Though we've talked about the remount which is believing Israel, the Scriptures indicate the story doesn’t end there. God remains faithful to national Israel as a whole (I’m talking of Israel as a corporate entity here, not about individuals – remember, not all of Israel are Israel). Thus one day all Israel – that is, the nation of Israel as a whole – will look upon Him whom they have pierced (Zech 12:10) and will be saved (Ro 11:25). So God hasn’t finished with the nation, His corporate, historic people, and one day those broken-off branches will be re-grafted in. So I don’t think it is simply a question of God having two peoples or one... I see and understand where proponents of both positions are coming from. God chose a people, Israel, to bring salvation to the world (also elect because of God's love for the patriarchs). And to the Israel within Israel (i.e. believing Israel) God grafted in a people not originally called His people (Romans 9:25ff), so that Gentiles too become the people, or adopted sons, of God. Meanwhile, not all God's chosen people have received the Messiah, but one day the nation as a whole will be saved. So much like Calvinism differentiates between the elect who are saved and those who haven't accepted Christ, so we must differentiate between the remnant Israel and the salvation os eschatological Israel. "Two peoples or one people of God" is another of those questions which, in my view, forces an artificial choice and lacks nuance.
So what do we take away from all this? God hasn't finished with Israel yet, certainly. But that's for the future and there's not a lot we can do about any of that (Christian Zionists whose support for Israel is driven wholly by a desire to see conflagration in the Middle East in order to hasten the return of the Messiah are not, in my opinion, at all driven by a genuine love for the Jewish people). But understanding the olive tree analogy is hugely important for the Church today for one very important ecclesiological reason: it has a major bearing on how we view, engage with and relate theologically to our Messianic brothers and sisters in Christ, remnant Israel, into which we are grafted. At the very least it demands nonsupersessionist Gentile Christians take the time to understand the theological and other challenges Jewish believers in Jesus face and how we might assist and support them, rather than limiting our involvement with Israel simply to fighting the Jewish state's corner.
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