King's Evangelical Divinity School

23 August 2012

The Jewish People and a Theology of the Land

In my own response to Christian anti-Zionism I have, by and large, focused on God's continued calling and purpose of the Jewish people, rather than explore the thorny and emotive issue of the land, as so polemically expressed and analysed in today's media reporting of the Middle East conflict. My approach instead has been to focus on how God retains a plan and purpose for the Jewish people, that He has not finished with them, for which I believe one can make a pretty straightforward and airtight biblical case. There are some good books which do just this, for example R. Kendall Soulen's The God of Israel and Christian Theology and Mike Vlach's Has the Church Replaced Israel?

Interestingly, my experience among many Evangelicals not particularly siding with modern Israel (indeed even opposing her) is that, when presented with properly explained biblical arguments against supersessionism, they tend to be more sympathetic theologically towards the Jewish people. In the majority of cases this will then go on to have some bearing on how they perceive and re-explore the current Middle East conflict. After all, if God has not finished with the Jewish people, and around half of the world's Jews live in modern Israel, then it's no longer so easy to dismiss Israel as theologically insignificant or anachronistic. Thus my strategy has, by and large, been to focus on refuting supersessionism and letting the issue of the land take care of itself.

But, of course, ultimately the issue of the land cannot be avoided because it is so central to God's covenant with the Jewish people in the Old Testament (as well as lying at the core of much of the present conflict between Jew and Arab in the Middle East today). As such, refuting supersessionism is not enough. Eventually Christians will need to grapple with the biblical theology theme of the land and its bearing on God's continued plan and purpose for the Jewish people, together with the relationship  between Israel and the Church.

With this in mind I want to draw readers' attention to Stuart Dauermann's blog, in which he posts a comment entitled A Grounded Theory on Israel's Right to the Land. Stuart, who studied at Fuller, is a keen thinker who tends to work through an issue via a series of blog posts, enabling him to explore the topic in some depth. Past series have been insightful and nuanced. I'm assuming, given his introductory comments on the land in the above post (the inductive approach of which I think readers will find really helpful) that he will be produce further posts exploring a biblical theology of the land. I sincerely hope so. Keep an eye on his blog for more on the land, particularly if you're uneasy with supersessionism but perhaps struggle with the issue of the land.


Brian B said...

Clear, simple, and to the point, Calvin. You've taken a complex issue and "put it on the bottom shelf" where it is easily accessible to a lot more folk. This is one of THE main reasons I've enjoyed studying with KEDS and hope I will increasingly accomplish the same task for others. ~Brian

Andrew Sibley said...

Calvin wrote “ Thus my strategy has, by and large, been to focus on refuting supersessionism and letting the issue of the land take care of itself.” What I find disappointing is that Christian Zionists always seek to refute a characterisation of the Reformed Augustinian doctrine. While replacement theology does exist the true doctrine instead focuses upon the belief that the Church, founded by the Messiah and King of Israel Jesus, and Jewish disciples, is in unity and continuity with biblical Israel. Would you agree Calvin that this understanding is not supercessionism because it doesn’t seek to replace Israel, but instead embraces biblical Israel ?

Nev said...

It occurred to me that the original taking of the land (as related in Joshua) would most likely have occasioned the same kind of political consternation among the surrounding nations as that which we see today and that, therefore, we're really just going over the exact same ground and asking the exact same theological questions all over again.

What remains common in both regards is the act of colonising land and displacing indigenous inhabitants. This has happened throughout history and it's striking that the 'sins' of other nations are so easily forgiven and forgotten (even though the consequences remain) whereas for Israel every single move is endlessly scrutinised ad nauseam.

Looked at this way it is almost impossible to deny (for Christians at least) that God indeed must have some special aim in using the Jews to relate to humanity and the world as a whole.

Nicholas said...

I agree with you Andrew. "Replacement theology" is a strawman, as nobody believes that there was ever any "replacing" happening. The church is the continuation and expansion of Biblical Israel. Of course, many things are different under the New Covenant.

The Israelis have a right to live in Israel where they were born, but the Israeli government and IDF must stop mistreating the Arabs:

The Israeli government also needs to stop promoting homosexuality and letting "gay pride" parades march through the streets of Jerusalem.

Nicholas said...

I should clarify that all western governments need to stop promoting homosexuality. Israel is just one of them. But Israel has gone out of its way to protray itself as a "gay oasis" in the middle east. How can any western nation, including Israel, be considered to be blessed by God?

Calvin L. Smith said...

Nicholas, I'm somewhat surprised by your lack of knowledge on this issue. There is a long history of supersessionism in the Church, the triumphalism of which ultimately contributed to the Holocaust. Hence considerable breast-beating by various historic denominations across Europe immediately after the war led to what became known as post-Holocaust theology.

Supersessionism takes several forms: so-called "hard" and "soft" supersessionism. R. Kendall Soulen ("The God of Israel and Christian Theology") refers to the former as punitive supersessionism, the view God punished and took away Israel's promises and instead gave them to the Church. Thus, it is stated categorically that the Church replaced Israel. You can still find authors and preachers who state this unambiguously today. This form of supersessionism/replacement theology, which by the early third century was rampant within the post-Apostolic Church, stated categorically the Church had replaced Israel and was/is often expressed somewhat unpleasantly, often moving beyond anti-Judaism to open anti-Semitism. That you suggest , therefore, such a doctrinal position, for which there is considerable evidence throughout Church history, is a "straw man" is surprising.

Indeed, so odious has hard supersessionism been expressed at times, that some who see the Church replacing Israel yet seek to eschew the more extreme versions of the doctrine instead have promoted a "softer" version. Thus, Soulen speaks of economic supersessionism (that Israel's divine ancient purposes are now complete and she joins the Church). Others suggest God called a people in the OT who were not Jewish at all, while others come out with statements such as "the Church is in continuity with Israel". But dig a little deeper and they certainly don't mean God retains a plan and purpose for the Jewish people, but rather Israel is subsumed into the Church. This is why I no longer bother responding to Andrew's somewhat repetitive and tired diatribe, because it is supersessionism in all but name. Dig a little deeper, beyond the semantics, and it's all the same thing.

It is worth nothing Paul's words to the first Christian replacementists in Romans 11:17-18, namely, that we join them (believing Israel), not the other way around. This is a far cry from punitive supersessionism that historically says the complete opposite, or "soft" supersessionism which implies it.

Nev, you raise a really important point which I want to respond to separately in due course. It has a bearing on how all of us interpret Scripture, not just on this issue but others, and is worth exploring further. Sorry I can't do it right now.

Nicholas said...

Calvin, I see where you are coming from. Thanks for your reply.

Andrew Sibley said...

Calvin - I hope I have offered reasoned and respectful comment here - certainly not 'diatribe' as you suggest, and there are a lot of things left unsaid. You may of course disagree with me, but if you must insist that a principled and respectful theological position is 'supercessionism in all but name' then are you really interested in dialogue with fellow believers so that we may build understanding?

The rise of fascism in Germany had many influences. Luther taught an unhealthy obedience to the state, and this was later encouraged by the Prussian education system that's aim was to turn out obedient civil servants and soldiers (really Platonism). The German Higher Biblical Criticism had an influence that led to liberalism and relativism in German Churches. German Christians preffered to spend time on music and the arts that they did not care about social issues as fascism arose. And a major influence waS Social Darwinism which had a big impact upon Hitler and the Holocaust.

Calvin L. Smith said...

Rest assured, Andrew, I have nothing but time, considerable patience and understanding for genuine and respectful dialogue with people on the other side open to genuine debate and seeking imaginative ways forward, as I hope my academic track record clearly demonstrates. I respect people I disagree with yet who have proved themselves to be sincere, pragmatic where necessary, and ultimately willing to ditch their presuppositions, or else (where to be true to their theology and values) have genuinely sought to put themselves in the shoes of their colleagues on the other side so as to foster understanding and move the debate forward. I sincerely hope that has been my approach with those I dialogue with. It has always been my aim to be so.

However, I increasingly feel I have little time for constant reaffirmation of the same old status quo and defending an ideology no matter what. Your repetitious comments on this blog over four years or so, where your constant posting of comments that keep to a narrow line, a seeming inability to see and appreciate an alternative viewpoint, and worse, bringing nearly everything - however unrelated - back to your criticism of CZ, together with bunching everyone you disagree with into the same parody, makes me realise you only seem to be here not to engage in serious debate, but rather to be contrary for the sake of it (or else use this blog to promote your own agenda). I have been patient over four or so years but do not intend to indulge you any more. Post comments as you like, by all means, but the same old diatribe will no longer elicit responses from me at least (though thoughtful and generous comments will always be welcome and deserve a response). I have too little precious time to engage with someone who only seems interested in being contrary.

I once met Ben White at an event aimed at fostering dialogue. Though people disagreeing with him sought to be generous it became apparent during that event that he was not serious at all about genuine dialogue. "Dialogue" for him was nothing more than a strategy to further his own ideological aims. At that stage I concluded he was not at all a serious player, someone not interested in seeking a genuine solution to a complex problem, but rather someone ideologically driven no matter the facts. Thus I haven't even bothered to read anything he writes. He proved he was not serious, academic, charitable, and for that matter particularly suited to peacemaking.

I will (and do) regularly engage with genuine dialogical partners. I am not convinced you are ready for such engagement at this time.

Anonymous said...

Well said Calvin, Andrew is only on your blog because he wants to divert traffic to his, and yours gets more hits. His comments are evidence of a one trick pony.

Nicholas said...

Calvin, speaking of Ben White, did you see what he did on twitter:

Calvin L. Smith said...

Nicholas, thank you for the link, but while I know of the controversy I have taken little interest. As I said, I do not consider BW a serious player worth serious attention.

I am dialoguing with several people diametrically opposed to myself on the other side. It's a useful exercise because I'm finding serious, genuine players where I never expected them, and vice versa.

Andrew Sibley said...

Calvin - yes I have an agenda, it is if you like a desire to build the Church of Jesus Christ, bearing in mind my influence from Colin Urquhart Ministries and other Restorationists, and to challenge what I see as areas where the Church is going awry (and I write more about creation and evolution than zionism on my other blogs). It feels like a calling for me, and I know I can be like a dog with a bone sometimes, but so was Caleb. I find the evangelical circles I mix in divided between zionist influence and those with a desire to see the Church grow and flourish as the bride being prepared for the bridegroom. It captures my own journey from Plymouth Brethren with its Derbyite influence to Charismatic (We have a collection of Darby's volumes and letters in our shed, inherited from grandmother, - and I have a copy of Hal Lindsay on my book shelf from childhood, plus a 1917 Schofield reference bible I was given when baptised). So I am well aware of other view points.

I can fully understand Christian concern for Jews in the Holy Land or elsewhere, and continue to support the need to develop peace and security in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world for Jews to live in safety. I support their right to live in peace in the Holy Land. It seems to me possible to do all of this without all the extra theological 'baggage' that Christian Zionists have developed - this all seems unnecessary if the aim is to build support for the State of Israel. In fact these extra teachings that argue that Israel has a divine right to dispossess Palestinians of their rights and lands seems to me to be a theology that places Jews in great danger in Israel. I am very concerned that Jews in Israel are facing another catastrophe because of this, and their homeland may be lost. Israeli leaders believe 'only' 500 Israelis may die in retalliation if they attack Iran, but I fear worse. What will Christian supporters of Israel do if such a catastrophe happens? I fear this is a grave danger for the evangelical Christian faith in the UK and US. The devil has a plan to destroy Christianity and kill Jews and we sometimes need to think counter to populist messages in order to follow God's paths of righteousness.

And in support of this 'divine right of Jews to possess land' teaching is the challenge to supercessionism. There is perhaps a case for us to gain a correct and balanced understanding of Christian doctrine in this area to avoid excluding Jews from possessing their inheritence in Christ, but from my perspective it seems like an attack on the Churches own foundation because it is taken to a place where the 'Ekklesia' is separated from Israel. I wonder what does this teaching really achieve in support of Jews in the Holy Land? Instead it seems to me to leave the Church as a sort of 'social club for Gentiles', and no longer the restored City of God, or the New Jerusalem as Paul and Augustine thought it was, founded on the blood of the Jewish Messiah, and Jewish first century saints. Those in my position really do wish to understand the Church's position literally in continuity with biblical Israel. Stephen E Jones' blog for instance has a lot more teaching about Israel than much Christian Zionist writing.

So apologies for acting like a dog with a bone, but I feel some bones are worth fighting for.

Nev said...

Looking forward to reading your response. I admit I don't quite know what to think of the 'Land' situation any longer but it is an endlessly fascinating theological conundrum and definitely an important issue.

Calvin L. Smith said...

Nev, your point that nothing has changed since the OT which interested me. It raises a wider hermeneutical and philosophical point.

People judge modern Israel and the ongoing ME conflict according to today's presuppositions and philosophical underpinnings, the current Zeitgeist, if you will, based on pluralism and a form of "tolerance at all costs" (a Western postmodern value where any nonconformism is intolerable!). This mindset has little time for a Christian understanding of an absolute, non-relativised truth.

Thus increasingly we see Christians judge events such as the ME through a worldy prism. Yet we should be analysing the ME conflict from a biblical perspective non-reliant upon today's postmodern mindset and other humanist foci.

But it's an interesting point because it goes far beyond Israel. Whether responses to economic issues, human sexuality, crime, punishment, political/social engagement, family values etc the current Zeitgeist threatens to overwhelm and remould Christian thinking so that it conforms to how the world thinks and acts. Thus we frequently hear the Church should "modernise", as if obedience to Scripture and doctrine is somehow negotiable, something up for grabs. So we must take care not to view, analyse and respond to the ME, or other issues, as the world does, not allowing our theology to be shaped by human philosophical influences.

Consider the idiocy of some Evangelicals today, strongly influenced by a strong anti-Israel ideology, leading them to affirm volubly Zionism is racist. It doesn't identify what form of Zionism is being referred to (consider how at its most basic, limited Jewish self-determination in their ancestral land, e.g. under the British Mandate, is a form of Zionism). It's also troubling because anti-Zionism is often driven by a hatred of the Jews (Martin Luther King unambiguously associated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism). Also important from a Christian perspective is how militant Evangelical anti-Zionism seems to have been swept up by the current Zeitgeist, creating a theology based less on biblical than postmodern principles. In short - and as you point out - it has happened before. Specifically, at least during some part of human history God was a Zionist (however we define it, indeed the OT narrative suggests something harsher than today's version).

Now, we can have a discussion about how we no longer live in OT times, that modern Israel is not the same as biblical Israel etc etc, and that's fine. But once we start drawing on humanist anti-Zionist presuppositions to underpin our theological views we're on dangerous ground. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. So to say He was once a Zionist (however we define that) but now to maintain, based on current philosophical and political views in the world, that all forms of Zionism are pure evil and racist, is theologically perverse. It portrays God as the Gnostics did, highly dualised (an OT and a NT God). Yet the God of the Old Testament (who is, incidentally, the God of Israel, a term ascribed to Him 200 times) is also the God of the NT. He hasn't changed.

As I said, this philosophical issue affects much wider than our view of the ME. It's an issue which affects every facet of Christian thought and practice, and we must be constantly vigilant not to permit the world's values to dictate how we theologically view a range of issues. And that includes how we respond to the ME.

Philosophically we need to engage with human thought yet not allow ourselves to be unduly influenced by it, while hermeneutically we need to be consistent across both Testaments. Even to talk of an OT and a NT theology creates an artificially fragmented view of God's dealings with humanity. This is why I value biblical theology's focus on an over-arching narrative. Otherwise the danger is interpreting the Bible as two parts where a schizophrenic God suddenly underwent a complete mind change.

Apologies for the rather long, meandering reply.

Nev said...

I didn't mean to say nothing has changed since the OT, merely that humans are still stuck asking the same questions - in this case: under what circumstances is it ok to occupy and dispossess?

I appreciate the point about not conforming to the world's pattern of thinking and clearly the answer given in Joshua (by divine fiat)would have washed back then but is highly problematic today, even for Christians (surely?).

I really like Norman Gottwald's 'peasant revolt' model of how the land was won (a Hebrew spring!) which would be far more palatable politically. Such a massive shame that the OT authors didn't really take that tack, thus fatally undermining Gottwalds's ingeniuty!

However, what has decisively changed is the advent of Christ and, while I don't feel I know enough to take any more than a tentative position, I really like N T Wright's idea that Jesus did what Israel could not do for herself and thus becomes true ISrael; not that Jewish people are superceded but that Jesus himself assumes ultimacy. And I do feel that to grant ultimacy to anything else is a really bad move (whether that be Jewishness, the Land, whatever) and is certain to lead to theological errors down the line. Wouldn't you agree?

IGC.Brasil said...

People forget basic things easly. Theology of land or whatever is always related, necessarily, to religious beliefs, systems, and interpretations from divine writtings. The case in the Middle East is a political (or geopolitical) one; and therefore shall not be taken from any other point of view, mainly from the theological one.

Paul Parkhouse said...

Hi Calvin, sorry this comment's a bit belated, but doesn't the significance of the land as a bible theology theme partly depend on why Abraham was promised the land in the first place? If it was just as a personal reward for his faith, then its significance is limited, but if it had a wider redemptive purpose, then the significance broadens. As I see it, looking at the original Abrahamic covenant, the land was promised in order that he might become a nation, while the promise of nationhood was so that all nations might be blessed through him. In this context, therefore, the promise of land was certainly significant when it was given.

I guess, then, that the question of whether the land promise remains significant as a bible theology theme today depends on whether the promise to be a blessing to all nations has already been fulfilled or still awaits complete fulfillment. Those who see the first advent of Jesus as its complete fulfillment would say the former, while those who read passages like Isaiah 2:1-4 as literal and future might say the latter. Surely, though, if the latter interpretation is correct, then the land becomes an important theme which must run all the way to the end?

Another support, though, for why the land might still be significant as a bible theology theme can, I believe, be found in God's plan to not just redeem man but also all creation with and through him. I think this bigger redemptive purpose can be easy for us to overlook or forget, but verses like Colossians 1:19-20 persuade otherwise. But if that’s God’s plan and He’s already demonstrated the method of bringing redemption to all people groups through just one, might He not be preparing to bring redemption to all lands through just one also? Seems plausible to me.