Up to this point in this series, I have been painting the conversation, between dispensationalist and covenant theologies, in rather broad strokes, when it comes to the question of Christian Zionism. Here I want to explain why the actual conversation is a lot more fluid, as this has been a learning process for me over the years.
As a young believer in Christ, not knowing much about the Bible, I was taught a number of things about Israel and prophecy. I did not know it at the time, as it was all presented to me in terms of “this is what the Bible says.” Why else would I have thought any differently?
A few years later, I was involved in a Bible study (with a bunch of NASA engineers!), and I learned that what I had been taught, was part of the theological system of dispensationalism. There were some in the group, who favored covenant theology, as the traditional perspective, and others who favored dispensationalism, as the critique of that tradition. I felt like I was watching a ping-pong match, as representatives from both sides were duking it out verbally with one another, each side with their list of Bible proof texts. I knew some of my Bible, but not as well as I wish I had, to follow the discussion. My head was spinning.
My Journey Through the Shifting Theological Landscape of Regarding Israel
Determined to try to get a grip on this stuff, I took an opportunity to go on a trip to the Holy Land, and find out for myself, in 1994. I walked away from that experience thinking that the dispensationalist framework I had been originally taught was lacking. It did not match up well with what I saw, touring around the streets of Bethlehem, Jericho and Jerusalem, and conversing particularly with Palestinian Christians.
Numbers 24:9 tells us that, “Whoever blesses Israel will be blessed, And whoever curses Israel will be cursed (Good News Translation).” So many of my Christian friends were telling me that the modern geopolitical entity of “Israel” was to be equated with the “Israel” of the Old Testament. Therefore, as a Christian, I needed to think of the modern-state of Israel in some type of special, “spiritual” manner. If I failed to do so, I would be missing out on the blessings that God would have for me, at best, or at worst, even heaping curses upon myself.
However, I simply had trouble trying to line up the Biblical description of “Israel” with what I was seeing in this Middle Eastern country, where the majority of the people (still) do not appear to believe in God. They needed, and still need, to hear about Jesus, just like anyone else.
So the whole “Numbers 24:9” thing about modern, secular Israel just did not make sense to me any more.
I realized that I was not getting “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey put it. So, with less time and energy left to spend on the issue, I just checked off the box favoring “covenant theology” instead, and I promptly moved on.1
Rethinking Israel, Yet Again
But things have changed dramatically over the past twenty-five years.2 There was a time when Dallas Theological Seminary was the theological springboard for sending out pastors and Bible teachers all over the world, for promoting Scofield-approved, full-blown dispensationalism.
Those days are long over. Now, Dallas Seminary still holds to a broad dispensationalist framework, but there is a progressive dispensationalism movement that has sought to correct some of the missteps of older generations, while still holding onto some fundamental principles.3
Just as progressive covenantalism attempts to reform the older, classic covenant theology, and purge it of “replacement theology” excesses, progressive dispensationalism does the same for classic dispensationalism, for its extreme excesses. In progressive dispensationalism, the distinction between Israel and the church in the Bible is still there, but it is more muted and relaxed. A sense of the oneness of the people of God is maintained through the whole of Scripture, but not at the expense of particular promises made to Old Testament Israel.
In progressive dispensationalism, there is still a place for the promises made specifically to ethnic Israel, though they are to be fully realized when the Jewish people come to faith in Jesus as their Messiah, when the Messiah returns to rule at the Second Coming. This would include the land promise. The emphasis is not so much on the events of 1948 or 1967, but rather on the future hope of the returning Messiah, being reunited with His lost people.
Interestingly, if the fulfillment of the land promise is only fully realized when Jesus comes back to a converted, worshipping national Israel, that would largely nullify much of the critique that is often leveled against Zionism. Among Christians, what drives a lot of the antagonism towards Zionism today is the current secular and controversially (!!!) ungodly character, associated by many observers, with the modern nation-state of Israel. But what if the picture of “Israel’s” future, as described in the Bible is bigger, than what you hear about from the news media?
For years, I was stuck on this: If the “Israelis” are really “the people of God,” how come they do not apparently act or think like God’s people? But if national Israel, who claims the land promise, truly comes to faith and knows Jesus as the Messiah, that would be a game changer. For with a truly converted national Israel and a believing church, the oneness of the people of God would be firmly established. That would be something to see.
Frankly, in the past five years, the discovery of this progressive dispensationalism view, has made me rethink a lot of how I view the land promise. It has encouraged me more to pray for Israel, not so much for geopolitical interests, but rather for spiritual interests. It has prompted me to seek the Lord that He might reveal the true messianic identity of Jesus to those who dwell in the Holy Land.
Zionism is Not So Much a Dispensational/Covenant Theology Issue Anymore
Furthermore, what has been more challenging, and (at times) rather confusing, is that the traditional boundaries between dispensationalism and covenant theology, regarding the land promise, have been breaking down. There are Christians now who do not consider themselves dispensationalists, but who nevertheless are supporters of Zionism. Likewise, there are dispensationalists who are against Zionism. Go figure.4
In other words, there are Christians who do not buy into the whole dispensationalist theological program,5 but they nevertheless believe that the land promise given to national Israel is still applicable regarding the Holy Land. They may not subscribe to “the Rapture,” or even a belief in Premillennialism, but they do think that God does promise the Jews their traditional homeland, in some sense.
At the same time, there are those who embrace many of the doctrinal points of dispensationalism, yet they are cautious about the brand of Zionism that is popular today. Who knows? Granted, this is a terrible thought, but not beyond possibility: If God could kick the people of out the land twice before (the Babylonian Exile, the Roman destruction of Jerusalem), what is to prevent God from doing it again?
So, while the classic evangelical dispute between dispensationalism and covenant theology may help to frame the principles that define the debate, it may not serve as a clear indication as to where someone “stands” on the question of Zionism. Christian belief in Zionism defies easy categorization.
There are a few more things to consider before I can come to any sort of conclusion regarding the future of “the land,” but I will save that for the next couple of blog posts.
1. Just prior to my trip to the Middle East, I also had read George Eldon Ladd’s highly influential, A Theology of the New Testament, along with some of Ladd’s other shorter writings, which convinced me that a classic, dispensationalist reading of the Bible was far from an obvious reading of the actual Scriptural text, contrary to what I had been taught as a young Christian. Dispensationalism was more like a system being imposed on the text of Scripture. When I first read (on page 123, the 1974 edition), that dispensationalism taught that the Sermon on the Mount was not for the church, I wrote a note in the margins, “How convenient.” If you did not like something in the Bible, you could just “dispense” with it by placing God’s commands for righteousness into a different dispensation. Ladd’s book was an eye opener. Interestingly though, this did not mean that Ladd was necessarily a “covenant theologian” either. Critics of covenant theology can make a similar case, that covenant theology is also theological system imposed upon the text!…A FURTHER NOTE: the old Scofield Bible has this to say about the Sermon on the Mount, “The Sermon on the Mount in its primary application gives neither the privilege nor the duty of the Church.” However, in fairness, such a radical statement can not be found in my 1967 copy of the New Scofield Bible. Thankfully, more recent generations of dispensationalists have revised their position!↩
2. I will never forget a conversation I had with a former pastor, about five years ago, who told me that the late, radio preacher J. Vernon McGee was not convinced that modern day Israel was necessarily the fulfillment of Bible prophecy. I was stunned by the news! In his day, McGee was probably one of the most vocal proponents of “Charles-Ryrie-style” dispensationalism around, so I just merely assumed he would have been a full-fledged support of contemporary Zionism. If you are a dispensationalist, and you are disappointed by McGee’s uncertainty, I would encourage you to read the following blog essay from New Zealand film writer and author, Dalton Thomas, excerpted from his book, The Controversy of Zion and the Time of Jacob’s Trouble, who makes a Scriptural argument, demonstrating that the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 does not meet the criterion of Bible prophecy fulfilled. Less you get confused, Dalton Thomas still believes that the land promises to Israel are for the future.↩
3. Darrell Bock, a New Testament scholar at Dallas Seminary, whom I highly respect, stands out as the leading spokesperson today, among scholars, for a progressive dispensationalism. Bock understands that the millennial saints who rule with Christ in the coming national kingdom of Israel will be resurrected Jews in glorified bodies (see Perspectives on Israel and the Church, footnote, page 16): This is a very interesting view, and very new to me within the past year or so of exploring this issue. If the city of Jerusalem and the surrounding area is to be run by “resurrected Jews,” at some point in the future, I sincerely doubt that Palestinian Christians, who have felt the weight of oppression from modern, secular Israel, will have much to worry about then!↩
4. For example, Messianic Jewish scholar and apologist Michael Brown does not consider himself to be a dispensationalist, but he is very much an advocate for Zionism. Old Testament scholar, Walter Kaiser, told me in a personal conversation that he considered himself to be a promise theologian, neither a dispensationalist, nor a covenant theologian! ↩
5. The recent shift in the discussion about the theology behind Zionism is very helpful to me. While there are extreme elements in some covenant theology that are not very good, I am also bothered by the extreme elements in dispensationalism. When I started to dig more into the topic of Israel a few years ago, I was pretty much dead-set against Zionism because of its tight connection to “hyper” forms of popular dispensationalism. Advocates of Zionism would do well to try pry away the negative elements of the dispensationalist tradition, if they wish to advance their cause, particularly among young people.↩