Monthly Archives: September 2018

The Shifting Theological Landscape Regarding the Land: Zionism #14

Changes in theology over the years has shifted the conversation regarding the land promise for Israel.

Changes in theology over the years has shifted the conversation regarding the land promise for Israel.

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.

Notes:

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.


Has the Church Replaced Israel?: Zionism #13

The specter of "replacement theology" still haunts the history of "covenant theology." But does that necessarily mean that covenant theology is antisemitic?

The specter of “replacement theology” still haunts the history of “covenant theology.” But does that necessarily mean that covenant theology is inherently antisemitic?

So, does covenant theology over-allegorize God’s promises to Israel, thus explaining away those promises? Does covenant theology fall susceptible to the charge of “replacement theology?”

When covenant theology talks about the one people of God throughout the whole of the Bible, dispensationalists will often cry foul. To say that the Israel of the Old Testament becomes the church of the New Testament smacks of “replacement theology.” In such a “replacement theology,” it would appear that God has done away with national Israel, in favor of a different people. Old Testament Israel now no longer serves any purpose within God’s ultimate plan, in the era of the New Testament church.

If so, it would appear that God has abruptly canceled His own promises given to Israel. Worse yet, this type of theology lays the groundwork for antisemitism, the hatred of Jewish people.

These are serious claims. How does covenant theology respond?
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A Covenant Theology Perspective: Zionism #12

Dispensationalist Bible teacher Clarence Larkin taught the covenants of the Bible, but not in the same manner as the older "covenant theologians" have taught. Click on the image for more detail.

Dispensationalist Bible teacher Clarence Larkin taught the covenants of the Bible, but not in the same manner as the older “covenant theologians” have taught. Click on the image for more detail.

Now, we come to discuss the covenant theology perspective regarding the promise of the land.

Covenant theology has a very long history, going back to the period of the early church. It has been embraced in some form by all of the major Christian traditions, ranging from Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, to the Protestant Puritans of early America. Dispensationalism, on the other hand, is the “new kid on the block,” dating back to about the 1830s.

Covenant theology is based on the idea that there have been a series of covenants that God has established throughout history as described by the Bible. There has been a covenant with Adam, with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses, and so on, but eventually culminating with the covenant of grace as founded by Jesus Christ. But connecting all of these distinct covenants is a central theme that stands in contrast with dispensationalism.

Covenant Theology and the One People of God

Unlike dispensationalism, covenant theology emphasizes that there has been always one, and only one, people of God. The nation of Israel, the Jews, were God’s one people in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, this concept of God’s people has been expanded to include, not just Jews, but also Gentiles. The church of the New Testament is therefore made up of Jews and Gentiles together, all united in one faith in one God, with one salvation. In other words, the ground is level for everyone at the foot of the cross.

Covenant theology rejects the tendency in dispensationalism to try to divide up the people of God into two separate categories, one being “Israel” and the other being the “church.” Such a division threatens to compromise the oneness of the people of God. If that is the case, what does covenant theology say about all of those Old Testament promises made to Israel?

Covenant theology would argue that the promises made to Israel have already been fulfilled by Jesus Christ, or that they will be fulfilled in the future by Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul observes when he quotes Genesis 22:18 in Galatians 3:16:

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ (ESV).

Covenant theology therefore understands that the promises made to Abraham and his offspring, are not directed primarily to a corporate people, like Old Testament Israel, but rather to the one, Jesus Christ Himself. Yet Jesus Christ has a corporate presence in the world, namely the church of the New Testament, through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The church is the body of Christ (Romans 12:5). Unbelieving Jews did not recognize Jesus as their Messiah, but some Jews did. The New Testament describes then how believing Gentiles were added to their number to give us the church. 1

How is covenant theology able to say this? Covenant theology relies heavily on the classic Biblical idea of typology. Typology in Scripture shows us that there are themes in the Bible that prefigure or anticipate the full revelation given later in Scripture. For example, the Apostle Paul says that Adam was a type of the one who is the come, namely, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the “real thing,” whereas Adam points toward Christ, and finds his full purpose and identity fulfilled in Christ.2

Another way that Paul puts it is that he describes many of the things associated with Judaism as but a shadow of the real thing. For example, when talking about the celebration of Jewish festivals and the Sabbath, Paul says:

“These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17).

So, what then, is to be made about the specific promise of the land, as given in the Old Testament to Israel? This promise finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, as Christ has revealed that His people will inherit a “new heaven and new earth,” with a “new Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:1-2). The promise is given not to Israel alone, but rather to the church, including both Jew and Gentile (2 Peter 3:13). It is no longer just the land surrounding the Jordan River that is in need of restoration. Rather is the entire whole of creation that is current groaning, awaiting the revealing of the sons of God (Romans 8:18-22). God’s promise of land is no longer limited to a patch of real estate in the Middle East. That promise has now been greatly transformed to include the new, restored creation, available to not just the Jew, but also to the Gentile, through Christ’s body, the church. Race and ethnicity is no longer a point of distinction that can divide us in this new land.3

Therefore, there is no need to wait for God to fulfill a separate land promise to a separate Jewish people. The land of Israel is but a type or shadow of what is to come. God has already fulfilled and will continue to fulfill such a promise among the one people of God, the church, through Jesus Christ. God has kept, and will continue to keep all of His promises, because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. For this reason, this approach to covenant theology is sometimes called “fulfillment theology.”4

Covenant theology raises some big questions in the mind of the dispensationalist, as we will explore in our next post.

 

Notes:

1. See Stephen Sizer, on his commentary of Galatians 3:16 and Genesis 22:17-18. Yet notice the dispensationalist response to this understanding of the singularity of the Abraham’s seed. Michael Rydelnik makes the intriguing counter-argument that the seed has both a singular and collective sense. Genesis 22:16-17a refers to the collective sense of Abraham and his many descendants; that is, Jewish national Israel, whereas in the second half of 17 and Genesis 22:18, as appealed to by Sizer, the sense of seed shifts to the singular. See Michael Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope, p. 143., and the observations noted by this blogger on Rydelnik’s book. But in order for Rydelnik’s view to work, of a dual singular and collective sense of seed, it would require one to interpret Galatians in light of Genesis; that is, interpreting the New Testament in light of the Old. From my perspective, this just seems a rather backwards way of reading the Bible. The traditional approach to Bible interpretation, for almost two millennia, across the two testaments, has normally been the other way around: We are to interpret the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament. But suppose, in this instance, I could be wrong, and Rydelnik is correct?

2. Dispensationalism also relies on typology to tie different parts of the Bible together, but covenant theology is more heavily dependent on the concept of typology. For example, Barry Horner argues that while the Mosaic covenant is indeed a type that anticipates the coming of Christ, the covenant with Abraham is different. Specifically, for Horner, the land promise is never considered to be a type that is fulfilled in the New Testament. Hebrews 8:13 does teach that the old Mosaic covenant has been superseded by the new covenant in Christ, but the Abrahamic covenant, which includes the land promise, is not mentioned, therefore it is still applicable to national Israel’s future (Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged, p. 238-239). How you understand the biblical language of type and its application within Scripture, largely determines how a Christian views the role of Israel.

3. The Christ at the CheckPoint Conference, sponsored several times by the Bethlehem Bible College in Palestine, has produced a set of presentations from different perspectives, many of which discuss the application of covenant theology, within the context of the land promise towards Israel. Hank Hanegraaff is a Christian apologist, known to many radio listeners across the world as “The Bible Answer Man.” In the following video, while he does not use the explicit language of “covenant theology,” Hanegraaff makes his case that Christian advocacy for Zionism is not supported by the Bible. Notes are not available for Hanegraff’s talk, but some of his written views can be found at equip.org, or you can find them in book form in The Apocalypse Code: Find out What the Bible Really Says About the End Times and Why It Matters Today. In fairness, it should be noted that since this video was recorded, Hank Hanegraff converted to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, much to the chagrin of many of his Protestant evangelical supporters. 

4. I will get to the question of “replacement theology” in the next post. After the Hanegraff video, you might want to view Gary Burge’s talk at the same conference. Burge is the Christian scholar who debated Michael Rydelnik in the radio show that Rydelnik mentioned in his talk in the previous post, in this blog series. Critics of Hanegraff and Burge say they make too much of an appeal to geopolitical analysis to make their cases. Let the viewer be the judge in the light of the Scriptures:


A Dispensationalist Perspective: Zionism #11

Clarence Larkin was a famous dispensationalist Bible teacher in the 20th century, largely due to his influential maps, such as this one about typology in the Bible. Click on the image for more detail.

Clarence Larkin was a famous dispensationalist Bible teacher in the 20th century, largely due to his influential charts, such as this one about typology in the Bible. More on the role of typology in our understanding of Israel and the land in the next post in this series. Click on the image for more detail.

If you have been following this series so far, on “Christian Zionism”, it should be reasonable at this point to conclude that a stalemate is at hand. The question of Christian Zionism; that is, “Does the land, for national ethnic Israel, continue to play a role in Biblical prophecy?,” probably belongs in the category of “disputable matters,” in the language of the Apostle Paul, in Romans 14:1. Different sides on this debate have their Scriptural proof texts, to support their argument. Thus far, we have seen that the Bible lacks a clear, consistent witness that rules either a pro-Zionist or non-Zionist position completely off of the table.

As a general rule, when different godly Bible teachers, who seek to honor the Bible as God’s Word, are unable to agree on particular details of Scripture interpretation, then some discretion is in order. Believers should avoid unnecessary dogmatism.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that the underlying issues in the debate are inconsequential. God often uses vigorous discussion to open our eyes more deeply to His Truth.

When it comes to God’s promises, Israel plays a central role in Holy Scripture, so we need to listen to what God’s Word is telling us. Plus, there are still geo-political, cultural issues in the background that often obscure what Scripture teaches in these debates. Therefore, we need to facilitate good conversation in our churches to try to grapple with the larger, broader themes of our underlying interpretive “grids.” So, now we begin to approach the promise of the land, starting from the interpretive “grid” of dispensationalism.
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Return to Zion(ism)

I am going partially “off-the-grid” for a few weeks, but I am going to do something different with the Veracity blog, during the meantime…..

I have gone through a number of fits-and-starts, but I am once again returning to a blog post series I started a few years ago, on the topic of “Christian Zionism.” I got interested in this almost 25 years ago, when I took a trip to the Holy Land. During my years in college, I heard quite a bit about “Israel” at church, and the role “Israel” has in Bible prophecy. But my tour to the land of Jesus left me with a lot of questions, as I met some other believers, who complicated my previous narrative about “Israel.” They were reading their Bible in a much different way than did my church in college.

I learned that two people can be “Bible-believing” Christians, and yet look at “Israel” in very different, even conflicting, ways. As with other controversial topics, such as predestination vs. free-will, the age of the earth, the exact nature of the “End Times,” charismatic gifts in the church, women in ministry, etc., such debates can be difficult to work through. As an exercise in learning how to appreciate a different Scriptural perspective, I decided to take some time to really dig into “Israel,” in particular, looking into what the Bible had to say about “Christian Zionism”; that is, what view should New Testament believers have regarding national, ethnic Israel, and God’s ancient promise to Abraham, and his descendants, about the land.

That study eventually led to a series of 18 blog posts (that I never finished… I stopped at #10) on the main topic, with a number of rabbit trail side trips. To narrow the focus, I started the series by way of asking the question, “Was the year 1948, with the founding of the modern-day, nation-state of Israel, a fulfillment somehow of biblical prophecy?”  Two years ago, my church held a two-week panel discussion with our pastors, on Romans 9-11, that sought to get at the underlying biblical themes, by attempting to answer that question, broadly speaking (week#1 and week#2).  

If you want to get the full-flow of what I have been working on …… you can catch up here…. or start here…. stay tuned to the remaining eight posts in the series, with one post coming every two or three days. As always, please feel free to leave your comments, questions, and challenges….. I will be back after that with something new and different…


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