In a recent Public Discourse essay, Professor Gerald R. McDermott offers summaries of “fresh theological arguments for Zionism.” I would like to respond to these proposals and explain why I do not believe they succeed.
McDermott draws two very important distinctions in his article. First, he distances the ideas he advances from the tendency of some Christian Zionists to engage in date-setting with regard to the Second Coming (see, for example, the recent book by John Hagee, Four Blood Moons: Something Is About to Change). Second, he distinguishes the form of Zionism he supports from carte blanche support for the present state of Israel. These caveats are very important in light of the unconditional support given to the present Israeli government by some Christian Zionists because of their belief that the Apocalypse is imminent.
Nevertheless, there is a fundamental fallacy undergirding the proposals that McDermott summarizes. He repeatedly frames the issue as one of Zionism versus “supersessionism,” the notion that the Church has replaced Israel. While McDermott allows for various versions of supersessionism, he defines its common tenets as the beliefs that “the Incarnation was supposed to turn the focus away from Israel,” that “no longer would God be concerned with the Jews,” and that “Israel has been left behind.”
While there have been teachers throughout church history who sought to strip away the story of Israel from Christianity (such as the early heretic Marcion), and while supersessionist theology has sometimes taken punitive, even anti-semitic turns toward Israel (such as in Martin Luther’s writings), this is not reflective of the best work being done today by those who oppose Christian Zionism. Zionism versus supersessionism is simply a false choice.
There is a third option, and it is the one that I believe is most faithful to what Jesus and the apostles actually taught. God has not left behind Israel and its land. He has expanded Israel and the land. It is not a matter of superseding, but universalizing. Jesus and the apostles taught that God has redefined “Israel” to include all of those who share the faith of its father, Abraham, and redefined the “promised land” to include the whole world.
The Expansion of Israel
Take, for instance, the issue of “Israel.” In Galatians 3, Paul argues that “it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (3:7), and that this is what the Jewish Scriptures promised—“that God would justify the Gentiles by faith” (3:8). He continues:
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (3:27-29).
God has universalized the family of Abraham to include everyone baptized into Christ. This is certainly not a matter of leaving Abraham, Israel, or the Old Testament behind. Instead, Paul shows us that the faith of Abraham, the mission of Israel, and the promises of the Old Testament all find their fulfillment in Christ.
For this reason, the New Testament writers often apply descriptions of Israel and promises given to Israel in the Old Testament to Christians. They never claim that the church has replaced Israel in some kind of clunky supersessionist fashion, but they do insist that God’s intent all along was to expand Abraham’s family to worldwide dimensions. This expanded family is defined in terms of grace rather than race, with each member bearing family resemblance to Abraham, the “father of all who believe” (Romans 4:11).
McDermott alluded to Paul’s discussion of Israel in Romans, asserting that his letters “tell a different story” than supersessionists would have you believe. Yet McDermott only referred to chapters 9 and 11. This is understandable, given the complexity of this section of Romans and the constraints of a single essay. However, the central chapter in Paul’s discussion of Israel is Romans 10, in which Paul quotes one of the great Old Testament promises of Israel’s restoration—Deuteronomy 30—and explains how it is fulfilled. According to Paul, this classic promise of restoration is fulfilled in the work of Christ’s death and resurrection. And the restored Israel is expanded to include everyone who believes in Christ, “for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (Romans 10:12).
Pauline scholar N.T. Wright summarizes Paul’s teaching in this section of Romans as follows:
Abraham’s family, Israel, the Jews, the circumcision, are neither reaffirmed as they stand, nor “superseded” by a superior group, nor “replaced” with someone else . . . but transformed, through the death and resurrection of Israel’s own Messiah and the Spirit of Israel’s own God, so that Israel is now, as was always promised, both less and more than the physical family of Abraham.”
The Expansion of the Promised Land
Just as the New Testament writers redefined and universalized “Israel” to include those of all nations with the faith of Abraham, they also redefined the concept of the “promised land.” Through Christ, the land of Israel’s promised inheritance is not simply a small tract of property 150 miles long and seventy-five miles wide. It encompasses the entire planet. “The meek shall inherit the earth,” Jesus tells us (Matthew 5:5). This expansion of the promised land is in harmony with the vision of the prophets. Isaiah, for example, sang of the day when the land would no longer be desolate (62:4) and God would create “new heavens and a new earth” (65:17).
Ultimately, the New Testament writers broadened the promise of the land to a final, glorious, eschatological hope. The writer of Hebrews says that Abraham and his family sought “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (11:16). And the Book of Revelation portrays the consummation as the fulfillment of all of the great themes of Old Testament expectation, such as Isaiah’s new heaven and earth (Revelation 21:1) and Ezekiel’s new temple (Revelation 21:22-27).
As New Testament scholar Gary Burge concludes:
The hope of Revelation is in God’s eschatological intervention. Hope is found in the descent of the new Jerusalem (21:2) that will take up where the former Jerusalem failed . . . To fight for holy territory, to defend the land as a divinely appointed duty, is to regress utterly in the most miserable way.
Gentile Christians must never forget that, as Jesus said, “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22), and that as Paul confessed, the Messiah is “from their race” (Romans 9:5). Indeed, we do a disservice to the proclamation of the gospel when we divorce the story of Jesus from the story of Israel. How can we possibly understand the climax of the story if we do not understand the inauguration of the story?
At the same time, we must never lose sight of the trajectory of the story of Scripture. That story begins with God, creation, and humanity. It continues with the selection of Abraham and his family as the vehicle through which to bless the world. And it comes to its pivotal moment in the coming of Abraham’s Son, who through His death and resurrection fulfilled God’s promise to Abraham, creating a new Israel to which we all can belong, a new humanity to be what God intended, and a new creation for which we long.