Inglorious things of thee are spoken
The recent publication of two books addressing the issues of Israel, the Jews and Christian Zionism – one by an American author, the other by a British scholar – are important contributions to the current debate and, though I find myself in disagreement with both men at a number of points, I believe their respective critiques of Replacement Theology and anti-Zionism are correct.
Barry Horner is a convert to Reformed theology, a Bunyan scholar and a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary. Although a convinced five point Calvinist, Horner rejects the standard Reformed doctrines of supercessionism and amillennialism, under which the Old Testament promises of a glorious future for the nation of Israel are spiritualised and applied to the Christian Church.
Central to Horner’s challenge to anti-Judaism are a number of key concepts.
First of all, ideas have consequences and Christian doctrines should be judged by their practical consequences, a principle which alone should disqualify Replacement Theology from inclusion in any system of Christian theology. “Since the time of Augustine”, Horner charges, “the amillennial doctrine of the supercession of national Israel by the Christian church has resulted in the vilification of the Jewish people over the centuries, which has not excluded participation by Reformed individuals and congregations” (p.149).
A direct line can be traced, he claims, from Augustine's replacement theology to the Crusades, to the Inquisition, to Luther's calls for the destruction of synagogues and the expulsion of Jews from Germany (Luther had been an Augustinian monk) and, ultimately, to the Holocaust. Few of the great Reformed theologians and thinkers, including John Calvin and Francis Turretin, were able or willing to extricate themselves from Augustine's legacy.
Contemporary evangelical writers who oppose the Jewish state are invariably Augustinian in their thinking. While being too civilised to advocate the persecution of Jews, those supercessionist anti-Zionists who single out Israel for criticism, by refusing to condemn Palestinian terror, sanction persecution by proxy.
Secondly, not all Calvinists have adhered to the traditional Augustinian position vis-à-vis Israel and the Jews. Many of the English and American Puritans of the seventeenth century were notably pro-Jewish and believed in the restoration of the Jews to their land, as were Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Robert Murray McCheyne, Andrew Bonar and Horatius Bonar in the nineteenth century.
A reader wrote to me recently, “I have a Christian friend who has been to Israel and is currently in North Sumatra, and who has emailed me web-links and articles on the emotive subject of the Arab/Israeli conflict, warning me of the dangerous Dispensationalist interpretations of scripture by many Christians. I am keen to sort this muddle out!”
This is intimidation by illogical premise: “All Dispensationalists support Israel; you support the state of Israel therefore you are a Dispensationalist”.
Moreover, the deep abhorrence of what I agree is a profound misunderstanding of Scripture has led some evangelicals to swing to an opposite so extreme that they are willing to make common cause with enemies of the Bible. Thus, Sabeel, an organisation that proudly proclaims its adherence to liberation theology – a doctrine denounced by evangelicals in the seventies and eighties but now able to unite Evangelicals, Jesuits, Liberals, Feminists, New-Agers and radical Muslims under its anti-Zionist umbrella – is supported by evangelicals of the calibre of Stephen Sizer, Gary Burge and Mitri Raheb. Granted that some Dispensationalists and Christian Zionists are seriously off the theological wall, at least they believe the Bible even if they misunderstand it. Some of Sabeel’s supporters, on the other hand, hold the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, in utter contempt.
For example, Revd Dr Michael Prior, the Chairman of the Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britain and a member of the International Editorial Advisory Board of the Journal of Islamic Jerusalem Studies, declared at the Sabeel conference on Christian Zionism that the Bible should carry the warning: “This is a dangerous book. Reading it may damage somebody else’s health”. He has referred to Joshua as “the patron-saint of ethnic cleansers” and “a continuous genocidist” and called the conquest of Canaan “an abomination”. Prior describes the authors of the biblical narratives as “narrow-minded, xenophobic, perhaps militaristic spin-headed bigots”. Mitri Raheb, the pastor of Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, describes Christ’s disciples as “nationalistic”, “narrow-minded”, and “blinded” to the future.
Thirdly, in contrast to an “either/or” approach to biblical interpretation, Horner promotes a “both/and” hermeneutic, which holds that the “materiality” of the Old Testament is not negated by the “spirituality” of the New Testament. Horner therefore posits the principle of what he terms “spiritual materiality”. While there is, for example, a “kingdom of heaven”, it does not cancel out the earthly land that was promised to Abraham’s physical descendants. Likewise, though there is a “Jerusalem above”, which is “the mother of us all”, the earthly Jerusalem still remains a possession of the Jewish people.
Horner is especially critical of the tendency of amillennialist scholars to ignore what he believes is the "plain meaning" or "literal sense" of Old Testament scripture. While there is much with which one can agree here, care must be exercised by both those who insist that the Scriptures must be taken absolutely literalistically (I have a friend who believes that at some time in the future a woman will ride around on a huge red dragon with seven heads and ten horns!) and those who argue that the Old Testament must not be read “through New Testament eyes”. Augustine's dictum, "The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed" is good, so far as it goes, as is the appeal to read the Old Testament through the eyes of Jesus and the apostles. However, there is also a strong case to be made for reading the New Testament through the eyes of the Old Testament. The road between the Testaments is a two-way street and, carried too far, Augustine's interpretative principle becomes, as succinctly expressed by W.A. VanGemeren: "The Old is by the New restricted and the New is on the Old inflicted" (p.104).
If we read the Bible on its own terms, we must conclude that an exclusively spiritual approach is as unbiblical as an exclusively literal approach. Therefore, I believe that Horner goes too far when he pleads for a literalistic reading of the concluding chapters of Ezekiel. In the light of New Testament passages such as John 2:19, 7:37-39 (c.f. Ezekiel 47:1-12), Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Peter 2:5 and Hebrews 7-10, it seems to me that God’s final temple is Christ and his people.
Fourth, though a majority of the Jewish people rejected their Messiah, God did not cast off the entire nation; he broke off the faithless branches from their Olive Tree. These unbelieving branches remain, according to Romans 11:26, God’s “beloved enemies”. Romans 11 is, so far as a I can see, an insurmountable obstacle for supercessionists.
Fifth, critics of Israel who invoke the Mosaic law against the state of Israel, warning that Israel’s position in the land was to be dependant on their obedience to the Torah, frequently neglect the unconditional covenant established with Abraham in Genesis 15. By a diabolical irony, the Jewish people, who have historically been held in contempt because of their statelessness, have since 1948 been the object of enmity precisely because they did have a state! In the last quarter century, evangelical writers have joined in the clamour against the Jewish state, challenging the right of the Jewish people to claim ownership of their ancient homeland.
O. Palmer Robertson, for example, argues that under the Old Covenant the land was one of the many types and shadows, such as the tabernacle and the sacrifices. Bishop N.T. Wright and Christian anti-Zionists Colin Chapman and Stephen Sizer argue that the New Testament says nothing whatsoever about the land and that the land promise found its fulfilment in Christ’s universal "spiritual kingdom". Thus the Jewish people remain forever displaced from their ancient homeland.
Horner takes up the gauntlet thrown down by Chapman, Sizer et al, by pointing out that arguments from silence prove little. The Gospel of John, he notes, says nothing about repentance. Is there significance in the silence of the Fourth Gospel on this important doctrine? First of all, says Horner, the land was not an issue to the apostolic writers because Israel was in their historic homeland and, secondly, the primary mandate for the apostles was to preach the gospel. In contrast to writers who emphasise the conditional nature of the Mosaic law, Horner points out that the original promise of the land was made unconditionally to Abraham and his seed in Genesis 15, a passage that many anti-Zionists ignore. Although enjoyment of the land was conditional upon Israel's obedience to the Torah, the possession of the land was founded upon the unconditional covenant established by God with his friend Abraham.
Horner argues, moreover, that the New Testament is not silent about the land. If the land was of no further consequence, why did the disciples, after six weeks of intensive teaching by the Saviour and just prior to his ascension, entertain the notion that Israel still occupied a place in the purposes of God and that Christ "would restore the kingdom to Israel"? The Lord's answer gives little or no hint that the nation and the land were of little or no consequence. Horner continues that in Romans 9, when Paul lists the blessings belonging to Israel he uses the present tense. To "them belong [not "belonged"] ... the promises...". The "promises" (plural) include the promise of innumerable seed, the Messiah, the New Covenant and, of course, the land.
Five excellent appendices conclude the book: Jonathan Edwards and the Future of Israel; J.C. Ryle and the Future of Israel; God’s Dealings with Israel – By Grace or by Law? Melanie Phillips on Replacement Theology; and a superb Annotated Bibliography.
Horner is passionate about his subject and in places makes some rather sweeping claims. Nevertheless, it remains true that ideas have consequences and, generally speaking, at those periods in European history when the Jewish people have been persecuted by the Church, their ecclesiastical persecutors have held to Augustinian supercessionism. It is doubtful whether the Holocaust could have occurred had it not been for the legacy of a theology that encouraged the churches to view the Jewish people with contempt. By contrast, those who have held a high regard for the Jewish people have aided them in times of persecution, encouraged and assisted them to settle in their ancient homeland and, above all, have established missions to share with them the Good News of their Messiah.
Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged Barry E. Horner
B & H Publishing Group, 394+ xxi pages.
Cloth. ISBN: 978-0-8054-4627-2
Available from CWI online shop
In For Zion's Sake, Paul Wilkinson seeks to rescue the chief cornerstone of the Brethren movement, J. N. Darby, from "Decades of misrepresentation, shabby scholarship and over dependence on secondary material [that have] combined to create 'the Darby myth'" (p.95). It would be a mistake to presume, however, that Paul Wilkinson's book should be of interest only to members of the Brethren movement or to those committed to a Dispensationalist approach to biblical prophecy. I am neither. Nor am I, according to Wilkinson's definition of the term, a Christian Zionist!
By carefully scrutinising Darby's voluminous and notoriously difficult to read writings, Wilkinson sets out to refute the claims of those he labels "Christian Palestinianists" who have maligned Darby. Stephen Sizer, for example, in his 2003 book Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon? claims that Darby's understanding of the “Last Things” is rooted in the theology of the second century heretic Marcion, who rejected the Old Testament and every part of the New Testament that he judged to be tinged by Judaism.
There is some overlap between Horner and Wilkinson. Both approach the subject of Israel and Zionism from a premillennial perspective, though Wilkinson is a Dispensationalist. For Zion's Sake sheds some much-needed light from a Christian Zionist perspective about what Christian Zionism is and what Christian Zionists believe. However, since Christian Zionism is not an official movement, I'm not at all sure that Wilkinson's nine points of Christian Zionism (all of them key ideas in Darby's theology) are anything other than a personal definition, even though many Christians who are not card-carrying members of the Brethren, yet support the state of Israel, would subscribe to every point. Those who cannot subscribe to them, Wilkinson terms "Restorationists". Be that as it may, For Zion's Sake is a valuable, fascinating and readable resource on the origins and development of Christian Zionism.
Wilkinson's chapter on the life of Darby reveals a man of deep spirituality who, as a Church of Ireland curate in one of the most impoverished regions in the Dublin diocese, chose to live under the same appalling conditions as most of his parishioners, enduring such hardships for the sake of Christ that he ruined his health. Some of Darby's Theonomist critics, who seek the Christianisation of America and ultimately the nations by the imposition of the Mosaic Law, should note Wilkinson's account of Archbishop Magee's imposition on all Catholic converts of an oath of allegiance to the Protestant faith and the British government. "According to Darby," says Wilkinson, "before the oath was imposed, Roman Catholics had been converting to the true Christian faith 'at the rate of 600 to 800 a week'. When this harvest of souls came to an abrupt end, he held the archbishop and the Church of Ireland responsible. By appealing to the government for protection against Rome, Darby believed that the Church had subordinated itself to the authority of the State rather than Christ" (p.75).
Citing Brethren historian Roy Coad, Wilkinson reveals that, "When Darby died 'he left behind him some fifteen hundred churches ... who looked to him as their founder or their guide'”. Wilkinson goes on to list Darby's other achievements including his Bible translations, writings and many hymns. Even readers who cannot subscribe to Darby's Dispensationalist eschatology (myself included) can admire him as a faithful servant of God.
Of particular value is chapter 2 in which Wilkinson provides a well-referenced introduction to what he terms “Christian Palestinianism”. Christian Palestinianist authors have charged Christian Zionism with being an aberration or heresy. Wilkinson presents a cogent case to demonstrate that “Christian Palestinianism is an inverted mirror image of Christian Zionism. All the basic elements of Christian Zionist eschatology are reversed so that the Bible is seen to be Christian not Jewish, the land of the Bible is Palestine not Israel, the Son of God is a Palestinian not a Jew, the Holocaust is resented not remembered, 1948 is a catastrophe not a miracle, the Jewish people are illegal occupiers not rightful owners, and Biblical prophecy is a moral manifesto and not a signpost to the Second Coming" (p.65).
Quoting Paul Merkley, Wilkinson exposes the sinister roots of the foremost Christian Palestinianist organisation, Sabeel: “…at a time when liberation theology was on the wane, Palestinian Christians ‘swiftly moved’ to fill the vacuum, offering a ‘fiery “Palestinian Theology” that answered to all the old enthusiasms’” (p.60).
Like Horner, Wilkinson provides a helpful historical overview of Christian support for Israel from the Puritan era to the time of the end of the nineteenth century, and the contribution of Christians to the Zionist movement founded by Theodor Herzl which led ultimately to the reestablishment of Israel in their biblical homeland.
As with Horner, Wilkinson demonstrates that ideas have consequences. When churches throughout Europe capitulated to Nazism and willingly co-operated in the Final Solution, in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in south eastern “Vichy” France was “a settlement of religious Protestants who rejected replacement theology and believed instead that the Jews were the chosen people of God. In the midst of the genocide, the theology of the Plymouth Brethren led [Christian families] to embrace the Jewish people” (from David Brog, Standing with Israel, cited on p.134).
According to Mordecai Paldiel of Yad Vashem, the “righteous acts” of the Darbyite villagers of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon were “probably the most celebrated case of Christian charity” in the history of the Holocaust (ibid). As W Graham Scroggie memorably stated: “The Bible knows nothing of abstract truth”.
I passionately believe in the importance of truth and purity of doctrine. I am not a member of the Brethren, nor am I a Dispensationalist, nor am I – according to Paul Wilkinson’s definition of the term – a Christian Zionist. Nevertheless, if the purity of doctrines is to be judged by their practical outworking, Darby’s theology has far more to commend it than that of many of his theologically sophisticated and snobbish detractors.
For Zion’s Sake: Christian Zionism and the Role of John Nelson Darby
Paul Richard Wilkinson
Paternoster, 308+ xviii pages.
Paper. 2007. ISBN: 978-1-84227-596-6
Available from CWI online shop
This article first appeared in the Winter 2008 edition of the Herald