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The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supersessionism

In the mid 1980s, after preaching at the morning service of a UK church renowned for its impeccable theological orthodoxy, I was invited to address an impromptu ad hoc gathering to discuss the role of the Jewish people and the modern state of Israel. Many ‘intelligent’ Christians, I was informed, no longer hold to the simplistic view that the Jewish people are the people of God and that the modern state of Israel is a fulfilment of biblical prophecy. What did I think? I can’t remember how the meeting ended but I do know that since then, in many Christian circles, those who view the Jewish people and the state of Israel positively have become the Church’s equivalent of the Tory party’s ‘swivel-eyed loons’.

Regrettably, many Christians who ‘love Israel’ orbit on the  fringe of the Church, at the farthest extremes of which are those who believe that to criticise the state of Israel in any way is a virtual denial of the faith. Some would go so far as to say that to be less than positive about the Jewish people is to lose one’s salvation. One ultra-Christian Zionist guru in America teaches that Jews can be saved by keeping the Torah and that the Jewish people were justified in rejecting Jesus because he was not, strictly speaking, the Messiah; he was only the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53.

It might be that supersessionism – known more commonly as ‘replacement theology’ – has developed and grown in reaction to this unbiblical extremism. Although supersessionism has existed since the second century, in the last three decades a virulent new strain has emerged that not only demonises the Jewish people but does so by delegitimising the Jewish claim to their ancient homeland. In contrast to many of their opponents, advocates of the ‘new supersessionism’ are intelligent, articulate and biblically literate, and the case they make is highly plausible.

The first edition of The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supersessionism was hailed by a number of academics when it was first published in 2009. In this revised and enlarged edition, Calvin Smith, the Principle of King’s Evangelical Divinity School and editor of the Evangelical Review of Society and Politics has once again assembled a series of well-written, biblically informed essays by non-supersessionist scholars under the headings: ‘Supersessionism and the Church’, ‘Supersessionism and the Bible’ and ‘Supersessionism and the Jewish People Today’.

The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supersessionism is pitched at a popular level so that non-academic readers will be able to follow the arguments of most of the authors. Although the contributors come from different theological and ecclesiological stables – professional academics, ministers, missionaries, Calvinists, Pentecostals and others – they are of the same mind about the place of Israel the people in the purposes of God.

In the first part of the book, Steve Maltz, Barry Horner and Colin Barnes trace the historical development of replacement theology from Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew in the second century to the theology of contempt for the Jewish people that has been a feature of both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism up to the mid-twentieth century. Maltz sees supersessionism as a direct consequence of the commitment of the early Church Fathers to the philosophy of Plato. Horner maps out how the Church Fathers’ increasingly hostile attitude to the Jewish people developed and influenced succeeding generations until, as Colin Barnes chillingly demonstrates, its inevitable dénouement became the Holocaust.

In the second part of the book Andy Cheung, Ronald Diprose, Calvin Smith, Jacob Prasch and Stephen Vantassel subject the claims of replacement theology to biblical scrutiny. In his examination of the ‘Israel of Romans 11:26’, Cheung demonstrates that the ‘Israel’ Paul had in mind when stating that ‘all Israel will be saved’ was the nation of the Jews. Vantassel’s ‘A Calvinist Considers Israel’s Right to the Land’ ought to be read by all those who spiritualise the promises of land made by God to Abraham and his offspring in an attempt to disenfranchise the Jewish people.

In the final part of the book, Richard Gibson presents a personal and practical perspective on the consequences of replacement theology on his work as an evangelist and a pastor of Jewish believers. He makes the sobering point that supersessionism creates a hindrance in ministering to Jews who have accepted Jesus as Messiah by not respecting their ethnicity.

The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supersessionism is biblical, intelligent, balanced and sane. It informs, teaches, stimulates and shocks. The issues it addresses are live and inescapable and therefore the book should be read in its entirety by all Christians before they take sides.

This article first appeared in the Autumn issue of the Herald 2013

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