Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Covenant Theology, Israel, and Supersessionism

Christianity is concerned mainly about Christ and the redemption He purchased of His people. The focus of Christianity is on redemptive history (which occurred in real history) and its implications for not only us, but the whole world (cosmos). Those of us who are called to the ministry should focus on these issues, and try not get involved with issues we have no expertise in since it is highly likely we will make a mess. Now of course if a pastor has for example also a PhD in a certain field, he could write about that field with some degree of expertise, yet that should be done with an understanding that whatever he writes about that subject does not have the same authority as when he deals with God's Word.

Nevertheless, once in a while, a seeing secular issue or two may crop up which has implications for one's view of redemptive-history. Such an issue deals with complicated matters and fields. The issue of modern-day Israel is one such issue. Emotions run high on this issue on both sides. Generally, those who are "pro-Israel" are correlated to the "Christian Zionist" movement and linked with Dispensationalism. Those on the other side are correlated to most of the mainstream European churches, and some factions within Reformed circles. The correlation is so strong that it is normally assumed that anyone supporting Israel as a nation are "Zionists" and Dispensationalists who reject traditional orthodoxy on the covenants (as if the "anti-Zionists" have a correct doctrine of the covenants!). Those in the Reformed churches typically focus on the errors of Dispensationalism and the rejection of national Israel as the people of God, showing how the Church is spiritual Israel (cf Rom. 9:6, Gal. 6:16). While that is true, it does not help us to understand how we are to understand modern Israel, and give rise to the specter that an embrace of Reformed Covenant Theology (CT) must necessitate a rejection of modern Israel, whereas that is not a necessary inference from Reformed CT. In the midst of this confusion, we have terms like "supersessionism" and "replacement theology" being thrown around, muddying the waters even further.

In an attempt to add some clarity to the subject, I would first clarify what Reformed CT teaches concerning Israel, then deal with some necessary historical matters, and finally posts some thoughts towards a theology of ethnic Israel. The second part is an historical interpretation not Scripture, and is my attempt to bring some resolution to the issue.

What Reformed CT teaches

Traditional Reformed CT teaches one Covenant of Grace throughout redemptive history. The Covenant of Grace was initiated in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve violated the primeval Covenant of Works. God then initiated the Covenant of Grace, as the Westminster Confession states:

Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe. (WCF 7.3)

and

This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel: under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament. (WCF 7.5)

The Covenant of Grace was administered through the various historical covenants (Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, New). Its aim was the redemption of God's people the Elect. In the Abrahamic Covenant, the Covenant of Grace was expressed to Abraham and his seed, and that through his seed all the nations will be blessed. Thus, it was to ethnic Israel through which salvation came, and this promise of the seed finally coalesced in the person of Jesus Christ, the true Israel, the Israelite of the Israelites. It was to this seed who is Christ that the Abrahamic Covenant came to fruition for the salvation of the nations (Gal. 3:16). As expressed in apocalyptic terms, the woman in labor has given birth to the child with an iron rod to rule the nations (Rev. 12:1-6). Christ came from ethnic and national Israel, the people of God.

The Mosaic Covenant advances God's covenant administration through the addition of a works principle to function as a pedagogue. National theocratic Israel was the people of God, the theocracy functioned as the crucible for the enactment of the New Covenant. On the one hand, the Mosaic Covenant is an advancement of the Abrahamic Covenant, as it fulfilled in typological form some of the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant. The typological fulfillments were to signify the realities that would come in the New Covenant, either in its inauguration and/or its consummation at the end of time. Such typological fulfillment include the land promise. For example, the land promise was fulfilled as the promise land of Canaan was conquered for God's people in the Mosaic economy, but such was meant to be a picture of the new heavens and new earth which would come when Christ comes again, not a permanent ownership of the land of Canaan.

The New Covenant is "new" as it is contrasted with the Mosaic (the "Old") Covenant, which is how the books of Galatians and Hebrews contrast the historical covenants. The typological elements of the Mosaic Covenant, which include the land of Canaan, are fulfilled in the realities they signify. Canaan is no more the "Holy Land," except in a historical sense. No more is national Israel the treasured possession of God, but all who are spiritual descendants of Abraham, BOTH Jews and Gentiles, are now the treasured possession of God, the "Israel of God." In Christ, there is no more two but ONE people.

Reformed CT therefore teaches ONE people of God. Contrary to Dispensationalism, we do not believe that there are two peoples of God, as if God has two brides. We similarly do not believe that the land of Canaan is holy in any but the historical sense. Since the theocracy is abrogated, we do not see anything special about the current nation of Israel, again contra Dispensationalism.

That being said, we should not embrace the cause of supersessionism, otherwise known as "replacement theology." Supersessionism teaches that the Church has superceded Israel, or rather that the Church has taken the place of Israel. In supersessionism, Israel has rejected Christ especially when they called down curses upon their own heads and that of their children (cf the "infamous" verse of Mt. 27:25). God has thus rejected Israel altogether for the (Gentile) Church. The Jews must thus cease being Jews and become Christians, otherwise they retained their "blood guilt" and God's wrath remains forever on them. If that sounds Anti-Semitic, that is because it is. Regardless of its social ramifications, it should be easily seen that supersessionism is not what Reformed CT teaches. Reformed CT teaches an expansion of God's Covenant of Grace. Whereas previously it is limited to ethnic and national Israel, now it is open to both (ethnic) Jews and Gentiles. The Church does not replace Israel, for Jews do not need to cease being Jews in order to be saved. Jewish Christians do not need to repudiate their ethnicity, just as Gentile Christians do not need to repudiate their ethnicities either.

We also want to note here what Reformed CT does not teaches. It does not teach that Christians should either embrace or reject Zionism. It does not teach that we should either accept or reject the modern state of Israel. It most certainly does not say that we should hate the Jews. Just because Dispensationalism is for the modern state of Israel does not mean that Reformed CT is necessarily against the modern state of Israel. Reformed CT rightly construed does not take a stand either on Zionism or the modern state of Israel, and such needs to be made clear in any discussion concerning Israel. The only thing Reformed CT is concerned with is that the modern state of Israel is not some special fulfillment of biblical prophecy as a special people of God.

Historical issues

Here we turn to the issues concerning the modern state of Israel. It is here that geopolitics are very much involved, and lots of spin and propaganda is produced mainly by the pro-Palestinian side. I would like to offer just some observations pertinent to the issue which the other side has ignored or spun.

Following Jesus' time, the Jewish rebellions like the Bar-Kochba revolt has resulted in the slaughtering of many Jews and the famous prohibition of Jews from Jerusalem. The area called Palestine was depleted of much of its Jewish population, and there was never to be a nation in that area until the 20th century. The Roman Empire was succeeded by the Byzantine Empire. With the rise of Islam, Palestine was conquered by the Caliphs and the various Caliphates administered the region of Palestine, excepting the minor historical phenomena known as the short-lived Crusaders States. The last Caliphate was the Ottoman Empire. After its defeat in World War I, the European victors divided up its territories into somewhat artificial plots of lands to be administered by the various European powers. The area of Palestine was administered by the British together with the Transjordan region. Back in Europe, Zionism began to take shape and immigration of Jews back to Palestine began in earnest, a process accelerated with the rise of Nazi Germany. In the meantime, pan-Arabism also began to take shape, as the residents of the former Ottoman Empire began to identify themselves as Arabs and desired independence. The non-Jewish natives in Palestine began to identify with this pan-Arab cause, and thus the first stirrings of "Palestinian nationalism" began to take shape. It must be noted here that what was beginning to take shape back then wasn't a Palestinian independence movement; that would come later. The non-Jews in Palestine identified themselves not as Palestinians, but as Arabs.

After the 1967 six-day war and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel emerged victorious and took over most of the other regions of Palestine, which were formerly part of Egypt (Gaza Strip) and Jordan (West Bank). These became known as "occupied territories." It was only then that a Palestinian identity and cause was formed, as separate from an Arab identity. Whatever the reason(s), the Arabic states refused to assimilate the people feeling from Palestine, instead putting them into permanent refugee camps. This is in sharp contrast to the Jews fleeing the opposite direction from pogroms launched by the Arab states against their native Jewish populations, who were assimilated into Israeli society (instead of being placed into refugee camps and then stating that they should have a "right to return").

This short history of the region of Palestine is necessary in order to give a better understanding of the issue of modern national Israel. As I have said, Reformed CT does not take a position on modern national Israel. That is why it is unfortunate that people think that to be Reformed is to be against modern national Israel. A right understanding of history should help us see through a lot of the propaganda out there. One does not have to be a Dispensationalist to see that national Israel has a right to exist. One does not have to believe that Israel continues to be a special people of God in order to believe that Jews are not children of the Devil. None of us should think that modern Israel is blameless on all matters. But that is different from blaming Israel as if it were demonspawn and the mother of all evil. And lastly, it is a total travesty to attempt to disguise one's Anti-Semitism as being driven by theology. It might be driven by theology, or rather one's perversion of sound orthodoxy, but it is certainly not driven by Reformed CT.

Towards a theology of ethnic Israel

So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! (Rom. 11:11-12)

In my opinion, Rom. 11: 1-32 provides a key to understanding how we should look at the Jews, who had in large measure rejected God's promises. Yet the Abrahamic promises are primarily for the seed of Abraham and through them to all nations (Gen. 12:1-3). It is most certainly true that the promise is fulfilled in Christ as Abraham's seed, but does that mean that the physical descendants of Jacob (Israel) are thus excluded from the picture?

In Scripture, promises and prophecies may have dual fulfillments, and seeing this text in line with Rom. 11:1-32 hints at a promise for the salvation of ethnic Israel. Just as salvation in Christ does not eradicate all ethnic boundaries but only render them secondary to the union we have in Christ, so likewise Jews as an ethnic group remain distinct from Gentiles, although those in Christ are indeed one people with us in the Church. While this is not the place to go into detailed exegesis of the Romans 11 passage, yet on the surface it seems to teach a future ingathering of the Jews, so that "all Israel will be saved" (Rom. 11:26). In light of what we have seen of CT, this final conversion of the Jews will be the final fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant, which deals with ethnic Israel, the physical covenant family of Abraham, as opposed to national Israel which is the creation of the Mosaic Covenant.

It does seem therefore that while we should oppose Dispensationalism and most definitely its religious form "Christian Zionism," yet in light of the blessing we have from the Jews, we should love the Jews and seek their salvation, so as to complete the circle of redemption. This seems to necessitate some weak version of secular "Zionism" in that we should desire to love and bless the Jews and not regurgitate lies about them.

Conclusion:

Reformed Covenant Theology, rightly understood, is not supersessionism. We believe in expansion theology, not replacement theology. Nowhere is this more practical than in the way we deal with ethnic Jews and the modern state of Israel. We should not excuse their rebellion and unbelief, or their sins, and we should not glorify them either. Rather, we should seek to love the Jews and tell the truth about both the Jews and the modern state of Israel, while seeking their salvation. In God's plan and timing, He will bring about many of them to salvation, and thus God's salvific purposes will be fulfilled in time, to the praise of His glory and grace.

2 comments:

Larry said...

Thank you for this excellent post, which is eminently referrable to all my friends, which I've already started to do.

PuritanReformed said...

@Larry,

you're welcome, and thanks