There is a joke that Israelis like to tell Christian Zionists, one first made popular by Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the late-1970s: There are many differences between Jews and Christians, but they must work together now where they can. When the Messiah comes, the first question to ask is if this is his first or second time here.
The joke works because it sidesteps the very real differences between Jews and Christians to affirm the shared messianic hope that animates many Jews and evangelical Christians. If the differences between Jews and Christians are all just a matter of timing, then both communities can get on with the business of defending Israel. For Begin, in an era of political and cultural differences that could have scuttled Jewish and evangelical cooperation at any moment, a little humor could grease the wheels of cooperation. But it could also sidestep differences between the two communities. In the late 1970s, when Begin was at the height of his influence, American evangelicals were campaigning for a “Christian America” in the United States, a concept wholly unsettling to Israel’s other major source of support, American Jews. The joke’s sentiment gave Christian Zionists and Jews a sense that they were part of a Judeo-Christian community, and that their similarities outweighed their differences.
The same sentiment, with all its strengths and weaknesses, is on display in a new collected volume from InterVarsity Press, The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel & the Land, edited by Gerald R. McDermott. Developed from a 2015 conference hosted by the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a conservative watchdog group within mainline Protestantism, the volume features articles from an array of scholars identifying as evangelical, mainline, and Messianic Jewish (Jews who then adopted the Christian belief that Jesus is the Messiah). The purpose of book and the conference, which was held in Washington D.C., was to ask how Christian Zionism can be updated to the twenty-first century theological and political situation.
The inclusion of conservative mainline Protestant perspectives makes this volume unique in a field of largely non-denominational evangelical and fundamentalist Christian Zionist voices. Taken as a whole, the volume fuses conservative Protestant theology with the legacy of mainline Protestantism’s most vocal proponent of Zionism, Reinhold Niebuhr, who, for most theological conservatives, has been anathema because of his liberal views on the Bible. By offering, in McDermott’s words, “a new theological argument for the twenty-first century,” the volume is both synthesizing conservative Protestant voices and announcing its intention for building a more ecumenical Christian Zionist theology.
McDermott, a pastor and professor at the interdenominational evangelical Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, contributed four chapters to the volume. In many ways, the theological outlook of The New Christian Zionism is most reflective of McDermott’s own mainline background (he is an Anglican) and his interest in the theology of Jonathan Edwards, on whom he has written extensively. He is quick to distance the new theology from dispensationalism, the apocalyptic theology featuring the rapture, the Antichrist, and intense prophecy speculation, which is most commonly associated with evangelical support for Israel. The new Christian Zionism that the volume is formulating, he assures, is not connected to the “fundamentalist fantasy associated with old-style dispensationalism.” Dispensationalism’s relatively recent nineteenth-century roots also trouble McDermott, who insists that “Christian Zionism is at least eighteen centuries older than dispensationalism.” Thus, for McDermott, as for the other authors of the volume collectively, this is a project that is more ecumenical in its appeal to historical theology and a broader swath of Christians than dispensationalism.
In a similar vein, The New Christian Zionism is concerned with making its theology fit into the mainstream of Protestant thinking. “The burden of these chapters,” McDermott writes, “is to show theologically that the people of Israel continue to be significant for the history of redemption and that the land of Israel, which is at the heart of the covenantal promises, continues to be important to God’s providential purposes.” Moreover, it recasts some Christian Zionists in terms of their denominational, instead of theological, identity. For example, the volume characterizes historical Christian Zionists such as William Blackstone by way of his Methodism instead of his apocalyptic, interdenominational fundamentalism, to which he has usually been ascribed by historians.
Even as they are claiming to be part of the mainstream, the contributors to The New Christian Zionism portray modern-day mainline Protestant theologians as woefully anachronistic in their theology. McDermott classifies most of mainline Protestant theology as possessing the remnants of “supersessionism,” by which he means interpreting God’s covenantal promises of land to the Jewish people as superseded by the New Testament. “[W]hile most Protestant and Catholic scholars since the Holocaust fall over each other reaffirming God’s eternal covenant with Israel,” McDermott concludes, “for the most part they ignore what for most Jews is absolutely integral to the covenant: the land.”
In addition to criticizing mainline theology, the volume also takes aim at some evangelical theologians. John Nelson Darby, the original theologian of dispensationalist theology, is not mentioned by name, but dispensationalist Christian Zionists are criticized for their distorted theology, preoccupation with the end times, and conservative politics—all which find their roots in Darby’s writings. Though two of the contributors, Craig Blaising of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary, are leading figures of “progressive dispensationalism,” The New Christian Zionism is clearly averse to Darby and his followers.
The other evangelical bogeyman, Gary Burge, a professor of New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary who was for many years at Wheaton College, is mentioned by name dozens of times, both in the text and the footnotes, with a full chapter by Mark Kinzer, a professor at the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute, directed against him. Burge represents “anti-Zionist” evangelicals who share in the criticism leveled at mainline theologians by finding no New Testament basis for Jewish rights to their ancestral land. By distancing themselves from both dispensationalist Christian Zionism and anti-Zionist theologians like Burge, the contributors to The New Christian Zionism occupy a tenuous position in American evangelical thinking. The closest resemblance is probably found in the work of Marvin Wilson, emeritus professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, whose 1990 Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith emphasized some similar themes.
Even with Wilson’s precedent, The New Christian Zionism is undoubtedly novel in its theological emphases, array of scholars, and the criticisms it levels against other Protestants. This project is certainly a creation of twenty-first century conservative Protestant theology, but like Begin’s joke, it also leaves some glaring issues unaddressed, and others papered over, in the attempt to appeal to both mainline and evangelical Christians.
The volume assumes a basic evangelical attitude toward the modern relevance of the Bible for political issues and assumes a theologically conservative basis for both mainline and evangelical appeal. By and large, the evangelical seminary professors and Messianic Jewish leaders in the volume treat the Bible as an infallible and authoritative text, without much of the critical approach of mainline New Testament scholars. It really matters to these authors that they prove that the gospel narratives of the New Testament contained a “theology of the land” that assumed the older covenants between God and Israel are still valid today. Many of these authors are accomplished scholars and bring their specializations in languages and biblical studies to bear in the volume. Their verse-by-verse theological investigations are accompanied by chapters dedicated to legal arguments for the legitimacy of a Jewish state in Palestine. These chapters, including contributions by attorney Robert Nicholson and Shadi Khalloul, an Israeli Christian Maronite, recite some of the most common defenses of Israeli policy including defining the occupation of the West Bank as legal under international law and lauding Israel’s “great strides in social and religious equality for minority communities.”
In addition to the conservative theology and legal defense of contemporary Israeli policy, the lingering influence of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Christian realism” is evident throughout the volume. Niebuhr famously lent his name to pro-Zionist causes beginning in the 1930s when it was not so fashionable. He “was unmoved,” writes Robert Benne, emeritus professor at Roanoke College, by arguments that impugned Israel’s legitimacy because its establishment created an injustice. Niebuhr’s brand of realism has seen a revival in the twenty-first century, but this has largely been due to his focus on evil and irony—fitting themes in a post-9/11 world. In The New Christian Zionism, we see a different legacy of Niebuhr’s Christian realism—one that seeks to seriously rebut criticisms of Israel based on ethical and international norms.
There is at least one glaring omission in the theological project of this volume, however, that is made more acute by the obvious effort of its authors to appeal to conservative mainline Protestants and evangelicals. The question of Jewish missions is almost entirely absent. There is no sustained explanation of how the New Christian Zionism understands the universal demands of the Christian message, or how it judges the historical Protestant energy for missions directed at Jews. There are at least two Messianic Jewish contributors, but neither goes near the issue. This muted approach is, too, a legacy of Niebuhr, who argued on practical grounds that Jews should exist as a separate people. But this is very much at odds with the conservative theology and intended appeal of The New Christian Zionism.
In the past, the issue of missions has been detrimental to Jewish-Christian cooperation. Generations of dispensationalist Christian Zionists have gone through theological gymnastics to square their evangelistic impulses and expectations of mass Jewish conversion to Christianity with their Zionism. Some simply supported both Jewish missions and Israel, generating mistrust and thanks from Jews in equal measures. Others, including John Hagee, the current head of Christians United for Israel, the largest U.S. Christian Zionist organization, have been accused by other evangelicals of a “dual covenant” theology that sees two paths for salvation, one Jewish and the other Christian. Hagee’s denials of dual covenant theology is belied by his actions, which give off something of a de facto dual covenantalism while maintaining a de jure universal gospel. In these dispensationalist views, regardless of difference, Jews will in the end convert to Christianity as a fulfillment of prophecy. This volume remains virtually silent on both missions and the eventual spiritual fate of the Jews.
The strategic silence on missions is a more academic version of the same move Menachem Begin performed when he told his joke about the Messiah. The New Christian Zionism, as the subtitle delineates, focuses on “Israel” and “the Land”—the two theological categories that have the most potential to unite Christian and Jewish Zionists. But beyond agreeing on “a future for Israel” and God’s promises concerning the land, the reservoirs of potential Jewish-Christian solidarity remain shallow. Outside of the missions problem, conservative mainliners and evangelicals have trouble reconciling their mostly conservative political and cultural values (and the theology that underpins them) with American Jews’ liberalism. At the same time, many Jews question Christian Zionist motives, suspecting they are either hoping for conversions or believe the Jews will meet a grisly end as a fulfillment of prophecy. On the question of the fulfillment of prophecy, McDermott writes, “the New Christian Zionism holds that the schedule of events leading up to and including the eschaton are in God’s secret providence.” While advancing a common concern for the land, other issues are left entirely unaddressed.
The most logical home for this volume will be in the very seminaries and institutions of its contributors. The academic tone and theological argumentation are not the stuff of grassroots activism or apocalyptic bestsellers. The book will undoubtedly appeal to many serious observers of Christian Zionism, but its academic perspective will be a liability for competing in a Christian Zionist environment dominated by lobby groups, popular displays of support for Israel, and appeals to non-American Pentecostal and charismatic Christians. That said, among conservative mainline and evangelical theologians, The New Christian Zionism could very well harken a further collapse of dispensationalism in evangelicalism. The extent to which this new theology will trickle down to students, pastors, and those sitting in the pews will depend on the ability of its architects to attend to the fundamental issues that remain unaddressed between Jews and Christians.