The recent Christ at the Checkpoint Conference has a number of evangelical groups concerned about waning support for the nation of Israel among Evangelicals (see here and here ). David Brog of Christians United for Israel even wonders whether the end of evangelical support for Israel has come .
While there is no doubt a push for greater recognition of Palestinian Christians among certain evangelical groups, a key issue that has yet to be addressed is the role of dispensationalism and its view of the End. When John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel, is a prominent advocate of a rapture theology, one can be sure dispensationalism is in the background. There is a theological issue at stake in this debate, and Evangelicals who want greater support for Israel ignore it at their peril.
Placing the theological foundation of any support for Israel within a dispensational framework is problematic because it weds the issue to a highly debated and controversial theological position. In brief, dispensationalism maintains a clear distinction between Israel and the church although Progressive Dispensationalism sees both as part of the one people of God. God has not forsaken his covenant with the natural descendants of Abraham. The consummation of Christian salvation history will begin with a secret rapture of the church, the point of which is for God to fulfill his plan for Israel. Historical events such as the foundation of the modern state of Israel are viewed as prophetic clues to the approaching of the end.
As understood by John Hagee, Christian Zionism is framed in terms of end-time prophecy. In addition, Hagee weds together biblical texts about blessing Israel to a prosperity message, saying that doing the former will bring the latter. He also suggests that any deviation in support for the state of Israel will lead to divine judgment. Again, this is shaky terrain.
No Reformed person worth their salt theologically would go near dispensationalism or prosperity theology although a “Calvinist” occupying the space between theological worlds might. Even within Pentecostal circles rapture theology is not universally embraced. Premillennialism, the belief that at his second coming Jesus will set up an earthly kingdom is fairly standard, but there is room for divergence on a secret rapture of the church.
The point is that the future of evangelical support for Israel cannot rest upon a theological foundation that divides many Evangelicals from one another. It would not surprise me to discover that there is a correlation between waning support for Israel and a rejection of the rapture theology behind dispensationalism.
What Evangelicals have yet to do is develop an Evangelical theology of Judaism, to slightly alter a title from Robert Jenson’s essay in Jews and Christans: People of God. Evangelical Protestants find themselves currently in a strange place historically in which they have reversed the question so central to that first church council recorded in Acts 15. Just as those first Christians were concerned about the status of the Gentiles in the plan of God, so Evangelicals must be concerned about the status of the Jews in the plan of God. It is, indeed, a strange place to be: to see as foreign what was once so natural to Christianity that the question need not be asked, and to see as natural what was once so foreign that it felt to the first followers of Jesus as though the full weight of the ages was upon them.
Such a theology is necessary for evangelical self-understanding, especially a renewed dialogue over the End. It might begin in an evangelical engagement with Dabru Emet (“Speak the Truth”), a Jewish statement about Christians and Christianity so important and extending such hospitality that it cannot be ignored. I have yet to discover any significant evangelical dialogue with this text although Catholics, Orthodox, and mainline Protestants have engaged it since its publication in 2000.
What would such an Evangelical theology of Judaism look like?
First, as with Dabru Emet, it would view the question of the State of Israel as a species of the broader question about Judaism as a whole. Here is where John Hagee’s insistence that any replacement theology must be rejected as unbiblical bears fruit because it signals an evangelical call for an end to supersessionism. As David Novak has noted, Christian and Jewish theologians engaged in this dialogue begin with a renunciation of supersessionism on both sides. For Reformed theology, this will mean a re-thinking of its approach to covenantal theology, or, at least, that of some Reformed thinkers.
Second, there is a certain structure to Dabru Emet in which the first four statements are theological and the final four statements draw out historical and practical implications. An evangelical exception to this structure would be to place the sixth statement about the complete reconciliation between Jews and Christians awaiting final redemption immediately after the first statement about worshipping the same God. This is because the shared hope of an eschatological reconciliation provides the counter to an affirmation that the God of Israel is the God of Jesus Christ.
By placing the two statements in succession, the claim of complete reconciliation becomes a more robust theological commitment. As Richard John Neuhaus suggested, the people of God “has no plural,” a claim that cannot simply be viewed in terms of Judaism being the root of Christianity, but that both Christianity and Judaism “participate in the story of the one God of Israel.” This truth must be viewed from the perspective of the End as well as the history of salvation.
This dual perspective must control the dialogue between Jews and Christians, including Palestinian Christians. It is a failure to examine the theological issue of Judaism that plagues the current evangelical division over the state of Israel. Palestinian Christians cannot escape such a question even if political circumstances tempt them to try.
Indeed, one may wonder whether Christianity might provide the terrain in which Palestinians who claim Christ and Jews who claim the God of Israel might discover a different way of understanding the other. If nothing else, in taking the initial steps toward a Jewish perspective on Christianity, Dabru Emet offers Evangelicals an opportunity to place any discussion of the state of Israel on a more firm theological foundation. Let us hope, however, that it may also do more than that.