Christian Zionism in America
by samuel goldman
penn, 248 pages, $34.95
The New Christian Zionism:
Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land
edited by gerald r. mcdermott
ivp academic, 352 pages, $26
Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land
by gerald r. mcdermott
brazos, 176 pages, $17.99
As a British Catholic, I have often been puzzled by American Christian Zionism. Christian Zionism should by all accounts be stronger in Britain. Its modern form was born among Protestant English politicians deeply influenced by biblical prophecy. The Balfour Declaration was the political expression of their faith.
Today, however, the British Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has the dubious honor of being the first head of a major political party criticized by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council for tolerating anti-Semitism. Of course, the left has long stood for universal values that make them resistant to the idea of any one nation being chosen. But it has become increasingly insistent in promoting the type of secularism that values a kind of equality over religious rights and freedoms.
This is one of the differences between the U.S. and the U.K. The majority of British people profess no religious faith, but in America the “nones” make up a mere 23 percent of the population. The other is that the major export from the British motherland to her colony was Reformed Christianity, which thrived during the Second Great Awakening and influenced American Christian Zionist culture. Middle-ground Anglicanism won the day in England. Reformed Christianity was resolutely biblical, and biblicist Christianity, as Samuel Goldman reminds us, has at its heart the promises made to Abraham by God. Exceptionalism and particularism are central. Zionism naturally follows.
Donald Trump’s recent move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem earned him the title of “Cyrus” in some Christian and Jewish circles. He wasn’t the first to claim the title. Harry Truman famously interjected, when in 1953 he was introduced as the man who helped establish the State of Israel, “What do you mean, ‘helped create’? I am Cyrus!” Cyrus was the powerful Gentile king who was instrumental in helping the Jews return to their land. This is how Gentiles can be part of the biblical narrative. Trump’s actions warranted the minting of a special temple coin superimposing his face on that of Cyrus.
Samuel Goldman’s God’s Country establishes that Christian Zionism was not born in the premillennial dispensationalism effectively popularized by Hal Lindsey’s 1970 classic, The Late Great Planet Earth (which sold more than 35 million copies, despite its prediction that the world might not survive past 1988). A rather different form of Christian Zionism was in the bloodstream of the early Puritans. Increase Mather in 1666 argued that the Jews were destined to return to their land, and that Christians were required earnestly to pray for this outcome. Jonathan Edwards, so highly influential then and now, held a similar view. The Anglo-Irishman John Nelson Darby (1800–1882), father of dispensationalism, was in fact a political quietist. Prayer, not politics, was the domain he valued. By contrast, in 1816, Elias Boudinot, former president of the Continental Congress and aide to George Washington, suggested that God “raised up these United States . . . for the very purpose of accomplishing his will in bringing his beloved people to their own land.” Evangelical Christian Zionists drink from this politically active stream.
Differences on almost every issue can be found within the varieties of Christian Zionism. For example, while most Christian Zionists expect the Jews to convert and follow Jesus Christ at the end times, not all do. Some think that the majority will die at Armageddon, and only a small remnant will convert. (The Rapture means that Christians will be out of the picture while the battles rage.) Others want active evangelism in Israel to herald the end days. Some argue that conversion will only come about when the messiah returns, rendering any present mission to the Jews inappropriate. It is not always clear whether “conversion” requires forgoing Jewish cultural and religious identity.
Liberal Protestants were once a part of this tradition. Until the 1967 war, Goldman writes, they “provided Zionism’s most vocal Christian advocates.” That might be an overstatement. Their most influential spokesman was undoubtedly Reinhold Niebuhr, and Goldman recognizes, but does not resolve, the problem as to whether Niebuhr could be properly termed a religious Zionist. Niebuhr did not believe in predictive prophecy, but neither did he dissolve it into pure metaphor like so many liberals. His major arguments might be termed pragmatic and ethical: Jews were persecuted, often by Christians; they had nowhere safe to go; Western states, including the U.S., refused to open their doors. They, like all people, should have a nation. Niebuhr was strangely insensitive to Palestinian concerns, believing they were generic Arabs not attached to Palestine. After the 1967 war, Israel, the vulnerable David, turned into a mighty Goliath. Liberal support dissolved. It was time for the emergence of today’s Evangelical Christian Zionists, to whom Goliath carries a certain appeal.
Let me register one minor criticism of Goldman’s book. While Goldman touches on American Catholic Zionism, there is no sustained analysis or attention to it. He knows and mentions the work of Jacques Maritain and several influential churchmen: the Jesuit Robert F. Drinan (a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts), John M. Oesterreicher (who was involved in the Secretariat for Christian Unity at the Second Vatican Council and was thus part of the drafting group for Nostra Aetate), and Edward H. Flannery, whose The Anguish of the Jews (1965) helped sensitize American Catholics to Israel. But it is not clear from Goldman’s account how, given their non-Puritan roots, they came to support Catholic Zionism. John Connelly’s From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933–1965 (2012) suggests that changing exegesis of Romans 9–11 was central.
The last three popes have repeatedly stated that the covenant with the Jewish people is irrevocable (Rom. 11:29). If that covenant is irrevocable and contains a land promise, then the Catholic Church must eventually clarify its theological position on Israel’s status. Is it the promised land? If yes, does that mean uncritical support for the state or just the recognition of the necessity of a state that is not divinely underwritten? Furthermore, there is an important difference between, on the one hand, giving the ingathering of the Jewish people to the land immediate, final, messianic, and eschatological significance and, on the other hand, interpreting that act as part of God’s ongoing providential care of his people. A return need not be the final return. Also, must a Christian Zionist deny the Palestinian right to a homeland, or can he affirm it? Finally, if the Jewish covenant is irrevocable, then should there be a mission of evangelization to the Jewish people, or no mission? The Catholic Church is poised to answer these questions by consistently choosing the latter option in each case.
Most American Jews keep their distance from modern Christian Zionism, wary of its conversion scenarios, conscious that it sees Israel as a means to Christian ends. Nevertheless, Menachem Begin, and Benjamin Netanyahu after him, actively courted and supported Christian Zionists for Israeli political ends. Goldman ends his book by saying that with shifting U.S. demographics, the future is opaque for dispensationalist political Zionism. Enter stage right: Gerald McDermott, the distinguished Jonathan Edwards scholar and editor of The New Christian Zionism, whose book Israel Matters is also a manifesto for the new Zionism.
McDermott argues for a non-dispensationalist, non-millenarian form of Protestant Zionism. In this he follows Jonathan Edwards and the early Puritans, but he breaks from them by affirming Israel’s positive role in salvation history. His Zionism refrains from highly specific historical prophecies. In this sense, it is new. It stands with the work of David Brog, Zev Chafets, Donald Lewis, and Robert Jenson, all of whom advance similar proposals.
McDermott’s work comes out of what can be termed post-supersessionist Christian theology—a stream that has watered a Catholic and wider Christian rethinking since World War II (but is at most a faint trickle among Eastern churches). Post-supersessionism holds that Judaism is not invalid, negated, and superseded after the coming of Jesus Christ.
I doubt whether orthodox Christianity can ever renounce a soft form of supersessionism. By that I mean upholding the continuing validity of Israel’s covenant, thus eschewing hard supersessionism, while still arguing that Judaism is perfected and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Jewish messiah. That should not and need not involve rejecting Judaism. Jesus, Mary, and the early disciples show that it need not. The Jewish thinker David Novak agrees. He says orthodox Christianity will dissolve into liberal Christianity if it renounces soft supersessionism. Christianity cannot be reduced to the pluralist position that holds there are independent and equally valid ways to the one God.
But the new Zionism is also old. McDermott tells us that it is as old as the Bible. He argues that the early Church remained genuinely Jewish while also learning how to accommodate Gentiles, stressing Torah observance exclusively for Jewish followers of Jesus, while allowing Gentile believers to be free of the yoke of the law. McDermott believes that this is why the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 was so significant. It would not have been an issue if the Church was not primarily Jewish. Gentile followers became part of Israel through Jesus Christ and keeping the Noachide laws. This genuine accommodation ended when the Gentile majority slowly forgot they came from a Jewish root. The rest is history.
If supersessionism is not called for by the Bible, then what is? The answer given by the contributors to The New Christian Zionism (two of them Messianic Jews) is threefold. First, both Judaism and Christianity have a continuing role within salvation history. The validity of one does not mitigate the meaning of the other—at least from a Christian viewpoint. Second, Jesus fulfills the Torah, without invalidating it, as well as the hopes of Israel. Third, the promise of the land to the Jewish people was never annulled or invalidated by the New Testament. In fact, it is part of Jesus’s own hope and should be honored by Christians. The book makes a strong case that Zionism is present in Matthew, Luke-Acts, and Paul. However, it also raises a cluster of unanswered questions that demand clarification.
For example, Mark Kinzer writes a masterly and illuminating chapter on Luke-Acts. He is rabbi of Congregation Zera Avraham in Michigan and president emeritus of Messianic Jewish Theological Institute. Kinzer’s essay makes a convincing case for the central role of Jerusalem in the early and expanding Church and the hopes centered around it for the biblical promises of the land. If Kinzer is right—and I think he is—does this mean that he as a Jewish follower of Yeshua shares the promise of the land? The answer must be yes, as Kinzer explains in his forthcoming book, Jerusalem Crucified. Such a conclusion spells trouble in the Jewish-Christian dialogue. Admittedly, trouble is hardly new to that dialogue. Perhaps it is mature enough that such issues can now be aired. The logic of irrevocable covenant means that Jews should always remain Jews, yet the logic of fulfillment also means that they come to the fullest truth when they, as Jews, follow Yeshua.
In the eyes of liberal Christians (and many Jews), the idea of fulfillment means supersessionism. Even the position that only the return of the messiah will ensure the conversion of the Jews, and thus that there should be no institutional mission, keeps intact the logic of fulfillment, what I call the soft supersessionist position. Making conversion an eschatological matter might be a practical aid to peace, but theologically it does not expunge the source of the sting. This sting is perhaps inevitable. If so, acknowledging that fact is a necessary part of mature relationships between the communities.
McDermott and his contributors argue that while Israel is not perfect, it seeks to be just. What one does not find in either of McDermott’s books is a sustained or serious recognition of the justice of the Palestinian cause. This is where emergent Catholic Zionism might have an edge on new and old forms of Protestant Zionism. The Vatican has made a formal fundamental agreement with the Palestinians (2000), not unlike the fundamental agreement made with Israel (1993). The Vatican, which formally recognized Israel’s legal right to exist in 1985, also recognized the Palestinian State in 2015. These alliances with the Palestinians arise from three factors. First, there are Palestinian Catholics whom the Vatican seeks to support and aid. Second, since Vatican II, Catholic social doctrine has emphasized justice and peace. Church leaders have been led by this emphasis to seek justice for the Palestinians, currently understood as a two-state solution. Third, while the Vatican is not starry-eyed about Islam, it constantly seeks constructive and positive relations with Muslim states.
These books are important milestones. Goldman’s acts almost as a praeparatio to McDermott’s edited collection and his single-authored book. The exclusive association between Christian Zionism and immediate messianic and eschatological scenarios should be called into question. Interesting new forms of Christian Zionism are emerging. America’s demography is changing. The new Christian Zionism represents an important shift within mainline and Evangelical Protestant thinking, for it eschews the precision and literalism of dispensationalism and millenarianism. Catholics have much to learn from this new development.
Perhaps the reverse is also true. One thing is for certain: The question of Israel as “God’s country” will not go away. The question of America as “God’s country” might. A more differentiated and politically sensitive Christian Zionism is in view: one that balances the biblical claim regarding the promised land with the Palestinian right to a homeland and state; one that unites Christians who support Zionism with Christians working for justice and peace in Palestine; and one willing to discuss the place of Jewish Christians within that land while upholding the importance of Christian-Jewish dialogue.
Gavin D’Costa is professor of Catholic theology at the University of Bristol.