Reflecting on Israel at its seventieth anniversary, I wonder why Reformed Christians, or Calvinists as they are sometimes called, are more reluctant and timid about their views on Israel.
I use an antenna for my TV, which means that I get about 10 channels exclusively devoted to Christian programming. If we include the Spanish language Christian channels, we’re probably talking about 15. Every now and then, I flip the channels to see what is happening in the Christian broadcast world. Among the normal offerings of Joyce Meyer or Joel Osteen, there is almost always a broadcast from Jerusalem or some place in Israel. Well-dressed hosts sit with some famous Jewish landmark in the background and talk about Israel and prophecy. John Hagee tends to be the one I see the most.
They talk about God’s plan for Israel and how the modern state of Israel is the literal fulfillment of prophecy. Complete with direct scriptural citations, we are told that scripture is being fulfilled before our very eyes. To deny such is the case is to deny the work of God in history. Even if they do not express that directly, that is the charge.
Having been baptized as a baby in the Episcopal Church, confirmed a Lutheran, re-baptized in the Churches of Christ, and currently attending a Presbyterian church, I find this sort of thing foreign. Never once in all my years did I hear sermons on the fulfillment of prophecy and the current state of Israel. Apparently, some churches spend all their time talking about the book of Revelation. My childhood memories are of milquetoast sermons from monotone Episcopalian and Lutheran ministers about our nice and benevolent God and our duty to be nice and good people. Garrison Keillor was not too far off.
The thing that has always struck me about these televangelists—besides finding them to be, oh how shall we say, less than sincere in most respects—is their apparently genuine love of Israel. On that point I believed them. And by Israel we are not talking about the “true Israel,” which is just another name for true believer, but the literal, flesh and blood, historical people who are direct descendants of the people of the tribe of Judah.
Though Reformed theology places great emphasis on Romans 9-11, which is the most direct discussion of the future salvation of Israel in the whole New Testament, it tends to be more in an abstract and theological sense. Rarely have I read a book or encountered a Reformed pastor who expresses their undying belief that modern-day Israel is the definite fulfillment of scriptural prophecy, even if they do believe it.
Where is the love for Israel? Why do the Reformed seem less enthusiastic than our dispensational brethren?
At least part of the answer lies with Reformed theology itself. Dispensational theology, in contrast to the covenantal theology Reformed Christians follow, believes that there are two distinct “people of God”: the church and the people of Israel. When the Bible says Israel will be saved, it means that Israel, the flesh and blood descendants of the Jews, will be saved along with the church. The Jews as Jews, not as Christians, have a central place in the outworking of God’s redemptive plans, and thus dispensationalism places great emphasis on Jews and the history of modern Israel as the fulfillment of that plan.
There are many reasons covenantal theology rejects this understanding of Israel, but perhaps the most central is that this reading of Israel and the church as two different tracts in God’s redemptive work pushes against the plain reading of the text and the New Testament. The exegetical gymnastics are too much. Of course, there are plenty of other reasons that could be explored, but the main point is that covenantal theology rejects the dispensational division.
The mosaic covenant is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, but not erased. The people of God are now one people and not two. Gentiles have been grafted into the covenant through Christ.
However, that does not mean that covenantal theology relegates Israel to the sidelines or merely spiritualizes it, though both behaviors have been prominent in church history. Reformed theology has rarely gone the route of early supersessionist theology, which argues the church replaces Israel. Some blame amillennialism for this tendency, but I don’t think that is necessarily the case. One finds a great many amillennial protestant theologians who are not dispensationalist but affirm the literal fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies about the restoration of Israel at the end of the ages. Karl Barth rejected dispensationalism across the board but affirmed the importance of the Jewish people and Israel from within a Reformed covenantal perspective.
Gerald McDermott’s excellent piece on Christian Zionism in Providence is required reading for those who are not dispensationalists but affirm God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament.
I am not terribly convinced, though, that the theological dilemma is the main problem. Part of the draw of many, including myself, to Reformed theology was its theological rigor, complexity, and biblical fidelity. Reformed theology has deep wells to draw from both in terms of spirituality and complexity of thought. Biblical theology, with its development of a single narrative framework to encompass the whole of God’s creating and redeeming work is impressive.
That’s the positive attraction. But there is also a social and cultural attraction. For Christians who do not want to be lumped in with snake handling, charismatic, self-help megachurch evangelicalism, it provides a way to say, “Hey, I’m not one of those people.” No, we are much smarter and more sophisticated than the wild-eyed prosperity preachers or fundamentalists who just “obey the Bible.”
The list of self-affirming pronouncements continues: “We are not slavishly devoted to the Republican Party or the religious right.” “We are much too savvy to get sucked into the zero-sum game of politics. No, we Reformed are intellectual, well-read, and have a theological tradition behind us that is more than a couple of proof-texts from an English translation.” “We read original languages. We read Greek and Hebrew.” “We know how to use higher criticism and deconstruct it when necessary.” Yes, we Reformed are pretty amazing.
And this is precisely the problem. If Reformed theology has a weakness, it is in its tendency to view its own positions as thoughtful and opposing positions as lacking in theological rigor, or perhaps even as ignorant. Reformed thinkers are not alone in this tendency, but they do little to advance the theology they love by failing to use discernment in their criticism. Rejecting Benny Hinn hucksterism does not mean Reformed Christians should also reject everything that those same hucksters professs.
It’s important to make distinctions, and in this case, I think the Reformed should reevaluate our commitment to Israel. Our pride may be getting in the way of our commitment to the central aspect of God’s redeeming work. Perhaps our public profession needs to catch up with our theology.
Daniel Strand, a Providence contributing editor, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: First Presbyterian Church in downtown Portland, Oregon in 2012, by Another Believer via Wikimedia Commons.