When physicists first discovered that light behaves as both a particle and a wave, they couldn’t believe it. The idea that light could take both forms at the same time was an impossible paradox, and over a century later physicists still can’t explain it. And yet we know that wave-particle duality, along with the other paradoxes of quantum mechanics, are true because they power our twenty-first century technology. We know they’re true because they work.

It was another paradoxical discovery that first planted the seed for A New History of Redemption: The Work of Jesus the Messiah through the Millennia (Baker Academic, 448 pages, $45), a sweeping new book from lately-retired Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, Rev. Dr. Gerald McDermott. Inspired by Edwards’s 1739 sermon series “The History of Redemption,” McDermott aims to pick up where Edwards left off, narrating “the beauty of the Triune God in a new, historical way.” Intended as a summa of Christianity and of McDermott’s own work, the book deals with a wide range of topics—ecclesiology, world religions, Jewish-Christian relations, and Jonathan Edwards, among others—while remaining fast-paced and enormously readable. 

Not surprisingly, the book is every bit as eclectic as its author. (McDermott may be the only Anglican priest to have been a teaching pastor in a Lutheran church, a Catholic, a Baptist preacher, and a member of a charismatic commune.) It’s also provocative. Relishing the freedom of retirement, McDermott boldly affirms the use of masculine pronouns in reference to God and the truth of the Bible as interpreted by the “Great Tradition” of the Church, brushing aside controversies about sources and dating. “I am not interested in what religious studies claims for what is behind the Bible or is the actual story of human origins,” he says. “Those claims change every few decades.” And so they do.

But the book’s most provocative element is its main premise, which flows from the paradox that first planted the seed in McDermott’s mind: namely, the centrality of Israel in redemptive history. “More than twenty years ago I had my own Copernican revolution,” McDermott explains, “when I realized that I had previously missed the profound Jewishness of Jesus and the gospel.” Although one of the world’s foremost experts on Jonathan Edwards, McDermott had always forgiven the great reformer for believing Israel to be “the center of history, the world, and the gospel.” It was obvious that the Jews couldn’t be both co-workers in the gospel story and “enemies for the sake of the gospel,” as Paul describes them in his letter to the Romans. It was an impossible contradiction. 

Yet, as McDermott continued to study the paradox, he couldn’t help noticing the exceptional and in many ways inexplicable history of the Jews after the advent of Christ. The more he studied the more he recognized that Israel and the Church were, despite themselves, mysteriously bound together in the grand tale of redemption.

It was a paradox. It was impossible. And yet, it worked.

Before delving into the mystery of Israel and the Church, McDermott takes a helpful step back. To understand the grand tale of redemption, one must first understand what redemption means. Few words are used so often yet understood so little. 

One of the greatest mistakes Christians make is to equate redemption with individual salvation. The Bible presents redemption as the complete tale of God’s work in history, a millennia-long process whereby a wayward human race is wooed back to its Creator through his successive, and progressive, interventions in history. While this process includes the individual salvation of millions, its full meaning can only be grasped in corporate terms as the wholesale deliverance of the human race and the restoration of all things.

Another common mistake is to think of redemption in abstract terms. Christians coming from the Western tradition tend to interpret scripture systematically, doctrinally, preferring the propositional categories and axioms that define Greco-Roman thought. But biblical theology is Hebraic theology: earthy and wrapped up in in real people, events and stories. The Bible presents redemption, and everything else, in historical rather than philosophical terms, which was why the prophets and apostles constantly restated the record of God’s interventions in history.

A third mistake is to think God’s interventions ended with the last page of the New Testament, or that our age, the “times of the Gentiles,” is merely a terminus or empty parenthesis until Christ returns. No, says McDermott. Sacred history continues in the present day. The conversion of the Roman Empire, the rise of Islam, the Protestant Reformation, the founding of the United States, the Holocaust, the COVID pandemic—these events are no less relevant to the divine master plot than the parting of the Red Sea or Elijah’s battle on Mt. Carmel. Redemption is the big story, the one which contains all other stories.

And so, the bulk of McDermott’s book is a retelling and a reframing of history from Adam (and before) to the Antichrist (and beyond), at the center of which is Jesus of Nazareth, a paradox all his own. Jesus was a Jewish man born in the first century AD to a young woman named Mary, but Jesus is also God the Son, second person of the Trinity, who has been reigning with the Father in heaven since before creation and who, disguised as the “angel of the LORD,” made a number of Old Testament cameos in order to steadily, if surreptitiously, advance his Father’s grand strategy. In the big story of redemption, Jesus is the sole protagonist. 

Yet from Jesus springs the Church, his living body in history and the natural through-line of McDermott’s narrative. He relates the Church’s early trials and tribulations, its flowering under Constantine, and its spread around the world; he describes unseen battles in heaven as Satan and his angels try to destroy the Church, and happily recounts how God thwarts their plans and preserves a remnant from destruction; and, looking into the future, he revels in the sight of the Church, the bride of Christ, finally reunited with her groom. In that day, McDermott proclaims, all things will be made new.

So far, so good. But it’s here that some readers will feel that McDermott—a High-Church Anglo-Catholic who describes himself as a “soft postmillennialist”—jumps the shark. Contrary to most eschatologies of the twenty-first century, McDermott’s vision is uncomfortably concrete and, well, Jewish. Christ will return, but he will reign bodily in Jerusalem; the Church will prevail, but only as part of a real-life Kingdom of God that will rule over a physical earth; and, perhaps most uncomfortably, the nation of Israel will play—and indeed is already playing—a major role in the story.  

At the end of a long and distinguished career, McDermott has come to believe that Jonathan Edwards was right. “When the kingdom is finally manifested,” McDermott writes, “Israel will be a central part of it.” But how can the Church be God’s vehicle for salvation yet partner with Israel, which rejects the Church? 

McDermott admits it’s a paradox, but believes it’s true because, seen within the long arc of history, it works. More troubling for him, however, is the way his decision to put Jerusalem at the center of the story appears to undermine his entire argument. And so we come to the heart of the matter.

One of the core ideas of McDermott’s book is that Christians must reimagine the Bible’s grand narrative through the lens of the Great Tradition. Yet while the idea of “an Israel-centered history of redemption” may seem commonplace today, it was unthinkable until recently. McDermott rightly insists that “the prophets, Paul, Peter, and Jesus all looked to a future restoration of Israel with all twelve tribes and the kingdom of God centered in Jerusalem.” But he rightly concedes that most Christians, for most of history, believed that Israel was cut off from the covenant and replaced by the Church. Behold, the Great Tradition.

It was only with the Reformation that some Christians, finding countless references to the permanence of Israel’s covenants and predictions of the Jews’ return to Zion, began to reconsider the old view. Today, even the Catholic Church has formally recognized “the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews.” But the suggestion that Israel and the Church were not only born from the same root but share a common destiny is a relatively new one. Did the Great Tradition get it wrong? And if so, how can we trust it at all? 

Here, again, we uncover a paradox that, like all paradoxes, stems from the fundamental paradox of man: a base yet exquisite creature formed from dirt and divine spirit. And here, again, McDermott leans in. Pulling no punches, he condemns the long tradition of Christian anti-Judaism and the horrors of the Holocaust which flowed from it, admitting the errors of the Great Tradition while still insisting on its authority. Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic—in the words of Isaiah, “all we like sheep have gone astray.” The Church has erred just as the apostles said it would, but it remains the bride and body of Christ, still ordained to its sacred mission alongside an equally-erring Israel. Putting aside the question of salvation for their individual members, the two entities remain irrevocably linked in the redemption story. 

So it is that we must recover historical theology. The paradoxes of Christianity, nonsensical in the abstract, dissolve in the context of a grand narrative. Once upon a time, God showed himself to the Jews and blinded the Gentiles; later, he showed himself to the Gentiles and blinded the Jews; in the end, he will bring Jews and Gentiles full circle under the once and future King of Israel. In the meantime, the two remain bound in a common exile.

A New History of Redemption aims to be a theological “theory of everything,” but its implications are anything but theoretical. In a moment when the world’s only Jewish state (a non-sacred “necessary instrument” for protecting the people and land of Israel) fends off the attacks of its neighbors, McDermott calls on Christians to stand with the sons and daughters of Jacob. Noting the surge of evangelicalism in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, he foreshadows a geopolitical shift—one whose effects few are thinking about—in which countries like Guatemala, Zambia, and Korea will likely draw closer to Jerusalem even as Israel’s old allies in Europe and North America turn away. 

There is no doubt that the book seeks to provoke. Many readers will be put off by McDermott’s excessively ecumenical approach, which notes the merits of every Christian denomination and will thus irritate them all. Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholic readers will find many sections too Protestant for their taste, especially McDermott’s sympathy for the Reformation and hopes for global Pentecostalism; Protestants will take umbrage at his excessively-apostolic views of the eucharist, purgatory, and icons. 

But McDermott’s goal is to make everyone uncomfortable. The big story of redemption isn’t about doctrine, liturgy, or ecclesiology—at least, not ultimately. It’s about the steady expansion of the Kingdom of God and the reconciliation of heaven and earth. Incidentally, his decision to foreground Jerusalem and the Jewish people in that story reveals what could be the best tool for Christian unity.

Civilizational change can be terrifying—but also illuminating. “When an old world is crumbling, people are more open to new visions of reality,” McDermott writes. Christians who are brave enough to confront the paradoxes of their own faith in search of light will find his opus a welcome guide.