Christians have never been certain about what to do with Israel. This is certainly the case today. On the one hand, many mainline Protestants treat the nation of Israel as an international pariah. They pass resolutions urging boycotts and international sanctions, all while calling attention to the plight of Palestinians who have allegedly suffered at the hands of an oppressive Israeli state. For the most part, their posture echoes that of the political left.
On the other hand, in some expressions of evangelical folk theology, especially among older generations, Israel can seemingly do no wrong. The Jews are God’s chosen people, God will bless those who align themselves with Israel, and Israel’s enemies are God’s enemies. These supporters often believe that American flourishing depends in part on US foreign policy aligning with Israel’s interests. Their approach tracks closely with that of the political right.
In Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land, Anglican evangelical theologian Gerald McDermott cuts through the simplistic platitudes of both the Christian left and right, offering a third way. McDermott is part of a group of scholars who identify with the “New Christian Zionism” movement. Their goal is to convince contemporary believers that Israel is not the backstory of the church, but a key part of the future of the faith. In Israel Matters, McDermott makes a nuanced case for the centrality of Israel in redemptive history—past, present, and future.
The key enemy in McDermott’s crosshairs is supercessionism, the idea that the church has replaced Israel in God’s redemptive purposes. He argues that supercessionism misrepresents Scripture, even though it has been the dominant understanding through much of Christian history. McDermott himself was once committed to a version of supercessionism, though interactions with both Jewish followers of Christ (and even the work of some unbelieving Jewish scholars) led him to reconsider his assumptions. Israel Matters should position McDermott as the leading theological voice calling for a renewed, ecumenical commitment to Christian Zionism.
According to McDermott, the Bible never suggests that the church is the “New Israel,” or that God’s covenant promises to Israel have been revoked, or that his promise of land will only be fulfilled figuratively in the future redeemed earth. Jesus and his earliest followers never set aside Israel so they could establish a primarily Gentile religion. Jesus was a faithful Jew, as were most of his earliest disciples, including all of the apostles. Gentile believers have been grafted into Israel by faith, and while the Mosaic covenant has been fulfilled through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Abrahamic covenant (God’s promise to make a great nation of Abraham’s descendants and bless them with land) continues to endure. Simply put, God is not finished with the Jews, and the future of Gentile Christianity is closely tied to the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel.
McDermott also demonstrates that certain Christians have always held Zionist beliefs, despite the long history of supercessionism. Furthermore, contrary to the assumption of many contemporary scholars, Christian Zionism predates the dispensationalist movement to which it has often been closely tied since the late-1800s. Even in more recent times, Messianic Jews and dispensationalists have not been the only Christian Zionists. Theologians such as Karl Barth and Gary Anderson have affirmed forms of Christian Zionism, along with many lesser-known thinkers. In addition, non-Zionist biblical scholars such as E. P. Sanders and N. T. Wright have led many Christian thinkers to a fresh appreciation of the Jewishness of Jesus and his earliest followers. In much the same way an earlier generation of revisionist covenant theologians and “progressive dispensationalists” moved closer together in their understanding of the kingdom, contemporary Christians across the theological spectrum are reaching greater consensus on the place of Israel in God’s redemptive purposes.
Beyond his historical and exegetical work, McDermott addresses many common misconceptions about the modern nation of Israel. He challenges the idea that Israel is a mostly secular nation devoid of devout Judaism (and Christianity). He provides some needed nuance to accusations that Israel has adopted oppressive policies toward Arab Palestinians. He rejects sweeping arguments that Israel has violated international law by taking land that rightly belongs to Palestinians. McDermott also reminds readers that Israel is the only real democracy in the Middle East, that it is the only nation in that region to embrace religious liberty, and that it is surrounded by hostile nations committed, for religious and political reasons, to its destruction.
Israel Matters will help popularize some of the ideas that McDermott and his colleagues put forth in a recent edited volume The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land (IVP Academic). His key contributions are threefold. First, McDermott shows that Zionism has deep roots in the Christian tradition that predate the rise of dispensationalism and modern Jewish Zionism. Second, he offers an appreciative, yet critical assessment of modern Israel’s history and policies. Finally, he makes an exegetical case for Christian Zionism that is not reliant on dispensationalism, but can be affirmed by many Christians who are not committed to a particular system of interpreting the biblical covenants.
Yet at times, Israel Matters raises important questions without providing answers. While McDermott never suggests that Jews can be saved apart from conscious faith in Jesus Christ, neither does he clearly address the place of Jewish evangelism. While he does not appear to affirm a “two covenant” theology that would allow for Jewish salvation apart from faith in Jesus, he does not seem to share Paul’s urgency to see Jews embrace their messiah as Savior and Lord.
In addition, McDermott neglects to offer much in the way of reflection upon the relationship between Messianic Judaism and predominantly Gentile expressions of Christianity. Nor does he address Jewish believers who have chosen to identify with Protestant denominations or Roman Catholicism rather than Messianic Judaism. One might well affirm a future mass conversion of Jews to faith in Christ, but there remains the question of which religious communities they would join. And what implications does this have for whether Jewish believers should observe those aspects of the law that Gentile Christians say Christ has fulfilled?
McDermott also could have offered a more robust exposition of the Abrahamic covenant. Assuming this covenant is indeed enduring, more work needs to be done showing its various layers of fulfillment, since Paul indicates in Galatians 3 and 4 that both believing Jews and believing Gentiles are heirs of the Abrahamic promise. The proponents of “progressive covenantalism” could provide fruitful dialogue partners for New Christian Zionists, since they have offered robust exegesis of the biblical covenants without firmly committing themselves to a particular view of Israel.
One hopes McDermott and others who identify with the New Christian Zionism will offer deeper exegetical and pastoral reflections on these and related issues. For the many evangelicals who are not dispensational, but also reject supercessionism, McDermott’s proposal in Israel Matters offers an intriguing way forward. Hopefully, even those who are unconvinced of McDermott’s views will be encouraged to heed Scripture’s call to pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Ps. 122:6) and long to see a multitude of Jews come to saving faith in their messiah.
Nathan A. Finn is dean of the School of Theology and Missions and professor of Christian thought and tradition at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.