In a new series of posts here at the Fish Tank, I want to explore a biblical theme that has long fascinated me: the theological relationship between ethnic Israel and the Church of Jesus Christ. What is the precise nature of the connection between these two groups of people in Scripture? Depending on how we formulate and conceive of the relationship between the Jewish people–both in the OT era and today–and the Body of Christ, the implications can be legion for biblical theology (for instance, the essence of the relationship between the Old and New Covenants), for Christian hope and identity formation, and–perhaps most controversially of all–for the political perspectives one adopts with respect to perennial Middle Eastern conflicts. I freely admit, however, that I am least interested in this final theme, though I will eventually venture a few tentative comments on it.
I will make no assertions or arguments today, but instead will be content to lay out the three dominant views on the relationship between Israel and the Church in the history of biblical scholarship. Next week I will make note of several matters on the horizon that we need to be cautiously aware of as we enter such a heated conservation. I will then begin by examining what the four NT gospels contribute to this discussion, and each post thereafter will focus on the evidence–both explicit and implicit–found in various NT documents. I have in mind especially Galatians, Philippians, Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians, I Peter, Hebrews and Revelation. I hope to scan these documents as faithfully as I am able for their own individual contributions to our subject, before concluding with a theological synthesis of my findings to argue for my own position.
It is, I think, beneficial to initially adopt an historical approach to the three dominant views on the relationship between Israel and the Church. For starters, such an approach allows me to begin from a position of relative neutrality. I am merely describing the convictions of others, with no value judgments–yet. Second, the historical state of affairs here is often unknown or at least greatly neglected in contemporary parlance, and it needs to be acknowledged (for honesty’s sake) that two of the three viewpoints mentioned here are relatively new on the scene in church history. The first has enjoyed a lengthy, virtually unchallenged reign in Christendom until quite recently (note: with the allowance that a certain amount of flexibility and diversity exists within each perspective, and many scholars and theologians over the past century do not fall neatly into one category). This does not vindicate it a priori, of course, and it will become increasingly clear that significant overlap can occur between the first two positions. But this uninamity should at least peak our curiosity. Without further ado or comment, here are the three primary understandings of how Israel and the Church relate to one another:
1.) Replacement Theology: as early as Justin Martyr (leaving the NT witness unspoken for at this point) the followers of Jesus began to explicitly identify and understand themselves to be a new or true spiritual “Israel” in place of the now rejected ethnically Jewish people of the Old Covenant. In this scheme, the Church simply replaces Israel, one to one (hence, “supersessionism” is another common label for this viewpoint). Theologically, the Church now is Israel. Christians are in, physical/ethnic Israel is out, in so far as Israel has rejected her promised Messiah (note: since this viewpoint is so severely criticized and caricatured in much of today’s academic environment, it should be pointed out that proponents of this understanding have universally agreed that ethnic Jews are as eligible for membership in the Body of Christ as Gentiles).
This perspective can be seen in large swaths of the liturgy and hymns of many older Christian traditions: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel” self-evidently refers to the Church as redeemed by Jesus. This view gained a renewed sophisication and mainstream popularity during the Reformation when Luther and Calvin championed it. Today N. T. Wright is the most renowned defender of it, or at least a conceptual variation that is quite remarkably akin to the traditional position. Nonetheless, replacement theology has been radically called into question by two 20th century factors, each of which have helped spawn the two views below: 1.) post-Holocaust concern and disdain for perceived anti-Semitism (Luther’s late lapse is often appealed to here) and 2.) a fascination with the almost miraculous political restoration of Israel as a nation in 1948–the chosen people return to the promised land!–combined with an increasing appreciation, as well, for NT passages like Romans 9-11 which seem on the surface to hold out some sort of future hope for the fate of ethnic Israel.
2.) Dispensational Theology: massively popularized today through best-selling pieces such as the Ryrie Study Bible and the Left Behind series of novels, Dispensationalism holds that Israel and the Church are two completely distinct entities in God’s economy. There is no overlap whatsoever between the two–Christians are not the new Israel, period. There are, in a sense, two utterly separate peoples of God in redemptive history (with an accompanying two ways of salvation in classic Dispensationalism, one by law in the Old Covenant and one by grace in the New, though most present day proponents of this view have strongly backed away from this position). However, Dispensationalism also agrees that salvation is to be found only in Jesus, and so from the NT era onward Israel has been a people who are simultaneously under God’s judgment and His favor. Therefore, Dispensationalism looks to the future for the resolution of this tension: in the eschatological finale, God will see to it that ethnic Israel, as a nation, converts to Christianity and receives salvation from the Lord (individual Jews apart from Messiah Jesus are under condemnation along with unbelieving Gentiles). The 1000 year “millennium” of Revelation 20 becomes crucial here, as all of the promises of the OT to Israel must be literally fulfilled (note: a “literal” hermeneutic is at the heart of Dispensationalism and its critique of “Covenant” or replacement theology, with its Christ-centered approach to the OT). The significance of the 1000 years after the return of Christ is found in this: God will restore the Jewish people back to the land of Palestine, the temple will be rebuilt, animal sacrifices will be offered once more, and the people of Israel will finally obey God’s law from the heart.
Thus, eventually the Church and Israel arrive at the same destination (i.e. final salvation), and both come to it through Christ alone and faith alone, but the two groups remain forever distinct without any spiritual mixing or symbolic overlap. God has made distinct promises to these two groups, and His promises to each will be fulfilled in correspondingly distinct ways. Christian Zionism, the American fundamentalistic ideology that zealously seeks to support the modern day nation of Israel against all her enemies (at all costs, regardless of the actual circumstances behind the conflict or claims of justice on behalf of Arab peoples) and understands God’s blessing upon other countries such as the USA to be contigent upon such unilaterial, unquestioned support, flows out of this theology–though it would be unfair to say all Dispensationalists approve of it. Regardless, God has a future for Israel that is distinct from the Church, though both ultimately lead to Jesus along the way.
3.) Two-Covenant Theology: While certain aspects of Dispensationalism (i.e. a belief in the continuing significance of ethnic Israel in salvation-history) have made appearances throughout the history of the church, this theological position is absolutely brand new and an entirely 20th-century phenomenon in origin. Two-Covenant theology holds precisely what you would guess–that God has two covenants, one with Gentiles through Christ, another with ethnic Israel apart from Christ. The German word Sonderweg (“special path”) is frequently put forth in descriptions of Two-Covenant theology, for on this understanding God has another road to salvation for the Jews. For Gentiles, salvation comes through faith in Jesus. For Jews, salvation comes through law-observance of the Torah–as it always has. Hence, to evangelize the Jewish people with the gospel is perceived as outrageous, inappropriate and offensive. Instead, Jews and Christians ought to have unity and foster tolerance between each other, and Jesus should not be seen as a stumbling block between the two groups.
Unsurprisingly, this perspective has been created and maintained almost entirely by radical left-wing liberal scholars in the academy. It has never been (and is not now) adopted by Catholics or (evangelical) Protestants or Eastern Orthodox. Liberal Protestants are its target audience, and they have often, though not always, received it with glee. The late Krister Stendahl of Harvard Divinity School was one of its most notable defenders. A specific interpretation of Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 and a devastating reduction of justification by faith apart from works to a pragmatic stategy of Paul’s missionary work among the Gentiles are foundation stones for Two-Covenant advocates.
Next week: a few preliminary factors we need to be cautious about, and an introductory glance at the witness of the four gospels.