By Tricia Miller/JNS.org
In a precedent-setting event, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) sponsored a recent conference titled “People of the Land: A Twenty-First Century Case for Christian Zionism” in Washington, DC. It was reportedly the first-ever event specifically devoted to presenting academic arguments in support of Christian Zionism.
The 11 academic papers presented at the April 17 symposium constituted a long-overdue contribution to the dialogue about Zionism in the Christian world. The combined presentations made a theological and historical case for Christian Zionism that illustrates how it is a movement rooted in traditions as old as the Church itself.
Through a revealing survey of Scripture and Church leaders’ writings from the 2nd-20th centuries, Roanoke College’s Dr. Gerald McDermott showed that an emphasis on the land of Israel and the relationship of that land to the promise made to Abraham and Sarah is consistent throughout the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), the New Testament, and historical Christian Zionism. McDermott noted, “Land is the fourth most frequent noun in all of Tanach. It is more dominant statistically than the idea of covenant. Of the 208 times that covenant is mentioned, in two-thirds of those instances that covenant is directly or indirectly connected to the land.”
Leaders throughout Church history have articulated the belief in a future for the land of Israel as manifested in the New Testament. According to McDermott, “Such an expectation was fairly common in the early Church.” But it was in 16th-century Britain that a “renewed vision for a future Israel gained momentum” through the publication of three books that “helped focus this cultural memory and sense of privilege in ways that would resemble Zionism,” he said. John Bale’s 1570 edition of “The Image of Both Churches,” the Geneva Bible (1560), and John Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs” (1563) all “helped prepare the English mind for Christian Zionism,” said McDermott.
It is important to note that these three books were published almost 300 years before the introduction of pre-millennial dispensationalism, which far too many scholars erroneously consider to be the beginning of Christian Zionism.
Through in-depth analyses of Christian Testament writings, subsequent conference speakers revealed how the people and land of Israel are significant concerns in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the book of Acts, and the epistles of the Apostle Paul. In contrast to what is often believed, Paul’s writings do not eliminate the particularity and irrevocability of the covenant promises made to Israel—promises that include a particular land. To the contrary, as Romans 11:29 declares, “… the gifts and the calling of God [to Israel] are irrevocable.”
An awareness of the emphasis the Christian Scriptures place on the people and land of Israel is of paramount importance for two reasons. First, recognition of the eternal nature of the covenant promises made to Israel is essential in order for a Christian to have a full appreciation of the trustworthiness of the promises made through Jesus. If God cannot be depended upon to remain faithful to what the Hebrew Bible calls an everlasting covenant, how can Christians have any confidence in what the New Testament refers to as a new covenant?
Second, comprehension of the never-ending relationship between God, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel is critical for the purpose of exposing the errors in Christian supersessionism and replacement theology. A biblical understanding of the significance of the people and land of Israel throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures refutes erroneous teaching promoted by prominent Palestinian Christian leaders and their allies in America.
Following the theological and historical arguments in favor of a 21st century case for Christian Zionism, conference presenters advanced sound legal and moral arguments in support of the legitimacy of the Jewish state. The executive director of the Philos Project, Robert Nicholson, presented a legal analysis of Israel for the purpose of addressing the question, “Does the modern state of Israel violate the call to justice in the covenant by its relation to international law?”
As Nicholson stated, this is a question that “arises from accusations made by several Christian thinkers and scholars, noted ones, who in trying to largely deconstruct Christian Zionism, aver that Israel, by reason of its breach of international law, has violated the terms of justice in the covenant, and thereby forfeited its right, or is about to forfeit its right, to live in the land of promise.”
Nicholson addressed accusations in relation to international law and Israel’s acquisition of land in the wars of 1948 and 1967, as well as Israel’s ongoing behavior in the land. He revealed that international law is “an ambiguous thing,” “a mostly voluntary system comprised of… mostly unenforceable rules,” that it is “entered into by fallible and self-interested states,” and that its rules “are subject to change.” Therefore, it is quite difficult to substantiate accusations that Israel has committed breaches of international law.
According to Nicholson, Israel “has not committed substantive, material, gross violations of positive international law… in its relation to either the people or the land, certainly not enough to bring in an existential inquiry of Israel’s right to exist.”
In response to a question concerning the morality of Israel in relation to its treatment of minorities, Shadi Khalloul, chairman of the Aramaic Christian Association in Israel and a captain in the Israel Defense Forces, presented an impassioned defense of Israel’s morality and its protection of minorities’ rights. He provided multiple examples to demonstrate how all Israelis, regardless of race or religion, enjoy freedom of speech, equal access to services and education, and the right to serve in the Knesset and in the IDF.
Khalloul said, “The State of Israel recognized us last year as Arameans as a distinct ethnic and religious group. This means that Israel allows the existence of Christian people within its borders, something no Muslim nation from the Middle East has ever done or would ever do. Israel supports us and legally gives us the right to exist and to develop ourselves as a Christian minority. This alone proves how fair and just Israel treats us as a minority. Israel is a democratic country and grants full rights to all its citizens, no matter whether they are Jews or non-Jews.”
Despite Israel’s moral and democratic policies, Western Christian support for Israel has been increasingly targeted in recent years by a virulent propaganda campaign based on a distortion of this reality. As a result, we are witnessing an erosion of Christian recognition and understanding of the significance of the return of the Jewish people to their land.
This reality highlights the pressing need to present a case for Christian Zionism that is rooted in 2,000 years of Church history and supported by solid theological, historical, legal, and moral arguments. In light of the urgency of the times in which we live, the importance of the IRD’s groundbreaking conference cannot be overstated.
One can only hope that the academic papers resulting from this event—slated to be published in a book by InterVarsity Press—will reach an increasingly wider audience with the evidence that validates Christian support for Israel.
Furthermore, one can hope that as a wider Christian audience becomes better informed concerning the historical and theological foundations of Christian Zionism, that this knowledge will lead to a greater appreciation for, in the words of Gerald McDermott, “the miraculous appearance of the Israeli state just after the darkest moment in Jewish history.”
Tricia Miller, Ph.D. is a senior research analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).
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