A Short History of Christian Zionism, Donald M. Lewis. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.
Summary: An account of the understanding of the Jewish people’s claim to their ancient homeland throughout history, and particularly since the Reformation, focusing on Great Britain and the United States.
The idea of the claim of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland has not always been held (at least prior to return of the Messiah), either among the Jews or among Christians. This work traces the history of this idea and the various movements, both Jewish and Christian, and both theological and political that have given rise to Christian Zionism in its modern expressions.
Donald M. Lewis begins with offering his definition of the contentious term, “Christian Zionism”:
[A] Christian movement which holds to the belief that the Jewish people have a biblically mandated claim to their ancient homeland in the Middle East.
He notes that for many in history, this has implied a Jewish return but not necessarily a Jewish state.
With that he traces that history, beginning briefly with the period of the early church to the Reformation. For much of this period, the church was characterized by anti-Jewish attitudes, even blaming the loss of the land on the crucifixion of Jesus. While Jerusalem and the Holy Land was an object of the Crusades, it was not for the purpose of restoring the Jewish people to this land.
The change began with the Reformation and the bulk of this book treats the history from the Reformation to the present, particularly beginning with Calvin’s Geneva. It was here that the idea of the Restoration began among the theologians that followed Calvin, distinguishing the Protestants from Catholics, first with the idea of spiritual restoration of the Jews, a mass conversion at some future point, and second of a return to their homeland, seeing in this the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. As the Calvinist movement spread to England, so did these ideas, particularly in the form of seeing England as a chosen nation tasked with protecting and restoring the Jewish people. Meanwhile, German pietism under Philip Spener emphasized Jewish evangelism. These movements would shape the future of Christian Zionism in both Great Britain and America. In America, here as in so many things Jonathan Edwards played a major role, not only in anticipating a great future conversion of the Jews but in the restoration of the people to the land, aided by American political agency.
Subsequent chapters trace the turns these efforts to convert, protect and restore the Jews took in both England and the US, culminating in the Balfour Declaration, British control of Palestine following World War 1 and the migration of Jews to the land and parallel movements in the U.S. and the shifts that occurred from postmillenial to premillenial to charismatic theological support over the years. Lewis describes the various organizations supporting the return of Jews to the land, and later on, support of the Jewish state. He traces these organizations and movements down to the present day and the growth of these into a global movement.
There were several things I appreciated about this work, beginning with the fact that it was highly readable, even as Lewis negotiates the various theological positions, Christian Zionist efforts, and figures on both sides of the Atlantic. Second, I appreciated the fact that this was a descriptive work and not a piece of advocacy. No matter where one stands on the question of Jews and the land, this is a work that may be read with profit.
In addition, Lewis gives the lie to the exclusive association of Christian Zionism with premillenial dispensationalism. In fact, J.N. Darby rejected the idea of the return of the Jews to the land prior to Christ’s coming. He shows how Christian Zionism was adapted to postmillenialism, historic premillenialism, and eventually with pre-millenial dispensationalism theological persuasions, and even to pentecostalism.
He also chronicles the realization of secular leaders of the state of Israel of how important Christian Zionist support was to the Jewish state and Lewis traces how they made the most of Christian tourism to strengthen that support. Lewis draws the arc from Christian ministry efforts to political advocacy.
The book ends on an important question being faced at the present time of the place of conversionist efforts as part of seeking the blessing of the Jews. He notes the growth of a dual covenant theology that turns away from evangelistic efforts and Paul’s efforts to offer the gospel “to the Jews first.” Instead, it advocates love, esteem, and blessing that respects Jews distinctive covenant relationship with God. The dilemma for some is one of cultural insensitivity and offensiveness versus biblical faithfulness. True to the intent of the book, Lewis does not offer an answer but notes the trends that raise the question.
This history is valuable in understanding how we’ve gotten to where we are with Christian Zionism, from the justice issues relating to displaced Palestinians, to ways theology contributes to Christian Zionism as well as how historical events have shaped theology, and how religious and political efforts have intermingled, particularly in both Great Britain and the United States.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.