Review: A Short History of Christian Zionism

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.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: The New Christian Zionism

New Christian Zionism

The New Christian Zionism, Gerald R. McDermott ed. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: Argues that the Old Testament promises of restoration for Israel, including restoration to the land, can be supported in the New Testament, and that Christian Zionism enjoys a long history of theological support not rooted in premillenial dispensationalism.

A book arguing for a fresh perspective on Christian Zionism strikes me as a brave project. Zionism, once representing the hopes of an oppressed people, now is often cast at the source of oppression of other peoples, particularly Palestinians. Likewise, “Christian” Zionism, often associated with premillenial dispensationalism, has fallen in disrepute in both liberal circles for whom any form of Zionism is reprehensible, and among a significant portion of the evangelical community who reject the two “dispensations” or covenants of dispensationalism, and see the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy through a new people of God comprised of both Jew and Gentile which heralds a trans-national kingdom of God. This view, with which I will admit to being sympathetic, is often referred to as supersessionism. It is for example, reflected in these summary comments on Romans 11 by John R. W. Stott in his exposition of Romans:

“It is clear . . . that the ‘salvation’ of Israel for which Paul has prayed (10:1), to which he will lead his own people by arousing their envy (11:14), which has also come to the Gentiles (11:11; cf. 1:16), and which one day ‘all Israel’ will experience (11:26), is salvation from sin through faith in Christ. It is not a national salvation, for nothing is said about either a political entity or a return to the land. Nor is their any hint of a special way of salvation for the Jews which dispenses with faith in Christ” (p. 304).

Gerald R. McDermott and his other contributors have mounted a formidable rebuttal to this contention. In the introductory section, McDermott contributes two chapters arguing that Christian Zionism has enjoyed a long history in the theology of the church, from the earliest centuries to Barth and Niebuhr in more recent times and that this has by no means been confined to premillenial dispensationalism.

The next section makes, beginning with Craig Blaising’s chapter on hermeneutics, the argument that the advent of Christ does not nullify the promises and hope of Israel, which may be found in the New Testament as well as the Torah. Joel Willets then shows how this is the case in Matthew noting the early Jewish context, the geographical perspective, Davidic messianism, the “turfed” kingdom, and the focus on Jerusalem, the temple, and the atonement. Mark Kinzer makes a similar argument for Luke-Acts, particularly noting the repeated returns to Jerusalem in Acts. David Rudolph tackles Romans giving a memorable summary of his argument in the acronym “GUCCI”:

  • G The Gifts of Israel
  • U The Uniqueness of Israel
  • C The Calling of Israel
  • C The Confirmation of Israel’s promises
  • I The Irrevocability of Israel’s election

Part Three concerns “Theology and its Implications.” Mark Tooley traces the mainline embrace, and eventual disenchantment with Zionism, more recently followed by some evangelicals. Robert Benne contributes one of the most fascinating chapters, exploring Reinhold Niebuhr’s Zionism that flows from his theo-political realism as well as his sense of the unique place the Jews have occupied in human history. Robert Nicholson then makes a case that present day Israel has neither violated international law, nor, to any significant degree, the Torah in its occupation of land and treatment of ethnic minorities. Shadi Khalloul, an Aramean Christian makes a similar case, while acknowledging ways Israel has failed in areas of human rights. He contends that as the one democracy in the region, they have done far more to uphold religious and civil rights than the surrounding nations. The book concludes with recommendations for continued scholarship and implications for the church.

One of the subtexts of this discussion is the existence of the present day State of Israel, and how it is to be understood in light of prophecies concerning restoration of Israel to the land and how it is to be regarded as a moral actor on the world stage. Concerning the former, they resist the temptation of dispensationalists to fit this into a “last days” scheme while conceding that the survival of the Jews through history and near-miraculous victories against surround foes may argue for some form of “pre-consummate,” or proleptic fulfillment, anticipating the final fulfillment of all things in Christ’s return. Several authors even argue for a restoration of the nation to the land prior to any form of spiritual transformation. While arguing that support for Israel never warrants support for unjust policies, the authors are fairly muted in their discussion of Jewish settlements of occupied territories and the “fence” that has made life so difficult for many Palestinians.

I was most interested in the arguments from the New Testament but in the end personally found them wanting. They seemed to be readings between the lines that extend promises for the people of Israel to the land that are not explicit in the biblical text. Darrell Bock acknowledges this problem (p. 312), but did not, to my mind give an adequate response. The review of historical theology was helpful, because I, like many would have equated Christian Zionism with premillenial dispensationalism. In terms of making the case for the State of Israel from Christian principle, I thought the four essays in Part Three were the strongest part of this work. In particular, the last two, by Nicholson and Khalloul, provide a counter to the media treatment of Israel, which has been increasingly hostile, and often one-sided in their view, in recent years.

The work challenged me to look harder at the texts around Israel’s hope and how we understand these. In particular, when we speak of a “new heaven and new earth,” and a “new Jerusalem” as the focus of a physical existence in the resurrection, what place is there for Jews, whether as a corporate entity, or at least for Jews, as John Stott speaks of, who trust in Christ? Is there a landed hope for them? Is there any significance in the present day State of Israel?

I do think these scholars have more work to do to make their case. They, along with the publisher, should be commended for engaging this discussion afresh. At the same time, while the term is convenient shorthand and connects to historic realities, I would hope that a better phrase than “Christian Zionism” might be found, for I fear some will never get past a title with this phrase, which would be unfortunate.