Amid shifting currents of opinion among American Christians about Israel, the Institute on Religion & Democracy hosted a discussion on Christian Zionism in America July 12th, 2018 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Gerald McDermott of Beeson Divinity School, an ordained Anglican clergyman, discusses his new book Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently About the People and the Land. Samuel Goldman of George Washington University discusses his new book God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America. Both discuss pro and anti-Israel trends in American Christianity. McDermott’s book offers a new Christian Zionism distinct from often popular dispensationalist and apocalyptic perspectives.
Watch a video of the event on YouTube here or read the full transcript below.
IRD Christian Zionism in America Seminar
National Press Club, Washington, DC
July 12, 2018
Good evening everybody, we’re delighted that you’re here with us for this very important conversation about Christian Zionism old and new. I’m Mark Tooley, president of your host the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which is a Christian think tank that’s been around since 1981, examining the political and social witness of Christianity in America. The topic of Christian Zionism has always been central to our menu of issues, and we have some of our literature on the table there near the door. We also publish a journal called Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, of which there may still be a couple of copies left on the table that I would commend to you.
Our interest in Christian Zionism accelerated in 2015 when we hosted an academic conference at Georgetown University on the topic with numerous scholars whose presentations were put together in this book The New Christian Zionism. That conference and this book were basically the brainchild of one of our two speakers this evening, Gerry McDermott, who is at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, and is a scholar in numerous topics, Christian Zionism just being one of them. But he’s also a biographer of the great preacher-theologian Jonathan Edwards and a scholar of the Puritans among other topics. He has justifiably made a name for himself in proposing and developing this concept of a new Christian Zionism that looks beyond what has been not faddish or fashionable, but popular in much of contemporary Christian Zionism. And Gerry has looked back into past centuries looking for the deepest roots of Christian Zionism dating back to the early church making the point that Christian Zionism does not depend on a particular dispensationalist perspective from Anglo-American Protestantism, but actually it’s much more universal. So we welcome that perspective that he’ll be explaining to us.
Our other speaker is Sam Goldman from George Washington University, where he heads the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom. His new book, unfortunately we don’t have copies at hand, but it’s called God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America and I encourage you to get on Amazon right now on your phone and order a copy because it’s a fantastic book and his comments will certainly motivate you further to get a copy for yourself. He will examine the history of Christian Zionism especially in its American context. We’re just very honored to have the both of them here.
Gerry McDermott will speak first for 20 or 25 minutes followed by Sam Goldman for about the same amount of time, and then there should be plenty of time for questions and comments from you. I should say that these proceedings are being videoed by the National Press Club and will be posted online as quickly as possible, hopefully tomorrow or Monday at the latest. So we intend for this evening’s conversation to be a permanent resource on this topic. So Gerry, we’ll start with you please.
Well thank you Mark and thank you all for coming tonight. I have a one-page handout that is being distributed there that might help you see at a glance what I’m trying to say. The title of my little talk is called “Old and New Christian Zionisms.” Most Jews and Christians are familiar with only one kind of Christian Zionism, that which is Evangelical and dispensationalist. Now that last word is a complicated one and let me sum it up with three characteristics of dispensationalism. That’s a conservative Christian view of the history of the church and the history of Israel that says, number one, that traditional dispensationalism says, and I have to make a distinction between traditional and a newer version of that called progressive dispensationalism that emerged in the last twenty years, but traditional dispensationalism which started in the mid-nineteenth century over in England and came to the United States in the 20th century, you could sum up with four characteristics.
Number one, that Israel and the Christian church are on two different tracks in history. God is guiding each, and the tracks are parallel that do not intersect. Number two, traditional dispensationalism has a series of elaborate eschatologies that have been spun out about the end times, what’s going to happen and when, usually with particular schedules. “This will happen first and then that will happen second and something else a third time,” and sometimes even date setting. And number three, dispensationalists are known for their belief in the doctrine of the rapture, which is basically where they believe that God will take true believers out of the world literally before the end of the world. And then fourth, a dispensationalist, and they have been very supportive of the emergence of the modern state of Israel and they believe it’s a fulfillment of predominantly Old Testament Tanakh prophecies. They are often or at least sometimes not willing to criticize the State of Israel.
This is the kind of Christian Zionism that most Christians and most Jews are familiar with and whenever they hear the term Christian Zionism that’s what they think of, the dispensationalist variety. And academics have typically for the last forty, fifty years treated it with contempt. But there’s a new Christian Zionism led by not just conservative evangelical Protestants but by Catholics, and mainline Protestants, and also some Evangelicals, and many Anglicans. And this new Christian Zionism has really nothing to do with dispensationalism. Most of your new Christian Zionist thinkers today reject dispensationalism, but not all.
So new Christian Zionists today are committed to the idea that the Jewish state is necessary to protect the covenant people of Israel. Now this involves two things. Number one: that the Jewish people in the New Testament, the majority of whom rejected Jesus as Messiah, that this part of the Jewish people is still in God’s covenant. The Apostle Paul says in Romans 11:28, as regards election. Now this is Romans, this is the closest thing we have to Paul’s systematic theology. It’s written toward the end of his career probably. Scholars estimate about 58. He’s probably executed by Nero about 62. And it’s almost 30 years after his conversion to Jesus as Messiah, and here he’s saying at the end of almost 30 years “as regards election.” Now that’s a word that we forget really means “chosenness,” the Jews as the chosen people.” As regards chosenness they, now the “they” here are his Jewish brothers and sisters who have not accepted Jesus as Messiah. He says “they are,” present tense. Not “were,” but “are,” present tense “beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” So non-Messianic Jews are still beloved by God in God’s covenant. God has not broken his covenant. God has not transferred his covenant with Israel to a Gentile church.
And the second thing about the Jewish state being necessary for the new Christian Zionism is the new Christian Zionists recognize that any people needs a state to protect them, especially Jews as we’ve learned in the last century. Now new Christian Zionists also believe that the return of Jews to the Land of Israel in great number in the last two centuries is a fulfillment of Biblical prophecies, not just prophecies from what Christians call the Old Testament, Jews called Tanakh. I mean all your anti-Christian Zionists concede that the Old Testament predicts a great return of Jews from the Diaspora. What’s different now is that we say “this is in the New Testament”, it’s not just the Old Testament, not just Tanakh, it’s in the New Testament, this prophecy of a massive ingathering of Jews from the Diaspora all over the world that will happen in the end times.
So Peter in Acts 3:21 is giving his second speech in Jerusalem and Peter, the Apostle Peter, talks about a restoration that is still to come that has not happened yet. The word he uses is apocatastasis, and apocatastasis is the word that’s used over and over again in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Tanakh that was the principal Bible used by the early church. And he says this, and it’s used all over the Septuagint for a future return of Jews from the Diaspora all over the world back to the land of Israel. So Peter says “This is yet to come.” Jesus says in Acts 1:6, or he’s asked by his disciples in Acts 1, “Jesus are you now going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Now Jesus says, “The Father has set the time for that, and it’s not for you to know now.” So notice the implication of these two verses Acts 3:21 and Acts 1:6. The death and resurrection of Jesus which are in the past according to this story is not the last event for Israel. Something more is to come. Then in Luke 13, Jesus himself says “One day in the future Jerusalem’s going to welcome me.” In Matthew 19 Jesus says “At the renewal of all things, this future restoration, the Jewish apostles will rule over the twelve Jewish tribes of the land of Israel.” That’s Matthew 19:28. In Luke 21 Jesus says “Jerusalem someday in the future will keep on being trampled upon by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” So sometime in the future. Now when Jesus said this, the streets of Jerusalem were being trampled on by the Gentiles, the Romans. So he’s saying “sometime in the future that’s going to change and the Gentiles are going to be in control, are no longer going to be sovereign over Jerusalem.”
Now do we new Christian Zionists say this is a prediction of the present state of Israel? No. But, we think that these passages, and this is just a sampling of passages in the New Testament, clearly indicate that the New Testament writers believed that Gentiles would not always have sovereignty over the land, and the Jews would one day have sovereignty over the land, and that the recent massive ingathering of Jews from all over the world in the last 150 years and the even more recent control of Jerusalem and the land by Jews since 1967 are significant, are theologically significant, the return and the no more trampling down of Jerusalem by the Gentiles and are what the Bible might call the first fruits of later greater events.
Now the Bible often depicts the fulfillment of prophecies in stages, little fulfillments that point to later and greater fulfillment, and we think that these are some of them. So we don’t believe that this particular Jewish state today under Netanyahu is necessarily the last Jewish state. We do not believe it’s a perfect state. We believe there are problems. We believe it’s worthy of criticism. I am amazed when I go to Israel and see how critical Israelis are of their own state. But we do believe that these early, and perhaps you could say lesser fulfillments are significant because for much of Christian history, at least since the 4th century, Christians have thought that the New Testament has no concern for the Land of Israel, and that once Jesus rose from the dead that God no longer was in covenant with non-Messianic Jews, who don’t believe in Jesus as Messiah.
But this new movement called the new Christian Zionism says that God’s covenant with Jewish Israel is still in place. Paul says “they are beloved, they are chosen”, and that the New Testament authors believe the Land of Israel will be theologically significant in the future. If you look at the Book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, it’s all about future end times. It’s full of references to the Jewish people; it’s full of references to the land of Israel.
Now we also argue that this kind of Christian Zionism was alive and well in the first three centuries of Christianity, and then was renewed in the sixteenth century, long before the 19th century rise of premillennial dispensationalism that is typically thought of as the only Christian Zionism that exists. So you go back to Justin Martyr, was martyred in 165 in mid-second century. He says “A millennium is going to come, a thousand-year rule of Christ through the saints and it’s going to be centered in Jerusalem.” You look at Irenaeus, the church father who dies in 202, the beginning of the third century. He says “Someday in the future the earth will be renewed just as our bodies will be renewed at the general resurrection. So too the earth is going to be renewed,” and this is what the Bible means by the “new heavens” and the “new earth”, “and Israel will be the center of the Earth’s renewal.”
You go to Tertullian, who is early third century. One day, he says, “Jews will return to the land.”
But then in the Middle Ages this early Christian Zionism, and particularly after Augustine at the end of the fourth, beginning of the fifth century and after Constantine’s conquest of the Empire in the fourth century, this largely goes underground in the Middle Ages, except for people like Joachim of Fiore. But then it comes up once again above the ground in the Puritans, not 18th century, not 17th century, but 16th century. Right at the beginning of the Reformation in the Puritans you’ve got the Geneva Bible, which Sam has written about in his wonderful book, best book ever written on Christian Zionism in my opinion. The Geneva Bible, 1560, so right in the middle of 16th century, in its notes the editors say “God’s covenant with the Jewish people is perpetual. It did not end after the resurrection of Jesus and it includes a title to the land.” “Judea shall be restored,” and Jerusalem will be rebuilt.
In the 17th century the Puritans continued it. “Jews will return to the land,” they said, “without being converted to Jesus.” Now Thomas Drax wrote that “Israel is still God’s chosen nation,” that “Christians are debtors to Jews,” that “the return of the Jews sometime in the future will cause the Turks to try to exterminate them.” Thomas Brightman writes in 1611 “there is nothing more sure than the return of Jews to Jerusalem.” Member of Parliament Henry Finch writes in 1621, “Everything that’s written about Israel in the Old Testament is about the Jews not Christians.”
Now this is noteworthy because Calvin and most of the Calvinist tradition, also called the reformed tradition, says that all the prophecies about the future of Israel are really about the future of the Gentile church. Now the Puritans are Calvinists, but they depart from Calvin on this, and they take the Reformation emphasis on a plain sense reading in the Bible, and they apply it here to everything they find in the Old Testament about Israel, and they say “okay some things perhaps are types and the anti-type is the Gentile church, but many other passages are clearly about Jewish Israel and should not be hyper-spiritualized, should not be interpreted in a spiritual manner to refer to the Gentile Church.”
John Milton in Paradise Regained, 1670, says “The Jews will return to the land!” He was convinced! John Cotton, you might remember that name, one of the elders in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, said the Gentiles should help the Jews return to the land by giving them chariots and horses and camels.
Increase Mather, 1669, writes a book, very influential book, The Mystery of Israel’s Salvation. He writes in there that “Israel will repossess its ancient land before converting to Jesus the Messiah. It’s wrong to spiritualize the promises to Jews in the Old Testament and presume they are meant for Christians.”
Then in the 18th century, more Calvinists, Wilhelm à Brakel, Dutch theologian, releases a four volume systematic theology in 1711. He says “The church is not the new Israel.” And by the way, the New Testament never says the Church is the new Israel, not once. Eighty times the word Israel is in the New Testament and every one of those 80 times, including Galatians 6:16, refers to the people or the polity of Jewish Israel. And Brakel says “The Jews will return to the land.”
Jonathan Edwards, some of us think the greatest religious mind in North America, not just then but ever, in the 18th century wrote that “It’s wrong to spiritualize the promises to the Jews and just apply them to the Gentile church. The Jews will return to the land because the prophecies about the return have only been partly fulfilled. Most Jews are still in the diaspora.” He says, “It’s necessary for God to make the return of Jews a visible monument of His grace and power. Canaan will once again be a spiritual center of the world, and Israel will be a distinct nation sometime in the future.”
In the 1790s, just to illustrate how pervasive in England this belief in the future return of Jews to the land was, Cambridge University sponsored an essay contest and the instructions were to write on the biblical grounds for expecting the future restoration of the Jews.
Now all of these writers in the 18th century are postmillennialist, not premillennialists. I say that because typically scholars have assumed almost to a person that Christian Zionism is only about premillennial dispensationalists starting in the mid-19th century. These were all postmillennialists, and “post-” means that they believe that Jesus will come after the millennium not “pre-” before the millennium.
In the 19th century you’ve got Lord Shaftesbury, Lord Ashley a 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, leading proponent of Christian Zionism then. His work laid the groundwork for the Balfour Declaration in 1917 which states the English government’s goal of establishing a national home for the Jewish people. This led to the League of Nations giving control over Jordan and Israel to Britain and eventually led to the State of Israel in 1948.
Now Shaftesbury was inspired by three things. Number one, that the Jews have been the victims for centuries of Christian persecution. He was ashamed of his own country’s persecution of Jews. You know England was the first Western nation to ban Jews, and he knew that. And he says, “Now we English have a chance to be the first Gentile nation to stop the pattern of treading down Jerusalem,” quoting Jesus in Luke 21. And he says, “Notice this. That ever since we started sheltering Jews under Cromwell and Charles, England has prospered and so has Holland, which now has huge power despite its tiny size.” Now he’s writing back in the 19th century, “Spain which once was the greatest power in Europe but is now declining everywhere and has been declining ever since Spain expelled its Jews.” Shaftesbury says “I think this is a perfect illustration of Genesis 12:3 ‘I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.’”
Now Karl Barth was probably the most influential Christian theologian of the 20th century. Karl Barth was raised with dispensationalist influence. He rejected the dispensationalism, but he never rejected the principle of God’s sovereignty over the world and over history. And he said, “1948, the establishment the State of Israel, was a secular parable.” Now those were his words, a symbol of the resurrection and of the Kingdom of God. He said, “The return of Jews to the land is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies such as Isaiah 2 when the Gentiles will come to Israel to learn Torah.” He says, “The Old Testament speaks of a history of Jews that continues to our own day” and he says particularly Ezekiel’s prophecy of the dry bones in Chapter 37 speaks of Israel’s restoration to the land. And he observed that any nation, or he prophesied that any nation that deliberately opposes Israel will not fare very well in the long run.
So in sum we in the new Christian Zionism believe that Christian Zionism is not recent but it’s 2000 years old, started in the New Testament. It’s a retrieval of what’s in the New Testament, and there are many other important the Christian Zionists who are quite important intellectuals. So the Catholic Gary Anderson, the great Old Testament scholar at Notre Dame. Robert Jensen, recently deceased, the great Lutheran theologian, was a Christian Zionist. And none of them have anything to do with dispensationalism.
So I recommend Sam Goldman’s book, best book ever written on the subject, and I look forward to hearing from him.
For those of you in the back, if you’d like to come sit in the front, please feel free to do so.
Thanks Mark, and I also want to thank Gerry for his kind words of praise about my book. I confess that I would be very happy indeed if the event simply concluded now with the words that my book is the best yet written on the subject. But regrettably I’ve promised to say something about it to you, so I will have to attempt to justify Gerry’s almost certainly over kind evaluation.
So Gerry has spoken about the theological origins of what he calls the new Christian Zionism but it turns out is really the old Christian Zionism. What I’d like to discuss this evening is the intertwinement of a certain kind of Christian Zionism with the idea of an American mission in the world, and in particular an American mission to promote and to support the establishment of a Jewish state in at least some part of the Biblical Promised Land. And the importance of this idea among other things is that I think it challenges a much more familiar interpretation of American religious experience which proposes that Americans since the Puritans have regarded themselves as a new Israel and the United States itself or the North American landscape as a new Zion or new Promised Land.
This is an interpretation that was not invented but I think was popularized by the great Harvard historian Perry Miller and then was further promoted by students of his like Sach Van Bercovich. And some of you may be old enough that you remember reading books by these scholars when you were in college. I don’t think they get assigned very much anymore. So whether as a reminder or introduction I’ll just say very generally that what these books tend to do is return to a few key documents of American religious and political history, find references to Israel or Zion, and to assume that these references were understood by their authors as references to themselves or at least to their hopes for their own political community and their own land.
There are a number of such documents which are compiled in an anthology called God’s American Israel, edited by the historian Conrad Cherry, but they’re not so very many, and in any collection they will begin with John Winthrop’s so-called “City Upon a Hill” sermon which was composed at sea on the ship Arbella. In fact we don’t know that it was ever delivered. In a moment I’ll suggest that if you are looking for a more reliable source for Puritan ideas about the relationship between the old and the new Israel, you might turn to John Cotton’s sermon of farewell, which we know was delivered to the Arbella and its sister ships as they departed from Southampton. The sermon is called “God’s Promise to His Plantations” and it contains a very detailed and systematic comparison and distinction between the Puritan new Israel and the old Israel established by covenant.
But at any rate, these scholars take up documents like Winthrop’s sermon and they find phrases like “The God of Israel is among us.” This is what Winthrop says in the famous last paragraph of his remarks. And they say “Well aha! These people believed that they had replaced the people of Israel in God’s favor and that their destination, their plantation as they called it in North America was a replacement for the Biblical Promised Land.” And having established this example one can very easily find and elucidate several more.
So one of the questions I ask in the book is whether that is really true, whether this interpretation of the Puritan errand into the wilderness as it was known and if the American experience more broadly is accurately understood as a kind of nationalistic or patriotic replacement theology or supersessionism. And what I argue is that if you look carefully, even at these key documents, and especially if you place them in the broader theological context that Gerry has described, what you find is that the case that they make is quite different to the one that Perry Miller and his students suggested.
Yes it is true that these documents depend extensively on typological argument, and it is true that leading Puritans do compare themselves and their own community to the Biblical Israel, but it is always a comparison. They almost always stop short with a reminder that of course when they say Israel or Zion they do not mean to suggest that the saints of New England have replaced the Biblical Israel in God’s favor. And Increase Mather whom Gerry mentioned and who was perhaps the leading theologian of the second Puritan generation did not only offer these cautions in his sermons but actually wrote a series of books on this topic, not only the mystery of Israel’s salvation, but also to two sequels. Such was the importance that he attributed to it.
Now I should offer at this point my own caution which is that when Puritan writers or post-Puritans like Jonathan Edwards are considering the future of the people and land of Israel, they are thinking primarily in terms of theology rather than politics. They do suggest that some kind of state or sovereign entity will be established in the Promised Land, and they do argue that it will be inhabited at minimum by ethnic Jews, by descendants of Abraham. There’s some dispute about whether and at precisely what stage Jews might convert to Christianity, but these are not by any means detailed political proposals.
In fact I think that what Mather and to some extent Edwards were doing was using prophesies of a Jewish return as a reminder to their audiences not to confuse Biblical prophecy with politics. And Mather himself was writing in the shadow of the failure of the Puritan revolution in England and the Republic under Cromwell, which in his opinion had been encouraged by overly enthusiastic and overly politicized readings of prophecy. In reminding his audience that prophecies of the fulfillment and return of Israel have to do with the Jews, I think what he’s saying is that these prophecies don’t refer to us. Don’t get too excited about what is happening either in new or old England. The story of God’s providence still has a long way to run. And in that respect he is implicitly criticizing, or as we say today “sub-tweeting,” more millenarian movements among the Puritans like the so-called “Fifth Monarchy Men” who believed in the imminent establishment of the Kingdom of God with its capital in London rather than Jerusalem.
So again, these were primarily theological arguments but they did have political implications and I think that the political implications became more evident about 50 years after Edwards in the 1790s, which was a period of simultaneous patriotic revival. These were of course the years that followed the ratification of the Constitution and also of religious revival, the so-called Second Great Awakening really started in the 1790s even though it did not fully emerge for another thirty years. And at this period of combined patriotic and religious fervor there was another wave of interest in the question of the future of Israel and also its relationship to what was now the United States.
This is also a problem for interpretations of American history that traced these ideas all the way back to the Puritans. The Puritans did not think of themselves as Americans. They thought of themselves as being English, and even their descendants, people like John Edwards, I think thought mostly in terms of New England rather than the American colonies as a whole. So it’s really only in the 1780s and 1790s that the idea of America composed of one people comparable to the people of Israel even begins to make sense.
But as it does, there is a revival of interest that is reflected in yet another series of vivid and influential works. The most famous of these is probably a sermon delivered by Ezra Stiles who served as president of Yale College, among other positions. The sermon is called “The United States Elevated to Honor and Glory,” and here again if you are following along in your reader of texts about American destiny and millenarian ideas you will find this sermon about a hundred pages after Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill” sermon.
But again if you if you look closely you see that it’s contains the very same caveats. “Yes,” Stiles says, “The victory of the American colonies in their War of Independence was a great work of Providence, and yes the American Republic under its new Constitution has a special role to play in God’s plan for the world, but it is not the final stage of the process by any means.” Again the story ends for Stiles with the restoration of the Jews to Jerusalem and the establishment of some sort of state there.
Stiles was actually quite interested in numerology, so he attempted to calculate when this would happen, and by studying scripture and the prophecies and as one knows making elaborate calculations based on the age of the patriarchs and so on, he came to the conclusion that this would probably happen around 2397, so about four hundred years after his own time. I’ve always liked that solution because it leaves it leaves plenty of time for the United States to enjoy the honor and glory to which it has been elevated without usurping the main lines of the narrative.
I could multiply examples; I won’t do so now. If you’re interested in questions we can talk about some other figures. I’ll just cite an article that was published in 1797 in a journal called The Theological Magazine, it was it was the major religious publication of the early republic that refers to belief in the restoration of the Jews as so widespread as to be uncontroversial. I think that’s important because it is a piece of evidence that these were not simply the views of a few nuts. If you study any historical topic for a sufficient period of time you will almost certainly be able to discover a few nuts who believe almost any view that you choose to impute to them. But according to the theological magazine this was a widespread belief that was broadly shared across denominations and theological schools.
It’s important to emphasize, as Gerry has already done, that in the 1790s no one had ever heard of premillennial dispensationalism. Nevertheless, at least according to this source, many Americans held the proto-Zionist or Christian Zionist views that are often derived from premillennial dispensationalism.
In fact, it wasn’t for yet another century or so that Christian Zionism and premillennial dispensationalism cross paths in American life. The key moment is March of 1891 when the evangelist William Eugene Blackstone presented to President Benjamin Harrison a petition calling upon him to use his diplomatic influence to secure the establishment of a Jewish state in what was then Ottoman Palestine. And Blackstone was a dispensationalist, although not a particularly conventional one, for some reasons I go into in the book. Nevertheless, for him finally we see a version of Christian Zionism that revolves around the familiar story of the rapture followed by the tribulation followed by the return in person of Christ.
But if you look carefully yet again at the document you notice something very interesting, which is that it includes a list of 491 signatories in addition to Blackstone and very few if any of them were dispensationalists or premillennialists of other varieties. And these were not, again, just a couple of nuts. If you go through the list you find J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller Sr. among the signatories. Melville Fuller, who was then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court signed, so did the editors of over 70 major newspapers.
It is possible, needless to say, that some of them were more or less explicitly inspired by the dispensationalist narrative of the end times at least in some version, but at least some of them clearly were not. And I think that this reflects the more widespread interest and acceptance of the idea of the return of the people to the Land of Israel in American political and religious life.
Indeed when people ask me, “Well if it’s not all about dispensationalism why did dispensationalism become such an important part of the story, particularly in the second half of the 20th century?” My answer is that it is because many elements of dispensationalism were consistent with beliefs and assumptions about the relationship between Jews and Christians that Americans already had. So dispensationalism systematized some of these beliefs and placed them on a different theological footing, but it did not invent or even I think do a great deal to encourage them.
I want to refer to just one more example and one more historical period in order to support this conclusion, and that’s the first half of the 20th century, and I might even go farther and say the first two-thirds of the 20th century, up to 1967. I emphasize this as a distinct period because during that time the most visible and influential American Christian advocates for first the Zionist cause and later for the State of Israel were not dispensationalists, were not early fundamentalists, were not evangelicals, but were actually liberal Protestants.
As a matter of fact Reinhold Niebuhr, who plays a major role in the book, was by far the most impressive and also most influential of these. He proclaims in a newspaper column that he published in 1929, when he was quite a young man, that he had always been sympathetic to the Zionist cause. So even as even as a young man, he says, “This is not a new idea for me but has characterized at least the whole of my ministerial career.” I think it’s a belief in which he never wavered. In 1967, he lent his name to another petition which was published as a full-page ad in The New York Times asserting there is a religious basis for Christians to accept the reunification of Jerusalem under Israeli control.
So my point here is not to deny the existence or relevance of dispensationalist-inspired forms of Christian Zionism, but rather to echo Gerry’s conclusion, which he has documented in a much broader way, which is that the old Christian Zionism so-called is actually pretty new, no older than the mid-19th century certainly, but not much older as a significant force in American religious and political life since in really no older than about 1967 or the 50s if you really want to push it. The new Christian Zionism is actually old, perhaps going back to the New Testament; I leave that to two qualified Biblical scholars and theologians to debate, but certainly to the Puritans. In this respect, I conclude that the idea that God’s country is to be found in the land promised to Abraham is a very old and very deep feature of American Christians’ understanding of themselves. So thank you very much.
Thank you very much Sam and Gerry so now we have time for questions.
Man from the crowd
How excited is it right for Christians to feel about the Zionism as it appears today? That is to say it is the returning is there, the apocatastasis, the restoration of all things, has not happened. The Zionism as was handed to Abraham, as it was established, included so much more. A theocracy, a temple, Jerusalem as the capital yes, the location of the land yes, but to be in Jerusalem, a kingdom, a throne, and the crowned head upon whom the anointed oil was placed, the anointing oil that meant that Christ, the Messianic part. So, Zionism without that culminating part is a kind of sub-Zionism. Is it right to feel excited about partial restoration without the full-fledged version that is passed in the Mosaic Law but also the Prophets?
I would say yes, it is right to be excited, because even if the final fulfillment is not here, because I would argue that all Biblical prophecies are fulfilled in stages. And, you know as I mentioned in my little talk, the very Biblical concept of first fruits. If you look at that fascinating prophecy in Ezekiel 37, the flesh, the dry bones, it precedes in stages. First, you’ve got the dry bones, then there’s a rattling, then there’s flesh, then they’re joined by sinews, then later, you know, muscles, then bones, then they stand up, stage, after stage, after stage, after stage. And it explicitly refers to the return of the Jews to the land. I mean that’s really what the prophecy is about, and many Christians are not aware of that because they don’t read the full passage.
I would argue that all through Biblical history, including Christian interpretations of the last 2,000 years of history, is in one fashion or another the fulfillment of this prophecy or that prophecy. It’s always like that, in stages. So we ought to be excited about seeing the first stage of maybe a process of fulfillment that will take many years, maybe centuries.
Well if I were a wiser man, I would satisfy you with the observation that I am not a Christian, and that it’s entirely inappropriate for me to offer any reflection on how Christians should feel about anything. But I’m unwise, and I have a microphone, so I’ll continue.
And what I’ll do is not to make any sort of normative comment because I really do think that’s inappropriate and is beyond my authority and just offer an historical observation, which is that this is one of the questions that has bedeviled Christian Zionists or Christian supporters of Zionism for many centuries. A particularly acute version of this this tension became evident in Blackstone’s interactions with the organized Zionist movement, so as I mentioned he presented his petition or the so-called “Blackstone Memorial” in 1891. So that’s almost five years before the first Zionist Congress met in in Geneva to establish the modern Zionist movement.
When that happened, the Zionist movement was not limited to, but was dominated by, relatively secular Jews. There’s some debate among scholars about how secular they really were, but these were not traditional Orthodox Jews. And that came as a big surprise to Blackstone and to many of his of his allies. They had assumed, I think rather naively, that “well Orthodox Jews believe in the prophecies, therefore they will be the ones who will undertake the return.” And it came as something of a surprise to them that traditional orthodoxy is very skeptical of a return to the Promised Land before the advent of the Messiah.
So the question then was a version of your question, “What do we do with this movement that in some ways is consistent with our theological and eschatological expectations, but also defies them?” The answer that Blackstone came up with he derived from one of the Minor Prophets, namely Zephaniah. And in Zephaniah, I think chapter 2, he says in effect, I’ll quote the first verse I can’t quite get the second exactly, he says, “Gather yourselves together O nation without shame.” That’s how it’s translated in the John Nelson Darby translation of the Bible. Darby was the systematizer of dispensationalism and his translation was important for Blackstone.
So here we have “Gather together, yes gather together O shameless nation before the decree takes effect, before the day passes away like chaff, before there comes upon you the burning anger of the Lord.” So Blackstone said “Okay what is this saying?” Well it’s saying that the shameless nation that secular Jews will come together and then they will be punished by the Lord which will correspond to the tribulation, and then finally Christ will return and reign from his throne in Jerusalem. And he thought, I think, that that was a very clever and satisfactory answer, but you can understand why it was less popular with Jews who were concerned then at the end of the 19th century, and continue to be, that there’s an instrumental quality to this form of Christian Zionism, that it reflects an interest in Jews and Israel as ways of moving forward in the eschatological timeline and when the time comes, depending how you interpret the apocalypse of John maybe all but a hundred and thirty-three thousand will be killed who will then then convert.
So I haven’t answered your question about what Christians should think but that’s one of the ways that that Blackstone and some of the people he influenced did think about this problem.
Tall theology and Bible quoting that the National Press Club probably is not very accustomed to, so it’s a good experience for them.
Question is asked from the Audience
Well we’re writing books and speaking.
Yeah I think that one of the factors that’s been involved in this change and about which Niebuhr has quite a lot to say, so part of the answer is everyone should read more Niebuhr, which I think is a message consistent with the editorial line of Providence magazine, is to be wary of “underdogism.” You know the Presbyterian Church, the Anglicans, are often are often accused I think unfairly of anti-Semitism as an explanation of their stands. And I think that’s unfair because I think it’s much less anti-Semitism in any strict sense than it’s a reflection of the idea that that the underdog, the weaker party is always right and should be supported.
You can see where that leads to a shift in liberal Protestant opinion about 1967, because before 1967 it was at least plausible, if open to contestation, that that Israel was the underdog, and I think a lot of liberal Protestants support was based on that sense. You know, gallant little Israel, David confronting Goliath, and so on. But after 1967, David becomes Goliath, and liberal Protestants seemed to have had or at least Niebuhr thought that they had a problem understanding the responsible use of power.
So it’s comfortable and morally attractive I think, genuinely, to support what seems to be the weaker party, but I think that it leads to a miscalculation when it comes to politics, which often requires an appreciation for power, for strength.
Question from the Audience
Me too. I have been, and was there another name you mentioned after that? Right, well I’m going to be speaking in October at Christ at the Checkpoint in Oklahoma City. It’s not coming there.
We deliberately included a chapter in The New Christian Zionism written by someone we would call a Palestinian. Now he doesn’t call himself a Palestinian but he is a Christian living in the land, he is an Aramean and a leader of the Aramean community Shadi Khalloul. And we wanted a Gentile-Christian who is living in the land to write about his experience and we believe that his presentation and his perspective is actually much more common than the media recognizes, and I encourage you to read his chapter in there.
Mitri Raheb, I’ve not met the man. Robert Benne, who is a colleague of mine, has met the man and presented along with him on the subject of Israel at St. Olaf College last year and wrote an article about his understanding of Mitri Raheb and his theology in a very important article, I think in First Things that appeared I want to say in March or April. I would encourage you to read that too because I think he does a good job of uncovering Mitri Raheb’s theology and the problems with that theology.
So we in The New Christian Zionism believe in justice for Palestinians. We don’t agree with Palestinian leadership on what that justice looks like. We agree with Palestinians like Shadi Khalloul who have a very different perspective on what justice means for Palestinians.
Question from the Audience
The question was, “Is Zionism an anachronism because it suggests modern nationalism which is foreign to the Bible and foreign to most of the world until the modern period?”
I think only when Zionism is interpreted in a particularly narrow way can it be restricted to modern nationalism. Zionism generally has been prayed for by Jews for thousands of years. That they would return to the land and Zionism in the New Testament, as I would call it Zionism, is talking about the return of the Jews to the land, and as the disciples asked Jesus “When will the kingdom be restored to Israel?”
Of course that’s not a modern state, but it is talking about the return of the Jews to the land, and it is talking about the Jews having some sovereignty in the land, whatever shape that takes. So, is this simply another example of 19th and 20th century modern nationalisms? Yes and no. Of course contemporary Zionism is about the State of Israel, protecting the covenanted people. And that’s how I look at it. Jews need a state to protect them. We’ve seen that very clearly in the last century. They need to live in justice and peace with Palestinians, and all the Jews I know support that too.
So now your second question was, well your third question was, “What do I mean by evangelical?” Your second question, you had a middle question there.
I have to be state centric, because any people needs a state to protect them, and particularly Jews need a state to protect them. Now not every people today has a state, you know the Kurds are a perfect example of that. The Kurds want a state, however. Most peoples want a state, and Jews of all people need a state to protect them.
I would even go beyond that and say that sovereignty involves some kind of state, if not necessarily a modern nation-state, because that’s the essence of the concept, and it’s a concept that is one of the major themes of the Hebrew Bible which is a story of the establishment, collapse, recovery, and then collapse again of sovereignty. So I don’t think that this is a distinctively 19th century idea. I think that the expectation of some kind of state with a recognizable political order is quite important and quite consistent in the Hebrew Bible and also in some of the prophecies that we’ve been discussing.
That said, I do think there’s an important distinction, which is one that I make in the book, between Christian Zionism, properly speaking, and what I follow other scholars in calling Christian restorationism. And for me the distinction has to do with the role of human political activity. Restorationism suggests that yes this will happen, but it will be it will be a miracle, and it’s out of our hands. It’s not it’s not a goal for which we should work.
In that sense, I think that some of these earlier figures we’ve been discussing are maybe better understood as restorationist than as Zionists. But certainly by the 17th century and you find this even in in John Cotton who talks about supplying chariots, horses, and dromedaries to the Jews. There’s at least the germ of an idea that yes, this is God’s will and perhaps as a fulfillment of prophecy. But we can’t just wait around for that to happen. We have to do something. And for me, that’s the distinctive feature of Christian Zionism. And it’s one that, or of any Zionism, and it’s one that precedes by at least a few hundred years the establishment of the modern Zionist movement by Herzl.
Question from Audience
Gerry, I was interested in your chronology of the church history chronology of the emphasis in church followers. There’s a shift around the 4th century or so when the Christians start to pay attention to historical sites as an international movement. I mean local communities knew where certain things happened but, you in places like St. Helena start to build massive buildings. Anyways, this interest in the land amongst Christians, do you see with that shift in the 4th century, is there a shift in your chronology, where Christians are starting to pay attention more to the land of Israel as connected to the Jewish people?
Yes, well Robert Wilken has written that wonderful book The Land Called Holy in which he chronicles this Christian interest in in the land as a Christian Holy Land. So yeah there is that shift now that under Constantine in the fourth century, now that Christians were in control, all the way up through the seventh century at least and then even further beyond.
I would say there’s not so much of a shift qualitatively as quantitatively. Christians in the first three centuries are also interested in the land and also interested in where Golgotha was and so forth. But now that they’re in control of the empire in the fourth century, well now they can actually do things about it, as Sam was mentioning.
All right we have time for maybe two more questions after which I would invite you to help us finish up the food still remaining in the back of the room, and you’re more than welcome to engage with each one of the two speakers before they take off. Anyone else?
You know this one woman, I think it’s Amy, had a question about evangelical which I didn’t quite understand.
Question from Audience
So I’m a historian, so I’m very partial in terms of a very specific methodology. But there is a jump, right? Between not just what we’re calling Zionism, Christian Zionism, what we’re seeing right now in the Evangelical world. How would you describe this alignment? Where do you draw the lines? Who is evangelical and who isn’t? And who of these Evangelical groups support Israel as a part of their supplement?
Well I don’t think the word evangelical has any meaning anymore, and I generally don’t use it except as a sociological description of people who call themselves that. It’s lost its theological identity. You’ve got evangelicals who are as progressive as liberal Presbyterians. And they’re members of the PCUSA, and they’re members of all the liberal Protestant mainline churches. And some are progressives, and some are what I would call orthodox. So the line between the progressives and the orthodox runs through the whole evangelical world today in ways it never did before, in the same way it used to separate the mainline Protestants from previous generations of evangelicals.
So generally I, theologically I think it’s a spent category, and it’s absolutely useless as a descriptor.
Unfortunately, I would just add that every editor I’ve ever worked with on these topics has insisted that I use the term “evangelical.” I published an op-ed in the New York Times earlier this year about comparisons of President Trump to Cyrus that have been circulating since the decision to move the embassy was announced. And I did not use the word evangelical in the piece, but they put it in in the headline.
I’m inclined as an outsider to think that Gerry is right that this is just not a very helpful term anymore, but it’s a familiar term to outside audiences, and for that reason, it seems to be almost inescapable.
Now I should say that I teach at a divinity school, Beeson Divinity School, that that is officially evangelical. But as Timothy George, the founding dean and still the present dean, says “We hold to classical thought of evangelicals as in Edwards and Wesley, back in the 18th century.”
Question from Audience
You’ve spoken about the history and development of the idea of Zionism and this new Christian Zionism that’s going. Which has been helpful, and you’ve also referenced some prophecies, prophetic language. But I wondered if you could speak a little bit more about how, what implications, if any, that has with respect to maybe, rights, human rights of various parties. Or I think title discussion at one point during the discussion too. Suggesting that particular verse might have some particular title in the Bible that was not necessarily appeared to me to have an implication in that respect. So I was just curious in that respect.
You know maybe I should ask Mark, who is an author one of the chapters in New Christian Zionism if you want to tackle that?
I’m sorry my attention was elsewhere so you’ll have to repeat the question.
Well so human rights and a title. I mean I can answer it, but I think Mark, who deals with human rights, in terms of the new Christian Zionism, do we believe in human rights? Do we believe in a title to the land? Now maybe I can answer the second one.
Your question was human rights as they relate to Christian Zionism?
Question from Audience
Yeah the implications of I guess, what you’re describing as the new Christian Zionism, or practically speaking the rights of various parties in the land. Whether it’s human rights, or legal rights, rights to property, et cetera.
I don’t know if I can answer your question adequately, and I’m sure Gerry and Sam could better elaborate far more than I can, but it’s my understanding historically some of the early Zionists were themselves the founders of the modern human rights movement. And to them the two issues almost overlapped. Is that a fair judgment historically?
Yeah, people like Raphael Lemkin who was one of the drafters and inspirations for the UN Declaration of Human Rights and early human rights law was also a passionate Zionist. So he didn’t see any contradiction, at least in principle.
Yeah, so of course we believe in human rights for Jews and Palestinians and all others who live in the Land of Israel. It’s a very messy business, but justice and human rights must always be pursued because the God of Israel is a God of human rights and a God of justice.
In terms of title, now I talk about the Biblical promises and the Land of Israel, and the unconditional promise to a title, the conditional status of possession of the land, that is, in the Old Testament throughout God, as I interpret it, and as I write about it in both the little book called Israel Matters and the big book The New Christian Zionism, that God gives Jews title to the land, the descendants of Abraham. And that’s unconditional. But you will enjoy possession of the land only conditionally, when you fulfill the terms of the covenant. And of course God enforced that several times. He drove the Jews off the land several times in the Biblical story as punishment for not fulfilling the terms of the covenant.
Well thank you everyone for being such careful and thoughtful listeners. I encourage you to check out the video and share it with your friends when it appears at the IRD website tomorrow or perhaps Monday. And also Gerry has written an excellent review of Sam Goldman’s book, which is presumably friendly, that will be appearing in Providence Magazine an upcoming issue, so I encourage you to subscribe to Providence, so thank you again.