The Church & Israel — Figuring It Out

July 25th, 2009

One of the major questions in end-times theology is, was the Church fully included in Israel?  In other words:

  • In what sense were Gentile believers grafted into the children of Abraham?
  • Did the Church replace Israel?
  • Does ethnic Israel have any distinct role in the future?
  • Do all of the covenants and promises of God to Israel now apply to the Church?

And there are some related questions.  (They’re distinct questions, but they tend to be asked at the same time.)

  • Were Old Testament believers saved in the same way that New Testament believers were saved?
  • What is “the kingdom of God”?
  • Will  there be a 1000-year period on Earth before the final end of the world, where Christ reigns from Jerusalem?
  • Will the Church experience the final Tribulation, or will we be taken to heaven beforehand? (i.e., Is there a pre-Tribulation Rapture?  Will there be two Second Comings–one to retrieve the Church, and then again at the end?)

Who Says What

Things get complicated, and hard to classify.  As an oversimplification:

Dispensationalists say that Israel and the Church are still distinct.  (The Left Behind series shows the stereotypical dispensationalist version of the end times, with a pre-trib rapture, and lots of stuff with Israel.)  They typically refer to the other position as “Replacement Theology“, though that’s a phrase that the other side often doesn’t like.  Two things they emphasize are: (1) a future renewal of Israel, with many many Jews coming to understand the Jesus was the Messiah, and (2) God will still fulfill His promises about the Jews possessing the land of Israel.  (So dispensationalists definitely take sides in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict!)  There’s a lot more to dispensationalism than these particular questions (like how they divide up history into different periods of God’s work), but these two are pretty big–and they’re the ones I’m interested in for this post.  (Sidenote: A dispensationalist catch-phrase is, “We just take the Bible literally.”  They think the other positions don’t take the Bible at face value.)

Generic evangelicalism is usually dispensationalist.  It’s been that way since the Scofield Reference Bible.

Since very early in church history, though, most Christians have believed that the Church was fully included in Israel–that there’s no more distinct role in the plans of God for ethnic Israel, apart from Gentile believers.  In other words, that Gentiles who know Christ also inherit all the promises & covenants with Israel.  (Notice: When you put it that way, it sounds better than “the Church replaced the Jews.”)  All of the promises & prophecies of the Old Testament are interpreted in terms of, “How was this fulfilled in the Jesus & the body of Christ, or how is it going to be?”  For instance, the land promises might be understood in terms of the new heavens & new earth, or the new Jerusalem, or the kingdom of God in general.  This view is more likely to interpret Old Testament prophecy in terms of typology. (i.e., Israel was a type for the Church, like David was a type for Christ.  Or maybe the land was a type for the Kingdom.)  (Sidenote: A catch-phrase for these people is sometimes, “We let the New Testament interpret the Old.  We find out what the promises & prophecies mean from Jesus & the apostles.”  That’s their response to the dispensationalists’ catchphrase,”We take the Bible literally.”)

Lutherans and Reformed Christians usually take this kind of view, as do Catholics and Orthodox.  On the Protestant side, they often use the term “Covenant Theology“, as opposed to Dispensationalism.

Now the Caution Label

Like I already said, this was an oversimplification.  And people tend to oversimplify The Other Side, whichever side they’re on.

For instance, people who believe in Replacement Theology might still believe that there will be a large number of Jews who come to know Christ.  And people who reject Replacement Theology aren’t necessarily full-fledged, Left-Behind-style Classic Dispensationalists.

We tend to assume that certain things go together, when maybe they don’t have to.

Trying  To Figure It Out

I’ve been discussing this lately with some friends, so I want to refresh my own memory with some general advice for approaching theological controversy.

  1. Don’t be too attached to your initial assumptions.
  2. Don’t oversimplify the other side–even if you’ve only encountered simple versions so far.  Look for nuance that you haven’t found yet.  (Maybe the person you’re talking to now is more thoughtful and has better reasons than the silly people you talked to last time.)
  3. Keep in mind: They may have better reasons than you know for what they think.  (Listen fully before you decide!)
  4. Do challenge people to show where they get their ideas from the Bible–but watch out for a prideful assumption, “My side is the only one that really takes the Bible seriously.”  (And let the other side speak fully before you decide, “You’re not getting this from the Bible!”)
  5. Watch out for unnecessary/unfair rhetoric.  (“You think God broke his promises” isn’t a fair criticism of someone who interprets the promises differently.)

I think this is all good advice… But I struggle to follow it.  It’s so easy to become unnecessarily combative & closed-minded.

More Reading

For more thoughts on approaching controversy, see Michael Patton’s entry on “irenic/peaceful theology”.

For more reading on dispensationalism, see Dan Phillips’ entry, What Dispensationalism Isn’t, and his book review of Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths, by Michael J. Vlach.

Also see my next entry, where I’ll talk about Israel in Romans 9-11.

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6 Responses to “The Church & Israel — Figuring It Out”

  1. bethyada says:

    I am not certain what I think, and not overly concerned. I guess I see that Israel isn’t out yet (and its modern existence seems somewhat providential), Romans would support this.

    But then Jesus parables about the landowners suggest that God is giving the kingdom to those who will give him a harvest. Whether this speaks against the continuation of Israel or just against the Jewish leaders is I guess part of the debate.

    Part of me wants an earthly millennial kingdom prior to the new heavens and earth. It would fit Revelation well. But I like the idea of an earthly kingdom with Jesus as king so that men can see what the world would have been like if we had submitted to God. Sort of a divine “told you so.”

    But the nature of biblical predictions is that they are not as certain as its history.

  2. Tim says:

    Bethyada,

    The parables certainly seem to speak of the inclusion of the Gentiles. But the final rejection of ethnic Israel? That’s another question.

  3. Steve says:

    Tim,

    In your “who says what,” whose overview are you using? It feels a little like your assessment of the term “replacement theology” might more be your personal reaction to the term than any kind of general reaction. Do you like the term “supersessionism” better?

  4. Tim says:

    (For the sake of other people: Steve is a friend from my church. Last week, we were talking about millenialism & “replacement theology” for a while, and I was claiming that “replacement theology” is mainly a term used by dispensationalists, and doesn’t really fit very well. I said that covenant people describe their position in terms of Gentiles being fully included in Israel.)

    Steve,

    I’m summarizing what I’ve gathered from both dispensationalists and Covenant/amillenial/Reformed/etc teachers. The latter always speak in terms of full inclusion, and promises & prophecies being fulfilled (somehow) in Christ. However, I did say that this was an oversimplified summary.

    But… Well, two things:
    1.) “Replacement” still works to describe that, basically. (Supersessionism, too.) I can’t see how it’s wrong to say that the Church replaces Israel, in that view. It’s just that “all Christians are fully included in Israel” sounds nicer. The emphasis is in a different place.
    2.) But maybe there are other people for whom the label fits even better. For instance, someone who says that you can just ignore all the OT promises to Israel, because they’ve been kicked out of God’s plans, and now it’s all about the Church. (And any time someone actually has animosity toward Jews, it probably tends in that direction.)

    Basically, when we were talking, I shouldn’t have been saying, “‘Replacement theology’ doesn’t fit as a label for anyone.” Maybe it does, for some. Maybe you’ve even talked to them.

    But I get particularly concerned when the “anti-semitism” charge enters the picture. There are certainly antisemites out there. And there may be people who don’t go that far, but whose view of the church & Israel actually does lend itself to that. (You’d have to describe the view, for me.) But I don’t think it’s at all accurate to say, “That applies to anyone who takes a non-dispensational view of the church & Israel.”

  5. Tim says:

    P.S. I have a Twitter friend who’s starting a series on eschatology. You might be interested. (He’s amillenial & covenant.)

    The basics for studying Eschatology
    Eschatology and the Kingdom of God

  6. honda crv says:

    Like I already said, this was an oversimplification. And people tend to oversimplify The Other Side, whichever side they’re on.

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