Book Review: The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land

 

The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land, Gerald R. McDermott, IVP Academic, 2016, 352 pp. 978-0830851386

As someone that’s been involved in Jewish ministry, when I heard about the new book The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land, I was quite eager to engage such an important topic as this one. This book lives up to its title by being a “fresh” perspective on the issue of Israel and the land. Having taught on some of the topics mentioned in this book, I can say without hesitation that there is great ignorance across the church on such a topic as this one.

As McDermott says in the introduction,

“Most scholars have assumed that all Christian Zionism is an outgrowth of premillennial dispensationalist theology. Originating in the nineteenth century, this school of thought became popular because it was taught in the notes of the Scofield version of the King James Bible and then developed by Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and the best-selling Left Behind series. The traditional dispensationalist version of Christian Zionism puts Israel and the church on two different tracks, neither of which runs at the same time. schedule of end-time events dominated by the great tribulation and a rapture of the church that leaves Jews and the rest of the world behind.- pg 11.

He goes onto say,

“The Christian Zionism that this book proposes is not connected to the dispensationalism described in the previous paragraph. It looks to a long history of Christian Zionists who lived long before the rise of dispensationalism and to other thinkers in the last two centuries who have had nothing to do with dispensationalism—theologians such as Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, Robert Jenson and the Catholic Old Testament scholar Gary Anderson, as well as President Harry Truman.- pg  11.

Why does this topic matter? As McDermott says:

“ The first is that the people and land of Israel are central to the story of the Bible. This might seem obvious. But Israel has not been central to the church’s traditional way of telling the story of salvation. Typically the story has moved from creation and fall to Christ’s death and resurrection, with Israel as an illustration of false paths.  We believe that the Bible claims that God saves the world through Israel and the perfect Israelite; thus the Bible is incoherent and salvation impossible without Israel.” – pg 11-12.

So with this in mind, I want to say from the outset that if you’re looking for another book that pits dispensational vs covenantal theology against one another, this isn’t the book for you.

This book has many strengths. First, the exegetical essays by Joel Willitts on the case for Zionism in Matthew, Mark Kinzer on Zionism in Luke/Acts, and David Rudolph on Zionism in Pauline Literature are worth the price of the book alone. Rudolph rightly addresses some of the comments by popular theologian N.T Wright.  From my experience, it seems that many follow the lead of Wright. So I was more than pleased to see Rudolph did mention Wright in this essay.

The essay by Willitts mentions that the late Anthony Saldarini who wrote, “The gospel of Matthew should be read along with other Jewish post destruction literature, such as the apocalyptic works 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra and Apocalypse of Abraham, early strata of the Mishnah and Josephus.” – pg 114. This demonstrates the willingness of Willitts to utilize all the relevant Jewish literature to build a case for Zionism in Matthew’s Gospel.

The book also addresses the common complaints about Israel such as the accusation they violate international law or violate the covenant stipulations what are laid out in the Torah. In the chapter called Theology and Morality: Is Modern Israel Faithful to the Moral Demands of the Covenant in Its Treatment of Minorities? by Shadi Khalloul, he rightly points out the following:

“Muslim Arab leaders deny the Holocaust, and some supported it. While much of the world demonizes Israel for its supposedly immoral treatment of its minorities, of whom I am one, we see little condemnation of terror attacks against innocent Jews or Christians and their symbols in Israel and surrounding Arabs countries, either by the media or the international community. While Israel has been condemned and targeted by more than sixty-five United Nations resolutions and has its own agenda item (#7) at the United Nations Human Rights Council, no other United Nations member state, including egregious human-rights violators like North Korea, Syria, Iran and Sudan, gets its own agenda item.

When has the United Nations blamed the Grand Mufti or other Islamic leaders for their hateful speeches that have led to thousands of Israeli casualties? Why does the United Nations not protect persecuted minorities like Christians and Yazidis from terrorism in the Middle East conducted by Muslim powers (like ISIS) or states (Syria)?  Israel is routinely charged with violation of international law for its supposed occupation of the West Bank. When was the last time the United Nations condemned Turkey for its illegal occupation of one-third of Cyprus for forty-one years and its deployment of forty thousand Turkish troops there? Or China’s brutal occupation of Tibet? Where are the United Nations resolutions condemning present and past genocides by Muslims against Jews and Christians in the Middle East? A Palestinian journalist exclaims, “It is a scandal of global proportions that the UN in general and UNRWA in particular—as well as the EU—ignore the hundreds of thousands of killed and maimed and the millions of refugees desperately in need of aid in the neighboring Arab countries.- pgs 295-296.

It is important to note that Khalloul also points out the shortcomings of Israel as well. So this book isn’t a one sided defense of Israel. The book also addresses the charges of racism and apartheid by Israel. All the essays are well researched and they provide more than enough footnotes for further reading.

In Darrell Bock’s essay called “How Should the New Christian Zionism Proceed?” he says:

“Christian Zionism is not an oxymoron; it is an appeal in an era of narratives to get the story right about God, his character and his promises. Whether one thinks theologically, morally, historically, politically or legally, the way one views Israel is also a reflection of how one thinks about God. This discussion is a big deal because the character of God, his faithfulness and his promises are in view .”- pg 305.

Let me add the following as to why this topic matters:

  1. It impacts how we read the Bible. Hence, do we read the Bible as one continuous story (from Genesis to Revelation), or do we just read the New Testament and skip the Scriptures that both Jesus and Paul read?
  2. It impacts our view of the character of God.
  3. It impacts our view of ecclesiology (the study of the ekklesia).
  4. It impacts our missiology: the area of practical theology that investigates the mandate, message, and mission of the ekklesia.
  5. It impacts our view of eschatology.
  6. It impacts our view of Israel today and the Middle East situation.

 Let me add a few more challenges:

As someone who has done campus ministry for several years, it seems that within the social justice crowd (not that I am against social justice), Israel is not viewed in a positive light. Hence, Israel is demonized in the media as well as in the Christian crowds that tend to fall into the pro- Palestinian movement.  This book is a wonderful tool to educate those in that school of thought.  The history and issues involved here are very complex. It is obvious that it is a challenge to get a sound- bite generation to even want to take the time to learn about the complexity of such as topic as this one.

Furthermore, we are living in a time of great theological illiteracy. Many Christians are theologically illiterate which means have no concept of the role of Israel in the Bible. When you are told all that matters is that Jesus has saved you from heaven or hell, it is no wonder that many Christians don’t even know the biblical narrative. Furthermore, with the over- reaction to The Left Behind Series, any mention of Israel as having a present or future role is automatically labeled as “dumb dispensationalism” or something worse. Sadly, many Christians aren’t interested in learning about the history nor the origins of their faith.  In my experience, many of the points leveled against Israel are almost always straw man arguments and don’t have any exegetical basis to them.

Also, even though many professing followers of Jesus people are fully convinced that He is the Savior of the world, and millions of evangelistic appeals are given each year for people to accept Him as personal Savior, many Christians know very little about what it means to affirm that Jesus is actually the promised Messiah of Israel and the nations.

The confusion as to whether Jesus is actually the Jewish Messiah was clearly demonstrated to me several years ago when I hosted a lecture on a major college campus called “Is the Jewish Messiah?” The speaker, our friend and scholar Dr. Michael Brown, was more than qualified to speak on the topic. But when it came time to promote the event,  I began to quickly see the challenge with the title when several Christians said to me, “So you’re saying Jesus isn’t the Christian Messiah?”

Let me say it bluntly: There is no ability to understand the role of the Messiah apart from his relationship with Israel. New Testament scholar Michael Bird says:

The statement that “Jesus is the Messiah” presupposes a certain way of reading Israel’s Scriptures and assumes a certain hermeneutical approach that finds in Yeshua the unifying thread and the supreme goal of Israel’s sacred literature. A messiah can only be a messiah from Israel and for Israel. The story of the Messiah can only be understood as part of the story of Israel. Paul arguably says as much to a largely Gentile audience in Rome: “For I tell you that Christ [Messiah] has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom. 15:8–9).—Michael F. Bird, Are You the One Who Is to Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2009), 163.

Finally, another challenge is the issue of systematic theology. While I am not opposed to all forms of systematic theology, we should heed the words of the late FF Bruce who once said, “There is a great danger, when once we have adhered to one particular school of thought or adopted one particular system of theology, of reading the Bible in the light of that school or system and finding its distinctive features in what we read.” – God’s Strategy in Human History, By Paul Marston, Roger Forster, pg 10.

It can be a challenge for many Christians to rethink paradigms and schools of thought. In some cases, when you go to a seminary, you are taught to defend a school of thought.  My hope is that a book such as this one might cause people to move beyond such categories.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I highly recommend the book The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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