Trying to find that Biblical middle ground between Zionism and Supercessionism

A lot of my theology is really up in the air right now. There are quite a few things shifting around, especially things related to eschatology; categories that I used to think were really important have diminished while the underlying principles have become all the more exalted, and I feel that over all I'm becoming much more balanced. It's still too early to report most of my musings, however, which is why this all sounds so terribly vague.

But I really hate to see this blog so desolate, and there is something that I'd like to throw out here, something I've been wrestling over for a while. This is a topic which often provokes a lot of emotion and heated debate, and understandably so, because the corridors of church history are riddled with the horrendous consequences of wrong answers. But perhaps the consequences of those wrong answers have themselves induced a reactionary posture on the other side of the fence. Perhaps the Biblical answer isn't truly represented in either of the two extremes. Whatever the truth is, I hope that I can throw out my tentative thoughts and we can get some productive dialog going in a humble spirit. I invite anyone who has wrestled over this to contribute.

For those who haven't already guessed, I want to talk about Israel and the Church. Specifically, as the title says, I want to see if we can arrive at a happy middle ground between the extremes of Zionism and Supercessionism (aka, replacement theology), because it's pretty clear to me that neither of those polarizing schemes lead to the convictions which the authors of the New Testament carried. The following is my current take. It seems to make the most sense to me, but of course it's open to revision.

Often times as Premillennialists we think (or at least I know I used to think), that if we maintain a Hebraic understanding of the kingdom then we must believe in a distinct eschatological calling and promise for ethnic Israel. Barry E. Horner belabors this point in his Future Israel, pointing the finger at Reformed folk and claiming that giving the title of "Israel" to Gentile believers while denying the covenantal use of that same term from unsaved Jews is unavoidably rooted in a Greek Neo-Platonic worldview and not in the thinking of the New Testament authors. But I think that N.T. Wright makes an excellent point and shows that this accusation is unfounded.

Neither the recognition that Paul's main target was paganism, and the Caesar-cult in particular, nor the equal recognition that he remained a thoroughly Jewish thinker, should blind us for a moment to the fact that Paul still expressed a thorough critique of non-messianic Judaism. Paul remains at this point on the map of second-temple Judaism: believing that God had acted to remodel the covenant people necessarily entailed believing that those who refused to join this remodeled people were missing out on God's eschatological purpose. As post-holocaust thinkers we will of course be careful how we say all this. As historians of the first century, we will recognise that it must be said. As Pauline theologians we will recognize that it contains no shadow, no hint, of anything that can be called anti-Judaism, still less anti-semitism.

There's a big difference between replacement theology and remnant theology, and often times the latter is confused with the former. There wasn't a single sect within first century Judaism that wouldn't have been in full agreement with Paul that (a) not all ethnic Israel was truly the "Israel" to which God would fulfill his promises, and that (b) when God renewed the covenant He would throw open its doors to let the Gentiles in. Their disagreement would have arisen over (a) what exactly makes one a member of the true Israel and (b) the means through which God would renew the covenant.

While they would have maintained (to varying degrees of course, according to the standards of each respective sect) that their strict adherence to the civil law would produce righteousness within the nation, thus ushering in the messianic age where God would renew the covenant with them, Paul and the rest of the early church declared, in contrast, that that new age had already dawned, not through their corporate adherence to the law (for Paul insists that this would have been impossible [Gal 3:21; Rom 3:20]), but through the faithfulness of Jesus of Nazareth, who was "born under the law, that he might redeem those who were under the law" (Gal 4:3-4). Jesus — the one whom they crucified and whom God raised from the dead — he is Israel's Messiah, her representative, and it was stunningly through his death and resurrection that (in fulfillment of the Scriptures) God has renewed the covenant with his followers, opening up its membership to all the nations that they too might be saved and receive of the promises made to the fathers. This is what the early church believed, and there is nothing "supercessionist" about it.

It's quite easy to pick out the anti-semitics like Luther and accuse the whole lot (from the patristics to the present) of holding to an inherently anti-Judaistic eschatology, but such an argument is hardly objective or Biblically based. There definitely still remains a remnant of that eschatology in many circles within the Reformed tradition, but titles like "replacement theology" and "supersessionism" have largely become straw-man caricatures that misframe the discussion when in fact relatively few NT scholars these days would personally wear that badge. For the most part the discussion has shifted, and there is usually much more nuance and balance to a Reformed take on Israel than the other guys usually portray in their ad hominem appeals to a post-holocaust pro-Israel sentiment.

Setting the various agendas to the side and reading the NT honestly, however, and we find that it's abundantly clear about the fact that we Gentiles who were once strangers and aliens have now been grafted into Abraham's family through Jesus, who is the perfect "Seed," the "true Israel," so that we too are God's Israel, the Sons of God, heirs of the promise. To reject that is to outright ignore huge portions of the NT - not only bits of Romans, Galatians and Ephesians, but also Matthew, Hebrews, Revelation, etc. In telling Jesus' story as the climax of Israel's history, the NT writers proclaim that it was he who walked out Israel's calling and that therefore the covenant has been reconstituted around him. That's why all of those aspects of the law that were meant to keep Israel separate from other ethnicities (e.g., circumcision, dietary laws, etc) are no longer necessary - because the covenant is no longer ethnocentric and the calling of Israel to be the light of the world, the city on a hill, the ministers of God's covenant faithfulness to the earth, is now the calling of everyone in Jesus, both Jew and Gentile alike (Gal 3; Eph 2).

Now, since the kingdom is no longer ethnocentric, but is instead Jesus-centric with the "middle wall of separation" broken down — making us Gentiles partakers of the "commonwealth of Israel," fellow heirs of the "covenants of promise," and thus nullifying the civil ordinances which were once meant to keep Israel separate from the Gentiles — then the OT promises made to Israel must now be understood, in light of what Jesus has done, to include saved Gentiles in every respect. This doesn't mean that we now hold the OT with a different hermeneutic than the NT, rather it simply means that we must read the whole Bible for what it truly is: a story, a great moving narrative spanning across the ages, and as such we must read each chapter within the context of the whole, recognizing where we are at each point along the way.

Many today read the Bible in far too much of a Neo-Platonic "fortune cookie" manner, treating the 66 books as just a collection of timeless revelatory truths as if all communicated from one author at one time. It’s directly out of this thinking (as it was basically rehashed through the Enlightenment) that Dispensationalism emerged in the 19th century, treating eschatology as a big puzzle in which we simply grab all of the passages that have apocalyptic language and try to fit them into our timeline of the end-time events, without regard for their context and place within the grand covenantal narrative of history. If you do this, you will quickly find that there are things in the OT regarding the way God related to Israel that don't quite line up with what He did through Jesus in the NT, and in pulling the testaments together you'll inevitably have to compromise a plain sense reading of one or the other. In and of itself this reveals that something is amiss, that a good step back and a rethinking of some basic presuppositions is probably in order.

But I digress. Let's get back to the discussion at hand.

Through Christ we have been brought into God's family, a family which was once limited to one ethnicity but which has now opened up to include many, all on equal footing with the first, so that whatever promises pertain to the family corporately pertain to each and every individual as well. I don't see how a distinction could be made between God's calling to Gentile believers and His calling to Israel as a nation and people, because God's calling to Israel as a nation and people is precisely that they would be the light of the world, and his promises of exaltation and prosperity are for that vocational purpose, that His name might be declared in all the earth, that His people would partner with Him in redeeming the earth (Isa 42; 49; Matt 5:14). And it was precisely this commission which Jesus gave to his followers after the resurrection (Matt 28:18-20). As the people of God, the new community of Christ, we are, as Revelation 1:6 says, a "kingdom of priests" - meaning that all who participate in the kingdom share in God's great mediatory task of reconciling everything in heaven and on earth in Christ. That is the one calling of "Israel," to Jew and Gentile alike, for that is the one purpose of the covenant (I say the to include every covenant, assuming one great overarching story in Scripture), spanning across the ages from the patriarchs to Christ to the new heavens and new earth.

This is obviously all very one sided and there is a lot more that needs to be said now that the box has been opened, but I think it's as good a place to start as any. Taking my queue from Paul, this seems to be the route he takes in Romans before he moves into his "hearts desire and prayer to God for Israel" in chs. 9-11. It's obvious that our eschatology really matters and has implications for how we relate to Israel in the present. But does it follow that for us to come out with a loving and prayerful attitude toward Israel like that which Paul exemplifies we must believe that they have a wholly distinct covenantal role to play in the future? Wouldn't it bear the same fruit, and even greater fruit, to simply say that we should love and pray for unsaved Jews because YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, cares for them deeply, and that while they are His enemies, yet "they are beloved for the sake of the fathers" (Rom 11:28)?

In Christ,