All Israel Will Be Saved: An Orthodox Consensus?

How do you interpret Romans 11:26? Be careful how you answer that question, because it’s a major theological boundary marker for many evangelical churches today, an easy litmus test to decide who's “out” and who's “in”. Indeed, judging by the way many evangelicals talk about this subject, one might get the impression it was more important than the divinity of Jesus or justification by faith.

But like many evangelical boundary markers, I can’t help thinking that this question raises the flag of orthodoxy at entirely the wrong place. Let me explain.

There are basically five different ways of understanding Paul's words in Romans 11:26 (these are rough generalizations, of course; there are many variations of these basic positions):

1) The dual covenant view, in which "all Israel will be saved" refers to literally every single Jew—past, present, and future—saved apart from Christ through the Abrahamic or Mosaic covenants.

2) The futurist view, in which "all Israel will be saved" refers to the mass salvation of the surviving remnant of ethnic Israel at the end of the age, either just before or just after Christ's second coming. This view is often (though not always) combined with a dispensational scheme in which these surviving Jews become the primary recipients of all the OT promises contained in the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, having those promises fulfilled in a thousand-year Jewish kingdom.

3) The present-continuous view, in which "all Israel will be saved" refers to the full number of Jews saved by faith throughout the present age, whatever that number might be. This is the view that I personally subscribe to and have argued for at some length.

4) The new covenant view, in which "all Israel will be saved" refers to the elect, the full number of Jews and Gentiles joined together in God's renewed family by faith. This is often called "supercessionism" or "replacement theology" by adherents of the first two views, but that title doesn't really fit since nobody is actually replaced in this view.

5) The (real) supercessionist view, in which "all Israel will be saved" refers to the church as a basically Gentile entity replacing the Jews as God's chosen people.

Views 1 and 5 are the two extreme ends of the spectrum, and neither is truly Christian in my opinion, for they both distort the gospel at a crucial point. View 1 distorts the gospel by positing another way to salvation for Jews apart from Christ, while view 5 distorts the gospel by positing an alternative ethnocentrism in which Gentiles replace Jews.

But placing views 1 and 5 to the side as aberrant, it seems to me that the other three views have more in common than their adherents often suppose. That is to say, whether we take "all Israel" as referring to (2) a remnant of ethnic Israel at the end of the age, (3) Jews saved throughout the present age, or (4) the “Israel of God” comprised of both believing Jews and believing Gentiles—in any case Paul would be stating the obvious.

Of course all Israel will be saved; every tribe and tongue will be saved when it’s all said and done. The necessary qualifications that must be applied to “all” for it to be a realistic Christian statement make the phrase entirely superfluous to what Paul has been saying all along. So, regardless of who “Israel” refers to there, it isn’t a new piece of information to the message of the passage itself and therefore shouldn’t be a hill that anyone is willing to die on. However we understand Romans 11:26, the thrust of the rest of the passage is clear enough, and it should be a gathering point for unity rather than a cause for breaking fellowship.

Paul wants the Gentile believers in Rome to know that God has by no means rejected the original people whom he called, that it’s not as if the Gentiles have replaced the Jews in His plan. His call for ethnic Israel stands now as it always has, for “the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable” (vv. 28-29). He has not ditched the old and started anew (supercessionism), and yet neither has he split his covenant family into two separate groups (dual covenant theology), but rather the Gentiles have been “grafted in” to the one historic people of God (vv. 16-17). Thus they should not boast against the Jews, for it’s upon the shoulders of Jews that they stand; they have accepted a torch which was first received and for two thousand years carried almost entirely by Jews (v. 18). As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “salvation is of the Jews”.

The only appropriate response, therefore, is gratefulness, which is exactly what Paul appeals to as he calls for immediate support for the church in Jerusalem (15:25-27). “For if the Gentiles have been partakers of their spiritual things,” he says, “their duty is also to minister to them in material things.” This, it seems, at least according to Paul, is a key part of the church's mandate; not to blindly support the political state of Israel in all of its endeavors, but in grateful humility to give the best of our resources—our time, money and energy—toward advancing the gospel amongst the Jews, and to support our Jewish brethren who are giving themselves to that end.

Now, according to my view, none of this is based on the Jews having a distinct calling in this age or in the age to come; rather it’s based wholly on the heart of a dynamically relational and loving God who had a friend named Abraham, and on his outrageous mercy that continues to chase that man’s rebellious children—not because he has to, as if he was bound by a contract he now regrets signing, but because he wants to, because his faithfulness remains even when we are faithless.

But this distinct qualification aside, it seems to me that the basic contours of this reading are common to all three orthodox views. Am I correct in thinking this, or am I missing something?