Thursday, 19 January 2006

Evangelicals, Zionism and the holy land

One of the strangest and most unsettling aspects of contemporary religion is the support of Zionism by conservative evangelical Christians. This evangelical obsession with Zion demands a theological response; and my friend Kim Fabricius (who also posts at Connexions) offers the following critique:

First, in his ecological/geographical study Jesus a Jewish Galilean, Sean Freyne argues that, while affirming the special place of Israel in God’s providence, Jesus nevertheless had a permeable understanding of Jewish identity and stoutly rejected the holy war ideology of the Hasmoneans. Freyne also suggests (a) that Jesus’ interest “was in the creator God rather than in the God of Sinai and the Exodus, and that his lifestyle was based more on the story of Abraham than on that of Moses”; and (b) that these emphases “are very much in line with Isaiah’s trajectory also and reflect the outlook which supports the servant’s mission and values.”

Perhaps more importantly still, with respect to the primitive church, N. T. Wright observes: “The Land no longer functioned as the key symbol of the geographical identity of the people of God, and that for an obvious reason: if the new community consisted of Jew, Greek, barbarian alike, there was no sense in which one piece of territory could possess more significance than another. At no point in this early period do we find Christians eager to define or defend a ‘holy land’.... [T]he world, I suggest, is the new Land.”

The conclusion I draw is this: that for Christians “the Land” is otiose as a literal theological category; like the Temple, it can only function typologically. In which case the evangelical obsession with Zion is rather like a man frenetically trying to keep a candle burning in broad daylight.

14 Comments:

Justin Jenkins said...

Good points --- but what exactly is the point of Revelation’s use of Jerusalem --- is it purely metaphorical, or does the actual land, the mountain of God, and apparently unfulfilled prophecies related to them point to the land in this creation?

Rory Shiner said...

Yes, I totally agree that the obsession with Zionism in some conservative evangelical quarters is ill-founded and dangerous. However, I am equally fearful of the new wave of socially acceptable anti-semitism that has been growing in some quaters of the left (secular and religious) since 9/11.
For an excellent biblical and theological understanding of the role of Israel, which aviods both the liberal anti-particularism of the 19th and early 20th century, whilst also avoiding the dispensationalism and pre-millienialism of much conservative evangelicalism in the US, can I refer you to Bishop Donald W.B. Robinson's work in this area. It is excellent, and highly undervalued in the Australian Church. (I hope to post a summary of his position on my blog shortly).

kim fabricius said...

Hi Justin.

In Revelation (3:12; 21:2, 10) the image of (the new) Jerusalem is indeed "purely metaphorical" - which of course does not mean "merely" metaphorical. Metaphors are not just decorative, they are referential, i.e. they depict reality and create new meanings

In Revelation the city symbolises people, the people of God (Christ). Observe its twelve-fold arrangement: 12 gates bearing the names of 12 tribes, and the 12 foundations bearing the names of the 12 apostles. John's metropolitan metaphor is almost psychedilic in its visionary unfolding.

And remember that in the new Jerusalem there is no temple, because there is no distinction between sacred and secular. The city consists of the lives of the redeemed - consists - present tense (as well as future-eschatalogical): "Wherever a man lives by faith in Christ and bears witness to that faith without counting the cost, there is the holy city 'coming down out of heaven from God'" (George Caird).

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

Benjamin Myers wrote:
"One of the strangest and most unsettling aspects of contemporary religion is the support of Zionism by conservative evangelical Christians."

Did you read the novel Exodus (Leon Uris) and see the Movie when you were 12 years old (1960)?

Was your pastor a roommate of Hal Lindsey's at Dallas Seminary?

Were the books of Dwight Pentecost and John Walvoord in your family library?

Were you 14 years old and living at "ground zero" during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Have you heard John and Robert Kennedy discuss "Mutually Assured Destruction" (The Kennedy Tapes).

Did you read The Late Great Planet Earth when it was a NEW book?

PS.

I am no longer a Zionist. Reading the Jerusalem Post for a decade or so cured me.

Michael F. Bird said...

Ben, when I lectured on the Judaism component of Exploring Other Faiths, we did a session entitled "Whose Land is it Anyway?" It led to some interesting discussion.

Chris Tilling said...

I thought for a while about writing a post very much like this one. However, in Germany, Zionism is RAMPANT, and so for political reasons I decided not to, and attempted to avoid hurting any of my German friends who visit my blog. Besides, the flavour of Zionism in Germany is usually harmless, even if I find it a bit freaky. I know. I’m a coward!

I believe much of the Zionist fervour is based on an illegitimate proof-texting, even though Paul clearly reinterpreted the Land promise of Genesis (end of chap. 15): “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (Rom 4:13)!

This superb online article by Steve Motyer help me to work things out.

kim fabricius said...

Thanks, Chris, for the reference to the Motyer article.

And, yes, Rory, clearly anti-Zionism must be distinguished - and clearly distinguished -from anti-Semitism. To be anti-Semitic is to hate Jesus Christ.

The problems set in, theologically, with the doctrine of supersessionism, which seems to have some biblical support (particularly in Matthew and John), but which must be resoundly rejected (as it is by Paul). Certainly the biblical texts need to be read in the context of first century sibling rivalry - domestic quarrels are always the most vicious - in the struggle for the soul of Israel.

I think it was Krister Stendahl who referred to Christians as "honorary Jews" (on the basis of the olive tree imagery of Romans 11), and Karl Bath said that "The Gentile Christian community of every age and land is a guest in the house of Israel."

It is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The ultimate ecumenical confessional question, however, is not Protestant and Catholic but Church and Israel - one covenant.

James Crossley said...

On the antisemitism of the left, I get a bit worried by that because I think it is very often a cheap jibe at those critical of Israeli state policy and who are in no way antisemitic.

On the general issue I have a couple of questions. What if Freyne and others are wrong and Jesus did think of the Land and Exodus stories as central (as has been argued)? Anyway, that's a kind of what if question.

Here's another. Isn't the real problem with the US fundamentalists more based on the futuristic prophecies and things which are supposed to take place in the land of Israel rather than Jesus' and the early church's specific concern (or not) for the Land?

Mark Anthony said...

The preoccupation of some Evangelicals with the Holy Land has a two-fold origin:

1) It is political, stengthening conservative ideology;

2) It is focused on the Eschaton, with the hope that they can somehow hasten it.

Both quite unseemly and unbiblical.

kim fabricius said...

To add to the mix: it is crucial to realise that the fundamental question with which the NT writers wrestle is not so much the relation of the church to Israel but of Jesus to Israel: he is the one (they conclude) who recapitulates, climaxes and, in a sense that needs to be carefully defined, replaces Israel as the locus of God's saving activity. In Christ, priesthood, Temple, Jerusalem, Law, and - yes - Land find their telos. Now that Jesus, if you like, has scaled the heights, Jacob's ladders are now surplus to requirements.

The same goes for the exodus stories (James Crossley). Indeed Matthew cannot be understood apart from exodus imagery - which, however, he exploits precisely to unpack the significance of Jesus as the new Israel. Jesus' self-understanding - as we all know - is a tougher nut to crack. The setting, words and actions of the Last Supper, however, indicate that the exodus traditions were significant to our Lord too - but, again, he universalises them, his blood "poured out for many" - i.e. for all.

Does this help?

James Crossley said...

Hello Kim,

while agreeing with the problems of Jesus' self understanding (and I don't think disagreeing with you at all!), I think it would have been pretty hard for Jesus to have avoided the Exodus story with Passover, the Romans etc., not to mention Jesus' association with John the Baptist.

Where I would be more sceptical about your comments Kim is that 'many' has to be everyone in a very broad sense. That language can be used in an inclusive sense (cf. Qumran) and it can be read to include all Jews (and possibly righteous gentiles when the kingdom dawns - cue Bird!).

kim fabricius said...

Thanks, James.

Might Luke 13:28-30 be relevant to Matthew 26:28's "many", understood as your "everyone in a very broad sense"?

In his massive commentary on Luke, I. Howard Marshall (who, by the way, is lecturing here at Swansea University Theological Society on Monday on "Raised for Our Justification") observes on v. 29:

"The present reference lies in the fact that the gentiles can qualify now for admission to the banquet in the future. The subject of the verse is of course the gentiles, and not Diaspora Jews."

Exiled Preacher said...

As a conservative evangelical I agree with your post 100%. Zionisn often is a feature of dispensationalist pre-millenial eschatology. This view was taught in Plymouth Brethren circles and was popularised by the "Scofield Bible." Pre-millenialism is often espoused very dogmatically by Fundamentalists in the USA. The rediscovery of Reformed Theology in the UK, stimulated by the ministry of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, has meant that dispensationalism in now a minority view in British Evangelicalism.
In the NT, the Land points forward to the glorious inheritance of the new creation (1 Peter 1:4, Romans 8:17ff.) To continue to think in terms of the OT view of the Land, and to hope for the rebuilding of the Temple etc. is to deny the essential message of Hebrews. "Now what is becoming obsolete is growing old and is ready to vanish away." (Hebrews 8:13). Would that Zionist dispensationalism would vanish away too!

kim fabricius said...

Karl Barth and Martin Lloyd-Jones singing from the same hymn sheet: the kingdom is nigh!

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