Christians have never been certain about what to do with Israel. This is certainly the case today. On the one hand, many mainline Protestants treat the nation of Israel as an international pariah. They pass resolutions urging boycotts and international sanctions, all while calling attention to the plight of Palestinians who have allegedly suffered at the hands of an oppressive Israeli state. For the most part, their posture echoes that of the political left.
On the other hand, in some expressions of evangelical folk theology, especially among older generations, Israel can seemingly do no wrong. The Jews are God’s chosen people, God will bless those who align themselves with Israel, and Israel’s enemies are God’s enemies. These supporters often believe that American flourishing depends in part on US foreign policy aligning with Israel’s interests. Their approach tracks closely with that of the political right.
In Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land, Anglican evangelical theologian Gerald McDermott cuts through the simplistic platitudes of both the Christian left and right, offering a third way. McDermott is part of a group of scholars who identify with the “New Christian Zionism” movement. Their goal is to convince contemporary believers that Israel is not the backstory of the church, but a key part of the future of the faith. In Israel Matters, McDermott makes a nuanced case for the centrality of Israel in redemptive history—past, present, and future.
The key enemy in McDermott’s crosshairs is supercessionism, the idea that the church has replaced Israel in God’s redemptive purposes. He argues that supercessionism misrepresents Scripture, even though it has been the dominant understanding through much of Christian history. McDermott himself was once committed to a version of supercessionism, though interactions with both Jewish followers of Christ (and even the work of some unbelieving Jewish scholars) led him to reconsider his assumptions. Israel Matters should position McDermott as the leading theological voice calling for a renewed, ecumenical commitment to Christian Zionism.
According to McDermott, the Bible never suggests that the church is the “New Israel,” or that God’s covenant promises to Israel have been revoked, or that his promise of land will only be fulfilled figuratively in the future redeemed earth. Jesus and his earliest followers never set aside Israel so they could establish a primarily Gentile religion. Jesus was a faithful Jew, as were most of his earliest disciples, including all of the apostles. Gentile believers have been grafted into Israel by faith, and while the Mosaic covenant has been fulfilled through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Abrahamic covenant (God’s promise to make a great nation of Abraham’s descendants and bless them with land) continues to endure. Simply put, God is not finished with the Jews, and the future of Gentile Christianity is closely tied to the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel.
McDermott also demonstrates that certain Christians have always held Zionist beliefs, despite the long history of supercessionism. Furthermore, contrary to the assumption of many contemporary scholars, Christian Zionism predates the dispensationalist movement to which it has often been closely tied since the late-1800s. Even in more recent times, Messianic Jews and dispensationalists have not been the only Christian Zionists. Theologians such as Karl Barth and Gary Anderson have affirmed forms of Christian Zionism, along with many lesser-known thinkers. In addition, non-Zionist biblical scholars such as E. P. Sanders and N. T. Wright have led many Christian thinkers to a fresh appreciation of the Jewishness of Jesus and his earliest followers. In much the same way an earlier generation of revisionist covenant theologians and “progressive dispensationalists” moved closer together in their understanding of the kingdom, contemporary Christians across the theological spectrum are reaching greater consensus on the place of Israel in God’s redemptive purposes.