A review of a helpful but unfocussed compendium
The Jews, Modern Israel
and the New Supercessionism
Ed. Calvin Smith, 164p, King's Divinity School, 2009.
There is much to gain and to commend in this small volume. It represents the formal output of a weekend conference, and gains colour and depth from the diversity of strengths and perception of the participants. It steers carefully between the tidal force of anti-Zionist hatred which is still rising in evangelical churches and the uncritical and often unevangelistic devotion to Israel, sometimes verging on idolatry, expressed by some dispensationalist believers. Yet, as might be expected in such slippery heights, in places the volume yields significant concessions to either camp. Nevertheless its principal fault is that, like many conference proceedings, it lacks focus. What is the formal definition of the error of supercession, what lies at its root? This is the crucial issue - given its pivotal role in the genesis of Christian hatred of the Jews and of reinforcing Jewish prejudice against the Messiah. Is it the proposal that the land promise has been allegorised away (Vantassel and to some extent Tony Pearce), a failure of hermeneutical method (Prasch's fascinating and insightful chapter), a faulty eschatology (Wilkinson), a failure to incorporate a vital thread in the metanarrative of scripture (Smith), faulty exegesis of the term Israel in the NT (Cheung), or an irreversible transfer of Tenach promises given from Israel to the Church (Taylor). All these observations contain considerable weight and validity, but how useful are they at identifying the spring of the problem, and just as importantly the route to the solution?
I suggest it is Vantassel and Wilkinson who come closest to the solution, by reason of their proximity to the Puritan theologians who possess clarity of sight of the skeleton of scripture. Perhaps it is a lack of acquaintance with writers like John Owen, John Gill, or Goodwin that deprives them of the insight that such early Christian Zionists (though they would no doubt be surprised at the label) were driven not so much by their conviction about the timing of millennium (on which they differed), but by their primary focus on the Divine covenants as both keys and seals to the glorious purpose of scripture. Far from being hostile to a conviction of God's ongoing purpose for the Jewish people and an ardent expectation of their return to the Holy Land, as Vantassel suggests, these principles deeply undergirded them. Many covenant and reformed theologians today are explicitly anti-Zionistic, Robert Reymond, Palmer Robertson, and William Hendriksen to name but three, and they cite their covenant theology in defence. However they are deeply out of harmony with many if not most other writers from the same school, John Murray, Jonathan Edwards or their many Puritan forebears, as Iain Murray points out in his defence of post-milleniallism the Puritan Hope. I do not suggest that the solution to a modern problem will be found ready made in their writings. Even Gill and Owen, though princes of covenant theology, are not always consistent with each other or with self in writing on the land promise. However their burning priority to understand scripture by the great landmarks of the Divine covenants is instructive. Their intricate and sometimes paradoxical interrelation is the root that bears the olive branches, both wild and native. This root misperceived has lead to a wide variety of ecclesiological and theological errors, and it is this root to which we must look for the real cause of supercessionism, both of the old kind and much more especially of the new.