Friday, April 7, 2017

Retractiones: Ethnic Israel in Eschatology

Preface to Retractions
            In the course of my life and studies, I have undergone some fairly drastic shifts in my own theological paradigm.  Some of these shifts occurred slowly and other fairly rapidly.  I have decided to take a point from Saint Augustine of Hippo and put together a list of beliefs that I wish to retract.  Sadly, at one time or another I have both espoused and taught others to believe the points listed in these posts.
            Please do not take any of critiques personally.  These posts are an exercise in theological reflections from a more mature (and hopefully correct) understanding.  I know many people who are far holier than I am who hold to many of the views with which I will disagree.

Retractiones: Ethnic Israel in Eschatology

            If you were raised in baptistic circles in the 80’s and 90’s, you were probably a dispensationalist by default.  I was.  I remember the first time I found out that a respectable member of my church was not a dispensationalist, I was shocked.  In my mind, there were no viable eschatological alternatives.  Then I went to Bible College and my dispensationalism began to crumble and crumble quickly.  There were two points that crumbled rather simultaneously: the rapture and ethnic Israel in prophecy.

            This post is the first part in my attempt to answer a question from my most faithful reader, my mom.  She has read every paper of import that I have ever written.  She asked me to outline why I no longer believe in the rapture without relying upon church history.  This post will begin to provide that answer.  I will however make some use of Church History in this post and in a later post.  Sorry mom, but it is an indispensable line of argumentation for delineating doctrines and understanding how they came about.

            Before I can discuss the doctrine of the rapture, I think that it would be useful to outline the place of Israel in prophecy.  The doctrine of the rapture (as classically expounded by people such as John Walvrood) is bound up in the distinction between Israel and the Church.[1]  The Church is understood to be an interim state in God’s dealings with ethnic Israel.  The rapture removes the Church and God fulfills His covenant promises with ethnic Israel.  The promises in Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and the prophets are fulfilled in a very literal and physical manner.  Thus issues such as dwelling in the land become important as fulfillments of covenant promises.

            I view this as superfluous, a misreading of Scripture, and without support from the Fathers.  The Apostle Paul addressed the differences between ethnic Jews and Gentiles at length.  His words are worth noting as they do provide a clear example of the Apostolic understanding of the distinction between ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles.

            Romans chapter 4 begins with Paul asking this question, “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?”  Paul then goes on to argue that Abraham gained nothing in the flesh because circumcision came after his righteousness by faith (Romans 4:11).  The conclusion then is that those who believe are the children of Abraham without regard to their state of their ethnicity or foreskins.  This conclusion is repeated in Romans 9:6, “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.”  

            The benefit to being ethnically Jewish, according to Paul is no way explicitly connected to an eschatological blessing that is distinct from the Gentiles.  Indeed, the point of Romans 11, in which Paul addressed the Gentiles as a Gentile,[2] is that the Gentiles have no room for boasting.  His metaphor of branches being removed and grafted is focused on the lack of anyone to boast, not about the certainty with which ethnic Israel would receive a blessing distinct from the Church.

            Paul even addressed the churches of Galatia, which were predominately Gentiles, as the Israel of God.  This can be seen in Galatians 6:16, “And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.”  The true Israel then has nothing to do with ethnicity but with faith.  This is the teaching of the Apostle Paul and there is no record or tradition of the other Apostles disagreeing with him. 

            The best argument for a separate future for ethnic Israel from the believing Gentiles is made from the promises found in the Old Testament.  The argument goes as follows: God promised things to ethnic Israel.  God will keep his promises.  Therefore there must be a moment in the future in which God will keep these promises.  This is a fairly compelling argument if one holds to a grammatical-historical method of biblical interpretation.  However, the Apostles did not utilize a grammatical-historical method of exegesis.[3]  Neither did the Apostles speak about how God would fulfill these promises in a literalistic manner to ethnic Israel while excluding the Gentiles.

            As with the Apostles, the Fathers of the Church did not present a view that the ethnic people of Israel would receive a blessing apart from the Church.  This can be seen as early as the Epistle of Barnabas.  In 1-17, Barnabas argues that the Old Testament prefigures the person and work of Christ along with demonstrating that the Church is the people of God because the younger receives the blessing over against the older (in saying this, Barnabas reads the blessing of Jacob over Esau as a type referring to the Church being blessed over Israel).[4]  These and other points are repeated throughout the Fathers[5] with moments that could be considered anti-Semitic.[6]  The point however is that the ancient and consistent view of the Church has been to understand the promises made to Israel to be fulfilled in the Church which is the true Israel.

            My conclusion, following Paul and the Fathers, is that the Church is the true Israel.  The promises of the Old Covenant are fulfilled and will be fulfilled in the Church.  Therefore, there is no need to posit a future in which ethnic Israel receives quantitatively distinct blessings by virtue of being ethnically Jewish.  This conclusion does not lead me to look for any future state of eschatological blessing for ethnic Israel apart from Christ and his Church.

 [1] I am limiting myself to the more classical presentations of dispensational theology.  I am doing this because there is quite a spectrum of views that could fall into the dispensational category and discerning the nuances to the various tweaks by sundry authors is far more than I can adequately accomplish in a blog post.

[2] Romans 11:13, “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry.”

[3] This will be the topic of an upcoming blog post.

[4] For the full text in English, click here.

[5] See Tertullian, Apology, 21, and Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho a Jew for a couple early examples.

[6] The issue of anti-Semitism ought to be viewed in light of the general name calling and character assassination that was a cultural part of argumentation of the late Roman Empire.  When the anti-Jewish comments are viewed in parallel with other such comments made against fellow Christians, they are far less problematic.  Tertullian wrote of Hermogenes that “he mistakes pointless verbiage for eloquence and believes that it is the duty for a man of good conscience to speak ill of all men.”  Jerome’s writing are likewise replete with similar statements (Jerome is the grumpy uncle of the Church Fathers).  With this in mind, here is a link to Chrysostom’s sermon Against the Jews.

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