The esteemed historian of theology Gerald McDermott has published a fascinating and provocative new volume, The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land. McDermott and co-authors, including Craig Blaising and Mark Tooley, are concerned that too many Christians, on the one hand, either neglect Israel entirely or join mainline denominations in a rush to denounce Israel as uniquely oppressive.

On the other hand, those in the dispensationalist tradition elevate the modern state of Israel as a transparent and uncomplicated fulfillment of prophecies related to the restoration of Jews to the promised land, and now await the commencement of the rest of the details of the eschatological timetable, such as the rapture, rise of the Antichrist, and the tribulation.

McDermott thinks there is a better, more biblical way between these extremes, a way he and his press (IVP) describe as the “new” Christian Zionism in the title. But McDermott thinks his Zionism is really getting back to old-fashioned Christian Zionism, the Zionism of Scripture.

What are the traits of this kind of Zionism? They include the ideas that:

  • The people and the land of Israel are central to the story of the Bible.
  • God saves the church through Israel, and through the “perfect Israelite,” Jesus; so that the Bible is incoherent without Israel.
  • The people and land of Israel continue to have theological significance, and that the modern state of Israel is part of the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, even if we do not have access to the particular timetable of eschatology involving Israel.
  • The special place of Israel in God’s plan of salvation does not mean that modern Israel is perfect, or exempt from criticism from its Christian friends.

I know McDermott’s work mostly from his studies of Jonathan Edwards’s theology, so it is no surprise that McDermott draws on Edwards to demonstrate the historicity of this brand of Zionism, and that it preceded the formalization of dispensational theology in the 19th century. Edwards heavily emphasized the continuity between the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) and the New Testament, seeing “types” and even physical appearances of Jesus everywhere in the Old Testament.

While many liberal and deistic critics of Edwards’s day were deeply anti-Semitic, Edwards insisted that God had fundamentally worked the same way in the Old and New Testaments under a unitary covenant, the covenant of “redemption” or salvation. The nature of the faith held by believing Jews of the Old Testament was “essentially the same religion with that of the Christian church,” Edwards declared. Edwards also expected a future conversion of the Jews to Christianity, and their return to the Jewish homeland. Had he lived to see it, Edwards would certainly have looked upon the creation of the modern state of Israel as having prophetic significance.

Although dispensationalism does not seem to have quite the audience that it did in the heyday of Hal Lindsey and The Late Great Planet Earth, some popular Christian authors and preachers still insist that the world is hurtling toward an apocalyptic showdown between Jews and the forces of the Antichrist. Meanwhile, a number of mainline Christians and some evangelicals seem eager to participate in the “divestment from Israel” movement. And agencies like the United Nations insist ever more loudly and bizarrely that the city of Jerusalem has no deep historic connection to Judaism.

Somewhere between those extremes, one would hope evangelical Christians could find a reasonable, biblical, and humble manner of viewing Jews and the nation of Israel. McDermott’s volume is an important contribution to that process.

See also McDermott’s post at First Things, A New Christian Zionism