The Promised Land, part 1: Origins of Christian Zionism

For the rest of the blog posts in this series, go here.

English: John Nelson Darby (1800-1882)

John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Israel should of course have all of the land that God gave them from the beginning, and then there is no space left for a Palestinian state.

This comment appeared two days ago on my Swedish blog in a discussion about the conflict in the Middle East. And this guy is not alone, millions of Christians think that it is God’s will for the Jewish people to possess all of the Biblical land of Canaan once more in order for Jesus to come back. While I honour their zeal against anti-semitism and passion to follow God’s will, I have to disagree with them.

In my opinion, Christian Zionism is not only unbiblical but it has had, and continues to have, very serious consequenses in the Middle East. In a blog series of approximately eight parts called “The Promised Land”. I will dig deeper into what Christian Zionism is, what it has led to in the Middle East and what the Bible really says.

In this first part, we will look at the historical origins of Christian Zionism. Benjamin Corey writes:

For those who grow up in churches that preach the Church and Israel distinction, this theology seems as if it is a normal part of orthodox Christianity, and never gets questioned. However, the truth is that this theology is a new theology and is not part of orthodox Christianity.

This theology was popularized by denounced heretic John Nelson Darby in the 1800′s. Darby is considered the father of dispensationalism, which is a dwindling subset of American Fundamentalism. Dispensationalism is a collection of extra-biblical beliefs (such as the “rapture”) which is typically known by a preoccupation on the end of the world, and a pessimistic worldview. Among Darby’s heresies included this new idea that God had two, simultaneous covenants, one for Jews and one for Gentiles.

Darby’s dispensationalism became popular through the Scofield Reference Bible, so that millions of evangelicals became cessationists, zionists and premillenialists. Of course they thought it was biblical, their Bible spoke about it! Yet, no one can name what the seven “biblical” dispensations are with the Bible alone. In fact, I believe it is very hard to either reach cessationism or zionism with the Bible alone. You gotta have a piece of Darby.

However, Darby was not the first Christian who thought that the Jewish people should return to their homeland. As this article by Christian zionist Thomas Ice shows, as well as this article by Stephen Sizer who criticizes Christian Zionism, that thought existed among some Protestant and Puritans already from the 16th century. However, it should be noted that besides being a very marginalised view, it did not include many of the things we connect with modern Christian Zionism. Very few actually believed that Christians could or should do something political to make this happen (if God wants it, it will happen anyway), and more importantly: they rarely had any dual-covenant theology.

Dual-covenent theology was mainly a product of Darby’s dispensationalism, where the theological consensus concerning the relation between the Old and New Covenents were labelled “replacement theology” and used as a swear word. Besides being popular in evangelical Christianity, it was also adopted by Messianic Judaism, and its cousin Christian Judaism. Despite claiming to be some sort of original Christianity because of our Jewish roots, these movements aren’t really much older than dispensationalism, and their view on the land of Israel are impacted by both Christian and Jewish Zionism.

What’s basically clear is that for at least 1500 years Christian Zionism did not exist in any form, and in its current form has only existed for about 150 years. Many Christian Zionists don’t see a problem with that though. They’ll simply say this was because people did not had access to Bibles in their own language before the reformation, and thus could not explore the truth of the Word on their own. Just because a theology has been lost for a long time doesn’t mean it’s not original. There’s another problem with this reasoning though. If Christian Zionism really was a biblical doctrine, wouldn’t the apostles make sure that their successors in the early church believed in it as well? This, my next post will be about.

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12 responses to “The Promised Land, part 1: Origins of Christian Zionism

  1. Pingback: Startar bloggserie om Israel och kristen sionism | Hela Pingsten

  2. Thank you for your post. I find your perspective very helpful. I look forward to the next nine posts.

    I received a Master’s degree from a dispensational seminary. I thought I had the Middle East figured out until I actually visited. The facts on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian Territories did not support the theory of dispensationalism. So thanks for speaking up to folks like me who discover there is something better to believe for the people of Israel and Palestine.

    God’s best to you as you write.

  3. Dear Micael,

    Thank you for an amazing blog and for much encouragement!

    It is hard to say what your argument in this text is. It seems to me that you want to say that 1) Israel and the Church are two different things in the NT, and 2) Christian Zionism is a relatively new thing in Church history, and, as far as it is an old(er) phenomenon, it is relatively marginalized.

    1) Is clearly not true. Israel is considered a distinct reality from believers in the Christ in the NT, and the question is rather what kind of status Israel has. Here is my argument:

    Rom 9-11, which you might touch on later in the series, distinguish between the majority of Israel which has not believed and those Jews and Gentiles who has come to faith in the Messiah. These chapters further work with the issue of Israel’s non-belief in Jesus as the main problem, as this non-belief has separated them from the Jesus-believing cluster of Jews and Gentiles – a state in which they still ‘exist’ as a theological/sociological and historical entity with their own distinct promises waiting to be fulfilled. This last aspect is something that Christians has maintained for 2000 years: Israel might be cut off from the root, but one day they will be grafted back into the tree. The so-dreaded Good Friday prayer of the former Catholic mass rite is a sign of that position.

    You take your departure in the ‘Church and Israel distinction’ and the problem is that it seems as if you are denying this distinction. The distinction was made by the apostles and their disciples: An early witness, Justin the Martyr, clearly thought along these lines as he believed the Jews to be a part of a different ‘body of believers’. Present day reality also speaks against your thesis: there are c. 13 m Jews today who do not consider themselves a part of the Christian Church. The big question is not whether NT, Christians or Jews make the distinction between the Church and Israel, they do, but whether Israel(of today) is still an entity before God, and, if so, what kind of promises and realities they maintain to date. A good start here is Paul’s list in Rom 9:3-5:

    “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.”

    Nota bene that Paul mentions that the promises belongs to them. What promises? I am certain that you later in the series will return to this question, and there is no need of discussing that now. But that Paul considered Israel according to ‘the flesh’ to be a reality with a great number of still-existing divine gifts – even apart from acceptance of the message of Jesus – is certainly the case.

    2) Sure, I think you are right. But if the apostles really thought and held that Israel would return to their land one day, is it a problem that we believe that too, even if it has been forgotten for a while? For the sake of argument, just to show that ‘something new’ (or rather ‘something re-dicovered’) is not wrong per se, female leadership is also an idea that (if it was practiced and held by the early church) has been forgotten. I do not know where you stand on that issue but I guess you might be pro-female leadership/pastors? If you are pro, I cannot imagine that you would use the forgotten-by-history-argument against female leadership in the same way as you used it against Christian Zionism? And if you are against female pastors/priests, perhaps you can think of something else where you and Church history does not agree? My point is just that the argument is not very impressive if you do not apply it on other areas as well, areas in which it might be less benefical for your own position.

    With the wishes of many, many blessings.

    Johannes

    • Hi Johannes, thank you very much for your comment!

      1. I haven’t even started writing about this issue yet, but it’s coming in the future parts of this series :)

      2. I agree that old truths can be rediscovered, this is the case for many things I believe in: water baptism, charismata, community of goods, pacifism etc. But as I state in the final paragraph os the article above, we have to check if it really was original. If the apostles were zionists, and cared about the issue as much as many of modern Christian zionists do (that is, extremely much), wouldn’t they make sure that their their successors in the early church believed in it as well? This, part 2 in this blog series will be about. I think it is wrong to call Justin Martyr a Christian Zionist, as well as anyone else in the early church. But more about that in the upcoming part 2 of the Promised Land. :)

      God bless you fully!
      Micael

  4. Thank you Micael!

    I will write more after your next blog, I think. But for now I will only state that I am sure that Justin Martyr was not a Christian Zionist (he did, however, treat the Jews of his day as a body of believers distinct from the Christian Church).

    With many blessings!

    Johannes

  5. Hi,
    I grew up with the traditional dispensational theology that you describe. Today I do believe that it is a false and unscriptural teaching. I wholeheartedly agree with you in this.
    I am, however, at the same time a deepli convicted Christian Zionist believing that God’s promises to the physical descendants of Israel have never been revoked.
    I just heard of this blog through a friend and will read your articles. Time permitting I will come back with my comments and arguments.

  6. Hi again,
    After searching your blog I realize that you have not posted yet any more articles in this series. There is not much information in this first article to comment other than saying for now that if the promises made to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have been revoked, then God is the greatest liar and most undependable person on the entire universe. This theology is a blasphemous attack on the sanctity of God’ name.
    Psalms 105:5-11:
    “5 Remember his marvellous works that he hath done; his wonders, and the judgments of his mouth; 6 O ye seed of Abraham his servant, ye children of Jacob his chosen. 7 He is the Lord our God: his judgments are in all the earth. 8 He hath remembered his covenant for ever, the word which he commanded to a thousand generations. 9 Which covenant he made with Abraham, and his oath unto Isaac; 10 And confirmed the same unto Jacob for a law, and to Israel for an everlasting covenant: 11 Saying, Unto thee will I give the land of Canaan, the lot of your inheritance.”
    “Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers.” Rom 15:8
    We can have different opinions about how these promises to the fathers will be fulfilled. But one thing is clear: we cannot make God a liar! The concern a piece of landmass that been to them on an everlasting covenant sworn with an oath. You can never get around that!
    The early Church Fathers that succeeded the apostles believed firmly in this land promise.

  7. Excuse my typos. I am writing from my mobile. It should be: “They concern a piece of land mass that has been given to them as an everlasting covenant backed with an oath by God Almighty.”

  8. Pingback: The Promised Land, part 2: The Men in Black Theory | Holy Spirit Activism

  9. Pingback: The Promised Land, part 4: Has the Church Replaced Israel? | Holy Spirit Activism

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