Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Dr Peter Walker on Christian Zionism

Stephen Sizer has established quite a reputation in recent years through public advocacy and Internet resources for his critical stance towards certain aspects of Dispensationalism and, in particular, Christian Zionism. Now, in this popularised version of his doctoral thesis, we can see the careful fruit of his labour and researches. Visiting Israel as a young Anglican rector, firmly within the evangelical tradition, he had an unexpected but mind-changing encounter with Palestinian Christians; this led him to re-evaluate his whole way of thinking about Israel—influenced, as it had been, by the writings of such popular authors as Hal Lindsey in the Late Great Planet Earth (1970?).

His first researches focused on what Christian visitors were shown and told during their visits to Israel. Then he moved on to look at the history and theology of Christian Zionism. One of the remarkable features of evangelical life in UK is the comparatively small amount of interest in Christian Zionism, at least when compared with what is found in evangelical churches in the USA, where (according to various accounts) there may be up to 100 million Christians who hold views that are broadly sympathetic with Christian Zionism, for example: The modern state of Israel is a fulfilment of biblical prophecy.Jewish people (not Christian believers) are God’s true people in the Middle East and have an inalienable ‘divine right’ to the land of Israel (such that compromise with the Palestinians in the pursuit of ‘peace’ is deemed to be wrong not for merely strategic reasons but on the grounds of theology—it is working against God’s promises, e.g. in Gen. 12:XX).

Evangelism amongst Jewish people is not appropriate since the Christian’s chief role is to ‘comfort’ God’s people (Isa. 40:1), supporting Israel in its return to the Land even in unbelief; for some this is because of a two-covenant theology’ whereby God has a separate provision for Israel, which does not require faith in Jesus as Messiah.The Temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt on its original site (even though the site has been occupied for 1300 years by two Muslim shrines). The land of Israel will be the focus of many events associated with Christ’s parousia (for some, after the ‘rapture’), including battles at Armageddon and in Jerusalem.

Sizer does an excellent job identifying these and other beliefs within the Christian Zionist thinking. He is at his best when taking the unfamiliar reader back into the origins of such thinking, especially within the 19th century. We see how the sympathetic concern for Christian outreach amongst Jewish people (seen in such evangelicals as Charles Simeon) gradually metamorphosed into something quite different, eschewing evangelism in favour of political support for Israel, and reading prophecies in a strictly literal and futuristic sense which ignored the New Testament’s focus on Christ. It becomes plain, paradoxically, that Christian Zionism was really a British invention (associated with JN Darby and Edward Irving in the 1830’s), which was then exported wholesale to the United States where it became enshrined in Dispensational Bible colleges and, for example, the Schofield Bible (1909). One can then speculate on why these views have waned in UK, but prospered in USA, with one major factor surely being the way Britain has lost its ‘superpower’ status and got its fingers ‘badly burnt’ through the period of the 'British Mandate’ in Palestine (1917 to 1948).

Where Sizer is arguably a little weaker is in his theological critique of these dispensational views. Quite often a view is only questioned by a brief ironic comment showing some particular inconsistencies between Dispensational thinkers. Partly this is because he is wanting to describe the Dispensational views as fully and fairly as possible, but it does mean that his own alternative theological stance is more implicit than explicit, with different facets of it being called upon at different points but no full statement of it appearing in the book. Such a statement could, for example, have made an excellent end to the book, helping the reader (now so much better informed) to see a clear articulation of a genuinely evangelical, ‘covenantal’ theology. Yet this deficiency (if such it is) is really one that can be levelled against all of us who have written in this area. Few are the books which clearly articulate a counter-view to such popular books as the Left Behind series.

IVP are to be congratulated for publishing this book, given its unpopular viewpoint in many Christian quarters, but also perhaps to be encouraged to promote further works which really help those with a high doctrine of Scripture to develop a pattern of thinking that does not lead to the unfortunate results that, too often, flow out from Christian Zionism (as Sizer highlights so well in his final main chapter on this movement’s ‘political implications’). Conservative readers of Scriptures need to know and have confidence that there is another, equally, faithful, way of reading the Bible, which is focused resolutely on Jesus as the (surprising but true) fulfilment of the biblical story. Some may find helpful the collection of essays in The Land of Promise (IVP, 2000) or my Jesus and the Holy City (Eerdmans, 1996); or Colin Chapman’s writing in Whose Promised Land? (34d edition, Lion, 2002) and Whose Holy City? (Lion, 2004). But, if you are becoming increasingly aware of how critical are the modern issues in the Middle East, or if you are wanting a faithful, reliable guide to see how Christians have played their part in getting us to where we are today, then there can be few better books than this one of Sizer’s—it’s a book that could dramatically open your eyes and change your mind and then your actions."

Revd Dr Peter Walker, Lecturer in New Testament Studies, Biblical Theology and Preaching, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and Fellow of the Anglican Communion Institute (author of Holy City? Holy Places?, Jesus and the Holy City, Jesus and His World and The Weekend that changed the World). A Review for Anvil

You can purchase copies of Christian Zionism: Roadmap to Armageddon? from IVP or Amazon.