Israel and the Church – Fulfillment of Promise, by Adrian Birk
I have given the third position the title of fulfillment theology since it asserts that the promises of the Old Testament find their true and complete fulfillment in Christ and his Church.
A challenge for those holding to this position is that all are tarred with the brush of Replacement theology or what is sometimes termed supersessionism named after the idea that the church has superseded the nation of Israel as the people of God. 45 This challenge has been particularly acute since WWII largely because it is seen as the source of the church’s historical anti-Semitism and therefore, at least indirectly, the Holocaust.
However, we cannot dismiss anything that is not Zionism so easily. Firstly, we must be clear as to what actually constitutes anti-Semitism.
Surely it would be naive to suggest that all criticism of Israel is purely on the basis of race (or even theology) and has nothing to do with the actions of the Israeli government or their record on human rights issues? It seems that all too often Israel is still -considered simply as a victim and her occupation of Palestine and the oppression of Palestinian people, overlooked and ignored.
As the Jewish philosopher Asher Ginzberg wrote:
“Palestine is not an uninhabited land and can offer a home only to a very small portion of the Jews scattered throughout the world. Those who settle in Palestine must above all seek to win the friendship of the Palestinians, by approaching them courteously and with respect. But what do our brothers do? Precisely the opposite. They were slaves in the land of their exile, and suddenly they find themselves with unlimited freedom. This sudden change has aroused in them a tendency to despotism, which is what always happens when slaves come to power. They treat the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, rob them of their rights in a dishonest way, hurt them without reason and then pride themselves on such actions; and no one attacks this despicable and dangerous tendency.”46
Though this sounds remarkably contemporary, it was actually written in 1891, sixty years before the holocaust.
As Wagner concludes,
“it remains a mystery how Israel consistently violates legal instruments [in the Geneva Convention, 1949] designed to prevent many of the atrocities committed against Jews by the Nazis.”47
One could expound this point considerably, suffice to say we must be clear: not all criticism of Israel or Zionism should be considered anti-Semitic.
Moreover, it is irrational to argue that all forms of fulfillment theology should be dismissed simply because one form has in the past been misapplied and resulted in abuse. It is all too common for a crude or even false caricature of fulfillment theology to be held up as a straw man then knocked down by Zionists making sweeping criticisms of beliefs that few, if any, hold.48
For instance, Lance Lambert writes
“I most seriously question the view that this promise of God [of the land] has been canceled by the New Covenant. To me, it casts doubt upon the literal veracity of God’s word… I am confused when I am told that God did not mean [what he promised].”49 (Similarly, Driscoll and Breshears state) “Some Reformed theologians see Israel as having been replaced by the church… But that would mean that God reneges on his promises to the ethnic children of Abraham.”50
But who is actually suggesting that the OT promises are canceled by the new covenant or that God ‘reneges on his promises’? The typical language of non-Zionists regarding OT promises is not that of cancellation but of fulfillment. Similarly, it is too easy to assume that all non-Zionists believe that there is no continuity between Israel and the church and even that Gentiles have replaced Jews as the people of God. These are false accusations that do not do justice to the biblical scholarship underpinning alternative frameworks. So, in the same way that we must distinguish between classical and dispensational Zionists, the same courtesy must be extended in distinguishing between caricatured or even traditional replacement views and contemporary and more nuanced fulfillment theologies.
In his commentary on Romans 11, Douglas Moo points out,
“The picture Paul sketches reveals the danger of the simple and popular notion that the church has ‘replaced’ Israel. For this formula misses the stress Paul places on the historical continuity in the people of God… Perhaps a better word to describe the movement from OT Israel to NT church is the same word that the NT often uses to denote such relationships: fulfillment.’”51
This sense of continuity between the testaments and the fulfillment of the promises is contrary to replacement theology 52 but is at the heart of what Sizer calls ‘covenantalism’ and which I have termed fulfillment theology.’ As Sizer says
“It is not that the church has replaced Israel. Rather, in the new covenant church, God has fulfilled the promises originally made to the old covenant church.”53
To my mind, David Bosch is very helpful at this point:
“Paul never surrenders the continuity of God’s story with Israel. The church cannot be the people of God without its linkage to Israel… The gospel means the extension of the promise beyond Israel, not the displacement of Israel by a church made up of gentiles. Paul therefore never explicitly says that the church is the “new Israel”, as becomes customary from the second century onward, for instance in the writings of Barnabus and Justin Martyr. Indeed, the church is not a new Israel, “but an enlarged Israel” (*Related: Klett’s excellent teaching, Not Replacement…Expansion!)
Moreover, as noted earlier, it is vital that we are clear about the nature of the various biblical covenants and in particular how they relate to the new covenant.
An essential distinction is that the new covenant supersedes the old (Mosaic) covenant but is the ongoing fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of the ‘first’ or ‘old’ covenant being rendered ‘obsolete’ and being replaced by the ‘second’ or ‘new’ covenant (Heb 8:7-13).
Of course, if we are to be precise, the Mosaic covenant which is clearly what is in view here, actually follows the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants and is therefore not technically ‘first’. Nonetheless, it is evident that the two covenants in view are the Mosaic covenant which Paul states was to ‘Tutor’ Israel ‘until Christ came’ (Gal 3:24), and the new covenant which is now established in its place. On the other hand, the promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel) remain and are not annulled but are fulfilled in and by the new covenant.
Not only so but, as Holwerda claims, there is,
“an amazing universalizing of the promises. Promises made originally to the particular people Israel in the Old Testament now in Jesus Christ universally embrace the nations of the world. Promises associated with a temple made of stone located in a particular place now find fulfillment in a universal temple composed of human persons living among the nations. And Jerusalem is already a universal city whose citizens are gathered from the nations of the world.”55
This is the essence of fulfillment theology – all the types and motifs of the Old Testament find their fulfillment in Christ and the church, contrary to Zionism who find partial fulfillment in the church but believe the promise of land to be an exception which will find fulfillment in ethnic Israel.
(Next: The Land)