Israel and the Church: (Part 4)

Part (1)  – Part (2)Part (3)

 Israel and the Church – Fulfillment of Promise, by Adrian Birk  

Fulfillment Theology 

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the brush of Replacement theology or what is sometimes termed supersessionism named after the idea that the church has superseded the nation of Israel as the people of God. 45 This challenge has been particularly acute since WWII largely because it is seen as the source of the church’s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) 

5 comments on “Israel and the Church: (Part 4)

  1. you wrote:

    “it was actually written in 1891, sixty years before the holocaust.”

    it doesn’t add up. Hitler was in power between 1933-1945.
    Depending on how you define the holocaust, it didn’t get rolling
    until the war was underway. But it certainly was over with
    we Berlin collapsed.

    • The author of the quote was Asher Ginzberg, born in 1856 & died in 1927.

      While he did indeed live prior to the holocaust and wrote the above in 1861, the author was pointing out that what Ginzberg observed as the truth then, is still the truth today, 150 years later.

      From his online biography,

      Asher Ginzberg was born in Skwera in the Russian district of Kiev. His father, a fervent Hasid, was learned and affluent, and he educated his son in the spirit of Hasidism. Even as a youth, Asher was renowned as an expert in Talmudical and Hasidic literature. At the age of 17 he married, remaining in his father’s home while continuing his studies of all aspects of Jewish learning.

      In 1891 Ahad Haam made his first visit to Palestine. He wrote the article “Truth from Palestine,” which aroused intense reactions and vehement opposition among Zionists. In 1896 he became head of Achiasaph, an important Hebrew publishing house in Warsaw. In the following year he founded in Berlin the monthly Hashiloach and remained its editor until 1902. He then was employed by the Wisotsky Tea Company, first in Odessa and from 1907 in London.

      Ahad Haam visited Palestine five times and in 1922 permanently settled there. He undertook the collection of his many articles and letters, took an active part in the community life, and continued in his Zionist speculations. In 1927 he died and was buried in Tel Aviv.

      Ahad Haam was an original and penetrating thinker. He was one of the first opponents of Theodor Herzl’s political Zionism, and he proposed instead national redemption through a spiritual Zionism.

  2. I would have to commend Adrian Birk on his apraisal of this topic, and to be sure , disscussion on and around this subject often becomes very heated. The comment from David Bosch to the effect that the church is not the new Israel, but rather an enlarged Israel , imho is being very honest toward the scripture. For me , one of the most important aspects of this debate , was getting a grasp on the fact that all the covenants, all the Law and the prophets , found their fulfilment in Christ. Things become decidedly messy when some folks start insisting that there are outstanding promises yet to be realised, hence dispensationalism and premillenialism.

    • …to be sure , disscussion on and around this subject often becomes very heated

      Ray it sure can. It messes with people’s long-held theology. But we should never be afraid of taking a closer/deeper look at what we’ve been taught, for the truth can always stand under scrutiny.

  3. Here’s an outstanding promise from God to the physical Israel and the ethnic remnant:
    Check out Revelations where it is written that God will defend Israel when all nations come against her. Sounds like an outstanding promise to me! N. Scherleft

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