Evangelical Theology & American Politics in the Middle East (1)

This was received prior to the latest outbreak between Israel and the Palestinians and I held on to it to share at a later date.  Now seems as good a time as any.

So lay aside any lingering remnants of dispensationalist theology you may possess (and believe me, if you’re an American Christian you’ve got some) and “dig in”. The history laid out below is extremely interesting. 

On September 12th, following the tragic news of the murder of Ambassador Stevens, together with members of his staff, sheltering in the US Consulate in Benghazi, a grief stricken Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton asked a simple question. A question that was on the lips of many Americans:

“How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?” Andrew Bacevich, writing in Newsweek, asks, “Why the Arab anger against the United States? Why the absence of gratitude among the very people the United States helped save, in the very countries Americans helped liberate? The way Secretary Clinton frames the question practically guarantees a self-satisfying but defective answer.”

The question, he argues, is predicated on three propositions that are regarded as sacrosanct by most US politicians and policy makers.

“First: humanity yearns for liberation, as defined in Western (meaning predominantly liberal and secular terms).

Second: the United States has a providentially assigned role to nurture and promote this liberation…

Third: given that American intentions are righteous and benign (most of the time) – the exercise of US power on a global scale merits respect and ought to command compliance.”[i]

I would add a fourth proposition, assumed as self evident, especially among Evangelicals, that, as God’s ‘chosen people’ the security of the State of Israel is synonymous with US interests in the Middle East and her God ordained role.

The problem is that the Arab world and Muslims, in particular, do not only not share these propositions, they repudiate them theologically. It is not that they do not aspire to political freedom from despotic rulers and oppressive governments. The Arab Spring has shown that many do indeed hunger for freedom. The problem is, observes Bacevich, “that 21st century Muslims don’t necessarily buy America’s 21st century definition of it – a definition increasingly devoid of moral content.”

Freedom of speech is assumed sacrosanct even if it offends those of other religions. Whether the movie, Innocence of Muslims was indeed responsible for sparking Muslim outrage and the subsequent violence against US interests is irrelevant. The promotion of the film by Fundamentalist Christians and their antipathy toward Islam certainly is. What we tend to ignore, while Muslims cannot forget, it the simple fact is that for more than 100 years, Christians in the USA and Europe have sponsored, defended, funded and sustained the Zionist enterprise in preference to developing normative relations with the Arab world.

Why else, for example, after 45 years, does Israel continue to occupy territory in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine?

Why has Israel been able to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, disregarding every international treaty, while Iran is threatened with pre-emptive attack for undertaking nuclear research? Why has Israel been the subject of more UN Resolutions than any other country in the world? And why has the USA vetoed virtually every single one of them? Why when the USA has been the pioneer of the ‘Two State’ solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, based on the rule of international law and 1967 borders, did it then deny Palestinians UN recognition?

Why is there such a close relationship today between Evangelicals in America and the State of Israel? The roots of this relationship lie within the Protestant Reformation which brought about a renewed interest in the Old Testament and God’s dealings with the Jewish people. After nearly 1500 years, a new assessment of the place of the Jews within the purposes of God was emerging. We only have time for a cursory look at some of the individuals and movements who have shaped our political involvement in the Middle East.

2. Adventism and the End of the World

The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw a dramatic paradigm shift from the optimism of postmillennialism to a deeply pessimistic premillennialism, following a sustained period of turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic.[ii] There was the American War of Independence (1775-1784), the French Revolution (1789-1793) and then the Napoleonic Wars (1809-1815). In 1804, Louis Napoleon had been crowned Emperor in the reluctant presence of the Pope. In 1807 he plotted the division of Europe with the Czar of Russia and began a blockade of British sea trade with Europe. Two years later he arrested the Pope and annexed the Papal States. He then began the systematic destruction of the Roman Catholic Church in France, seizing its assets, executing priests and exiling the Pope from Rome. By 1815, Napoleon’s armies had fought, invaded or subjugated most of Europe and the Middle East, including Italy, Austria, Germany, Poland, Russia, Palestine and Egypt. His plan was to create a United States of Europe, each state ruled by a compliant monarch, subject to himself as ‘supreme King of Kings and Sovereign of the Roman Empire’.[iii] Numerous preachers and commentators speculated on whether Napoleon was indeed the Antichrist.[iv]

Charles Finney, in 1835 speculated that ‘If the church will do all her duty, the Millennium may come in this country in three years.’[v] Joseph Miller narrowed the return of Christ down to the 21st March 1843, while Charles Russell more prudently predicted that Christ would set up his spiritual kingdom in the heavenlies in 1914. For many years, Russell’s popular sermons linking biblical prophecy with contemporary events were reproduced in over 1,500 newspapers in the USA and Canada.[vi] This sectarian speculation came to be embraced by mainstream evangelicalism largely through the influence of John Nelson Darby and others associated with a series of prophetic conferences held in England and Ireland from 1826 to 1833.[vii]

3. John Nelson Darby and the Rise of Dispensationalism

John Nelson Darby was a charismatic figure with a dominant personality. He was a persuasive speaker and zealous missionary for his conviction that God had a separate plan for the Jewish people apart from the Church. The churches Darby and his colleagues planted with the seeds of Premillennial Dispensationalism in turn sent missionaries to Africa, the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand and, ironically, to work among the Arabs of Palestine. From 1862 onwards his controlling influence over the Brethren in Britain waned Darby spent more and more time in North America, making seven long sea journeys in the next twenty years. During these visits, he came to have an increasing influence over evangelical leaders. His ideas also helped shape the emerging evangelical Bible Schools and ‘Prophecy’ conferences, which came to dominate both Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United States between 1875 and 1920.[viii] For sake of brevity, I am going to bypass the role of British politicians and Church leaders in the emergence of Zionism, relations with the Arab world and most significantly in the Balfour Declaration. Instead I want to focus on the role of evangelical theology in the USA.

4. The Rise of Dispensationalism in America (1859-1945)

During the Colonial period and even beyond the Civil War (1861-1865), American Christianity, was essentially postmillennial in outlook. Strengthened by the Wesleyan Holiness movement,[ix] there was a strong focus on evangelism, personal morality and civil responsibility.[x] The Revolutionary War provided a stimulus to popular apocalyptic speculation and by 1773, King George III was being portrayed as the Antichrist and the war a ‘holy crusade’ that would usher in the millennium.[xi] In parallel with Britain, the late 18th and early 19th Century also saw an explosion of millennial sects including the Shakers, Mormons and Millerites. Influenced by the French Revolution and the destruction of the Papacy in France, historic Premillennialism gradually became more popular. Between 1859 and 1872, resulting from his extensive tours throughout America, and reinforced by the trauma of the Civil War, Darby’s premillennial dispensational views about a ‘failing’ Church and revived Israel came to have a profound and increasing influence upon American Evangelicalism.

It resulted not only in the birth of American Dispensationalism [xii] but also influenced the Millenarianism associated with the Prophecy Conference Movement, as well as later, Fundamentalism.[xiii] Darby’s influence on end-time thinking was ‘perhaps more than that of anyone else in the last two centuries.’[xiv] In the absence of a strong Jewish Zionist movement, American Christian Zionism arose from the confluence of these associations, evangelical, premillennial, dispensational, millenarian, and fundamentalist.[xv] Those most closely influenced by and associated with Darby were James Brookes, Arno Gaebelein, D. L. Moody, William E. Blackstone and C. I. Scofield.[xvi]

5. William Blackstone: Recognition of Zionism (1841-1935)

William E. Blackstone was an influential evangelist and lay worker for the Methodist Episcopal Church, as well as a financier and benefactor. He also became an enthusiastic disciple of J.N. Darby.[xvii] In 1887 he wrote a book on biblical prophecy entitled Jesus is Coming, which by 1927, had been translated into thirty-six languages. The book took a premillennial dispensational view of the Second Coming, emphasizing that the Jews had a biblical right to Palestine and would soon be restored there. Blackstone became one of the first Christian Zionists in America to actively lobby for the Zionist cause. Blackstone took the Zionist movement to be a ‘sign’ of the imminent return of Christ even though its leadership like Herzl were agnostic.

Blackstone interpreted Scripture in the light of unfolding contemporary events, something which Charles Spurgeon warned of as ‘exegesis by current events’.[xviii] No longer were Christian Zionists expecting Jewish national repentance to precede restoration; it could wait until after Jesus returned. Although popular with proto-fundamentalists, the book became more widely known in 1908, when a presentation edition was sent to several hundred thousand ministers and Christian workers, and again in 1917 when the Moody Bible Institute printed ‘presentation copies’ and sent them to ministers, missionaries and theological students.[xix] Jesus is Coming became the most widely read book on the return of Christ published in the first half of the 20th Century.[xx]

In March 1891, Blackstone lobbied the US President, Benjamin Harrison and his Secretary of State, James G. Blaine with a petition signed by 413 prominent Jewish and Christian leaders including John and William Rockefeller. The petition called for an international conference on the restoration of the Jews to Palestine. The petition, which became known as the Blackstone Memorial, offered this solution:

‘Why not give Palestine back to them [the Jews] again? According to God’s distribution of nations it is their home, an inalienable possession from which they were expelled by force…Why shall not the powers which under the treaty of Berlin, in 1878, gave Bulgaria to the Bulgarians and Servia to the Servians now give Palestine back to the Jews?’[xxi]

Although President Harrison did not act upon the petition, it was nevertheless pivotal in galvanising Christian and Jewish Zionist activists in the United States for the next sixty years. Justice Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Justice of the US Supreme Court, who led the Jewish Zionist movement in the US from 1914, became a close friend of Blackstone and for twenty years they laboured to convince the American people and in particular, successive Presidents, to support the Zionist agenda. During that time, Blackstone sent Brandeis ‘very large sums of money for support of Zionist work.’[xxii] Responsible for disbursing millions of dollars of dispensational funds entrusted to him for missionary work, Blackstone promised Brandeis that if he should not be raptured with Blackstone, he was to use the funds for the relief of Jews who would come to believe in Christ and need supporting as missionaries throughout the world during the millennium.[xxiii]

In 1917, Blackstone was excited by the developments in Palestine following the defeat of the Turks and the triumphal entry of the Allies into Jerusalem. In January 1918, he spoke at a large Jewish Zionist meeting in Los Angeles and declared that he had been committed to Zionism for 30 years.

‘This is because I believe that true Zionism is founded on the plan, purpose, and fiat of the everlasting and omnipotent God, as prophetically recorded in His Holy Word, the Bible.’

During his lifetime, Jewish Zionists honoured Blackstone more times than any other Christian leader. On one occasion, Brandeis wrote, ‘you are the Father of Zionism as your work antedates Herzl.’[xxiv] In 1918, Elisha Friedman, Secretary of the University Zionist Society of New York, similarly declared, ‘A well known Christian layman, William E. Blackstone, antedated Theodor Herzl by five years in his advocacy of the re-establishment of a Jewish State.’[xxv]

What Blackstone expressed in his speeches, books and petitions, Cyrus Scofield was to systematise in his Reference Bible.

6. Cyrus Scofield: The Canonising of Zionism (1843-1921)

Scofield may be regarded as the most influential exponent of Dispensationalism, following the publication of his Scofield Reference Bible by the Oxford University Press in 1918.[xxvi]

Yet while biographical works on the early Brethren, such as J. N. Darby and dispensationalists like D. L. Moody abound, Scofield remains an elusive and enigmatic figure. As a young and largely illiterate Christian, Scofield was profoundly influenced by J. N. Darby’s writings. Scofield popularised Darby’s distinction between God’s plan for the Jews apart from the Church, basing his reference notes on Darby’s own distinctive translation of the Bible.[xxvii] The combination of an attractive format, illustrative notes, and cross references has led both critics and advocates to acknowledge Scofield’s Bible to have been the most influential book among evangelicals during the first half of the 20th century.[xxviii]

Craig Blaising, professor of Systematic Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary acknowledges,

‘The Scofield Reference Bible became the Bible of Fundamentalism, and the theology of the notes approached confessional status in many Bible schools, institutes and seminaries established in the early decades of this Century.’[xxix]

Sandeen observes,

‘The book has thus been subtly but powerfully influential in spreading those views among hundreds of thousands who have regularly read that Bible and who often have been unaware of the distinction between the ancient text and the Scofield interpretation.’[xxx

Scofield’s influence extended well beyond his published writings. In the 1890s during Scofield’s pastorate in Dallas he was also head of the Southwestern School of the Bible, the forerunner to Dallas Theological Seminary, which became Dispensationalism’s ‘most scholarly institution’.[xxxi] The Seminary was founded in 1924 by one of Scofield’s disciples, Lewis Sperry Chafer, who in turn became Scofield’s most influential exponent.

To be continued..



2 comments on “Evangelical Theology & American Politics in the Middle East (1)

  1. Very good post. I would suggest that the elevated view of America within the church has also contributed to our sense of being a world wide champion and a kinship to Israel. And also Americans feel that America is a free nation and should export our brand of freedom around the world. In reality, America is not free but is enslaved to all kinds of deception and idolatry and humanism. BTW – I believe it is a grievous sin to print Bibles with men’s names on it and even add men’s notes on its pages as if they were the “Key to the Scriptures” (a la Mary Baker Eddy).
    The embracing of Israel even to the point of violence is just another example of men’s lust for idols. using Old Testament references like “I will bless them which bless you” etc. is a common practice among Chistians and it has led to all sorts of skewed doctrines.

    • You’re right, in many theological circles Israel has replaced Christ and has indeed become an Idol.

      By the way, i just realized when posting this last evening i had forgotten to add the author and link. Must have had turkey on the brain. 🙂

      Part 2 is going up so i’ll be sure to include both…

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