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Israel News,

Supersessionism Rising. Dispensationlism…?..

by Kevin Zuber

In October, 2010 many in the evangelical world were focused on the third Lausanne Conference in Capetown, South Africa. The Lausanne Movement begun in 1974 by Billy Graham, John Stott and others in Lausanne, Switzerland has had only three such major conferences in its over sixty-year history.

The purpose of the movement was ostensibly to unite and focus the efforts of global evangelicalism for the task of global evangelization. The preparations for the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Capetown included papers from several study groups; one such group was the Lausanne Theology Working Group. This group produced a document entitled The Whole Church Taking The Whole Gospel to The Whole World. This document was published on the Lausanne website1 and in the January 2010 issue of the Evangelical Review of Theology (Volume 34. Number 1, pages 4-13).

In one startling paragraph of that paper the members of the Theology Working Group at first affirmed the unity of the church: “We give thanks that the one Church that God has called into being in Christ is drawn from every nation, tribe, people and language,” but they then went on to assert that “no single ethnic identity can any longer claim to be ‘God’s chosen people’.” The theologians of the Lausanne Movement who produced this document further argued “God’s election of Old Testament Israel was for the sake of the eventual creation of this multi-national community of God’s people.” In other words, they assert that the purpose of the election of Israel was for the creation of the Church! This, of course, is a denial of God’s purposes for the ethnic descendants of Abraham and of a future for the nation of Israel.

The statement also asserted, “It is vital that we strongly affirm, therefore, that while there are multiple ethnicities within the one church by God’s clear intention, no single ethnic group holds privileged place in God’s economy of salvation or God’s eschatological purpose.” And just in case the theological and practical thrust of that assertion was not clear enough the paragraph concluded, “For this reason, we strongly believe that the separate and privileged place given to Jewish people today or to the modern Israeli state in certain forms of dispensationalism or Christian Zionism, should be challenged, inasmuch as they deny the essential oneness of the people of God in Christ.”

Many readers of this publication will recognize immediately that in this statement is a fairly obvious assertion of “covenant theology,” and an affirmation of “supersessionism,” or “replacement theology.” That is, the theology that denies that God has a future program for the nation of Israel and denies that the promises God has made to the ethnic descendants of Abraham – the Jewish people – will be kept fully and literally.

Why Is this important?

Why should we in IFCA International be aware of this statement and what might be its import?

We might begin by observing that the general drift of wider evangelicalism is decidedly in the direction indicated by this statement, namely toward supersessionism.2 Many, both inside the Lausanne movement and those close to it, when made aware of this statement and this paragraph found it unobjectionable and many endorsed it. This might have been surprising since, as noted, one of the professed purposes of the Lausanne movement was to create unity for the evangelistic enterprise of the church and this statement is obviously dismissive of a certain segment of evangelical Christianity. But authors of the statement and its subsequent defenders clearly felt that they were on a sufficiently solid theological footing when they choose to advocate for a particular supersessionist biblical / theological position and chose to dismiss those who hold to “certain forms of dispensationalism or Christian Zionism.” The authors of the document certainly believed that the advocates of “certain forms of dispensationalism or Christian Zionism” were insignificant enough as a group that they could be dismissed without significantly impacting the unity of the movement or the cause of global evangelization.

In short, it would appear that the authors of the statement believed that most of the Lausanne movement, and the wider evangelical public would agree with them in this dismissive marginalization of dispensationalism and the theological tradition that holds to a future for ethnic Israel. Sadly, I would have to agree with them in that theoretical estimate; that is, the proponents of “certain forms of dispensationalism or Christian Zionism” have been by and large marginalized by the wider evangelical community. The fact that this paragraph went largely unnoticed and its implications largely dismissed cannot be due simply to the relatively obscure place of publication. The very fact that it was written, published and originally endorsed by the leaders of the Lausanne Movement demonstrates that they and others believed that it reflected (or would reflect when published) the viewpoint of a considerable majority of its adherents. In short, they determined that it was safe to advocate for supersessionism and to dismiss dispensationalism.

The broader picture

Again, why should this matter to us? At this point I want to try and bring into focus the broader picture. That is, I want to widen the focus and by that to enable us to see an even more alarming trend – namely, the marginalization of the dispensational theological tradition and the rise of supersessionism. To be clear, I am asserting here that the statement of the Lausanne Theology Working Group is by no means an isolated aberration but merely one more example that dispensationalism, grounded in the Old Testament covenantal promises to Abraham and his descendants, established in promises to David and the nation of Israel, is a theological position that is an “endangered” position3, whereas supersessionism is finding a wider and growing support. I have several reasons to think this.

Some authors such as Craig Blaising, have suggested that the view that “God’s covenanted promises regarding Israel’s future… were transferred by God to the institution of the church” and that “the church was seen as the new Israel”4, is a view that is “increasingly being rejected by Christians as not accurately representing the message of Jesus, his apostles, or Scripture generally.”5 Other authors, however, suggest otherwise. For instance, Barry E. Homer has documented the rise in church history and in the history of Christian thought and has clearly demonstrated the pervasiveness of this view of supersessionism throughout church history and in current Christian thought.6 While it might be true that premillennialism and dispensational eschatology reached in the twentieth century something approaching (at least among North American evangelicals) a degree of “popular theological hegemony” there are reasons to think that that status is very much in question in the early years of the twenty-first century. In short, certain trends seem to be indicating that supersessionism is on the rise and dispensationalism is on the wane.

For instance, as a very general indication of this development it can be observed that three of the latest major evangelical systematic theologies, Wayne Grudem’s,7 Millard Erikson’s,8 and Robert Reymond’s9 each advocate some degree or form of supersessionism.10 It is not a stretch to argue that these systematic theologies represent something of a consensus of a “broad evangelical theology.” And if that is so, then they indicate supersessionism is far from vanishing but is in fact becoming more and more the viewpoint of the academically oriented and theologically minded evangelicals. Furthermore, as these texts are assigned and read in evangelical seminaries and Bible colleges they are more likely to move students in a supersessionist direction.

Furthermore, I have seen a growing weariness, even resistance to the study of eschatology and in particular the study of the details of premillennial dispensationalism.11 It may be fatigue from the best-selling Left Behind series or the influence of post-modern relativism.12 In any case, many of my students and their friends in other Christian colleges and universities13 have decided that eschatology is just not that important.14 And the students are not alone in this regard. Many lay people are of the same opinion.

Scholarly embarrassment?

Furthermore, and perhaps this is in part the cause of the point just made, it is my impression that Christian scholars, even the biblical scholars and evangelical theologians, are not all that interested in pursuing issues related to eschatology or even in advocating a particular position on eschatology. This is becoming more pervasive among premillennial dispensationalists. This may be (and I think it is) caused by the embarrassment that many of them feel when rubbing elbows with the wider scholarly evangelical community. It is something of a long-standing fact of scholarly life (nearly a “tradition”) that when one enters the “serious academy,” matters of eschatology are relegated to relative insignificance.13

One could recount dozens of testimonies of scholars who grew up in or were saved in churches that regarded the New Scofield Reference Bible with the highest esteem, churches that held Prophecy Conferences regularly if not annually, churches whose libraries were well stocked with the books of Chafer, Walvoord, Ryrie, Pentecost, McClain, Feinberg and the other luminaries of classic dispensationalism. But when those young scholars went off to graduate school or seminary (even evangelical seminaries) they were disabused of those resources and enlightened to the profundities of Ladd, Dodd, Bruce, Barr, and Barth (!)…and these days James Dunn and N. T. Wright among others.

As an illustration I would offer the example of the book 20th Century Theology by Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olsen.16 In many ways this is a fine piece of historical theology. And while no survey can cover everything, yet in that book none of the “old Dallas Seminary” authors are even mentioned and the subject of eschatology appears in only one index reference and that’s under the theology of Rudolph Bultmann! The message is clear: “scholarly theology” is simply not interested in the timing of the Rapture or the future of ethnic Israel.17

 Resurgence of reformed theology

Also, there has recently been a resurgence of Reformed theology among a broader range of evangelicals. The rise of Reformed theology (Westminster Confession of Faith type of Reformed), especially among the so-called “young restless and reformed”18 has generally and in some cases specifically had a deleterious effect on the study of eschatology. And more to the point, it has contributed to a movement away from premillennial dispensationalism toward a murky amillennial covenentalism.19 Popular preachers in that mode like John Piper20 (not so young but very popular with the young, restless and reformed men), Mark Driscoll,21 Kevin DeYoung22 and others as well as Reformed bloggers like Tim Challies23 have been on record as discounting prophetic themes while pushing a Westminster Confession of Faith / Reformed point of view that is inherently supersessionist. My point is that many of our young people, influenced by the popularity of the preachers and bloggers noted above, are becoming supersessionist almost without thinking. And this is happening even if they will somewhere in their theology affirm a form of premillennialism.

Spiritual vision eschatology

Next is the pervasiveness of what Blaising himself calls a spiritual-vision eschatology. This he defines as a “traditional eschatology which sees eternal life as a timeless, changeless, spiritual existence consisting primarily in the human soul’s full knowledge of God… This is the sum total of what eternal life is, and it defines what is meant by heaven.”24 In short, the sum total of the eschatology of many Christians is this simple phrase: “absent from the body, present with the Lord.” For many Christians (and many of them in our own churches) this simple formula entails all that one needs to know about eschatology. And this fits well with the vision of supersessionism.

According to this view, everything in this life is “a symbol of spiritual realities” so “Israel can only be a symbol of a spiritual people to come.”25 In this view, one can easily turn the Old Testament land promises to Abraham and his seed into “spiritual promises.” They fit into a spiritual-vision eschatology. But viewing the land promises as promises that are to be literally fulfilled seem less than credible (or even pertinent) to a simple eschatology defined as “going to be with the Lord” at one’s death and nothing more. The very earthly (to be fulfilled literally “on the very ground”) and temporal (in time and space) eschatology of dispensational premillennialism seems less credible to many believers than the vision of this pervasive “spiritual-vision” eschatology. The latter is simple and satisfying, the former (dispensational eschatology) seems complicated. And in the end, they ask “who’s going to care about the Antichrist when they are with Jesus?”

The lack in our pulpits

Finally, it seems to me that behind much of the uncertainty of dispensationalism in the pew and the classroom stems from the fact that doctrine in general and eschatology in particular is not being taught in the churches or preached from the pulpits. I realize this may seem a wild generalization. But the penchant for relevance in preaching and the cry for practical instruction in the church has pushed doctrinal study to the periphery in many churches. I see it in the incoming students even in Bible college. Doctrine is often viewed as dry and unrelated to life; and that seems especially so when the doctrine concerns matters like the tribulation and the millennial kingdom. Besides, these matters are controversial and seem to generate more heat than light and the post-modern student looking for cultural and practical relevance and the entrepreneurial pastor seeking to grow his church soon learn to avoid such matters.26All in all, I may be wrong on this and I deeply hope I am. But I’m afraid that premillennial dispensationalism is on the wane, and not because there are better arguments for other millennial views, or for supersessionism. I think this is because the scholars have decided there have been enough arguments over eschatology and that one’s view of the millennium is, well, inconsequential and that to advocate a particular view is in poor scholarly taste. And students are looking for cultural acceptance more than theological precision because they think this is a better way to reach the world with the gospel. The effect of such trends, I fear, is simply to cede ground to views that are by default supersessionist.

Why does this matter? For one consequential matter is Jewish evangelism. It is much more likely for those who believe Scripture teaches a future for national Israel will be involved in ministries devoted to Jewish evangelism. It should be a concern for all of us who understand the Scriptural priority of Jewish evangelism to see that the theological tradition that has nurtured much of the impetuous for Jewish evangelism is healthy. One author made the telling observation that there are few staunchly Reformed organizations devoted to reaching the Jewish people.

But even more widely, we should be concerned because the truth we affirm from the Scriptures is in danger of being lost not in the rigors of theological debate and a progressively clearer understanding of the program and plan of God revealed in His Word. It is in danger of being marginalized by those who dismiss it while at the same time it wanes from lack of affirmation, advocacy and teaching by those who formally affirm it. It is one thing for our churches and students to be drawn away by advocates of other eschatological viewpoints. But it is another thing to allow them to drift away by our relative neglect. At the present time both developments are taking place.

Conclusion

Perhaps the optimists are right and supersessionism will not overtake the more Scriptural view that God indeed has a future for ethnic, national Israel. But even if they are right, it is appropriate for us to consider the challenges I have mentioned carefully and to address them boldly and confidently.

How then must we respond? The prescription is, I think very simple to state but will take some determined effort if there is to be a reversal of these trends.

Those who are undecided and on the fence regarding eschatological matters need to get off the fence! Study and show yourself approved! I’m confident that a serious of study of eschatology, looking at both sides and reading both covenant theologians and dispensational authors (such as those books mentioned above) will lead you to a firm conviction of dispensational eschatology.

Also, we educators need to teach this to our students and we pastors need to preach this to our flocks. The trends noted have not risen over night and will not be easily reversed – but they are reversible. If IFCA International does not stand for dispensational theology, who will?

ENDNOTES

1. http://www.lausanne.org/documents/twg-three-wholes.html accessed March 22, 2011; while the majority of the statement is still posted the offending paragraph discussed in this article has subsequently been removed. However, the original statement remains a matter of record in the journal article cited in the text above.

2. I am using the term “supersessionism, supersessionist” as Michael J. Vlach does, Has the Church Replaced Israel?, (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2010) as “the view that the NT church is the new and/or true Israel that has for ever superseded the nation of Israel as the people of God.” (p. 12). Valch’s refinements of the definition / position in his chapter on “What is Supersessionism?” (pp. 4-17) informs my use of the term in this article.

3. Some may think that is something of an over statement or exaggeration—and perhaps it is. But I would contend that if the trends I identify in the rest of this article are not addressed then “endangered” is not too strong a term.

4. Craig A. Blaising, “The Future of Israel as a Theological Question,” in To The Jew First: The Case for Jewish Evangelism in Scripture and History, ed. by Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic 8c Professional, 2008), 103; i.e. “supersessionism.”

5. Blaising, “The Future of Israel,” 103.

6. Barry E. Homer, Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2007). Horner styles this view “anti-Judaism” and traces its origins to (mainly) the writings of Aurelius Augustine, see pages 3ff; 22, 65ff, and many other references.

7. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994) “…we should notice the many New Testament verses that understand the church as the ‘new Israel’ or new ‘people of God.’” (861). Grudem holds to “historic pre-millennialism” (1127).

8. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 1053; Erickson can say “the church is the new Israel,” and yet also affirm, “There is a special future for national Israel. They are still the special people of God.” Erickson is premillennial (1224) but post-tribulational (1231).

9. Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology Of The Christian Faith 2nd Edition – Re-vised And Updated, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998); Reymond is a signatory of the Open Letter discussed in the point above.

10. Cf. Vlach, Has The Church Replaced, 22-23;Vlach locates Erickson and Grudem in the category of “moderate supersessionism” along with George Ladd.

11. In what follows I will not attempt to document all of my concerns, some of which are admit tedly anecdotal in nature; however, I believe that many IFCA pastors could corroborate these concerns from their own experiences.

12. By that I mean, if we find the interpretation of the past a confusing mix of multi-cultural analyses and ideologically driven revisionisms and reconstructions then how can we possibly say for certain what the future will hold?

13. Here is just one ‘young evangelical’s’ view but it rings true to things I myself have heard: “I get the sense that for many of my young evangelical peers, the doctrine of eschatology is less important not because of careful reflection upon the Scriptures, but because of the political and cultural scorn the doctrine has earned. For most young evangelicals, eschatology is cringe inducing not because traditional formulations are wrong, but because they are weird. That all Christians would disappear in a flash will hardly earn Christians cultural acceptability—and cultural acceptance, today, is their paramount desire.” (Matthew Lee Anderson, “The New Evangelical Scandal,” The City: A Publication of Huston Baptist University, January 15, 2009; http://www.civitate.org/2009/01/the-new-evangelical-scandal/ accessed March 22, 2011); the whole article is worth reading.

14. See Paul Martin Henebury, ‘Where Are All the Young People? The Pre-Trib Conference 2010,” http://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2010/12/13/where-are-all-the-young-people-the-pre-trib-conference-2010/; Henebury (aka Dr. Reluctant) observes that young people are not flocking to the Pre-Trib conference held annually by Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice; “We may wish to point our fingers at the undoubtedly faddish “Young, Restless and Reforme” movement [see the discussion below], but the lack of new blood in dispensationalism is very worrying, even if it was predictable.”

15. See for instance (and this is only one) the testimony of Richard S. Hess, in his chapter, “The Future Written in the Past: The Old Testament and the Millennium,” in Blomberg and Chung, eds., A Case For Historic Premillennialism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), pp. 23-24. Hess writes, “”Several experiences in my life moved me away from this fascination with, and focus on, the details of Christ’s return.” “The ensuing years occupied me with the study of the Hebrew Bible in its original context and kept me safely away from the prophecy wars in evangelicalism.” The message is clear: serious scholars are not interested in the details of prophecy—they have ‘matured” beyond such a “fascination.”

16. Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olsen, 20th Century Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1992)

17. Another indication of the lack of scholarly interest in these matters is the rather lack-luster attendance at the Dispensational Study Group at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. This is pure ly anecdotal but it has appeared to me that while overall attendance at the ETS meeting has grown over the last few years, attendance at the meetings of the Dispensational Study Group has dwindled.

18. Cf. Colin Hansen, “Young, Restless and Reformed,” Christianity Today, September 22, 2006; http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/september/42.32.html; accessed march 22, 2011; see also Colin Hansen, “Reflections on Young Restless and Reformed,” Reformation 21, February 2009 http://www.reformation21. org/articles/reflections-on-young-restless-and-reformed.php accessed March 22, 2011.

19. A popular website resource for the “young, rest less and reformed” is http://www.monergism. com/; this site is decidedly anti-dispensational and pro-covenant theology. However, it has many good and useful sources for other aspects of Bible and theological study.20. See http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/what-does-john-piper-believe-about-dispensationalism-covenant-theology-and-new-covenant-theology; this page indicates that Piper “is probably the furthest away from dispensationalism, although he does agree with dispensationalism that there will be a millennium.” I would conclude that Piper holds to a form of “historic premillenialism.”’

21. http://www.marshillchurch.org/markdriscoll

22. http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindey-oung/about/; DeYoung’s tag line is “DeYoung, Restless and Reformed.”

23. http://www.challies.com/; Challies clearly does not accept dispensationalism but periodically it comes up on his blog and he is a fair critic.

24. Blaising, “The Future of Israel,” 119.

25. Blaising, “The Future of Israel,” 119.

26. For more on this point see John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 3rd edition, 2010).

Dr. Kevin Zuber is Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute and Pastor of Grace Bible Church Northwest. He is an IFCA International member.

Published in VOICE magazine, September/October 2011

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