Throughout the history of the Christian church, the question of Israel’s place within God’s redemptive purposes has been of special importance. In modern history, with the emergence of dispensationalism as a popular eschatological viewpoint and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the theological question of God’s intention for Israel has become even more pressing. After the Holocaust, the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews throughout Europe during World War II, the issue of the relation between the church and Israel has also been affected anew by the sad reality of anti-Semitism, which some allege belongs to any Christian theology that insists upon one way of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, whether for Jews or Gentiles.
In order to orient the discussion of this critical issue, we need to begin with a clear understanding of the major views on this question that are represented today within the church. These views illustrate not only the importance of the question, but the wide diversity of positions.
Premillennial Dispensationalism: God’s Special Purpose for Israel
Although premillennial dispensationalism is a relatively new viewpoint in the history of Christian theology, its position on God’s special purpose for Israel has shaped, even dominated, recent debates among evangelical Christians on the relationship between the church and Israel.
In classic dispensationalism, God has two distinct peoples: an earthly people, Israel, and a heavenly people, the church. According to dispensationalism, God administers the course of the history of redemption by means of seven successive dispensations or redemptive economies. During each dispensation, God tests human beings by a distinct revelation of His will. Among these seven dispensations, the three most important are the dispensation of law, the dispensation of the gospel, and the dispensation of the kingdom. While it is not possible in a short essay like this to describe all the distinctives of these dispensations, what is important is dispensationalism’s insistence that God has a separate purpose and a distinct manner of dealing with His earthly people, Israel. During the present era, the dispensation of the church, God has “suspended” His special purposes for Israel and turned His attention, in a manner of speaking, to the gathering of the Gentile peoples through the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the nations. However, when Christ returns at any moment to “rapture” the church prior to a seven-year period of great tribulation, He will resume God’s special program for Israel. This tribulation period will be a prelude to the commencement of the future dispensation of a one thousand-year kingdom upon the earth. For dispensationalism, the millennium marks the period during which God’s promises to Israel, His earthly people, will receive a distinct, literal fulfillment. Only at the end of the dispensation of the millennial kingdom will Christ finally vanquish all of His enemies and introduce the final state.
Though dispensationalism acknowledges that all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are saved by faith in the one Mediator, Jesus Christ, it maintains a clear and permanent distinction between Israel and the church within the purposes of God. The promises of the Old Testament are not fulfilled through the gathering of the church of Jesus Christ from among all the peoples of the earth. These promises are given to an earthly, ethnically distinct people, Israel, and they will be fulfilled in a literal manner only during the dispensation of the kingdom that follows the present dispensation of the gospel.
The Traditional Reformed View: One People of God
Contrary to dispensationalism’s sharp demarcation between God’s two peoples, Israel and the church, historic Reformed theology insists on the unity of God’s redemptive program throughout history. When Adam, the covenant head and representative of the human race, fell into sin, all human beings as his posterity became liable to condemnation and death (Rom. 5:12–21). By virtue of Adam’s sin and its implications for the entire human race, all people became subject to the curse of the law and heirs of a sinfully corrupt nature.
According to the traditional Reformed interpretation of Scripture, God initiated the covenant of grace after the fall in order to restore His chosen people to communion and fellowship with Himself. While the covenant of grace is administered diversely throughout the course of the history of redemption, it remains one in substance from the time of its formal ratification with Abraham until the coming of Christ in the fullness of time. In all of the various administrations of the covenant of grace, God redeems His people through faith in Jesus Christ, the one Mediator of the covenant of grace, through whom believers receive the gift of eternal life and restored communion with the living God (see Berkhof, Systematic Theology, pp. 293–5).
In the Reformed understanding of the history of redemption, therefore, there is no ultimate separation between Israel and the church. The promise God made to Abraham in the formal ratification of the covenant of grace (Gen. 12; 15; 17), namely, that he would be the father of many nations and that in his “seed” all the families of the earth would be blessed, finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The seed promised to Abraham in the covenant of grace is Jesus Christ, the true Israel, and all who through faith are united to Him and, thus, heirs of the covenant promises (Gal. 3:16, 29). In the Reformed view, the gospel of Jesus Christ directly fulfills the promises of the covenant of grace for all believers, whether Jews or Gentiles. Israel and the church are not two distinct peoples; rather, the church is the true Israel of God, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9).
In the recent history of reflection upon the issue of Israel and the church, a new and more radical position has emerged. Often linked with the name of Franz Rosenzweig, a Jewish author of a work written shortly after World War I entitled The Star of Redemption, two-covenant theology teaches that there are two separate covenants, one between God and Israel and the other between God and the church of Jesus Christ. Rather than there being one way of redemption through faith in Jesus Christ for Jew and Gentile believers alike, God’s original covenant relationship with His ancestral people, Israel, remains separate from His new covenant relationship with the Gentile nations through the Lord Jesus Christ.
Within the setting of a post-World War II concern over the legacy of anti-Semitism in the Christian church, the two-covenant theology position has become increasingly popular among many mainline Protestant churches. Even within the Roman Catholic Church, some theologians have appealed to the pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II’s Redemptoris Missio (1991), which advocate dialogue between Christians and Jews, in order to oppose continued efforts to evangelize Jews. In the two-covenant viewpoint, the Christian confession regarding the person and work of Christ as the only Mediator or Redeemer holds true within the framework of God’s covenant with the church. However, since God’s covenant with Israel is a separate covenant, which is not fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ in the fullness of time, Christians may not impose upon Israel the terms of God’s covenant with the church.
Extreme Replacement Theology
The final position on the issue of Israel and the church that requires comment is what we might term “extreme replacement theology.” While dispensationalists often insist that the traditional Reformed affirmation of one people of God comprised of Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ is a form of “replacement” theology, the Reformed view does not regard the gospel as “replacing” the older covenant economy with Israel but “fulfilling” it. Extreme replacement theology is the teaching that, because many of the Jews did not acknowledge Jesus Christ to be the Messiah of promise, God replaced Israel with the Gentile church. The gospel of Jesus Christ calls all nations and peoples to faith and repentance, but it leaves no room for any particular focus upon God’s redemptive purpose for His ancestral people, Israel. Because the church is the true, spiritual Israel, any peculiar focus upon the question of God’s saving intention for Israel is no longer permitted.
Extreme replacement theology represents the opposite end of the spectrum from the two-covenant position. Rather than speaking of a distinct covenant relationship between God and Israel that continues even after the coming of Christ and the proclamation of the gospel to the nations, replacement theology maintains that God’s program for and interest in Israel has ended.
The diversity among these various positions on the issue of Israel and the church testifies to the importance of this issue. Does God have a separate purpose and redemptive program for Israel and the church? Or, does the gospel of Jesus Christ fulfill God’s purpose to gather a people from every tribe, tongue, and nation, Jews and Gentiles alike, into one worldwide family? When the Apostle Paul declares in Romans 1 that the gospel is the “power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile” (Rom. 1:16), he declares that there is one way of salvation for all who believe in Jesus Christ. Yet he simultaneously affirms that this salvation does not displace or supersede God’s redemptive purpose for the Jews but, rather, fulfills it. The ongoing debate about Israel and the church needs to maintain the Apostle’s balance, neither separating Israel and the church nor displacing Israel with the church.