McDermott, Gerald R. Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2017. 158 pp.; Pb.; $17.90 Link to Brazos Press
Gerald McDermott edited a volume of essays on the status of Israel in the current age (The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land, InterVarsity Press, 2016). The volume included essays by two scholars associated with progressive dispensationalism (Darrell Bock and Craig Blaising), two writers associated with the Philos Project (an organization that promotes positive Christian engagement in the Middle East, Robert Nicholson and Shadi Khallou), two writers who edited an Introduction to Messianic Judaism (Zondervan, 2013; Joel Willitts and David Rudolph). This new volume by Brazos Press is an attempt to present the ideas of this previous work at a popular level.
In the introduction to this book, Dermott traces his move from the traditional view that the church has replaced Israel as God’s people to what he calls “New Zionism.” He indicates his theological training convinced him the Church is the new Israel, and any protests to that position came from Dispensationalism in the 1970s. Unfortunately, the Dispensationalism McDermott encountered argued for two separate ways of salvation (one for Israel, one for the church). McDermott was repelled by popular Dispensational emphases on fulfilling prophecy and predicting the rapture. In his previous volume, McDermott argued strenuously that New Christian Zionism pre-dates the origins of Dispensationalism. This is clearly true; one of the keys to the development of dispensational theology was the rejection of replacement theology, opening up the possibility Old Testament prophecy about Israel could be (literally) fulfilled in the future.
As he began to study the New Testament, he encountered many texts that implied God still loved Israel and that Israel had some kind of anticipated future. This caused him to question some of the training he received in theology. His theological training had uncritically assumed the historic replacement theology of the church. In his first chapter (“Getting the Big Story Wrong”), McDermott traces this history of supersessionism through the early church (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Origin) through the reformation, deism, and nineteenth-century rationalism.
Chapters 2-5 deal with the biblical data on Israel. First, McDermott deals with the claim that the New Testament teaches the church is the New Israel. Despite the fact the New Testament does not expressly teach replacement theology, any church history will show many in the early church did, in fact, see the church as a new Israel and often spiritualized the promises of the Old Testament to make the Old Testament applicable to the church. McDermott covered this history in the book’s first chapter, but in the third chapter, he tracks “those who got it right.”
Chapters 4 and 5 examine the Old and New Testaments to show God’s plan has always been to bring salvation to the world through Israel. Despite Israel’s rejection of God in the Old Testament and the Messiah in the Gospels, God’s plan still includes a future for Israel in the Land. McDermott has correctly recognized the importance of Peter’s sermons in Acts 2-3, especially the promise of the “times of refreshing” Acts 3:19 (first in the introduction, then several more times in the book, p. 75, for example). I have written about this passage in the past, including how this phrase resonates with themes in the Second Temple period. In addition, I consider this to be one of the key texts for understanding what is happening theologically in the Book of Acts
Chapter 6 deals with political objections to McDermott’s New Zionism, “What about the Palestinians?” In this chapter, he offers a brief overview of the emergence of Israel over the past hundred years, beginning with the British Mandate. This is the least satisfying chapter in the book, and perhaps McDermott would have been better off omitting this material from the book. It seems to me this overview is far too brief to deal with the complexity of the issue and will leave him open to criticism from those who are less positive about Israel’s recent political history. McDermott is quite clear (and correct) that properly understanding Israel’s place in history does not mean uncritical acceptance of the modern political State of Israel, nor would he agree with the strange American evangelical relationship with the State of Israel (usually having something to do with 1948 as the fulfillment of prophecy). But I do think his description of modern Israel and its relationship with Palestine will be the main thing some readers will criticize about this book.
Chapter 7 deals with the status of the New Covenant in the present age. A traditional reading of Hebrews 8:13 argues the New Covenant cancels the Old Covenant so that the Jewish people under that Old Covenant are no longer God’s special people. At the cross, they are replaced by the Church, and the Law has ended (at least, Paul seems to think so). McDermott rejects the older dispensational idea of two new covenants, one for the Jews and one for the church, as well as he should. McDermott points out Hebrews says the Law is passing away, not that it was abrogated at the cross. Paul’s point, for McDermott, is that the Law has a new meaning since the Messiah has come, not that the Law has been canceled.
McDermott turns to a few practical ramifications of his new Zionism in chapter 8 (”If All This Is True, Then What?”). He presents this material through the eyes of the senior pastor of his church, Mark Graham. As a result of several trips to Israel and continued dialogue with McDermott, Graham has begun to read the Bible with Jewish culture and history in mind. This may be as simple as realizing (and teaching) that the Greek word Christ ought to be understood as messiah, But Graham has made a conscious effort to preach more out of the Old Testament. As a result, he has rethought his understanding of church history and theology. McDermott offers one compelling example of this shift it theological thinking. McDermott includes a section here on rethinking the Israel-Palestinian conflict (which is pro-Israel).
As a short conclusion to the book, McDermott offers six proposals based on the observations in this book. First, he thinks the church can see itself in Israel. By ignoring the first two-thirds of salvation history, the church misunderstands God. Second, the history of redemption is ongoing because the present age is not the last stage in God’s redemptive plan. This implies (third) that prophecy is real, although it is mysterious. This means contemporary interprets ought to be wary of declaring the present State of Israel is a fulfillment of prophecy. Fourth, the land promises to Israel will be fulfilled in the future. Fifth, Israel and the church are “joined at the hip” even if neither side knows it. Sixth, the history of the treatment of Jews shows the “mystery of iniquity.”
Conclusion. Unlike McDermott, I was never part of a replacement theology tradition, so much of what is presented in this book sounds very familiar from two very different directions. First, McDermott has read N. T. Wright extensively and has picked up on some of the best elements of his presentation of Jesus and Paul, as well as the now popular idea of the “drama of redemption.” Although written at the popular level, there is significant substance behind the argument of this book.
Second, many of the ideas presented in this book are familiar to anyone who has read dispensationalism beyond the cartoon parody of the Left Behind crowd. Dispensationalism started with the observation that the Old Testament prophecies concerning Israel remained unfulfilled, and it was not satisfied by declaring these prophecies as fulfilled in the modern church. This ecclesiological observation (the church is not a new Israel) was Dispensationalism’s important contribution to the theological discussion and led to the re-reading Old Testament prophecy as predicting a real restoration of Israel in the future (a radical idea in 1900!) McDermott could include some Dispensationalists in his collection of people who “got it right.”
McDermott’s book is a very simple introduction to a very complex problem. He touches on issues that merit far more detail (perhaps their own monograph). That lack of detail will frustrate some readers but would go well beyond McDermott’s goal of presenting the case for New Zionism in a simple, straightforward fashion.
NB: Thanks to Baker and Brazos Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.