Interview with Gerald R. McDermott, author of THE NEW CHRISTIAN ZIONISM: FRESH PERSPECTIVES ON ISRAEL AND THE LAND

Published on May 16, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

IVP Academic, 2016 | 352 pages

You don’t have to read your Bibles very long before you notice that Israel plays a very important role in the story. And you don’t have to read much further before you notice that God’s promise that she will inherit her own land is prominent also. So how does all that play out now that Jesus has come and Israel remains in unbelief? That’s the topic Gerald McDermott takes up in the new book he has edited, entitled, The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land. A bold title like that – The New Christian Zionism – is sure to get your attention, and Dr. McDermott is with us today to talk about his book.

Gerry, welcome! Congratulations on your new book, and thanks for talking to us about it.

Gerald McDermott:
Well, I appreciate very much your having me on the show, Fred.

 

Fred Zaspel:
What is the “new Christian Zionism”? What is new about it? And how is it distinguished from other Zionisms, whether ethnic, nationalistic, or theological?

McDermott:
Well, it’s new in four ways. First it has nothing to do with dispensationalism which Christian Zionism typically is associated with. Secondly, it’s willing to criticize the state of Israel, it doesn’t claim that the present state of Israel is perfect. Third, we are agnostic on eschatology, we aren’t attached to any particular eschatological scheme, whether pre-millennial or post-millennial or amillennial. Fourth, we believe and we argue in the book that Christian Zionism is not a recent invention of the dispensationalist project which arose in the 19th century, but is actually 2000 years old. It goes all the way back to the New Testament. And we argue in this book that the New Testament is thoroughly Zionist and the only reason why we haven’t seen that is because we’ve been trained not to see it.

 

Zaspel:
Give us a brief historical sketch of Jews in their land, and relate this to your thesis that “Zionism” at least in some sense is nothing new.

McDermott:
Jews have been in the land for more than 3000 years. And they’ve been there in concentrated numbers even after the fall of Jerusalem in 70, and even after the second fall of Jerusalem in 135 A.D. in primarily four periods. Now, there have always been Jews in the land, but concentrated numbers in these four years since 135 A.D. First, between 135 and 600 the rabbis were concentrated in Galilee where they compiled the Mishna, which was the beginning of what eventually became the Talmud. And then second, the 8th through the 10th centuries, the Galilee again was central of Jewish religious thought and life. Then in the 16th through the 19th centuries Safed became a pilgrimage site and a center for Jewish mysticism and thought up in Galilee again. And then starting in the 18th and 19th centuries, long before the rise of dispensationalism, Jews in large numbers began returning to the land. Our thesis in the book is that Christian Zionism is 2000 years old and that Jews have been Zionists ever since 135 A.D. In other words, they been dreaming of returning to the land. For 1500 years Jews have prayed the Amidah in the morning, afternoon, and night, praying for the Temple to be rebuilt and for them to be able to return to the land. In the Talmud, it says that the dwelling in the land of Israel is equal to all commandments in the Torah. So this is an ancient movement, it’s not simply a modern movement as has been alleged by its critics.

 

Zaspel:
I think that part of the book is going to be eye-opening to many people; I don’t think that’s been said very much. I think it will be helpful.

Is Jewish Zionism racist or theocratic?

McDermott:
Well, we argue that it’s neither. If you go to modern Israel today, you see that the Zionism, which is the movement that supports having a state of Israel in the Middle East today, is anything but racist because you see Jews of all different colors. You see black Jews from Ethiopia, you see brown Jews from North Africa, you see white Jews from Eastern Europe. There are Chinese Jews. This goes all the way back to the Bible. Judaism was never a racist religion. Rahab and Ruth came from different races to join Israel. David’s officers and trusted advisors came from what’s now Jordan and Turkey and Syria and Lebanon, different races, different ethnic groups, and joined Israel. Some people also say that Israel is theocratic, which literally means the rule of God and traditionally in history has meant the rule of a nation by the clerics, by the clergy as Iran truly is today ruled by the Mullahs. But the state of Israel is ruled by civilians and not by rabbis, although there are some rabbis in the Knesset. But the most vivid evidence that the state of Israel, today, is not a theocracy, is to see the frequent conflicts between the rabbinic leaders and the civilian leaders who run the state of Israel. And besides, there are 2 million non-Jewish Israeli citizens who have full rights and privileges, mostly Palestinians, that a typical theocracy would not permit. One chapter in our book is by Shadi Khalloul who is a leader of the Aramaeans, what we would consider Palestinian, although he says, “we were in the land long before the Arabs came, we are not Arabs, we are Christians and we love living in the state of Israel because it’s the only place in the Middle East where we can live out our Christian faith and raise our children as Christians with complete freedom.” This is not a theocracy.

 

Zaspel:
You mention in your book that you believe that the return of the Jews to their land witnessed in the last century is at least in some sense a fulfillment of prophecy, and yet you do not seem to insist that Israel as a state today may not be displaced. How does all that work out?

McDermott:
We believe the return of Jews from all over the world to the land in the last century and a half, and then setting up the state of Israel in 1948, was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. But the Bible doesn’t tell us when the end is going to come. It doesn’t tell us that this particular state, right now, led by Netanyahu, is the last one before the eschaton. We don’t know that. We don’t know that there might not be a new Holocaust. In fact, most of Israel’s neighbors want there to be a new Holocaust and the state of Iran has dedicated itself to destroying the state of Israel. We don’t know that that’s not going to happen, and that somehow there’s another rebirth of Israel in the land before the eschaton. But this state we do know is the shelter for God’s covenant people who have come to the land in this remarkable fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

 

Zaspel:
How should all of this work out in terms of the Christian attitude toward the nation of Israel today? I grew up in dispensationalist circles that – at least on the popular level – left us thinking that we must support the nation of Israel unreservedly. But that’s not what you’re saying, is it.

McDermott:
Right. If the state of Israel does things which are not right, and of course every state does things that are not right, I mean look at our own country, we should not support policies or decisions that are not righteous. However, we also need to realize, particularly at this critical moment in the history of redemption and in the history of secular politics, that the state of Israel today in 2017 is the only democracy in the whole Middle East that allows political freedom to oppose it, to speak up against it and not be thrown in jail, and religious freedom to practice your faith as you want to practice it, even if it’s not the majority religion. There’s no other nation in the Middle East that permits either of those things. And so simply for prudential and pragmatic reasons we ought to support this tiny little state that truly is a light to the nations.

 

Zaspel:
You mention a thesis advanced in the eighteenth century that a people group is formed by geography, language, customs, and (for some) race. Why do you bring this up? How is it relevant to your topic and thesis?

McDermott:
I bring it up because it helps refute the theory today that I’ve heard from some of my academic colleagues that Zionism is a new thing that arose only in the 19th century because of 19th century rebirth of state nationalism. But I argue in this book that Israel is not just another nationalism that arose in the 19th century. It’s an old thing, it’s not just a new thing that my academic critics, by the way, use to say that Jews have no more right to the land than Arab Muslims, and in fact have less rights because Arab Muslims, they say, have been there longer than the Jews have. It’s simply not true. And this very theory of what a nation means, that became particularly pointed in the 19th century actually shows, it underscores, the uniqueness of the Jewish claim because the Jewish people are a civilization; and they are the only civilization that has retained the unity of religion and language and culture over more than 2500 years. When you look at all these other states they came together as nations in the 19th century, like Germany and Greece and Italy and Poland and Romania, none of them can say that. Even Greece and Italy who come closest to being able to say this and point back to the Greece and Italy in the ancient world, for neither of them however is the present religion and the present culture much like at all the religion and culture of Greece and Italy in the ancient world. But for Israel, you have the same language, you have the same religion going all the way back to the ancient world and therefore the same culture. So Zionism is not just a recent invention with the rise of nationalism in the 19th century.

 

Zaspel:
How do you approach all this in your book? Can you give us a brief overview?  

McDermott:
Sure. Well, the introduction is where I argue that Christian Zionism is not dispensationalism, it’s not merely nationalism, it’s not merely Christian. You know, Jews are also Zionists. It’s not land theft. The Jews did not steal the land from the Arabs. It’s not racist and it’s not a theocracy.

Part one is called Theology and History and that’s where, in chapter 1, I have a history of supersessionism, which is a synonym for replacement theology. So supersessionism means that the church has superseded Israel and replacement theology is the same thing, that the church has replaced Israel and is the new Israel. And I argue against all of that. Well, in chapter 1, I show the history of that belief and then in chapter 2, I show a history of Christian Zionism that goes all the way back to the New Testament and, in its essence, it has nothing to do with pre-millennial dispensationalism.

Then, the most important part of the book is part two, Theology and the Bible. And those are four chapters. The first chapter is about biblical hermeneutics, how do we understand the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments, particularly on the question of Israel. Chapter 4 is on the gospel of Matthew, arguing that Matthew is thoroughly Zionist. Chapter 5 is on Luke-Acts, making the same argument that Luke-Acts is thoroughly Zionist. Chapter 6 is on the letters of Paul and arguing that Paul is a Zionist, contrary to previous interpretations.

And then part three is Theology and Its Implications. So, chapter 7 is about the early Zionism, then the later Anti-Zionism in mainline Protestant churches. Chapter 8 is on Reinhold Niebuhr, showing that he was a Christian Zionist. Chapter 9 is by a legal expert who addresses the question of whether the modern state of Israel is breaking international law, and his answer is no, contrary to what we typically hear in the media. And then chapter 10 is by Shadi Khalloul, as I said, an Aramaean Christian leader who lives in the state of Israel and arguing that even though Israel does make mistakes and has done some things harmful to his own community, nevertheless, overall the state of Israel is faithful to the moral demands of the covenant in its treatment of minorities, like his community.

And then the last, part four, is Theology in the Future. Darrell Bock from Dallas Seminary talks about things that the new Christian Zionism needs to keep in mind. And then finally, in chapter 12, I spin out a few theses about what this new Christian Zionism means for Christian theology.

 

Zaspel:
You have another book on this subject coming out soon also – maybe you can tell us about it briefly.

McDermott:
Yes, it’s entitled Israel Matters and is being published by Brazos in May. It’s my personal story about how I went from being a supersessionist, a classic traditional supersessionist to my position on Israel today, the meaning of the people of Israel and the meaning of the land of Israel.

Fred, can I also mentioned another book that just came out a couple of months ago?

 

Zaspel:
Sure.

McDermott:
It might have interest to some of your listeners. I’m a stutterer, and I’ve been a stutterer all my life. My stuttering used to be really, really bad. This book is a secular book, although there are some Christian sub-themes, but it’s addressed to a secular audience and it’s titled, Famous Stutterers. It’s a story of twelve famous people who did great things for the world from Moses to Marilyn Monroe. And Peter Brown, the great historian of the early church and of St. Augustine. Winston Churchill, Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of the battle of Gettysburg, John Updike the great novelist, Aristotle, Demosthenes – twelve famous stutterers. And the title of the book is Famous Stutterers.

 

Zaspel:
Interesting! I’m glad you mentioned it.

We’re talking to Dr. Gerald McDermott, editor of the new book, The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land. It is indeed a fresh perspective on the question that will doubtless command wide attention on an always important theological question.

Dr. McDermott, thanks for talking to us today, and all the best on your new book!

McDermott:
Thank you very much for having me on.

Buy the books

The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land

IVP Academic, 2016 | 352 pages