Thursday, April 10, 2014

Waning evangelical support for Israel tied to rejection of dispensationalism

Dale M. Coulter, writing today for First Things, observes that waning support for the state of Israel among American evangelicals may be indicative of a shift in theological perspective.
While there is no doubt a push for greater recognition of Palestinian Christians among certain evangelical groups, a key issue that has yet to be addressed is the role of dispensationalism and its view of the End. When John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel is a prominent advocate of a rapture theology, one can be sure dispensationalism is in the background. There is a theological issue at stake in this debate that offers a backdrop for the political debate. Evangelicals who want greater support for Israel ignore this issue at their peril.

Placing the theological foundation of any support for Israel within a dispensational framework is problematic because it weds the issue to a highly debated and controversial theological position. In brief, dispensationalism maintains a clear distinction between Israel and the church although Progressive Dispensationalism sees both as part of the one people of God. God has not forsaken his covenant with the natural descendants of Abraham. The consummation of Christian salvation history will begin with a secret rapture of the church, the point of which is for God to fulfill his plan for Israel. Historical events such as the foundation of the modern state of Israel are viewed as prophetic clues to the approaching of the end.

As understood by John Hagee, Christian Zionism is framed in terms of end-time prophecy. In addition, Hagee weds together biblical texts about blessing Israel to a prosperity message, saying that doing the former will bring the latter. He also suggests that any deviation in support for the state of Israel will lead to divine judgment. Again, this is shaky terrain.

No Reformed person worth their salt theologically would go near dispensationalism or prosperity theology although a “Calvinist” occupying the space between theological worlds might. Even within Pentecostal circles rapture theology is not universally embraced. Premillennialism, the belief that at his second coming Jesus will set up an earthly kingdom is fairly standard, but there is room for divergence on a secret rapture of the church.

The point is that the future of evangelical support for Israel cannot rest upon a theological foundation that divides many Evangelicals from one another. It would not surprise me to discover that there is a correlation between waning support for Israel and a rejection of the rapture theology behind dispensationalism.
The remainder of the article wanders into the weeds with some speculation about the development of "an Evangelical theology of Judaism." Catholics, Orthodox, and some mainline Protestant groups have apparently done a better job of engaging practicing Jews at a deeper theological level, to the point, at times, of making evangelicals nervous about their commitment to the centrality of Christ as the only way to salvation.

Pros and cons of supporting Israel aside, however, the growing rejection of dispensationalism is a welcome sign of theological maturation by many evangelicals. John Hagee's history of fomenting "end times" hysteria and his latest fabrication surrounding the "four blood moons" ought to place him outside the pale of orthodoxy even among the most sectarian of evangelical groups. Russell D. Moore has plotted a more sane (although, I would argue, not yet fully satisfactory) course for future evangelical excursions into the study of last things and, as head of the influential Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, he will likely have a lot more say in plotting that course than will the fast fading figure known not so affectionately as "Dr. Armageddon."