Saturday, May 28, 2011

Michael Horton on Israel

A reader of a previous post on Israel "Hatred of the Chosen People is Rooted in Hatred of God" asks me what my take is on this post by Michael Horton "Biblical Foreign Policy?" in which Horton criticizes Jack Hayford's recent call for Christians to stand with Israel as a "holy nation."

Horton argues that this is not a biblical position. Why not? He points to Hayford's dispensational theology as the basis for Hayford's argument that Israel is a holy nation and claims that if one does not accept dispensationalism, one has no basis to think of Israel as anything but a secular nation. As such, it has no claim on Christian support any more than any other nation.

Horton says that Hayford roots his argument in the Abrahamic Covenant, but the Abrahamic promises were conditional. The land was part of the blessing but Israel's disobedience led to the forfeiting of the land and the promises are all fulfilled in Christ. He writes:

I can agree with the point that “This relates not only to a people (the Jews), but it also relates to a land (Israel),” and that God did in fact judge Israel’s enemies. Nevertheless, God’s covenant with Israel was itself conditional. It is not Israel’s land, but God’s, and if Israel breaks the covenant, then the land will “vomit out” Israel as well (Lev 20:22). God himself will lay the nation waste through other nations and send his people into exile “east of Eden.” The land will no longer be holy, but common, even though God continues to work through the holy line—the “stump of Jesse,” from whom David and eventually the greater David (the Messiah) would come. Throughout the law (especially in Deuteronomy), the temporal promise of “long life in the land” is conditioned on Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant it swore at Mount Sinai. It is distinct from the unconditional promise of everlasting life and peace through Abraham’s Seed, through whom all families of the earth will be blessed.

The way the Gospels, but especially Hebrews and Galatians, interpret these passages is to recognize that the Sinai covenant was temporary, conditional, and typological. It was a shadow of the things to come—namely, Christ and his kingdom. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus announces a “regime change” from the civil laws of the theocracy. Instead of driving out the enemies of God, the True Israel—those united to Christ—are to endure suffering for the gospel and to pray for their persecutors. God’s common grace is shed on the just and the unjust alike in this age. Having fulfilled its job, like a trailer for a movie, the old covenant is now “obsolete” (Heb 8:13). Christ’s ministry, far greater than that of Moses, fulfills the everlasting promise that God made to Abraham. Now, blessing has come from the Jews to the ends of the earth in Jesus Christ, the true Israel, the true and faithful Son of David, the true Temple.

Now I myself am an amillennialist and there is much in this interpretive approach that I can agree with. The Reformed approach needs to be wary of veering too close to a hard line dispensationalist approach, on the one hand, and also be careful not to give aid and comfort to Marcionism, on the other. I have two problems with Horton's post: one theological and one political and they are closely connected.

The first problem I have with his post is that he comes close to supersessionism in saying that all the promises made to Israel are fulfilled in Christ. (This is not outright Marcionism, but there is definitely a bad odor of Marcionism in the air.) He does explicitly say that he believes that the Church has not replaced Israel and that in the last days there will be a great outpouring of God's Spirit on Israel and both of those statements are true and I am grateful that he makes them. The problem comes when he says that God's future plan for blessing Israel has nothing to do with the State of Israel. Nothing? Isn't that going a bit far? Isn't "not replaced" a rather weak way to describe God's on-going concern for Israel? In fact, if God is not protecting Israel now (and all through the centuries between the first and second comings of Christ) then how could Israel even endure all this time, longer than any other recognizable people? He has to preserve them if He is going to be able to bless them in the last days.

We can agree that the modern State of Israel is not a fulfillment of biblical prophecy in the sense of being the literal fulfillment of OT promises about returning to the land without going so far as to say that the (modern, secular) State of Israel has nothing to do with God's continuing concern for Israel.

When Horton says that there will be an outpouring of God's Spirit on Israel in the last days, he is referring to Rom. 11:26 "All Israel will be saved," which Paul refers to as a mystery. (25) That honors one important Pauline emphasis. But Paul also expresses concern for Israel in the period of "hardening" while the Gentiles are coming in (i.e. now). He warns the Gentiles not to get too proud and urges them to remember that they are being incorporated into Israel, not the other way round.
"But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you." (Rom. 11:17-18 ESV)
It is this consciousness of the Church being dependent upon the root (Israel) and God's on-going concern for Israel now that I find missing in Horton's post. And it leads to an indifference to Israel as a state. If the State of Israel is part of God's providential provision for Israel's continued existence throughout history as we move toward the last days when "all Israel will be saved" then I think Christians have a theological reason to be concerned for Israel.

The second issue is a political one and it follows directly on the theological context just sketched. There is no doubt that Israel is a secular, nation state. But to think that God cannot and does not work through kings, empires, nation-states etc. in working out His Providence would be an unbiblical notion. Scripture explicitly teaches in both Testaments that God raises up kings and states and casts them down according to His mysterious purposes. He brings judgment on oppressors and He causes a witness to His glory to be made possible.

In this context, we need to see the State of Israel as God's gracious provision for the protection of His people. It may well be that the worldwide anti-Semitism of the mid-Twentieth century was just a warm-up for the coming hatred of the Jews to be displayed through the UN and most nations of the world. We don't know, but it is hardly far-fetched to suggest that God's plan for preventing the extermination of the Jews might include a nuclear-armed Israel upon which God's temporal blessing is even now being poured out.

None of us know the future; all we can go on is observations made in the present. Maybe the State of Israel will not endure until the Second Coming, which may be a long way off. Unlike my Dispensational friends, I am agnostic on those points. All I am insisting is that God is using the secular nation-state of Israel to perform a task right now and that that task is the protection of the Jews. I have no problem believing that God can and does accomplish His purposes in history through secular politics. (Ironically, the Orthodox Jews who do not believe in the State of Israel may end up being saved because of it. Such ironies abound in history.)

Politically, Israel is an outpost of civilization in a sea of tyranny and barbarism. Israel is a liberal, democratic, state which honors the rule of law and has a limited government. The only Arabs in the world who enjoy full human rights and the blessings of parliamentary democracy live in Israel. The IDF is the most moral and conscientious army in the world. Israel is a highly educated
country full of people who just want to live in peace. Despite all this, Israel has been attacked repeatedly by Islamofascists whose ideology owes much to Hitlerism and who openly brag about wanting to finish what Hitler started by driving the Jews into the sea.

Under these circumstances, I don't see it as an option, or even as debatable, for Christians to do anything but stand with Israel. Indifference is a moral outrage, just as it was in the 1930s. The only defensible political position I can see is to be pro-Jew and pro-Israel. Anti-Zionism and anti-Israel politics seem to me to be inextricably bound up with a just-below-the-surface anti-Jew attitude. Of course, not all Western anti-Israel activists are anti-Jew, but the number who are is extremely disturbing.

The final sentence of Horton's post is the really problematic one for me:
Yet, by acknowledging that God’s promise of a temporal, geo-political theocracy and land were conditional and that this covenant now lies in the past, we are free to support our friends in Israel and Palestine in their pursuit of a stable peace that will doubtless require trust and negotiation on both sides.
How many problems are packed into that one sentence!

First, he seems to say, contra Paul in Rom. 9-11, that God's covenant with Israel lies in the past. Maybe he does not mean that, but it sure sounds suspicious. Horton seems out of sync with the authoritative Word of God at this point. Paul asks: "Has God rejected his people?" and replies: "By no means!" (Rom. 11:1) He also says: "As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable." (Rom. 11:28-30) For Paul, the covenant with Israel does not lie only in the past; it is a present reality.

Second, he implies that we Western Christians have friends equally in Israel and Palestine, which implies a moral equivalence between the two sides which simply does not exist. (see above)

Third, he says that both sides are required to trust, but who is Michael Horton to demand that Israel trust people who teach anti-Semitism in their schools, name town squares after suicide bombers and claim that a Jewish Temple never stood in Jerusalem? And that is just Fatah; Hamas is far worse!

Western leftists in the media and in liberal Protestantism continually hammer away at the theme that both sides are equally to blame for the conflict. Informed students of the conflict know that is not true. You can't negotiate with people who want to kill you; you can only allow them to do so bit by bit or else resist.

I would argue that there is a compelling set of theological and political reasons for Reformed Christians to stand in support of Israel alongside our Dispensational friends, secular Jews, political liberals and others. In our haste to differentiate ourselves from Dispensationalism let us not run straight into the arms of the Marcionism that has dogged modern, liberal Protestantism since Harnack.

It is ironic that as conservative a theologian as Michael Horton would come to a conclusion on this issue that is such a neat fit with the views of the most liberal of contemporary liberal Protestants. My argument is that avoiding Dispensationalism need not take us so far in that direction.


Peter Leavitt said...

Having recently completed Horton's systematic theology, I regard him as a brilliant contemporary Reformation theologian. He, going back to Luther, Calvin, and other classic Reformation sources, ad fontes, as well as contemporary orthodox thinkers, lays an excellent foundation for modern Reformation thought.

However, on the issue of modern Israel Horton apparently lacks an understanding that the perfectly legitimate state of Israel is surrounded by largely vicious Arab nations who wish to annihilate it. While Israel theologically violated its Abrahamic covenant, it, nevertheless, is a nation besieged by Islamic radicals that deserves the support of people who care about ordinary justice.

Craig Carter said...

I agree with your high estimate of Michael Horton's theology. I also agree that his political understanding of the threat to Israel is lacking.

Am I to understand that you think there is no connection between the two?

The final sentence of Horton's article seems to embody an indifference to Israel as just another nation. I don't see how Christians can view the Jews as just another religious group and I see the fate of the Jews and of Israel as intertwined in modern politics.

So for me, there is something wrong somewhere theologically in a position that views the fate of the Jews (especially considering the rise of anti-Semitism in the West as well as the Islamic threat) as not that important.

Sometimes I get the impression from Horton that politics in general is not that important. But is the Reformed view not more accurately characterized as one in which our duty as citizens is an important part of our Christian discipleship?

Do you see Reformed theology as irrelevant to the political question of Israel?

Peter Leavitt said...

Craig, actually, I agree with you that Horton overreaches with his unnuanced application of covenantal theology to modern Israel's situation. Paul, as you make clear, cautioned we Gentiles about dismissing the Jewish people and land.

Horton in his systematic theology in no uncertain terms rejects Marcionism. I should think that he would be compassionate in his view of Israel. He, also, is dead wrong in implying a moral equivalency between the Palestinians and Jews.

BTW, I discovered this excellent blog through a link on the White Horse Inn blog. Thank you for the obvious care and rich thought that you put into the blog.

Craig Carter said...

I think we are on the same page. For the record, bringing up Marcionism was a little harsh; I agree that Horton is no Marcionite. I just wanted to make the point that lack of concern for Jews is a major problem, not an irrelevant detail.

Thanks for the comments.