Zionism has again come to the forefront of our public dialogue with the recent decision of the President to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, including plans to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv—where all nations with diplomatic ties to Israel have their embassies—to Jerusalem. As of this writing, only one other nation, Guatemala, has decided to follow the US on this policy.
The politics of this decision are steeped in Zionism. Particularly in the US this takes the form of Christian Zionism, which is prevalent in some circles of American Protestantism as part of a larger eschatological framework called Dispensationalism. I will analyze the history and theology of this problematic teaching first, and then contrast it with the ancient teachings of Orthodoxy on Israel and the end times.
The doctrine of Dispensationalism was invented in 19th-century England by an Anglican priest turned Brethren minister named John Nelson Darby. Darby was the first to create a systematic paradigm of Dispensationalism, which teaches that God acts in different ways at different times to administer His overall plan for the world. While this is built on earlier concepts that date all the way back to St. Irenaeus of Lyons in the 2nd century, Darby goes much further in systematizing this concept.
A key concept, unique to Darby, is that the prophecies of the Old Testament that speak of an eternal Israel, such as those found in Isaiah 60, require the physical re-establishment of the nation of Israel on earth, that this is separate from the establishment of the Church, and that this must happen before the “end times.” This idea was strongly advocated by Darby, who travelled much of continental Europe and North America to spread this idea. It has caught on in a number of Protestant circles, and is as good as Gospel for them: Israel must be re-established and fully recognized before Christ can return.
Darby separated the ideas of Fatherhood and Kingship in God, saying, “The same person may be king of a country, and father of a family; and this is the difference between God’s actings towards us and the Jews. Towards the church, it is the character of Father; towards the Jews, it is the character of Jehovah, the King.” (See “Israel’s Restoration: The Manner of Its Accomplishment,” in Collected Writings of J.N. Darby.)
Darby saw this in the many prophecies of the Old Testament, where kingship seems to always be applied to Israel, but salvation would be open to all. These kinds of prophecies exist all across the Old Testament in Isaiah, Daniel, Amos, the Psalms, and other places. He even used the words of Christ Himself to find assurance that the nation of Israel would be restored: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets…your house is forsaken and desolate…until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Mt 23:37-39). This prediction, delivered by Jesus Himself, gives us the assurance—so Darby thought—of the coming of Christ to restore Israel and to reign in her midst.
To explore such texts as this is outside of the scope of this particular article, but I would encourage anyone interested in Darby’s perspective to compare his writings to the passages he cites; and most importantly, to hear what the Fathers have to say concerning these prophecies, as there is no basis for this idea before Darby. The Scriptures do not teach it, and it is unknown to all the Fathers of the Church and even to the Protestant Reformers.
St. Paul declares the Church of Christ the New Israel. It has always been understood by all Christians—until Darby—that the Church is the continuation and fulfilment of the nation of Israel. The Holy Apostle speaks of the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16) and tells us there is “ neither Jew nor Greek…but all are one in Christ Jesus”(Gal 3:18). In fact, the entire Epistle to the Galatians is an apology against the Judaizing heresy that St. Paul faced in the 1st century, explaining that the Body of Christ has become the New Israel, the Old Covenant is fulfilled, and the gates are now open to all. There is no meaningful distinction in the eyes of God between such categories as “Jew” or “Greek” (i.e., gentile), but are all one.
The idea of the Church of Christ being the fulfilment of Israel, or the New Israel of God, is also seen in the Fathers from antiquity. For example, St. Justin the Philosopher writes in the 2nd century, “…[T]hen is it Jacob the patriarch in whom the Gentiles and yourselves shall trust? Or is it not Christ? As, therefore, Christ is the Israel and the Jacob, even so we, who have been quarried out from the bowels of Christ, are the true Israelitic race” (Dialogue with Trypho, CXXXV).
Tertullian, writing in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries, also sees this clearly in the Scriptures, from the very epistle we ourselves were just reading: “Now, if the Creator indeed promised that ‘the ancient things should pass away,’ to be superseded by a new course of things which should arise, whilst Christ marks the period of the separation when He says, ‘The law and the prophets were until John’” (Against Marcion; Book V, Ch. 2: “On The Epistle to the Galatians”).
The idea that there was some special, divine plan for the nation who had rejected Christ would be completely foreign and bizarre to any Christian who lived more than 200 years ago. This is a new, different teaching from all of Church history, a radical break from what has always been known to be true by Christians the world over. Many would say it is a “different opinion”—the literal meaning of the word heresy—from all of Christianity before it.
And yet, it has gained such traction that a large segment of Evangelicals in America accept as Gospel that which is foreign to 1800 years of all Christian teaching that preceded it.
Benjamin Amis has studied biblical/theological studies, philosophy, and ancient languages at Asbury University in Wilmore KY. He attends St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church (OCA) in Norcross GA.