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This page last updated 10 September 2012  

A review for Anglicans Online
by Bishop Terry Brown

A review of
Christian Zionism Examined: A Review of Ideas on Israel, the Church and the Kingdom
By Stephen Paas, ISBN 9783941750869. Hamburg: VTR Publications, 2012.

Christian Zionism Examined is a sharp and detailed critique of Christian Zionism, historical and contemporary, from a conservative Presbyterian or Reformed perspective. Paas has a fivefold working definition of Christian Zionism: "(1) a literalistic interpretation of all parts of the Bible, particularly the prophecies, (2) a belief that Jewish Zionism and the foundation of the Israeli State are evidence for the truth of Scripture and the existence of God, (3) a historical concept according to which the classical Church has falsely replaced Israel and has ignited antisemitism, (4) a futurology in which present-day physical Israel is pivotal to the return of Christ, and before or after it, to the apocalyptic events belonging to the end of time, [and] (5) an expectation of a national conversion of some kind of the Jews, which is supposed to cause a flourishing of the Church". Some might question the inclusion of point (3), the historical church characterized as practicing supersessionism (what Paas calls "replacement theology") in this list and I shall return to that point. The other characteristics are commonly attributed to evangelical Protestant Christian Zionist groups, not only in the US but also in Europe and beyond.

One of the book's strengths is its historical detail, especially from the post-Reformation to the present, identifying elements of Christian Zionism in Puritanism and its continental counterparts, Pietism, Dispensationalism, different varieties of Millenarianism and groups such as the American Messianic Fellowship and Jews for Jesus. Because he shares a fairly literal reading of Scripture with these groups, there is some hope his critique will fall on responsive ears. For Anglicans, his discussion of the Anglo-German Jerusalem Episcopate (1841-79) and Bishop Gobat will be of interest. The Anglican Chaplain of Vienna, William Hechler (1845-1931), was an important contributor to the rise of secular Jewish Zionism; Paas discusses Britain's historic role in the development of the state of Israel, including foundations in the Victorian church. However, Paas's primary focus is Christian Zionism, not Jewish secular and religious Zionism. One only wishes he had mentioned that striking 19th century monument to Anglican evangelism to Jews, Christ Church, Jaffa Gate, in Jerusalem.

Paas also usefully outlines the ways in which strong adherence to Christian Zionism compromises the Christian Gospel and the life of the church, whether the elevation of Jerusalem to the level of Jesus (or higher) in God's plan of salvation, the organization of separate-but-equal Jewish Messianic Christian churches perhaps regarded as having a superior position to Gentile Christian churches (deeply against the teaching of St. Paul), or erosion of the doctrine of the divinity of Christ under Jewish influence. The fragmented and sectarian character of Christian Zionist theology and practice that Paas outlines well should itself be a serious warning about its departure from Christian orthodoxy.

All that said, while conservative Evangelical Anglicans may find Paas unproblematic (the only contemporary Anglican he quotes, with approval, is John Stott), I found his approach to exegesis of the Old Testament problematic and, indeed, untouched by modern biblical criticism. His approach to the Old Testament is simple: "Christians can read the holy Scripture of Israel only from the perspective of God's revelation in Jesus Christ". Any notion that Christians should attempt to read the Old Testament from the perspective of those who wrote and used it in ancient times or that modern Jewish scholars have anything to offer to Christian biblical exegesis today is rejected. The former do not know what we know, that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, and therefore what they wrote is not significant unless it can be given meaning through the hermeneutical "key" of Jesus, that is, identified as relating to Jesus the Messiah; the latter are disqualified because they have not accepted Jesus as Messiah and are apt to be biased against him.

Paas has no sense that the Old Testament has its own integrity. He reads it entirely and only through the lens of the New Testament, so that relatively insignificant figures in the Old Testament, such as the shadowy high priest Melchizedek, take on extraordinary significance because of only one reference in the New Testament; indeed, in the case of Melchizedek, Paas regards him as of more significance than Abraham or Moses. Similarly, the doctrine of God's single "covenant of grace", extending from Adam and Eve's Paradise to the present, means Paas does not have to worry about serious discussion of the various covenants of the Old Testament or the notion of Israel as God's "chosen people". Worse, any suggestion that one should move in these more post-Enlightenment exegetical directions results in the charge that one is a Christian Zionist. Salvation is only through Jesus Christ and a New Testament reinterpretation of the Old. Excluded is the possibility that allowing the Old Testament its own exegetical integrity will increase rather than decrease Christian faith in Jesus the Messiah. Paas's theology seems to be a form of conservative protestant scholasticism, little interested in interaction with other faiths or cultural developments, except to condemn and convert. He regards Jewish-Christian dialogue as "meaningless".

Associated with this closed theological system is an excessively broad definition of "Christian Zionism". For example, Christian pilgrimages to holy sites at Jerusalem, from Constantine's time to the present, are regarded with distrust. The argument seems to be that since physical Jerusalem and post-biblical Jews have no role in salvation, to pay serious attention to them, by a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or engaging in Christian-Jewish dialogue courts Christian Zionism. If I understand Paas correctly, the Archbishop of Canterbury should not be having friendly conversations with the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Great Rabbi should not have been invited to address the 2008 Lambeth Conference. All that was "meaningless" and but another example of "Christian Zionism". The only proper stance towards Jewish and other faiths is one of evangelism and conversion. One fears Paas might extend this broad definition of Christian Zionism to major use of the Exodus narrative by various Liberation Theologies or even to the Paschal Liturgy.

On the contrary, I think one can argue that Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem is a manifestation and affirmation of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, the "scandal of particularity" in a spiritualizing and ahistoric age; and, indeed, that Paas's theology has a certain abstract quality that centres completely on a spiritual Christ and simply does not like concrete holy places and holy people, regarding them as distractions. Paas is a Protestant, not a Catholic.

Thus, Paas pursues a very conservative evangelical missiology. There is no room for a Bede Griffiths or a Raimundo Panikkar or African Independent Churches. Other faiths and cultures have nothing to teach us; they are only there to be converted and redeemed through Christ. Using their meditation techniques or literature or perhaps even their music is dangerous. Since F.D. Maurice (indeed, before), many Anglicans have been open to some form of universalism. Even Archbishop William Temple is reputed to have commented, "I believe in hell but I don't believe anyone is there." Similarly, with regard to contemporary Judaism, many Anglicans are open to the presence of God's salvation there without sanctioning a full-fledged "two covenant" theology. And a case could be made that milder forms of Christian Zionism (perhaps those trying to get inside the world and mind of Jesus rather than those with a violent apocalyptic political agenda) are simply forms of Jewish Christian inculturation or piety, perhaps even sustaining of faith rather than destructive.

One simple error in the book is Paas's assertion that Christian Zionism is largely a European and American phenomenon and has no attraction for African or Asian Christians. Here he relies too heavily on the ideological view of the global south church in Philip Jenkins' The Next Christendom. From the perspective of the Solomon Islands, I can assert that Christian Zionism is alive and well here and throughout Asia and the South Pacific, for example, through our many participants in Tom Hess's House of Prayer for All Nations in Jerusalem and Michael Maeliau's (Hess-related) All Pacific Prayer Assembly, including many trips to Jerusalem and "Christian rabbis" visiting the Pacific from abroad. Christian Zionist groups in Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea have contributed to an increased presence of the Israeli government in the region, ensuring the South Pacific nations are on Israel's side in United Nations votes. The common notion that one is descended from a "Lost Tribe of Israel", which Paas helpfully discusses, can easily slide into Christian Zionism.

Finally, a word must be said about supersessionism, the belief that the church supersedes (Paas uses the term "replaces") Israel in God's plan of salvation. Many Christians, Jews and others have argued that supersessionism in Christianity has contributed to anti-Semitism in Europe and the Holocaust. Paas regards those who hold this view as "Christian Zionists" also (definition 3 in the first paragraph above), whose Christian doctrine has been warped by guilt about the Holocaust. I think Paas's dismissal of this position so glibly and lumping it with unmitigated Christian Zionism is unfortunate. There are difficult issues of how the practitioners of an earlier religion regard those who shape the religion differently into a new faith (Jews of Christians, Christians of Muslims, Muslims of Baha'i, etc). While the response is often hostile, I would argue that to "agree to disagree" and still be friends is perhaps the most constructive answer, even for the sake of Christian evangelism which I do not exclude. Of course, any faith that turns to violence and extremism (Christian support of the Holocaust, 9-11 and the Taliban's killing of musicians, Jewish Zionism that excludes the rights of Palestinian peoples, etc.) deserves condemnation. But Paas seems to be in a permanent state of condemnation.

In the sense that new faiths emerge out of old ones, the common Christian belief that the Church is the "fulfillment" of Israel and, indeed, the "new Israel", a belief rooted in St. Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews (a belief which I share with Paas and which he argues is not supersessionist) may to some Jews and Christians still sound supersessionist; but the belief is not therefore to be abandoned. Any faith growing out of another has an inevitable supersessionist-like element that cannot be removed except by returning to the original faith. Christian Zionism's error is trying to do both at once. But the possible contribution of classical Christian theologies (I emphasize the plural, from the New Testament to the present) of the relation of Israel and the Church to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust deserves serious study and response, not a glib dismissal as "philosemitic", a term I also find problematic.

Christian Zionism Examined is a useful book in many ways, as I have noted above. But best of all, it requires the reader to go back to his or her theological presuppositions. While I find Paas's Calvinist exegesis and missiology too closed a system, the book is still a helpful study of a troubling phenomenon in Christianity today.

The Right Reverend Terry Brown is retired Bishop of Malaita in the Anglican Church of Melanesia and a regular contributor to Anglicans Online.