This could be regarded as one of my periodic forays into the tangled thicket of “what gives with Israel?” You are to imagine it as me putting on a gray coat and blue trousers in order to walk between the lined up armies on the eve of Gettysburg, as my penultimate and earnest plea for peace.
In order to demonstrate the need for this post, and others like it, I am going to leave the comments open, at least for a bit. There will no doubt be some who engage with my arguments, disagreeing like gentlemen, which is greatly appreciated, but there will also be others who—despite my giving away the nature of the test here—will be unable to contain the vitriol.
Budgeting for all of that, there are still some very thorny and very challenging issues involved in all of this—from soteriology to geopolitics. So let’s get to it.
What Set Me Off This Time
I just finished reading The Magna Carta of Humanity by Os Guinness, a writer I have long appreciated and admired, and am currently finishing up Christian Nationalism by Andrew Torba (of Gab fame) and Andrew Isker. In many ways these gents are attacking the same target, that target being the spirit of the revolutionary and progressive left, but there is one area where the divide between them could not be wider. That divide, and you guessed it, has to do with Israel.
Guinness argues that we are in a moment of true crisis in the West, which is true enough, and I like how he frames it as a choice between the spirit of 1776, the way of liberty, and the spirit of 1789, the way of bondage. These dates are, respectively, the dates of the American Revolution and the French Revolution, which he (rightly) sees as mortal enemies. They are two different paths to two different place, liberty and totalitarianism respectively, and so they are utterly at odds.
“America cannot endure permanently half 1776 and half 1789. The compromises, contradictions, hypocrisies, inequities, and evils have built up unaddressed. The grapes of wrath have ripened again, and the choice before America is plain. Either America goes forward best by going back first, or America is about to reap a future in which the worst will once again be the corruption of the best.”
Os Guinness, The Magna Carta of Humanity, his conclusion to multiple chapters
Now Guinness traces the genius of the American experiment back to Sinai, where the civic gift of form and freedom together were first manifested to the world. He does this with learning and erudition, and I agreed with just about everything he said in the book. But there was still a fly in the ointment. It was a book full of wisdom, but it struck me as Christless wisdom. The reason for this is that he was heavily dependent on the insights and observations of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a distinguished scholar who served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and who was a member of the House of Lords. Sacks, too, had a lot of good things to say but, obviously, Jesus was not going to be a big part of it.
This leads Guinness to write as though there were two true religions, Judaism and Christianity, and with another one, Islam, kind of in the Abrahamic ballpark. The Jews have Yom Kippur while Christians have the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. This struck me as theologically incoherent, but the interesting thing is that Guinness doesn’t make any attempt to resolve the question. He is earnestly seeking to save a Judeo-Christian civilization, and sees no need to defend that construct. He just assumes it.
But if the Jews are right and Jesus did not rise from the dead, then we Christians of all men are most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:19). And if He did rise from the dead, then modern Judaism is an attempt to have a Messiah-based religion while leaving the Messiah out of it. But that is like, as the old illustration goes, putting on a production of Hamlet, and leaving out the prince of Denmark.
In the meantime, Torba and Isker have no use for a Judeo-Christian anything, and yet are at war with the same progressive left that Guinness is fighting. Their fourth chapter is entitled “This Is Not a ‘Judeo-Christian’ Movement,” in case you were wondering. Put all this together, and I have myself the topic for a blog post.
So Sort This Out
So, despite the fact that it will be a glorious tangle, like three extension cords stiff with cold that we found in the garage, let us dump it all on the table anyhow.
In the Protestant Reformation, with the cry of ad fontes, back to the sources, not only were the Reformers the foremost patristic scholars of their day, but they also went back to learn Hebrew from the rabbis. This contributed to a great advance in learning with regard to the Old Testament, but it also caused some dislocations with some unstable souls, who shot off into various forms of anti-Trinitarianism. If you are interested in that subject, you can consult Ben Merkle’s dissertation on the subject, published by OUP, and heartily commended to you by none other than his father-in-law.
And the same kind of thing happens today. A Christian exegete can profit greatly, as I have done, by consulting work done on the Old Testament text by Jewish scholars. Robert Alter comes to mind. So how do we categorize that? And if Alter is so good on certain aspects of the psalms, or the life of David, as he is, then why can’t Jonathan Sacks have valuable things to say about the Exodus and Sinai? He can, and he does. And Guinness draws on that, and good for him, but why am I still uneasy?
For an orthodox Christian, what is modern Judaism exactly? Its position is analogous to Islam, but not exactly. Islam, unlike those religions that have no historic connection to the Christian faith, like Hinduism or Buddhism, is a Christian heresy. It formed in reaction to the Christian faith, and is a strange amalgam of Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammad’s visions.
And modern rabbinic Judaism is not the religion of the Old Testament. They are not actually following Moses. Jesus taught all Christians that the traditions of the elders had caused the Jewish leaders to “set aside” the requirements of Moses, observing their own ideas instead (Matt. 15:3). And that was when they still had more than they have now—the Temple, and the sacrifices, as required by Moses. But then with the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. all they had left were their erroneous traditions. This is why modern Judaism is best considered a heresy of the Old Testament faith, and not a representation of it. To be a Christian is to maintain that the fulfillment of the Old Testament is in the Christ of the New Testament, and not in rabbinic Judaism.
But once you have said that, you have to make even more distinctions. It is not as though modern Judaism is one monolithic thing. Jews are all over the map, from ultra-orthodox Hasidim, including the mysticism of the Kabbalah, to the hard secularists in the Jewish state, to the reasonable conservatives like Prager and Shapiro. Some Jewish groups would be as far away from Christianity as the Sufi Muslims would be, and are kind of out there, while others have inched back toward the Christian center and are just Unitarians with yarmulkes.
To illustrate, to keep things within the sabbatarian world, if I say that Seventh Day Adventism is a heresy, it does not follow from this that every Adventist is out there doing nefarious things. Some of them can get really legalistic, and some of it can get really weird doctrinally speaking, as happens within Judaism, but a lot of other Adventists just go to med school at Loma Linda, and do a superb job as your family pediatrician, keeping your kids healthy.
And this is where I would want to push back on an element of what I am seeing in the Torba/Isker book. They see, correctly, that Guinness is wrong about modern Judaism as just another form of biblical faith. Talmudic Judaism really was a distortion of God’s Word, but you can’t really draw a straight line from that to various modern ills like communism, environmentalism, globalism, and the like. A number of Jews went that direction, sure enough, but some other Jews went on to carve a cure for cancer out of a bar of soap, which made all the anti-Semites even more irritated. In other words, the Jews are a high performance people, and so when they are bad, they are really bad, but enough about the Frankfurt School, and when they are good, they are really good. But good or bad, just like the rest of us, they all need Christ.
Speaking of Christ
We should therefore cultivate a real affection for the Jews. How could we not? Together with John Piper, I love the apostle Paul. And the apostle Paul really loved the Jews, despite having quite a few autobiographical reasons not to. He loved them to the point of being willing to go to Hell for them, were such a thing possible (Rom. 9:3)
This is directly connected to a factor that makes the Jews unique. They are not just “one more” unbelieving group. I can only sketch my reasons for thinking this here, and hope that I get an opportunity some other time to develop it further. But to illustrate the point, let me repurpose the parable of the prodigal son. But I am repurposing it, not trying to interpret it.
The Gentiles were the wastrel younger brother, and when we came back to our father, he had the fatted calf killed to throw a feast for us, and he hired a jazz band so there could be some swing dancing. Some might have argued that the younger brother scarcely needed to go to another party, but his father thought differently. Now the Jews are the older brother who heard the music and dancing from the driveway, and who therefore refused to come in. The Jews are our estranged older brother.
This estrangement is not permanent. Not only does the father win back his younger son, he also is eventually reconciled to his older son. This is because the “gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). But the fact that the estrangement is not permanent, contra Torba, does not mean that there is no real estrangement, contra Guinness. The Jews, like every other sinful tribe and nation, must come to Christ. Like all the rest of us, they are lost without Him.
Let’s change the illustration to one that is not repurposed at all. Paul compares the covenant to an olive tree. That olive tree has an Abrahamic root, and the Jews who refused to believe in Christ were cut out of olive tree, and Gentiles were grafted in. Paul cautions these Gentiles against spiritual pride over against the Jews. That vainglory is why the Jews were cut out, and so it is really unbecoming for Gentile Christians to vaunt themselves. We Gentile believers don’t support the root any more than the Jews did.
One last thing. It is often said that Ashkenazi Jews are not Jews at all, and that there is not a drop of Abraham’s blood in their veins. And so it is maintained that this is all a lot of fuss and bother over a bunch of nothing. “A gift is not irrevocable if it was never given.” This overlooks the fact that being a Jew was always about covenant, and not about DNA. The first generation of Jews were those of Abraham’s house, all the males who were circumcised (Gen. 17:27). Three chapters earlier, when Abraham went to war on behalf of Lot, there were 318 men. I dare say that a number of them did not have any of Abraham’s blood in their veins. Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews are Jews by covenant. And because they are Jews by covenant, it will be a piece of cake for God to graft them into the olive tree again. I mean, if He could graft the Scythians into the tree in the first place (Col. 3:11), He can graft in anybody—especially the natural branches (Rom. 11:24).
So pray for the conversion of the Jews. The party is now in full swing, and we are enjoying it, but we still keep looking past the curtains, out to the driveway. Dad is still talking to him. If he comes in, the party can really start.