Apr 2009 

Calvin Smith, Principal of King's Evangelical Divinity School, researches and writes on the Church in Latin America, as well as speaking on and researching Christian responses to modern Israel and Christianity in the Holy Land. He edits the Evangelical Review of Society and Politics. His new book The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supercessionism: Resources for Christians is set for release on 5 May. Here, the college interviews Dr Smith about his new book.

Further details of the book, including a list of contributors, contents, endorsements, sactual text from the book, and so on, can be found on the book's website www.thechurchandisrael.com.

Talks With Scholars: Calvin, first of all could you explain to readers what the term “supercessionism” means?

Calvin L. Smith:  Supercessionism (American spelling: supersessionism) is the theological view that God’s dealings with His chosen people Israel have now been superceded by a new people, the Church. Thus, supercessionism claims the promises originally intended for Israel are now given over to the Church, neither do the Jews any longer retain any special status as God’s chosen people.  Supercessionism is also known as replacement theology, or replacementism. For their part, some supercessionists/ replacementists eschew both these labels as pejorative, preferring instead terms like ‘fulfillment theology’ or ‘transference theology’. Of course, for those rejecting replacementism these terms are no less suitable or polemical. Therefore, in this book I’ve chosen to use the word supercessionism, a term which has a lengthy history within theological studies.  It is also important to note that supercessionism is not homogenous; there are various expressions of this theological position.

So there’s a danger of lumping together supercessionists as one group?

There is certainly a danger of viewing this position in a way which lacks nuance. In his excellent book The God of Israel and Christian Theology R. Kendall Soulen actually identifies three different kinds of supercessionism: punitive, economic and structural, each being somewhat different from the others. For example, punitive supercessionism argues that by rejecting Jesus biblical Israel was punished (hence, “punitive”) by having God’s favour removed from her forever and given to His new people, the Church. This is quite different from those who argue Israel’s work was completed, so that she is subsumed, or swallowed up into a greater Church. Of course, I struggle very much with this more subtle form of supercesionism because I believe it goes completely against Paul’s discussion of Gentiles being grafted in to Israel in Romans 11:17:24. 

It is also worth pointing out that while supercessionism rejects ad infinitum any continued place in the divine plan for ethnic Israel, there are some Christians and theologians who reject (or are unconvinced or unsure) the modern State of Israel is indeed divinely ordained, but who still retain a place for ethnic Israel in the divine plan, particularly at the parousia (Second Coming). Such people, then, cannot be labelled supercessionists, demonstrating yet again how this whole topic requires a nuanced approach. I mentioned Soulen’s book earlier, which I believe sets out one of the best biblical-systematic theology cases against supercessionism. But neither is Soulen a Christian Zionist. Quite the opposite, in fact. So again, the issues are complex and demand a sophisticated approach. Unfortunately, there is not much of that in the current debate, with a tendency among several of today’s vocal supercessionist writers to tar every Christian even mildly holding to the view God has not finished with Israel with a Christian Zionist brush.

Is this book written for Christians, non-Christians, or both?

This book is aimed primarily at Christians for whom the Bible is the ultimate authority on all issues of faith and practice and who are specifically looking for some guidance on this issue. Although supercessionism has existed since the early Church period, in recent years in some Evangelical quarters it has taken on a new expression (hence the book’s reference to the “new” supercessionism), which is quite charged and polemical, often highly pejorative in character. At the other end of the spectrum are some extreme Christian Zionists who take an “Israel right or wrong” stance, turning a blind eye to some things happening in that part of the world (especially the difficulties faced by some Christians there) and engaging in a form of Israel worship (or ‘Israelolatry’, if you like). In between are very many people who reject this idolising of Israel but are equally uncomfortable, in fact increasingly troubled with the extreme pro-Palestinianism and anti-Israelism exhibited by several more vocal Evangelical supercessionists.

What you think is the most troubling question for Christians interested in engaging a more balanced approach?

I think deep down many find it very hard to reconcile the anti-Israel views coming from within some parts of Evangelicalism (as well as how and where these views are expressed) with the many positive references to Israel in both the Old and New Testaments. Israel is mentioned or alluded several thousand times in the Bible, while as a biblical theology theme it is far more prominent than many other important themes in the Bible. Jesus and the Apostles were Jewish, while Mosaic (though not Rabbinic) Judaism serves as important background to Christianity. Consider also the various Scriptures highlighting the theological importance of Israel and the Jews. John 4:22 states, ‘Salvation is from the Jews’; in Zechariah God declares ten Gentiles will take hold of the tunic of a Jew saying, 'Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’ (Zech 8:23); meanwhile the Apostle Paul introduces his discussion on Israel by pointing out how the adoption as sons, the glory, covenants, the giving of the law and promises belong to the Jews. Indeed, the promised Messiah is Jewish (Rom 9:4-5). Furthermore, the Old Testament prophets speak of Israel as both God’s servant (Is 41:8-9, 44:1-3, 44:21, 49:3, Je 30:10, 46:27) and God’s son (Hos 11:1, Ex 4:22). These and many other passages demonstrate just how fully Israel is woven into the very historical and theological fabric of the Bible and Christianity.

You said earlier you felt many Christians were uncomfortable with a strongly anti-Israel view. What have you encountered whilst mixing with people in the church and academia?

Mixing in various circles – both church and academic – I’ve encountered many Christians who have become troubled by the language and anti-Israel stance taken by several vocal supercessionists. Ironically, while such books were celebrated when they were first published, I’m discovering that many Christians are now increasingly uncomfortable with the evermore extreme rhetoric and some of the platforms from which several supercessionists are denouncing fellow Christians, simply on the basis that they are Christian Zionists or regard Islamism as a dangerous threat. For example, one well-known writer has travelled to Iran – recognised by many Western nations as a rogue state (as evidenced by how they all pulled their diplomats from an anti-Israel speech given by the Iranian President this week) – to denounce Christian Zionists. In another case, Patrick Sookdheo, leader of the Barnabas Fund which highlights the plight of persecuted Christians abroad (including in Muslim lands), was criticised at a meeting by several supercessionists who identify with the Palestinian cause and also advocate a more sympathetic approach to Islam, The result was that Sookdheo eventually received death threats on several Islamists websites. So not only is the issue of Israel and supercessionism hotting up, it is also symptomatic of a wider ideological struggle currently taking place within Evangelicalism over how to respond to Islam.

It is my hope this book will be read by and be useful for those Christians who are troubled by these events, as well as those who genuinely want an informed, less polemical approach to Israel to help them make up their minds on where they stand biblically on this issue. I also hope The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supercessionism: Resources for Christians might be useful to the more moderate elements within Christian Zionism who are seeking a more theological method of expressing their views. As the subtitle indicates, the aim is to provide a series of resources for as many Christians as possible.

I should point out that although I organised the original conference out of which this volume arose, as well as editing and contributing several chapters to the book, there are various other excellent contributions from different people, including several who have already written about or taught this subject widely. King's Andy Cheung and Stephen Vantassel both contributed a chapter, while Tony Pearce, Jacob Prasch, Howard Taylor and Paul Wilkinson all wrote chapters.

Is the book useful to academic or church audiences?

Both, I think, Mainly, though, the Church. The book is pitched midway between the lay and academic levels, which I hope will make it accessible to as many people as possible. Having said that, the issue is also of interest to theological students. Concerning non-Christians, it will go along way to explaining why many Christians feel so strongly about the Jews and (to a slightly lesser extent) modern Israel. The Middle East crisis is, after all, an important player on the geopolitical stage, while it is often argued (though I think it is quite over-egged in some quarters) that Christians, particularly in the U.S., play a significant role in shaping U.S. policy in the Middle East. Regardless of the truth and extent of this argument, the book does help to explain to non-Christians the theological rationale behind Christian sentimentality towards the modern State of Israel.

How did the idea for this book come about?

At King’s Evangelical Divinity School last year we decided to explore this issue for one of our teaching conferences, and things really grew from there. Of course, Christian responses to Israel has fascinated me for years. I already teach a module entitled The Church and Israel as part of our Bachelor of Theology degree at King’s, so it was inevitable that I would eventually do something on this at the conference level. But in the meantime I was also researching for a new book (which will be published by Paternoster next year) exploring how Christians, both Arab and Messianic, fare in Israel. Specifically, the next book will explore the nature of church-state relations in the Holy Land today (some of my initial findings for that book are set out in a chapter of this new book we are talking about today). The conference provided an opportunity for an additional book specifically looking at how to respond to the new supercessionism.

I decided very early on when I brought together the various contributors we would avoid an unnecessarily polemical approach (I feel this just reduces the debate to a slanging match), and I was glad to note how two of the book’s endorsers, Ronald Diprose and Amos Yong, picked up on how we have sought to move the discussion of Israel forward from what is currently a bitter, polemical, pejorative and polarised “debate”. Personally, I think the facts and biblical arguments speak admirably for themselves. 

How have people who’ve had a chance to read the manuscript so far reacted to its contents?

On the whole, of the various people who’ve received a copy with a view to endorsing it, feedback has been very good.  Leading Evangelical scholars Walter Kaiser, Darrell Bock, Amos Yong and Robert L. Thomas have all issued very kind and thoughtful endorsements, as have several influential churchmen and Christian leaders, while Mitch Glaser (formerly of Jews for Jesus and now President of Chosen People Ministries, New York) wrote an excellent foreword,and Mark S. Sweetnam, Research Fellow at Trinity College, Dublin, provided a preface. Also, Barry Horner and Ronald Diprose, who have both written books on supercessionism, kindly endorsed the book. Of course, given the book’s contents one or two other people we approached were unwilling to endorse the book because it differed from their own theological positions. Indeed, we expected this; after all, the topic is one which has unfortunately become highly polemical and charged in recent years, and I can understand why some people may be reticent to be associated with this whole debate. But on the whole, the comments have been good and I am grateful to those well-known scholars who have seen fit to endorse the book’s contents and methodology. At the very least I hope it will challenge people who may not take my theological position on this issue at least to read and engage objectively with the book’s contents. As I stated before, I’ve really tried to ensure the book moves away from the bitter debate and offer something more reflective, which is, I sincerely feel, one of its main strengths.

What other books do you recommend by way of further reading?

I’ve already mentioned Soulen’s book, which despite being a short book nonetheless offers a meaty theological treatment of the issue. Unfortunately, it is not an easy read for everyday Christians, while it also focuses on one aspect of the issue, whereas my book covers the issue from various angles. I also mentioned Ron Diprose, who wrote Israel and the Church: The Origins and Effects of Replacement Theology. One of the things I like about Diprose’s book is his survey of all the main prooftexts cited by supercessionists and his response to them. Another useful book, which again, takes a different methodological approach, is by David W. Torrance and Howard Taylor, Israel God’s Servant. In fact, Howard contributed one of the chapters, an apologetic piece, for this new book. David kindly endorsed the new book.

But what I think sets our book apart is its focus on a multi-disciplinary approach, with chapters on linguistics, biblical theology, systematic theology, apologetics, history, politics, and also a practical chapter on Jewish evangelism. In short, it provides a set of resources in one place for Christians who want to engage seriously and biblically with this issue.

There are other books, too, which I could list. I also haven’t listed the main supercessionist books. But the new book cites various sources for further follow up if readers are interested.

Where can readers find out more about the new book?

There is a website for the book which contains more information, all the endorsements, a contents page, biographical notes for each of the contributors, several samples from the book itself, and details of how to purchase it. The website is www.thechurchandisrael.com, and I would be very grateful to anyone with their own website who might be willing to link to the book's site in order to promote it.

Calvin Smith, thank you.