What’s the big idea?
Poor John Lennon. He believed that if we could all imagine there was ‘no hell below us’ and ‘above us only sky’, the world would ‘live as one’. It was easy if we would only try, Lennon assured us, and the song still has the power to turn eyes misty.
But the lyrics of Imagine are arguably among the most fatuous ever penned. Well John, I do say you were a dreamer. How could you have been so blind to the true effects of atheism and materialism?
Ideas have consequences, and the concept of a universe governed by blind, impersonal materialistic forces in which only the fittest survive was a Pandora’s box – from which emerged the philosophies of communism, existentialism, nihilism, relativism, individualism, postmodernism and a host of other evils.
Jean-Paul Sartre observed that the whole of French existentialism was encapsulated in the contention of Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, that if there was no God, everything was permitted. Like Tolkien’s dark lord Sauron, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot, whose philosophy of choice was materialism, cast long, dark and baleful shadows over the twentieth century.
The power of ideas
The history of the Christian church testifies to the power of ideas. The New Testament epistles reflect the early church’s battles against legalism, antinomianism, gnosticism and a host of other errors.
Christians are persecuted for ideas – their own as well those of their persecutors. Even good concepts, such as that of liberty of conscience, have had unintended consequences in terms of the plethora of denominations that have risen since the Reformation, all of which read the same Bible and claim to follow the same Lord.
The doctrines of election and predestination, eternal security, the return of Christ, the charismatic gifts, baptism and church government still provoke sometimes acrimonious disagreement because of their perceived practical consequences.
Problems with supercession
As the General Secretary of a mission to the Jews, I know that Israel is a major bone of contention among Christians today. True doctrine should result in wholesome practice and if a teaching has a proven track record for generating unchristian behaviour, it merits reappraisal.
Such a teaching, I believe, is the Augustinian view that national Israel’s blessings and privileges have been transferred – lock, stock and barrel – to a ‘new Israel’, the church.
I say this because I believe it is possible to trace a direct line from Augustine’s supercessionist theology to the Crusades, to the Inquisition, to Luther’s calls for the destruction of synagogues and the expulsion of Jews from Germany – and, ultimately, to the Holocaust.
It is one thing to say that the ‘blessing of Abraham’ has been extended to the Gentile church (Galatians 3:14) but quite another to teach that Israel has no further part in that blessing – an idea that is explicitly rejected by Paul in Romans 11:11-32.
Wherever Augustine’s doctrine of supercession has prevailed, whether in Roman Catholicism or in Protestantism, it has invariably resulted in the vilification of the Jewish people.
It is doubtful whether the Holocaust could have occurred had it not been for the legacy of a theology that encouraged Christians to view the Jewish people with contempt. For almost two hundred years before the rise of Nazism, some of Germany’s greatest minds – including Kant, Semler and Schleiermacher – had fed the clergy and intellectual classes with a diet of indifference, irreverence and hostility toward the Old Testament and the Jews. By the 1930s, with the Old Testament viewed as a Jewish relic possessing no divine authority, and the Jews seen as cursed for killing Christ, German churches were ready to capitulate to Nazism and co-operate willingly in Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’.
Well, not everyone. There were Lutherans and Catholics who rose above the theologies of their churches and risked their lives to save Jews. But probably the most remarkable incidents of courage shown by Christians in the face of Nazi tyranny is the story of the Christian community in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in south eastern ‘Vichy’ France.
There, a group of Plymouth Brethren, who rejected replacement theology and believed instead that the Jews were the chosen people of God, risked their lives to save the Jewish people. According to Mordecai Paldiel of Yad Vashem, the ‘righteous acts’ of the Darbyite villagers of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon were ‘probably the most celebrated case of Christian charity’ in the history of the Holocaust.
A friend recently suggested that to espouse my views of the Jewish people and Israel would mean glorying in a land and failing to adequately explain Old Testament prophecy in the light of the New Testament; therefore he preferred to glory in Christ. We were back to ideas and consequences again.
The good news of the Messiah
But what then of Robert Murray McCheyne, Andrew and Horatius Bonar, C. H. Spurgeon and others who held high views of the Jewish people? Did they not glory in Christ?
Christians who believe the Jewish people are still beloved of God have aided them in times of persecution, encouraged them, and assisted them to settle in their ancient homeland.
Above all, recognising that God’s ancient purpose for the Jewish nation can only be fulfilled in Christ (Romans 11:11-29), they have established missions to share the good news of the Messiah with them.
If practical consequences are a standard by which we may measure the truth of any doctrine, it is time to re-examine what has become the default position of many Reformed theologians.
Any dogma that generates contempt for a group of people and has served as a motivation for persecution and bloodshed needs to be re-examined in the light of Scripture with a view to modification or, better still, rejection.