Is the Reformed tradition historically supersessionist? That is, have theologians following the Calvinist trajectory always taught that the church supersedes Israel without remainder, such that the non-Jesus-accepting people of Israel and that little territory on the Mediterranean are no longer theologically significant?
One might think so. After all, John Calvin wrote that because the Jews did not ‘reciprocate’ as willing partners in God’s covenant, ‘they deserve to be repudiated’ (Institutes, 4.2.3).
There is only one covenant for Calvin, so the new covenant did not replace the old; yet the church is the new recipient of the Old Testament promises made to Jewish Israel. There is no continuing corporate election of Israel, only election of individual Israelites who accept Christ (Institutes, 3.21.6). After Jesus’s resurrection, then, there is no future for the people or land of Israel that makes any theological difference.
Starting at the end of the sixteenth century, however, some of Calvin’s theological descendants, mostly Puritans, took a different approach. They took seriously the Reformation’s emphasis on the plain sense of the Bible and therefore distinguished between promises made to Jewish Israel and those made to the new Gentile Israel.
Thomas Draxe (d. 1618) was a disciple of the Puritan theologian William Perkins. He used Romans 11 and biblical prophecies to argue that Jesus would not come again until ‘the dispersed Jews generally converted to Christianity’, but that in the meantime they ‘would be temporally restored into their own country, [would] rebuild Jerusalem, and have a most reformed, and flourishing, church and commonwealth’.
In his commentary on the book of Revelation, published posthumously in 1611, Thomas Brightman (1562–1607) wrote that Jews were the ‘kings of the east’ in Revelation 16:12 who would destroy Islam. He was certain they would be restored to the land of Zion: ‘Shall they return again to Jerusalem? There is nothing more sure: the prophets plainly confirm it, and beat often upon it’.
Henry Finch (c.1558–1625), a member of parliament and strong advocate of Puritan causes, rejected the ascription of all Old Testament promises to the Gentile church: ‘Where Israel, Judah, Zion, Jerusalem, etc. are named in this argument, the Holy Ghost meaneth not the spiritual Israel, or church of God collected of the Gentiles, no nor of the Jews and Gentiles both (for each of these have their promises severally and apart), but Israel properly descended out of Jacob’s loins’.
Joseph Mede (1586–1638) was another Puritan sympathiser, who advanced an oft-repeated Puritan conviction that the Jews would be restored to the land of Israel after the destruction of the Turkish empire. One of Mede’s students was John Milton, who in Paradise Regained (1670) wrote of the people of Israel’s return to their ancient land:
‘Yet He at length, time to himself best known,
Remembering Abraham, by some wondrous call
May bring them back, repentant and sincere,
And at their passing cleave the Assyrian flood,
While to their native land with joy they haste,
As the Red Sea and Jordan once he cleft,
When to the Promised Land their fathers passed.
To his due time and providence I leave them.’
Increase Mather wrote in his The Mystery of Israel’s Salvation (1669) that the future conversion of ‘the Jewish nation’ was ‘a truth of late [that] hath gained ground much throughout the world’. This widespread acceptance was a sign that the times of the end were near, a time when ‘the Israelites shall again possess … the land promised unto their Father Abraham’.
One of Mather’s innovations was to charge that the Jews would regain their ancient land before they would convert. It would be only ‘after the Israelites shall be returned to their own land again’ that the Spirit would be poured out on them. Mather also warned against a supersessionist spiritualisation of promises made to Israel: ‘Why should we unnecessarily refuse literal interpretations?’ Like Finch, Mather insisted that promises about earthly inheritance should not be spiritualised away.
But it wasn’t only Anglo-American Puritans in the Reformed tradition who departed from Calvin’s version of supersessionism. At the turn of the eighteenth century, the Dutch Reformed theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635–1711) published a four-volume systematic theology that presented a more nuanced view of Jewish Israel.
Brakel insisted that Paul’s reference to ‘all Israel’ in Romans 11:25 had in mind Jewish Israel as a people with a distinct future. Brakel declared emphatically that Jews would return to the land: ‘Will the Jewish nation be gathered together again from all the regions of the world and from all the nations of the earth among which they have been dispersed? Will they come to and dwell in Canaan and all the lands promised to Abraham, and will Jerusalem be rebuilt? We believe that these events will transpire’.
Paging Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards (1703–58), perhaps the greatest Reformed theologian after Calvin, agreed with Brakel that Calvin’s supersessionism used a hyper-spiritualist hermeneutic that rode roughshod over Scripture’s plain sense.
Though he agreed with Calvin that God had abandoned corporate Israel because their idolatry had moved him to jealousy, he argued that the divine abandonment would be temporary. There would be a second day of grace. Just before the millennium commenced, God would remove the veil over their eyes and soften their hearts with grace. All Israel will then be saved. ‘Nothing is more certainly foretold than this national conversion of the Jews in the 11th chapter of Romans’.
Edwards determined that the Jews would return to their homeland. This was inevitable, he reasoned, since the prophecies of land given to them had been only partly fulfilled. It was also necessary, in order for God to make them a ‘visible monument’ of his grace and power at their conversion. At that moment religion and learning would be at their respective peaks, and Canaan once again would be a spiritual centre of the world. Although Israel would again be a distinct nation, Christians would have free access to Jerusalem, because Jews would look on Christians as their brethren.
It makes sense, Edwards wrote, that corporate redemption would follow the pattern of individual redemption. Or as he would put it, that there is harmony between corporate and individual redemption.
In his Blank Bible, he wrote that just as the ‘restoration’ of an individual at first involves only his soul, but then later his body, at the general resurrection, so too ‘not only shall the spiritual state of the Jews be hereafter restored, but their external state as a nation in their own land … shall be restored by [Christ]’.
New Testament evidence
Edwards and his Puritan predecessors not only focused on the plain sense of Old Testament promises; they also took notice of a wide range of suggestions in the New Testament that the people and land of Israel would have a future.
For example, Jesus predicted that one day Jerusalem would welcome him (Luke 13:34–35). In Matthew 24 he said that, when the Son of Man returns, ‘all the tribes of the land will mourn’, quoting Zechariah’s prophecy about the inhabitants of Jerusalem mourning when ‘the Lord will give salvation to the tents of Judah’ (Zechariah 12:7,10).
Then in Matthew 19 Jesus told his disciples that ‘in the new world, when the Son of Man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’ (v.28).
When his disciples asked Jesus just before his ascension, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ (Acts 1:6), Jesus did not challenge their assumption that one day the kingdom would be restored to physical Israel. He simply said the Father had set the date, and they did not yet need to know it.
In Acts 3 Peter looked forward to ‘the times of restoration of all things which God spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from ancient time’ (Acts 3:21). The word Peter used for ‘restoration’ was the same word (apokatastasis) used in the Septuagint (which the early church used as its Bible) for God’s future return of Jews from all over the world to Israel.
And in Revelation the Lamb draws his followers to Zion in the final stage of history (Revelation 14:1), and the new earth is centred in Jerusalem, which has twelve gates named after ‘the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel’ (Revelation 21:2,12).
Bottom line: there has been diversity in Reformed interpretations of Israel. There is room in the tradition for seeing a future for Jewish Israel and its land, while at the same time holding to Calvin’s insistence that the church has inherited many of the promises made to Old Testament Israel.
Gerald R. McDermott is Anglican Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, and a renowned Jonathan Edwards scholar. This article, published by the Gospel Coalition (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/reformed-tradition-israel-diverse), is used here by kind permission.