The theologian’s stone
I find it both intriguing and troubling that the great seventeenth-century mathematician and scientist Sir Isaac Newton appears to have believed in the Philosopher’s Stone – the fabled substance capable of turning base metal into precious gold. Many Newton scholars now concede that the celebrated author of the Principia and formulator of the laws of motion was also an alchemist and that his work in the field of arcane sciences could have provided the inspiration for his theories of light and gravity.
The Philosopher’s Stone certainly worked for Joanne Rowling, a single mother living in Edinburgh on state benefits in 1997, when her novel about the mythical substance and an extraordinary schoolboy called Harry transformed her into J. K. Rowling – one of the richest women in the world and ’48th most powerful celebrity of 2007′.
Be that as it may, another kind of alchemy fascinates me. In the sphere of Christian theology there appears to be a kind of theological Philosopher’s Stone that transforms Arminians into Calvinists and Calvinists into Arminians.
I know people who reject the idea that God can irresistibly draw his elect to himself but who firmly believe the Jewish people remain the people of God and that the modern state of Israel was established in fulfilment of Old Testament promises.
In recent years, a well-known Bible teacher has been warning Christians in the strongest terms that they can lose their salvation while at the same time teaching that God can never break his covenant with Israel. Thus the Old Covenant is eternal but the New Covenant is conditional and, taking the teaching to its logical conclusion, a Jewish unbeliever has more security than a Christian believer.
But many in the Reformed camp are equally inconsistent. According to some otherwise excellent commentators and theologians, though the Jewish people once enjoyed a favoured nation status before God, for varying reasons they no longer occupy such a position. Israel the people has been rejected.
Those who emphasise the conditional nature of the covenant with Israel established at Sinai tend to marginalise the covenant with Abraham recorded in Genesis 15. Unwittingly, they undermine the very sovereign grace they confess, for they are saying that in the case of Israel sin abounded more than grace.
On that basis, what assurance may Christians enjoy that they will persevere to the end? If God cast away Israel after a millennium-and-a-half of underachievement, what confidence can the Church have that he will not cast her away after two thousand years of the same? If God annulled his unconditional covenant with Abraham, how can Christians be sure he will not annul his New Covenant with them?
Even before its founding in 1948, the Jewish state was a bone of contention for Christians. Sensing that a Jewish homeland in the Middle East would have significant repercussions on their theology, some who believed that God had finished with Israel confidently predicted – as late as 1947 – that the Jews would never be established in their ancient homeland.
Prior to May 1948, a potential Jewish state was full of significance for hard-line supercessionists who believed that the Church had replaced Israel. A reconstituted sovereign Jewish state would strongly suggest that God had not finished with the Jews. After national Israel became a reality, however, the Jewish state suddenly had no theological significance at all; Israel was a historical fluke. Thus, some Calvinists were effectively transmuted into ad hoc materialists!
Following the establishment of an independent Jewish state, the ancient Jewish homeland blossomed and became a world leader in the fields of agriculture, technology and medicine. Furthermore, Israel achieved further staggering victories over its enemies in 1967 and 1973. Now that Israel appears to be a permanent fixture in the Middle East, however, some Reformed voices are singling her out for criticism.
Having it both ways
Here, the desire to eat one’s theological cake and still have it reveals itself most clearly. A Jewish Christian recently asked me how I would answer a challenge that had been put to him.
Someone who persistently condemned Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, while refusing to condemn Arab terror against Israeli civilians, had justified his anti-Zionist position by arguing that the Jews were God’s people, therefore a higher standard of morality was expected of them.
Leaving aside the racism implicit in the notion that Arabs were less capable of ethical behaviour than Jews, I asked if the man in question was a supercessionist and, as I had suspected, the answer came in the affirmative.
However much our Arminian brothers and sisters object to the five points of Calvinism, every Arminian is a Calvinist when he is on his knees. But why can’t Calvinists be consistent when it comes to Israel? Are we afraid of being labelled ‘Christian Zionist’ or, worst of all, ‘Dispensationalist’?
We can’t have it both ways. Either God is absolutely sovereign over the affairs of men or he isn’t. God is either totally faithful or he isn’t. If the return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland after an exile of 2,000 years came about purely as the result of political wheeling and dealing, how can we know whether or not God is in full control of his creation?
Furthermore, if the Almighty could reject one elect covenant people because of their unfaithfulness, what assurance may the church have that he will not reject another elect covenant but faithless people?