A Short History of Christian Zionism: From the Reformation to the Twenty-First CenturyPublished on: 16.6.2022
By Donald M. Lewis (InterVarsity Press / 2021)
Reviewed by David R. Parsons, ICEJ Vice President & Senior Spokesman
Christian support for Israel stands at unprecedented levels today, as tens of millions of Christians worldwide have a compelling love for Israel and the Jewish people. Yet we are still being vilified as no different from past Christian generations, who were largely antisemitic. Christian Zionists are accused of racism against Arabs, and of blocking peace in the Middle East. Numerous books claim we are thirsting for Armageddon as one final ‘convert or die’ scenario. Academics and journalists are especially demeaning of Christian Zionism, which they contend is a recent outgrowth of the American Christian Right. This is all a blatant misreading of the noble history, global scope, and sincere motivations of the Christian Zionist movement.
For over four decades now, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem has been defending our movement from such misrepresentations and slanders. And now a book has finally come along which disposes of these falsehoods in an exceptional scholarly fashion.
A Short History of Christian Zionism: From the Reformation to the Twenty-First Century, by Donald M. Lewis, is the most comprehensive treatment of the subject to date, covering Christian attitudes towards the Jewish people since the early Church fathers, the rise of Evangelicalism out of the Protestant Reformation, and the development of Christian Zionism ever since.
The late Prof. Lewis (who passed away soon after the book’s publication last year) does a highly commendable job in handling long-debated issues concerning the chasm between Christianity and Judaism, differences among various Christian streams over eschatology, and the theological and prophetic significance of Israel’s modern-day restoration. The author earned a doctorate from Oxford, while an earlier work he compiled on Christian Zionism was published by Cambridge Press, so he certainly had excellent academic credentials and access to some of the prime sources on church history.
While the book does lay bare some of the problematic Christian miscalculations on Bible prophecy in the past (and present), it also is very persuasive in establishing that most Evangelicals today genuinely care for Israel and the Jewish people in the here-and-now. Lewis notes six particular themes common among contemporary Christian Zionists, including our 1) strong affinity for Zionism; 2) shared sense of Christian culpability for the Holocaust; 3) denouncing of antisemitism; 4) repudiation of Replacement theology; 5) emphasis on Hebraic roots of our faith; and 6) affirmation of philo-Semitism based not on prophecy but covenant theology.
Lewis also convincingly dismantles the false notion – broadly promoted on campuses and in the media – that all pro-Israel Christians are Dispensationalists. This alone decimates the whole genre of books which conflate the two and wrongly accuse Evangelicals of pining away for the Apocalypse.
Also noteworthy, Lewis offers his unique appraisal that Evangelical self-identity has been profoundly shaped over recent centuries by a desire to distinguish the emerging movement from the Catholic Church, especially by embracing a favorable view of Israel and the Jews. In the process, Lewis is most helpful in providing key markers in the history of Christian-Jewish relations, beginning with Augustine – who set the tone for the early Gentile Church to endure the Jews as a ‘witness’ of the fate of those who reject Christ. Later, the established churches of Europe adopted the more strident teaching of ‘contempt’ towards the Jews, which led to violent antisemitism. He concludes that the Protestant Reformation then birthed a new approach of ‘esteem’ towards the Jews in large part to distance themselves from Catholics.
That process of Evangelicals forging a self-identity markedly tied to Israel continues to this day, he suggests, in the form of a “secondary election,” whereby the Jews remain a chosen people and the Gentile nations can be either sheep or goat nations depending on our treatment of Israel (Matthew 25:32-33).
Besides serving as an invaluable resource for our movement going forward, A Short History of Christian Zionism also serves as a mirror for the individual reader to reflect on exactly where they stand on important biblical, prophetic and political issues related to Israel today. Are our motives towards Israel pure? Have we learned the lessons from past Christians whose faith faltered when their messianic expectations failed?
This is a welcome work of excellent historic and religious scholarship, dealing with complex views on theology, eschatology, the calling and destiny of Israel, and the forces that guide world history. Yet the author also simplifies the material for ordinary readers. Indeed, A Short History of Christian Zionism instantly belongs atop the required reading list of everyone interested in Israel.
Available from Embassy Resources for US $36.00. https://www.icejstore.com