A search is on among Christian evangelists to find a new theology that can take the place of the discredited dispensational theology, which many are unable to defend in light of the realities on the ground. The most critiqued part of dispensationalist theology is blindly assigning support for the state of Israel in the name of the Bible. This search was most obvious recently when Palestinian Christian evangelists met in mid-March with fellow global evangelists in a theological conference, Christ at the Checkpoint, held in the occupied Palestinian city of Bethlehem.
The complaint raised by Palestinian evangelicals is that God's Old Testament promises can't be used to support the injustice taking place against them and their fellow citizens. The natural Christian alternative to dispensationalism, which gives special privileges to secular and nonsecular Israelis solely because of their Jewish faith, is to stress that the Church today has taken the place of the Jewish people in God's eyes. However such talk is considered, replacement theology, which has been used in an abusive way for centuries in Europe, to persecute the Jews, ultimately leading to the Holocaust. Any attempts to promote such alternative theologies, like any attempts to criticize Israel, are quickly dismissed as the religious source of the scourge of anti Semitism.
While many evangelicals are now calling themselves progressive dispensationalists, the alternative to dispensanalism remains elusive.
Reverend Alex Awad, Palestinian pastor of the East Jerusalem Baptist church, argued that Christian Zionism, the belief that Jewish return to the Holy Land fulfills Biblical prophecy, has led many Christians to blind political support for Israel. "Many evangelicals blend Zionism with dispensationalism," Awad said, decrying anything deviant as anti-Semitic, supersessionist replacement theology. That is, many evangelicals think "supporting the Israeli state's actions, even if they violate human rights and dehumanize Palestinians, is a way to obey and love God. They conflate political backing of a secular state with spiritual blessing upon God's chosen people."
Wheaton College theologian Gary Burge and Messianic Jewish leader Daniel Juster, speaking at the conference, asked the core question: "In Christian theology, has the New Testament church replaced or superseded Old Testament Israel?"
Burge answered, "No." Instead of replacement theology, he suggested "fulfillment theology," a belief that Christ didn't replace, but fulfilled the Abrahamic covenant as it was meant to be. "The Gospel announces Jewish blessing from a Jewish messiah that steps beyond provincialism and proclaims redemption of the world," Burge said. Thus Christ realized the Old Testament's deepest hopes for Gentiles as well as Jews, that they would receive the Abrahamic promises of not only land and children but also being a blessing to the nations. "Biblical Israel always took keen interest in the first two promises," Burge said. "Christ enables the third." Dr. Yohana Katanasho, academic dean at Bethlehem Bible College, said that the exclusive particularism that is rooted in national and ethnic visions of the identity of the Messiah is in tension with the depiction of Messiah in the Gospel of John." This is not replacement theology or fulfillment theology or enlargement theology," he argued. Dr. Katansho said that the focus should not be limited on the promises of the Old Testament or on replacing them or even on enlarging them. Instead, it is a transformational theology in which the christocratic reality restructures the components of the Old Testament in relation to the centrality of the Messiah.
Conference speakers also asked less theologically worded but more self-searching questions: How does religion relate to privilege? Is our faith prejudiced by national exceptionalism? What are the pains motivating those who disagree with me, and how can I hear and understand them?
Abraham is no guarantee of privilege. "Are we saying Jews in flesh who do not share faithful attributes of Abraham reap his covenant's benefits, when Paul says these blessings are distributed by faith?" Burge said. "Someone can be an Israelite and not of the covenant of Abraham."
Dialogue brought out the two speakers' theological variances. But their hearts were one, especially on the question of religious exceptionalism. "When I, no matter who I am, see my religious heritage as a basis of privilege, I cannot be a blessing to the nations," Barge said. "When religion is linked to privilege, it is generally linked to sin."
Juster likewise called Christian Zionists' unquestioning support to the Israeli state a mistake. The view that Christians are required to Bless Jews by supporting the state of Israel and its policies cannot be maintained. "Blessing Jews means praying for them to respect human rights, not chauvinistic blanket support for all Israeli actions," he said. "Loving Jews isn't giving them license to do whatever they want. We must fall on our faces and pray, God, turn them to Christ."
American evangelicals are also prone to US exceptionalism, Burge said, thinking that God divinely blesses their nation with assigned destiny and entitlement. "Commitment to the secular state of Israel is part of American exceptionalist evangelicalism. Christians become afraid of disagreement with Israel. That robs the church of its prophetic voice," he said. "But sometimes you must speak critically even of those that you love."
The reality check of the wall and the oppression which Jewish Israelis were carrying out against Palestinians, including Christians, has been hard to justify by simply cherry picking verses here and there from the Old Testament. Today's Christians are demanding a much more accountable theology which can be defended in the Bible belt as well as in the lands of the Bible. If that search will require coming up with new terminology or new theology, so be it.
If Christian Zionism and dispensationalism appears to legitimize oppression and occupation and militarism, while denying a role to Jews in God's plan risks falling into anti-Semitism, what then is a proper approach, and what elements would be central to such new theology? One key may be not to stray away from the support of Christ to his followers on the mount of the beatitudes when he said. "Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall inherit the earth."
"Some Christians are suspicious of peace because they've heard sermons that delegate peace to the Antichrist's work," Awad said. "But the Bible calls us to be peacemakers. Could it be that rumors of war come true because we haven't sought to advance a gospel of peace?"