Premillennial Dispensationalism vs. Replacement Theology - The Evangelicals

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

This article appeared in the August 31, 2007 edition of The Jewish Press.

In 1890, William Blackstone organized a conference in Chicago of Christians and Jews to respond to the pogroms then occurring in Russia. He entitled it “Conference on the Past, Present and Future of Israel”. The Conference unanimously passed a resolution urging world leaders “to stay the hand of cruelty from these time-honored People which have given them as well as us our bible, our religion, and our knowledge of God.” However, when Blackstone introduced a resolution in support of Zionism it was voted down. This was primarily due to the Reform Rabbis and Jews in attendance who rejected the concept of Jewish nationhood.

Unlike Herzl who followed him, Blackstone was convinced the only cure to the horrors confronting European Jewry was a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In 1891 Blackstone wrote a petition to President Benjamin Harrison which was signed by 413 prominent Americans including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Speaker of the House, the Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, many members of Congress as well as such notables as J.P. Morgan, John D. & William Rockefeller and Cyrus McCormick. Known as the Blackstone Memorial it concluded, “Why not give Palestine back to them (the Jews) again? According to God’s distribution of nations it is their home and inalienable possession from which they were expelled by force. Under their possession it was a remarkable and fruitful land sustaining millions of Israelites...We believe this an appropriate time for all nations and especially the Christian nations of Europe to show kindness to Israel. A million of exiles, by their terrible suffering, are piteously appealing to our sympathy, justice and humanity. Let us now restore to them the land of which they were so cruelly despoiled by our Roman ancestors.”

Justice Louis Brandeis wrote concerning Blackstone’s petition, “The arguments which Mr. Blackstone used in that petition were in large part the arguments which the great Herzl presented five years later in setting forth to the world the needs and the hopes of the Jewish People.” What motivated Blackstone to take on such a monumental task? He was a devout Christian, an Evangelical Christian.

This historical footnote to the beginnings of Zionism came to mind recently when I received an e mail from Rabbi Moshe Kushner, the Executive Director of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, forwarding to the Orthodox Rabbinate an e mail soliciting our sentiments regarding the report of the Iraq Study Group. Circulated by Mike Evans Ministries, its purpose was to dissuade President Bush from following through on the Study’s advice. Mike Evans, an Evangelical Minister, is the founder of The Jerusalem Prayer Team the purpose of which is to “have one million people praying daily and 100,000 houses of worship praying weekly for the peace and protection of the Jewish People.” Today when Israel, as demonstrated by the Iraq Study Group, is being focused upon by a growing number of folks as the underlying cause for all the tumult and terror emanating from the Middle East, it is especially important to clearly understand the deep affection Evangelicals have for the Jewish People and the State of Israel. Sadly and perhaps even tragically, other than those in Israel’s government and organizations such as AIPAC, Jews tend to express misgivings about the philo-Semitism of American Evangelicals. Yet more and more it is apparent that their support for Israel and the Jewish People in general is a major factor in determining the White House and Congress’ support for the Jewish State. While not wishing to present a formal theological paper on Evangelical beliefs, I think it important for us to visit some of the major underpinnings of their faith; the faith of the fastest growing Christian churches in the United States today.

For many centuries Christianity fostered an essential religious principle - replacement theology - the Jewish refusal to accept the Nazarene as Messiah resulted in the Church taking upon itself the mantle of the new Israel. In consequence the Prophetic promises of G‑d’s benevolence to Israel were reserved for the new Israel, the Christian Church. It is to replacement theology, the nullification of the Jews as G‑d’s chosen People and its natural extension of ascribing to the Jew every form of evil including deicide, that Christian anti-Semitism owes its beginnings and nurturing down through the centuries. Even in recent decades when most mainline Churches claim to have disavowed this significant source of anti-Semitism and replaced it with what is commonly referred to as covenant theology (Jews and the State of Israel enjoy no special theological status) they have tremendous difficulty dealing with the reality of the Jewish People. As expressed by the Presbyterians, “The continued existence of the Jewish People and of the Christian communities elected by God is as the Apostle Paul expressed it, a mystery. We do not claim to fathom this mystery, but we cannot ignore it.” The fertile soil of anti-Semitism or, at the very least an ambivalence toward the Jews and the Jewish State, is still present in covenant theology.

In 1821 in Dublin Ireland, The Reverend John Nelson Darby was the key figure in the formulation of a new view of the Jews avowed by the Plymouth Brethren, a breakaway movement from the Anglican Church. To the Brethren the Church of England had been corrupted. More important however, was their rejection of replacement theology and their belief in dispensationalism. Simply, according to Darby’s literal reading of the Bible, the Jews were and will always remain the chosen people of G‑d. Through their many rejections of G‑d’s commandments they suffered but always remained G‑d’s chosen and were remembered by Him. To Darby, the Jewish rejection of the Nazarene required G‑d to create a special time period during which the Jews would stand by the sidelines as the Church functions. In the end of days however, the Jews will return to front stage ushering in the return of the Nazarene to reign over the world during a thousand years of peace. This “second coming” will happen according to a plan known only to G‑d. Thus the Jews enjoy a key role in G‑d’s redemption of humankind.

Darby did in fact visit the United States for seven years during the period of 1862-1877 and had a profound effect upon many Fundamentalist Christians. Some of the great preachers of the day including D.L. Moody, founder of the Moody Bible College here in Chicago, and the baseball player turned Evangelist, Billy Sunday, who eventually conducted over three hundred revivals drawing over 100 million people, accepted Darby’s dispensationalism and his understanding of the role for the Jews in the future redemption of humankind. For dispensationalists the two world wars, the Holocaust and most importantly the founding of the State of Israel were all signs of the truth of their belief. This naturally resulted in a philo-Semitism and a deep commitment to the prospering of the State of Israel.

While it is true that among their ranks there are those who believe in bringing the “good news” to the Jew, there are many, like Darby, who believe the Jews as Jews play a fundamental role in the plan of G‑d. Yet even for those who do believe in converting Jews, their motivation for kinship with the Jewish People and support for the State of Israel has little to do with their conversion efforts. Ultimately, they are motivated by a singular statement in the Torah - G‑d’s declaration to our first Patriarch, Abraham. “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you.” (Genesis 12:3) The word you in Hebrew is in the plural indicating Abraham and his descendents. Dispensationalists, the Evangelical movement in the United States, sees this as one of their central marching orders in ushering in the G‑dly kingdom on earth.