The Everlasting Covenant and the Possession of the Land of Israel Part 1: Why Territorial Supercessionism Should be Abandoned

A series of articles addressing the Biblical problems with the particular form Replacement Theology promoted by theologians like N. T. Wright, Stephen Sizer, Gary Burge, and John Stott.

by Dalton Lifsey, © September 2011

 

Is there any evidence in the New Testament that national Israel’s once-promised “everlasting” “possession of the Land” in accordance with the Abrahamic covenant is still binding? Does the ancient promise to the Patriarch have any present or future relevance? Has the New Covenant superceded the promise of material Land? Should we expect the literal descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to experience an eschatological vindication of that ancient oath? These questions are of monumental importance.

In light of the abundance of harmonious evidence available in both Testaments, I firmly believe in the ongoing nature of the promise concerning Jewish “possession” of “the Land that the Lord gave to [their] fathers” (Ez. 36:28, 37:25). I am persuaded by the Scriptures that the “everlasting covenant” made to Abraham (as recorded in Genesis 12:6-7, 13:14-17, 15:1-21, 17:1-14, and 22:15-18) is still profoundly relevant to the unfolding of redemptive history. However, many Protestants and Catholics across the theological spectrum reading the same Scriptures strongly disagree.

Despite the fact that the writers of the New Testament go out of their way to confirm the efficacy and perpetual nature of the Abrahamic covenant (as in Gal. 3:17, Rom. 11:29, Heb. 6:13, etc.) some argue that it has been modified, redefined, abrogated, revised, replaced, or reconfigured (all their words) to the extent that physical Land is no longer to be considered a part of God’s covenantal program or historical and eschatological plan. And even though the New Testament distinguishes the “everlasting” Abrahamic covenant (1 Chron. 16:15-18) from the temporal Mosaic covenant that was “added” later (Gal. 3:19), many notable scholars and prominent leaders ignore this distinction speaking of both as “obsolete” (inappropriately citing Hebrews 8:13).  

In Stephen Sizer’s words, according to the New Testament, the issue of Land has “been made irrelevant to God’s redemptive purposes.”?1 In this article and those that will follow I aim to challenge this perspective on exegetical grounds. 

INTRODUCING SUPERCESSIONISM – IN THEIR OWN WORDS 

This faulty theological perspective bears many names: Covenant Theology, Fulfillment Theology, Replacement Theology, and others. But from here on out I will continue to refer to it as “Territorial Supercessionism” or simply “Supercessionism” (in keeping with the alleged idea that “Land has now been superceded?2 in the New Covenant) and “Replacement Theology” (in keeping with the alleged idea that “The church, then, as the people of the New Covenant has taken the place of Israel.”)?3. In these articles I will give more attention to Territorial Supercessionism (an emphasis on Abraham’s Land) than to Replacement Theology (an emphasis on Abraham’s descendants). 

Even though I’ve taken the terms “supercede” and “replace” directly from their own writings, many who promote this view are aggravated when they are used to explain their position. Barry Horner poignantly responds saying that: 

While some authors renounce association with these definitions, and even attempt to disavow their validity, nevertheless all of their verbal ducking and weaving concerning denial on the one hand cannot obscure identification on the other hand with the same essential anti-Judaic spirit which substitute concepts such as “progression,” “transference,” and “fulfillment” in reality convey.?4 

So as to accurately represent the view that I aim to challenge, I have quoted some of the leading spokesman of Supercessionism—in their own words— explaining their position (with my emphasis italicized, and my comments in brackets). 

Stephen Sizer:

There is, therefore, no evidence that the apostles believed that the Jewish people still had a divine right to the land, or that Jewish possession of the land would be important, let alone that Jerusalem would remain a central aspect of God’s purposes for the world. On the contrary…Jerusalem as much as land, has now been superceded. They have been made irrelevant to God’s redemptive purposes.?5 

Gary Burge:

Christ is the reality behind all earthbound promises…land is rejected….land is spiritualized as something else…the promise is historicized in Jesus, a man who lives in the land…Whatever the ‘land’ meant in the Old Testament, whatever the promise contained, this now belongs to Christians...The land was a metaphor, a symbol of a greater place beyond the soil of Canaan.?6 

John Stott:

The Old Testament promises according to the apostles are fulfilled in Christ and the international community of Christ [and have nothing to do with a return of Jews to the land]. The New Testament authors apply the promise of Abraham’s seed to Jesus Christ. And they apply to Jesus Christ the promise of the land and all the land which is inherited, the land flowing with milk and honey, because it is in him [not land] that our hunger is satisfied and our thirst quenched. A return to Jewish nationalism [in the form of a political state] would seem incompatible with this New Testament perspective of the international community of Jesus.?7 

Lorraine Boettner:

It may seem harsh to say that, ‘God is through with the Jews.’ But the fact of the matter is that He is through with them as a unified national group….This does not mean, of course, that the Jews will never go back to Palestine–as indeed some of them have already established the nation if Israel…But it does mean that as any of them go back they do entirely on their own, apart from any covenanted purpose to that end and entirely outside of Scripture prophecy. No Scripture blessing is promised for a project of that kind.?8 

ACKNOWLEDGING THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN THE EVERLASTING ABRAHAMIC COVENANT AND THE TEMPORARY MOSAIC COVENANT

Despite the fact that the Abrahamic covenant is celebrated in the Old Testament as an “everlasting” “oath” (Gen. 17:7-8, 1 Chron. 16:15-18) with eschatological dimensions (Ez. 36:24-28, 37:25-29) and in the New Testament as a binding “promise” that God intends to keep (as in Lk. 1:68-75), Supercessionists claim that it has been forever set aside never to be returned to. Ignoring or misunderstanding Paul when he said that the “promise” made to “Abraham” was not “nullified” or “made void” but “previously ratified,” (Gal. 3:17) they assert—in the words of Burge—that the promise to Abraham concerning Land has been once and for all time “overturned:”

The formula [i.e. taking Scripture at face value] that linked Abraham to Jewish ethnic lineage and the right to possess the land has now been overturned in Christ.?9

They say that the promises, as they were originally declared and confirmed, have now been “spiritualized” to the extent that they mean something altogether different from what Abraham would have understood. Though this makes God a liar (at worst) or disingenuous (at best), and deems the issue completely irrelevant to Christians (as well as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), they contend that:

In a word, Jesus spiritualizes the land…Now Jesus is the sole source of life and hope and future. The land as holy territory therefore should now recede from the concerns of God’s people.?10

Even though when speaking to Gentiles Paul refers to himself as “an Israelite” (a national reality) “from the tribe of Benjamin” (a territorial reality), and explains the “gifts and callings of God” (a clear reference to the Abrahamic covenant) as “irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29), Supercessionists argue that Paul promoted the abrogation, modification, and nullification of the “everlasting oath” (1 Chron. 16:15-18) made to Abraham. Based on a reductionistic interpretation of John 18:36, the avoidance of Jesus’ prophetic declarations concerning the future of “the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mt. 19:28), and an eisegetical explanation of Paul’s use of the word “Israel” throughout the New Testament, Sizer explains that:

Israel now represents those who trust in Christ, both Jews and Gentiles…Jesus repudiated the notion of an earthly and nationalistic kingdom [i.e. The Abrahamic Covenant as it was declared to Abraham].?11

Despite the fact that both Testaments repeatedly draw the distinction between the “everlasting” Abrahamic covenant and the intermediary, “old,” and “obsolete” Mosaic covenant, Supercessionsists irresponsibly treat the two as if they were one and the same (their system requires it). It is startling that someone as skilled in exegesis as N.T. Wright could promote something as foreign to the New Testament as the amalgamation of the two covenants. In the quotation below, note how he merges the Mosaic “food laws” and the Abrahamic “status of the Land” together to explain the Supercession of Israel’s national status, territorial claims, and covenantal privileges saying (with my additions in brackets):

God has finally done for Israel what he was going to do for Israel, so now it’s time for the Gentiles to come in.  That, too, is the underlying rationale for the abolition of the food laws [of the Mosaic covenant] and the holy status of the land of Israel [of the Abrahamic covenant]: a new day has dawned in God’s purposes, and the symbols of the previous day are put aside, not because they were a bad thing, now happily rejected, but because they were the appropriate preparatory stages in God’s plan, and have now done their work.  When I became a man, I put away childish things.?12

Are all these propositions Biblically legitimate and exegetically supported? Or are they the fruit of Gentile eisegesis, a historical continuum of Christian anti-Judaism, faulty hermeneutics, and system-driven prejudices? While there is a host of credible, sensible, and godly leaders that through their support of it lend credibility to Supercessionism, the plain reading of the Word of God forces me to embrace a different perspective. I agree with Barry Horner where in his extraordinary book “Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged” he says:

“The land was not promised to Abraham as a passing shadow, as something merely provisional. There is no such statement in the Bible. Rather, unlike the structure of the Mosaic economy, the land is perpetuated as a vital element of the new covenant (Jer. 31:27-40; Eze. 11:14-21; 36:22-37:23). In other words, it is important to understand that the Abrahamic Covenant finds its fulfillment in the new covenant, notwithstanding the intervening, temporal Mosaic covenant. The Abrahamic covenant promised the land, and the intervening Mosaic covenant involved temporal association with the land, yet the new covenant declares consummate fulfillment of that promise to Abraham with its specific references to the land, and not some extrapolated, abstract universalism. In particular, the new covenant describes Israel’s return to the land from dispersion as ‘the land that I gave to your forefathers’ (Jer. 31:38-40; Eze. 11:17; 36:24, 28). So in terms of roots, the Old Testament as a whole always originally identifies the land with the Abrahamic covenant, but never the subsequent Mosaic covenant. Certainly the Mosaic covenant draws on the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant (Exod. 3:6-8, 15-17; 13:5; 33:1- 3; Lev. 20:24; Num. 13:27), but the Mosaic covenant can never nullify that which was inaugurated with unilateral finality 430 years earlier (Galatians 3:17). While the New Testament frequently describes the Mosaic old covenant as being comprised of shadows and types, this terminology is never directly applied to the promise character of the Abrahamic covenant, despite its sign of circumcision (Col. 2:16-17; Heb. 8:3-6, 10:1). Circumcision was the sign of the covenant that God made with Abraham, but the land was never regarded as a sign of the covenant; rather, it was intrinsic to that covenant, and this is a most vital distinction to keep in mind (Gen. 12:1, 7). This is the reason the land is distinguished from Mosaic typology – it is an abiding reality in itself.”?13

As “the controversy of Zion” (Isaiah 34:8KJV; Zechariah 12:2-9; 14:1-3) continues to escalate with the mounting conflict over “the Land” of Israel, the Church will find herself entrenched in a profound theological crisis as the nations are confronted with a profound political crisis over this issue of “the everlasting covenant.”

 

To be continued…

———————–

1 Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism, (IVP Academic; IVP/UK Edition edition, December 1, 2005) p. 204

2 Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism, (IVP Academic; IVP/UK Edition edition, December 1, 2005) p. 170, 204

3 H. Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, (Eerdmans 1975 344-345)

4 Barry Horner, JUDEO-CENTRIC ESCHATOLOGY an ethical challenge to REFORMED ESCHATOLOGY, Accessed online June 2011 http://www.bunyanministries.org/books/israel_and_millennialism/00%20Introduction.pdf)

5 Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism, (IVP Academic; IVP/UK Edition edition, December 1, 2005) p. 170, 204

6 Gary Burge, Whose Land? Whose Promise?, (Pilgrim Press, June 2004) p. 176-177, 179

7 John Stott, The Place of Israel, an unpublished sermon preached at All Soul’s, Langham Place, London, cited in Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism, Justifying Apartheid in the Name of God, The Churchman (Summer 2001)

8 Lorraine Boettner, The Millennium, (P & R Publishing, December 1, 1990) p. 314

9 Gary Burge, Jesus and the Land, p. 86

10 Gary Burge, Jesus and the Land, p. 53, 56

11 Stephen Sizer, Zion’s Christian Soldiers, pp. 61, 153.

12 Epilogue: The Holy Land Today, in The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage in the Holy Land and Beyond. 1999, London: SPCK; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 119-130

13 Horner, Future Israel, chap. 9.

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