Tuesday, July 22, 2014

He Said What?! More on the Identity of "Israel"

The opening line to my previous post, Christians Love Them Some Israel! Why?, reads, "Biblical Israel is comprised of all individuals who are in Christ."

A reader on Google+ was not very impressed with this statement and replied: "I'll confess that I did not get past the first sentence without having a question to ask. So I'm not making any assumptions about your terminology, are you saying that you believe any truly redeemed, born-again Christian is now considered Israel?  If so, you do realize that's not the normative doctrine in evangelical circles, right?"

What struck me about the comment, "you do realize that's not the normative doctrine in evangelical circles, right?" is that my view is in line with that of Andreas J. Köstenberger, the present editor of JETS, The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (of which I am a member). I am very confident that the view I am espousing is not only normative in evangelical circles but also the Christian tradition as a whole. 

The reason I can say, "Biblical Israel is comprised of all individuals who are in Christ" is based on Christ's status as the true Israel of God. Everyone who is "united to" or "in" Christ is, therefore, also the true Israel of God. I can also make this statement based on Paul's "Israel of God" in Galatians 6:16.

In support of the conclusion that "the Israel of God" in Galatians 6:16 refers to all Christians in Galatia, whether Jewish or Christian, professor and commentator G.K. Beale explains,

"Even according to the LXX interpretative translation, however, the believing Gentiles enjoy eschatological blessings only as they confess and identify with the 'God of Israel' and only as they identify with his people Israel by converting and becoming 'proselytes' to the faith of Israel. From the Septuagintal translator’s perspective, the Gentiles cannot enjoy these blessings separately from Israel but only by becoming a part of national, theocratic Israel. Paul also likely does not see that Gentiles can enjoy end-time blessings separately from Jews because the only way that either can participate in such blessing is by identifying with Christ, the true Israel, the true 'seed of Abraham' (Gal 3,16.29). Gentiles no longer need to move to geographical Israel and find "refuge" there in order to convert to the faith of that theocratic nation and they no longer need to adopt the national signs of Israel (e.g., circumcision) to be considered true Israelites. Rather, now, in the new redemptive-historical epoch launched by Christ’s death and resurrection, Gentiles merely need to move spiritually to Christ, find "refuge" in him, and convert to faith in him in order to become true Israelites" [emphasis mine].

G.K. Beale, "Peace and Mercy Upon the Israel of God. The Old Testament Background of Galatians 6,16b," Biblica 80 (1999) 204-223, (accessed July 22, 2014).

In his article, "The Israel of God (Galatians 6:16)," Michael Marlowe opens with the statement, "The proper interpretation and translation of the last phrase in Galatians 6:16 has become a matter of controversy in the past century or so. Formerly it was not a matter of controversy. With few exceptions, 'The Israel of God' was understood as a name for the Church here."

In an explanatory footnote, Marlowe expands upon his claim, "H.A.W. Meyer in his Critical and Exegetical Hand-book to the Epistle to the Galatians (5th German edition, 1870), lists the following commentators as supporting this view: Chrysostom, Theodoret, Luther, Calvin, Pareus, Cornelius a Lipide, Calovius, Baumgarten, Koppe, Rosenmüller, Borger, Winer, Paulus, Olhausen, Baumgarten-Crusius, and Wieseler. Meyer himself favors this view. To these names, the American editor of the English translation of his commentary (1884) adds Alford and Lightfoot. Andreas J. Köstenberger (who favors this view in "The Identity of the Israel tou theou (Israel of God) in Galatians 6:16," Faith & Mission 19/1 [2001]: 3–24) adds the names of Justin Martyr, Beale, Dahl, D. Guthrie, Lietzmann, Luz, Longenecker, Ray, Ridderbos, and Stott. But not all of these are commentators. For commentators favoring the view that the phrase refers to Jewish Christians, Meyer lists Ambrosiaster, Beza, Grotius, Estius, Schoettgen, Bengel, Räckert, Matthies, Schott, de Wette, Ewald, and Reithmayr; and the American editor adds Ellicott and Eadie. G. Schrenk (who favors this view in "Was bedeutet 'Israel Gottes'?" Judaica 5 [1949]: 81–94) adds to these Pelagius, B. Weiss, Hofmann, Zahn, Schlatter, Bousset, and Burton. Köstenberger lists also Schrenk, Robinson, Mussner, Bruce, Davies, Richardson, Betz, Walvoord, S. L. Johnson, and "other dispensationalists" as favoring this view. For a survey of commentators and an argument in favor of the latter view see S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., "Paul and 'The Israel of God': An Exegetical and Eschatological Case-Study," in Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost (ed. Stan Toussaint and Charles Dyer; Chicago: Moody, 1986), pp. 183–94. These lists of names, which include some little-known and some non-Christian scholars, do not in themselves convey an accurate impression of the extent to which the first view has predominated. The combined influence of Chrysostom, Luther, and Calvin far outweighs all the others. Prior to the twentieth century the first view alone was mentioned in commentaries intended for laymen and preachers. See, for example, Matthew Henry's Exposition of All the Books of the Old and New Testament (1721), and the Explanatory Notes of Thomas Scott (1822). The interpretation was taken for granted in theological writings generally" [emphasis mine].

Michael Marlow, "The Israel of God (Galatians 6:16)," Bible Research Dec. 2004, (accessed July 22, 2014). 

A deeper understanding of the biblical, theological, and political issues surrounding the identity of Israel could have a dramatic affect upon the way a great many American evangelical Christians view the present war in Gaza. Christians may find reasons to stand in solidarity with the people of Israel and support their government's military campaign against Hamas in Gaza but they would have a difficult time finding a basis for such reasons in Christian theology. The doctrine of Christian nonviolence, on the other hand, enjoys a great deal biblical support. Adherence to Christian nonviolence would preclude the "Stand with Israel!" sentiment which is prevalent today. For two recent treatments of the subject of Christian nonviolence, see Preston Sprinkle's "Fight" and Brian Zahnd's "Farewell to Mars."

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