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Israel and the Church

One of the disputes in Protestant circles is over the relationship between Israel and the Church and whether God still has a special purpose for the ethnic people of Israel in his plan of the ages. Two of the chief disputants are the Protestant schools of thought known as “dispensationalism” and “covenant theology.” The former is a relative newcomer on the Protestant scene and was started in the 1830s by an Englishman named John Nelson Darby. A distinctive characteristic of dispensationalism is its insistence that God’s plan of the ages focuses chiefly around the ethnic people of Israel.

With the close of the Church age, many dispensationalists have said they expect God to turn away from dealing with the Gentiles and turn again to dealing primarily with the Jews.This affects dispensationalism’s reading of the book of Revelation as well as much of the rest of biblical prophecy. Dispensationalists see Revelation as a blueprint of future events, chiefly concerning the Jewish people, leading up to a future, earthly reign of Christ known as the Millennium. 

During the Millennium, they believe, Israel will be restored as a nation, will return to offering animal sacrifices (in commemoration of Christ’s death on the cross), and will be the most favored nation on earth, with Jesus physically ruling in its capitol. In dispensational thought, the Jews may also have a special status in the eternal order that follows the Millennium.

Covenant theology is much more in line with what traditional Protestant views have been. It tends to be amillennial, viewing the Millennium as the present reign of Christ in heaven and, through the Church, on earth. This is the historic Protestant view, in contrast to dispensationalism’s pre-millennial (future earthly reign of Christ) stance.

Covenant theology thus does not take Revelation as a checklist of future events but as a prophecy of events occurring at the beginning of or all through Church history. Consequently it does not see Revelation as a record of God’s future dealings with the Jewish people. When dealing with apparently unfulfilled prophecies that speak expressly of Israel—such as those in many of the Old Testament prophets—covenant theologians tend to apply them to the Church, arguing that the Church is the spiritual Israel. This “transfer” of prophecies from ethnic Israel to the Church does not go over well with dispensationalists.

If we may speak of the two systems in their unqualified forms, dispensationalism asserts that God still has future plans for the Jewish people and deduces that the Church is not spiritual Israel; covenant theology asserts that the Church is spiritual Israel and deduces that God has no future plans for the Jews different than his plans for any other people.

Both systems cite Scripture for the major premises of their arguments, and the verses they cite seem successful in showing these points. The problem is not with the Scripture passages cited by the two groups but with the conclusions they draw from them. It is the constraints of the two systems that keep their adherents from recognizing that the inferences they make do not follow.

The Catholic Church is able to acknowledge the truth that is found in both positions. Along with the dispensationalists the Church acknowledges that God does still have plans for the Jews as a unique people (Catechism of the Catholic Church 674). Paul clearly indicates this in his writings, especially in Romans 9–11, where he indicates God continues to fulfill his promises about the Jewish people by preserving a remnant of Jewish believers in Christ (11:1–5). This indicates a special place for Israel, for no other people has a promise that there will always be a believing remnant. God also has future plans for the Jewish people: One day the Jewish people as a nation will return to Christ, and this will be one of the signs of the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead (11:12, 15).

On the other hand, along with covenant theologians, Catholics acknowledge that the Church is spiritual Israel or, in Catholic parlance, the “new Israel” (cf. CCC 877). This too is indicated in Paul’s writings: In Romans 9:6 he says that “not all who are of Israel are Israel.” This indicates the existence of two Israels. One—”all who are of Israel”—indicates the ethnic people, not all of whom believe in Jesus. The other Israel, the context reveals, does not include those who have rejected the Messiah. This new Israel, founded by Messiah, exists in spiritual continuity with the Old Testament saints and so counts as a “spiritual Israel.” It includes Gentiles who believe in the Messiah and so through baptism are spiritually circumcised (Col. 2:11–12) and are reckoned as spiritual Jews (Rom. 2:26–29).

In his letter to the Ephesians Paul is even more explicit about the Gentiles’ spiritual inclusion when he states that “you Gentiles in the flesh . . . were [once] separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel . . . But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near . . . So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints” (2:11–13, 19).

Thus the Catholic Church, not being constrained by the new theological systems of dispensationalism and covenant theology, is able to avoid the extremes of both while it acknowledges the truths both contain—as it has since before either was invented.

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