Does the church replace Israel? Was the church present in the Old Testament? Does the nation of Israel continue to have Biblical relevance today? What is the future of the nation? What of Jewish Christians? The relationship of Israel and the Church is the topic of this section in Continuity and Discontinuity, and it’s (yet another) complicated and controversial issue!
Marten Woudstra presents a case for fundamental continuity between Israel and the church, while Robert Saucy presents a case for fundamental discontinuity.
Continuity and Discontinuity
Chapter 10: Israel and the Church – Continuity
Woudstra approaches this issue somewhat chronologically starting with the Old Testament, intending to show that “[t]he OT notion of Israel organically leads to the notion of the NT church” (p223). Woudstra takes a broad view of God’s dealing with Israel and the church, highlighting the continuity. He argues that even in the old Testament there is a spiritual element to ‘Israel’ and a “less than literal understanding of terms such as ‘Zion,’ ‘Jerusalem,’ etc.” (p227) that must not be overlooked. This makes the application of OT terms for Israel to the NT church less jarring, and reveals a great level of continuity; God has been gathering His church from the beginning. Woudstra doesn’t hold that the church replaces Israel, but rather that the church is God’s true people, beginning in the Old Testament.
However, Woudstra does argue that there is, “a point where all Israel virtually ceases to be God’s people…Gentiles now fill up the ranks of all Israel” (p236). The ‘hardening’ of the Jews (Rom 11:25) is permanent; the ‘until’ in v25 doesn’t refer to a future salvation of Jews, but rather that “[a]ll Israel will be saved in the way of bringing in of the fullness of the Gentiles” (p236). So the ‘all Israel’ that will be saved is now the Gentiles, the ‘true Israel’. Texts that imply a future for national Israel (Matt 19:28; Luke 21:24; Acts 1:6) must be understood in light of two important factors: a) these terms are not always literal, as mentioned above, and b) the disciples were mistaken to expect this future national restoration.
Woudstra presents a good case for continuity, though I found his conclusions a stretch, to say the least. While an overall continuity in God’s plan of salvation and His requirement of spiritual relationship are well argued here, Woudstra’s position is not proven. He seems to assume his conclusion, and then show how the thrust of the Bible ‘fits’ with it, but in doing so he flattens out the distinctions between Israel and the church far too much and doesn’t really address contrary texts deeply enough. The presentation felt too one-sided. Of course, deep engagement with opposing view is far too difficult in a chapter this short, but I felt Woudstra could have used his space a little better by honing in on the key arguments for/against his position.
Woudstra’s view on ‘all Israel’ wasn’t compelling, though I am aware it is a common position on Romans 11:26. It is important to note that Woudstra does end with a “challenge to preach the gospel to the Jews”…“regardless of where [one stands] with respect to any of the above questions (p237). Although, considering his position on the hardening of the Jews, it is difficult to understand why the church should do this, apart from our command to preach the Gospel to all people, which of course is a hugely important factor!
Chapter 11: Israel and the Church – Discontinuity
Saucy presents a view primarily of discontinuity between Israel and the church, although the older dispensational distinction between Israel as God’s earthly people and the church as His heavenly should be rejected as too strong a separation (p240). Instead, Saucy holds that the people of God has been expanded to include the Gentiles – that Israel and the church are both God’s people – but this does not mean that “the church now assumes that position exclusively for herself” (p241). The nation of Israel still has a future in God’s plans.
Saucy argues for this position by exploring the meaning of “Israel” in both the Old and New Testaments, the levels of discontinuity and continuity between Israel and the church, and then Scripture’s teaching on the future of Israel. For the sake of space I’ll only note a few points in his presentation.
Firstly, Saucy’s outline is excellent and easy to follow. His areas of focus make perfect sense for his position; he does not waste his time or get distracted, which I am grateful for. Also, his position is not convoluted or difficult to understand. It is simple – whatever Scripture says about the church, it does not preclude a unique place and purpose for national Israel. He presents a strong case for his view and his arguments must not be ignored.
As with Woudstra’s chapter, the presuppositions of the authors steer the ship to a guaranteed destination. For example, Saucy didn’t address the suggestion that God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament might be fulfilled in an unexpected (and greater) way in the church. For Saucy, it is not even a consideration. This is no doubt due to Saucy’s dispensational hermeneutic of a strictly ‘literal’ interpretation. This presupposition is not a problem for his presentation, since we all have presuppositions, but it’s important to be aware of them. Much of this debate comes back to the hermeneutics question (addressed earlier in Continuity and Discontinuity).
I was glad that Saucy spent more time engaging with texts commonly used to argue for continuity position, however I felt that his responses were weak at times and relied too heavily on his hermeneutical presuppositions. For example, Ephesians 2:12, “does not speak of the Gentiles being incorporated into Israel, or of them together forming a ‘new Israel'” and later, “nowhere in the passage does the apostle identify this new citizenship as membership in Israel” (p253). Whether Saucy is correct or not ought to be established and not simply asserted, and statements such as this are attached to virtually all of the ‘continuity’ texts that Saucy engages with (like 1 Peter 2:9, Rom 2:28-29 and Gal 6:16). Of course Saucy’s responses consist of more than these assertions, but I found his arguments to be quite shallow and ironically revealing these texts to be more of a problem for his position than I first thought. To stick with Eph 2:12, “Jews and Gentiles in Christ become fellow citizens in a heavily commonwealth that is not called Israel” (p253) seems like a forced response given that Paul calls it the commonwealth “of Israel”!
I have to admit I was a little disappointed with these two chapters. They seemed to skirt over the issue too much, not having enough time or space for deeper interaction with Scripture. Granted, this issue cannot be resolved in 40 pages, but perhaps the authors should have chosen a narrower focus in their chapters, particularly Woudstra.
As I read these presentations, I felt as though Woudstra flattened out the distinctions between the church and Israel too much, resulting in something of a flat line between the two; Saucy did the opposite, having so great a distinction between the two that they are basically two lines running parallel. Both positions seemed to stray from Scripture in these ways.
Of course it would not fit with the book’s layout, but a third position would have been helpful here. There are more options than a strict discontinuity and strict continuity. There are positions that contain elements of both presentations, seeing the church as a typological fulfillment of Israel (continuity) but with an escalation in the blessings in the church, and future salvation promised for national Israel (discontinuity). With the different nuances and views on this issue, Zondervan ought to consider putting out a multi-view book!
In conclusion, it seems to me that much of this discussion is determined not only by the hermeneutics (mentioned above), but also what one makes of prophetic promises to Israel – which of course comes back to one’s hermeneutics. Since Biblical promises are addressed in the next chapters, I look forward to reading them!
Comments are encouraged! I’d love to hear any feedback or thoughts.
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