Where’s Israel in Systematic Theology?

As I mentioned in my latest post, some perspectives fundamental in the Bible are almost always missing in ‘systematic theologies’. Like in chemistry it makes a tremendous difference if we add a certain substance or not, or if we miss a catalyst. I do believe Israelology is a key issue in Christian theology, which is self-evident given the Jewish roots of Christianity.

But, an exegete and biblical theologian, one feels like moving to another world when passing from exegetical theology into Systematic Theology. If the Bible is our source and with the background we have delineated, this is problematic. Systematic Theology which does not feed on Biblical Theology is less than useful to apostolic Christianity.

Earliest Christianity had the Hebrew Bible as its only scriptural Revelation, understanding themselves as those Jews who had got the privilege of knowing the Messiah whom God sent to Israel, Jesus, and being the ones to spread the good news “to the Jews first, then to the Greek.” These Christians operated entirely within the biblical world-view and saw the Scriptures fulfilled before their eyes.

How did the Christian church lose this connection? And what ‘chemistry’ does it change that it has been lost?


Kendall Soulen writes

Supersessionism [that the covenant with Israel is superseded, AG] is a specifically systematic theological problem since it threatens to render the existence of the Jewish people a matter of indifference to the God of Israel.”[1]

The architects of Christian theology were the Anti-Gnostic fathers, e.g., Justin Martyr and Irenæus. They create what one could call the standard model:





Building on dispensationalism

Here physical Israe  becomes obsolete. “The people of Israel was precious before the church arose… the people was made void when the church arose” (Melito of Sardes, 2nd century). This thinking has to do with dispensationalism, i.e., that God acts with the world in different dispensations or economies (normally between two and seven, sometimes even up till twelve). However, such dispensations are not, or only very weakly, founded on biblical evidence. The existence of an old and a new covenant is evident, but how fixed is the border? A more developed dispensationalism builds on Darby’s very speculative foundation, now about 110 years old, and can scarcely be regarded a serious biblical theological foundation. Therefore it is dangerous to build large systems on weak foundations as different dispensational theories, even if they contain some truth.

However, the model above is not entirely incorrect, but it skips over the own narrative of the Bible, God working through a family (Abraham’s), which becomes Israel. By skipping over the covenant, this supersessionist model can deal with all that are created without seeing the Pauline imperative “To the Jew first, then to the Greek.”

In Paul, Jesus is presented as Abraham’s seed in singular form (Gal 3:16 sperma) and by faith in him (Rom 9:30–32) Jews and Gentiles are blessed. Fundamental to this thinking is the covenant, which cannot become void. Through Jesus Christ the ones who believe in him are brought into the Covenant.

Supersessionism (or replacement theology) is incorrect since God according to Romans 9–11 still reckons with his people, and actually sees the Gentiles as dependant on the Olive Tree Israel.

A model which better reckons upon the role of the family of Abraham-Isak-Jacob/Israel is this:

The God of Israel

> creation

> the fall

> the covenant with blessing to Abraham and through him to all nations

> redemption – the life in the Kingdom – though Abraham’s Seed, a Davidic Messiah, Jesus Christ

> fulfilment of God’s promises: the eternal Kingdom of God, which is new heavens and a new earth where righteousness lives (2 Peter 1:11; 3:13)

This sketch may provide for the need of both seeing the continuity with Israel and the uniqueness of the redemption through Jesus the Messiah. It tries to deal with two problems:

  • supersessionism
  • its opposite, which does not see Jesus the Messiah as the one way into the Kingdom for Jews and Gentile.

The solution seems to be to consider the covenant with Israel, yet seeing the uniqueness of Jesus.

We will not be able to draw all consequences of this for the biblical Systematic Theology we are dealing with now. But this perspective needs to be included as a corner stone in al theology: the God of Israel saves humanity because of the sacrifice of Jesus, necessarily a seed of Abraham, and opens the way back to God through faith in him.

[1] Soulen, R. Kendall. The God of Israel and Christian Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *