Heresy & Christian Anti-Zionism (What Do Presbyterians Talk About When They Talk About Israel)

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For anyone interested in the recent kerfuffle about Christian BDS at the Presbyterian Church USA and the pamphlet “Zionism Unsettled,” Adam Rovner’s piece here in the Forward is a must read. What I saw in part and Rovner identifies with great precision is that anti-Zionism at the PCUSA is, yes, bound up with Christian supersessionism, but has less to do directly with the State of Israel or Zionism and anti-Zionism and more to do with rooting out heresy in the church. Rovner identifies that heresy as Dispensationalism, which you can see defined below, but which I would say speaks to the doctrine relating to the way Christian are supposed to be in the world.

I’m extracting below what for me was Rovner’s central argument:

If the criticism heaped on Israel by Zionism Unsettled is surprising, the authors’ scorn of Christian evangelicals is nothing short of shocking…The authors accuse Christian Zionists of “distorted ethics” and criticize evangelicals for their belief in what is called Dispensationalism.

Broadly speaking, Dispensationalism divides all of human history between Creation and the Day of Judgment into several epochs. Dispensationalism and its focus on “end time” scenarios remain essential to the theology of many evangelicals, including Hagee and his flock. For Presbyterians, however, Dispensationalism is nothing less than a grave heresy — perhaps the only truly heretical notion prohibited by Church doctrine.

No wonder, then, that Zionism Unsettled ridicules evangelicals for awaiting “God’s final blockbuster.”


Where do the Jews and Israel fit into this nasty squabble? Never fear, Zionism Unsettled explains that “with the coming of Christ…the old covenant” — that is, the one between God and the Jews — “has been replaced or superseded by the new covenant.” This is what is known as “replacement theology” or supersessionism. In other words, God still loves the Jews, He’s just not in love with them anymore. Plus He wants His promised land back.

Zionism Unsettled relies here on positions outlined by Dr. Gary Burge, a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois. Burge, the author of two books that treat the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in theological and historical terms, describes his role as a “consultant-contributor” to Zionism Unsettled. In a phone interview, Burge clarified what Zionism Unsettled characterizes as his support for “some form of replacement theology.” He prefers instead the term “fulfillment theology.” Burge distinguishes between supersessionism, which has historically denigrated Judaism, and fulfillment theology, which maintains “maximal respect” for Jews and Judaism.


So what the PC-USA vote teaches us, what Reverend Grimm’s Facebook posting teaches us, and what Zionism Unsettled teaches us is really nothing new at all. Certainly nothing new about American attitudes toward Israel. It’s the same old story of Christian supersessionism, Burge’s disclaimers notwithstanding. Only now, the church marches forward beneath the cross-topped staff of social justice while a benighted Jewry supposedly blindfolds itself to Israel’s human rights abuses.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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9 Responses to Heresy & Christian Anti-Zionism (What Do Presbyterians Talk About When They Talk About Israel)

  1. Chad says:

    I’m looking into whether the PCUSA has officially rejected supersessionism, or just strongly recommended rejecting it. Either way, the supersessionism of the ZU authors was also widely rejected at this year’s GA. It is still there (obviously, since the ZU authors wrote it), but its challenged, I’d even say widely so.

    • zjb says:

      let me know what you find. also, wondering what the relation is between supersessionism and fulfillment theology, which seems like a copy of the first. best, –zak

  2. Chad says:

    I sit on the board of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and I’ve sent an inquiry to those who keep the records of our General Assembly action. I’ll let you know what I hear. I’ve reviewed certain study papers, such as “Thinking and Working Together” (1993) of the PCUSA, National Council of Churches, and Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and the 1987 PCUSA document “A Theological Understanding of the Relationship between Christians and Jews,” which was “commended for study” (not the same thing as adopted, or even “accepted/received”). That document is clear in its “engrafting” language, that is, clearly anti-supersessionism. Will need to return to it with regards to fulfillment theology, though. There is also a nice booklet that is distributed by our Office of Theology simply called “Christians and Jews” that attempts to put these sorts of texts alongside other, less accepting (often Evangelical) statements, in an attempt to educate toward the former.

    I hope to hear back in the next few days. More soon.

    • Chad says:

      I had some reply today. In short, the reply was that the GA doesn’t adopt theological policy in the same way we adopt social witness policy. The latter is through passed and affirmed resolution by the general assembly; the former is through our Book of Confessions, which is a historical collection of creeds from ancient times to modern, and “subordinate” to Scripture. Confessions are infrequently added and aren’t modified generally (save for grave historical error/bias, generally), and modern Confessions often show divergence in theological points from earlier ones (as well as convergence on basic fundamentals).

      The General Assembly does do theological study and then approves or disapproves those studies being sent to the church. This has some authority, insofar as anything shy of a confessional addition would.

      So the 1987 “Theological Understanding of the Relationship between Christians and Jews” falls into this category. That document challenges supersessionism and replacement theology, and calls for re-evaluation.

      Not sure if that is satisfactory or not. I do think it comports with my other understanding of other theological statements made by the church (recent documents on the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance, or Christology, both had this character: work done by a special committee or an arm of the church, that was then approved and sent out for study). The record of the confessions is poor on this, with many of the ancient confessions from the reformation period showing substantial supersessionist positions, but also other theological positions from which the church has moved well beyond (including, primarily, a strong anti-catholic position).

      In short: I think it is unfair and inaccurate to suggest that the reason for the primary thrust of the 2014 divestment decision is a theology of supersessionism, or that supersessionism is either the official theology or the PCUSA or the major theological position. There were many reasons for people voting how they did, some of which were possibly informed by this, and it perhaps is a bias found in ZU, but the PCUSA is concretely on record, for several decades now, as seeking to move beyond supersessionism and participating in work with other mainline protestants in trying to do so.

      • zjb says:

        Chad, Thanks so much for the careful attention t. It was not my intention to talk about superssesionism at the PCUSA, as much as in ZU, where I think you find it in spades. My concern is not so much official Church theology and central leadership of the Church itself as much as more subterranean motives or currents, especially ones pushing BDS within the Church such as the authors and Israel-Palestine Mission behind ZU. The only thing I’d ask about would have to do with fulfillment theology and its doctrinal status. About fulfillment theology I knew nothing about until the current controversy. Best wishes and thanks again.

      • Chad says:

        Thanks. Sorry, should have been more clear: I didn’t read you as suggesting other than what you just clarified, and I agree about the concern among the ZU proponents/authors. Other commentators have taken that a stretch too far. Sorry for not being clear, and thanks for your ongoing work. I’m finding your work extremely helpful.
        Peace, Chad

      • zjb says:

        Yes, yes, and no offense taken. I figured as such. Good to be on the same page. –Zak

  3. dmf says:

    trying to imagine a trinitarian christian theology that isn’t supersessionist, how can Jesus be God and not than been the Truth and the Way entering into human history to set people on His path?

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