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Theologians tackle question of Israel & biblical prophecy

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Is present-day Israel the fulfillment of biblical prophecy?

Evangelicals have debated that question for decades, and four theologians gathered at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary May 1 to discuss varying answers to the question.

Titled “Whose Holy Land? An Evangelical Conversation on Israel, the Church and the Battle for Palestine,” the forum was sponsored by the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement at the Louisville, Ky., seminary. Dubbed a “quick response” conference, it was designed specifically to respond to issues in the Middle East. Organizers plan on holding quick response conferences on other timely issues in the future.

The panel included two seminary presidents: R. Albert Mohler Jr. of Southern Seminary and Paige Patterson of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. The two other panelists were Craig Blaising, executive vice president and provost at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and Richard Gaffin, professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Russell Moore, instructor of Christian theology at Southern Seminary, served as moderator. Moore is also the executive director of the Carl F.H. Henry Institute.

Moore said the most remarkable aspect of the panel were not the points of dispute, but instead the considerable agreement.

“An evangelical forum on the future of Israel 20 years ago would have been a theological dogfight,” Moore said. “This conversation demonstrates how much Bible-believing conservative evangelicals have come together on many issues of understanding biblical prophecy.”

Mohler agreed, saying that much of the discussion “was of interest only to biblical conservatives. We really care what the text teaches, and we want to find our understanding of Israel in the Scriptures.”

Each participant was given 15 minutes to present his position; they then debated their positions for another hour.

Mohler represented a premillennial view of end-times theology, while Gaffin held to an amillennial position. Blaising and Patterson represented various forms of premillennial dispensationalism.

Mohler said that while the Bible speaks of a great turning to Christ on behalf of the Jews, the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 did not in itself fulfill biblical prophecy. He added that America should defend Israel as an ally while holding it morally accountable.

“We must watch and be very careful that we do not make a one-to-one equation between the Israeli state whose current prime minister is Ariel Sharon and the Israel of God,” he said. “The modern state of Israel is best seen as a vessel for the protection of the Jewish people until the dawning of the eschatological age in its fullness and the turning of Jews to Jesus Christ.”

Since the time of Abraham, Mohler argued, Israel has always existed — in a biblical sense — even when there was no government structure. He called this a “national” Israel.

“We can still speak of Israel as a national reality constituted as those who are of Abraham’s seed,” he said. “There is now in our reality a dispersed Israel even though there is a state of Israel. So when we speak of Israel, we must — even in the present day — speak of a national entity that is not just geo-political. It is ethnic.”

Mohler argued that present-day Israel — while not a direct fulfillment of biblical prophecy — is nevertheless biblically and prophetically significant.

Patterson, though, said that Israel is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

“I do believe that God did make promises to Abraham that are of an unconditional nature,” Patterson said. “What God began with his promises to Abraham 4,000 years ago … is still underway. God still has a plan for national Israel.”

Patterson pointed to texts in Ezekiel 36-37, saying that they speak of a re-gathering of Jewish people.

“You and I have lived to see that happen … what an amazing come-to-pass,” he said of the re-establishment of Israel in 1948. “Does that mean that everything that present-day Israel is doing is right? Certainly not. Does it mean that they will yet be driven from the land again? Apparently so. Does it mean that’s the end of the ballgame with them? No, because God made a promise to Abraham which he will keep.”

In the future, Patterson said, the Jews will once again be driven from their land before they reclaim the land and embrace Christ as the Messiah.

Blaising, saying that there is “quite a bit” of agreement between himself and Patterson, said that the re-establishment of Israel could possibly be the fulfillment of promises given to Abraham.

“Our present Israel might be related to covenant promises — particularly the political and land promises of the patriarchal covenant,” he said. “[But] the condition of being broken out from the olive tree of blessing in Romans 11 leaves present-day Israel in an ambiguous condition.”

Gaffin said that biblical prophecy was not fulfilled with the establishment of Israel. He differed with Mohler on at least one point, saying that the Bible does not support a massive future coming to Christ on behalf of Jews. Patterson and Blaising agreed with Mohler on the issue of the re-gathering.

Gaffin said Christians have no obligation to support the Jews in the Middle East conflict — other than to demand that justice prevail on both sides.

“In the present Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is — as far as I can see — no biblical preference for Israel as a nation,” he said. “[There is] no preferential treatment for Israel. Scripture provides no warrant, no bias in favor of Israel’s claim to the land.

“Whose Holy Land [is it]? The land is not anyone’s Holy Land because it is no longer the Holy Land,” Gaffin said.

Referring to Arab nations in the Middle East, Patterson said “Israel is very quickly moving to a day when she can no longer successfully defend herself against her enemies.”

Thus, Patterson, said, the state of Israel will one day be defeated. But Israel will not cease to exist.

“If the Scriptures are to be taken literally — as I think they are to be — Ezekiel 36 and 37 … sees a day when all of Israel shall be brought back to the land,” he said.

Mohler argued that the New Testament does not contain a repudiation of the promises to Israel. Therefore, some of those promises have yet to be fulfilled.

“Paul understood Israel to be in some real sense an ethnic people whose prior existence explains the church — that’s in Romans 11 — and whose future turning to the Messiah will fulfill God’s promises,” he said.

All of the men agreed that Christians should pray for the situation in the Middle East.

“Christians must pray for the Jewish people [and] we must call that Jewish state to account morally,” Mohler said. “We must hold it to standards of biblical justice and morality.”

Blaising pointed out that the Christians in the Middle East especially need prayer.

The church, he said, “can stand here with brothers and sisters in Christ and point out that reconciliation can take place in Christ. That’s our message.”

Mohler argued that the Christian church has either ignored or been an enemy of the Jews for 2,000 years. That, he said, must stop.

“I believe the historical existence of the state of Israel is a judgment upon the church of the Lord Jesus Christ and a reminder that God is going to protect his people even when the church will not,” he said.
Audio from this forum is available on the seminary’s web page at: http://www.sbts.edu/news/audio/speakers.html.(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: PANELISTS, WHOSE HOLY LAND? and FORUM ATTENDEES.

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  • Michael Foust