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Tuesday, 16 February 2010 00:17

This Kind of Language is Unhelpful

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15 February 2010

An Anglican priest who recently attended a Palestine conference organised by the Federation of Islamic Student Societies today blogs of his participation in the conference. Revd Stephen Sizer also refers to the Jerusalem Declaration, a document he helped draft and which he says "repudiates Christian Zionism as a deviant heresy".

This is strong language indeed. Of course, it is no secret Revd Sizer has widely publicised his intense dislike of Christian Zionism, which he has every right to do. But surely labelling millions of fellow Evangelical Christians deviant heretics goes too far. There is a time to speak out against genuine, grave heresy, and those destructive false teachers repudiated in the New Testament usually have a major trait in common. Whether the Galatian heresy which denies the power of Christ's salvific work through the cross, the Colossian heresy, incipient Gnostic dualism in the Johannine writings, or the heretics Jude warns against who "deny our master the Lord Jesus Christ", the heresies roundly condemned in the New Testament tend to deny the person and work of Jesus Christ. In short, they Christologically defective. Thus, it is quite one thing to challenge particular doctrines and teachings one may disagree with (including Christian Zionism or for that matter supercessionism), but quite another to label millions of fellow Christians who have accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal saviour are deviant heretics, a label generally reserved for those whose teachings and beliefs in some way deny the person of Christ.

It is also language which is unnecessarily polemical and polarising in nature, rather than the biblical language of gentle reproof and reconciliation as a first port of call for resolving disputes, theological or otherwise, within the Church. Drawing on this kind of language is also ironic, given how reconciliation is a central feature of the Jerusalem Declaration. Jesus tells His disciples they will discern what is good and bad by the fruit it produces. Unfortunately, the fruit of polarised language and the very public and pejorative denunciation of fellow Christians over their response to Israel has brought not only ecclesial division, but also little hope of much-needed reconciliation between Christians over the thorny issue of how to respond to the Middle East crisis.

Repudiating Christian Zionism somehow as a monolithic movement also lacks nuance. Which version of Christian Zionism is referred to here? The British variety, which tends to be more covenantal than geographical in nature, or perhaps the US variety, which includes (but is not limited to) a more apocalyptic and political expression? Meanwhile, some Christian Zionists espouse an Eretz Yisrael Ha-Shlema (Greater Israel) much like Israel’s Likud party, but others simply believe the Jews should be allowed to return to the land of their forefathers, less concerned with the exact borders or the political structures in place. Between these positions are various theological shades of Evangelical Christianity over responses to the Jewish people and modern Israel, highlighting how current Christian responses to the issue are quite complex. Yet the language of polarisation both masks these complexities and the at times weak arguments of those who would rather seek to promulgate a black and white, dualist narrative that demands an equally polarised response: "You are either with us or against us".

It isn’t helpful when this desire to repudiate Christian Zionism leads to expressing those views in ways or situations which some Christians might argue are unsuitable. I find it deeply ironic that the Jerusalem Statement opens with the Scripture, "Blessed are the peacemakers", yet Revd Sizer has chosen to share a platform with a speaker who has condoned suicide bombings and another who openly salutes the terrorist organisation Hamas.

Finally, the Jerusalem Statement arguably lacks a strong hermeneutical and theological basis, engaging in the very mining of the Bible for supporting prooftexts which its authors condemn Christian Zionism for doing. After all, using the Bible this way allows you to make it say whatever you want. The Statement does precisely this, engaging in a typically liberationist decontextualisation of 2 Corinthians 5:19, recontextualising it in the context of the Palestinian milieu. Thus, hundred of years of Protestant hermeneutics emphasising authorial intent are discarded in favour of a postmodernist reader-driven interpretation which is subjective and relativist. Actually, in 2 Corinthians 5 the apostle Paul is not promoting the dissemination of a message of reconciliation between men and peoples, but rather a message of reconciliation between God and Man. In other words, Paul’s message and ministry of reconciliation is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

An extensive, genuine, fair, theologically and biblically-sound, and, importantly, united Christian approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict will never be achieved without respectful dialogue, eschewing the language of polarisation, or refraining from denouncing fellow Christians as heretics or sharing platforms with people who damage our credibility and even condone violence towards innocents. Admittedly, these and other approaches may secure plenty of back-slapping from among those we agree with. But shouldn’t the Christian way of doing theology move beyond preaching to the choir in a bid to win over our fellow Evangelical Christians in gentleness and truth?

by Dr Calvin L. Smith
Calvin L. Smith, Ph.D.
Principal and Tutor of Theology
King's Evangelical Divinity School
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Faculty Page: www.kingsdivinity.org/about/faculty-calvin-smith

Editor, Evangelical Review of Society and Politics

Blog: www.calvinlsmith.com
Personal Site: www.calvinsmith.org

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