Reformed Christians and Israel: The Need For a New Conversation

Igor Sabino | September 1, 2017

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, one of the most important events of the 16th century. As a Brazilian Reformed Christian, I have anticipated this event with great joy. I believe that it was because of the Reformation and the work of reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin that Bible translations were made popular in Europe. That paved the way for the Gospel to reach the small city where I live in Northeast Brazil.

But although I am grateful to God for the lives and works of these men, I must confess that I have recently struggled with reformed traditions. I still believe in the doctrines of grace and love the catechisms, historical documents and statements of faith written by the reformers. But there are some dark pages of the history of the Protestant Reformation that haunt me, especially those that concern Israel and the Jews.

This summer, I participated in an amazing journey through the United States, Israel, Jordan and Poland, to try to better understand the challenges of the modern Middle East. The goal was to learn about how Christians can positively engage with the region and address the main issues it faces today. I will always remember the life-changing experiences that occurred during the 30 days of the Philos Leadership Institute. But few things touched me more than my visits to Yad Vashem (the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem) and Auschwitz and Burkenau, two Nazi concentration camps in Poland where millions of Jews were slaughtered during World War II.

The Hall of Names in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Site in Jerusalem, Israel, remembering some of the 6 million Jews murdered during World War II.

One of the first things I noticed when I entered Yad Vashem was a quote from Saint Augustine: “Don’t kill them [the Jews]. Make them homeless wanders.” Those words are so harsh and anti-Semitic that they could easily be attributed to Hamas or any other Islamic terrorist that threatens the existence of the modern-day State of Israel. But they were proffered by a major church father, one of the men who laid the foundations of western civilization. A man who inspired all of the theologians and “faith giants” I admire.

As Barry Horner has explained, Augustine’s words were a mistaken interpretation of Psalm 59:11 and were intended to promote more positive view of the Jews, in contrast to the teachings of Chrysostom and Ambrose. The theologian wanted to prevent the currently violent assaults against synagogues, Jewish properties, and even Jews themselves. Ironically, he went about this by denying the right of the Jewish people to a land and a nation, promoting what would later be called “supercessionism,” or the belief that the church replaced Israel. According to this view, there are no more special distinctions between the Jews and the other peoples in God’s redemptive plan. Therefore, all the eschatological promises made to the nation of Israel should be applied to all Christians. This idea was an integral part of the Christian faith for centuries, giving birth to a certain kind of anti-Judaism that was common during the first years of the Catholic Church; it remained unchallenged during the Reformation.

Both Luther and later Calvin were highly influenced by the Augustinian theology, especially concerning sin and the human nature. This also led them to inherit from Augustine a supercessionist view of Israel; while this idea is not especially prevalent in Calvin’s writings, it is more common in Luther’s writings and actions toward the Jews. Calvin used to believe that even though God’s promises to Israel could and should be applied to the church, the Jews would again have a distinctive place among the nations at the end of the ages. Luther was completely different.

During the years following the Reformation, Luther espoused a benevolent view of the Jews, expecting them to repent from Judaism and convert to Christianity. But toward the end of his life, his posture changed completely and he adopted a very anti-Semitic tone. One of the last books he wrote before his death is titled The Jews and Their Lies. In it, he argues that the Jews follow a false religion, and he advises Christians to adopt seven special attitudes toward the Jews:

First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them. Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. Fifth, I advise that safe­conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping. Seventh, I commend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam [Gen. 3:19].

I could not walk through Auschwitz and Birkenau and not think about those words. It was impossible for me to view the gas chambers in which millions of Jews died and not remember that on November 9, 1938, when the Holocaust really began, the Nazis did to the Jews exactly what Luther had instructed the Christians to do. I could not forget that the Holocaust was promoted and supported by people who claimed to hold the same theology as I. All I could think about was the histories I had heard in Jordan, days before, of Iraqi Christians who had suffered the same things as the Jews, but at the hands of Islamic State jihadists. It broke me in a way that I cannot describe.

I am not a theologian. I am just a Christian who loves the Bible and struggles daily to understand and obey it. But I cannot consider the centuries of Christian anti-Semitism and not ask myself if there is something wrong with supercessionism and many of the teachings of respected men like Augustine, Calvin and Luther. For me, when I read the Bible, it is clear that I am reading a Jewish book written by Jewish authors about a Jewish God who, in his mercy, decided to make an everlasting covenant with Israel to bless all the nations of the earth. I cannot see how salvation’s being available to the nations nullifies the promises made to the Jews, despite their disobedience and unbelief. When I read Romans 9–11 (one of the main passages Reformed Christians use to defend the doctrine of election), this becomes even clearer.

In chapter 11 verses 28–29, Paul says that even though the Jews are “enemies” in regard to the gospel, they are still “beloved” for the sake of the patriarchies – for the gifts and the calling of God are “irrevocable.” It is not about the Jews or the nation of Israel; it is about the nature and character of God himself. The God who made an everlasting and unconditional covenant with Abraham, promising to give him and his descendants a piece of the land and to use them to bless all the peoples of the earth. The God who said that his words are true and will endure forever.

I have struggled with these thoughts since returning home from the Middle East. But I am discovering that I am not alone in this impasse. Throughout the church’s history, many reformed Christians have also grappled with the question of Israel and the way in which Christians have traditionally dealt with the Jews. Among them are names like J.C. Ryle, Charles Spurgeon and Robert Murray M’Cheyne. During their time, the Jews were still scattered and had not yet been the victims of genocide. But these men looked at the pages of the Old Testament and realized that God can still fulfill his promises in a literal way.

Even in Nazi Germany there were a few reformed theologians who dared to disagree with Luther and Augustine. The most notable one was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose love for the Jewish people and faith in God’s covenant with them was so great that he not only stood up for the Jews, he died for them, being hanged in a concentration camp in Germany just a few days before the end of the war.

It was sobering for me to leave the Yad Vashem and find a tree in honor of Bonhoeffer in a section of the museum called “righteous among the nations.” That prepared me for what I found in Poland.

This year, we will celebrate not only the 500 years of the Protestant Reformation, but also the 50th anniversary of the retaking of Jerusalem by the Jews. The juxtaposition of the Nazi concentration camps immediately following a visit to the Jewish State of Israel reminded me of how different things are now and how important it is for me, a Reformed Christian, to remember Bonhoeffer’s legacy and his love for Israel.

After 2,000 years of dispersion, the Jews have returned to part of the land promised to them by God, including Jerusalem. But anti-Semitism is still alive and well. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far from resolved, and tensions in the Middle East escalate daily. Faced with these realities, I believe that reformed Christians cannot avoid talking about controversial issues such as eschatology and the national future of the Jews. Augustine’s anti-Judaism is not the answer, regardless of whether it is in a neutral vein (such as with Calvin) or flagrantly anti-Semitic (like Luther).

Reformed Christians generally shy away from talk of the end times. As John Piper highlighted during the 2014 Gospel Coalition Conference, many modern evangelicals neglect the study of prophecies because they are afraid of being considered “Zionist, right-wing, antichrist-sniffing, culture-denying, alarmist left-overs from the Scofield, prophecy conference-era.” But he argued that it is necessary now, more than ever, for younger evangelicals to be engaged in the study of prophecies and to not neglect futurist interpretations of texts like Daniel 9, which speaks about the future of Israel. In his words,

If anything is clear from the prophets, it is that their prophecies were meant to empower present, God-centered righteousness and sacrifice for the relief of all suffering, and we know now, especially, eternal suffering.

Following my experiences in Israel and Poland, I have taken those words to heart. I hope that my reformed brothers and sisters also pay heed. May we start a new conversation about Israel.