Conference Report: 30th Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 4 (December 2016)

Conference Report: 30th Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, Regent University, Virginia Beach, VA, October 20-22, 2016

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

Under the title of “Marching to Zion: Judaism, Evangelicals, and Anti-Semitism,” three scholars from the Conference on Faith and History examined the relationship between American Protestant Christians, Judaism, and Antisemitism during the tumultuous twentieth century.

Daniel Hummel, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, presented “Rethinking Covenant, Land, and Mission: Jewish-Evangelical Dialogue after Oslo.” In it he recounted the history of Jewish-evangelical dialogue in the United States, which was first officially begun in 1969 with a highly publicized meeting between Billy Graham and the American Jewish leaders at the headquarters of the American Jewish Committee in New York City. While interreligious dialogue and politics do not always go hand-in-hand, they are inextricable in the case of Jewish-evangelical dialogue. Since the late 1960s, it has expanded into one of the most active fronts of Jewish-Christian dialogue, while at the same time American evangelical support for Israel was politicized in the Christian Zionist movement. Hummel argued that Jewish-evangelical dialogue has supplied evangelicals over the past 45 years with new ways of thinking about theological concepts of covenant, land, and mission. Through a combination of changing evangelical theology, exposure to strands of modern Jewish theology, and the very act of interreligious dialogue, new conceptualizations of covenant, land, and mission have helped legitimate Christian Zionism. In political terms, the dialogue has rationalized the Christian Zionist focus on a blessing theology rooted in Genesis 12:3. This theology argues that the Jewish people remain in covenant with God. by which the Jewish people are irrevocably granted the Land of Israel (as demarcated in the Bible), while the mission of Christians is to bear witness to this arrangement by de-prioritizing evangelism and strengthening the covenant through support for the state of Israel.

Timothy D. Padgett, who just defended his PhD from Trinity International University, gave a paper entitled “Diverse Discourse on Zion: American Evangelical Public Discussions of Zionism and the State of Israel, 1937-1973.” In it, he traced the evolution of what he argued were diverse evangelical perspectives on Zionism and the State of Israel in evangelical periodicals. Some periodicals, like Arno C. Gaebelin’s dispensationalist Our Hope, were eschatologically minded but ambivalent about Zionism and (later) the Israeli government. In contrast, the editor and writers at Christian Herald (including the pseudonymous reporter Gabriel Courier) were strongly pro-Israel but wholly uninterested in eschatology. The Reformed magazine, Southern Presbyterian Journal, though often published weekly, had precious little to say about Zionism or Israel. Most stereotypically, perhaps, the Moody Monthly was both uniformly pro-Israeli and motivated by eschatological theology. Next, the dispensationalist Presbyterian magazine Eternity combined ardent support for and harsh criticism of Israel. Finally, Christianity Today and its editor Carl Henry were quite positive about the Jewish state, but gave little expression to any theology of the end times. Overall, American evangelicals were generally pro-Israeli, though this did not seem to correlate with their level of interest in eschatological theology.

Kyle Jantzen of Ambrose University rounded out the panel, with “German Racism, American Antisemitism, and Christian Duty: U.S. Protestant Responses to the Jewish Refugee Crisis of 1938.” In it, he assessed the rhetoric employed by liberal Protestant writers and editors in Advance (Congregational), Christendom (unaffiliated), and The Churchman (Episcopalian) in responding to National Socialism, US antisemitism, the German Church Struggle, and the Jewish refugee crisis of 1938. Without doubt, these members of the Protestant church press–many of them church leaders–understood it to be their Christian duty to respond to a profound sense of crisis. Democracy, civilization, Christianity, and all religion were under attack from the forces of war, totalitarianism, racism, and paganism. These writers and editors named the evils of war and totalitarianism, in particular the threat that Hitler and Nazi Germany posed to the civilized world. They also fought against antisemitism and tried to aid Jews, though not without reviving centuries-old anti-Jewish prejudices from time to time, and also not without reframing the persecution of Jews and the Jewish refugee crisis as the persecution of Christians and Jews and the Christian and Jewish refugee crisis. In the end, the plight of the Jews was not uppermost in their minds. Most important to these liberal Protestant spokesmen was the reaffirmation that Christianity was the only force that could ultimately save their civilization, preserve democracy, and protect the world from self-destruction.