Boasting against the Natural Branches

Boasting against the Natural Branches

A Review of Charles D. Provan's, The Church is Israel Now

"Some books", said Francis Bacon, "are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some to be chewed and digested." Charles D. Provan's The Church is Israel Now contains enough truth to make it palatable to the unwary but enough error to poison their system, making it unfit for human consumption. The book, claims Charles Provan, is "one of the end products of several years of research into the topic of the Old Testament and its relationship to the New Testament." Puzzled by the number of Old Testament references to Israel which, in the New Testament, are attributed to Christians, Provan concluded from his studies that, "The only hypothesis which explains how this could be is that the Israel of the Old Testament (so called 'Racial Israel') had been replaced by the Israel of the New Testament, the Christian Church." To be fair to Mr Provan, he allows "racial Jews" a place in the Church and, unlike some replacement theologians, expresses the view that the responsibilities as well as the privileges of Israel have been transferred to the Church.

Illogical premise

The author purports to let Scripture speak for itself by juxtaposing sets of Old Testament and New Testament texts which say the same things about the Jews and Christians. Charles Provan assembles sets of verses that show, for example, that in the Old Testament Israel was beloved of God and that in the New Testament Christians are beloved of God and that in the Old Testament the Jews are called God's people and in the New Testament Christians are called God's people. The author, however, appears unable to think in categories other than "either/or". If Mr Provan's system of biblical interpretation was applied to the biblical teaching about God one would have to conclude that the Jehovah of the Old Testament has been replaced on the grounds that in the New Testament the Old Testament divine titles are all accorded to Jesus. It does not seem to occur to the author that the Church may indeed be the beloved Israel of God without having replaced the nation of Israel.

While appearing to be scriptural, Charles Provan's method is ultimately unscriptural in that he attempts to fit Scriptures into his own preconstructed framework. Nowhere is this more evident than when he avers that Matthew 21:43 "demonstrates ... quite clearly" the transfer of Israel's privileges and responsibilities, "Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit." At first sight the words of Christ appear to support Mr Provan's hypothesis. But Matthew goes on: "When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus' parables, they knew he was talking about them." (Matthew 21:45). Jesus was not saying the kingdom would be taken from Israel but from the rulers of Israel.

Conditional love?

The Church is Israel Now is simplistic; a classic example of adding two and two together to make five. To his credit the author acknowledges that his conclusion is a "hypothesis" (albeit the only possible one, as far as he is concerned) according to which, when "the Israelites obeyed God, God loved them. But when they turned from Him He hated them, stripping them of their Israelite status." While it is true that in certain Old Testament passages, God speaks of His hatred for disobedient Israelites those passages must be modified by other statements. If God's love is conditional upon obedience, it is difficult to pinpoint a time when God could possibly have loved the nation, not to mention the Church.

Apart from a reference to a select number of verses from Romans 11, one would think Mr Provan was unaware the chapter exists, for he nowhere considers what Paul means when he says that "the Israelites are beloved for the fathers' sakes" and that God's "gifts and calling are without repentance". The book's subtitle, "The Transfer of Conditional Privilege" reveals the writer's lack of understanding of the unconditional nature of God's covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15.

Only one olive tree

Moreover, he fails to understand that the Church is not a new entity which came into being on the Day of Pentecost. During the Old Testament period Israel was God's church and continues to be so in the New Testament era. Israel was God's qahal, a Hebrew word that in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament appears as ecclesia, the same word translated "church" in English versions of the New Testament. To say, therefore, that the Church is the Church now is hardly profound thinking.

The book states that in the Old Testament, "Israel Is An Olive Tree" (Jeremiah 11:16-17; Hosea 14:5-6) and in the New Testament, "Christians Are An Olive Tree" (Romans 11:17-24). Though acknowledging that in Romans 11, "The Olive Tree under discussion ... is clearly Israel" Provan's bold-type sub-headings give the wrong impression. Paul does not say in Romans 11 that Christians are "an olive tree". Gentile believers, says the apostle, are branches from a wild olive tree that have been grafted on to the olive tree of Israel. If Charles Provan's hypothesis is, as he believes, the only possible one, Paul's olive tree illustration is misleading. If the Church has replaced "Racial Israel" a more fitting illustration would be that one olive tree has been cut down and another planted in its place.

But God has not cut down one olive tree and planted another in its place. Nor are there two separate olive trees. Instead, God has broken off some branches from the olive tree of Israel because of their unbelief and has grafted in branches not native to the tree. This is a vital and important distinction and it is inexcusable that a book purporting to be serious biblical scholarship should fail to see that distinction.

Theological anti-Semitism

Nowhere in the book does the writer take into account Romans 11:1: "Did God reject his people? By no means!" Nor does he engage with Old Testament verses such as Deuteronomy 4:31: "For the LORD your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath." Nowhere does Charles Provan take into account Jeremiah 31:35-37:
This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar - the LORD Almighty is his name: "Only if these decrees vanish from my sight," declares the LORD, "will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me."
This is what the LORD says: "Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done," declares the LORD. At best, the claim that the Church is Israel now demonstrates an utter disregard for the apostle's warning to the grafted-in branches of the Olive Tree not to boast themselves against the natural branches. At worst, Mr Provan's thesis is a particularly arrogant example of theological anti-Semitism. If it falls into the hands of Jews it will serve only to alienate them from the Church which has supposedly replaced them.

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