A Review of Three Views on Israel and the Church: Perspectives on Romans 9-11, Jared Compton & Andrew David Naselli, Editors, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2018, 266 pages, pbk.
It might be thought that a debate book on just three chapters in one of Paul’s epistles would only be of interest to a marginal group of specialists. However, the chapters in question are central to the vital theological and hermeneutical issue of the relationship between the nation of Israel and the Christian Church.
This book brings together well chosen advocates of differing views of Romans 9-11; Michael Vlach represents “A Non-Typological Future-Mass-Conversion View,” which interprets the extended passage in line with what the OT writers predict when their words are taken at face value. Hence, “Israel” is the future remnant who enter the coming kingdom as a redeemed nation on the basis of the major provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant concerning land and ethnicity cum nationhood. Vlach’s essay, which opens the proceedings, is very well organized and informative. He is a clear writer, and this clarity and precision also comes across in his responses. His understanding of what he calls “the place of blessing” regarding the “root” of the Olive Tree as the covenant with Abraham is articulated solidly. I do not agree with this centralizing of the Abrahamic Covenant in Paul’s argument. In fact, I believe it weakens Vlach’s argument somewhat (though it is easier to point things out as a non-participant!). To me, the focus on salvation as the apex of Paul’s discussion (which is not a property of the Abrahamic promises), and the quotation of two New Covenant passages from Isaiah in Romans 11:26-27 put the emphasis on the New Covenant. This also makes the terminative (already fulfilled) view of Merkle less plausible. Still, this is a good presentation.
The next position presented is by Fred Zaspel and James Hamilton as “A Typological Future-Mass Conversion View,” in which Israel becomes a type of Christ and the Church. However, the Jews are still promised salvation en masse in the future. As broad exponents of “New Covenant Theology” they are tilted heavily towards typology. They place great emphasis upon motifs such as the “cosmic temple,” and the “second exile.” I am tempted to reproduce a longish quote by them which explains their typology, but this is a short review so I will be content to say that most of page 80 is incomprehensible to me as a simple reader of the Bible: starting with Cosmic Temple typology, it is easy to turn any which way. The fact that these scholars believe that the OT writers intentionally included this typology into their books looks like a bad case of self-deception. It would be better to say that subsequent revelation utilized previous work to shape a type/antitype structure. In their exposition of Romans 9:6 (“not all Israel who are of Israel”) they hit the nail on the head. Also their treatment of the Olive Tree metaphor they do well to avoid mixing the Gentiles (i.e. the wild branches) and Israel (the natural branches), even though they believe the remnant who will be saved will finally be incorporated into the Church. There is much in their main essay to commend.
Benjamin L. Merkle expounds “A Typological Non-Future-Mass-Conversion View.” Notice the “Non” in the heading! This view claims that Paul does not teach a future large scale salvation of the Jewish remnant. Merkle is a skilled expositor, and it is to his credit that does not simply regurgitate many of the typological views of Zaspel and Hamilton. He is more clear on his “first coming hermeneutic” than are the latter. Once more, Merkle’s interpretation of Romans 9:6 as meaning an Israel within Israel is to be commended. Yet I found his insistence on seeing Paul’s concern only with “the present situation” unconvincing. At least to me Merkle forgets how the Apostle lays out of the question of Israel in Romans 9:1-8, and 11:1. I was surprised at the lack of attention to the Olive Tree illustration in Merkle’s presentation; especially the way Paul sets it up. I might also point out that his handling of the covenant issues was disappointing, and this despite earlier criticizing of Vlach in that regard. Although this is a good article on this view, I wanted to put the brakes on a lot as I read through it. I felt that there were gaps that needed to be filled.
The editors of this book allowed each side to have plenty of space to set out their respective understandings of Romans 9-11. In their responses they also had space to maneuver. Each writer deserves respect for not wasting the reader’s time. This book is not a throwaway read. In the rejoinders I thought Merkle fared less well than his opponents. Both Vlach and Zaspel & Hamilton probed weaknesses in his position. For example, Merkle had accused Vlach of committing an exegetical fallacy in his discussion of kai houtos in 11:26 (and I don’t believe he does), but Merkle does not escape this charge with his view that the Olive Tree is about individual salvation, nor in his assertion of a cumulative historical interpretation of “all Israel” in 11:26. Zaspel & Hamilton’s reliance on author-intended OT typology looks like it is actually their NT interpretation foisted back upon the OT writers. My bias sides with Vlach. He sticks with the continuity between Testaments that the Apostle takes in his stride. While I do question his stress on the Abrahamic Covenant, and I personally wish that he had made more of Israel’s election (or “selection”), as in Romans 9:6-10 and Isaac, I thought he took the laurels—even if he was rather too genteel in his response to Zaspel & Hamilton.
In ending this brief review I would like to quote Merkle’s final sentence from his response to Vlach:
In the end, our disagreements relate not merely to the exegesis of a particular text (in our case Romans 9-11), but to our fundamental differences in the relationship between the covenants, the role and function of typology, and our understanding of God’s eschatological kingdom.” (96)
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.