Some may think that Christian Zionism coincides with the rise of dispensational theology. However, not only is Christian Zionism biblical, but it is also rooted in historical Christian theology. Many of the church fathers also anticipated a future restoration of the Jewish people to the land of Israel even if they were supersessionists, otherwise known as replacement theologians (and many were!). In this article, we will trace the roots of historical Christian Zionism from second-century church father Justin Martyr to twentieth-century Reformed theologian Karl Barth, demonstrating that influential believers of all theological persuasions throughout history have anticipated the Jewish restoration to the land of Israel.
Christian Zionism and The Early and Medieval Church
Justin Martyr (100–165 CE), one of the earliest church fathers who believed the church replaced Israel in God’s plan, also believed the millennium (Revelation 20) would be based in the city of Jerusalem. Irenaeus (c. 130–202 CE) believed that Jerusalem would one day be rebuilt, even though he believed those who would return to the land would be “from all the nations” rather than just the Jewish people. Tertullian (160–225 CE), on the other hand, believed it would be the Jewish people who would be restored to the land. These church fathers believed in an earthly millennium in which the land of Israel would play a role.
The future of Christian Zionism changed drastically with the writings of Origen (184–254 CE). Origen, like other scholars based in Alexandria, Egypt, was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. As theologian Paul Benware notes, Origen tried to integrate Greek philosophical ideas with Christian theology, including the idea that material and physical things are inherently evil. This idea led Origen and other Alexandrian scholars to “conclude that an earthly kingdom of Christ with its many physical blessings would be something evil.”
Furthermore, Origen believed that, with the coming of Jesus the Messiah, all prophecies regarding the messianic age had been fulfilled. This meant that prophecies related to Israel were to be interpreted “spiritually” rather than literally. In other words, prophecies were to be understood in light of their symbolic, allegorical meanings instead of their literal meanings. This method of interpretation diminished hope for Jewish restoration to the land of Israel in the last days.
Augustine (354–430 CE) utilized Origen’s method of interpretation, developing and systematizing amillennialism, the belief that the millennium described is spiritual, not earthly. Amillennialists deny a physical, literal reign of Christ on this present earth. A spiritual millennium, then, means no restoration of the Jewsish people to the land of Israel. The church accepted Augustine’s view, and it remains prominent in many segments of the church today.
Christian Zionism in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
The sixteenth century ushered in considerable changes to the church, not least of which was the Protestant Reformation. John Calvin and Martin Luther, among other reformers, brought about much-needed change within the church that forever altered the course of the faith. But Calvin’s and Luther’s stance on Israel was also amillennial, which was the precedent set by Augustine that remained the norm up to that time.
Even still, the sixteenth century also saw a renewed theological hope for a future Israel, specifically in Britain. The Geneva Bible, first published in England in 1560, included notes on Romans 11 that anticipated a spiritual return of the Jewish people. Building off the notes in the Geneva Bible, British polemicist and replacement theologian John Bale (1495–1563) wrote a book called The Image of Both Churches, in which he anticipated a national conversion of Jews to Protestantism and assigned them a place at the throne of God in the end of days. Furthermore, John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563) argues that God’s promises to the Jewish people are “remaining still in their force” and the Jews would return to the faith. As theologian Gerald McDermott writes, “Once again, British readers were told there is a future for the Jewish people that is distinct from that of Gentiles and that they would play a role in God’s drama at the end.”
In the seventeenth century, British theologians began connecting Jewish conversion to the faith with return to the land of Israel. Puritan thinkers like Thomas Draxe, Thomas Brightman, and Patrick Forbes of Corse wrote on the conversion of the Jews and their restoration to the land of Israel in the end of days. Henry Finch, a member of British parliament and a puritan, argued in his writings against the supersessionist interpretation of Scripture, writing that when the Bible references Israel, it means “Israel properly descended out of Iacob’s [Jacob’s] loynes.” This idea of the permanence of Israel’s and the Jewish people’s role in the end times also made its way into the popular culture of the time. Andrew Marvell’s cavalier poem, “To His Coy Mistress,” published in 1681, speaks of loving his muse until the “conversion of the Jews.”
Other notable puritans advanced the idea of Jewish conversion and restoration in their writings. John Cotton and Increase Mather, puritans who lived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, both anticipated Jewish conversion and restoration. The English poet John Milton even included Jewish restoration in his book Paradise Regained.
Christian Zionism in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
Building on the foundation of British and Puritan theologians, Christian thinkers in both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made major headway in both Christian and political Zionism.
Instrumental in this shift was Dutch Reformed theologian Wilhelmus a Brakel (1635–1711). Brakel published a four-volume systematic theology text in which he broke from Calvin’s supersessionist theology. He argued that the church was not, in fact, New Israel, and that Paul in Romans 11:26 was referencing Jewish Israel “as a people with a distinct future.” Brakel believed Israel would be just one part of the millennium as an “independent republic,” and encouraged Gentile believers not to despise the Jews.
In a similar vein, American preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) thought Calvin’s supersessionist theology and spiritual interpretation detracted from Scripture’s plain sense. A covenant theologian, Edwards believed the Jewish people would return to their homeland because the prophecies regarding the land promise were only partially fulfilled. He also emphasized the Jewish heritage of Christianity and its importance. Ultimately, Edwards was convinced that the Jewish people would one day “be reconciled to their divine Parent, regain their ancient homeland, establish a polity there and regain their status as children in full favor.”
In Britain, theologian James Bicheno published Signs of the Times, a systematic treatment of prophetic themes in Scripture. He argued that “the restoration of Jews of Palestine must be imminent;” after all, the Jewish people were given the Law, and Paul promised “all Israel will be saved!” More importantly, Bicheno was the first to argue that it was in Britain’s best interest as a country to “use its foreign policy to promote the restoration of Israel as ushering in the millennium.”
It is important to note here that Bicheno, like Edwards, was a postmillennialist. Postmillennialists agree with amillennialists in that they do not believe the millennium will be a literal, thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. Some postmillennialists believe the millennium is simply the period of time between the first and second coming of Jesus. Others believe the millennium is a “glorious age of peace and righteousness that will be brought in after the preaching of the gospel has gone on for a period of time.” At its core, postmillennialism believes that Jesus will return when the millennium—whatever it may be— is over.
The most important British supporter of Christian Zionism in the nineteenth century was Lord Ashley, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury (1801–1885). Lord Ashley, an evangelical and social reformer, played a key role in the establishment of the State of Israel. Even though Israel would not become a state until 1948, Lord Shaftesbury’s advocacy for a Jewish homeland was the intellectual basis for the Balfour Declaration (1917). In November 1917, British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour wrote a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild in which he said that the British government “view[ed] with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” With this declaration, the political foundations of the State of Israel were cemented. Lord Ashley’s legacy of support for the Jewish people, based in his Christian faith and belief that England had the opportunity to right its past of mistreating the Jews, remains today.
Christian Zionism in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries
As political Zionism advanced in Europe, so, too, did a better theology regarding the Jewish people. Christian figures like Russian Orthodox priest Lev Gillet (1893–1980) wrote about Israel’s priority as the “elder son” in God’s family, and therefore he said Israel has a “special claim” on the charity of all Christians, which included undertaking the Zionist vision of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. President Harry Truman took this directive to heart and declared American recognition of the new State of Israel after becoming a Zionist after reading Scripture.
Mother Basilea Schlink (1904–2001), a Lutheran and the founder of the first protestant cloister in Germany since the Reformation, wrote that the establishment of Israel in 1948 was “one of the greatest miracles of human history,” and Jewish perseverance through atrocious persecution was a “tangible sign of God’s presence.” Schlink believed “God’s covenant to the Jews was still valid, and the state of Israel illustrates his faithfulness to those covenant promises.”
Princess Alice of Battenberg (1885–1969), a Greek Orthodox woman who was the great granddaughter to Queen Victoria and the mother of Prince Philip, sheltered Jewish refugees in her home during World War II. She is buried on the Mount of Olives, which was her dying wish.
Theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968) believed the same thing. Though he was decidedly not dispensational, Barth believed the State of Israel was part of God’s redemptive purposes in the world and that Israel “would be involved in a global spiritual renewal at the end of history.”
As for the twenty-first century, a time in which Christian Zionism is considered to be a marginal position by many in the church, there are still non-dispensational theologians who believe in the right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Old Testament scholar Gary A. Anderson, a Roman Catholic and a Christian Zionist, bases his Zionism on the “biblical claim that the land of Canaan was given by God to the Jewish people.”
As we have seen, Christian Zionism is not strictly a dispensational belief. Church fathers, theologians, priests, and scholars from all eras of the church and from all theological backgrounds have believed the Jewish people would one day be restored to their land. Whatever your theological persuasion, you can feel confident that supporting the state of Israel lines up with Scripture and the historical teachings and traditions of the Christian faith.
 Gerald R. McDermott, ed., The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives On Israel and the Land (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2016), 54.
 Paul N. Benware, Understanding End Times Prophecy: A Comprehensive Approach, rev. and expanded ed. (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2006), 121.
 The New Christian Zionism, 55.
 Understanding End Times Prophecy, 123.
 The New Christian Zionism, 58.
 Ibid, 59.
 Ibid, 60.
 Ibid, 61
 Ibid, 62–65.
 Ibid, 65.
 Understanding End Times Prophecy, 141–142.
 The New Christian Zionism, 66.
 The New Christian Zionism, 67.
 Ibid, 69.
 Ibid, 70.
 Ibid, 72–73.
 Ibid, 73.