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A number of people have asked me to respond to a talk that John MacArthur delivered at the 2007 Shepherds’ Conference. It seemed a little out of character for MacArthur because it had a mean-spirited tone to it. It also sounded desperate, as if he has been hearing the foundation stones of dispensationalism cracking all around him. MacArthur, who believes in “sovereign election” as it relates to individual salvation, is surprised that many of his sovereign grace colleagues who are amillennial and postmillennial do not hold to the sovereign election of Israel. He concludes that only dispensational premillennialists take Israel’s national election seriously. His logic goes like this: If you believe in the sovereign election of the individual, then you must be a dispensationalist since only dispensationalists hold to the sovereign election of Israel. Election cuts both ways, MacArthur argues.
Like a number of MacArthur’s books on eschatology (Because the Time is Near and The Second Coming: Signs of Christ’s Return and the End of the Age), his Shepherds’ Conference talk is poorly argued. Not only does it misrepresent amillennialism and postmillennialism, it also gets a great deal of history wrong. To claim that only dispensationalism takes the promises made to Israel seriously is an exercise in historical revisionism and exegetical manipulation, especially when Calvinist postmillennialists and their Confessions are considered.
Keep in mind that dispenstionalism is a nineteenth-century invention and was not systematized until 1909 with the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible. The future place of Israel in prophecy has had a long history among postmillennial Calvinists, something MacArthur should have known and discussed. As we shall see in future discussions, the dispensational interpretation of “and so all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26) only has meaning after the nation of Israel suffers through another holocaust.
Theodore Beza (1519–1605), John Calvin’s successor in Geneva, taught, according to English theologian Thomas Brightman, that the world would “be restored from death to life again, at the time when the Jews should also come, and be called to the profession of the Gospel.” Martin Bucer (1491–1551), the reformer of Strasbourg and perhaps the continental Reformer who had the most direct influence on English Puritanism, wrote in a 1568 commentary on Romans that Paul prophesied a future conversion of the Jewish people. As J. A. DeJong points out in his magisterial study As the Waters Cover the Sea, Peter Martyr Virmigli (1499–1562), Bucer’s associate in Strasbourg, agreed.
In England, the place of the Jews in prophecy was a prominent issue already in the seventeenth century and was most true among the generally postmillennial English and Scottish Puritans. Iain Murray summarizes the seventeenth-century concern for Israel in this way:
The future of the Jews had decisive significance for them because they believed that, though little is clearly revealed of the future purposes of God in history, enough has been given us in Scripture to warrant the expectation that with the calling of the Jews there will come far-reaching blessing for the world. Puritan England and Covenanting Scotland knew much of spiritual blessing and it was the prayerful longing for wider blessing, not a mere interest in unfulfilled prophecy, which led them to give such place to Israel.
This emphasis fits neatly into modern-day postmillennialism: The latter-day glory of the Church will be inaugurated by the conversion of the Jews to Christ; this is what Paul meant when he said that the conversion of the Jews would be “life from the dead” (Rom. 11:15). There were other views of Paul’s prophecy in seventeenth-century England. One school of interpretation claimed that Romans 11:26 (“all Israel shall be saved”) referred not to a future dramatic conversion of the Jews but to the gradual conversion of the Jews throughout history, a view that is popular among many amillennialists today.
Iain Murray’s The Puritan Hope provides abundant documentation of the postmillennial concern for Israel. This view was advanced in the 1560 Geneva Bible and in Peter Martyr’s commentary on Romans (1568). Scottish theologian Charles Ferme, writing sometime in the late sixteenth century, argued that Paul indicated that “when the fulness of the Gentiles shall have been brought in, the great majority of the Israelitish people are to be called, through the gospel, to the God of their salvation, and shall profess and own Jesus Christ, whom, formerly, that is, during the time of hardening, they denied.”
In a 1635 letter, the Scottish theologian Samuel Rutherford expressed a wish to live to see the conversion of the Jews:
O to see the sight, next to Christ’s Coming in the clouds, the most joyful! Our elder brethren the Jews and Christ fall upon one another’s necks and kiss each other! They have been long asunder; they will be kind to one another when they meet. O day! O longed-for and lovely day-dawn! O sweet Jesus, let me see that sight which will be as life from the dead, thee and the ancient people in mutual embraces.
Rutherford, a postmillennialist, found a place for Israel in prophecy, and, just as clearly, it was an important element in his view of prophecy, second only to the Second Coming of Christ.
William Perkins, a leading Puritan teacher and writer, taught that there would be a future national conversion of the Jews. Similarly, Richard Sibbes wrote that “The Jews are not yet come in under Christ’s banner; but God, that hath persuaded Japhet to come into the tents of Shem, will persuade Shem to come into the tents of Japhet.” Elnathan Parr’s 1620 commentary on Romans espoused the view that there would be two “fullnesses” of the Gentiles: one prior to the conversion of the Jews and one following: “The end of this world shall not be till the Jews are called, and how long after that none yet can tell.”
Speaking before the House of Commons in 1649, during the Puritan Revolution, John Owen, a postmillennial theologian, spoke about “the bringing home of [God’s] ancient people to be one fold with the fulness of the Gentiles . . . in answer to millions of prayers put up at the throne of grace, for this very glory, in all generations.” Owen even believed, as he explained in his popular 1677 book, Israel Redux, that the Jews would someday return to the land of Palestine.