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Christians should be Jews? Book Review

(Book Review of Restoration: Returning the Torah of God to the Disciples of Jesus, by D. Thomas Lancaster, 2005)

This book is one of the most popular today in certain fundamentalist and “Seventh-Day” circles who try and justify participating in and restoring Jewish festivals in the church.  While Lancaster seems to be orthodox in his evangelicalism (regarding salvation etc…), he has taken good observations (the lack of rootedness in some Protestant churches) and reached the wrong conclusion, as evidenced below.

Lancaster starts personal testimony of his spiritual journey, which started in what he describes as a fundamentalist, non-denominational, and rural church where his father was the pastor (p 5). This is important, as many churches of this type are huge proponents of “dispensational” thought, and often are associated with “Christian Zionism.” It seems that Lancaster, in his zeal for something more historically connected and liturgically beautiful, was attracted to those who were practicing the Jewish Sabbath, such as “Seventh-Day Baptists” (p 7). Lancaster then found his way into Messianic Judaism, where he still resides and tries to bring other Christians (especially Pentecostals and dispensational Baptists) on board.

There are several (many unwarranted) assumptions in Lancaster’s thought that must be assumed in order for his general argument to make sense. First, Lancaster views much of church history as a conspiracy or “anti-Torah” movement, without providing much in terms of evidence of such conspiracy. He considers heretical groups such as the Ebionites (who denied Christ’s preexistence, and advocated Christ being adopted among other problems), and the Nazarenes (who advocated keeping all of the Torah laws, but at least were better on Christological issues) as the true Christians, and that the early church fathers can’t be trusted in regards to what they say on these groups. In absence of any evidence that rigid Torah observance was normative among believers, Lancaster argues that when a church father such as Ignatius wrote against Judaistic elements, it automatically means that such practices were common, and this group is the faithful group (p 13-28). He also uses passages from Justin Martyr and John Chrysostom in a similar manner, and then provides nothing for the next 1100 years! According to Lancaster then, from around 400 to 1500 there were no true Christians, or at a maximum, nominal Christians until the Reformation. Of course quoting only 3 out of the dozens of church fathers still admired by many conservative Christians today makes his case seem a bit weak as well.

Of course the Reformers were not friendly to being made Jewish either, so he focuses on some passages in Luther (which are admittedly troubling at times) to demonstrate the church was still hostile. He admires some of the more radical Anabaptists, but overall views the Reformation as simply not good enough (he conveniently leaves out that some Anabaptists also practiced polygamy since it is found in the Old Testament). It is also interesting that Lancaster avoids referencing virtually all of the “high church” Christians in the Roman, Eastern, and Anglican churches all together from the Reformation on. When he does mention them, it is usually negative. Reflecting his dispensational tendencies, Lancaster basically views the Hebrew roots movement of the 20th century to “finally” be a restoration to apostolic Christianity (p 26-28). He also views the increasing fractionalization of Evangelicals (20,000 denominations), to somehow be a positive development as people searching for the Torah (as opposed to it being the priesthood of all believers and individual rights taken to the extreme, with millions of “little popes.”).

Theologically, I will quote J.P Holding’s take on Lancaster’s thought about why Christians should still keep the Torah:

“Jesus and his followers kept the law, so we should too.”
But what else would we expect if they lived in Judaea? What would we expect if they also ministered to Jews? A missionary to a Muslim village isn’t going to eat pork.
The critical issue is whether Jewish-Christian missionaries told previously pagan converts to Christianity to obey the law, and on that point, Lancaster does a very poor job of arguing. The strictures of Acts 15, for example, he reads wrongly as prescription for following the law, when it is in fact prescription against attending pagan festivals.

Ironically, while Lancaster admonishes against picking and choosing laws to follow, he does the same thing himself. He admits we can’t do animal sacrifices without a Temple. Well, then, there can clearly be reasons not to follow other laws as well. Either we read the Torah like a fundamentalist or we contextualize it. Lancaster contextualizes when he finds it easy to do so but when it gets hard he retreats into defense mode. Not having a Temple is not a valid reply because we can build one and restart sacrifices. That someone may object is no argument either — unless Lancaster admits that things can change about applying Torah, and once he does that, his case fully collapses. If the law is truly “eternal and unchanging” in the rigid way Lancaster suggests, then you can’t ignore the law to build rails on your roof — you have to do it, no matter what the reason was for it.

Holding’s criticisms apply even after one accepts the dispensational and historical framework above (which most Christians do not).  He also doesn’t address some of the other issues that Sabbatarians have in general, such as you should not flush toilets or turn on lights etc…because it causes someone else to work.

As a whole, this book is not recommended, unless one is interested in seeing what the “Hebrew Roots” movement is all about.  I for one will stand on Scripture and the classical consensual teaching of the church fathers, as Vincent of Lerins said, “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”  This approach avoids such mistakes as the conspiracy theories of Lancaster.   I also believe Lancaster would be surprised by how “Jewish” some of the rituals in the Eastern Orthodox church still are (incense, fast days etc…).  Indeed, the “sacrifice of the mass” theology found in among Catholics and Orthodox seem far more “Jewish” (complete with altar and the like) then Lancaster’s Jewish Christianity.

For another good review in a similar vain, see this Amazon review (the bottom one).

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2 Comments

  1. branderudanders says:

    Hello!
    You wrote: ” I for one will stand on Scripture and the classical consensual teaching of the church fathers, as Vincent of Lerins said, “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” “

    I want to comment some about what the Messiah was prophesied to teach:

    Yeshayahu [”Isaiah”] 9:6 in Hebrew according to etymology (science of the origins of words and their meaning) prophecies that ha-Mashiakh – the Messiah – and his followers will keep the directives of the Torah and teach others that they must do likewise.

    The person looking up all instances of the Hebrew word ‘mishpat’, used in that verse, in a concordance will find that the term implies one should observe the directives of Torah non-selectively to ones utmost. This is the devotion that the Creator requires! In Torah there is about 613 directives. More documentation from the Messianic prophecies that the Messiah must have taught Torah is found in my blog [Link]

    Clearly the church fathers didn’t teach this; so then the question is: Should one obey the Creator’s Word in His Hebrew Bible (i.e. Torah, Prophets and the Scriptures) or follow the church fathers.

    Following the teachings of the Messiah, leads oneself into Torah-observance; including an immensely meaningful relationship with the Creator.

    Notes
    1. Look up the definition in netzarim.co.il ; Glossaries; “Mishpat”. The Christian rendering of the term as ‘judgement’ conceals the real meaning of the term according to the Torah, which is related to non-selective Torah-observance [based on Shem•ot′ [Exodus] 15:39; Devâriim′ [”Deuteronmy”] 17:9-13 and many more verses).

    Kind regards,
    Anders Branderud

  2. Anders, apologies for not replying in a timely manner. I was finishing up a degree in theology and moving into a new situation. With that in mind, here are some thoughts for you:

    1. Scripture doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The New Testament was canonized by the very church fathers you seem to have little respect for, and with some books having an easier time than others because of the rigorous criteria for a book’s acceptance as Scripture. These same fathers also recognized the Hebrew Scriptures as canonical as well. Somehow, you have to argue that you know better than they did, and historically have to adapt the conspiracy theory of history that Lancaster articulates in this review.

    2. What are your responses to the Holding article I quote above? In particular, it seems obvious that Christ and the disciples initially kept the law (if Christ didn’t, he would have sinned), considering they were Jewish. That isn’t the point. The point is whether or not that keeping the 600+ laws is normative for Christian believers everywhere across all-time. This is where the exegetical and historical case is quite weak for those in the Hebrew-Roots standpoint.

    3. How do you interpret the book of Galatians, and passages such as Acts 15?

    4. Isn’t the view of church history as “anti-Torah” or “ignorant” simply another case of modern chauvinism given a Jewish spin?

    5. I do have high respect for the law, and agree with many who point out that there is a notion of “cheap grace” found in some circles of Evangelicalism. I do not disregard it, but do not view it as normative. Christians need to exhibit godliness in their freedom.

    6. Are you willing to grant that there are categories in the law? For example, should we all be building rails on our roofs and not flushing toilets on Saturdays?

    I look forward to your response.

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