An interview with Munther Isaac

Munther Isaac (PhD, Oxford Centre for Mission Studies) is the academic dean and assistant professor at Bethlehem Bible College as well as the director of the influential Christ at the Checkpoint conferences. He is also in the process of getting ordained at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.

Recently, Munther’s PhD thesis was published as a book:  From Land to Lands, From Eden to the Renewed Earth. Bethlehem Bible College is proud to carry this seminal work, which as Dr. Thomas Harvey, Academic Dean of Oxford Centre for Mission Studies says “represents a new and significant work in biblical theology…The work is not only a significant contribution to biblical scholarship, its contemporary relevance makes it a must buy for students of the Bible and theology alike.”

Dr. Ulrich Duchrow, Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Heidelberg says, “This is an extraordinary book.  It does not fall into the trap of playing Christian universality against Israel’s particularity in view of the “Holy Land.”  It sees the unity of the Bible as a whole in regaining the universal scope of God’s particular covenant with Israel to establish justice on earth…” 

Recently, we were able to sit with Munther and ask him a few questions about this exciting new release in Christian Theology.

Mercy Aiken: I love your thesis; that Eden is a type of the Land and they are both a picture of the Kingdom of God.  God’s work on earth starts in a small and limited capacity and then moves to a universal/global dimension.  As I was preparing to visit Palestine, I thought often about this very subject.  Some of my thoughts were triggered by Yohanna Katanacho’s book, “The Land of Christ, a Palestinian Cry.”  Can you tell me a little about what inspired your initial thoughts on this subject? 

Munther Isaac: I discovered a pattern in many Palestinian Christian theologians; that whenever we study scripture, we do not start with Israel, but with Eden.  If your theology of the land starts with Abraham, you are limited in scope and you may fail to see the larger picture. Typically in biblical scholarship there is a tendency to isolate Genesis 1-11 from the rest of scripture, but it is really so foundational for all Biblical understanding. This is why I began with Eden. Chapter 1 is probably the most important chapter of the book, which shows that the theology of the land begins in the Garden of Eden.

MA: In addition to Yohanna Katanacho, which other Palestinian theologians have been teaching on the Land from the foundational understanding of Eden?

MI: Salim Munayer (of Musalaha) also speaks on this, as well as Father Paul Tarazi, an Orthodox theologian who now lives in the United States.  Many Palestinian theologians have addressed this issue, but this book is probably the most comprehensive study on this subject to date.

MA: Did you go to school knowing this was to be your thesis?  When did you decide to write on this subject?

MI: I grew up thinking about these subjects.  When I was 14, I wrote my first paper exploring this issue: Who are the people of God?  I have been thinking about the theology of the land since 2002-3. I have always had the idea in mind about writing in-depth about this subject, and was finally able to do so through my PhD studies. For us as Palestinians, these are not merely curious theological ideas; they are the issues of life and death.  When we speak of the theology of the land, the gospel itself is at stake.  The gospel must be good news for all!

MA: It sounds like this book will provide a new lens through which the church might re-discover our identity, calling and purpose. 

MI: Yes, that is one of my hopes.  The last chapter of this book is about a missional theology of the land.  It offers a paradigm of how we are to do missions. If you start with Abraham you might see “the Land” more as a possession. But if you start with Eden, “the Land” becomes a mandate.  It is a very different approach.

We often speak of the biblical narrative as: creation, fall, redemption. But when we study the theology of the land, we realize that there is something missing from that paradigm.  Creation, yes- but then comes thecommission/mandate…. “The Land” is at the center of that mandate.  Our redemption is actually our re-commissioning to our original mandate.  The theology of the land is more than “God wants to bless you” but rather a divine commission into all creation.  Thus, instead of having an ideology/theology that is exclusive and narrow, it expands to become a mission on earth that is inclusive and universal.  This is the beauty of the gospel as seen through the broadest theology of the land.

MA: With the unashamed desire to further “whet the appetite” of our readers, we conclude by sharing the introduction/abstract to the book. Enjoy!

The theology of the land must start in the garden of Eden.  Eden is a sanctuary, a covenanted land and a royal garden. Eden is a proto-land, and Adam is a proto-Israel.  Starting in Eden underlines the universal dimension of the land promise and its conditionality.  It also elevates ethical behavior above the gift.

The theology of the land in the Old Testament (OT) reflects these Edenic themes: holiness, covenant and kingdom.  First, the holiness of the land depends on the presence of God in the land and on the holiness of its dwellers; there is no permanent holy place in the OT. Second, the land is a gift under treaty; the goal of the gift is establishing an ideal covenantal community that witnesses to other nations in other lands. Third, the land is the sphere of God’s reign on earth through his vicegerent. The vicegerent brings justice and peace to the land. God remains the ultimate king in the land.  The original promise to Israel is a promise of universal dominion.

After the exile, the prophets spoke of a time in which the land would become an ideal place.  This ideal land is, effectively, Eden restored.  The restoration of the land ultimately points to the restoration of the earth.  The land in the OT underlines the social dimension to redemption.  Yet, importantly, Israel’s faith can survive without the land.

The Jesus-event is the starting place for the theology of the land in the New Testament (NT). Jesus restored Israel and fulfilled the promises of the OT, including the land.  He embodied the holy presence of God on earth, kept the covenant on behalf of Israel and brought the reign of God on earth.  He inherited the land, and in him Jews and Gentiles are its true heirs.  This radical new fulfillment, brought about by the Jesus-event, dramatically changed the meaning of the land and nullified the old promises in their old articulation The NT points forward to a time of consummation when the whole earth will become an ideal place or redeemed land.

The land has thus been universalized in Christ. Universalization does not mean “spiritualization” of “heavenization.”  Instead, the theology of the land of Israel – modified in the Jesus-event – is a paradigm for Christian communities living in other lands.  The theology of the land thus underlines the social and territorial dimensions of redemption.  It also highlights the goodness of creation, and has many practical implications for the ongoing mission and practice of the church throughout the world.”  ~Munther Isaac, From Land to Lands, from Eden to the Renewed Earth

This book is now available from the Bethlehem Bible College Gift Shop:

As well as and other online retailers.