Book Review: Understanding Dispensationalists

“Understanding Dispensationalists” by Vern S. Poythress

When it comes to theological discussion, few topics stir up more controversy than eschatology. One thing at least seems certain to Christians of all eschatological persuasions: What we believe about the “End Times” is extremely important! As Christians, our hope is based on our understanding of Christ’s victory and future return in glory, and so our interpretation of how and when this return will be manifested has a tremendous impact on how we articulate and practice our faith.

So why are there such widely varying accounts of the Biblical account of the future? How can theologians and laypeople read the same Scriptures yet interpret them so differently? Why, when two Christians are in total agreement about nearly every other doctrine of the faith, might they disagree so vehemently on the topic of eschatology that — in some instances — one might even cast doubt on the other’s salvation?

These are some of the questions Vern Poythress — an amillenialist — hoped to address  when he took a sabbatical from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1983 to spend a semester studying at Dallas Theological Seminary, a school founded for the propagation of dispensational theology.

Unlike so many books on eschatology which are written to promote or discredit a system of interpretation, this is a book written to unify believers. Poythress seeks to promote understanding and gracious dialogue between Christians with varying beliefs. The fact that many of this book’s endorsements come from stalwart dispensationalists proves that this was a discussion long overdue, even when it was written more than twenty years ago. It is a much needed addition to the canon of theological discussion, and I’m so thankful to have read it!

Poythress begins by pleading with dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists to listen to one another. He acknowledges that “both sides cannot be right“, but proposes that, rather than argue over which side might be right, both sides consider the possibility that no one has eschatology completely correct; that all might have something to learn from trying to see things from different points of view.

He models this type of understanding by listing many of the merits of dispensational thought, among which are an End Times-driven zeal for evangelism and defense of the inerrancy of Scripture. This is followed with a summary of the history of dispensational theology, beginning with its creator, John Nelson Darby, and tracing its development through the teachings of men such as C.I. Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Charles Ryrie, and others. This section closes with a look at some modern variations within dispensationalism.

Poythress follows this with a similar summary of the teachings and developments of covenant theology, the primary evangelical alternative to dispensationalism. This chapter is written primarily for the benefit of dispensational readers, as the author focuses on things the two views share in common (“the inerrancy of the Bible, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the subsitutionary atonement of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, etc.”) and on common misunderstandings or misconceptions of non-dispensational views such as historic premillenialism, amillenialism, and postmillenialism. Many of these wrong conceptions stem from misrepresentation of these views in the writings of dispensational theologians. The most prominent of these misconceptions are that covenant theologians (1) do not interpret the Bible literally (more on this later); (2) do not believe in different dispensations throughout redemptive history; and (3) believe that the church replaces Israel as the recipient of God’s promised blessings.

After these introductory chapters, Poythress gets to the crux of the matter. The differences between these views are much more complex than most people realize, and this makes simple refutations nearly impossible. Unfortunately, few from any side of the debate are willing to dig deep and address the real issue, which is hermeneutics. Rather than focusing on the interpretation of specific passages — which is where most eschatology arguments begin and, abruptly, end — Poythress investigates the entire interpretive system of dispensationalism, comparing it with a covenantal viewpoint at every step.

One of the primary reasons dispensationalism is so attractive, says Poythress, is that it is completely consistent within its own system. In other words, given the presuppositions with which dispensational theology approaches Scripture, it “works”. All of the various interpretations of Scripture passages line up. Challenging a dispensationalist on the interpretation of a single passage would require a reinterpretation of a host of other passages as well.

Instead, Poythress focuses on one of the largest presuppositions of dispensational hermeneutics: the concept of “literalness”. In what is probably the book’s best section, he devotes two chapters to showing that “literal” can have several different meanings, and that dispensationalism as a system relies on the ability to frequently change between some meanings of “literal” while excluding others. Poythress advocates avoiding the use of the word “literal” when dialoguing with dispensationalists, instead favoring more descriptive terms such as “grammatical-historical interpretation” and “plain interpretation”.

The remainder of the book does break down a few specific interpretive differences, illustrating how various systems of interpretation deal with certain passages or ideas. These include typology and the interpretive viewpoint of Israel in the Old Testament, as well as how much and in what way God’s promises to Israel were fulfilled in Christ. The two passages of Scripture Poythress does address are 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 — which he says offers particular difficulties for dispensationalists — and Hebrews 12:22-24, which he shows can be a fruitful passage to begin a dialog with dispensationalists about their understanding of the separate parallel destinies of Israel and the church.

The book closes with a list of areas not explored in this book, but which will be necessary points of discussion for dispensationalists and covenant theologians seeking understanding and unity.

While nothing is covered exhaustively in this relatively short book, it’s a refreshing approach to discussion of a critical doctrine. As one of the very few non-dispensational members of my church, I’m quite motivated to promote understanding in this area, and am indebted to Poythress for his work in this area.

Buy this book here, or read it for free online here.

Book Review: God of Promise

“God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology” by Michael Horton

This review is somewhat difficult for me to write. As someone with a passing familiarity with covenant theology (a system of biblical interpretation which sees the various covenants between God and Man as an organizational structure for all of Scripture) who hoped for a good primer in order to better understand the system on its own terms, I was glad to find a book by Michael Horton that appeared to be what I was seeking. I have enjoyed other books by Horton, as well as his blog and radio show, and know that he is a very well-respected theologian within Reformed circles (and in Horton’s words, “Covenant theology IS Reformed theology“).

Unfortunately, this book is not as “introductory” as I had hoped. Horton draws extensively from the writings of several other authors, and his writing seems to assume that readers will have a little more prior knowledge of covenant theology than I possess. I suppose I may have been looking for more of an “overview” for the uninitiated, and this is not that book. Also, I honestly don’t know whether or not Horton’s position represents the “majority report” among covenant theologians, or whether his views are unique.

That being said, this was a very helpful book, even if it was a little more academic than expected. I feel like I at least have a firmer grasp of the basics of covenant theology, though I was hoping for greater clarity on a few points: particularly the covenantal view of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

The greatest strength of this book was Horton’s clear separation between Law and Promise. I was also fascinated by some of the history of covenant terminology used in the suzerain-vassal treaties of the ancient Near East, and their similarities with the language of the covenants used in the Bible.

I’ll have to do more reading to verse myself more thoroughly in covenant theology (though I’m quite happy to do so). All-in-all this was useful in my quest for information, but it certainly does not stand on its own as a study tool for laypersons interested in learning a new system of theology. Less determined readers will likely not want to wade through all the rigorous academic writing… though there are some truly great words in here for language-lovers such as myself! Buy it here.

Giving God What He Wants

This week I’ve been reading Michael Horton’s book “God of Promise”. I’ll post a full review soon (just finished it this morning) but wanted to share a short section from the book. Here Horton provides a great illustration for how God’s law provides normative standards for Christian living:

I evidently still have not been married long enough to overcome my penchant for buying presents for my wife that she doesn’t actually want. Instead, I often will buy her what I want her to have or think she wants. When I don’t get the response I’d like, my response (even if unstated) is frequently something like this: “Look, if you tell me what you want every time Christmas or your birthday rolls around, I’ll never be able to be spontaneous and creative in expressing my love for you.” Of course, there are countless ways in a given day in which I could express my love in spontaneous and creative ways, but it is not, at the end of the day, a sign of love but of selfishness if I do not consider her likes and dislikes when it comes to presents. How much more are our pretensions to pleasing God actually displeasing when we willfully determine for ourselves — out of our own desire for exercising spontaneity and creativity — what kind of response to his grace brings him joy. My wife is a sinner just as I am, but God is holy. He has not simply revealed personal preferences, but the law that expresses his own moral character. He has not commanded anything of us that is not required by the core of his very being. His commands never spring from a whim, but come from a will that is rooted in his unchanging nature.