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.

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