In this post, “Understanding Understanding Dispensationalists Pt.1,” I hope to summarize a very influential book that has shaped how I (don’t) read Scripture. You can read it for free here.
As an aspiring seminarian in college, I told myself that I needed to figure out whether or not the Bible taught dispensationalism or covenant theology. This would determine which seminary I would attend. I wanted to either get a dispensational education from The Master’s Seminary (TMS), or a confessionally Reformed education at one of the Westminster seminaries (BTW, I’m super glad I chose Philly).
The book that influenced this decision the most (apart from Scripture) was Vern Poythress’ Understanding Dispensationalists, a book that calmly and charitably pointed out to me the many challenges to upholding a dispensational scheme. It also offered me a far more helpful framework for interpreting all of Scripture. Ironically, I bought Understanding Dispensationalists at Grace Community Church, where TMS was established. Thanks, JMac! I owe you one!
I wanted to summarize this book for you here at Reformed Margins.
Poythress, who spent time at Dallas Theological Seminary to make sure that he himself was correctly understanding dispensationalists, begins with a chapter that discusses the difficulty of defining “dispensationalism” because of the way that it has been modified since it came onto the theological scene in the 19th century through John Nelson Darby, an Anglo-Irish Bible teacher, who belonged to the Plymouth Brethren. Every reading of Scripture must take into account the transition between the Old and New Covenant. Reading the OT, Darby felt a vast distance between his “heavenly” experience of salvation by grace through union with Christ, and Israel’s “earthly” experience of salvation as detailed in Isaiah 32. Reacting against a dehistoricized understanding of the Bible, which depreciated the discontinuity between biblical epochs, Darby embraced a “literal” hermeneutic and upheld a heavenly vs. earthly distinction in his understanding of the church and Israel.
Dispensationalism became popular in the States through the widely disseminated Scofield Reference Bible, a study Bible of sorts, with the following distinctives: 1) a high view of the sovereignty of God, 2) a “literal” hermeneutic, 3) a conviction that there were two peoples of God (Israel and the church) with two separate destinies and purposes, one earthly and one spiritual, 4) a precise sevenfold division of history, and 5) a pretribulational rapture. This Bible is the focus of Poythress’ second chapter, in which he highlights the strain that such a literal hermeneutic places on Bible readers. Poythress writes, “The dualism of Israel and the church is, in fact, the deeper dualism determining when and where the hermeneutical dualism of ‘literal’ and ‘spiritual’ is applied.” In other words, while Scofield was willing to recognize double meanings, he excluded any possible interpretations that might imply the church’s participation in the fulfillment of prophecies concerning Israel. Poythress finds this highly arbitrary. For an example, see Joel 2:28, and Acts 2:17. While certain modified forms of dispensationalism now speak of the NT use of the OT in terms of mere “applications,” Poythress elsewhere reminds us that application is inextricably linked with meaning and interpretation.
At the same time, in chapter 3, Poythress voices his appreciation for the concessions made by modified dispensationalists to even speak of applications. He believes that “applicatory” dispensationalists and nondispensationalists are closer to each other than to hardline classical dispensationalists. He is encouraged by the willingness of many modified dispensationalists to speak of secondary applications and even of fulfillment of some OT prophecies in the church, who is Abraham’s seed. Poythress encourages these modified dispensationalists to shift further and see fulfillment as taking place in both the church age, and also in the millennial age.
In the 4th chapter, Poythress proceeds to sketch out some introductory comments on covenant theology, dispensationalism’s chief rival system of interpretation. Covenant theology does not view the distinction between Israel and the church as metaphysical, but as historical, such that the distinction is erased by the historical coming of Christ. It is not a distinction between the heavenly and the earthly, but between the time BEFORE the resurrection and the time AFTER the resurrection. Poythress argues that the OT readers would not have demanded the literal precision that dispensationalists demand of the prophetic literature. Still, he maintains that our interpretation can be controlled by asking what a passage meant in the original historical and linguistic situation in which it was created, that Scripture must interpret Scripture with the clear passages interpreting the obscure passages, and that we may expect successive, progressive, or cumulative fulfillment of prophecy.
With regard to the millennium, covenant theology takes seriously that all the promises of God find their ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ in Christ (2Cor 1:20), though certain prophecies await their (final) fulfillment as we presently live in the already-not-yet church age. Helpfully, Poythress points out that the differences are insignificant between dispensational premillennials who believe in a distinct and explicit millennial period after the return of Christ, and amillennialists who believe “that the second coming of Christ will bring so sweeping a victory over sin and its consequences, that from then on the reign [or “millennial kingdom”] of Christ physically and visibly on earth will continue forever, with no further need to deal with sin.” What is significant is whether or not there are two separate peoples of God with two separate purposes and two separate destinies, even though there is but one Savior and representative head who unites Jews and Gentiles into the one household of God.
Next week I’ll continue this series, summarizing Understanding Dispensationalists, and we’ll take a look at a handful of obstacles for dispensationalist interpreters of Scripture.