Understanding Understanding Dispensationalists Pt.2

wordpress seoMy hunch is that most of us, who are on the “Reformed Margins,” entered from dispensational backgrounds. Two weeks ago, I began a two-part summary of Dr. Vern Poythress‘ Understanding Dispensationalists, a book that has significantly influenced me and many others who grew up in dispensationalist churches. Today is where we get to the meat of Dr. Poythress’ arguments (though in summary of course)!

In Chapter 5, Poythress admits the “near impossibility of simple refutation.” He believes that the dispensational system conveniently maneuvers around Scripture and determines what is figurative and what is nonfigurative after the fact. For example, the explicit NT fulfillments are often seen as mere spiritual fulfillments, while the “literal” fulfillments are reserved for the nation state of Israel. This launches into a discussion of what counts as evidence for fulfillment. Poythress notices that dispensationalists often multiply distinctions when needed, in order to harmonize their system. An example of this is seeing two post-ascension returns of Christ (rapture and 2nd coming). He also notices that double application is used with regard to Israel and the church. The multiplying of distinctions and the use of double application, however, can be very artificial.

Poythress also postulates that historical and social factors might have influenced dispensational interpretation. Darwinism pressured Christians to strive for more “precision” in biblical interpretation, however, “precision” was defined by Western scientific standards. The fear of subjectivity and (over?)desire for certainty drove sincere believers to insist on their own “objective” and “plain” readings of Scripture. Unaware of their own presuppositions, many believers did not realize that what might be plain to them according to their own social and historical contexts, might not be so plain to other sincere believers. Poythress warns that we must not allow artificial and modern standards of precision to impose themselves upon biblical interpretation, and that we also must be careful to not idolize certainty. In his characteristically pastoral tone, he writes “Being a sheep means being secure, not because one has all the answers, but because one is in Christ’s care.”

In Chapter 6, Poythress begins to look at specific texts to note the different hermeneutics applied by Dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists. He highlights three main issues that need to be raised with dispensationalists, and finds Hebrews 12:22-24 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 most helpful. The first issue to raise is that of the Church’s inheritance of the OT promises. The question to consider is “to which of the promises is Christ heir according to 2 Corinthians 1:20?” If the promises of God find their yes in Christ, to which of the promises are those in union with Christ (aka the CHURCH) also heirs? Another issue to raise with dispensationalists is the nature of OT symbolism and whether or not a literal reading is the best for OT texts that are filled with an eschatological hope that is oriented toward God’s dwelling. Thirdly, Poythress points to the book of Hebrews as a prime example of Scripture’s teaching on the OT. Hebrews 12:22-24 explicitly states that his readers have already come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.

In Chapter 7, Poythress discusses the Last Trumpet of 1 Corinthians 15. According to dispensationalists, the “last trumpet” of verse 51-53 signals the rapture. However, Matthew 24:31 speaks of a “loud trumpet” at the return of Christ. How can we reconcile this with the dispensational insistence upon a tribulational period between the rapture and the return of Christ? Perhaps dispensationalists might say that the “last trumpet” of 1 Corinthians 15 is qualified, and refers to the last trumpet for the church, but not for the nation of Israel, but Poythress says that this would seem to contradict the “literal” or plain reading that dispensationalist try to uphold.

In Chapter 8 Poythress digs into what “literal” interpretation really is. Is it an understanding of meaning where meaning is what native speakers are most likely to think of when they hear a word in isolation, as opposed to figurative meaning? Is it only “literal” if possible? Is it grammatical-historical interpretation? Chapter 9 discusses how claiming a “literal” or “plain” vs. a figurative hermeneutic doesn’t help the debate, and is actually quite ambiguous.

Chapter 10 offers many helpful points to consider regarding interpretation. Poythress argues that Grammatical-historical interpretation is also concerned with understanding what the author’s intended readers would be justified or warranted to understand from the text. Israel was to expect fulfillment without knowing exactly how the prediction would be fulfilled. In fact, Scripture’s use of the “latter days” is so eschatologically oriented that its attendant prophecies surely had built-in extra potential that extended to Christ in the New Covenant, and his Church, when the “latter days” were inaugurated. Poythress also notes that “Israel” is the people of the King, and the Holy Land is the land that the King rules. Both the people of the King and the Holy Land pass from symbol to reality when God comes to reign in Christ.

Chapter 11 covers the topic of typology as a natural starting point for discussion with dispensationalists. He argues that we must go beyond grammatical-historical interpretation and take further revelation into account because types are not fully discernible until the time of fulfillment. Types are not merely secondary application. Symbols and types are organically related to their NT fulfillments. Also, types, symbols, and allusions are not restricted to the historical portions of the OT, but can be found in all genres, including the prophets.

In Chapter 12, Poythress returns to Hebrews 12:22-24 and argues that Abraham would’ve seen the prophecies of Isa 60:14 and Micah 4:1-2 as already having been fulfilled in Christ according to Hebrews 12:22 and Hebrews 11:10. Also, is not the “New Jerusalem” of Hebrews 12, the same one as Revelation 21? Christians already experience a foretaste of the fulfillment of Revelation 21-22 and are therefore related to the promises of Israel.

Finally, in Chapter 13, Poythress reminds us that 1) Christ is the true Israel and that all the promises of God are yes and amen in Him (2 Cor 1:20; Hos 1:9; Isa 6:11-13; 11:1; Hos 11:1), 2) the church receives the complete fullness of God’s blessing through Christ (Eph 1:23; Col 2:10; Rom 8:17; 1 Cor 3:21-23), and 3) therefore dispensationalists cannot say that everyone is saved in the same way, but that the saved persons have different statuses.

In Chapter 14, Poythress humbly admits that further exploration into issues of interpreting Scripture and the relationship between the Old and New Covenant is needed.


Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.