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Understanding Dispensationalists

I may be a bit late to the ballgame (published in 1987), but I just finished Vern Poythress’ Understanding Dispensationalists and I really enjoyed it. Poythress took a sabbatical to study dispensationalism in depth and this book is the result. I have heard it mentioned in many other places as a breakthrough in covenant-dispensational dialogue.

For someone who has never studied dispensationalism directly, he provides a very helpful overview and analysis of the theology. I could see more clearly precisely what it means to be a “dispensationalist”. An important point that Poythress makes is that “dispensational” is not the best label because, as dispensationalists like to point out, everyone believes God deals differently with men at different points in redemptive history. “The salient point is what the D-theologians say about these dispensations, not the fact that they exist. (12)” He then more accurate labels:

The debate is not over whether there are dispensations. Of course there are. Nor is the debate over the number of dispensations. You can make as many as you wish by introducing finer distinctions. Hence, properly speaking, “dispensationalism” is an inaccurate and confusing label for the distinctiveness of D-theologians. But some terminology is needed to talk about the distinctiveness of D-theologians. For the sake of clarity, their distinctive theology might perhaps be called “Darbyism” (after its first proponent), “dual destinationism” (after one of its principal tenets concerning the separate destinies of Israel and the church), or “addressee bifurcationism” (after the principle of hermeneutical separation between meaning for Israel and significance for the church). However, history has left us stuck with the term “dispensationalism” and “dispensationalist.” (12)

There is much more to be said, but I won’t say it all here. You can pick the book up for $6.99 at Monergismbooks.com and you can also read it online here: Understanding Dispensationalists

Grammatical-Historical Interpretation and Typology

I do want to note one important point. The chapter Interpretive Viewpoint in Old Testament Israel was particularly helpful. Poythress, very succinctly and cogently, argues that seeing typology (symbolism) in Old Testament prophecy is not opposed to a commitment to the grammatical-historical hermeneutic. Typology is not just something that we can look back on and see now that Christ has come, but it was something that could be understood by Israelites in the Old Testament (though not in full detail).

His basic argument is that the nation of Israel, from day one, was told that what was happening on earth, in Palestine, and among them, was a copy and shadow of the heavenly reality (Heb 8:5). They were to understand that God’s presence amongst Israel and the “new Eden” of Canaan was only a shadow of the eschaton, the new heavens and new earth where God will dwell fully. Here is a lengthy quote (I encourage you to read the whole chapter):

Israel’s existence as a kingdom of priests therefore possessed symbolic significance. This does not at all mean that Israel’s priesthood was “merely” symbolic or “merely” something of illustrative or pedagogical value. It was not “merely” an illusion, reflecting the “real” priestly reality in heaven. No, it was substantial, it was “real”–on the level that the Israelites could take it, and on the level appropriate to the preliminary character of God’s deliverance and his revelation at this point. The true God, not merely a surrogate for God, was really present with Israel. And his presence meant their consecration as priests. Yet God was not present in the way and with the intensity that he is present at the coming of Jesus Christ. His presence with Israel was preliminary and “shadowy” in comparison to that.

The latter days mentioned in the prophets are that broad eschatological era when the glory of God is revealed on earth (Isa 40:5, 60:2-3, Zech 2:5). The glory of God was formerly confined to heaven, and subordinately appeared in order to fill the holy and holies in the tabernacle and the temple. But eschatologically God will come to earth in his majesty. In those days the heavenly reality with supersede the earthly symbolic reflection. The heavenly original will fill and transform what was shadow. Hence those days imply a revision also in Aaronic priesthood (Ps 110:4), and by implication a revision of the law, which is bound up with the priesthood (Heb 7:12). But more than that, they imply a revision in the existence of Israel itself, since Israel itself is constituted as a kingdom of priests (cf. Isa 66:18-24). Since the existence of Israel itself has symbolic and heavenly overtones from the beginning, the fulfillment of prophecy encompasses these same overtones. The eschatological time is the time when the symbolic overtones in the very nature of Israel itself are transformed into reality.

Consider now what this meant for Israel’s perception of the nature of the land of Palestine. The land belonged to God (Lev 25:23). It was not to be desecrated by unclean practices (Deut 21:23, Lev 20:22-24). In an extended sense, the land itself was holy, the dwelling place of God. As a holy land, it was modeled after God’s rule over his heavenly dwelling. But it also illustrated what God would do to all the earth in the latter days. God’s kingdom would come to earth as it was (in OT times ) in heaven. The land of Palestine was also analogous to Eden (Isa 51:3). It pointed back to what Adam failed to do. Adam’s dominion over Eden (the starting point for rule over the whole earth) was ruined by the fall. Israel was granted dominion over a “new Eden.” This dominion over Palestine in turn anticipated the full dominion that was to be restored by the “seed of the woman,” one born to be the “last Adam” (1 Cor 15:45).

All this means that it is a violation of grammatical-historical interpretation to read prophecy flat. It is even a violation to read Israel’s history flat. The history of Israel has some symbolic overtones derived from the symbolic dimension in Israel’s own existence as kingdom of priests. But eschatological prophecy is the point at which these symbolic overtones are bound to be emphasized and come out into the open, since that is the time of transition from the preliminary to the final.

These symbolic overtones include almost everything that has in the past been classified as typology, and more besides. In fact, Israel’s existence was so saturated with incipient typology that it is hard for us, who live in the light of the fulfillment, to appreciate the Israelite situation. In a certain sense, it is impossible. We cannot forget what we have learned of Christ. But I would say this: Israel could on the one hand know much through a dim sense of symbolic overtones. And simultaneously it could know little because the shadows did not provide all the depth and the richness which the reality provides. A good deal would be known tacitly rather than by explicit, rationally articulated means.1

Now one more point should be observed about the eschatological expectations of OT Israel. The “latter days,” but not before, is the decisive time when the heavenly reality of God in his glory comes to earth. Therefore, prophetic predictions with regard to the near future have a character distinct from predictions about the “latter days.” In the near future, the organized political and social community of Israel continues in more or less a straight line. Predictions, even when they use symbolic and allusive language, can expect to find fulfillment on the symbolic level on which Israel then exists. But fulfillment in the “latter days” (eschatological fulfillment in the broad sense of eschatology) is a different matter. There the symbol is superseded by the reality, and hence straight-line reckoning about fulfillments is no longer possible. Pre-eschatological prophetic fulfillments have a hermeneutically different character than do eschatological fulfillments. (102-105)

And

When Jesus comes the “latter days” are inaugurated. In particular Jesus at his death inaugurates the new covenant by his blood (Matt 26:28 and parallels)… With whom is the new covenant made? It is made with Israel and Judah. Hence it is made with Christians by virtue of Christ the Israelite. Thus one might say that Israel and Judah themselves undergo a transformation at the first coming of Christ, because Christ is the final, supremely faithful Israelite. Around him all true Israel gathers. (106)

Eschatological prophecy may indeed have the same two dimensions: the dimension of the symbol in itself, and the dimension of what the symbol symbolizes. But the time of fulfillment of the eschatological prophecy is the time of climactic revelation. Hence, it may well be that, at that future time, the symbol is superseded by the reality, and no longer needs a separate historical realization along side the reality. (114)

Consider now the type of fulfillment that takes place in the NT. In the NT era, do we now need a second dimension of symbolism, a temple of material stones? In the OT there were two dimensions, “literal” (temple of stone) and typological-spiritual (the spiritual reality of God’s communing with human beings, now realized in the resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit). If there were two dimensions then, shouldn’t there be two dimensions now? But that reaction overlooks the theme of the book of Hebrews. According to Hebrews, that which is shadowy (temple of stone) can be “abolished” when it is superseded by the perfect (Heb 10:9). (115)

In the course of the chapter, Poythress makes a very compelling case that seeing the body of Christ as fulfillment (or at least participating in fulfillment) of Old Testament prophecy is not “allegorically spiritualizing” OT texts, but is instead interpreting them according to their gramatical-historical intended meaning.

I claim that there is sound, solid grammatical-historical ground for interpreting eschatological fulfillments of prophecy on a different basis than pre-eschatological fulfillments… What I am calling for, then, is an increased sense for the fact that, in the original (grammatical-historical) context, eschatologically-oriented prophecy has built into it extra potential. With respect to eschatology, people in the OT were not in the same position as they were for short-range prophecy. Eschatological prophecy had an open-ended suggestiveness. The exact manner of fulfillment frequently could not be pinned down until the fulfillment came. (106-107)

ince grammatical-historical interpretation will find the same symbolic, typological significance within prophecy, it shows how prophecy also has an organically unified relation to NT believers. Typological relations cannot merely be dismissed as a secondary application. The major weakness of classic dispensationalist interpretive theory, at this point, has been to have neglected the integration of typological interpretation with grammatical-historical interpretation. (115)

And finally:

One more difficulty arises in relation to typology. It is this. As I argued in the previous chapter, the significance of a type is not fully discernible until the time of fulfillment. The type means a good deal at the time. But it is open-ended. One cannot anticipate in a vague, general way how fulfillment might come. But the details remain in obscurity. When the fulfillment does come, it throws additional light on the significance of the original symbolism.

In other words, one must compare later Scripture to earlier Scripture to understand everything. Such comparison, though it should not undermine or contradict grammatical-historical interpretation, goes beyond its bounds. It takes account of information not available in the original historical and cultural context. Hence, grammatical-historical interpretation is not enough. It is not all there is to interpretation. True, grammatical-historical interpretation exercises a vital role in bringing controls and refinements to our understanding particular texts. But we must also undertake to relate those texts forward to further revelation which they anticipate and prepare for. (115-116)

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  1. November 11, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    I grew up in dispensationalism. I read fairly widely in its early writers (Darby, Kelly) and mid C20 writers (Pentecost, Walvood, Ryrie etc).

    Poythress is right – we are all in one sense dispensationalists (Covenant theologians like G Vos simply referred to them as epochs). In some ways I think Darby/Kelly were ahead of their time. Their theology is much less systematic and much more biblical in orientation; it is redemptive historical in essence.

    Early dispensationalists such as Darby/Kelly were a) calvinistic in theology proper and soteriology b) not wooden literalists like popular late C20 dispensationists. They recognised the nature of apocalyptic c) extremely able theologians and scholars d) were nuanced in exegesis often articulating then interpretations that have only gained currency in recent years.

    That said, Poythress is right, their big distinctive was an absolute discontinuity between Israel and the Church. They believed, God has two people (Israel and the Church) and has two programmes for them (Israel is earthly and Church heavenly). The Church is the mystery revealed in the epistles, God’s new man in Christ. It began at Pentecost and will continue until the Rapture.

    The rapture and revelation are two end-time Comings. The rapture is Christ’s coming for his Church while the revelation is Christ’s coming with his people to judge the world. This two-stage coming is driven by the fundamental view of two peoples/programmes. The events of Rev 4-21 are a description of life between the rapture and revelation (Daniel’s seventieth week).

    In my view Darby and Kelly were wrong in their level of discontinuity. However, it would be a mistake to think there is not much that can be learned from them. Indeed these issues don’t significantly intrude into a great deal that they have written. Both wrote commentaries on most of the Bible. Brethren were particularly good at understanding typology and the OT sacrificial system. To my mind they got this right when others were floundering.

    On the positive side, Darby was a person of some wealth and standing who died virtually a pauper. His consuming passion was the gospel. He had no interest in wealth or health. He travelled extensively and translated the Bible into three languages. I still refer to Darby’s translation. It aims at accuracy at the expense of readability. Brethren Churches worldwide find their roots in Darby and Kellly.

    Apart from their Israel/Church discontinuity Darby and Kelly had one other fault. Ironically, the Brethren movement they began was intended to cross confessional boundaries and allow believers from various confessional churches to break bread (have communion) with each other, before an open Bible. Ironically, in time, their jealousy for truth led them to excess and instead of embracing other believers they increasingly cut off folks that disagreed. In Exclusive Brethren churches there were multiple divisions over minutiae.

    Lessons can be learned.

    I see the natural bridge between Dispensationalism (too much discontinuity) and Covenant theology (too much continuity and not alert enough to epochs) as NCT. It combines the best of both (from what I’ve read).

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  2. December 22, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    Shows how old I’m getting. I forgot completely about this post and my comments when writing my comment a moment ago on Riddlebarger. Recently read UD by Poythress (or the first half of it) and found it accurate. I was particularly gratified to see he sees ‘biblical theology’ as developed by Vos etc as the reformed ‘version’ of dispensationalism. This has been my contention for a number of years so I am gratiified to see someone of scholarly status so affirming.

    Good to see you still blogging. have a good Christmas.

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