Understanding Dispensationalists

The Rev. Dr. Vern Poythress, Westminster Theological Seminary’s professor of New Testament interpretation and editor of the school’s academic journal,[1] must have received a fair amount of negative feedback for the 1987 publication of his book Understanding Dispensationalists as the book has a fairly charitable tone until the last chapter, an addendum for the 1994 second edition, where he accuses dispensationalists of being “antigospel.”[2] The book’s intent is to find ways for dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists to have “profitable dialogue.”[3] Charging one side with being “antigospel” is probably not the best approach for seeking détente.

Poythress opens his book with a discussion of the label “dispensationalism.” Since dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists both agree with the idea that God uses dispensations in history, the term is “inaccurate and confusing.”[4] Poythress proposes something more accurate like “Darbyism.” That’s fine as far as it goes, except that Poythress identifies the main opposing position as “covenant theology.”[5] He fails to acknowledge that a key disagreement between covenant theologians and dispensationalists concerns the actual covenants found in the text of Scripture: namely Land, Davidic and New. If the dispensational label is inaccurate and confusing, certainly the same could be said about the covenant label! Though Poythress  goes on to use the common term “Dispensational” for the remainder of the book, it seems a strange way to begin the discussion by poo pooing the label itself, especially when the same concern could be raised about the label of the writer’s own side.

Poythress rightly identifies the key difference between dispensational and non-dispensational teaching as the issue of the distinction between Israel and the church. Dispensationalists built this distinction on the foundation of the literal, historical-grammatical principle of Biblical interpretation. This idea of literal interpretation is the second place area where Poythress takes issue. He spends chapter 8 critiquing the usefulness of the term “literal” and uses a passage from Isaiah 27 to build his case.[6] Considering that he comes from a covenant theology background, relying on a poetic passage to build his case seems beside the point. Though he points out areas where different dispensationalists have been seemingly contradictory in their definitions of the idea of “literal” interpretation, he never proves his position that terms like “literal”, “normative”, and “plain” are not useful for conveying the idea of how dispensationalists interpret the Bible.

Instead of centering his discussion on a relatively obscure passage like Isaiah 27, Poythress would have been better served by taking on foundational dispensational (and Biblical!) passages such as the covenant passages of Genesis. “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your offspring I give this land from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates’” (Gen. 15:18 [ESV]). What would a literal, even “flat”,[7] interpretation of this verse look like? How does the language of contracts work? “Literal” as an additional clarification of what one means by “historical-grammatical” is necessary exactly because so many interpreters disregard the “plain” meaning of contractual passages like Genesis 15:18 even while claiming to hold on to a historical-grammatical principle of interpretation. Poythress comes off as being purposefully obtuse in his understanding of the term and his choice of a passage such as Isaiah 27 instead of a key passage of disagreement like Genesis 15 doesn’t advance the conversation.

Though I do not think Poythress succeeded in overturning the dispensational framework, it was nice reading a relatively conciliatory book from such a highly regarded theologian and I hope the future of Christianity is one of peaceful dialogue between opposing theological camps.

[1] Vern Poythress. Westminster Theological Seminary Faculty, faculty.wts.edu/faculty/poythress/

[2] Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 136.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid., 79-82.

[7] Ibid., 83.

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