Vern Sheridan Poythress. Understanding Dispensationalists. 1986. Here is the version of the book that I will be engaging.
Understanding Dispensationalists is Vern Poythress' critique of dispensationalism. Not long ago, I blogged about a pro-dispensationalist book released by Moody Press in 2015: Dispensationalism and the History of Redemption. One of the contributors to that book said that Poythress' critique of dispensationalism was fair.
key feature of classic dispensationalism is a literal interpretation of
the Old Testament, specifically the eschatological prophecies.
In the Old Testament, there are prophecies about Israel's future
restoration, which will accompany a time of earthly paradise. There are
prophecies about God delivering Israel from her enemies, and the
Gentiles becoming attracted to Israel's God after seeing God's work on
behalf of Israel. Ezekiel 40-48 depicts the building of a new Temple in
that time. There, animal sacrifices will be offered. Jeremiah
33:17-18 predicts the restoration of Davidic rule over Israel as well as
the restoration of Levites to offer sacrifice.
dispensationalists interpret these prophecies literally. For them, God
made a promise to Abraham that his descendants, specifically the
Israelites, would inherit the Promised Land. God will one day fulfill
that promise to Abraham by restoring Israel to her land, under
paradisaical conditions. (Many dispensationalists may believe that some
stage of the fulfillment of this occurred in 1948, when Israel returned
to her land. But the fulfillment there would be only partial. After
all, the Davidic monarchy is not ruling in Israel, a new Temple does not
stand, and peace and paradise are not on the earth.)
But many Christians, understandably, have problems with interpreting these Old Testament prophecies literally.
Some believe that the Christian church is the new Israel and that God's
promises to Israel in the Old Testament are now for the church. They
tend to interpret the Old Testament prophecies spiritually, or
symbolically, rather than literally. Christians and the church are now
the Temple. Christians are the seed of Abraham. The promise that the
Israelites will inherit the Promised Land is fulfilled when Christians
go to heaven, or when they inherit a new paradisaical earth after Christ
returns. Rather than believing that a literal Temple will be rebuilt
in Israel after Christ returns, they think that the Temple in Ezekiel
40-48 is symbolic of the atoning work of Christ. After all, they ask,
why would God restore animal sacrifices for atonement, after Christ has
died on the cross for atonement and has fulfilled the animal sacrifices
of the Old Testament?
more to the latter position, roughly-speaking. He may quibble with some
of my conceptualization of it, or elaborate on some points. But he is
more in the latter camp than the former.
In Understanding Dispensationalism, Poythress critiques classic dispensationalists' literal interpretation of the Old Testament, mainly the prophecies.
of all, Poythress maintains that a number of classic
dispensationalism's proponents are not exactly consistent in their
literal interpretation. Because the New Testament seems to
apply prophecies about Israel to the church, or treats some of those
prophecies as symbolic, many classic dispensationalists try to find some
way to deal with that. They may say that the prophecies are about
Israel, but principles from those prophecies can be applied to the
church. They may say that Old Testament stories can foreshadow Christ,
in some manner. Poythress also says that some classic
dispensationalists have stretched their interpretation of the Bible,
specifically the New Testament, to accommodate these problems and to
uphold classic dispensationalism. For Poythress, this is not consistent
with the plain-sense, literal interpretation that they purport to
Second, Poythress asks
what exactly a literal sense of Scripture is. Is it interpreting each
word according to the first meaning that comes to our mind when we hear
it? But that does not work, for, once words come together into
sentences, the words may depart somewhat from any wooden definition.
There is also figurative language in the Old Testament, which even
dispensationalists acknowledge. When Isaiah 27:6 says that Israel shall
blossom and bud, that is to be taken metaphorically, not literally,
since Israel is not literally a plant.
Poythress raises the possibility that the authors and original audience
of the Old Testament prophecies may have interpreted them less than
literally. When Isaiah 40 says that every valley shall be
exalted and mountain and hill made low, did they understand that
literally? Poythress does not think so. Poythress also
proposes that the ancient Israelite authors and audience may have
recognized that the eschaton would change the rules of the game: that
the old system of Temple and sacrifices would be superseded, as God
inaugurated a new era, which the old system would be inadequate to
contain. Poythress believes that there are passages in the Old
Testament that point in this direction: for example, Zechariah 14:21
portrays God's holiness extending beyond the Temple in the
eschatological future. Poythress notes that even the Old Testament
acknowledged that the Tabernacle was a pattern of heavenly realities
(Exodus 25:9, 40), meaning that it pointed to something beyond itself. For
Poythress, God's promises to Israel are fulfilled in Christ (II
Corinthians 1:20), the true Israelite, and Christ brings those promises
to the church. Poythress states that elements of the Old
Testament are consistent with this: the suffering servant of Isaiah,
whom Christians interpret as Christ, is portrayed in the Book of Isaiah
as ideal Israel.
In my opinion, Poythress does raise important hermeneutical questions. Defining
a literal approach to interpretation is difficult. The problems are
compounded when we have an Old and a New Testament, and the two seem to
contradict each other. A non-Christian Jew could just say that the New
Testament is misinterpreting the Hebrew Bible, or is not faithful to
what the Hebrew Bible says. A Christian, by contrast, may feel a need
to reconcile the two, or at least to say that the same God is the author
of both. Dispensationalists do this one way. Covenant theologians do
it another way.
Poythress perhaps should have
attempted to define the boundaries to his symbolic, spiritual
interpretation of the Hebrew Bible; otherwise, the approach can become
pretty arbitrary. Poythress' specific goal in this book,
however, was to critique dispensationalism, and he may have gone more
deeply into such hermeneutical questions elsewhere. While
Poythress does well to ask what literal means, there were times when I
thought that he was making the issue more difficult than it needs to
be. Yes, there is figurative language in the Hebrew Bible. But when do
we get to the point where we are stretching the text beyond what it
actually says? If prophecies in the Hebrew Bible specifically mention
Israel, for example, how can one, in the name of symbolism, say that
they are actually about something else? Does that open God to the charge that God is unclear in God's communication?
The definition of a literal interpretation loomed large in this book. But Poythress' book got into other issues, as well.
mentions a classic dispensationalist claim that classic
dispensationalism is actually more optimistic than its alternatives.
Classic dispensationalism depicts God administering God's kingdom in
various ways throughout history, and this will culminate in Christ's
rule on earth during the millennium. Amillennialism, by contrast,
thinks that Christ will return, end the present world, and create a new
heavens and a new earth. Which view is more positive about the world?
Poythress critiques this argument, but I found the argument itself to be
----Poythress critiques what he considers to be antinomianism in classic dispensationalism. For Poythress, there have always been law and grace (presumably after the Fall); the two are not in opposition to one another.
Classic dispensationalism, however, believes we are in an age of grace
right now, and that one can be saved apart from works. For Poythress, good works have always been an expression of faith, so one cannot enter the good afterlife without them.
dispensationalism believes that there are two people of God: Israel and
the church. God's plan for Israel includes her earthly possession of
the Promised Land. God's plan for the church is heavenly. Poythress
questions this division. For one, he believes that there has always been one people of God, not two (again, presumably after the Fall).
The people of God are those who believe in Christ: in the Old
Testament, they believed in the Christ to come; in the New Testament,
they believed in the Christ who came. They were all justified by their
faith in God's promise. (Classic dispensationalists, by
contrast, have questioned the extent to which the Old Testament saints
had a clear knowledge about God's plan regarding Christ.)
Second, Poythress notes that Abraham in Hebrews 11:16 desired a heavenly
city. For Poythress, Revelation 21-22 brings heaven and earth together
with the new heavens and the new earth; that, for Poythress, collapses
the classic dispensationalist distinction between an earthly destiny for
Israel and a heavenly destiny for the church, for heaven will be on
earth. Third, Poythress doubts that God will give physical Israelites
blessings that are not also for the Gentiles.