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.
A 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.
Classic 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?
Poythress holds 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.
First 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 practice.
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.
Third, 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.
—-Poythress 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 interesting.
—-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.
—-Classic 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 (after the Fall, presumably) been one people of God, not two. 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.