The main problem is that I had never studied the issue of covenant theology vs. dispensationalism. To get me started, one of my covenantal friends suggested two books, one to help me understand covenant theology and the other to help me understand dispensationalism. The first book was O. Palmer Robertson’s The Christ of the Covenants, which is widely regarded as a classic presentation of covenant theology. A very good recommendation. The other book, unfortunately, was John Gerstner’s Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, a diatribe against dispensationalism by a covenant theologian. Not such a good recommendation. [For a helpful review of Gerstner’s book, see Dr. Richard Mayhue’s article in The Master’s Seminary Journal.]
As I began reading Gerstner, I realized pretty quickly that the dispensationalism he was critiquing was certainly not the kind of dispensationalism that TMS president John MacArthur advocated. Gerstner seemed to equate dispensationalism with Arminianism and easy-believism, and since MacArthur was the one who had grounded me in a biblical understanding of the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ, I was pretty sure this book wasn’t going to help me decide where to go to seminary. In fact, Gerstner’s book did more to confuse my understanding of dispensationalism than to clarify it. Eventually I found books and articles that were more helpful, but the process was a long and difficult one, and Gerstner was definitely an ill-advised place for me to start my theological journey.
Why am I telling you this? Because I just finished a book I wish I could have read 14 years ago when I was first studying this issue. That book is Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths by Dr. Michael J. Vlach (Theological Studies Press, 2008), and it is unsurpassed in terms of clearly setting forth the core elements of dispensational theology. In this book, Vlach, an Assistant Professor of Theology at The Master’s Seminary, brings a rare level of simplicity and clarity to a very difficult and complex subject. If you are seeking to understand dispensationalism, this is absolutely the place to begin.
The format of the book is simple enough. In the introduction, Vlach describes how common misrepresentations of dispensationalism have created the need to define clearly the essential beliefs of this theological system. As Vlach explains, his goal in writing was to meet this need:
This book is not an attempt to delve deeply into every issue related to dispensationalism. Nor is it written to iron out in detail all the points of difference between variations within dispensationalism…. Instead, I am looking to give the reader a basic introduction to the foundational beliefs of dispensational theology so a better understanding of this theology can occur (p. 4).
In the first chapter, Vlach provides a brief history of the theology of dispensationalism, focusing on three key periods: (1) Classical Dispensationalism (1800s to 1940s), (2) Revised or Modified Dispensationalism (1950-1985), and Progressive Dispensationalism (1986 to the present). This is a helpful overview of the development of dispensationalism over the past 150 years, and unfortunately one that is often missing from these kinds of discussions. As Vlach observes later in the book, “when reading some critiques of dispensationalism, one gets the impression that dspensational thought was frozen by 1950” (p. 53).
The nucleus of the book is found in chapter 2, where Vlach sets forth six essential beliefs that are at the heart of dispensationalism. As Vlach explains:
By “essential” I mean foundational beliefs of dispensationalism that are central and unique to the system, beliefs upon which the system stands or falls. These are also beliefs that if denied, would probably make one a nondispensationalist (p. 18).
The primary strength of this chapter is how Vlach is able to distinguish clearly between core essentials of dispensationalism and possible applications of the system. In contrast, most critiques of dispensational theology focus on the latter to the virtual exclusion of the former. To whet your appetite, the first essential belief concerns the nature and implications of progressive revelation: “Progressive revelation from the New Testament does not interpret or reinterpret Old Testament passages in a way that changes or cancels the original meaning of the Old Testament writers as determined by historical-grammatical hermeneutics” (p. 18).
In chapter 3 Vlach exposes five common myths about dispensational theology which are often promoted by non-dispensationalists, a breath of fresh air for those of us who have grown weary from all the caricatures and straw men. As Vlach explains, many of these myths flow out of the erroneous assumption that dispensationalism is inherently linked to soteriology. Put simply, being dispensational doesn’t mean you believe in multiple ways of salvation; it doesn’t mean that you are Arminian, antinomian, or non-lordship in your theology; and it doesn’t require that you affirm the seven dispensations often associated with classical dispensationalism. According to Vlach, “Those studying dispensationalism should focus on the real issues and avoid such myths” (p. 49).
The final chapter contains a series of questions that Vlach is often asked about the issue and the debate surrounding it. My favorite part of this chapter was his response to the charge that dispensationalism should be rejected since it is a relatively new theological system which was not formalized until the 18th century. According to Vlach, several key elements of dispensational thought were held by the early church, and therefore the early church was closer to dispensationalism than it was to covenant theology. Furthermore, says Vlach, if someone rejects dispensationalism simply because it is new, then he should also reject covenant theology which did not start to take recognizable form until the 17th century (and therefore is not that much older than dispensationalism). As Vlach notes, the better approach is to “focus on whether any system of theology is biblical or not and no so much on when it started” (p. 55).
In the end, regardless of where you land on the spectrum of continuity vs. discontinuity—and regardless of whether you consider yourself a dispensationalist, a covenant theologian, or something in between—if you have a desire to understand the core essentials of what dispensationalism is all about, this book is a must-read. If only Dr. Vlach had written it 14 years ago!
This article first appeared at Pulpit on September 11, 2008.