Understanding Dispensationalism

I want to recommend to you an excellent book that I just read on the subject of dispensationalism. But first a little personal history: Back in 1994 I was attending a Presbyterian church in Orlando, taking a Greek class at Reformed Theological Seminary, and beginning to appreciate all things reformed. At the time, I was also thinking seriously about going to seminary full time. I had narrowed it down to either Westminster Theological Seminary or The Master’s Seminary, and I was having a difficult time deciding between the two.

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.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. I consider Gerstner as about as competent a critic of dispensationalism as Dave Hunt is of Calvinism.

  2. Posted by drwrl4jesus on April 6, 2009 at 9:01 pm

    Appreciate thoughts on dispensationalism and the honest presentation here.
    Thanks
    Dick Lockhart
    drwrl4jesus
    url: http://drwrl4jesus.wordpress.com

  3. I’ve got Vlach’s book and in my opinion, it’s a good one. I refuse to pick up a book by either a person married to the Covenant system or to Dispensationalism if their approach is simply to castigate. Gerstner could have taken a very high road in his critique, but point blank referring to Dispensationalists as members of a cult and non-Christian is really over the top.

    I have been a Dispensationalist – or rather, the results of my biblical studies using the literal (not literalistic) hermeneutic have resulted in theological opinions whereby most would place me in the Dispensationalist camp.

    I’m 52 and have been a Christian since age 13. Not once in any of those years was I ever taught, or believed that there is more than one method of salvation; never. Even with Adam and Eve, salvation was by faith in God’s Word. Their outward act of disobedience came about due to their inner attitude of unbelief toward God. They failed to continue believing Him, beginning the process of sin, and the result was as James says, death.

    It is too bad that there cannot be more competent and less self-righteous conversation and dialogue between Covenant Theologians and Dispensationalists. It is too often precluded by an insistence that Dispensationalists are heretics.

  4. Thanks for the recommended reading. I’m going through the same exact situation right now. I’m torn between Westminster and TMS. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out my stance on covenant theology vs dispensationalism. I’m also very confused on the whole question of the rapture(although this isn’t as big of a deal to me as far as choosing a seminary).

    I’ll read the books you suggested. Thanks.

  5. Posted by drwrl4jesus on December 11, 2009 at 9:36 am

    May I offer some more recommended reading:

    “The Grand Weaver” by Ravi Zacharias

    I think you need to review book on Hermeneutics

    Again may I offer a few titles:
    “Basic Bible Interpretation” by Roy B. Zuck

    “Principles of Biblical Interpretation” by L. Berkhof

    again “Principles of Biblical Hermeneutics” by J. Edwin Hartill

    “Evangelical Hermeneutics” by Robet L. Thomas

    “Bible Explorer’s Guide” by John Phillips

    “Dispensationalism Today” by Charles Caldwell Ryrie
    and an updat to it
    “Dispensationalism” by Ryrie

    “Counterfeeit Gods” by Timothy Keller

    May God bless as endeavor to serve Him by preparing yourself
    for ministry.
    A Co-Laborer for Christ

    “Dick”

  6. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on December 14, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    Hi Steven,

    Great to hear from you. In general, I would recommend tackling the CT/dispensational and millennial issues before you address the rapture. If I can be of any help to you, shoot me an email and we can dialogue, even by phone if you’d find that helpful. You can find my email address through our church website, which can be accessed through the “Fellows” link above.

    Matt

  7. […] I would recommend Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths by Michael Vlach. See here for an overview of Vlach’s […]

  8. Posted by Jim Masters on September 8, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    Hey, Matt.
    doing a study on the different millennial positions, and in my research, found this handy note from your blog! Cool! Thanks for the info; I found it most helpful. I want to get that book!

    Hope you and Julie are doing well. i will try to find you on fb. praying for you each Monday, brother. stand fast!

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