Archive for February, 2009

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.

Myths and Misnomers about the New Covenant

Jason Robertson left a comment under Matt’s post that raised more questions than it answered. You can read it in it’s entirety here. He continues to make the same tired point that is factually untrue which in sum is:

Regardless of how you try to parse my words or divert attention away from the theological issues the fact remains that at its core Dispensational Theology (DT) denies the fact that the Church is in the New Covenant.

In dealing with myths about Dispensationalism, Michael Vlach makes the point that “Most books [blogs?] critical of dispensationalism often emphasize the dispensationalism of the early twentieth century and do not adequately deal with more recent dispensational scholars” (Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths, 53). A similar point is made by John Feinberg, that such are “reacting to what they think dispensationalists hold rather than to the logic of the system itself” (Salvation in the Old Testament, 48).

In addition to the resources Matt mentioned in his post, I would also recommend Robert Saucy’s The Church in God’s Program. Here Saucy writes:

The Scriptures, however, do not reveal a separate new covenant. The blessings for the church of the indwelling Spirit and the inward law (2 Cor 3:3-6) are the same as those promised to Israel (Jer 31:33-34). Moreover, as has been indicated, Jeremiah’s prophecy is directly applied to believers in the book of Hebrews. The fact of only one new covenant does not, however, necessitate that the church is fulfilling Israel’s prophecy in her place. Rather, both Israel and the church share in this covenant, as in the Abrahamic covenant, for the new covenant is the realization of the salvation of the Abrahamic promise” (78).

I think Saucy is making an excellent point that is often overlooked in many discussions about the New Covenant. The New Covenant is a progressive manifestation of the Abrahamic Covenant. Here is why dispensationalists of all types and stripes see a remaining ethical distinction between Israel and the Church (note: not a salvific distinction!). It is because “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” (Vlach, 60). Therefore the fact that the Church is now saved by the New Covenant in no way cancels previous promises made to Israel such as those of the Abrahamic Covenant.

An Overview of General Revelation

The Definition of General Revelation

 

General revelation is the universal self-disclosure of God by which He makes Himself known to all people everywhere (Ps 19:1-6; Rom 1:18-23; 2:14-15; Acts 14:17).

 

The Means of General Revelation

 

1. God’s Creation (Ps 19:1-6; Rom 1:19-21)

  • the heavens (Ps 19:1-4a)
  • the sun (Ps 19:4b-6)
  • the world (Rom 1:20a)
  • “what has been made” (Rom 1:20b)

2. God’s Provision (Acts 14:17)

  • the provision of rain (Acts 14:17a)
  • the provision of fruitful seasons (Acts 14:17b)
  • the provision of food (Acts 14:17c)

3. Man’s Conscience (Rom 2:14-15)

  • “the Law written in their hearts” (Rom 2:15a)
  • “their conscience bearing witness” (Rom 2:15b)

 

The Audience of General Revelation

 

1. All Men without Exception

  • “all the earth” (Ps 19:4a)
  • “to the end of the world” (Ps 19:4b)
  • “nothing is hidden from its heat” (Ps 19:6)

2. All Men without Distinction

  • Jew and Gentile (Rom 2:14-15; Acts 14:17)
  • Righteous and Wicked (Acts 14:17; cf. Matt 5:45)

 

The Content of General Revelation

 

1. The Existence of God (Rom 1:19-25)

  • “His divine nature” (20)
  • “they knew God” (21)
  • “the truth of God” (25)

2. The Glory of God (Ps 19:1a; Rom 1:19-23)

  • “the glory of God” (Ps 19:1a)
  • “the glory of the incorruptible God” (Rom 1:23)
  • “that which is known about God” (Rom 1:19)
  • “His invisible attributes” (Rom 1:20)

3. The Power of God (Ps 19:1b; Rom 1:20)

  • “the work of His hands” (Ps 19:1b)
  • “His eternal power” (Rom 1:20)

4. The Goodness of God (Acts 14:17)

  • “He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good”

5. The Law of God (Rom 2:14-15)

  • “the things of the Law” (14)
  • “the work of the Law” (15)

 

The Outcome of General Revelation

 

1. The Comprehension of Truth (Rom 1:19-21)

  • what “is known about God is evident within them” (19a)
  • “God made it evident to them” (19b)
  • “they knew God” (21)

2. The Suppression of Truth (Rom 1:18-25)

  • “men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (18)
  • “they did not honor Him as God or give thanks” (21)
  • “they became futile in their speculations” (21b)
  • “their foolish heart was darkened” (21c)
  • “they became fools” (22)
  • “exchanged glory of incorruptible God for image” (23)
  • “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (25)
  • “worshiped/served creature rather than Creator” (25)

3. The Culpability of Unbelievers (Rom 1:18-23)

  • “so that they are without excuse” (20)

 

The Limitations of General Revelation

 

1. Not Detailed in its Content (Ps 19; Rom 1-2; Acts 14:17)

  • the existence of God (Rom 1:19-25)
  • the glory of God (Ps 19:1a; Rom 1:19-23)
  • the power of God (Ps 19:1b; Rom 1:20)
  • the goodness of God (Acts 14:17)
  • the law of God (Rom 2:14-15)

2. Not Salvific in its Effect (Rom 1:20; cf. 10:14)

  • fails to save the unbeliever (1:20; cf. 10:14)
  • renders him “without excuse” before God (1:20)

Happy B-Day to the Gipper

For all you Ronald Reagan fans out there who are celebrating the 98th birthday of one of America’s greatest presidents, you might want to check out this new documentary on the Great Communicator: “Rendezvous with Destiny.”

Trivia Question: Why is the documentary called “Rendezvous with Destiny.” Where does that phrase come from? (No Googling, and no emailing Paul Lamey to find out the answer.)

Resources on Dispensationalism and the New Covenant

In his excellent book, Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths, Michael J. Vlach laments the fact that many critics of dispensationalism seem to believe that dispensational thought was frozen in place by 1950. In reality, the past thirty years in particular have seen much development within this theological system. Unfortunately, many covenantalists are either unaware of these developments or simply choose to ignore them.


For example, over at Fide-o, blogger Jason Robertson recently wrote an extremely condescending article entitled “If Only Peter Knew as Much as Dispys.” About half-way through the article, Robertson makes the following claim:

Some of you may not be aware that Dispensationalists do not believe that the church today is in the New Covenant. Sadly, they don’t. For proof read this document recently published by The Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics.

Fortunately, one of the very first commenters, Aaron Blumer from SharperIron.org, corrected Robertson and told him that many dispensationalists actually do believe that the church is in the New Covenant. Unfortunately, Robertson simply ignored Blumer’s correction. At this point, I should have rolled my eyes and moved on, but instead I left the following comment to Robertson:

[Jason Robertson wrote:] “Some of you may not be aware that Dispensationalists do not believe that the church today is in the New Covenant. Sadly, they don’t. For proof read this document recently published by The Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics.”

I guess it all depends on what you mean by the phrase “in the New Covenant.” Ironically, in the very article you linked as proof that dispensationalists do not believe that the church is in the New Covenant, Rodney Decker refers to four different dispensational views on the church’s relationship to the New Covenant, and two of the four affirm that the church is indeed in the New Covenant. Admittedly, this is not as clear in the article you linked, primarily because that was not the purpose of the article, and, as Decker himself states on the first page, he is assuming that these various positions are generally understood by his readers (keep in mind that he presented this paper to a dispensational study group). But if you read the articles he refers to as setting forth these various views at length—his articles in The Dictionary of Premillennial Theology and BibSac—this is abundantly clear. In light of this, you may want to revise your statement to say that “some” (or even more accurately, “a few”) dispensationalists do not believe that the church today is in the New Covenant. Or, if you stand by your statement, you may want to clarify precisely what you mean by the phrase “in the New Covenant.” Otherwise, your statement may not be taken seriously by those who are well-read on this issue and may end up misleading those who are not.

The reality is that very few dispensationalists today fall into the category of the two positions which deny that the church is in the New Covenant. This was the view of Chafer and Darby, but you would be hard pressed to list very many today that hold this view. I can only think of two, and one of them is an old friend of mine who has never published a thing in his life. In contrast, there is tons of stuff out there by dispensationalists who are specifically writing on the New Covenant and who specifically affirm that the church is in the New Covenant (e.g., Decker, Compton, Kent, Saucy, Pettegrew, Ware, Alexander, not to mention progressives like Bock and Hoch).

At this point, I honestly thought Robertson would respond by either (a) clarifying the phrase “in the New Covenant” in such a way that would add some credibility to his original assertion (which I invited him to do, if that were indeed the case), or (b) simply conceding that he had indeed misrepresented dispensationalism. Instead, Robertson responded to me with this:

Matt, Thanks for your comments and the further insight to our readers that the linked article was only Lead Balloon Theology.

Then, in a later comment, Robertson continued to address me with this:

And don’t forget…for 15 years in the ministry I was Dispensational…. So anytime someone says that I am misrepresenting Dispensationalism it is because they are frustrated with the fact I know as much about it than any of them.

Amazing analysis: Any time someone says that Jason Robertson is misrepresenting dispensationalism it is because that person is frustrated with the fact that Robertson knows as much about dispensationalism as that person does? Wow. No wonder he is not open to correction. Frankly, the question of whether Robertson knows as much about dispensationalism as I do never even crossed my mind. Nor would it frustrate me if he does. I was just trying to help him represent dispensationalism more accurately, something I thought he would have been eager to do.

Anyway, the main purpose of this post is to follow up on that interaction and provide some resources for those who may want to study and think through this issue further. I invite you to make other suggestions in the comment section, but here are some of the resources that I found most helpful as I’ve wrestled with this question of the church’s relationship to the New Covenant:

  • Alexander, Ralph H. “A New Covenant—An Eternal People (Jeremiah 31).” In Israel, the Land and the People: An Evangelical Affirmation of God’s Promises, ed. H. Wayne House, 169–206. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998.
  • Compton, R. Bruce. “Dispensationalism, the Church, and the New Covenant.” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal (2003) 8:3-48.
  • Decker, Rodney J. “The New Covenant and the Church.” Bibliotheca Sacra (1995) 152:290-305, 431-56 (two-part series).
  • Kent, Homer A. Jr. “The New Covenant and the Church.” Grace Theological Journal (1985) 6:289–98.
  • Pettegrew, Larry D. “The New Covenant.” The Master’s Seminary Journal (1999) 10:251–70.
  • Saucy, Robert L. “The New Covenant and the Salvation of the Gentiles.” In The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, Robert L. Saucy, 111-39. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993.
  • Ware, Bruce A. “The New Covenant and the People(s) of God.” In Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition, ed. Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, 68–97. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.
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