Vern S. Poythress, Understanding – and challenging – Dispensationalists

poythressdisp.jpgPoythress, Vern Sheridan. Understanding Dispensationalists. 2nd ed. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1994. 142 pp. Available online.

Vern Sheridan Poythres is Professor of the New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary. Professor Poythress, an amillennialist, is the author of several articles and books that are of relevance to the study of Revelation (see below).

Understanding Dispensationalists

At a first (and second) glance, the “dispensational” interpretation of Revelation seems strange, at least to a European, Lutheran scholar like me. My impression is that few European scholars are dispensationalists. However, popular, even sensational, books and films have spread dispensational views, as have organisations that do missionary work in Israel and/or among Jews. Hence I have looked for literature on this subject.

Although written more than twenty years ago (the first edition was published in 1987), Vern Poythress’ Understanding Dispensationalists is still a very helpful introduction. Understanding Dispensationalists does not only introduce the reader to dispensationalism. In his challenging of this hermeneutical system Poythress sets forth cogent arguments that are valuable in themselves.

Writing purposefully in a clear and very friendly manner, Poythress discusses the term dispensationalism. He uses it for historical reasons, but prefer terms that are more accurate and specific:

“Darbyism” (after its first proponent), “dual destinationism” (after one of its principal tenets concerning the separate destinies of Israel and the church), or “addressee bifurcationism” (after the principle of hermeneutical separation between meaning for Israel and significance for the church).

Poythress sets forth the characteristics of “classical dispensationalism” (Chapter 2), defined by writers such as John Nelson Darby, Cyrus Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Charles Ryrie, John F. Walvoord, and others. Poythress recognises variations, some of them so important that they are best taken as a separate group: “modified dispensationalism” (Chapter 3).

Chapter 4 is devoted to “Developments in Covenantal Theology,” as Covenantal Theology is the “principal rival” to dispensationalism. As a Lutheran, I do not subscribe to Covenant Theology. Neither do I think that it is necessary in order to benefit from this volume. Poythress’s covenant-theological approach is recognisable, however.

In Chapter 5 Poythress describes how the classic-dispensational hermeneutical system (as well as some social forces) makes it difficult to argue effectively against dispensationalism. It is necessary to discuss the more basic issues: “what counts as evidence for fulfillment, and how that fulfillment is itself to be understood” (p. 55).

Poythress develops a strategy for dialogue with dispensationalists in the short Chapter 6. One must discuss hermeneutical issues in relation to the interpretation of specific texts. Some issues that need discussion are: the church’s inheritance of OT promises, the nature of OT symbolism, and the use of the Bible in the controversy (pp. 68f).

In three chapters, Poythress develops his argument against dispensationalism. 1 Corianthians 15:51-53 presents a problem to pretribulationalism (Chapter 7), while Hebrews 12:22-24 challenges the hypothesis of “separate parallel destinies for the church and Israel” as well as the problem of “the nonfulfillment of prophecy in the church” (Chapter 12; quotes from p. 118). The penultimate chapter deals with “the fulfillment of Israel in the church” (Chapter 13).

Chapter 8 is a very helpful discussion of “literalness,” which form the basis for Poythress’s analysis and critique of the dispensationalist idea of literalness in chapter 9.

Chapter 10 argues – in my view convincingly – that one cannot interpret the OT in the way dispensationalists do.

What I am calling for, then, is an increased sense for the fact that in the original (grammatical-historical) context, eschatologically oriented prophecy has built into it extra potential. With respect to eschatology, people in the Old Testament were not in the same position as they were for short-range prophecy. Eschatological prophecy had an open-ended suggestiveness. The exact manner of fulfillment frequently could not be pinned down until the fulfillment came. (p. 107)

One of the reasons is that the coming of God changes everything:

But if the transformations of people and land are determined in their character by the coming of God himself, God is still the deepest center of prophetic expectation. Can an Israelite predict in detail what the coming of God will mean? … To have God revealed in full glory to the whole world (Isa. 40:5) means something so spectacular that the Israelite should be reserved about what is metaphorical, and in what way it is metaphorical. (p. 101).

Poythress shows that the Old Testament itself is the best argument against what he calls a “flat” reading. “[I]t is a violation against of grammatical-historical interpretation to read prophecy flat. It is even a violation to read Israel’s history flat.” (p. 104).

Finally, Poythress also shows how the Old Testament typology challenges dispensationalism (Chapter 11).

Table of Contents

  1. Getting Dispensationalists and Nondispensationalists to Listen to Each Other (pp. 7-18)
  2. Characteristcs of Scofield Dispensationalism (pp. 19-29)
  3. Variations of Dispensationalism (pp. 30-38)
  4. Developments in Covenant Theology (pp. 39-51)
  5. The Near Impossibility of Simple Refutations (pp. 52-65)
  6. Strategy for Dialog With Dispensationalist (pp. 66-70)
  7. The Last Trumpet (pp. 71-77)
  8. What Is Literal Interpretation? (pp. 78-86)
  9. Dispensationalist Expositions of Literalness (pp. 87-96)
  10. Interpretive Viewpoint in Old Testament Israel (pp. 97-110)
  11. The Challange of Typology (pp. 111-117)
  12. Hebrews 12:22-24 (pp. 118-125)
  13. The Fulfillment of Israel in Christ (pp. 126-129)
  14. Other Areas for Potential Exploration (pp. 130-131)

Postscript to the Second Edition (pp. 132-137)
Bibliography (pp. 138-142)

    Other works by Poythress

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