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Understanding Dispensationalists Paperback – 1 Dec 2012

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From the Author

The way to fruitful dialogue on dispensationalism
Dispensationalists and covenant theologians disagree with one another at some crucial points. As a consequence, they differ in their strategies for interpreting a fair amount of the Bible. How do we find our way around this disagreement?

I write as a nondispensationalist, a covenant theologian. But I want to explore how to build bridges toward dispensationalists. This book explains why dialogue has been difficult in the past, and how it may be more constructive in the future. I challenge dispensationalists to reconsider some of their assumptions. But I do so with respect.

In the postscript to the second edition I explore the developments in "progressive dispensationalism."

The contents are as follows:

1. Getting Dispensationalists and Nondispensationalists to Listen to Each Other

2. Characteristics of Scofield Dispensationalism

3. Variations of Dispensationalism

4. Developments in Covenant Theology

5. The Near Impossibility of Simple Refutations

6. Strategy for Dialogue With Dispensationalists

7. The Last Trumpet

8. What Is Literal Interpretation?

9. Dispensationalist Expositions of Literalness

10. Interpretive Viewpoint in Old Testament Israel

11. The Challenge of Typology

12. Hebrews 12:22-24

13. The Fulfillment of Israel in Christ

14. Other Areas for Potential Exploration

Postscript to the Second Edition


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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars 20 reviews
87 of 93 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Introduction to Dispensationalism 27 Nov. 2002
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Poythress provides a very thoughtful, honest look at dispensationalism from a reformed perspective. It is a short and easy to read book, and should be required for all dispensationalist (or anyone who has fallen in love the Left Behind series). Before I read this book I read Keith Mathison's book Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the Word of God? and couldn't help but think that he used huge over-generalizations and was more content to attack dispensationalist that open a dialog with them. Poythress avoids this trap with a fair interpretation. He points out that dispensationalism has a very high degree of internal coherence. While many reformed theologians point out the problems with dispensationalism, they do so from within the reformed mindset. As Poythress points out, dispensationalism makes complete sense when viewed within a dispensationalist theology. He does, however, point out why the dispensational theology is flawed and, ultimately, incorrect. Finally, he is careful to observe the distinction between classic and progressive dispensationalism. Since there are, as Poythress points out, many areas of agreement between reformed and progressive dispensationalists, he directs most of his critique towards to more radical classic dispensationalism.
72 of 78 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Sane Look at Dispensationalism 17 Jun. 2004
By theologicalresearcher - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
If one wants a very scholarly and irenic book on the problems of dispensationalism, then this book is it. Poythress examines the characteristics of dispensationalism, the presuppositions of dispensationalism, the hermeneutics of dispensationalism, the social forces behind dispensationalism, and problems associated with dispensationalism. He also pursuasively argues why dispensationalism is biblically and inherently problematic as he examines the "literalistic/flat" hermeneutical method used by dispensationalists. He also offers alternative ways of reading biblical prophecy that make the biblical message of God's redemptive plan coherent. He also uses passages like 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 (chapter 7) and Hebrews 12:22-24 (chapter 12) as test cases when examining the biblical faithfulness of the dispensational system. His chapters on OT intrepretation (chapter 10) and typology (chapter 11) are very insightful and interesting. These two chapters are a must read if one wants to understand the problems associated with dispensationalism. The only problem I have with Poythress is his insistence that Jesus Christ is the "fulfilled" or "ultimate remnant" Israel (pp. 126-9). Though he makes an interesting case here, I did not find it pursuasive. The Bible makes it clear that the new covenant (cf. Jeremiah 31:31-33) will be brought in by Christ's death. Believers participate in the new covenant through faith in Christ. As a result, they become the true Israel (cf. Galatians 3:9). Another interesting point Poythress brings up is on the matter of conditional/unconditional promises of the Bible. Poythress argues that dispensationalists have always tenaciously held onto the gracious and unconditional nature of God's redemptive purpose, and that this affects their hermeneutics (p. 63). Here, Poythress touches a little bit on the whole "lordship salvation controversy." Poythress is right to maintain that though the salvific promises of God are unconditional, that does not exclude the necessity of obedience and discipleship. God's promises are unconditional in one sense (Christ fulfills all the necessary requirements), but they are also conditional in another sense (these blessings are received by a faith that produces fruits). I would highly recommend this book for those wanting a short, scholarly, and thoughtful critique of dispensationalism. This book does not include the harsh polemics and irresponsible name-calling contained in other works critical of dispensationalism (i.e., Gerstner, Mathison, North, etc.). Poythress acknowledges that dispensationalists are also brothers and sisters in Christ who are striving to understand what the Bible teaches about God's dealings with humankind. This book will enlighten you and make you understand more clearly what dispensationalists believe. Thus, it is not a book you will regret picking up if you're interested in this subject.
64 of 80 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Speaking the truth in love. 13 May 2001
By Neil M Cameron - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
There is no doubt that Dispensationalism is fatally flawed, but Poythress manages to avoid any nasty confontational language and attitudes towards those who hold this belief.
Giving credence to his thesis is the fact that he spent time at Dallas Theological Seminary doing research for the book. In fact, he thanks the staff and students for their help! Given the often dogmatic and unloving attitudes that persist on both sides of the interpretive divide, Poythress is very effective and genuine in his style.
Poythress has a number of arguments against Dispensationalism that can't all be summarised here. He does, however, point out that Dispensationalists often paint themselves into corners - they believe the Bible is the literal word of God (which Poythress believes as well), but are unable to cope with basic exegetical problems that contradict their theology. Rather than allow their theology to be changed by the Bible, they interpret the Bible via their theology - thus removing a central part of their belief system that the Bible determines theology.
I challenge any Dispensationalist to read Poythress' work and still remain committed to their theology. But, like Poythress, I do this in the spirit of love, recognizing their faith and love of Christ.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Irenic Critique of the Traditional Dispensational Viewpoint 25 July 2008
By William R. Turner - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
In this short, scholarly work, Poythress argues ably against the traditional Dispensational position, especially in the area of hermeneutics. The work itself is concise, well-written, irenic (which is few and far between when dealing with this subject), and accurate in its portrayal. As a dispensationalist, I found his arguments fair and on target when dealing with the classical position from within my tradition. As Poythress states in his book (especially in his biblical critiques of Disp. in 1 Cor. 15, and Heb. 12), this book is more of a critique of traditional Dispensationalism and will find its arguments better-suited against this classical understanding (Chafer, Brookes, Scofield, etc.).

As a Dispensationalist who's followed more of the Revised/Modified tradition (of Ryrie, Tan, Walvoord, McClain, Pentecost, etc.), most of the arguments had a smaller impact on me, as most from this later movement of Dispensationalism between the 1950s and early 80s would find little trouble responding to Poythress' hermeneutical (which in-turn become applicational) critiques. However, his work was very solid and I certainly do not want to downplay it in my response. Above all, Poythress clearly shows the foundational problems within the classical tradition, specifically, the dualistic issues seen from its earthly/heavenly dichotomy. However, Poythress tends to show his own interpretive issues as he signifies all the Mosaic Covenant (along with much of the other OT covenants) as originating in the 'Heavenly reality', showing a slant towards the metaphysical.

However, with that being said, he carefully observes the modifications of others within Covenant Theology pertaining to the earthly character of God's promises, especially Anthony Hoekema in his, 'The Bible and the Future'. Though Hoekema does not contribute towards the development of earthly promises within an understanding of a Millennial Kingdom, he does contribute to the earthly character of the promise fulfilled in the New Earth in the final renovation (a nuanced Amillennialism). I found Poythress' comments on these modifications very helpful.

Other than the inherent dualism prevalent throughout early Dispensationalism (see also Ronald Henzel's 'Darby, Dualism, and the Decline of Dispensationalism'), there is, without a doubt, some problems in the expressions of Dispensationalism (even of the revised sort) on how they express the relationship of the two peoples of God, especially within the Millennial Kingdom period, yet future (to us). I find his critiques well-deserved and needed, though Ryrie, Walvoord, and Pentecost have dealt with many of these problems over the course of their distinguished careers, especially in view of the final state and how both people groups will inhabit the New Heavens and New Earth, co-existing as the Redeemed.

This movement of Dispensationalism has made the 'Two Peoples of God' view much less apparent, though they still hold to it. I think part of this is because they do see a clearer relationship between the two peoples than older Disp. did; this is welcomed. They have also completely set aside the 'Two New Covenants' view from older Disp. (thankfully) and have articulated a view that sees only one New Covenant, yet not inaugurated in any sense until the Millennial Kingdom (Prog. Disp. sees it as already inaugurated). In the end, Dispensationalists still need to work on this articulation, though it is a difficult area in every system's understanding. Yet this concession does not mean that we should abandon the earthly, political/social aspects that we view as so pertinent from the OT Covenants with Israel. This is where Poythress fails to engage thoroughly enough to convince me to leave the Dispensational hermeneutic, though I do commend him on his solid contribution.

Overall, Poythress has written one of the best critiques of Traditional Dispensationalism, and does so with a congenial attitude towards the Dispensational community. Thankfully, Poythress doesn't make the faulty arguments/straw men based on poor scholarship that so many still make today about Dispensationalism, such as two ways of salvation, it doesn't believe in the entire bible for the church, etc.; I commend him for this. Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology have been listening to each other's critiques for the past 60-70 years (though not highly publicized) and each has made revisions to their systems. The inherent problems will always be complex and there will always be a tension in the Promises of God between the earthly/heavenly, material/immaterial, and eternal/historical. These will remain with us till the fullness of His coming. Thankfully, men like Poythress have the ability, and irenic spirit, to lead the church in these dialogues, even if some still disagree or others have yet to reach a conclusion. An excellent read.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An irenic book on a contentious subject 30 April 2013
By Doug Erlandson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Being the eighteenth person to review this book, much of the detail of the arguments Vern Poythress advances in "Understanding Dispensationalists" has already been discussed at length and ad nauseum. Readers interested in a detailed analysis or critique of what he says are encouraged to read these other reviews.

What I wish to discuss instead is the generally positive and irenic tone of this book. Having been firmly in the Reformed postmillennial camp since my conversion as a 32-year-old adult from agnosticism nearly 35 years ago, I am well aware that when it comes to areas of theological disagreement in general and eschatology in particular, the virtues of charity and fairness are often in short supply. Vitriolic language, straw-man arguments, gross misinterpretations of the statements of one's opponents, are seemingly the order of the day. I have observed this not only in the attacks dispensationalists make on non-dispensationalists but also in the writings of non-dispensationalists when attacking the dispensational position. (An especially egregious example of the latter is John Gerstner's "Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth.")

Therefore, Poythress's little book (it is just over 130 pages in length) is a breath of fresh air. Although ultimately he is critical of the dispensationalist position, his primary purpose, as the title of the book indicates, is to understand this position in a spirit of Christian love. In this he by and large succeeds, as even some of the dispensationalists who have reviewed the book admit. Moreover, when he has criticized, he has tried his best to be fair. Of course, any time a person who rejects a position attempts to discuss that position there is the chance that he or she will not understand that position and will wind up offering a caricature rather than an accurate portrayal. However, insofar as a critic can fairly discuss a position, Poythress has done a good job. It is certainly a step in the right direction.
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