Dispensational Hermeneutics, Interpretation Principles That Guide Dispensationalism’s Understanding of the Bible’s Storyline

Michael Vlach is currently a professor at Shepherds Theological Seminary and is one of the leading promoters and defenders of dispensational theology. In this slim but packed volume, he skillfully outlines the hermeneutical approach used by dispensationalists (chapters 1-4) and contrasts that approach to the ones used by non-dispensationalists (chapters 5-6). His stated purpose is to “set forth ten interpretive principles at the
heart of dispensationalism. Then…explain seven interpretation principles of non-
dispensationalism so the contrast between the two approaches can be discerned”
(p. 8; cf. pp. 110-11). The author believes the reason dispensationalists and non-
dispensationalists disagree over the interpretation of various scriptures and/or doctrines is largely because of different emphases, starting points, assumptions, and hermeneutics (p. 8). He identifies four forms of dispensationalism: classic (Darby and the Plymouth Brethren of the 19th century), traditional (Scofield and Chafer in the early 20th century), revised (Ryrie, Walvoord), and progressive (Bock, Blaising). He places himself between revised and progressive (v. 9).

The book, as the title implies, is primarily about hermeneutics, including hermeneutical approaches that differ among evangelicals. The first major section outlines “dispensational hermeneutics” which “categorizes the interpretation principles of dispensationalism and shows how these differ from non-dispensational systems” (p. 22). Chapters two through four address all these principles, but the key one is the consistent use of grammatical-historical hermeneutics (pp. 23-32). In this discussion, Vlach defines the word “literal” and its proper use in interpretation (p. 25), the place of types, which dispensationalists accept (p. 29) while rejecting typological interpretation (pp. 71-75, 86-94), Christocentric hermeneutics and why it is an invalid approach (p. 29; cf. pp. 67-71, 105-109), and the literal fulfillment of future prophecies (pp. 32, 34) and promises (pp. 34-35; cf. pp. 44-51). Of significance in hermeneutical debates is passage priority. Covenantalists teach New Testament priority to the extent that the Old Testament is interpreted by the New. But dispensationalists believe NT revelation does not change the meaning of OT revelation. What the OT said in its context and to its original audience is true. This is not a denial of progressive revelation, but it is an affirmation of the veracity of the OT statements (pp. 35-39). Vlach writes, “Later revelation might comment on a passage, draw principles or significances from it, or connect a promise in the Old with fulfillment in the New, but later revelation does not reinterpret or change the meaning of earlier revelation. The New builds on the Old but it does not change the Old” (p. 36). Passage priority is a major distinction between dispensational and covenantal interpretative approaches.

Concerning biblical prophecies, many non-dispensationalists believe that all, or virtually all, were fulfilled in the first coming of Jesus (pp. 53-56). This is because Jesus is seen as the true Israel and all prophecies, which seem to be literal in the OT, are now viewed as fulfilled in Christ and the church symbolically (pp. 61-66, 101-103). This hermeneutical difference is a major distinction between dispensationalist and most Reformed-covenantal understandings and is the primary reason for differing interpretations of the same biblical texts. Vlach summarizes “Ten Hermeneutical Principles Associated with Dispensationalism” in a handy chart on page 76 before he launches into two chapters on the hermeneutics of non-dispensationalists.

In these final chapters, the author details five hermeneutical principles used by non-dispensationalists and with which dispensationalists disagree. He summarizes each principle, offers quotes from leading proponents of the principle, and then provides a dispensational response. The five principles are:

  • New Testament priority (pp. 78-81).
  • Old Testament prophecies not taken literally but understood Christologically (pp. 81-83; 100-109).
  • Spiritualization in which a non-literal or symbolic understanding is attributed to a Bible passage when a plain reading of the text is intended (pp. 83-86).
  • Typological interpretation used to spiritualize the meaning (pp. 86-94). Dispensationalists believe in types but not in typing things that are meant to be taken at face value.
  • Israel redefined as the church or Jesus (pp. 95-100). As G. K. Beale states: “Perhaps one of the most striking features of Jesus’ kingdom is that it appears not to be the kind of kingdom prophesied in the OT and expected by Judaism” (p. 97). This kind of refinement of OT teachings effectively, and tragically, undermines the clear teaching of Scripture.

Dispensational Hermeneutics is a gift to God’s people. It concisely explains the importance of consistent grammatical-historical hermeneutics as used by dispensationalists, shows why this approach matters, and draws distinction with those who use different interpretative principles. I recommend this book highly for personal use as well as for training within the church on how to interpret Scripture.

by Michael J. Vlach (Columbia, SC: Theological Studies Press, 2023), 111 pp., paper $10.89

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel

Copyright 2024 © All rights Reserved. a ministry of Southern View Chapel