What is Dispensationalism? Editor Paul Miles
Twenty-eight authors contributed to What is Dispensationalism? edited by Paul Miles, who established and directs Grace Abroad Ministries, the publishers of this book. This multi-author volume accomplishes what it set out to do—explain dispensationalism, which is defined as “a school of thought that results from reading the Bible plainly and, therefore recognizes a distinction between Israel and the church and sees the glory of God as the main purpose of history” (p. 13). Said differently, “Dispensationalists consistently apply a grammatical-historical hermeneutic, reject supersessionism, and hold to a doxological centrality of history” (p. 13). In the twelve chapters, four appendices, numerous side articles, and several “graceful debates,” many subjects are covered. These include the basic teachings and history of dispensationalism, the number of dispensations, and what they are, historical dispensational schemes, detailing and defending the three essentials of dispensationalism (as described in the definitions above). Other collateral issues such as Greek manuscripts and variants, biblical covenants, Covenant Theology, Progressive Dispensationalism and much more, are found in its pages.
Of particular interest is a discussion of the “already and not yet” hermeneutic which Covenantalists and Progressives accept and most Dispensationalists’ reject (pp. 138-139), and whether the object of saving faith was Jesus in the Old Testament (pp. 168-169, 263). The authors that addressed this latter issue agree that Jesus was the object, although they admit the Old Testament revelation on the subject is minimal at best. One author comes up with a questionable theory assuming that pre-New Testament people were given oral soteriological revelation not recorded in Scripture (pp. 170-178). This assumption, simply because it is an assumption, is highly questionable. There are also several useful intermural debates such as the dating of the book of Revelation (pp. 38-39), participants in the New Covenant (pp. 114-119), the origin of the church (pp. 220-221), and the age of the universe (pp. 276-277) (the page number for each of these debates is wrong in the Table of Contents). Most valuable are the discussions of the distinction between Israel and church (pp. 215-218, 339), an overview of angelology (pp. 239-261), and evidence that the church is not the kingdom (pp. 292-293). Of interest is the day of Christ’s death (the author, Robert Courtney, believes it was Wednesday) (pp. 320-327).
I will close this review with a few items that I have flagged, the first being some disagreement among the authors on the central theme of Scripture. Patrick Belvill would see the glory of God, or the doxological centrality of Scripture, as the main theme. This has long been a centerpiece of dispensational theology (pp. 122, 127, 130, 133). All other themes, such as redemption and the kingdom, are sub-themes (p. 127), and means by which God achieves His doxological purpose (p. 131). This is in contrast to Covenantal Theology which “places the glory of God as a sub-theme to that of salvation which is expressed here as ‘the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ’” (p. 133). David James sees the kingdom as the central theme (p. 336). The reason this matters is because our interpretations of Scripture will conform, to a large degree, in conjunction with what the reader believes is its purpose. If the purpose is God’s glory, then redemption, establishment of the kingdom, and even the person and work of Christ are all sub-plots to its doxological theme. Adopting one of the other two themes as central necessitates that God’s glory is secondary to either redemption or the restoration of the kingdom. It should be noted that David James agrees with my thoughts here, according to private communication with him, but I would encourage him to rephrase his wording.
This leads to another concern. David Criswell, in discussing how we should read the Old Testament, seems to embrace the Christocentric hermeneutic, held by a certain slice of Reformed theologians, when he writes, “It is apparent that Paul found Christ in every crevice and every corner of the Old Testament (p. 160) and “Every book in the Old Testament points to Jesus, our Savior and Lord” (p. 161). Such conclusions can only be drawn through the use of extreme typology and are a denial of grammatical-historical hermeneutics held by all Dispensationalists (see chapter two written by Ron Bigalke). I find it interesting that even in a book defining dispensationalism, two of the three sine qua nons are up for debate, or at least further clarification.
In a confusing section, Daniel Goepfrich seems to distinguish between the kingdom of David and the kingdom of God (pp. 292-294). When he concludes that the church is not the kingdom, I am in full agreement. But when he writes, “Whose kingdom is this? Not God’s through the eternal Son, but David’s, through his legal heir, Jesus of Nazareth” (p. 294), I am uncertain of his point. That Jesus will sit on the literal throne of David during the Millennium is true. But Goepfrich seems to be saying that there are two kingdoms—the kingdom of God and a kingdom of David (p. 292). I cannot locate this idea in Scripture. In private communication with Goepfrich, he says he is trying to distinguish the “already, not yet,” and Reformed views of a present spiritual kingdom from the Messianic Kingdom. With this, I agree, but I am still unclear on the above.
Finally, most of the authors are drawn from the Free Grace wing of dispensationalism. This is evident when they look exclusively at the Gospel of John for Scripture’s explanation of salvation (p. 176) and draw a distinction between those who are eternally saved and those who are saved and also receive an inheritance (pp. 167, 240). Anthony Badger writes, “Salvation is received by simply believing in Christ for it, inheriting the kingdom is about receiving a ‘well done’ from the Savior at the Bema seat” (p. 167). Whether one agrees with these facets of Free Grace theology is not the point. The reason for mentioning this is that I believe many people view dispensationalism as exclusively a Free Grace, anti-Lordship position. However, it should be noted that, while in essential agreement with the cardinal doctrines of Scripture, many Dispensationalists would not identify with the above features of Free Grace theology. In other words, dispensationalism has a broader base than some might recognize. For evidence of this read: He Will Reign Forever by Michael Vlach, Christ’s Prophetic Plans by John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue, and Has the Church Replaced Israel by Michael Vlach. My reviews of these books can be found on our website: tottministries.org
What is Dispensationalism? is an excellent primer for understanding dispensationalism, as well as helpful in addressing some points of disagreement and more complex issues.
What is Dispensationalism? Editor Paul Miles (Wynnewood, OK: Grace Abroad Ministries, 2018), 367 pp., paper $25.00
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher at Southern View Chapel