Why I Read This Book
Given that I was just ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America and am strongly committed to covenant theology, one might wonder why I would choose to read a book that forcefully presents dispensational premillennialism. I suppose I had several reasons: I wanted to see how current dispensationalists present their position (as opposed to the now-outdated Dispensationalism Today by Ryrie). I also wanted to be challenged again to know how dispensationalists are responding to the views that I hold. Also, given that this is a collection of chapters from professors at the Master’s Seminary, I hoped to see some more cogent argumentation on behalf of the view so that I could be challenged to think through the issues critically again.
Why This is a Hard Review to Write
This review is tough to write primarily because of the nature of the book as a collection of chapters from different authors. Some chapters are definitely of higher quality than others, so it is hard to evaluate the work as a whole.
This review is tough to write for another reason: I found the book to be, on the whole, incredibly unpersuasive because it really fails to interact seriously with opposing views, choosing instead to use tired arguments that are no more persuasive now than they were 50 years ago.
Lastly, this review is tough to write because I have a great deal of respect for several of the men who contributed to this volume (which is not to say that are some I don’t respect, only that I haven’t heard of all of them).
Chapter 1: What is Dispensationalism? (Michael Vlach)
This chapter is a decent chapter within the book, as Vlach does present some clarifications about dispensationalism that are helpful. Most significant in my opinion is his discussion of the supposed “literal” hermeneutic of dispensationalism. He correctly articulates that the issue is not precisely one of being literal, but rather of testamental priority. I still found his presentation unconvincing (as he still rejects the idea of the church replacing Israel, which is not how covenant theologians today formulate the question), but it is helpful for him to articulate that the hermeneutical question is more complex than simply a literal/figurative paradigm. I would also say that Vlach’s defenses of his six foundational elements of dispensationalism are not compelling at all, but it would perhaps be unfair to expect him to thoroughly defend his position in a chapter merely meant to present what dispensationalism is.
Chapter 2: What is Dispensationalism Not? (Michael Vlach)
This chapter was for the most part helpful, as Vlach responds to unfair characterizations of dispensationalism in the past. Because so many dispensationalists have been Arminian, and because Scofield and others originally did present two ways of salvation for the Jews and the church (notwithstanding Vlach’s desire to downplay this point), dispensationalism has unfairly been closely associated with Arminian soteriology in the past. Vlach makes the case strongly at this point. Arminianism is not inherent to the system. Vlach’s case is a bit weaker when he deals with the suggestions that the seven dispensations are inherent to the system. While modern dispensationalists may disagree with the number of dispensations or even the exact nature of the dispensations, the reality is that dispensations are an organizing principle for the system. Certainly the distinction between Israel and the church as two separate peoples of God is more integral to the system, but it seems unfair to downplay the dispensations themselves, when that is how the system has organized all of human history, regardless of the number presented. That is one of the significant issues that dispensationalists need to deal with, considering that the Scriptures seem prima facie to present a much different organizing principle: covenants.
Chapter 3: Why Futuristic Premillennialism? by Richard Mayhue
I do have to make one note at the outset that really applies to this whole volume. It seems that the Master’s Seminary faculty wants to avoid the label “dispensational premillennialism” for some reason, but it seems strange to me to give a new label that is not really normal in this discussion. Regarding the content of Mayhue’s chapter itself, I must say that it seems like quite a regress from Vlach’s first chapter on dispensationalism. Whereas Vlach is clearer on articulating the hermeneutical difference between dispensationalism and covenant theology, Mayhue returns to the tired and unhelpful claim that only dispensationalism uses a “literal” hermeneutic. Vlach articulated the real difference—testamental priority—whereas Mayhue doesn’t seem to acknowledge that at all. This comes out quite significantly when he does mention the biblical covenants, for he cites all sorts of OT verses about the covenants, but then fails to ever engage how the New Testament discusses those texts. E.g., he discusses the Davidic covenant, but doesn’t discuss Acts 2, and he discusses Amos 9 without referencing Acts 15. Those are serious shortcomings.
Particularly egregious is his failure to distinguish between the Reformed analogy of faith—let Scripture interpret Scripture—and allegory. He regularly interchanges “allegorical interpretation” with “spiritualized interpretation” when these really refer to separate things. Additionally, nowhere does he acknowledge the importance of genre in applying our hermeneutic to a particular text.
Further, he makes broad, sweeping claims about the inadequacy of covenant theology without backing up nearly any of his claims. For example, he says there is no evidence for the covenants of grace and works, but does not at any point discuss the evidence adduced by covenant theologians in favor of them (e.g., the elements of the suzerain vassal treaty in Genesis 1-2, Hosea 6:7, Ephesians 2:12, etc). In many of these claims, he assumes exactly what he needs to prove. For example, he regularly refers to Daniel’s seventieth week as being future, and yet he never even discusses the fact that it is a critical dividing line in this debate. The dispensationalist view of Daniel 9 is perhaps the most tenuous in its overall line of argumentation, and yet neither Mayhue nor anyone else ever seems to feel the need to defend their view of it.
Chapter 4: Why a Pretribulational Rapture? by Richard Mayhue
As someone who disagrees with the fundamental tenets of premillennialism, I found this chapter to assume things that need to be proved at nearly every point. However, the intent was more to convince post-tribulationalists rather than amillennialists. As far as that intent is concerned, I suppose it does a decent job, but not being one who believes the tribulation is future, I can’t really say whether it would have been convincing to a post- or mid-tribulationist.
Chapter 5: What about Israel? by Michael Vlach
Vlach begins this chapter with a defense of how God can use nations as nations. It is puzzling why he felt the need to do this, considering that several of the people he cites to defend his points are certainly not dispensationalists (notably Christopher Wright). The issue is simply not whether or not God uses nations or whether or not nations will still exist in the new heavens and new earth, but whether or not they have an identity that is separated from the church, the redeemed community.
I also find it astounding that in his whole discussion of how Israel was to be the cause of blessing to the nations (including discussion of passages such as Genesis 12, Deut 30, Ezekiel 36, and others), he never examines Galatians 3, which is a pivotal text in this whole discussion.
Similarly, he discusses Romans 11 without interacting with the exegesis of Reformed theologians on that chapter, which is absolutely crucial to the case of covenant theology. Likewise, when he references Revelation 21-22, he doesn’t interact at all with the case that covenant theologians make about the unity of the people of God in the New Jerusalem. This chapter just toes the party line without engaging in any substantive discussion with the views of those who disagree.
Chapter 6: What about Revelation 20? by Michael Waymeyer
Of all the chapters in this book, I found this one to be the most cogently argued. This is not to say that I was persuaded by it, but I did really appreciate that Waymeyer seemed aware of most of the arguments of a- and post-millennialists regarding Revelation 20, and he did take the time to respond in some detail to the views of others. A- and post-millennialists would do well to actually respond to the arguments presented in this chapter, as they are not so easily brushed off as the shoddy argumentation presented in many of the other chapters.
Chapter 7: Does Calvinism Lead to Futuristic Premillennialism? by John MacArthur
Anyone who is familiar with MacArthur’s address given at a Shepherd’s conference entitled Why every self-respecting Calvinist should be a premillennialist some years ago will know where he goes in this chapter. This chapter is only slightly more articulate than that sermon (and the later 6-part series he gave on the same topic). He argues that while Calvin and other Reformed theologians used a sound hermeneutic for most doctrinal questions, they abandoned it in favor of an allegorical approach that they elsewhere condemned when it came to prophecy. This is a sad mischaracterization of the reality. To equate Calvin’s prophetic hermeneutic with allegory is simply not accurate. The allegory of some of the early church fathers in the Alexandrian school was fanciful and speculative. Covenant theologians want to interpret OT prophecies in light of how the NT interprets them, which is a far different thing than allegorical interpretation.
In dealing with election and the relation between Israel and the church, MacArthur fails to engage in any meaningful way with what covenant theologians say about the church as the true Israel. He deals with only Romans 9:6 and Galatians 6:16, neglecting to discuss Romans 2:28-29 (other than just citing it as backing up his point when it really seems to do the opposite), Philippians 3:3, Ephesians 2:12, Galatians 3 or 4, 1 Peter 2:9-10, amongst many others.
Chapter 8: Does the New Testament Reject Futuristic Premillennialism? by John MacArthur
MacArthur begins this chapter with a puzzling point: that 1st century Jews understood OT prophecies to indicate a future physical and geopolitical kingdom for Israel. I have no doubt that they did. But they also expected a very different kind of Messiah and so rejected him. Why we should then base our eschatological expectations on theirs doesn’t follow.
It is interesting as MacArthur examines various texts in the New Testament that he leaves out what may be the most crucial ones. E.g., in answering the question “did Jesus reject futuristic premillennialism?” he doesn’t address the Olivet discourse where Jesus addresses the Great Tribulation. Amazingly, in asking whether Peter accepted futuristic premillennialism, he glosses over the crucial text in Peter’s sermon of Acts 2 from which theologians argue that Jesus is king on David’s throne now. Similarly, regarding Paul, he doesn’t address how covenant theologians deal with Romans 11 amongst other passages. Regarding John, he addresses only Revelation 20 and fails to discuss the passages from John’s gospel that relate to the 2nd coming or the resurrection and judgment. In other words, MacArthur is just preaching to the choir rather than presenting substantive arguments that might persuade someone from another perspective.
Chapter 9: Did the Early Church Believe in a Literal Millennial Kingdom?
This chapter is better than some of the others in that it at least engages seriously with a number of early church fathers to defend premillennialism. It does present a fairly compelling case that many early church fathers accepted premillennialism. I found its case for why amillennialism developed to be slightly less compelling and more speculative, but overall, it is still a chapter that is worthy of consideration. I do find it curious that this argument from church history is given weight on this point, while on the topic of national Israel’s role in the future, church history is nearly completely ignored. The reality is that the whole system that this volume supports is radically against most of church history, including the early church, and so to appeal to church history on this point seems a bit odd. As far as it goes, though, this chapter is one of the better ones in the book.
Chapter 10: How Certain is Futuristic Premilllennialism?
Of all the chapters in this book, this one is perhaps the most painful to read. Notwithstanding my respect and admiration for John MacArthur in so many areas, this chapter is truly disappointing. Most egregious in the chapter is his charge of R.C. Sproul with date-setting because he sees Matthew 24:1-34 as having been fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. To equate that with the date-setting of Hal Lindsey and others is at its best absurd and at its worst incredibly disingenuous.
The entire chapter simply ignores every argument that a- and post-millennialists have developed in favor of their positions. He also assumes what he needs to prove at nearly every point, particularly regarding the Olivet Discourse and the seventy weeks of Daniel 9.
Much of this book is just an effort to motivate those already convinced of dispensational premillennialism to keep fighting for it. With the exception of Waymeyer’s chapter on Revelation 20, the chapters dealing with the biblical data concerning the issues involved simply don’t deal with the arguments of other views. They offer very little that is new to the discussion, and they fail to provide convincing responses to the arguments that others provide. So while I can recommend this book for someone wanting to get a sense for what modern dispensational premillennialists believe, I cannot recommend it to those looking for substantive engagement with eschatological issues.