I’m an avid reader. The problem with me is not that I don’t read, but usually that I read too much or that I spend too much time reading what doesn’t matter. So it came as quite a shock to me that finishing Dr. Vlach’s short book “Dispensationalism – Essential Beliefs and Common Myths” took as long as it did. 61 quarter page sized pages (73 with end notes) took me the better part of a month to work through. Perhaps I’m out of practice, or perhaps (as my highlighter will attest) this book is chocked full of quality accessible information on a rather nuanced, but important, corner of theology.
Dr. Michael Vlach is professor of theology at Master’s Seminary where he was once a student, earning his M.Div. He holds a Ph.D from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author of five books. This book, published in 2008 on Theological Studies Press (which I believe is Vlach’s own publishing house) is the first of his I’ve read. It won’t be the last.
Where do you begin with Dispensationalism? Well, to start it’s clear that Vlach is quite convinced of two things:
1) That the dispensational position is correct.
2) That few Christians understand Dispensationalism; and least among them is its most vocal critics. He writes in his introduction:
“…because of well-read and accepted books against dispensationalism that do not offer a reasonable presentation of the issues, there is a real need to address specifically what dispensationalism is. Often I have had to de-program people from false conceptions of dispensationalism before I could even share what this theology actually believes. That is why I am compelled to write this work. “
Vlach spends a good deal of time dealing with criticisms of dispensational theology in the book. It takes up a significant portion of his opening remarks as he lays out some of the more common accusations and rebukes typically leveled toward dispensationalists. This is always an undercurrent of the book that pokes its head above the surface from time to time. But it is at the end, where Vlach lays out what he calls “myths” about Dispensationalism and directly refutes them, that this book hangs its hat. For me, it was the best part of his work. Too often authors avoid interaction with those who oppose their ideas; and among those who do interact – such interaction is often unfair. Not here. Vlach lays out the opposing case, documents the tenants of each, and deals with them within their own framework. Not once did he change the subject, stuff a strawman, or equivocate. Rather he took the best his opponents had to offer and gave it his best answer often times overwhelmingly convincing the reader of the superiority of his position.
It was these myth sections that I found most helpful. Sometimes I was downright surprised that such mythology existed. For example, Vlach shows that an accusation of antinomianism is often hurled at dispensationalists. I was shocked to learn this was the case and yet I could not deny what Vlach had cited as proof of this charge. His answer was to point out that dispensationalists do reject the Mosaic law, but do not reject LAW, in particular “the law of Christ” in which God’s moral standard is communicated, simply in different contexts throughout history. He also did something more thinkers ought to do; he argued from first principles. Instead of accepting the opponents premise and attempting to disprove the conclusions that follow, Vlach rejected the opposing premise while remaining within the opponent’s framework; answering each charge from the core of his own position. Namely, when it comes to antinomianism, Vlach reminded his readers that Dispensationalism isn’t necessarily about law, but rather is a system of ecclesiology and eschatology. Effectively, it takes away the premise that there is no law, remains in the neighborhood of laws, and deals with the philosophy of law within Dispensationalism, defining that philosophy from the core of the Mother theology. It is a brilliant master stroke, and not an uncommon occurrence for this book nor this writer.
Ecclesiology and eschatology. Those topics come up again and again. If there was one thing I learned from this book it is that dispensationalism lives and dies on these two fronts, but does not entirely depend on any other front. This is why accusations like dispensationalism leading to Arminianism may appear to have merit but ultimately don’t matter much even if they were true accusations. Of course it’s not a valid criticism because dispensationalism isn’t a soteriology.
Since Dispensationalism lives and dies on ecclesiology and eschatology, it’s worth examining what Vlach has to say about those issues. On Eschatology, he writes:
“What distinguishes all dispensationalists, however, is that they believe not on only in a salvation of Israel, they also believe in a restoration of Israel. The concept of restoration certainly includes the idea of salvation, but it goes beyond that. “Restoration” involves the idea of Israel being reinstalled as a nation, in her land, with a specific identity and role of service to the nations. In other words, in a literal earthly kingdom – a millennium – the nation Israel will serve a functional role of service to the nations. This point is something all dispensationalists affirm while all nondispensationalists deny.”
In other words, at the core of dispensational eschatology isn’t a particular preference for the reading of Revelation, but rather a belief in the future of Israel. It is this belief that drives the interpretation and it becomes the keystone around which every other eschatological point is built. Because Israel has a future of restoration, that must mean that there really will be a future millennial kingdom where Israel serves the nations as was originally intended.
And, because there is a future to ethnic Israel, it must mean that the church is NOT Israel. In a section called “Six Essential Beliefs of Dispensationalism”, Vlach cites John Fienberg:
“Fienberg has argued that God’s unconditional covenants with Israel guarantee that the New Testament would never introduce an idea in which God would not fulfill His covenants and promises with Israel, the people with whom the original promises were made. To do so God would have to contradict himself and that is not possible.“
A profound point. The very character of God assures a future for Israel that includes the promises given to Israel. Vlach goes on to detail, leaning heavily on Fienberg, that many of the promises were unconditional. While Vlach outlines passages like Eph 2:11-22 where he says that Gentiles have been “brought near” the covenants of Israel, but also makes it very clear that the New Testament draws the distinction between Israel and the Church. The church is NOT Israel because it doesn’t need to be; it has it’s own set of promises. The church is NOT Israel because Israel has been promised specific things without the church in mind, without conditions; and God always keeps His promises. The church is not Israel because it is the church, and Israel is Israel, and the two are entirely different things… even if they are related.
From history to diversity among dispensationalists to typology to the kitchen sink, Vlach has written a remarkably thorough book. It’s almost astounding what he’s managed to pack into 61 small pages. Probably the best aspect of this book was that it was eminently readable. This isn’t to say it was an simple read, but it was an easy read. The difference is that it almost anyone could read it, but almost everyone who does will have to think deeply about what Vlach is saying. He communicates well. As Pastor Jimmy likes to say “this is one of those books you dip in highlighter”.
The only downside of the book I could find was the price. For such a small book, $9.00 on Amazon seems way out of order. But at the end of the day, it’s a small price to pay for what you get. If you read this book, you will understand the broad strokes of dispensationalism and much of the structure beneath, but more importantly it will cause you to take stock of your own theological inventory.
I plan to refer to this book often in the future, and will likely purchase additional copies for friends who scoff at the dispensational strawmen they like to knock down. As “theology for laymen” books go, I have read few better. “Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths” by Dr. Michael Vlach gets my highest rating.