Published on May 27, 2024 by Eugene Ho

Theological Studies Press, 2022 | 111 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance 

by David Finkbeiner


Those who have wished to understand dispensational theology better in recent years have found in Michael J. Vlach a clear, able expositor of Dispensationalism. That trend continues in his recent book, Dispensational Hermeneutics: Interpretation Principles that Guide Dispensationalism’s Understanding of the Bible’s Storyline. As the title suggests, in this book Vlach turns his attention specifically to dispensational hermeneutics. He wants the reader to “better understand the interpretive principles affecting Dispensationalism’s understanding of God’s historical purposes” (10). In so doing, he avoids issues of hermeneutical debate among different versions of Dispensationalism, opting rather for an exposition of “standard dispensational hermeneutics” (10).

Vlach starts in chapter 1 with a summary of how dispensational theology (hereafter DT) understands the Bible’s storyline in chapter 1. He highlights six key elements. First, Dispensationalism maintains that the idea of an earthly kingdom of God ruled over by human beings is critical to the Bible’s storyline (12). This was God’s stated intention beginning in Genesis 1, and Rev 20-22 shows that this will be realized. This kingdom includes but goes beyond personal salvation to include the restoration of nations (including Israel), societies, and creation itself. 

Second, Dispensationalists focus on the biblical covenants mentioned explicitly in Scripture, and rather than primarily highlighting their spiritual dimensions, Dispensationalists also stress their comprehensive, “multi-dimensional nature,” including “all physical, national, and international promises” (14-15). Since all covenant promises in all their dimensions will be finally fulfilled, promises not already fulfilled in the OT are fulfilled by Jesus Christ, both in his first and second comings. 

Third, DT insists that national and ethnic Israel continues to be significant in God’s plan. Despite national Israel’s current unbelief, the nation will be saved in the future and will become “the geographical center of a worldwide earthly kingdom of the Messiah with a role of service to other nations” (17). 

Fourth, DT affirms that Israel is distinct from the church, and the latter does not replace or supersede the former. While Israel is “an ethnic, national, territorial entity,” the church is multi-ethnic, a “Messianic/New Covenant community” established in Acts 2 (18). Even though the church partially fulfils the covenants in the spiritual blessings it enjoys, the total fulfillment of those covenantal promises in all their dimensions awaits the restoration of Israel at Christ’s return (19). 

Fifth, in DT not only Israel, but other “geo-political nations” also continue to have a place in God’s plans, reminding us that “God’s purposes include but go beyond individual salvation” (19). 

Finally, all Dispensationalists are premillennial in their view of Christ’s return, when the earthly kingdom discussed in the first element finds its realization. What distinguishes dispensational premillennialism from non-dispensational varieties is its belief that national Israel will be restored “with a functional role of leadership and service to other nations during the coming millennial kingdom” (20). 

Given this summary of essential elements of Dispensationalists, in chapters 2-4 Vlach comes to the heart of his book, a summary of ten features of dispensational hermeneutics (hereafter DH). The first of these is that DT consistently uses grammatical-historical interpretation. This method seeks to understand the biblical writer’s original intent by attending to the text’s grammar, historical background, and genre. This is what DT means by “literal interpretation” (a term that is admittedly controversial). It therefore takes figures of speech into account (i.e., DH is not literalistic), allows for symbols, types, and analogies (making superfluous appeals to other types of interpretation, such as “symbolical” or “typological” interpretation), and properly accounts for the centrality of Jesus in the Bible (without making use of a “Christocentric” hermeneutic). While non-dispensationalists also use literal hermeneutics regularly in many biblical genres, DT seeks to be consistent by using it with OT prophecies as well, rather than shifting to another hermeneutic (like symbolic, typological, or spiritual interpretation). And literal hermeneutics is not rationalistic, because its goal is precisely to understand what God is communicating in His revealed word. 

Following closely on the first one, the second feature of DH is to consistently interpret OT prophecies contextually. This includes prophetic texts that make predictions about Israel and other nations, the land, and other physical promises, predictions that cannot legitimately be “fulfilled” in typological, symbolic, or spiritual ways if read contextually. Such predictions are divine promises, and the “one making a promise is ethically bound to keep the content of the promise with the audience to whom the promise is made” (34, emphases original). 

The third feature of DH is “passage priority,” the idea that any given passage’s meaning is found in that passage. The meaning of an OT text does not depend on the NT or the canon as a whole. 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” (36), but it will not “transform or change the meaning of earlier passages” (37, emphasis original). At the same time, this feature does not claim OT priority over the NT, for there is progress in biblical history and revelation. It simply insists that the meaning of any given biblical passage is found precisely in that passage.  

DH also insists that an OT prediction yet unfulfilled does not need to be repeated in the NT to remain in effect. They will be fulfilled sometime in the future. Unless the NT sets something aside in the OT (like the sacrifices and food laws of the Mosaic law), it remains relevant even if not repeated. After all, God keeps His promises, and no NT passage claims that an OT prediction needs to be repeated to remain in effect. This is no argument from silence, for the NT considers the OT to be God’s Word, and He is true to His promises. The counterpart to the fourth feature is a fifth one. DH maintains that a great many OT predictions are indeed reaffirmed in the NT. Here Vlach gives 16 examples, including Christ’s ruling over Israel from David’s throne, the judgment of the nations, the Antichrist, and the Day of the Lord.

A sixth feature of DH is the affirmation that progressive revelation does not change or annul unconditional promises in the OT made to their original audience. This is rooted in God’s character; He is faithful to his promises (Gal 3:15; Rom 11:28-29). To be sure, such promises may have benefits for a wider group, but “the promise or prophecy must be fulfilled with the people to whom it was made” (51). So if a promise is made to national Israel, it must be fulfilled in national Israel, even if it also may sometimes have benefits for Gentiles and the church as well. 

DH maintains a seventh feature, that OT predictions and promises will be fulfilled in both of Jesus’ comings. All sides acknowledge that “all the promises of God find their Yes in” Jesus (2 Cor 1:20, ESV). But whereas some non-dispensationalists put the emphasis on Christ’s first coming, DH “emphasizes both first and second coming fulfillments” (53). This means that if we are to interpret OT prophecies accurately, we must recognize that they are fulfilled either in OT times, in Jesus’ first coming, or in His second coming. It is therefore not necessary to insist that all promises not fulfilled in OT times find their fulfillment in Christ’s first coming by appealing to hermeneutical methods that go beyond literal interpretation. Closely tied to this feature is an eighth one, that some OT prophecies might be partially fulfilled in Christ’s first coming, awaiting complete fulfillment in his second. As examples, Vlach cites Zech 9:9-10, Is 61:1-2, and Amos 9:11-15. 

A ninth feature of DH is that Jesus is the means of fulfilling OT promises and predictions. To say that Jesus fulfills OT prophecy is to say 1) that he “directly and literally fulfills messianic prophecies about himself” (e.g., Lk 24:44) and 2) that he is the means for fulfilling “prophecies and predictions about other persons, things, institutions, events, etc.” (Matt 5:17-18) (61-62). Both categories are important. For example, when speaking of Israel, some non-dispensationalists argue that Scripture’s identification of Israel with Jesus makes corporate Israel superfluous in God’s plans. But DH insists that we must not choose one or the other but take a both/and approach. That is, Jesus is “the ultimate Israelite” who represents Israel and “saves and restores the national entity of Israel” (64). Similarly, while Jesus is God’s temple (Jn 2:19-21) and believers are also likened to God’s temple, this does not abrogate predictions of a structural temple in the future (2 Thess 2:4; Rev 11:1-2). That Jesus is greater than a structural temple (Matt 12:6) does not mean that the latter has no purpose in God’s plan, any more than the reality that Jesus is the King of kings means that we will not reign with Him. How, then, does DH address “Christ-centered” interpretation? It agrees that Christ is central in God’s plan, but it insists that His centrality is consistent with historical-grammatical interpretation. Thus, it rejects “reading Jesus into every Bible text” in favor of recognizing that “the many entities and events” that are not Jesus but are “part of God’s story . . . all relate to Jesus eventually who restores all things” (68-69). This could be called a “Christotelic” approach, which means that “all Scripture is related to the person and work of Christ, even though Christ is not found in every passage” (69). It is therefore meaningfully focused on Christ while also upholding grammatical-historical interpretation. 

Finally, DH affirms biblical types without accepting typological interpretation. Biblical types are properly detected by “letting the New Testament determine types and their significance,” whether explicitly using “type” language or not (72). But one should not construe the OT as a mother lode of types waiting to be mined by the interpreter, nor should all types be considered shadows that pass away once the anti-type arrives. Consequently, DH rejects typological interpretation, which Vlach defines as “a hermeneutical tactic that views typological interpretation as the primary way to understand the bible’s storyline—even over explicit statements in Scripture.” It sees the OT as “a vast landscape of inferior types that lose significance with the coming of Jesus,” thereby undermining “the significance of matters like national Israel, land, and physical blessings” (74). DH rejects such an approach because it changes the Bible’s storyline and fails to recognize that types do not always lose their significance” (75). 

In his last two chapters (5-6), Vlach presents seven principles of non-dispensational hermeneutics (hereafter NH), with dispensational responses to each. The first of these is the priority of the NT over the OT (in contrast with dispensationalism’s “passage priority”). Dispensationalists argue that this mutes the voice of the OT writers (something the NT writers did not think they were doing), sets aside some of what God affirmed in the OT, and creates unnecessary division in the canon. 

Another principle of NH is the claim that some OT prophecies are not fulfilled literally. Instead, they should be interpreted Christologically, typologically, or some other nonliteral way. In response, DH maintains that this approach is not consistent with the way NT authors used the OT, nor is it self-consistent in its way of handling all OT prophecy. Closely related to this principle of NH is a third one, spiritualization. Vlach defines this as “attributing a non-literal or spiritual understanding to a Bible passage,” which often includes “transforming a physical or national entity in the Old Testament into a spiritual thing” (83). A similar idea is “symbolic interpretation.” In contrast, Dispensationalists reject spiritualization as being inconsistent with the author’s original meaning, and they wonder whether this approach is “too close to Platonism and its elevation of the spiritual realm over the material” (86). 

The fourth principle of NH is typological interpretation. In this section, Vlach explains in greater detail this interpretive method he defined earlier. For some non-dispensationalists, this becomes the primary way to understand how the Bible fits together. This may involve “overriding the meaning of explicit biblical texts” (88), which should not surprise us, since the OT types are shadows that fade away in light of NT antitypical reality. Typological interpretation therefore insists that a grammatical-historical approach to OT prophecy is not sufficient. For some advocates, it may well be that God used types as a gracious means of accommodating OT audiences, who at that point “could not grasp coming New Testament realities,” speaking of “spiritual, non-national, and non-geographical” realities in “physical, national, and geographical language” (90-91). In response, as we saw earlier, DH believes that there are biblical types and that these are consistent with grammatical-historical interpretation. But typological interpretation, in effect, changes the Bible’s storyline and OT expectations. Advocates also “overstate the existence of types in the Old Testament” and “over-infer” the types they do see (92-93). DH insists that God did not accommodate OT audiences with promises “He knew would not occur,” for God is faithful to His covenant promises (Gal 3:15) (93).

The fifth principle of NH is that it speaks of change (or a “shift in reality”) in the Bible’s storyline (95). Advocates often describe this change as the NT’s “redefining,” “reinterpreting,” “transforming,” “transcending,” “transposing,” or “spiritualizing” the OT. But DH insists that this significant shift in the Bible’s storyline is not taught in the NT, and so advocating such a change amounts to altering “God’s revelation without biblical support” (99). An important justification for this storyline change in NH is a sixth principle: Christocentric hermeneutics. Because Christ “fulfills” the OT, many specific prophecies and promises in the OT pertaining to Israel (such as the land promise) will be “‘transformed’ by or ‘dissolved’ into Jesus somehow” (101). In contrast, while DH does believe the NT teaches that Jesus fulfills the OT, it does not believe He does so by making “Old Testament prophetic details vanish, dissolve, or evaporate” (103). It maintains that NH “introduces a mystical or metaphysical personalism that merges things that are not Jesus into Jesus” (104), something the NT does not do (e.g., Jesus and corporate Israel in Rom 9-11). 

The final principle of NH is its emphasis on Christ’s first coming. A number of non-dispensationalists argue that Christ’s first coming fulfills all or most of the prophetic expectations of the OT. A few even argue that failing to stress His first coming minimizes his death and resurrection. DH wonders why we need to pit Christ’s two comings against one another, for both are critical. The NT itself shows that there are a number of items predicted in the OT that await fulfillment in connection with Christ’s return (e.g., the Day of the Lord in 2 Thess 2:1-4; 2 Pet3:10-13), so a strong stress on Christ’s first coming is overstated. “The same Jesus who purchased His people with His blood (see Rev. 5:9) will also unleash the Day of the Lord that leads to His return and earthly kingdom (see Rev. 5:10; 6:1ff). Cross and kingdom work in perfect harmony” (109).

This book is a very useful introduction to DH. It displays Vlach’s characteristic clarity in style and organization, and it is short, all of which make it accessible to those unfamiliar with the topic. Its attempt to represent DH generically is largely successful, as long as the reader recognizes that no such attempt will always garner complete acceptance by all dispensationalists, who may disagree with a certain point or wish to articulate it differently. The same, by the way, could also be said all the more of Vlach’s attempt to summarize NH (an even more ambitious task!). In order to demonstrate that each point represents dispensationalism generically, Vlach quotes extensively from other dispensationalists (and in chapters 5-6, non-dispensationalists). While this may strike some readers as a bit tedious at times, it is probably necessary in light of what he is trying to do. 

Despite its many strengths, let me mention four weaknesses. First, while the first chapter’s list of key elements of DT’s understanding of the Bible’s storyline was helpful, I do think it missed an important element: that the Bible’s storyline is structured by a succession of distinctive dispensations (hence, the name of the system). Surprisingly, Vlach does not include this, perhaps because DT has never agreed on the number of dispensations or because non-dispensationalists also speak of dispensations. But what distinguishes dispensationalism is precisely its stress on the distinctiveness of these different dispensations, thus making dispensations more structurally significant than in other systems.

Second, Vlach seems inconsistent (or ambiguous) in his use of the term “literal interpretation.” Initially, he is quite clear in affirming that “literal” interpretation is grammatical-historical interpretation (24-25), and as such includes figures of speech, types, and symbols when consistent with the author’s intent. But subsequent discussions at times appear to shift the meaning of “literal” (for example, the discussion of nonliteral fulfillments of OT prophecies and spiritualization, 81-86), where it means something like, non-figurative, non-symbolic, non-typological. This is reminiscent of Elliott Johnson’s distinction between the sense of “literal” as the interpretive system of grammatical-historical interpretation and the sense of “literal” as the non-figurative meaning of a word or phrase. The ambiguity illustrates that the use of “literal” language—so prominent in dispensationalism—can get tricky. Vlach would likely have been better off limiting the use of “literal” to non-figurative meaning. Then he could simply speak of “grammatical-historical” interpretation and point out that such an approach leads to reading certain predictions as “literal” (i.e., non-figurative).

Third, a book on dispensational hermeneutics should include a section on areas of hermeneutical disagreement among dispensationalists. Granted, to represent the movement as a whole, Vlach wanted to focus on areas of agreement among dispensationalists. But a survey of areas of disagreement would have served to provide a more complete picture of dispensational hermeneutics, thereby emphasizing the commonalities despite the areas of disagreement. 

Fourth, one important item in the book needed further clarification: the matter of the “author’s intent.” Here the relationship between the divine and human authors becomes critical. Does an OT prophecy have a sensus plenior, a divine meaning that may supersede, reinterpret, or transform the meaning of the human author in his context? Dispensationalists either do not accept sensus plenior or only accept it if it preserves the integrity of the meaning of the human author in his context. I think Vlach’s discussion on authorial intention needed greater clarification on this point. 

Despite these quibbles, I believe Vlach has written a fine and exceedingly useful introduction to the principles of DH. Dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists alike will benefit from reading it. 


David Finkbeiner
Moody Bible Institute

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Theological Studies Press, 2022 | 111 pages

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