Monday, March 15, 2010

Is Dispensationalism Compatible with Calvinistic Soteriology?

During Michael Vlach's session, "You Might Be a Dispensationalist If," from this month's Shepherd's Conference, he argues that one's convictions on Dispensationalism vs. Covenant Theology necessitate certain conclusions on some matters of doctrine, but not on other matters of doctrine.

He offers Calvinistic soteriology as an example of those non-issues. In doing so, he disagrees with some CT proponents who argue that Dispensationalism necessitates Arminianism. I believe his assessment is correct. One can be a Dispensationalist and a Calvinist.

Vlach doesn't go on to make the observation I'm about to make, and though I've never heard anyone point this out, I can't imagine my thoughts are novel. Here's my point: Dispensationalists don't have to be Arminians, but Arminians (or anyone who denies unconditional election) have to be Dispensationalists.

Why? Well, read Romans 9-11. There is simply no way to hold to a strong discontinuity between how God chose Jacob (not Esau) and Israel (not the other nations of the world) and how God chooses Church Age believers without being a Dispensationalist.

Let me repeat: Dispensationalists don't have to see discontinuity between God's election of Jacob and God's election of believers today. However, if you do see discontinuity on that point—if you think God chose Jacob on the basis of something other than "human will or exertion" (9:16), but you think that God chooses believers today based on some prior knowledge of how they would respond to his universal call, then you simply have to be a Dispensationalist. You have to argue that Romans 9-11 is merely about ethnic Israelites. You have to argue that God doesn't choose people for himself today in the same way he chose them before Christ. You have to be able to unplug the Church from the deep river of OT narratives that clearly and consistently emphasize God's sovereign, unconditional election.

Now, in arguing all those things, I think you do great violence to Paul's argument in Romans. But it's just what you have to do.


Micah said...

thanks ben - about a year ago, I picked up Vlach's "Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths" @
It really helped divide the line where being a Calvinist "meant" that you were going down the slippery slope to Covenant Theology

John said...

Is it me or have your posts become more interesting since you flew south? Maybe it's just the lack of occasional stimulating conversation over Moe's.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to hear a real live, full-on Arminian comment on your post. It makes sense to me, but I think that historically, there have been plenty of Arminians who were not dispenstionalist. I mean, Arminius himself lived quite a few years before dispensationalism was invented.

I know this is not exactly to your point, but the fact that dispensationalism even allows for one "to be able to unplug the Church from the deep river of OT narratives that clearly and consistently emphasize God's sovereign, unconditional election" is reason enough to reject it.

Jump on that slippery slope to Covenant Theology already -- it's a blast.


ben said...


Or Methodists, as one e-mailer noted.

I can't tell you what they'd do with Romans 9-11. It's a mystery to me how someone could deny unconditional election from that passage apart from Dispensationalism. (And even that's still a mystery.)

Maybe they just avoid the text like many Dispensationalists avoid Romans 4 and Galatians 3. Maybe there's a proto-dispensationalism going on. That'd be an interesting study for a Dispensationalist who wants to show that Dispensationalism pre-dated Darby.

Anonymous said...


Dispensationalism does not demand either a calvinist or arminian viewpoint. That point was already made. Despite the many attempts of CTers who have tried to argue that DT does demand arminianism, it simply betrays how little they know.

One could also argue that since supersessionism allows for arminianism, that all supersessionism should be rejected.

Come on now.

greglong said...

I know this is not exactly the point you are making, Ben, but Dan Phillips argues in his book review of The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift:

"As has been pointed out more than once, dispensationalists really should be Calvinists, and Calvinists really should be dispensationalists. The former believe at least in election and sovereign grace in the case of the yet-to-be-converted generation of Jews; the latter believe in God's sovereignty and faithfulness to His promises, and (at least formally) in the principle of grammatico-historical exegesis."

Anonymous said...

Ben, yep, good Methodists are Wesleyan Arminians, and yeah the ones I know would say "dispen-what?"

James, you say, "Dispensationalism does not demand either a calvinist or arminian viewpoint." I don't think that I said anything to disagree with that. In fact, I think if you'll read what I wrote instead of just jumping to defend your position, you'll see that I offered historical evidence to refute the view "that DT does demand arminianism." Come on now.

Greg, Dan Phillips is welcome to opinions like, "dispensationalists really should be Calvinists, and Calvinists really should be dispensationalists." However, his case is far from compelling -- even with the comic book illustrations. Of course calvinists believe in God's sovereignty and faithfulness to his promises. But Dan is just begging the question. The whole debate is over the question, "What are the promises?"


d4v34x said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
d4v34x said...

My pastor preached a series of messages essentially explaining why we teach dispensationalism at our church. (He was very respectful of Covenant Theology and its adherants/promotors, just so you know.)

Ironically, the series left me much more unsure about the great gulf of distinction DT fixes between Israel and the Church.

(Boy, I need to proofread my posts better before submitting.)

ben said...


I'm having a blast reading that book right now. For a doctoral dissertation, it's a real page-turner. And I mean that in a good way. ;-)

Still, I think Keith's mostly right, though I'd tweak his question. I'd put it this way: The central question is, "What/who is Israel?" (Is it an ethnic group? Is it a distinctly political entity, not merely an ethnic group? Is it Christ? Is it the Church? Is it all the people of God in all times? Is it more than one of those but not all? Something else?)

Answer that question correctly, and the issues get substantially simpler.

I'm not suggesting I CAN answer that correctly and authoritatively. I'm saying we'll fruitlessly talk past each other as long as we debate who really takes the Bible literally and how the promises are fulfilled when we haven't resolved a more basic question.

Bernie Wojcik said...

Shouldn't the question be:

"Is Dispensationalism logically consistent with Calvin's soteriology?"

Anonymous said...

A reason that Calvinists tend to be in the non-dispensational camp is not only due to long historical connections with Calvinistic denominations, but it's also because covenant theology is a convenient way to explain how their kids can be can be saved without relying on human responsibility (parenting) to affect their kid's salvation. Arminians don't have a problem with this because they believe that raising their kids using biblically based teaching will directly affect their kids' salvation. Calvinists can't say this and be consistent because then there is a clear link between human action (parenting) and salvation. Many parents I know claim to be Calvinists but act like Arminians when it comes to raising their kids.

Joshua C said...

"What/who is Israel?" (Is it an ethnic group? Is it a distinctly political entity, not merely an ethnic group? It apparently ended up an ethnic group but not God's purpose or plan initially. Is it Christ? Mainly, YES. Is it the Church? Is it all the people of God in all times? practically YES. Is it more than one of those but not all? Is it spiritual? and being spiritual, is it less real than physical, national, natural ?
i deny unconditional election and dispensationalism.

Josh said...

Uhh. . . that last guy wasn't me, btw.

Doesn't dispensationalism essentially teach more than one way to be saved? Isn't that the most significant issue where it is incompatible with Calvinistic soteriology?

Calvinistic dispensationalists are walking contradictions. DT itself influences a person to be tolerant of contradictions in their theology and even Scripture itself.

ChaferDTS said...

"Doesn't dispensationalism essentially teach more than one way to be saved? Isn't that the most significant issue where it is incompatible with Calvinistic soteriology?"

Guess you really do not know dispensational beliefs in general.From the DTS doctrinal statement.

Article V—The Dispensations

We believe that the dispensations are stewardships by which God administers His purpose on the earth through man under varying responsibilities. We believe that the changes in the dispensational dealings of God with man depend on changed conditions or situations in which man is successively found with relation to God, and that these changes are the result of the failures of man and the judgments of God. We believe that different administrative responsibilities of this character are manifest in the biblical record, that they span the entire history of mankind, and that each ends in the failure of man under the respective test and in an ensuing judgment from God. We believe that three of these dispensations or rules of life are the subject of extended revelation in the Scriptures, viz., the dispensation of the Mosaic Law, the present dispensation of grace, and the future dispensation of the millennial kingdom. We believe that these are distinct and are not to be intermingled or confused, as they are chronologically successive.

We believe that the dispensations are not ways of salvation nor different methods of administering the so-called Covenant of Grace. They are not in themselves dependent on covenant relationships but are ways of life and responsibility to God which test the submission of man to His revealed will during a particular time. We believe that if man does trust in his own efforts to gain the favor of God or salvation under any dispensational test, because of inherent sin his failure to satisfy fully the just requirements of God is inevitable and his condemnation sure.

We believe that according to the “eternal purpose” of God ( Eph. 3:11 ) salvation in the divine reckoning is always “by grace through faith,” and rests upon the basis of the shed blood of Christ. We believe that God has always been gracious, regardless of the ruling dispensation, but that man has not at all times been under an administration or stewardship of grace as is true in the present dispensation ( 1 Cor. 9:17; Eph. 3:2; 3:9, asv; Col. 1:25; 1 Tim. 1:4, asv ) .

We believe that it has always been true that “without faith it is impossible to please” God ( Heb. 11:6 ), and that the principle of faith was prevalent in the lives of all the Old Testament saints. However, we believe that it was historically impossible that they should have had as the conscious object of their faith the incarnate, crucified Son, the Lamb of God (John 1:29), and that it is evident that they did not comprehend as we do that the sacrifices depicted the person and work of Christ. We believe also that they did not understand the redemptive significance of the prophecies or types concerning the sufferings of Christ ( 1 Pet. 1:10–12 ) ; therefore, we believe that their faith toward God was manifested in other ways as is shown by the long record in Hebrews 11:1–40. We believe further that their faith thus manifested was counted unto them for righteousness ( cf. Rom. 4:3 with Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:5–8; Heb. 11:7 ) .

Glenn Krobel said...

Probably my biggest problem with the CT Reformed crowd is the arrogance they demonstrate toward those who they view as "outside the camp". As posted above, DT is a well thought through consistent view of Scripture and certainly up for the challenge of the rigors of theological debate. Mischaracterizing other points of view might work well in an echo chamber, but not it the bigger world. Most DT people I know are broadly Calvinist and see great biblical truths in the sovereignty of God in election and application of His grace. They just can't buy into limited atonement as some define it. As a DT theologian I can point you to several great links on Dispensational soteriology. Or you can search them out for yourself. Please be humble enough to admit that there other points of view that are cogent and well thought through instead of dismissing them with tired and fallacious argumentation.

Glenn Krobel said...


You asked if Dispensationalism pre-dated Darby? I did my M.A. thesis on this very topic. "A Historical Examination of John Nelson Darby's Distinction Between Israel and the Church". You can check it out on the TRANS website. Short answer? Partly. Many dispensational like concepts began to resurface (which date as far back as Irenaeus' Against Heresies for example) when the church began to lose it's control over the state and people could express conclusions from Scripture that opposed the state/church line. Darby was the first to put DT concepts into clear focus. But one should also note at CT did not appear in any systematized form until the seventeenth century. So there's lots to consider here.