Dispensationalism is as much a theory of the church as it is of dispensations. Or rather, dispensationalism divides humanity into three distinct groups: Israel, the church, and the nations. The first two are in covenant with God. Israel has the starring role as God’s direct partner for redemption. But because of the rejection of Jesus by both Rome and Israel, God is using the church as the current agent for world redemption, which will ultimately be taken up again and completed by Israel.168
So writes Daniel Hummel about the original and abiding impulse of Dispensationalism. It is a remarkable theory that has been massively influential, particularly among American fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. Hummel is probably right to suggest that Dispensationalism is in decline (as well it should be) but its influence continues. The recent savage attack by the Hamas terrorists and the military response by Israel has provoked an almost Pavlovian response in some older Dispensational circles. In 1970 Hal Lindsay published The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan). The 1973 Yom Kippur War only intensified the eschatological fever among Dispensationalists, represented by John F. Walvoord’s Armageddon: Oil and the Middle East Crisis; What the Bible Says About the Future of the Middle East and the End of Western Civilization (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976). The First Gulf War (1990) saw a reprint of Walvoord’s volume and more book sales. Right now, David Jeremiah is running commercials reminiscent of the 1972 rapture thriller, Thief in the Night (which, according to IMDB, is available for streaming on Freevee via Amazon).
Why is this significant? Because it indicates something about what Dispensationalism is and, for those who know Reformed theology, it says something about how different Dispensationalism is from Reformed theology, which has always seen Christ, not national Israel, at the center of redemptive history.
The Vos Citation
As a long-time reader of, and in that sense, a student of the life and work of Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949), it is both exciting and puzzling to find MacArthur quoting and citing him in a work of (leaky) Dispensational nomism.169 I suppose MacArthur’s Dispensationally-inclined readers will assume that Vos agreed substantially with MacArthur, but this supposition would be incorrect. Vos was a Dutch Reformed theologian to his core. Phil Johnson (whose comments at a Shepherds Conference initiated this series) may be puzzled by my frequent references to what he calls “The Heidelberg Confession” (it is not a confession per se, it is a catechism, i.e., a little book of 129 questions and answers), but Vos would not be surprised in the least, since he was reared on the catechism. It was in his bones.
Further, Vos was a traditional Reformed covenant theologian. His inaugural lecture as a young professor, at what was then the Theological College of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (before he went to Princeton Seminary to teach Biblical Theology), was on the history of Reformed covenant theology. According to his correspondence with Herman Bavinck, he gave that lecture to respond to an idiosyncratic Dutch view, which denied the covenant of works before the fall. Vos set the historical record straight.170
Vos had no sympathy with Dispensationalism or nomism in any form. Thus, he would also be puzzled as to why MacArthur thought that he (Vos) agreed with MacArthur’s rejection of the distinction between law and gospel, his characterization of saving faith, and ignorance or rejection of the distinction between antecedent and consequent conditions.
Even the passage quoted by MacArthur tends to create a misleading impression. The volume quoted is on the kingdom of God. According to all Dispensationalists, Jesus came to offer an earthly kingdom to the Jews, and some Dispensationalists have speculated that had the Jews accepted it, Jesus would not have died. Vos held the traditional Reformed view of the kingdom.
The very first thing Vos said about this kingdom, in the little volume that MacArthur quoted, was about the kingdom as good news:
In the body of our Lord’s teaching as recorded in the Gospels the references to the kingdom of God occupy a prominent place. According to the common testimony of the Synoptical Gospels Jesus opened his public ministry in Galilee with the announcement, that the kingdom was at hand, Matt. 4:17; Mk. 1:15; Lk. 4:43. In the last mentioned passage he even declares that the main purpose of his mission consists in the preaching of the good tidings of the kingdom of God.171
It never entered his mind that Jesus came to do anything other than to announce that he is the substance of the covenant promised to Adam and Eve after the fall, to and through Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets. Vos’ covenant theology was a theology of the unity of the covenant of grace in multiple administrations. It was eschatological in character inasmuch as not only did he see the horizontal-typological unity of the covenant of grace focused on Christ as its fulfillment, but he also saw the eschaton revealed in types and shadows and fulfilled in Christ.172 Vos was not a premillennial futurist but an Amillennialist (even though that word was brand new during his lifetime) who taught an inaugurated eschatology.173
The context from which the quotation is taken is Vos’ explanation of the present, and the spiritual nature of the kingdom of God. The power of the kingdom that Jesus exerted during his ministry was a foretaste of the eschatological state.
The miraculous power is prophetic of that great kingdom-power which will be exerted at the end. It is especially in eschatological connections that a revelation of power is referred to, Matt. 24:30; Mk. 12:24. All the supernatural phenomena that accompanied not merely the ministry of Jesus, but characterized also the history of the apostolic church, must be interpreted in this light. It had to be shown immediately, that the work inaugurated by Jesus aims at nothing less than a supernatural renewal of the world, whereby all evil will be overcome, a renewal of the physical as well of the spiritual world, Matt. 19:28.174
The Messianic works are the works which inaugurate the kingdom. Still more clearly this appears from the discourse in the synagogue at Nazareth recorded by Luke, which had for its text the prophecy of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor: he hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,” Lk. 4:18, 19. Here the acceptable year of Jehovah, the year of jubilee, in which all things return to their normal, wholesome condition, is none other than the era of the kingdom, and by the bestowal of the blessings enumerated it comes.175
In the immediate context of the quotation MacArthur used, Vos explains that there is a twofold aspect to the intrusion of the kingdom into human history. To God’s enemies, the kingdom is “a conquering, destructive, judging power,” but “so far as man is concerned, it is a liberating, healing, saving power. In the casting out of demons both sides are revealed. In the other miracles it is chiefly the beneficent side which finds expression.”176
In other words, for Vos, it is those who have been graciously, freely, sovereignly redeemed, by grace alone, through faith alone, who, consequently give themselves over to the Lordship of Christ their King. In short, what Vos is saying about Christ’s Lordship is not what MacArthur has been saying. His words have been removed from their context and re-contextualized in a way that is quite foreign to his understanding and intent.
This raises again the question of MacArthur’s use of sources.177 As a teacher I am familiar with the method being used here: call it ransacking, the literary equivalent of breaking into a house and stealing whatever looks attractive. Had MacArthur actually sought to understand Vos on his own terms, he would not have seized on a purely formal verbal similarity to buttress his argument because he would have understood that, in fact, in context, Vos was not saying what he is saying at all.
MacArthur’s citation of Vos raises a larger and more substantial question for Dispensationalists—that is, their relationship to the broader Christian tradition: they do not have one. First, Dispensationalism is an early nineteenth-century movement. There was no Dispensationalism movement during the post-Reformation, Reformation, Medieval, or Patristic periods. The closest analogues might be aspects of some of the Anabaptist movements, aspects of the Cathar movement, or aspects of the Marcionite and Gnostic movements in the Patristic period.
Second, Dispensationalism is a biblicistic movement that has cared little about what the historic Christian church (let alone the Reformed churches) has had to say about the interpretation of Scripture. By biblicism I mean the attempt to read the Bible apart from the historic Christian creeds and the broader Christian tradition, to read the Bible as if no one has ever read it before. By contrast, Vos was deeply concerned to read the Bible with the broader Christian tradition and especially the Reformed tradition. Those who are gradually abandoning the Dispensational tradition are also gradually re-connecting to the broader Christian tradition, but those who are content to remain within the walls of Dispensationalism seem content to ignore the Fathers, the Medievals, the Reformers, and the post-Reformation traditions.
The ugly reality is that the early and modified Dispensationalists (MacArthur more or less belongs to the latter) are not part of the historic Christian tradition. Only as they have abandoned Dispensationalism in all its forms have they begun to reconnect to the Great Christian Tradition.
One effect of GAJ should be to put before Dispensationalists a stark choice: historic Christianity or Dispensational nomism. The two cannot be merged. They are not the same thing.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
Note: this post was revised on November, 6, 2023.
- Hummel, The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism, 10.
- James T. Dennison, Jr., ed., The Letters of Geerhardus Vos (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005. For more on this lecture, see Bradley J. Bitner, “The Theological Vision of Geerhardus Vos: Theological Education and Reformed Ministry,” Themelios 48.2.
- GAJ, 149. The quotation is from Geerhardus Vos, The Kingdom of God and the Church: (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1972), 94. For a contemporary, popular account of the Kingdom of God in the tradition of Vos see S. M. Baugh, The Majesty on High: Introduction to the Kingdom of God in the New Testament (2017)
- Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church, ed. John H. Kerr, Second Edition, Revised (New York: American Tract Society, 1903), 1.
- See Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Ed. by Johannes Geerhardus Vos. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1956; Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1930).
- See Vos, The Teaching of Jesus, chapters 4 and 5.
- Vos, The Teaching of Jesus, 97.
- Vos, The Teaching of Jesus, 93–94.
- Vos, The Teaching of Jesus, 94–95.
- See Kim Riddlebarger’s criticism of MacArthur’s use of Berkhof.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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