The title of this book caught my attention because for the first 30 years of my life I lived in a church/school culture which believed that dispensationalism was the best framework for understanding the Bible properly.
The subtitle — Rightly Dividing the People of God? — is a play on words:
1) Dispensationalism distinguishes itself from other theological grids by seeing a distinction between the Old Testament “people of God” (the nation of Israel) and the New Testament “people of God” (the Church)
2) Dispensationalism (like every other teaching over which there is no Christian consensus) divides God’s people
The book, published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing in 1995, consists of 160 pages and four major parts.
Part 1 defines dispensationalism and examines its roots in church history. Keith Mathison helpfully defines dispensationalism in terms of what makes it unique among theological systems: it is “that system of theology which sees a fundamental distinction between Israel and the church.” Its roots go back to the late 19th century Bible Conference Movement.
Part 2 argues strongly for the unity of believers throughout all of history. Where dispensationalism sees a critical discontinuity between believers of the Old Testament and believers in the “church age,” Mathison sees an essential continuity.
Part 3 refutes “the dispensational doctrine of salvation” by defending point by point the Calvinist doctrine of salvation. It was here that I felt the book lost its focus a bit. While a semi-Pelagian view of salvation is no doubt common among dispensationalists, Mathison fails to prove that it is a necessary teaching of dispensationalism. As such, these 60+ pages dilute the impact of the book.
Part 4 argues against “the dispensational doctrine of the last things.” Mathison offers reasons why the dispensationalist teaching of the rapture is not correct. Additionally, he explains why the dispensationalist understanding of the Millennium is suspect.
I appreciated Mathison’s attempts throughout the book to prove his points with Scripture. Although he occasionally appeals to church history to support his arguments, he insists that Scripture trumps the church’s historical understanding of any given teaching.
Though I am sympathetic to many of Mathison’s viewpoints, and though this book provides helpful insight into areas that deserve concentrated consideration, I’m not convinced that Mathison’s overview of the subject proves as much as he thinks it does. His rhetoric at times seems stronger than his proof.
Mathison concludes the book with this exhortation: “True Christians are thus faced with a choice. The decision is whether to submit to the compelling witness of Scripture or to continue believing in a doctrinal system void of biblical basis simply because that system is what one has always been taught. I urge my dispensationalist brothers and sisters to consider this choice prayerfully, and to eagerly embrace the Word of truth.”
I suspect a sincere dispensationalist would offer similar advice at the end of a book defending dispensationalism.