Book Reviews

Dispensational Modernism

B. M. Pietsch New York July 6, 2015

Pietsch serves as assistant professor of religious studies at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan. This is the published version of his PhD dissertation submitted to Duke University in 2011.

Pietsch argues that early dispensational theology was “built upon modernist epistemic foundations. These foundations—what I call dispensational modernism—comprised a pervasive system of attitudes, assumptions, and methods that gave prophecy belief its meaning, traction, and popularity” (p. 2). This method “grew out of popular fascination with applying technological methods—such as quantification and classification—to the interpretation of texts and time” (ibid.). He distinguishes this dispensational hermeneutic from “simply literalism, proof-texting, or conservative retrenchments” (p. 4). Rather, dispensational Bible reading “required explicit use of method: the Bible must be interpreted to ‘unlock’ its true meaning. They held that authoritative biblical knowledge required years of specialized study, study that made use of engineering methods, such as classification, enumeration, cross-referencing, and taxonomic comparison of literary units” (ibid.). He concludes, “The result was a view of the Bible as an internally coherent whole, with a progressive unfolding of meaning, meaning that was located in elaborately coded systems of intertextual relationships, particularly numerical sequences, types and antitypes, literary analogical figures, theological themes, and other intentionally ordered systems” (ibid.).

Pietsch’s book unites exceptional historiography with a brilliant writing style. As one example, he summarizes his claim that dispensationalism is a product of the culture of the time: “The story of dispensationalism rightly begins in these contexts—not with grumpy Irish clerics, but with cookbooks and grocery barons and Sunday school literature. Social changes that invigorated technological modernity and the adoption of engineering values were not mere background to the story, but central sources of dispensational modernism. . . . Dispensationalism emerged out of the primeval waters of engineering and corporate values, amid social and religious transformations” (pp. 42–43). He makes a compelling case for these claims and shows how dispensationalism’s hermeneutical approach grew out of the world in which it was birthed.

One major contribution of this book is Pietsch’s argument that dispensationalism is not grounded in Common Sense Realism but in the view of the “republican perspicuity of the Bible,” the roots of which are in the Reformation convictions of “ ‘the Bible alone’ and ‘the priesthood of believers,’ ” not in any philosophical epistemology (p. 97). Further, rather than “confidence in the (near) universal experiences of our senses and the products of a shared inductive reasoning” of Common Sense Realism, republican perspicuity was grounded “on the sovereign right of each individual to interpret as he (or, more rarely in the nineteenth century, she) saw fit” (ibid.). Finally, “Common Sense Realism suggests that all interpreters, provided with sufficient evidence and following rigorously inductive methods, should come to the same interpretive conclusions. Republican perspicuity imagined a different script, in which the Bible was ‘opened up’ to non-specialist interpreters through the guidance of the Holy Spirit who revealed ‘plain truths’ ” (ibid.). In short, “Common Sense implied that all minds could arrive at common interpretations; republican perspicuity implied that common minds could discover remarkable new biblical truths, or recover old ones” (ibid.).

Of the many implications of this way of reading the Bible, Pietsch observes a particular emphasis of dispensational interpretation of biblical prophecy: “When dispensationalists claimed to interpret prophecy literally, they meant something more like ‘materially,’ in opposition to ‘spiritualizing’ interpretations. Spiritualizing interpretations (sometimes confusingly called ‘allegorical’) were those that claimed that prophecy would be fulfilled only ‘in spirit.’ A common example was the idea that the Kingdom of God would emerge in the hearts of Christians rather than as a socio-political reality” (p. 169). Later he expresses it this way: “Unlike subdued modernist visions of the Kingdom of God—as states of relatively greater justice and virtue—dispensationalists hung their hopes on a more dramatic utopia. The Blessed Hope they looked for was one where real, corporeal lambs could rest in safety and fellowship alongside real, toothy lions” (p. 172).

This book makes an important contribution to the history of dispensationalism, particularly the roots and the development of the hermeneutical method. The author writes in an engaging and charming style. His work is well documented and his interactions with the sources are what one would expect of a trained historian. The narrative he tells is easy to follow, interesting to read, and informative to readers of a variety of backgrounds and training. It is highly recommended.

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Glenn R. Kreider
Dr. Glenn R. Kreider identifies his motivations as his passion for the triune God and his desire to help others respond to divine revelation in spirit and truth. Prior to coming to DTS he directed Christian education and pastored a church in Cedar Hill, Texas. Dr. Kreider’s research interests include Jonathan Edwards, theological method, and our eschatological hope. He is married to Janice and they have two children. Dr. Kreider enjoys his adorable black lab named Chloe, two pugs, bold coffee, and good music.
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