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Lewis Sperry Chafer


by Craig A. Blaising Blaising, Craig A. Th.D., Dallas Theological Seminary; Ph.D., University of Aberdeen. Professor of Systematic Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas.

From a background of ministry in turn-of-the-century revivalism and teaching at Bible conferences, Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871–1952) founded Dallas Theological Seminary and served as its first president and principal theologian. An author of several books on evangelism, prophecy, and the Christian life, Chafer is best known for his eight-volume Systematic Theology, which was the first dispensational, premillennial systematic theology. Although many works have helped spread the influence of dispensationalism, the institutional and theological efforts of Lewis Sperry Chafer have been foremost in establishing it as a viable feature of twentieth-century evangelical thought and ministry.

Life

Lewis Chafer was born in Rock Creek, Ohio, where his father later became the Congregational minister.1 Following up on an early interest in music, Lewis studied at Oberlin College and Conservatory. In 1889 he joined the evangelistic team of A. T. Reed. Because his activities had increased, Chafer withdrew from Oberlin in 1891. For five years he ministered with Reed (and occasionally other evangelists) as a revivalist singer and choir director.

In 1896 Lewis married Ella Loraine Case, whom he had met during student days at Oberlin. Together they formed their own evangelistic team with Lewis preaching and singing and Ella accompanying at the piano. For the next ten years they held revival meetings throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. Eventually these meetings extended to the southeastern states as well. Soon after they formed their own ministry team, the Chafers became acquainted with key figures in the music ministry of Dwight L. Moody’s evangelistic empire, notably Ira Sankey and George Stebbins. After a two-year position as assistant pastor of the First Congregational Church in Buffalo (where Lewis was ordained), the Chafers moved in 1901 to East Northfield, Massachusetts, the site of the Moody summer conference. In addition to his ongoing revivalism, Lewis became more and more a part of the Moody ministry, directing singing at the Northfield Conference and then helping to establish (in 1904) and eventually presiding over (in 1909) the Southfield Conference in Crescent City, Florida.

The Northfield Conference was a primary forum for the Victorious Life movement and for expositions of the Bible in the style of the popular Niagara Bible Conferences. Some of the well-known speakers at that time included F. B. Meyer, G. Campbell Morgan, W. H. Griffith Thomas, Reuben Torrey, and George F. Pentecost. Through various conferences over the years, Chafer also came into contact with James Orr, James M. Gray, A. C. Gaebelein, Harry A. Ironside, A. T. Pierson, and Charles Trumbull.2 But by far the one person who had the most profound impact upon Chafer was C. I. Scofield.

At the time that Chafer moved to Northfield, Scofield not only was a speaker at the summer conference, but lived in the community, presiding over the Northfield Bible Training School and pastoring the Trinitarian Congregational Church. Before coming to Northfield in 1895, Scofield had already established himself both in Congregationalist circles (as a pastor and superintendent of home missions in Dallas) and in interdenominational ministry (as founder of the Central American Mission, director of a Bible correspondence course, and featured speaker at various Bible and prophecy conferences). But in 1901 Scofield, with the encouragement of colleagues like Gaebelein, committed himself to a new undertaking, the preparation of a reference Bible with notes presenting expositional and doctrinal themes which he had taught and shared with others at the Bible conferences.

Soon after Chafer arrived in Northfield, he attended the Bible training school. That year, 1901, brought few revival meetings, so Chafer devoted much of his time to study under Scofield’s tutelage. Scofield’s impact can be seen in Chafer’s own testimony: “Until that time, I had never heard a real Bible teacher. … My first hearing of Dr. Scofield was at a morning Bible class at the Bible School. He was teaching the sixth chapter of Romans. I am free to confess that it seemed to me at the close that I had seen more vital truth in God’s Word in that one hour than I had seen in all my life before. It was a crisis for me. I was captured for life.”3

The two men developed a teacher-disciple relationship that grew over the years despite Scofield’s frequent relocations for the purpose of working on his reference Bible. When Scofield challenged him to redirect his ministry from evangelism to Bible teaching, Chafer became increasingly active as a teacher at Bible conferences. In 1909 the Scofield Reference Bible was published, and Chafer also published his first theological book, Satan, which had been composed with Scofield’s assistance.4 Two years later, Scofield established the Scofield School of the Bible in New York City. Chafer was appointed director of the Department of Oral Extension. In this capacity he traveled widely, teaching at conferences and holding seminars called “Bible Institutes.” In 1914 Chafer helped Scofield found a second school, the Philadelphia School of the Bible. Chafer served on the faculty and developed the curriculum. To serve the two schools, in Philadelphia and New York, as well as continue his conference teaching, Lewis and Ella moved in 1915 from Northfield to East Orange, New Jersey.

Chafer continued in his capacity as a teacher of Bible and theology until Scofield’s death in 1921. Most of Chafer’s theological views were shaped and finalized in those years, and it was during this time that he published most of his books. True Evangelism, published in 1911 but written in 1901, was a critique of the methods and practices of many revivalists.5 The Kingdom in History and Prophecy (1915) offered a systematic presentation of Scofieldian eschatology.6 Salvation (1917), while claiming to be an evangelistic rather than a theological work, nevertheless presented doctrinal features which were later taken up in Chafer’s Systematic Theology.7 He That Is Spiritual (1918) presented Chafer’s version of the Victorious Life movement.8 Finally, Grace (1922), published the year after Scofield’s death and dedicated to him, comprehensively distinguished between law and grace.9

In 1922, Chafer moved to Dallas, where he assumed Scofield’s former pastorate at the First Congregational Church, which at Chafer’s suggestion was renamed the Scofield Memorial Church. He was also appointed general secretary of the Central American Mission, a ministry which Scofield had founded. However, Chafer’s real interest remained in theological education.

From his days at Northfield on through his work with Scofield, Chafer had nurtured the vision of a theological seminary which would train ministers as Bible teachers matching the skills of those who expounded so effectively at Bible conferences. Conversations with many pastors about their seminary training and informal discussions with students during a lecture tour of some colleges and seminaries in 1912 led him to believe that the typical seminary curriculum failed to impart both a knowledge of the spiritual content of the Bible and skill in teaching and applying it. 10 Consequently, he determined to establish a school which would redress that omission in the regular course of seminary studies.

Reflecting the Bible conference movement, the school would not affiliate with any denomination. This would allow it the widest possible sphere of ministry in American evangelicalism. As for his own affiliation, Chafer maintained his ordination in the Presbyterian church (having in 1906 transferred his credentials from the Congregational church to the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and then in 1912 to the Presbyterian Church in the United States). As a result, a majority of the first students in his new seminary would be Presbyterian. After considering several possible locations for the new seminary, Dallas was chosen. Backing came principally from the Scofield Memorial Church, which Chafer pastored, and the First Presbyterian Church, pastored by William M. Anderson, Jr. The school began in 1924 as the Evangelical Theological College, a name suggested by W. H. Griffith Thomas to reflect the British model of theological colleges. In 1936 the name was changed to Dallas Theological Seminary.

From 1924 to 1952 Chafer served as president and professor of systematic theology at the school he had founded. In order to devote full attention to the school, he resigned from the Central American Mission in 1925 and from his pastorate in 1926. But he continued to travel widely, teaching and preaching in churches and at Bible conferences. He wrote in various periodicals including the Sunday School Times and Our Hope. In 1926 a collection of Chafer’s theological articles in the Sunday School Times was published as Major Bible Themes. 11 In 1933 the seminary acquired ownership of Bibliotheca Sacra. Rollin T. Chafer (Lewis’s brother) served as editor. After Rollin’s death in 1940, Lewis took over as sole editor. He used the journal to publish installments of his final and most noteworthy writing, the Systematic Theology. When this work was fully published in 1948, it covered eight volumes, incorporating a fair amount of material from his earlier books. The financial and administrative burden of carrying a school without denominational support through the depression years took its toll. Rising controversy about Scofieldian dispensationalism added to Chafer’s concerns. In June 1935 he suffered a heart attack while participating in a conference on the West Coast and was out of the classroom for most of 1935–36. Ella Chafer died in 1944 after a four-year illness. Having experienced recurring health problems in 1945 and 1948, Lewis Chafer died while ministering in Seattle in August 1952.

Systematic Theology

Systematic Theology is clearly Chafer’s magnum opus.12 The product of years of study under Scofield and as professor of systematic theology at Dallas, it represents the culmination of Chafer’s dream of bringing the teaching found in the Bible conferences into formal theological instruction. The work is basically Reformed in its theological orientation.13 There are many discussions which follow the scholastic pattern of nineteenth-century systematic theologies. Chafer’s moderate Calvinism is seen in his discussion of the decrees of God, predestination, and the atonement.14 His position on the inspiration and authority of Scripture is identical to that of the Old Princeton theology of Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, the Bible conferences, and the fundamentalist movement in general.

The uniqueness of Chafer’s Systematic Theology is found in what he called its unabridged scope, which refers to its inclusion of material popularized in the Bible conferences and the Scofield Reference Bible. It claimed to be the first premillennial systematic theology; and by virtue of its inclusion of various emphases of the Scofield Reference Bible, Chafer’s work was also seen as the first dispensational systematic theology (“dispensational” is here a reference to the views expressed in Scofield’s notes).

The preface of Systematic Theology reprints the substance of “Evils of an Abridged Systematic Theology,” an article published by Chafer in 1934. Here Chafer outlines seven areas (he was fond of the number seven) which in his estimation were either lacking or received inadequate treatment in other systematic theologies:

1. The divine program of the ages. Chafer gives an account of the dispensations and ages included in the scope of divine revelation. His concern is not only their order, but also their different purposes.

2. The church, the body of Christ. For various reasons, several nineteenth-century Reformed systematic theologies produced in the United States paid no attention to ecclesiology.15 But Chafer’s Systematic Theology not only included traditional ecclesiological issues, but carefully elaborated the themes of the universal church and what he called the church’s unique rule of life vis-à-vis other dispensations. The volume on ecclesiology summarizes Chafer’s earlier work in the area of dispensationalism.

3. Human conduct and the spiritual life. Repeating the themes of He That Is Spiritual, Chafer extends some dispensational distinctions to his discussion of the Christian life (found in the volumes on ecclesiology and pneumatology). Here he also distinguishes between the rule of life and Christian conduct. In this dispensation the rule of life concerns spirituality—living by the Spirit. Christian conduct is the result of following this rule of life—one adjusts one’s behavior in accordance with the energizing power of the Holy Spirit.

4. Angelology. Chafer organizes in a somewhat scholastic fashion the biblical data on angels. He includes a study of Satan which incorporates much of his first publication. A special section covers the relationship between Satan and sin. This material supports Chafer’s dispensational view of grace as distinguished from moralism and modernism.

5. Typology. While Chafer does not devote any specific division of his systematic theology to the subject of typology, he frequently draws upon it to support his theological studies, especially in Christology. The study of types was popular in the Bible conferences and a major feature in the notes of the Scofield Reference Bible.

6. Prophecy and premillennial eschatology. Chafer’s lists and classifications of various prophecies are unique among the standard theologies.

7. Christ’s present session in heaven. In a section bridging his Christology and ecclesiology, Chafer analyzes various biblical images of Christ’s relation to the church and his threefold priestly ministry as Giver of gifts, Intercessor, and Advocate.

Chafer’s Systematic Theology is a synthesis of a traditional scholastic study of theology with the outlines and topical classification schemes made popular in the Bible conferences. The result is a unique treatment of many themes. It is no wonder that Systematic Theology became in its day the definitive statement of dispensational theology.

Key Theological Ideas

Grace

The key to Chafer’s theology is his doctrine of grace, which supports a highly spiritual, mystical view of Christianity. 16 As Chafer sees it, true Christianity is the indwelling of God in human beings: God, by the Holy Spirit, first regenerates us and then directly enacts works of service through us. This divine action is completely free—God is not obligated to do it. Yet this action can and will take place whenever a sinner believes or a believer yields to the Holy Spirit. At such times the manifestation of divine power is full and complete. On the other hand, God’s action in and through us can be fully hindered by failure on our part to believe or yield. Except for this simple response of believing or yielding (which Chafer calls a “right adjustment of the heart”), the Christian life is in no way dependent on us. It is, rather, God’s directly acting in us. It is heaven’s living a heavenly mode of life in us.

Chafer acknowledges that this idea of Christianity is imperfectly realized by Christians now; it will, however, be fully realized in heaven. Part of the problem, as Chafer sees it, is confusion caused by the ethical teachings of postmillennialism, liberalism, moralism, some varieties of revivalism, and the works-righteousness inculcated by Roman Catholicism, Arminianism, and various cults. 17 All of these lead in one way or another to self-directed activities which, while they envision ideals that are good and moral in themselves, fall short of the Christian standards taught in the New Testament. Worse still, these self-directed activities miss, hinder, and even oppose the only effectual power of Christian living! God cannot and will not live in someone who is trying to merit divine approval or to carry out the divine commands by human will. In true Christianity, one can be made righteous only by God and in the way that he requires.

Another reason why Christianity is imperfectly realized today is the forces which support and affirm the self-directed, merit-seeking form of living. These forces include the devil, the world system, and our “flesh.” By “flesh” Chafer means not only “the sin nature,” depravity, our disposition to sin, but the human self—its self-directed planning and volition. 18

Dispensations

In teaching that Christianity is a religion of pure grace, Chafer faced the difficulty that the Bible can be and sometimes is used to support a religion in which divine favor is merited and righteousness is understood as human accomplishments of divine commands. As Chafer saw it, the problem here is that the Scripture actually presents more than one religion, more than one rule of life. In interpreting the Scripture, we must be careful to discern the rule of life which is applicable to Christians today and to distinguish it from rules of life which characterized other dispensations. 19

Chafer held to Scofield’s division of seven dispensations. He defended Scofield’s definition of a dispensation—“a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.” 20 And he accepted Scofield’s idea that the seven dispensations are united in the purpose of revealing human sin. 21 Most of Chafer’s writings on dispensations, however, are concerned with distinguishing the present dispensation of grace from the past dispensation of law and the future dispensation of the kingdom. A distinct rule of life governs each of these three dispensations. But in actual fact Chafer concentrated on the even more fundamental twofold division between law and grace. For although the kingdom carries features not found in the Old Testament—the Messiah rules on earth in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies and a new covenant is enacted—nevertheless, both the old dispensation under the Mosaic law and the dispensation of the kingdom are “pure law.” 22 Chafer characterizes both as Judaism in contrast to Christianity, the religion and rule of life of the present dispensation. 23

Unfortunately, at this point many have misunderstood Chafer, and he himself seems to have had difficulty in clearing up the misunderstanding. 24 These two fundamentally different rules of life, these two religions, and these three distinct dispensations do not really have the same concern. They are not different ways of achieving the same type of salvation. (Nor, on the other hand, are two different ways of salvation possible in the same dispensation.) 25 Rather, these two religions presented in Scripture entail completely different kinds of salvation! Judaism, as Chafer presents it, is an earthly religion.

It concerns prosperity, peace, and security on the earth for a particular race and nation of people. When Chafer says that in the past these blessings were merited by works, he is not talking about salvation as understood in the present dispensation, but about the theocratic blessings of Israel (found, e.g., in Deut. 28). There was, however, unmerited grace even in that dispensation, for the Jews were born into their covenant standing (quite apart from their own personal efforts) and were, like Abraham, justified by faith. 26 With this foundation, God gave them a legal rule of life which marked a dispensational change: at Sinai they voluntarily relinquished the rule of grace. 27

It is important to understand that the Bible presents two peoples of God related to him by two different religions. The Jews are an earthly people with earthly promises about an earthly inheritance. 28 In the past dispensation they had (and in the future dispensation they will have) a rule of life which was (will be) pure law, a rule that actually appealed to the flesh and consequently is designated earthly.

When Chafer spoke of the eternal salvation of Israel, he distinguished between national salvation, that is, the eternal endurance of the nation, and personal salvation, which is eternal life in the earthly kingdom. While this personal salvation is secured by observing the law as a rule of life, it should be kept in mind that the law itself is a system which includes God’s gracious acceptance of the Jews through their sacrifices, which is in turn based on the unconditional covenants into which the descendants of Abraham are born. 29 (It is curious that throughout these discussions Chafer is silent about Gentiles in the past and future dispensations.)

The present dispensation concerns not an earthly people, but a heavenly people—the church—made up of believing Jews and Gentiles without earthly (racial, political) distinctions. These people do not have an earthly inheritance, but a heavenly home. When raised from the dead or transformed at the rapture, they will enter into heaven, their eternal abode. Their salvation is heavenly; it is a manifestation of divine life and power not only in justification by grace through faith, but also in regeneration, indwelling by the Holy Spirit, and adoption as children of the household of God. As their salvation differs from that of the earthly people of the dispensation of law, so does their rule of life. It is not a rule of works or merit, which is fleshly, earthly, but a heavenly rule, an energizing by divine power. The principles (to distinguish them from the rule of merit, Chafer avoids the word commands ) of this heavenly rule presume the values of the old law, but are higher, more heavenly, and in fact impossible from an earthly, fleshly perspective. 30 Divine empowerment, which is not merited in any way but “released” through a “right adjustment of the heart,” is the only means for accomplishing those heavenly principles.

In the present dispensation, the rule is blessing followed by “beseechings” (rather than “commands”). In the past and future dispensations, the order is commandment followed by blessing.31 The rules of life are different, their relations to works are different, and the blessings are different. Chafer’s distinction between law and grace has sometimes been accused of antinomianism. But the accusation is usually the result of a misunderstanding. Chafer certainly did not advocate lawlessness; quite the contrary, he believed that the moral values of law are upheld in grace. And though the rule of law—the meriting of divine favor—is absent in grace, there are divine imperatives for Christians in this dispensation.32

Sometimes Chafer referred to them as the law of Christ, but mostly as divine beseechings, to emphasize that blessing precedes law in this dispensation. These beseechings, divine imperatives, define Christian conduct, which is distinguishable (but not separate) from the rule of grace. The responsibility of the believer in the rule of grace is confession of sin and a right adjustment of the heart. When this responsibility is carried out, divine power will accomplish the beseechings (which include many imperatives from the law of the earlier dispensation), and Christian conduct will be manifest. While condemning lawlessness, understood as sin or approval of sin, Chafer, in contrast to legalism, emphasizes a radical faith-mysticism as the key to fulfilling the righteous requirements of the law, which are found in the divine beseechings given to Christians in this dispensation. Chafer’s key concern might be summed up as a Pauline revision of James’s maxim: apart from faith, works are dead! Chafer taught that Christians are required to conduct themselves as citizens of heaven. The key here is yieldedness to the Spirit (right adjustment of the heart). When we yield to him, God works through us. We are conscious of exercising our faculties in carrying out the divine beseechings and thus experience victory in the Christian life.33

Premillennialism

A primary focus of the premillennialism which Chafer inherited from Scofield and late-nineteenth-century conferences on the Bible and prophecy was an opposition to postmillennialism. Chafer interpreted postmillennialism as another form of legalism, another attempt to reform human beings and society apart from the specific means that God has purposed. By contrast the premillennial view relegates the biblical predictions of an eschatological kingdom to the future, making it clear that a reformation of society based on human self-effort is not God’s plan for the present, although it does fit the divine plan for history after the return of Christ. In the meantime, we should attend to the biblical teachings on grace in order to understand present Christian existence.34

After the return of Christ, Israel’s legal relationship with God will be reestablished; and their social, political, and earthly blessings will be restored. Consequently, all legal teachings connected with predictions about the kingdom should be relegated to that future period. On this basis Chafer, following Scofield, deferred to the future dispensation the primary application of the ethic of Jesus in the Gospels, including, for example, the Sermon on the Mount.35 Only its basic values and principles find application today.

The present dispensation was to Chafer an intercalation in the divine plan for Israel; it is wholly unrelated to that plan, having instead its own divinely ordained purpose.36 To emphasize the distinctiveness of the present dispensation, he stressed pretribulationism. Pretribulationism maintains the hope for the imminent return of Christ, a doctrine that clearly distinguishes premillennialism from postmillennialism.37 Pretribulationists keep their hopes fixed on heaven, as is proper for a heavenly people. They do not fix their expectations on developments on earth.

The pretribulational hope ought to prevent premillennialists from identifying present events of history as part of the tribulation, as fulfilments of the visions of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation. However, the controversy with postmillennialism, the conviction that the present was an evil age in decline toward the apocalypse, and the events of the early twentieth century led some pretribulationists to speculate about the relationship of present events to the tribulation events which would follow the rapture of the church. In 1919 Chafer published a pamphlet entitled Seven Major Biblical Signs of the Times.38 Most of the signs he mentions are general.

Nevertheless, the pamphlet demonstrates Chafer’s willingness to utilize social and political developments of the early twentieth century as a basis for speculating about the proximity of the Lord’s coming. 39 He declines, however, to speculate about the date of the Lord’s return. For Chafer the rapture is ever an imminent event.40

During the 1940s Chafer avoided identifying events of World War II with prophecy, preferring instead to issue warnings to political powers about policies that could lead to divine judgment, and comforting believers that such trials are bound to happen and will in fact characterize the period before the Lord’s return to rule.41 Other editorial writers also warned against falsely identifying present events as fulfilments of prophecy.42

Chafer’s view of the kingdom was essentially the same as Scofield’s. He distinguished between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God, identifying the former as the divine government on the earth. It is manifest in three stages: (1) the kingdom as offered by Christ; (2) its present mystery form; and (3) its millennial form.43 The key to understanding the kingdom of heaven is the millennial form, that is, the dispensation of the kingdom—the time in which the political promises to national Israel will be fulfilled under the rule of Jesus Christ. This will be a dispensation of pure law. Conditions will be much improved for earthly people during this period of Christ’s reign on the earth (the church will be in heaven during this time). Jesus offered this kingdom to the Jews in his precross ministry. (That is why, according to Chafer, one must tie Jesus’ ethic in the Gospels to the future kingdom as a legal ethic of worksrighteousness.)

Jesus was rejected, however, and a mystery form of the kingdom ensued and is now manifest. This form of the kingdom is Christendom, the current governmental state of the world. 44 Although present in this form of the kingdom, the church is not the kingdom. Its ethic is separate, its rule of life is different. It is one of the mysteries present in this second stage of the kingdom. Chafer’s view of the rule of grace along with his distinction of the church from the kingdom led him to criticize various efforts toward social reform. In his mind social reform was a wrongheaded goal of postmillennialism and modernism, and he did not hesitate to denounce it as misguided, even deluded by Satan. 45 His view of Christianity was conditioned by a strong individualism; political and social concern were wholly a matter for the future kingdom.46

In Systematic Theology, Chafer’s ultimate work, amillennialism receives more criticism than does postmillennialism, reflecting not only the decline of the latter during the two world wars, but also the increasing popularity of the former in Reformed circles and the rising debate between premillennialism and amillennialism during that same period. Chafer also connected amillennialism with the increased criticism of dispensationalism, criticism in which he was often the target.47

A Theology of Evangelism

Chafer’s view of grace and its dispensational uniqueness had an important effect on his view of the message and practice of evangelism. The message of the gospel is simply the need to believe in Jesus Christ for salvation. It is not an appeal for any self-directed reformation of character, but for complete reliance upon God for regeneration. Accordingly, the evangelist is to avoid manipulation and high-pressure methods. Rather, the evangelist is to follow the rule of grace—confession of sin and complete reliance upon the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will then work through the evangelist to present the call directly to the heart of the hearer.48

Controversy

Chafer’s attempt to systematize the theology of Scofield and of the Bible conference movement was not without opposition. For three decades, battles erupted in print regarding the purity and loyalty of Chafer’s Reformed theology. It was natural that controversy should flare up in these circles since Chafer maintained his ordination in the Presbyterian church. To the end of his life he remained a member in good standing with his presbytery. But the controversies which ignited over his theological views led many other dispensationalists to depart from Presbyterianism.

In a 1919 review of Chafer’s He That Is Spiritual, B. B. Warfield claimed that Chafer was in the “very uncomfortable condition of having two inconsistent systems of religion struggling together in his mind.”49 One was Reformed theology and the other was a Wesleyan Arminianism which pervaded the Higher Life movement and, according to Warfield, was promulgated by many of the Bible teachers and evangelists of the day. Warfield was at that time engaged in a critique of the Victorious Life movement. 50 He objected to Chafer’s distinction between carnal and spiritual Christians, but even more to his teaching that the reception of divine power for sanctification depends on the believer’s yielding, the right adjustment of one’s heart. To Warfield, this seemed to say that while God makes sanctification possible, a human act makes it actual. Warfield’s criticism was not entirely just. Chafer repeatedly denied that the rule of grace has anything to do with merit—the blessings of God’s grace in sanctification are not acquired or earned by human effort. And on this basis Chafer frequently criticized Arminianism. However, Chafer did not seem to be aware of the psychological effort which Victorious Life teaching entailed and which seemed to reside in his own notion that if we rightly adjust our heart, sanctification is total and complete, but if we do not, victory eludes us.

However, more fundamental was the conflict between what has since been called created and uncreated grace. Chafer took the view of uncreated grace: spirituality is actually the indwelling of God in the soul. Warfield, in his criticism of Chafer, took the view that grace is the creation of new character, new habits in a human being. Controversy flared up again in 1936 with the appearance of several articles accusing dispensationalism, as taught by Scofield and Chafer, of denying the unity of the covenant of grace as expressed in the Westminster Confession.51 The specific issue of dispute was the central motif in Chafer’s (and Scofield’s) theology: the existence of two different religions in the Bible. Chafer held that there are two peoples of God, one earthly and the other heavenly. They are governed by two different rules of life, law and grace; they experience two different kinds of blessing and have different eternal destinies, earthly for the one group and heavenly for the other.

The belief that the covenant of grace unifies the Scripture entailed the belief that the divine purpose expressed in the past dispensation was not substantially different from God’s purpose in the present dispensation. Since this unity in the divine purpose was understood in Reformed circles as one way of salvation, Chafer’s idea of two different divine purposes in the Bible was interpreted as two ways of salvation. It did not matter to his detractors that he viewed the death of Christ as equally foundational for both systems, law and grace, a fact which he himself believed exonerated him from the charge. That he saw in the Bible two substantially different religions (Christianity and Judaism) which entailed different and opposed rules of life and different eternal destinies (heavenly vs. earthly) was sufficient in the minds of many to make stand the charge that he believed in two different kinds of salvation and thus two ways of salvation. Objection was also raised to the way Chafer (and the Scofield Reference Bible) treated the Sermon on the Mount as pure law, distinguished between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God in the Scripture,52 and excluded the Lord’s Prayer from use in the present dispensation. It was pointed out, for example, that the Westminster Shorter Catechism has an extended discussion of the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer for Christians in this dispensation. In 1936 Chafer responded with a lengthy article in Bibliotheca Sacra entitled “Dispensationalism,” which Dallas Theological Seminary also published as a separate booklet by the same name. In it he reasserted his basic proposals and argued that, while covenant theology is relatively recent, theologians throughout the history of the church have recognized dispensations. He also argued that dispensationalism cannot be properly evaluated by reference to the Westminster Confession but only by reference to the Scripture.

Chafer acknowledged that he worked from premises different from those of the covenant theologians. He did not deny the charge that he rejected the concept of a unifying covenant of grace (although he would later teach it in his Systematic Theology). Furthermore, under his editorship Bibliotheca Sacra published an article both criticizing that belief and labeling covenantal theology a recent innovation. 53

In 1943 the Presbyterian Church in the United States appointed an ad interim committee to study the matter of whether dispensationalism was in accord with the Westminster Confession. Ernest Thompson summarizes the result: “This committee, composed of representatives from the theological seminaries, to whom a couple of old-fashioned premillenarians were later added, brought in a lengthy and carefully worded report, adopted practically without debate, which ended with the unanimous judgment of the committee that dispensationalism was ‘out of accord with the system of the doctrine set forth in the Confession of Faith, not primarily or simply in the field of eschatology, but because it attacks the very heart of the theology of our church.’ ”54 The General Assembly took no official action on the report. Nevertheless, it circulated widely and was seen by many Presbyterians as a sufficient basis for excluding dispensationalists from ministerial positions in their churches.55

When his loyalty to the Westminster Confession was attacked, Chafer repeatedly appealed to Scripture, which all acknowledged to be foundational to that creed. His opponents steadfastly refused to engage the issue on this level, defining their purpose strictly as a matter of adherence to the confession. In two lengthy editorials in Bibliotheca Sacra— the first during the deliberations of the ad interim committee and the second immediately after the presentation of its conclusions—Chafer challenged the General Assembly to revise the confession to include the teaching of dispensationalism.56 He appealed to the authority of Scripture over the confession and presented dispensational teachings as newly discovered doctrinal truths. Pointing out that the confession acknowledged its dependence on the Bible, Chafer called for an evaluation of dispensationalism on biblical grounds to determine whether the creed should be revised. When Chafer published his Systematic Theology in 1947–48, he included several harsh comments reflecting the controversies of the preceding years. Critical comments were made about the covenant of grace, although in the first volume he affirmed a traditional three-covenant structure.57 Moreover, in editorials in Bibliotheca Sacra up to the time of his death, Chafer defended the notion of two religions in the Bible. Even though he denounced the charge that he believed in two ways of salvation (which offended him more than did the charge that he denied the unity of the covenant of grace), he continued to insist that the requirements for and benefits of salvation are distinct in Judaism and Christianity.58

Legacy

Lewis Chafer served a movement which had already become a major feature in American evangelicalism, but his theological and institutional efforts provided a framework not only to maintain but also to broaden its influence. Many of those who founded dispensationalist colleges and seminaries, who served as faculty in those institutions, and who wrote dispensational theologies in the next generation were trained by him. The controversies in which he became embroiled led to a decline of dispensational influence in Presbyterian circles. They also produced a sharpness and divisiveness that troubled both fundamentalists and the newly forming evangelical coalitions. Yet Chafer himself encouraged evangelical cooperation. He hailed the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals and applauded the work of such organizations as Young Life, Youth for Christ, and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.59 Many graduates of his seminary served in these organizations as well as in churches, schools, and missions around the world. Thus, in spite of tensions and controversies, Chafer maintained an evangelical ecumenical vision which carried over from the days of the great Bible conferences.

By systematizing the theology of Scofield and the Bible conference movement, Chafer helped maintain the continuing influence of the dispensational tradition. In his own way he passed on to a later generation those features which continue to characterize that tradition: a commitment to the authority of Scripture, emphasis on the theological relevance of biblical prophecy and apocalyptic, futurist premillennialism, the expectation of a national future for Israel in the plan of God, and an encouragement of evangelical cooperative ministries which is based on the reality of the universal body of Christ. Few of Chafer’s successors, however, have followed him in drawing his particular distinction between Christianity and Judaism. Although they speak of a distinction between Israel and the church in biblical theology, they nevertheless see a unified salvation and even abandon Chafer’s notion of dual spheres of eternal life—heaven and earth.60

Many speak of a unified participation in the biblical covenants, regard all aspects of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels as relevant to the church, and even believe that the covenant of grace unifies Scripture.61 Nevertheless, Chafer’s emphasis on the distinctiveness of the forms of religion in biblical revelation has won widespread appreciation for the dispensationalist interpretation of the Old Testament. And his views have helped pave the way, especially in dispensational circles, for the acceptance of a biblical theology which sees development and progress in the history of revelation.

Primary Sources

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