Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952)
Dispensationalism Book Review, Lewis Sperry Chafer, 1951
Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952) was an early influential dispensationalist theologian. For perspective, Chafer was 11 years old when J. N. Darby died (1800-1882). Darby is considered the founding father of Dispensationalism theology.
The second most influential figure that spread this new theological system was probably C.I. Scofield (1843-1921). In 1909, Scofield published a dispensational study Bible. This Bible contained extensive dispensational notes imbedded inside the sacred pages of Scripture. By the end of World War II, two million copies had been sold. Scofield’s fame soon spread throughout the world.
Lewis Chafer became a student and later a good friend of Scofield. This friendship lasted for around twenty years. In 1924, (three years after the death of Scofield) Chafer founded Dallas Theological seminary (with a different name). Now to the book review.
Chapter One, The Word Dispensation
In the introduction to this chapter, Chafer explains why he wrote this book. He writes, “This thesis purports to demonstrate that so-called dispensationalists find the specific meaning of the Scriptures which God intended to impart and are therefore, by the most exacting proofs, found to be both reasonable and normal in their interpretations” (page 10).
What Chafer wrote will not pass the “muster” of Scripture. In chapter one, Chafer does not quote one Bible verse, nor provide any Scripture references. He defines “the word dispensation” without the biblical record. This seriously undermines his credibility because the word “dispensation” is found multiple times in Scripture.
Why do you suppose that Chafer purposely omits the biblical record for this biblical word? Dispensational theology extracted the word “dispensation” as found contextually in Scripture and stuffed it with a theological definition, which was subsequently turned into a theological overlay. This practice perverts the holy teachings of Scripture. This outrageous practice grieves those who occupy the office of Bereans and believe that the Bible is God’s only acceptable standard for faith and practice.
He identifies dispensationalists and writes, “The answer to this question might be stated in a variety of ways. Three of these may suffice: (1) Any person is a dispensationalist who trusts the blood of Christ rather than bringing an animal sacrifice. (2) Any person is a dispensationalist who disclaims any right or title to the land which God covenanted to Israel for an everlasting inheritance. And (3) any person is a dispensationalist who observes the first day of the week rather than the seventh” (page 11).
Chafer’s written definition of dispensationalists is blatantly false. Most Christians agree with his three-part description and are clearly not dispensationalists. It also makes all Calvinists dispensationalists. Chafer’s definition conceals the primary identifying trait of dispensationalism –a hard-nose distinction read into Scripture that separates redeemed Israel from being one with the church.
Instead of examining the biblical record, Chafer appeals to the Century Dictionary for a definition of dispensation. It’s not worth wasting your time on this extra biblical definition.
Chafer responds to some objections levied against dispensational theology. He first responds to the objection that dispensational theology is new (page 13). So what evidence does Chafer offer to counter such a reasonable objection?
He appeals primarily to two theologians of the past. The first one was Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) who used the word “dispensation” several times in his books. Edwards lived around 100 years before Darby and regularly called the time before Christ an “Old-Testament dispensation” (Works of Jonathan Edwards, volume 1, 1834, pages 465 and 586; published 1834). The evidence that Chafer submits is inadmissible. Chafer apparently mined Edwards’s books for the best sentence that contained the word “dispensation“. Here is the quote that Chafer submits as proof: “There is, perhaps, no part of divinity attended with so much intricacy, and wherein orthodox divines so much differ as the stating of the precise agreement and difference between the two dispensations of Moses and Christ” (Edward’s Works, I, 100). Edwards was not even close to being a dispensationalist. He did not believe the Bible could be understood by building a wall around redeemed Israel and the church. Further, Edwards did not subscribe to a pre-tribulation rapture. Edward’s quote illustrates his regular practice of calling all or part of the Old Testament a dispensation.
The use of the word “dispensation” (a biblical word) was used by many theologians since the time of the Apostolic Fathers. This use was unrelated to dispensation theology. Even John Calvin used this word in his books. Strikingly, not once did the word take on the meaning assigned by dispensationalists (ruling factors, test by God, new revelation, etc.) until J. N. Darby’s generation.
For addition support to counter the “newness” argument of dispensationalism, Chafer appeals to a quote by Augustine of Hippo (354-430): “Distinguish the ages and the Scriptures harmonize.” But this quote is taken out of context. It was spoken by Augustine in a sermon over an apparent contradiction between Matthew 18:15 and Proverbs 10:10b, that could be fixed by distinguishing the ages. This quote had nothing to do with Darby’s theology called dispensationalism, which brings a hard line division separating the church and redeemed Israel.
The second objection Chafer responds to: “It has been claimed that dispensationalism is in some respects ‘illogical’ and ‘leads to disastrous consequences‘” (page 14).
Chafer responds that “…dispensationalism has now become one of the most firmly established features of Christian education and … the inspiration to sacrificial service to uncounted multitudes who testify that the Bible became a new and transforming message…” (page 14).
Again, no biblical evidence is submitted. Just because dispensational theology became popular overnight, Chafer believed this is proof. The test for validity of church doctrine is not the standard of popularity (“has now become one of the most firmly established features of Christian education“) or newness (“that the Bible became a new and transforming message…“). Chafer’s testing methods for church doctrine are dishonorable.
Sadly, he continues applying counterfeit hermeneutics. He jumps to the conclusion that dispensationalism is true because it’s new: (“…very few are known to have ever abandoned the new ground they have taken…”). In contrast, because it’s new, warrants an extensive examination by the Scripture.
Here is the third objection he responds to: “Another claim has been made in recent discussions: ‘I am a premillennialist, but not a dispensationalist.’ This statement evidently supposes that premillennialism is a belief in an event which is isolated from all that precedes and all that follows it‘” (page 15).
Chafer’s conclusion is troubling. He views non-dispensationalists who hold to Premillennialism as believing “… an event which is isolated from all that precedes and all that follows it.” Chafer submits no evidence for his groundless claim. Those of us who hold a historical premillennial view find this doctrine biblically sustainable after a careful examination of both testaments.
Here is the fourth objection he responds to: “And, finally, it has been contended of late that dispensationalism is a modern heretical departure from sound interpretation of the Scriptures, and that the scholarly research of dispensationalists…. should be classified as a form of Higher Criticism” (page 15).
Chafer is addressing an article written by Oswald T. Allis (1880-1973), titled “Modern Dispensationalism and the Doctrine of the Unity of Scripture,”. This was from a published theological journal called, “The Evangelical Quarterly,” January 1936. I have read this article. Should you desire to form your independent conclusion, you may read it for yourself at: http://www.the-highway.com/dispensationalism_Allis.html.
Chafer’s counter argument to this article is disturbing. He writes, “… the author believes Dr. Allis is referring only to extreme dispensationalists of which class there are but very few today” (page 16).
Chafer has masterfully created a diversion about ultra-dispensationalists, which is unrelated with the article. Allis’s writing is critical of the Scofield study Bible. Chafer goes on to write, “Thus this ‘fundamental error’ consists in the recognition of distinctions which go beyond Dr. Allis’ own conceptions” (page 17).
Chapter Two, The Creatures of God Viewed Dispensational
Without biblical accreditation for dispensational theology (chapter 1), Chafer moves on to a topical examination of angels, Gentiles, Jews, and Christians. His dispensational presuppositions will overwhelm the interpretation process.
When Chafer writes about Gentiles, he notes their “racial stock” and that they “had their origin in Adam” (page 23), but makes no such acknowledgement when writing about Jews. While the Bible makes ethnic distinctions, being a true Jew is not determined by one’s race but the condition of the heart. “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:28-29).
“And not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh [ethnicity] who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (Romans 9:7-8).
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Romans 3:28-29).
He writes, “Their new proffered blessings in this age [Gentiles] do not consist in being permitted to share in Israel’s earthly covenants, which even Israel is not now enjoying; but rather, through riches of grace in Christ Jesus, they are privileged to be partakers of a heavenly citizenship and glory” (page 24).
He calls the Old Testaments covenants that God made as “earthly” to create disparity between Israel and the church (as two distinct peoples of God). Let’s review the covenants that God made with Israel (whom he calls “earthly“).
The Abrahamic Covenant was made in Genesis 12 between God and Abraham. New Testament authors taught that Abraham is the father of church age saints (see Romans 4:1; 4:12; 4:16; 9:7; Galatians 3:7; James 2:21, etc.). Jesus Christ made peace (broke down the barrier) on the cross between Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:11-3:6). Chafer’s operant exemption of the church in this covenant is unfounded.
In Galatians 3:16, Paul writes how the Abrahamic Covenant was made to Abraham and Jesus Christ and NOT to Abraham’s offspring. Here is the verse: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.”
In the same chapter, Paul went on to write: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are [the church] Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:28-29).
The Bible also teaches that the church is a recipient of the New Covent (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:6-13, 10:16; 1 Corinthians 11:25). All the benefits of this covenant have not been fulfilled (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). Those who hold to premillennialism (such as myself) believe that God will keep unfulfilled covenants promises.
God also made the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7; 1 Chronicles 17:11-14; 2 Chronicles 6:16). God promised that someone (Jesus Christ) would sit on David’s throne. Jesus Christ fulfills this covenant. He will return one day to earth and occupy an earthly throne.
Another Old Testament covenant made is the Land (Palestinian) Covenant. Those inside the church remain divided on the extent of the fulfillment. Some hold that all the promises have been fulfilled. While others believe that additional land promises will be fulfilled in the Millennial Kingdom.
Chafer continued, “…they, [Gentiles] as to their estate in the period from Adam to Christ, are under a six fold indictment, namely, without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world (Eph 2:12)” (page 24). Chafer is contextually out of bounds. The Bible only has true meaning within context. Chafer makes a point, 180 degrees off course from the context. Chafer’s thesis is before the time of Christ. However, Paul’s point is after Christ. In verse 13, Paul excludes the very things Chafer argues for (“without Christ“, aliens“, “strangers“, “no hope“, etc.).
Chafer assigns future destinies based on ethnicity. Chafer writes, “The destiny of the Gentiles is further revealed when it is declared concerning the city which, after the creation of the new heavens and the new earth, comes down from God out of heaven (Rev 3:12; 21:2, 10)…” (page 25).
Chafer’s “Gentile” only, “New Jerusalem” is biblically unsubstantiated. If God divides His people based on race as Chafer believed, He would surely not name the eternal state for Gentiles as the “New Jerusalem.” This holy city will have the names of the 12 tribes of Israel inscribed on its gates (Revelation 21:12).
The first verse Chafer provides as proof for this outrageous belief is Revelation 3:12. Here Jesus is addressing the church at Philadelphia and no distinction is made based on race: “The one who conquers, [condition not based on ethnicity] I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name” (Revelation 3:12).
Chafer’s second proof text offers no proof: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). There is nothing in this verse or anywhere in the Bible to substantiate Chafer’s “Gentile” only belief. Many dispensationalists (mainly progressives), have moved away from such foolishness.
His final proof text for a “Gentile” only,”New Jerusalem” is the following: “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:10). Once again, Chafer’s belief is absent without the introduction of presuppositions into the interpretation process.
Devoid of Scriptural support, Chafer embellishes that “the race which sprang from him [Abraham] through Isaac and Jacob has ever been unique both as to spiritual values and physical appearance” (pages 25-26). There is no Biblical basis for the teaching that the Jews were “unique,” “in physical appearance.”
Chafer states the dispensational construction that Jesus came to offer an earthly kingdom to Israel (page 28-29). Once again, Chafer lacks proof for this fictional doctrine. For John 1:11, he writes, “The ‘rejection’ on the part of the nation Israel was not the personal rejection of a crucified and risen Savior as He is now rejected when the gospel is refused. It was a nation to whom a Messiah King was promised rejecting their King. They did not say, .’We will not believe on this Savior for the saving of our souls’; but they did say in effect, ‘We will not have this man to reign over us.’ This distinction is important since it determines the precise character of their sin” (page 30).
Chafer makes affirmations in a Scripture-less vacuum. The teaching that Jesus came to offer Himself to Israel as her earthly King was not prophesied. Secondly, Chafer in error teaches that the Jewish rejection of Christ was limited to a kingdom offer and not a Savior. The Bible highlights why Jesus came (Matthew 1:21; John 3:16, 10:10, 18:37; Luke 4:43, 19:10, etc.) and it was NOT to offer an earthly Kingdom to Israel.
The context of John 1:11 is not concerning “We will not have this man to reign over us” (rejection of an earthly kingship) but rejection of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that [why:], all might believe through him” (John 1:6-7). The message of John the Baptist was that “all might believe through him.” The context is a rejection of their Savior; not an earthly kingdom as Chafer contends.
“He came to his own [Israelites], and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11-13). The Jews overwhelmingly rejected their Messiah as their Lord and Savior. Those who “received Him,” “became children of God.” The context (again) is regarding Jesus who offered Himself as Savior to His people; sadly, few believed. Chaffer’s only proof text that Jesus offered an earthly kingdom is fallacious.
He goes on and writes, “To the nation Israel Christ is Messiah, Emmanuel, and King; to the Church He is Head, Bridegroom, and Lord; the last designation connoting His sovereign authority over the Church. These statements, admittedly dogmatic, are easily verified” (Pages 32-33).
Chafer spins a web of dispensational proofs without the fiber of Scripture. The three descriptions that Chafer assigns to only Israel are all applicable to the church! The title “Messiah” is found twice in the New Testament. According to Eerdmans’s Bible Dictionary (Myers, 1987, page 713), “the Hebrew term for Messiah (māšîaḥ) occurs twice in transliterated form (John 1:41; 4:25). In both passages the Greek translation ‘Christ’ also appears.” Here are the verses:
“He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ)” (John 1:41). “The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things” (John 4:25). Chafer’s exclusive application of the title Israel to Israel is a tragedy. The same Messiah that was rejected by Israel 2000 years ago is Jesus, the Christ, the Head of the church.
The second title that Chafer restricts by way of application to the church is “Immanuel.” An angel of God spoke to Joseph: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (Matthew 1:21-23). This Immanuel is no less than Jesus, the head of the church!
The last title that Chafer limits to only Israel is “King.” This King is Jesus Christ who currently reigns and will set up a future earthly reign (2 Samuel 8:12-13; Psalm 89:3-4; 132:11; 110:1-4; Acts 1:6-8; 2:32-35; 5:31; 7:54-56; Matthew 22:41-46; Revelation 20:4-6; Zachariah 14:4; etc.). Many dispensationalists, true to their schematics, claim that Christ is not reigning in heaven. Such a teaching limits Christ’s sovereignty from reigning as Lord over all.
An honest assessment from Christians would overwhelmingly conclude that Satan is the god of this World. As believers in Jesus Christ, it’s foolish to think that Satan isn’t subject to Christ’s reign. The following verses demonstrate that Christ continues to reign sovereignly:
“who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Peter 3:22).
“But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:23-25).
“The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool” (Psalm 110:1).
“And what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:19-23).
Chafer decided for the church (and God) which New Testament books are applicable to her. He writes, “The Scriptures addressed specifically to this company [the church] are, the Gospel by John -especially the upper room discourse,-the Acts and the Epistles. The Synoptic Gospels, though on the surface presenting a simple narrative are, nevertheless, a field for careful, discriminating study on the part of the true expositor” (pages 35-36). Chafer’s decree renders most of the Gospel’s message inapplicable to the church. This exclusion strips the central teachings of Jesus (the Gospel of the Kingdom) right out of the pages of Scripture. Satan delights when the response to deny one’s self and follow Christ are removed from the Gospel.
Jesus commanded the church to teach the Gospels (Matthew-John), the very things that Chafer forbids. Jesus said, “teaching them [the church] to observe ALL that I have commanded you [as found in the Gospels]. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Chafer continues stripping the Gospels applicability to the church: “In these Gospels Christ is seen as loyal to and vindicating the Mosaic Law under which He lived; [pause for comment].” Of course He did; the Jews were still under the law. He continued, “He also anticipates the kingdom age in connection with the offer of Himself as Israel’s King [pause].” Once again, this is an unsubstantiated dispensational doctrine that is taught as fact. He continues, “and, when His rejection is indicated, He announces His death and resurrection and the expectation concerning a heavenly people (Matt 16:18) [pause].” This passage in Matthew doesn’t state that because the Jews rejected Jesus, He decides to “announce His death” and then start the church. When assumptions are imported into Scripture as facts, the author’s intent is changed to favor the presupposition. When Satan tempted Jesus He twisted Scripture out of context. Let’s continue: “for whom He gave Himself in redeeming love (Eph 5:25–28)” (page 36). Chafer is correct here. Most false theologies contain fibers of truth; if not, no one would believe them.
Chafer writes, “But, it will be remembered, the Christian possesses no land (Exod 20:12; Matt 5:5); no house (Matt 23:38; Acts 15:16), though of the household of God; no earthly capitol or city (Isa 2:1–4; Ps 137:5, 6); no earthly throne (Luke 1:31–33); no earthly kingdom (Acts 1:6, 7); no king to whom he is subject (Matt 2:2), though Christians may speak of Christ as “The King” (1 Tim 1:17; 6:15); and no altar other than the cross of Christ (Heb 13:10–14)” (Page 38).
Chafer unfairly compares the church to the Jewish nation when they were under the law for the false teaching that God is pursuing two separate groups of people with different destinies. Non-dispensational Christians recognize that God required people to relate to Him differently in the past. But this distinction should not be exaggerated, thereby making the church and believing Jews as separate people that Christ did not unite with His blood.
Please consider this passage: “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). The alienation from the “commonwealth of Israel” describes believing Jews of the Old Testament who had the “covenants of promise.” Paul’s point in the verses that follow is that the blood of Christ united the Old Testament saints with the church! There is only one people of God! Please give thought to the verses that follow: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off [Jews were also “far off”; see verse 17] have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:13-16).
Dispensationalism teaches in error that the Kingdom will one day be given back to Israel apart from the church. While Christ will one day reign from Israel and all living Jews will all be saved, the “Jewish only” Kingdom was “taken way” (not postponed) as Jesus communicated, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Matthew 21:43). For additional passages, please see also Matthew 8:11-12, Daniel 7:27; 1 Peter 2:9-10; John 10:16 and Revelation 5:9.
Thanks for reading this review. May God bless you as you follow the footsteps of His Son.
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