February 27: Lewis Sperry Chafer

chaferLS.Yep. Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, was a Presbyterian. As was Chafer’s mentor, C. I. (Cyrus Ingerson) Scofield, and as was Scofield’s mentor, James H. Brookes. Presbyterians all. Perhaps that helps to explain how it was the dispensationalism made such inroads into Presbyterian circles in the era from the 1880′s to the 1930′s. That, and the fact that dispensationalists did a fair job of defending the Scriptures when few others. apart from the Princeton conservatives, would or could.

Lewis Sperry Chafer was born in Ashtabula county, Ohio, on February 27, 1871. His parents were the Rev. Thomas Franklin Chafer, a Congregationalist pastor, and Lois Lomira Sperry Chafer, the daughter of a Welsh Wesleyan lay preacher. When Lewis was just eleven, his father died of tuberculosis. Lewis developed an interest in music while attending the New Lyme Institute as he prepared for college. At Oberlin College, he majored in music and met his future wife, Ella Loraine Case. After their marriage in 1896, he began to serve as an evangelist.

An invitation to teach at the Northfield Boys School in turn led to a close friendship with C. I. Scofield, and as they say, the rest is history. Dallas Theological Seminary, founded in 1924 as the Evangelical Theological College, continues to this day. Its founder, Lewis Sperry Chafer, died on August 22, 1952.

In a prior post we talked about Milo Jamison’s role in the split that created the Bible Presbyterian Church. Jamison was a dispensationalist, while the recently formed denomination that was renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was quickly aligning itself against that system. In the last several decades, dispensationalism as a system has been going through a number of changes, but historically it has been anchored to three key tenets: (1) A “normal, literal” interpretation of Scripture; (2) A strict distinction between Israel and the Church; and (3) a scheme of dispensations or ages which divide up Biblical history. The latter two points are particularly where we find ourselves in disagreement with dispensationalism.

D. James Kennedy, when examining men for ordination, would routinely ask for the candidate’s views on dispensationalism, and whether the candidate approved or disapproved of the 1944 Southern Presbyterian report on dispensationalism. And Dr. Kennedy was right to use that Report in that way. However, the untold story behind that PCUS report is that in all likelihood, the Report was an attempt to split the conservatives in the Southern Presbyterian denomination, many of whom at that time were dispensationalists. As modernists were gaining power in the PCUS, the 1944 Report gave them an opportunity to set one camp of conservatives over against another and so dampen opposition to their own agenda.

In Sum:
Few conservative Presbyterians today consider themselves dispensationalists. The old Reformation doctrine—really the old Biblical doctrine—of covenant theology is being taught once again, and taught well in our seminaries and in our churches. How it came to be virtually ignored in the 19th-century is something of a mystery, but the general lack of such teaching in that era does help to explain the rise of dispensationalism during the same time period. Nature abhors a vacuum.

For Further Study:
One of the better popular-level works on covenant theology is O. Palmer Robertson’s Christ of the Covenants. Ask your pastor about other helpful materials on this important subject.

Image source: From a photograph on file at the PCA Historical Center, with the scan prepared by the staff of the Historical Center. The photograph lacks any indication as to who the photographer might have been.

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  1. Jared Nelson’s avatar

    A look into “An Uncommon Union” a history of Dallas Theological Seminary by John Hannah would be interesting for more history on this. A couple of interesting tidbits:

    Chafer wanted to bring Machen to Dallas as a lecturer, and suggested that, when Machen decided to found Westminster Theological, that it adopt an explicit premillenialism. MAchen declined on both suggestions. (page 120)

    Also, Chafer was admonished by his presbytery (but not defrocked) and relied heavily on Hodge for his own systematic theology.

  2. R. Scott Clark’s avatar

    I appreciate this and particularly the note re the purpose of the 1944 report on Dispensationalism. It really was a two-edged sword.

    I’m less confident about Christ of The Covenants. There is a lot of good in the book but it represents the revisions of classic covenant theology that were pervasive among conservative Reformed folk in the 1960s and 70s. It’s been a while since I read it but as I recall it does not accurately reflect the covenant theology of the Westminster Standards on the covenant of works, does it? Further, I’m reasonably sure that it rejected the third pillar of classic Reformed covenant theology, the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son (and the Spirit).

    Here are some resources on covenant theology to supplement and challenge the revisionist account. In particular readers should look at Brown and Keele, Sacred Bond and Horton’s Introducing Covenant Theology, which affirm and explain the covenants of works and redemption as well as the covenant of grace.

  3. archivist’s avatar

    Dr. Clark: It sounds as if a re-reading of Christ of the Covenants might indeed be in order. In fact, that would probably be good for all of us, to re-read that work, which had such influence when first published. If the book indeed failed to adequately deal with the covenant of works, that might be explained perhaps by what the author saw as the prevailing need of the moment. (just a guess on my part)

  4. R. Scott Clark’s avatar

    He was, as I recall, quite influenced by the venerable Mr Murray’s self-conscious revisions of covenant theology in the 1950s. By the 1970s those revisions had become the new “orthodoxy” in many places and Robertson’s book reflected the new consensus. Bryan Estelle notes (in his chapter in Covenant. Justification, and Pastoral Ministry:

    O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), 55–57 and 67–87 (although Robertson had exceptions to the nomenclature “works” because of his view of the role of grace in both the covenant of works and grace)

    With respect to the pactum salutis another passage from <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Covenant-Justification-Pastoral-Ministry-Westminster/dp/1596380357&quot; target="_blank" CJPM:

    In his 1980 covenant theology, O. Palmer Robertson also adopted a definition of covenant (“a bond in blood sovereignly administered”) which precluded the PS. He argued that the eternal counsel of God should not be construed as a “pre-creation covenant between Father and Son” because a “sense of artificiality flavors effort to structure in covenant terms the mysteries of God’s eternal counsels.” To speak of a PS “is to extend the bounds of scriptural evidence beyond propriety.” (see Robertson, Christ of The Covenants 4, 54)

    None of this should be taken in any way to diminish what Robertson has done in the service of the gospel or Christ’s church. I’m deeply thankful for Palmer’s stout defense of the doctrine of justification during and after the Shepherd controversy at WTS. I’m grateful for his ministry.

    There is a reason, however, that so many people (e.g., in the PCA) take it as a given that they may reject or take exception to WCF ch. 7 and 19 on the covenant of works.

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