Saturday, April 17, 2010

How a Series of Mistakes Created Dispensationalist-Covenantalist Animosity

"Covenant Theology is a stepping stone to liberalism." "Dispensationalism is antithetical to the gospel." "Amillennialists don't take the Bible literally." "Dispensationalists are Arminians who deny progressive sanctification."

Ever heard any of those accusations? I've heard them all.

When you hear a critique of the opposing position, has it ever seemed as if you're not hearing a summary that its proponents would recognize? Does it ever seem as if the two sides are talking past each other?

Of course there's a difference between the two views, but is the gulf really as wide as partisans on both sides would have us believe? Is the root of this debate really fidelity to the gospel? Or the authority of Scripture?

If you've asked any of these questions, and you don't mind reading a bunch of footnotes, you'll be fascinated by R. Todd Mangum's The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift.

I really cannot speak highly enough of this book. Mangum clearly read—and heard—both sides, but you won't find him arguing the case for either. What you will find is a well-written, thoroughly-researched narrative of where the controversy came from and how it polarized so bitterly.

And, he argues, unnecessarily.

Mangum argues that both Dispensationalists and Covenantalists in the OPC and the PCUS (Southern Presbyterian denomination prior to reunion with the PCUSA) committed massive errors that broadened and deepened the differences. (Yes, the dispensational controversy began among American Presbyterians.)

To make a long story quite short, Lewis Sperry Chafer and some notes in the Scofield Reference Bible affirmed a view of OT law that was incompatible with the Presbyterian denominations' statement of faith, the "Westminster Confession." Many premillennialists, even many dispensationalists at the time (possibly even most) rejected their errors. Confessionalist wings in both denominations reacted against those teachings, but imprudently targeted their attacks against not only Chafer's and the late Scofield's aberrant teachings, but also against dispensationalists in general. Sometimes their attacks even appeared to be directed at covenantal premillennialists. Non-amillennialists, increasingly marginalized or downright unwelcome in the Presbyterian denomination—whether dispensational or premillennial, whether they agreed with Scofield and Chafer or not—moved towards independence.

This barely skims the surface of the story, so I may pick out a few points for particular attention in coming days.


Scott Aniol said...

I've certainly heard my share of dispensationalists caricature CT's, but yesterday I heard the opposite from Michael Horton. Paraphrasing: "They've certainly stood beside us in our fight against Open Theism, but when you look at their position and how Jesus offered the Kingdom to Israel but then had to go with 'Plan B' since they rejected him, you have to wonder if they really believe in a Sovereign God."

Yeah, he set up every straw man including "they don't preach Jesus from the Old Testament," "God had to go with 'Plan B,'" and "Dispies see absolutely no continuity in the plan of God."

Thank goodness he at least refuted the caricature that dispies believe in multiple ways of salvation.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Ben. The book has jumped to my top 5 books to have ever read. The light it has shed on the issues is tremendous.

Dan Salter said...

Charles Feinberg, Dallas prof, stated in his Millennialism: The Two Major Views: "But what did the rejection of the King entail? In failing to receive the King, that particular generation of Israelites lost the kingdom He was about to establish" (p.135). This certainly seems to say that Christ planned to establish the kingdom at his first coming but then altered his plan upon his rejection. Why is that not a plan B? Seems odd that those who argue so insistently for plain, literal interpretation would discard it so readily with other writings. But perhaps the contemporary dispensationalist view of what Feinberg meant was that Jesus was just being disingenuous regarding establishing an immediate kingdom? In a paraphrase of Ligon Duncan--If you can make Feinberg say that Jesus was not about to establish the kingdom when Feinberg said 'the kingdom He was about to establish,' you can make Feinberg say anything.

Anonymous said...

"Yeah, he set up every straw man including "they don't preach Jesus from the Old Testament," "God had to go with 'Plan B,'" and "Dispies see absolutely no continuity in the plan of God." Thank goodness he at least refuted the caricature that dispies believe in multiple ways of salvation."

I have first hand experience with real life dispies exhibiting every one of these "caricatures" openly and with vigor -- even the one Horton apparently refuted.

That doesn't mean that I can't understand that not all who are broadly speaking "dispensational" would exhibit these traits. I have first hand experience with many who don't. Nevertheless, the caricature isn't competely baseless. Furthermore, those who are most loyal to Chafer,Scofield, and Old Dallas, have been the closest to the caricature.

Ben, I need to read this book. Thanks for mentioning it. I wonder if it will reveal that those who aren't like the caricature only picked up the broad contours of hard-core dispensationalism down stream of the bible conferences and the fundamentalist controversy.

Oh, and amen Dan Salter (was Dr. Guenter Salter your father by any chance?)


Ben said...

Dan, without any familiarity with the fuller context of the Feinberg quote, it's not at all difficult to see how Horton catches a whiff of Open Theism. Nevertheless, Calvinists ought to have space in their theology for the notion of a "genuine offer," which the offerer knows will not be accepted.

Feinberg's statement, as you imply, seems to go beyond that. Though this particular concept doesn't seem to have been at issue in the original debate, it seems not at all unlike the sort of aberrant dispensationalist assertions that precipitated the initial conflict. And the problem is only compounded when contemporary dispensationalists fail to distance themselves. History repeats.

Ben said...


If I understand your question correctly, the book does argue that the camps polarized, but a bit later—after the Bible Presbyterian split in 1937 and the PCUS adoption of the investigative committee findings in 1944.

Mangum acknowledges that it's impossible to quantify numbers in the various groups, particular the covenant premil and moderate dispensationalist segments. But he paints a picture in which it's not at all difficult to suspect that at least the latter, if not both of those segments, largely coalesced around the revised dispensationalism of the 50s and 60s.

Nathan said...


I'm really not sure why there couldn't have been a genuine offer of the kingdom from Jesus when he knew full well it would have been rejected. Wouldn't a covenant guy say that God's offer of a covenant of works to Adam was genuine even though he knew it would be rejected? Wouldn't that make the entire cross plan B as well?

Dan Salter said...

Ben, I would agree that God's omniscience alone should not brand as disingenuous an offer that he knew would be rejected. Yet an argument could be made that an offer to someone without ability to accept is disingenuous. But since that's not the point of this thread and opens vast fields of rolling contention, I'd just as soon drop my original musing concerning that as a possible explanation for Feinberg's comment.

Feinberg was admittedly a little early--the old school of dispensationalism. The work I quoted from was his ThD thesis for Chafer in the mid 30s at Dallas (or, at that time, Evangelical Theological Seminary). But moving to the 2nd half of last century (though still not current), it seems to me that Pentecost's Things to Come offers the same Plan A / Plan B concept (though not terminology) in his Kingdom Program section.

But I would agree that this is not the heart of dispensational theology. As an amil, I have to admit that dispies have been attacked in peculiar straw man fashion, but (1) that is true of every millennial view and (2) its kind of easy to do with dispies because of the vast array of the odd and peculiar assertions so heavily strewn about.

Keith, yes, Dr. Salter was my dad.

Ben said...

Nathan, I don't see an inherent obstacle to the "genuine offer" language. I think it's Feinberg's implication that Jesus really was about to establish the kingdom that's problematic. To me it's parallel to saying that Jesus was about to save someone but didn't because he rejected him. I see that as confusing at best, but IMO it doesn't make a universal offer of salvation disingenuous either.

Nathan said...

I guess I'm just trying to see how what Feinberg is saying is any different from what a covenant guy would say regarding Adam and the covenant of works. God established the covenant of works knowing full well that Adam would reject it...was that a disingenuous offer?

It seems like we are bumping up against what Piper calls the "two wills of God" in both the dispensationalist interpretation of the offer of the kingdom and the covenantalist interpretation of the covenant of works. God certainly has a will that cannot be opposed and whatever He wills comes to pass. But at the same time, He makes the free offer of salvation and only those who respond in faith will be saved. In a certain sense, that generation rejected the King and therefore the kingdom was not established. But in another sense, God knew from the foundation of the world what He would do and He ordained that those people would reject Him as King.

IMO you guys are reading to much into what Feinberg said.

Ben said...


Far be it from me to speak for Covenantalists, but I don't think they would speak of something God was *about* to do. Or in terms of the CoW, I don't think they would suggest God was about to create a great race of worshipers in the Garden. (Of course it's hard to spin out the analogy since the nature and future of the purported CoW isn't actually . . . well, let's say . . . spelled out for us.