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Over Spring Break, I read The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift: The Fissuring of American Evangelical Theology from 1936 to 1944. The book was originally a Ph.D. dissertation in Church History by a Dallas Theological Seminary graduate, and I found it absolutely fascinating. He by no means repudiates his dispensational theology (he apparently won the John F. Walvoord Award for outstanding work in eschatology), but I thought that he was extraordinarily fair in his analysis of the point in history at which dispensationalists and covenantalists parted ways. If anything, he seemed to think that early dispensationalists (especially Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder and first president of Dallas Theological Seminary) were largely to blame for (what he would describe as) the misunderstanding between both camps.

Put simply, his thesis is that dispensationalists and covenantalists misunderstood each other because of their different attempts to defend the historic faith against liberalism. To Covenantalists, especially in the wake of the fallout at Princeton Seminary with J. Gresham Machen, the solution was to uphold the historic creeds and confessions, especially the Westminster Confession of Faith. The problem with the liberals, as they saw it, was their willingness to modify the confessions in order to bring them into line with modernist philosophy. Because the PCUSA did not denounce and excommunicate modernists within the Presbyterian Church, those modernists (or at least those who were willing to tolerate the modernists in the name of Christian Unity) took over control of the denomination. Therefore, conservative Presbyterians (such as those in the newly-founded Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) believed that if Presbyterians remained faithful to their confession, they would also remain faithful to the faith so that there would not be a second liberalization of the Presbyterian Church.

Dispensationalists, on the other hand, believed that the problem was that liberals had stopped interpreting the Bible literally. Certainly, in some ways, they were correct: by interpreting the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in figurative and spiritual ways–therefore denying their historicity–the liberals had abandoned a literal interpretation, and therefore had abandoned the faith. So, the solution was simple: an emphasis on the literal interpretation of Scripture would protect against further defections to liberalism.

The disagreement arose when this hermeneutic of literalism began to interpret God’s promises to Israel. This, of course, resulted in Dispensationalism’s unique take on the distinction between Israel and the Church and their resulting eschatology, Dispensational Premillenialism. Realizing that this theological perspective was not in conformity with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, prominent dispensationalists began to advocate a revision of the standards. (Believe it or not, Dallas employed almost an exclusively Presbyterian faculty in its early years; notably, Chafer and Walvoord were Presbyterians in the beginning. [p. 217-18])

Do you see the problem? Two different groups of conservative Presbyterian Christians were advocating two mutually exclusive ways to prevent a liberal takeover of their denominations: one insisted on holding to the Westminster Standards; another insisted on a “literal” hermeneutic for biblical interpretation that would demand a revision of the Standards. This moved the traditional (Covenantal) Presbyterians to examine more closely the Dispensationalism that they had largely ignored before the 1930s, when all their efforts had been directed toward combating liberalism. Upon examination, they came to the conclusion that Dispensationalism was not in conformity with the standards, and therefore they began to remove dispensationalists (and, unfortunately, many Historic Premillenialists who got caught in the cross-fire) from the denomination.

There is a much bigger story here, of course, and the whole thing is fascinating. I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology read the book–it helps a lot to see where the disagreements arose, and I think that he is particularly helpful in tracing points where the two camps are closer now than they ever had been, especially since many of the misunderstandings on both sides have been cleared up since the 1940s.

This book in no way made me more sympathetic to the aspects of Dispensationalism that have not changed over the years (notably, their distinction of the Church and Israel and their eschatology), but I think that this book helped me to reaffirm in my mind the points of commonality that I do share with dispensationalist Christians–we both are committed to the historic faith delivered once for all to the saints through our mutual affirmation of human depravity, Christ’s full deity and full humanity in the incarnation, his death on the cross as a substitute for sinners, his bodily resurrection in victory over sin and death, and his future bodily return to earth, whatever such a return might mean.

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