A Necessary Division?

In The Nick of Time

A Review Essay

To today’s observer, few aspects of evangelical theology seem as definitive and permanent as the difference between covenant theology and its younger cousin, dispensationalism. This difference may not be the most important within evangelical thought (it is, in a sense, an intramural spat within Reformed theology), but none seems to be taken for granted any more than this one. Even the recent attempts at mediating positions (such as promise theology, new covenant theology, and progressive dispensationalism) are greeted with suspicion on both sides.

A recent book by R. Todd Mangum, The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift, argues that the distinction between these two positions is relatively recent. The subtitle of Mangum’s work hints at his thesis: The Fissuring of American Evangelical Theology from 1936 to 1944. Mangum’s surprising suggestion is that the hardening of the conflict between covenant theology and dispensationalism occurred only during the second third of the twentieth century.

According to Mangum, dispensationalism was not really a self-aware theological movement before the 1930s. Of course eschatological differences existed primarily between premillennialists and amillennialists. Mangum suggests, however, that prior to the 1930s the difference between covenant premillennialists and dispensational premillennialists was not obvious and seldom, if ever, noticed. Indeed, the very name “dispensationalism” did not exist prior to 1928, when controversialist Philip Mauro coined it as a derogatory term. Mangum notes that no one was willing to claim the dispensationalist label before 1936, and even then the claims were reluctant and highly qualified.

In order to trace the development of the difference between covenant theology and dispensationalism, Mangum focuses upon two particular episodes. The first is the splintering of J. Gresham Machen’s Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). The second is the adoption of an ad interim committee report on dispensationalism by the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS).

Within the OPC, the immediate cause of offense came from particular notes in the Scofield Reference Bible that appeared to hint at multiple ways of salvation. Certain covenant theologians, notably R. B. Kuiper and John Murray, saw these references as an attack upon the unity of the covenant of grace, and therefore a rejection of the system of doctrine found in the Westminster standards. They began to denounce the system of teaching contained in the Scofield Bible in very strong language.

Because they had never seen themselves as a distinct school of theology (let alone as “dispensationalists”), some premillennialists in the OPC saw these denunciations as an attack upon their eschatology. On the one hand, they attempted to distance themselves from Scofield’s offending notes. On the other hand, they asked that eschatological liberty be written into the standards of the OPC. When this request was denied, many of the premillennialists saw further confirmation that their eschatology was actually the thing being attacked.

Mangum believes that the debate over dispensationalism and premillennialism was exacerbated by several factors. First, the antagonists were not even members of the OPC (Kuiper was Christian Reformed, and Murray was Scottish Presbyterian) and had not paid the price of the battles within the Northern Presbyterian Church. Second, he suggests that the Dutch theologians such as Kuiper and Van Til adopted a more rigid and caustic attitude toward doctrinal disagreement than had been usual among the followers of Machen. Third, the antagonists tended to treat the Scofield Bible as a kind of authoritative confession for dispensationalism, failing to recognize the degree to which many dispensationalists diverged from its specific teachings.

The conflict within the OPC was followed by a conflict within the PCUS (Southern Presbyterian Church). The point of contention for Southern Presbyterians was Dallas Theological Seminary, founded by Louis Sperry Chafer. Chafer had been an associate of Scofield and had incorporated much of Scofield’s teaching into the newly established school. Chafer was also a Southern Presbyterian minister.

As in the OPC, the conflict centered upon Scofield’s apparent suggestion that Israelites were saved in one way but church saints are saved in another. As the PCUS referred the matter to an ad interim committee, Chafer expressed offense at the notion that he or Scofield taught multiple ways of salvation. He also attempted to clarify his position. Unfortunately, each clarification tended to cloud the issue even further. Accused of teaching a system that contradicted the Westminster standards, Chafer appealed away from the standards to the Scriptures, creating the unfortunate impression that he believed the standards themselves to be in error.

As Mangum depicts the events, virtually everything that Chafer did during the debate served to intensify the conflict. By the end of the conflict, the members of the ad interim committee had come to perceive dispensationalism as a unified system that taught at least two ways of salvation. They correctly concluded that such a bifurcation would necessarily undermine the unity of the covenant of grace, thus contradicting the Westminster standards. When Chafer insisted upon correcting the standards by (his interpretation of) the Scriptures, the committee members believed that their thinking was confirmed.

Mangum argues that, after 1944, much of the debate between covenant theologians and dispensationalists has consisted of the two positions simply talking past one another. Each began with an erroneous impression of what the other thought, then found confirmation in the more extreme statements of its opposition. The end result was a significant upheaval and division that may not have been necessary at all.

That is where Mangum’s own agenda comes into play. What he would like is a rehearsal of some of the issues between dispensationalism and covenant theology, but a rehearsal in which both participants are truly attempting to understand one another. He thinks it is possible that many of the old misunderstandings could be corrected and the degree of conflict diminished or even eliminated altogether.

Todd Mangum’s conclusions about the history of this debate will surprise many readers. Perhaps that is because so little attention has been paid to the history of the conflict between dispensationalism and covenant theology, and much that has been published in the past was more polemical than historical. Mangum is dispassionate and careful. He digs into the sources, discovering the evidence and providing the argumentation to vindicate his thesis.

As for Mangum’s agenda, I frankly like it. Make no mistake: I am a partisan to the debate, an unreconstructed, traditional dispensationalist. I am not convinced that there are no substantive issues at stake. The differences are not merely trivial, and I do not think that a conversation can assume the existence of some common, middle ground between dispensationalism and covenant theology.

Nevertheless, I agree that the debate has been unnecessarily aggravated by principals on both sides who have failed to understand the legitimate concerns of responsible advocates on the other side. While I doubt that the difference between dispensationalism and covenant theology can ever be reduced to a mere misunderstanding over terms, I do agree that the proponents of these views have often talked past one another. Both sides would benefit from an irenic, deliberate exploration of their differences. At the end of the day, I suspect that a division will still exist, but we will all be in a better position if we can know precisely what constitutes the legitimate bones of contention. We may discover that those are fewer in number than we had assumed.

Christ’s Victory

Richard Crashaw (c. 1613-1649)

Christ, when he died,
Deceived the cross,
And on death’s side
Threw all the loss:
The captive world awaked and found
The prisoners loose, the jailor bound.

O dear and sweet dispute
’Twixt death’s and love’s far different fruit,
Different as far
As antidotes and poisons are:
By the first and fatal tree
Both life and liberty
Were sold and slain;
By this they both look up and live again.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
566 reads

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.