The “C” Word and Dispensationalism

The C-word, Calvinism.  Just mentioning it is asking for a fight.  On the one hand are the “cage-stage” Calvinists.  These are the obnoxious clods who have come to embrace Calvinism and are ready to defend its five points against all-comers.  In fact, they are more than ready.  They are on the prowl for opportunities to assert and aggresively defend Calvinist claims. On the other hand are the “cage-stage” anti-Calvinists.  They are just as rabid and just as unpleasent in their fight to refute Calvinist claims.  They may be Arminian, or they may claim the title of “biblicist”, or they may just be against what they understand to be Calvinism without articulating an alternative belief of their own.  

Recently I have noticed that “cage-stage” Calvinists and anti-Calvinists have been squaring off in several of the FaceBook forums dedicated to Dispensationalism. They are no doubt egged on, in part, by a series of youtube videos by Dr. Andy Woods, a classic dispensationalist whom I greatly respect, who advocates an anti-Calvinist view.  I find this family feud to be especially disappointing.  Dispensationalism seems to be on a decline and the last thing we need to be doing is fighting among ourselves.  How much more productive might it be if we were instead focused on asserting the distinctives of Dispensational theology?

At the risk of joining in the fray rather than trying to break up the fight let me simply point out that the historical fact is that Dispensationalism was systematized and spread by Calvinists.  Consider John Nelson Darby.  His biographer, William Turner, wrote that in about 1831 Darby was invited to Oxford University to defend Calvinism in a public debate with a non-Calvinist.⁠1  He must have done well because he was invited to a similar debate in Calvin’s adopted hometown of Geneva Switzerland to do it again.⁠2  On yet another occasion Darby became involved in a controversy within the Anglican Church over the reformed doctrines of predestination and election.  He wrote, “I believe that predestination to life is the eternal purpose of God, by which, before the foundations of the world were laid, He firmly decreed, by His counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and destruction those whom He had chosen in Christ out of the human race, and to bring them, through Christ, as vessels made to honour, to eternal salvation.”⁠3 Sounds pretty Calvinist to me!

Dispensationalism came to America through Presbyterians and Baptists who shared Darby’s Calvinism.  Of particular note is James H. Brookes who was pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.  Brooks welcomed Darby and other early dispensationalists to speak in his church.  He also discipled a new believer in Jesus by the name of C.I. Scofield.  Scofield went on to pastor congregational and presbyterian churches, which share a Calvinist outlook.  He also of course went on the author the Scofield Reference Bible and was a significant influence on Lewis Sperry Chafer.

Besides establishing Dallas Theological Seminary, once a bastion of dispensational thinking, Chafer also wrote the eight volume Systematic Theology which C. Fred Lincoln characterized as “Calvinistic, premillennial, and dispensational”.⁠4  Similarly, John Walvoord, Chafer’s successor as president of Dallas Theological Seminary, decribed his work as “broad and moderate Calvinism”.⁠5  Chafer was clearly what one calls a four-point Calvinist, rejecting the doctrine of limited atonement.⁠6  Chafer also wrote “It is Calvinism which seeks to honor God—Father, Son, and Spirit—by its views respecting depravity, human guilt, and human helplessness, and these in the light of divine sovereignty, divine supremacy, and the sufficiency of divine grace.”⁠7 He also wrote “…what is termed Calvinism—largely for want of a more comprehensive cognomen—is, so far as devout men have been able to comprehend it, the essential Pauline theology, especially in its soteriological aspects.”⁠8  Note this quote carefully. In Chafer’s view Calvinism is essentially the Apostle Paul’s view on theology particularly soteriology. 

Mal Couch was the founder and President of Tyndale Theological Seminary.  This school’s mission is to carry on the teaching of classical dispensationalism held by Chafer, Walvoord, Pentecost, and Ryrie. At a 2009 address at Clifton Bible Church Couch identified himself as a four-point Calvinist, also rejecting limited atonement.  He identified Dallas Seminary, Moody Bible Institute, Philadelphia College of the Bible, and Drs. Chafer, Walvoord, Pentecost, and Ryrie as Calvinist in theology.⁠9

For a very comprehensive treatment of this subject I recommend you look up Dr. Tommy Ice’s excellent article titled “The Calvinistic Heritage of Dispensationalism”.⁠10  It is accessible online from Liberty University.  I put the link in the footnote for you.

My purpose here has not been to be either an obnoxious clod, nor a rabid unpleasent attacker.  Instead my point is that there is nothing inherently anti-dispensational, ungodly, or anti-Christian in Calvinism.  As dispensationalists we should recognize our shared heritage while we engage in a respectful, informed, and civil dialog.  Let’s not destroy ourselves from within. Rather lets rather assert and affirm the distinctives of dispensational theology.

1 William G. Turner, John Nelson Darby: A Biography (London: C. A. Hammond, 1926). 45

2 Ibid., 58

3 J. N. Darby, “The Doctrine of the Church of England at the Time of the Reformation,” in The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby https://www.stempublishing.com/authors/darby/DOCTRINE/03001E.html

4 C. F. Lincoln, “Biographical Sketch of the Author,” in Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), Vol. VIII, p. 6.

5 (BSac 105:417 (Jan 48)

6 Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993), 184

7 Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993), 273.

8 Ibid. 313.

9 Mal Couch, Address at Clifton Bible Church, 2009. https://archive.org/details/Dr.MalCouchCalvinism, accessed September 2019.

10 Thomas D.Ice, “The Calvinistic Heritage of Dispensationalism” (2009). Article Archives. Paper 11. http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/pretrib_arch/11

Whatever He Pleases, He Does

Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps.” 

(Psalm 135:6, NASB95)

Everything that Happens to You is Redeemed by the Sovereignty of God

One of my very favorite theologians, Charles Ryrie, wrote “The word sovereign means chief, highest, or supreme. When we say that God is sovereign we are saying that He is the number one Ruler in the universe…The concept of sovereignty involves the entire plan of God in all of its intricate details of design and outworking. Although He often allows things to take their natural course according to laws which He designed, it is the sovereign God who is working all things according to His wise plan.⁠1

Everyone implicitly or instinctively recognizes there is a god who is in control of all things.  As I write this Hurricane Dorian was swept through the Bahamas and is heading toward Florida.  When asked to explain why this devastating Hurricane has wreaked such damage may will simply say “It was an act of god.”

When I was a boy I often heard the dreaded words “Wait until your father gets home!”.  This was very bad news as it was the promise of a coming spanking.  In the same way God’s sovereignty is bad news for some.  Sovereignty means that God, specifically the God of the Bible, is able and will vent His wrath against all things evil. 

For others, God’s sovereignty is great news.  It means that nothing is out of God’s control.  When things are going great we can easily affirm that every good and perfect gift is from God (James 1:17).  But can we also affirm that God is in control when suffering blows into our lives like Hurricane Dorian (Philip. 1:29, 1 Pet. 3:17)?  The sovereignty of God means that we can.  Every disappointment, personal disaster, physical, emotional, psychological hurt, every unkind word, every unfounded accusation and rumor is purposeful in our lives.  God’s sovereignty in suffering means that everything that befalls us serves to make us more like Jesus (Rom. 8:28-29).

How does this work out in practical terms? Let me give just one example.  God allows us to suffer so we can comfort others in their suffering (2 Cor 1:4).  Mutual suffering welds us into a fellowship of suffering.  It is a fellowship that includes Jesus.  He suffered unjustly at the hands of government and religious leaders who conspired to put Him to death.  And this was all according to God’s plan (Acts 2:23). When someone experiences a catastrophic or even minor setback we can empathize with them because, after all, we too have suffered.  We can also turn with them to Jesus who is able to sympathize with our suffering.  

On the other hand, when someone overflows with joy we are also ready to share their joy because we know what joy is.  And we can share this joy with Jesus who knows joy (Heb. 12:2).

So whether you are suffering or joyful today take comfort in the sovereignty of God.  He is with you and is using your suffering and joy to draw you closer to fellow Christians, closer to Christ Himself, and closer to becoming like Him.

1 Charles Caldwell Ryrie, A Survey of Bible Doctrine (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972).