Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Book review: The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift The Fissuring of American Evangelical Theology from 1936 to 1944, by R. Todd Mangum

The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift 
The Fissuring of American Evangelical Theology from 1936 to 1944
by R. Todd Mangum
(2007: Wipf and Stock; 346 pages)

Did you know that, at one time, Dallas Theological Seminary had a huge Presbyterian presence, both on staff and among the student body? Did you know that Lewis Sperry Chafer and many other leading dispensationalists such as J. Oliver Buswell, S. Lewis Johnson, and A. A. Macrae, were Presbyterians?

Yet today, you can't serve as a Presbyterian elder or pastor if you are a dispensationalist. Many (not all) Presbyterians regard dispensationalism with suspicion and/or contempt, and treat it as either a heresy, or as heresy's dim-witted, bucktoothed cousin. Reformed sites and writers come up with "reasons" (including really lame ones) for not allowing dispensationalists a seat at the table.

What happened?

Todd Mangum's book takes a stab at part of the answer. He focuses on events leading up to the findings of Presbyterian study committees in the 1940s, which explain the rift that arose between two schools that were, and should have remained, mutual co-combatants in the struggle against unbelief and compromise.

This is Mangum's doctoral dissertation, so it is extremely detailed and closely-documented. It is readable, but it does read like a dissertation. Mangum gets into the original documents at length, and couples it with interviews with men then-living who had been involved in the actual events and known the principle actors (i.e. the late Drs. Walvoord, Macrae, and Johnson, among others).

Mangum argues that the split arose for a number of reasons, ranging from the regional to the political. A few critical errors in judgment and procedure created a rift which has yet to be fully healed. Chafer (of Dallas) drew some unnecessary lines in the sand very dogmatically; the Presbyterians of the board of inquisition would not allow him to address them in person, and narrowed their inquiry primarily to Chafer and a couple of other sources. Therefore, though not in fact representing all dispensational thought, Chafer was made to speak for all dispensationalists. When his positions were rejected, all dispensationalists were rejected.

The results were a far greater isolation and ossification. Presbyterian and Reformed presence at Dallas plummeted, and (of course) dispensational representation in Presbyterian circles fell to nil.

The result is as we see it today. Many dispensationalists resent and reject the doctrines of grace reflexively (having been rejected by their Presbyterian representatives in the 40s), and many Reformed folks view dispensationalists with suspicion at best, and hostility at worst. Two groups who should be battling unbelief side by side, and growing in their grasp of Biblical truths, remain isolated into warring camps.

At some points, one almost wishes one could be snapped back in time, to plead with one on this side or that to re-think, reconsider, re-examine, re-approach, modify... and sometimes just to chill out. But what's done is done, and that sometimes makes for sad reading.

My thoughts. As has been pointed out more than once, dispensationalists really should be Calvinists, and Calvinists really should be dispensationalists. The former believe at least in election and sovereign grace in the case of the yet-to-be-converted generation of Jews; the latter believe in God's sovereignty and faithfulness to His promises, and (at least formally) in the principle of grammatico-historical exegesis.

Yet, rather than admit and (hello?) reform this inconsistency, the latter re-define grammatico-historical exegesis to protect their un-reformed position, and the former ignorantly echo the shallower dodges of famous "Calminian" dispensationalists, past and present. The resulting stalemate is to no one's benefit.

Among his concluding observations, Mangum offers this:
We may wonder whether such dialogue [as has recently begun more in earnest] (and such modifications on both sides) might not have taken place sooner had the discussion not been marred from the beginning with such misunderstandings as we have explored in this study. Our wonder only grows when we consider that there might have been a latent form of "progressive dispensationalism" always present in the dispensationalist constituency from the beginning. (210)
[Update/aside: it occurred to me that news of dispensationalism's welcome back at the table apparently has not reached Minneapolis.]

In sum. Want to see how the rift started, in great and scholarly detail? I don't know a better source than Mangum.

(For a more learned review from a different perspective, see this from Dr. Kenneth J. Stewart)


Kim said...

This is really interesting to me. My pastor graduated from Dallas in the early 80's. I was talking with him once of my love of listening to S. Lewis Johnson's sermons online. He made a comment that it was too bad that Johnson's theology changed, i.e. that he had "become" Presbyterian. I didn't say anything, though. I already knew that Johnson had always been Calvinist. But that is the perception. And yes, he is very suspicious of Presbyterians, and when he says "reformed" from the pulpit, it is not in a positive light.

Dave Linn said...

I went to Talbot and learned dispensationalism quite well. I later considered a doctoral program at Westminster, and when I was doing the research for it I realized that the dispensational and reformed camps were kissing cousins having a spat. One example was a journal article on a disputed topic (Jesus' "descent into hell") listing "all the views" -- except for the best solution, which was listed in a journal from the other camp. This saddened me. The other view could have been discovered simply by looking at the other journal. This is childish and damaging. The post moderns would call it "inauthentic." The only valid Biblical definition for a "camp" is regeneration and faith--everything else is a faction.
- Dave Linn

The Squirrel said...

I must admit to having wondered about this. I know that many of the early Dispensationalists came out of the Calvinist camp, and that many, such as S. Lewis Johnson, remained Calvinist in their soteriology.

Like you, I've never seen any disagreement between Dispensational ecclesiology and eschatology and Calvinist soteriology. In fact, they seem to fit together quite nicely!


Anonymous said...

Dan, this is great. I am reading this book right now. It was recommended to me by Ben Wright of Paleoevangelical fame. I was asking him about a bigger issue, and he told me about this book.

I am very fascinated by this book. I was about to email you this morning to see if you had heard of it when I saw this as the cover story. Nice work.

DJP said...

LOL, what a cool coincidence! I've actually had this in draft status for some time, just needing to finish it up.

Fred Butler said...

The more and more I write on this subject for my own blog, the more I am convinced the hermeneutics one brings to the relevant texts plays a major part in this dispute.

I am all the time befuddled how those who claim to see the importance of historical-grammatical hermeneutics when it comes to preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God so easily derail when they come to prophetic passages. Their exegesis is precise and detailed when defending the particular redemption of Christ say for example in John 6 and John 10 and the Calvinist defenders will insist that specific rules of exegesis must be followed to handle the Word of God accurately. James White has a whole chapter devoted to the subject in his book on "Scripture Alone." But as soon as they reach the book of Revelation, those rules apparently no longer apply because Revelation, or Daniel, or Ezekiel are "prophecy" and an entirely new set of rules must be applied in order to ascertain what Ezekiel and John so clearly tell me with the application of the normal, historical grammatical exegesis I was using over in 1 Timothy 3.

If you want to hear an example of what I mean by this, you should take a listen to James White debate Harold Camping on the Iron Sharpens Iron show from last year. Where as White is correct in refuting Camping's loopy exegesis when it comes to his prophetic date settings for the end of the world, Camping employs the same "It's symbolism" and "It's types" and "The Bible is full of symbols pointing to greater reality" argumentation I hear my CT friends like Sam Waldron utilize when they discuss prophetic portions of scripture.

DJP said...

Oh, I think you're absolutely right, Fred.

As I've often said: if these good brothers "did" John 1 or Romans 3 the way they "do" Isaiah 2 or Revelation 20, they'd be New Agers, universalists, or worse. Thank God they don't.

Lynda O said...

I've been enjoying listening to S. Lewis Johnson sermons online, and from what he says there, he was raised Presbyterian, but by the time of his preaching he was clearly Calvinist and Baptist.

And I agree, Fred, it comes down to the hermeneutics -- as I discovered myself while studying the subject; and creation is another related issue of inconsistent hermeneutics. When all I knew was the standard amillennial, partial-preterist stuff, I learned that my pastor rejects biblical creation -- and that alone was enough reason to start looking elsewhere for good Bible teaching, and so from that I learned of John MacArthur and from that to other good Calvinist, dispensational teachers. My first real study of disp. eschatology (a 112-part series from McClarty) didn't directly address the underlying hermeneutic, but after listening to many sessions, at one point it all suddenly "clicked" that the real issue is how we interpret the scriptures -- which directly related back to my original problem with the pastor who insists on Hugh Ross creation and Genesis 1 as poetry (and I realized that this pastor at least is consistent in his approach to both past and future).

Kirby said...


Thank you for the heads up on this book. I remember back in January when you were requesting lists for "Top 10" items. I wrote "The top 10 passages that non-dispys get wrong in order to refute dispensationalism" or something like that. The reason: I'm a very happy reformed soteriologist AND a dispensationalist AND have no tension with that AT ALL because I'm a historical-grammatical exegete in all genres.

But I did not know that Dallas had a strong Presbyterian presence, so that, in and of itself, makes it worth reading. And I love reading older BibSac articles in Libronix.

And, not because I'm a presbyterian, but I am a presbyter.

So, I'm looking forward to a good read here.

Thanks again.

NewManNoggs said...

Thanks, DJP. My wife and I are continually trying to figure this whole mess out. I would like to better understand both Dispensationalism and the Covenental thing and the differences between the two. I would like to find one resource and from your review, I don't think this is it. Do you have a recommendation? If not, I think this might make a good second book for you...

DJP said...

Oh, dude, I would love to do that. But I would need so much time to do research, get my own head together, get up to date on all the lit that's come out... I wish one of the gazillions of better men would do it.

Click on the dispensationalism tag for this post. I've done other posts, and some of them have very, heh, lively metas.

Mike Riccardi said...

One thing that I found interesting was when R. Scott Clark started saying how Reformed Baptists aren't really Reformed, James White responded by defending the label for those who didn't embrace paedobaptism.

It struck me that everything he said in his "final thought" could be said by a Calvidispy to him in defense of our being Reformed as well. Especially this part:

You not only accept the five points, you accept the consistent exegesis and hermeneutics, let alone the view of an inspired, authoritative, consistent, sufficient Word from God, that leads to those five points.

And of course, we'd want to add, "...that also leads to understanding a distinction between Israel and the Church."

So yeah.

Call to Die said...

For what school was this dissertation written?

Dennis Thurman said...

Good post. You can be a Calvinist and a dispensationalist: Donald Grey Barnhouse, Bruce Dunn, and John MacArthur for example.

DJP said...

Yes sir, though I've read that Barnhouse "went over the wall" in later years.

AJLin — for Dallas.

Chris Poe said...


Thanks for this review. I recently saw this book on Amazon and hope to get it eventually. Dr. Mangum has written a book on the history and impact of the Scofield Reference Bible as well.

Another example of the rupture is the split between the premil friendly (and even Scofield Bible friendly) Bible Presbyterian Church and the much more thoroughgoing confessional Reformed Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1937, just after their split from the PCUSA. There were other issues as well, including use of beverage alcohol.

Several here have written that S. Lewis Johnson was always a Calvinist i.e. a 5 pointer. That's not the case. I think this may be due to the fact that Dr. Johnson was a Presbyterian in his formative years. But Presbyterianism in the mid 20th century (other than smaller denominations like the OPC) did not necessarily equate with Five Point Calvinism. This was the case even with regard to conservatives in the old Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS) among whom Billy Graham tended to be very popular.

Dr. Johnson wasn't persuaded of Particular Redemption until the early 1970's (I believe it was) and that view eventually led to him having to leave Dallas Seminary a few years later. Prior to that he held to the more or less Amryaldian view that was typical of DTS at that time. He discusses it in this series: http://sljinstitute.net/sermons/doctrine/modcalvinism/modcalvinism_master.html

I think Dr. Johnson addressed his leaving DTS in one of the messages in the "Divine Purpose" series as well.

I am not aware of anyone in the PCUS being defrocked or suspended over dispensationalism, although the ruling in 1944 certainly exacerbated things. (Of course this is one reason I want to read the book in question.) I think Chafer had hoped for DTS graduates to enter mainline denominations like the PCUS and work to reform them from within. (I have always wondered to what extent that ruling was responsible for the growth of the independent Bible church movement.)

To my knowledge Chafer remained a Presbyterian until his death. Also, it was not a given that pastors in the PCUS were thoroughgoing Calvinists either. There were a few dispensationalists here and there in the early years of the PCA as well.

James Montgomery Boice began as a dispensationalist and early in his ministry published a book along those lines, but later adopted historic premil views.

Chris Poe said...

A fairly typical Presbyterian move when debating the baptism issue is to call Baptists dispensational, even if the Baptist in question is covenantal.

However, a few years ago, I realized that many and perhaps most of the prominent early promoters of dispensationalism in the USA were members or ministers in paedobaptist churches. This includes Scofield, Chafer, James Brookes, James M. Gray, and W.H. Griffith Thomas, just to name a few.

CR said...

I didn't know you couldn't serve as an elder or a pastor in the Presbyterian church if you were a dispensationalist. Wow.