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A History of Dispensationalism in America

By Ernest C Reisinger

      In our last study we considered the vital relationship of Dispensationalism to the Lordship controversy. Dispensationalism is the theological mother of non-Lordship teaching.

      In this study I wish to give a very brief history of dispensationalism in the U.S.A. This is not meant to be an exhaustive study. It is just a little parenthesis in our studies on the Lordship controversy.

      I am taking this little diversion because many, if no, most, of those carrying Scofield Bibles, who sit under Dispensational teachers, know very little about the system and its history. They do not know how the Dispensational theological system differs from the Reformational, historical theology in general, and covenant, Reformed Theology in particular. This is true not only of those in the pews but also, in many instances, the preachers themselves have never seriously compared Dispensationalism with covenant theology as it is most clearly expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the theology of the Heidelberg Catechism. Covenant Theology is the archrival of Dispensationalism.

      It is my conviction that many who are presently disposed toward Dispensationalism would not be victims of the system if they were better acquainted and informed about the system and its history-its theological roots and the doctrinal errors it has spawned.

      Dispensationalism has its roots in the Plymouth Brethren movement which began in the United Kingdom. Writers do not all agree as to the time and place of the Brethren's origin. The first "breaking of bread service" that I can find a record of was in 1827 in Dublin. The preponderance of the information would show that John Nelson Darby was in a real sense a key person and early teacher of the Brethren movement. Other names are very early identified with the movement; such as A.N. Groves; B.W. Newton; W.H. Dorman; E. Cronin; and J.G. Bullett. All of these men were early leaders in places like Dublin, Plymouth and Bristol. It would be generally agreed that John Nelson Darby was the energizing and guiding spirit in its beginning. These men had many differences and divisions among themselves in the early days and ever after. This is not a critique of the Plymouth Brethren movement in the U.K. I mention it to show approximately when and where the Dispensational roots first appeared in history.

      There are some Dispensationalists who do not agree with this assessment of their historical beginning. Their arguments, however, will not survive historical examination. Dispensationalism is a development of the Plymouth Brethren movement.

      Dispensationalism is a theological system which developed from a twisted, theological interpretation of Scripture that dates from the late nineteenth century. Before that time it was not know as a theological system. The first record of Dispensationalism in the USA is 1864-65, when J.N. Darby twice visited the country. Through these two visits the 16th and Walnut Avenue Presbyterian Church in St. Louis (then pastored by Dr. James H. Brooks) became the principal center of Dispensationalism in America. How could it be!?! This is like trying to mix oil with water! A Presbyterian Church promoting Dispensationalism? Dr. Brooks became Darby's most prominent supporter and has been call the father of Dispensationalism in the U.S.

      Dr. Brooks, the most influential exponent of Dispensationalism, propagated it by his own Bible studies with young men. His best known student was C.I. Scofield. Dr. Brooks also published many books and pamphlets (this should teach us the power of literature) as well as editing a magazine called The Truth. The chronology follows this order: Darby to Scofield; Scofield to Chafer; Chafer to Dallas Theological Seminary.

      Before proceeding from Dr. Brooks it may be wise and helpful to call attention to conditions in the mainline denominations in the U.S. during this time. In the early twentieth century liberalism was beginning to rear its ugly head in these denominations. The sad condition of the churches had a profound effect of the success and inroads of Dispensationalism.

      I will not mention the history in each denomination, but rather, use the Presbyterian Church which was more influenced by Dispensationalism than any other denomination.

      Princeton Seminary, which was once the great stronghold of Biblical Christianity, was one of the first places where liberalism was exposed. One of the first open signs of this liberalism appeared in 1914 when J. Ross Stevenson became president of the Seminary. Dr. Stevenson was more interested in ecumenical goals than in the theology of the Westminster Standards.

      In the General Assembly in 1923 the brewing storm came to a head. After this meeting a group of spiritual and theological giants followed J. Gresham Machen to found a new seminary. On September 25, 1929 Westminster Seminary, with fifty students and a choice faculty, was opened. There has never been a faculty like it since.

      The faculty consisted of articulate, Reformed theologians and they were fighting for the fundamentals of the faith; namely, the inspiration of the Scriptures; the virgin birth of Christ; the bodily resurrection of Christ; the miracle of Christ; and the substitutionary atonement. Their fight was against liberalism, and this same battle was being fought in most, if not all, the mainline denominations. Those who rejected liberalism and held to the five fundamentals just mentioned were labeled "Fundamentalists." This fundamentalism must not be confused with the present day Dispensational fundamentalism.

      Let me explain precisely what I mean. The five fundamentals mentioned are beliefs which are essential to historic Christianity. In this sense, every true Christian who holds these truths is a fundamentalist. The present day Dispensational fundamentalists, though they hold to the five essential truths, often attack many other important fundamental of the faith which Reformed people have always cherished and have shed their blood to maintain.

      Scofield Dispensationalism brought a new kind of fundamentalism into many churches. This new dispensationalism in its unscriptural, unreformed, and uncalvinistic teaching came on the religious scene to fill a vacuum-a vacuum which existed because of liberalism. The churches had drifted away from the doctrinal roots expressed in the old confessions and creeds. Many of the best schools and seminaries had been taken over by liberals and modernists-beginning in the colleges and seminaries and spreading to the pulpits and the pews. Bible-believing Christians turned to those churches where the bible was believed and taught.

      This vacuum which Liberalism created in the churches provided a prime opportunity for the establishment and spread of the new Dispensational teaching.

      This resulted in the independent church movement, the independent Bible conference movement and the Bible school movement. Those who participated in them were almost all carrying Scofield Bibles and their leaders were predominantly Dispensational in their views.

      The major training center for evangelical and Bible-believing churches became Dallas Theological Seminary, founded in 1924. Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer was the first president. Keep in mind these were days when the crucial battle between modernism and historic Christianity was in progress.

      In that desperate hour sincere, Bible-believing people turned to Dallas Seminary, the mecca of Dispensationalism, for teaching on God's Word.

      Many Dispensational Bible schools and colleges were born during this period, and they all were brought forth unreformed.

      The late Robert King Churchill, a respected Presbyterian minister, wrote a little paperback entitled, Lest We Forget. It consists of his reflections on his fifty year history in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Mr. Churchill confirms what I have said about Dispensationalism getting into the Presbyterian Church. He tells of his personal experience in two specific churches: First Presbyterian Church of Tacoma, Washington, where he was converted, baptized and called to the ministry, and another located in Seattle, Washington. He tells how, in these two great churches, the notes in the Scofield Reference Bible became more and more prominent in the preaching. Churchill said, "These notes and the interpretation of Scripture upon which they were based, were contrary to our Presbyterian and Reformed heritage."

      He tells of Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer delivering a series of lectures on the subject of "Grace" (the same material now appears in Chafer's book by the same title). Hear Mr. Churchill's own words:

      But Chafer's treatment of the subject of grace never arrives at the right view of the law of God. According to Dr. Chafer, the law was a condition of salvation placed upon the people of God in the Old Testament during a special and limited time period-the Dispensation of Law. This condition, Chafer contended, no longer has application to the New Testament believer since we relate to God under a new dispensation, the Dispensation of Grace. Since, as he put it, "we are no longer under law, but under grace," Chafer argued that there is no necessary relationship between law and grace. Here is law without grace, and grace without law. Always and in every sense, law and grace are opposed to each other.

      This teaching appears to be scriptural, but in reality it was the ancient error of Antinomianism (anti-law) which denies that the law has application to the Christian. Chafer defended this view by means of a radical reinterpretation of the Scriptures (p. 31).

      Dispensationalism is also a frontal attack on Covenantal Theology and the doctrine of the unity of the covenant of grace, which have been held since the time of the Reformation.

      How could Dispensationalism be welcomed and embraced in strong Presbyterian churches whose confession teaches Reformed, Calvinistic, Covenant Theology? Though there is not a simple answer one thing is certain: the churches which were infected with Dispensationalism were those which had ceased teaching in any vital way the doctrinal distinctives of their own confession.

      All honest Dispensationalists would agree that the Dispensational system of theology has a different view of the grace of God, the law of God, the church of God, the interpretation of the Word of God and the salvation of God. That is, its teaching are different from tested, respected historic creeds and confessions.

      Dispensationalism has a different view of living the Christian life-of sanctification and, more specifically, how justification and sanctification are inseparably joined together in the application of God's salvation.

      This is a Southern Baptist journal, therefore, I must say something about Dispensationalism in Southern Baptist churches. Historically, the Southern Baptist churches were not Dispensational in theology. None of our leading seminaries or colleges ever taught Dispensationalism and to the present day they do not teach Dispensationalism.

      I believe I am safe in saying that Dr. Wally Amos Criswell has been the most influential and articulate Southern Baptist Dispensationalists. Dr. Criswell is one of the great, esteemed and respected leaders of our denomination and every Southern Baptist is deeply indebted to him as a defender of the Bible and conservative Christianity. Where and how this great leader got his Dispensationalism I do not know. I do know that he did not get it at Baylor in his college days. He did not get it at Southern in his seminary days, and he did not get it from his great predecessor, George W. Truett, who pastored the First Baptist Church in Dallas, for 47 years before Dr. Criswell. George W. Truett was a postmillennialist.

      There are other good men in the Southern Baptist Convention who have Dispensational views, but they did not get these views in our schools or seminaries. They did not get them from our Baptist fathers or from our Baptist historical roots.

      We cannot overlook the accomplishments of Dispensationalism. It has given rise to Bible colleges and independent churches all over the land. It has spawned numerous independent missions, independent preachers and missionaries.

      If we apply the pragmatic test and ask the question, "Does it work?" The answer is, "yes."

      If we apply the same test and ask the same question to:

      Jehovah's Witnesses, the answer would be yes.

      The Mormons, the answer would be yes, it works.

      The Roman Catholic Church-yes, it works.

      The Charismatic movement-yes, it works.

      They all have many converts and followers. They build schools, churches and have missionaries and great accomplishments-but, there is another, more important question that needs to be asked. Is it true, is it Biblical? This question will bring a different answer.

      The issue before us is not a few minor differences or disagreements between those who hold basically the same position. It is not just a difference in eschatology. It is the whole system of theology that touches every major doctrine of Christianity. What is at stake is the saving gospel of Jesus Christ and the sinner's assurance that he is living according to God's plan for history.

      There are many being rescued from the errors of Dispensationalism and I pray that God will use these studies to awaken many more to ask the right question.

      In our next study we will return to the Lordship controversy.

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