Rightly Divining Dispensational Doctrine
By Curtis I. Crenshaw, Th.M.
Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism
by John H. Gerstner
(Brentwood, Tennessee: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991)
I studied under Charles C. Ryrie and Dwight Pentecost, and I read dispensational books for years, being a convinced dispensationalist. I was graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary in 1976 and though on the road to the Reformed Faith was still somewhat dispensational. Once - by God's grace - I was freed from the shackles of dispensationalism, I wrote a book with Grover Gunn against dispensationalism. After our book, there have been several other books written against the system. Perhaps a word or two about these works before we look at Dr. Gerstner's book.
The book Grover Gunn and I wrote, entitled
Dispensationalism Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow (the title was designed to mimic Dr. Ryrie's book, Dispensationalism Today), was designed to go to the heart of their system, namely, the alleged distinction between Israel and the church. We analyzed this distinction with its implications from many angles and found it wanting. It has sold consistently for about six years, and is now in an updated version with a critique by a Dallas seminary professor and response by yours truly. It was originally published in 1985 though now it is in the fifth edition.
Then there was
Understanding Dispensationalists by Vern S. Poythress in 1987. This book did essentially what our book did, namely, challenged the alleged Israel/church distinction. Also, like my section in our book, it challenged the dispensational view of 'literal'. But it appears to this reviewer that one of the main thrusts of the book was to initiate dialogue between the Reformed and covenant view and the dispensational view, a dialogue between brothers with minor differences. The differences are hardly minor.
Another major work was
House-Divided, the Break-up of Dispensational Theology, 1989, by Greg L. Bahnsen and Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. This excellent work is in two major sections: The question of ethics and antinomianism by Dr. Bahnsen and the challenge to dispensational eschatology by Dr. Gentry. It is very well documented, hard hitting at places, and unanswerable.
The hardest hitting book so far against dispensationalism is the one by Dr. Gerstner and the one I am to review. No punches are pulled, and - I must add - I think it is about time! Like Grover Gunn and me, he was once a dispensationalist, so he writes with 'inside' knowledge, making the 'punches' all the more telling. With impeccable logic, time and again he shows how their system is embroiled in a hopeless morass of internal contradictions and scriptural contradictions. Dr. Gerstner has warned of the dangers of dispensationalism, especially in regard to the basic issues of the Gospel. I did this in my chapter of
Dispensationalism Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow entitled "Theological Tendencies of Dispensationalism", but I tended to pull the punches. It is about time that a scholar of Dr. Gerstner's qualifications told the truth in love about a system that compromises the very essence of the Gospel. He has done so, and quite well.
Now for some specifics. The book was published by Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991, and is a hardback of about 275 pages, with a foreword by R.C. Sproul. It appeared to me that some parts had been edited to a minimum (unfortunately), though this is admittedly somewhat conjecture on my part. I say "somewhat" because in the Foreword Sproul says that the book is the result of over 1,000 pages of research (p. ix). My only regret is that we do not have the thousand pages! But then with today's audience which is afraid of research in general and of thinking in particular, I can see why the book was reduced to 275 pages. My guess is that the publisher wanted this.
The book is divided into three parts: History, Philosophy and Hermeneutics, and Theology. Thus we have a well-balanced approach.
The tone of the book, as I have already stated, is very hard hitting. R.C. Sproul states in the Foreword: "it is not a time for pussyfooting timidity" (p. ix). Dr. Gerstner lives up to this. I, for one, happen to agree with his approach. We do no one a favor by trying to be a 'nice guy' when the very essence of the Gospel is at stake. I'm sure some Southerners (and I'm one) will think that Dr. Gerstner is not a 'nice guy', but then the Southern politeness has long been a false one, though at one time it was probably very genuine. By false I mean that we like to be nice to people's faces and then bury the knife real deep when their back is turned. The point I'm making is that the cultural effect of the Gospel that once made people nice to one another (especially in the South) has degenerated to politeness that refuses to confront a person with his faults. This failure to assume responsibility for our brother is sin. Dr. Gerstner is not guilty of it.
Now for the book. In his section on History (chapters 1-4), John Gerstner traces the dispensational movement through the major men in Europe, such as John Nelson Darby and the Brethren movement, B.W. Newton, F.W. Grant, and others. In the USA he sees Darby's influence (who came to the States many times), James H. Brookes, who heavily influenced C. I. Scofield, D. L. Moody, and especially Lewis Sperry Chafer and Dallas Theological Seminary. Unlike the other books on dispensationalism, he notes that dispensationalism is still trying to find itself and is consequently still changing very rapidly.
In chapters five and six, Gerstner explicates the philosophy and hermeneutics of dispensationalism. Dispensationalists really do not have an apologetic but such as it is, he notes, it does tend to follow the traditional approach rather than the presuppositional approach. I think Gerstner is right. There are some exceptions, however. The main reason I'm no longer a dispensationalist is the presuppositional apologetics of two former Dallas professors: Ed Blum and S. Lewis Johnson. (Sorry, Dr. Gerstner, I know you have written against presuppositionalism!) It was in Dr. Blum's class that I read Van Til's books and challenged my way out of dispensationalism by challenging my presuppositions, though I know that this is not the extent of presuppositionalism. The point is that some dispensationalists do not find it contradictory to be dispensational and presuppositional.
In his chapter entitled "Dispensational Hermeneutics", Dr. Gerstner has an interesting thesis: their theology determines their hermeneutic and not the reverse. This is very interesting since dispensationalists so loudly proclaim the reverse. Grover Gunn in conversations has told me he holds the same opinion. Again, I think they are right, for, as Gerstner notes, there does not seem to be any agreement among dispensationalists as to how to interpret the same passages except for one thing: They must be "literal" - whatever that means. Even further, dispensationalists hold to basically the same "inductive, grammatical, historical" approach to Scripture as the Reformed, such as Charles Hodge (p. 85), so how can their interpretations differ so widely from the Reformed? Dr. Gerstner concludes that it is their theology that determines their interpretation - not the opposite (p. 87). I recall a conversation I once had with Dr. Ryrie while a student. I was "playing the devil's advocate" by pretending to be a covenant man, and he was endeavoring to prove that the church began on the day of Pentecost, having never before been in existence. Typically, he used Matthew 16 to show that Christ would build the church in the future ("I will build My church", future tense), drawing the conclusion that if it was going to be built in the future, it must have never been in existence. My response was that I did not see how we could draw the inference - and it was a very tenuous inference at best - that a future tense implied nonexistence. Why could not He build on an existing foundation, or at least the church be retroactive on the Day of Pentecost to include the Old Testament saints, since His death was retroactive to cover the sins of Old Testament saints? These was essentially no answer except to go to another passage. After we had exhausted several such passages, I saw that he was answering my objections based on the assumption that Israel and the church were distinct. I'll never forget my comment: "But Dr. Ryrie, that is what we are trying to prove. I'm playing the devil's advocate that the church is the new Israel; and when I bring up an objection, you answer it by assuming what we are trying to prove." I then noted that he believed in unconditional election and he agreed. I then stated that Ephesians 1 included all the elect of all ages. He again agreed. I concluded, then, that Moses was elect and was therefore chosen to be in Christ before the foundational of the world; and if Moses were "in Christ", then he was in the church! He then went back and reinterpreted Ephesians 1:4 in light of the
assumption that Israel and the church were distinct and concluded that Ephesians 1:4 must include only the church elect! Their theology indeed tends to determine their hermeneutic.
The final section is on theology, and is, in my opinion, the most pertinent section of the book. He shows that dispensationalism has "spurious Calvinism" and "dubious evangelicalism". He goes through each of the Five Points of the Synod of Dordt, demonstrating that they do not hold to any of the Five consistently. He shows that their "total depravity" is not total as they hold that regeneration is preceded logically by faith (p. 109). I remember Dr. Harold Hoehner in a Greek exegesis class stating that like a bullet and its hole we did not know which came first, regeneration or faith. My response at the time was to think that the bullet of faith produces the hole of regeneration, which I learned later not only denied total depravity but directly contradicted Scripture (James 1:18, etc.). I might add, though, that Ed Blum and S. Lewis Johnson, who both taught at Dallas Seminary when I was there, believed the Reformed and biblical view that faith was the effect of regeneration. Dispensationalism is like soap, just as soon as you think you have it, some major dispensationalist believes what you think he cannot believe.
Gerstner further demonstrates that they are not consistent on unconditional election. He shows where they claim to hold to election and then speak of a temporal choice determining one's election (p. 115). He adds concerning one of Ryrie's statements: "the use of the term temporal choice as an equivalent of an eternal decree defies comprehension" (p. 115). He quotes Ryrie: "God has determined beforehand that those who believe in Christ will be adopted into his family." This is, of course, no decree at all. It is pure Arminianism. Yet when Ryrie taught me in seminary, he was very clear that election determined our choice, not that our choice determined God's election. I'm not sure if these quotes of Ryrie are misstatements by Ryrie, edited by the publisher, or if he has changed his view. It was common in seminary for the professors to claim to believe in election and to deny reprobation, justifying this absurdity with two excuses: Scripture never says God predestined anyone to hell (contrary to Jude 4; 1 Peter 2:8, 9; Romans 9; John 12:37ff, etc), and that this was an "antinomy", an apparent contradiction that only God understood.
Gerstner does an excellent job of exposing the pseudo-Calvinism in the other four points as well, often quoting from them.
In the section entitled "Dubious Evangelicalism", Gerstner's impeccable logic and Reformed and biblical theology are at their best. He speaks of the definition of a "dispensation" as adduced by dispensationalists, namely, a stewardship to test man in keeping some command(s) of God. But, according to dispensationalism, man has failed in every dispensation and will continue to do so. Yet God still saves some. Gerstner's analysis of this is typical of his insight in the book: "There is no real stewardship here because nothing is accomplished by keeping the commandments and nothing is lost by failing to do so."
He finds dispensationalists guilty of promoting more than one way of salvation, even though they disclaim this. His insight into Charles Ryrie is especially pungent. Ryrie claims that he does not teach two ways of salvation because he makes a distinction (the perennial dispensational buzz word) in these: the basis of salvation, the requirement of salvation, theobject of faith, and the content of faith. Ryrie goes on to say, as the doctrinal statement of DTS used to say (and perhaps still does), that no Old Testament saint could have exercised faith in the coming Messiah, for there was not enough knowledge in the Old Testament to do so. So, according to Ryrie, the content of faith changes but the object does not. Thus there are not two ways of salvation. Now with tremendous insight, Gerstner points out the content of faith actually is about the object of faith; and if the content changes, so does the object. Ryrie argues for a change of content that did not allow Old Testament saints to trust in Christ whereas the Reformed argue for a change of content that includes Christ as the object of faith. The difference in content is one of kind for the dispensationalist and one of degree for the Reformed, for not to have faith in Christ for the dispensationalist is qualitatively different from the New Testament saints who do exercise faith in Christ. I included a section in Grover Gunn's part of our book on "Old Testament Salvation" that showed indisputably that Old Testament saints did indeed exercise faith in the coming Messiah.
As Grover Gunn in our book, Dr. Gerstner demonstrated that to posit a distinction between Israel and the church is to posit a problem with the gospel itself, for if one is only saved by union with Jesus Christ and the Old Testament saints are not in union with Christ (this would place them in the church!), then how are the Old Testament saints saved? To posit two peoples of God is to posit two deaths of Christ and two sacrificial lambs. Conversely, "If, as dispensationalists maintain, Israel as well as the church is saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, how can there be this qualitative difference between them as peoples?" (p. 206). Simple enough. The dispensationalists find themselves on the horns of an unbreakable dilemma. Even more horrifying, Gerstner points out that dispensationalists claim the Old Testament people of God were not heirs of the Holy Spirit, not regenerated by Him, and not engrafted into Christ. What kind of salvation is? How did the Old Testament saints live the 'Christian' life without regeneration and without the Holy Spirit? By will power? This would be pure Pelagianism, and two gospels.
Then Dr. Gerstner pierces to what I have considered for years the real problem with dispensationalism and to the heart of the battles I fought my last two years in seminary after I adopted the Reformed view of regeneration, justification, and sanctification. The problem is their carnal Christian theory. I might hasten to add that several professors at Dallas also opposed this while I was there (1972-1976). Most notable were S. Lewis Johnson and Ed Blum. John Hannah also opposed the carnal Christian theory but was not so outspoken as Blum and Johnson. I recall that in senior theology class, Dr. Ryrie said that sanctification began with the dedication of Romans 12:1, 2. After class I asked him: Was the Christian not being sanctified at all until this time? He said - and I'll never forget it - "Well, I suppose he is being sanctified somewhat, but he won't get very far without dedication." This told me he did not understand the issues. I asked him how this was different from the Keswick view that also began sanctification with an imperative and also separated sanctification from justification, making the former optional. He could not explain the difference. Unless the reader thinks we are splitting hairs, the practical difference, as I explained to a fellow student one day after an appalling antinomian chapel by Zane Hodges, is that you will go out into the ministry and give assurance of salvation to those who are going to hell. Or to restate this, this theology that makes good works or obedience to God's commandments optional as the necessary evidence to genuine faith, creates hypocrites for hell. Even further, dispensational churches are full of hypocrites who vote in church meetings and are going to hell - with the blessings of their ministers! May God have mercy on them.
Gerstner argues against dispensationalists by demonstrating that their view of regeneration is defective, their view of justification and sanctification is unbiblical, etc. I have never been able to improve on Berkhof's definition of regeneration in his Systematic Theology, which in essence states that regeneration involves two aspects: new life and the changing of the governing disposition of the soul from sin to an orientation to holiness. The dispensational view, as Gerstner points out, is that it only involves the implantation of something new, a new nature, a capacity to obey, which the Christian may reject.
I might add that the arguments that Dr. Gerstner uses are virtually the same ones I have used for fifteen years; and when my book comes out on this, I have not plagiarized him! In fact my book will be an expansion of a series of articles I did in the "Herald of the Covenant" several years ago, before Gerstner's book.
I highly recommend the book. The reader will only lessen his ability to understand and help his dispensational friends if he neglects this Reformed and biblical work. CM
[Permission to repost graciously given by "Contra Mundum"]
What do YOU think ?
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Date: 08 Mar 2006
I am learning about this new look at the bible and am courious about who did
Jesus come and save. My church friends say that He came to save the world by
fulfilling the scrcipture and dieing on the cross. I thought that He came to
first save the Jews, and once Steven was killed, He then went to Paul who in
turn went to the Gentiles (like me).
Who is correct?
Date: 23 Jul 2006
Looking at this posting, I noticed the author believes that
dispensationalism is what causes unbelievers to receive false hope. "this
theology that makes good works or obedience to God's commandments optional
as the necessary evidence to genuine faith". In my experience I have found
that both covenant theologians and dispensational theologians make this
error and give sinners false hope. I would say that what is causing this is
our neglect in America to preach repentance first as a necessary part to
salvation, not the difference between dispensationalism and covenant
theologies. Perhaps, using this emotional approach (they are causing people
to go to hell), is not appropriate as it does not directly relate to
I would recommend focusing on the theology and using more Bible verses to
explain your point of view.
I'm also interested to see how the author would respond to Bible passages
that imply that most of God's chosen people went straight to hell, how did
God blot out people's names from His book, and how did the Holy Spirit leave
If the author does not believe in eternal security especiall for the
believers today, than how would he explain Ephesians 1-2, where Paul
discusses the sealing of the Holy Spirit.