Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism, by John H. Gerstner. Brentwood, Tennessee: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, Inc., 1991. 274 pages. $15.95 (hardcover). [Reviewed by the Editor.]
Dispensationalism will never be the same. Presbyterian theologian John H. Gerstner has written the definitive, Reformed critique of this popular heresy. It is devastating. The recent (19th century) product of disreputable origins (John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren), centering on the bizarre notion of a “premillennial, pretribulation rapture,” dispensationalism is “spurious Calvinism,” “dubious evangelicalism,” and “deviation from essential historical Christianity” (p. 68). Gerstner demonstrates that n dispensationalism is a cult and not a branch of the Christian church” (p. 150). His conclusion is that “dispensationalism is another gospel” (p. 259).
The book is timely. Popular radio evangelist John MacArthur, Jr.’s book, The Gospel According to Jesus, has occasioned the “Lordship controversy.” MacArthur condemned dispensationalism’s teaching that one can have Jesus as Savior without having Him as Lord of his life. Leading dispensationalists have responded, defending this Nicolaitan doctrine and striking out at the truth that the faith that justifies is always a working faith as “legalism.” Also, at the present time men are working to reconcile dispensational theology and covenant theology. Leading Presbyterian theologians leave the impression that covenant theology can make peace with dispensationalism, if dispensationalism will only modify its theology. Contemporary dispensational theologians are, in fact, furiously backing away from positions once proclaimed as basic to dispensational theology (cf. Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition, ed. Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992). Nevertheless, no peace is possible between genuine covenant theology and dispensationalism. Dispensationalism must not merely modify its expressions and positions. It must confess that dispensational theology is false doctrine, and convert to covenant theology. This, Gerstnerinsists on and demonstrates.
Wrongly Dividing consists of three main parts. The first is an informative account of dispensationalism’s origins and development. Of particular interest is Gerstner’s tracing of the influence of dispensationalism within the Reformed churches from the late 19th century on. One instance was the dissemination of dispensational doctrines within the Christian Reformed Church by Harry Bultema.
In the second main section, Dr. Gerstner examines dispensationalism’s vaunted hermeneutics of literalism. He convincingly demonstrates, as others have done before him, that dispensationalism does not carry through its program of a strictly literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecy. But he argues also that, contrary to its boast that its (literalist) hermeneutic determines its theology, the theology of dispensationalism determines its hermeneutic.
The third section on the theology of dispensationalism is by far the largest, as it is also the most important. In it Gerstner does what has rarely, if ever, been attempted: he examines the theology of dispensationalism according to the standard of the Reformed faith. Gerstner’s main concern is to expose dispensational theology as heretical by virtue of its antinomism. Dispensationalism denies that the law of God, that is, the decalogue, is the rule of life for New Testament believers. It opposes this doctrine as Jewish legalism. As the present “Lordship controversy” has brought to light, dispensationalism teaches that one can be saved through faith in Jesus, even though he goes on living in flagrant, impenitent disobedience to the law to the very end of his life. Gerstner is correct when he describes this teaching, basic to dispensationalism, as not only un-Reformed but also “another gospel.”
Antinomism is an aspect of dispensationalism’s central and nonnegotiable doctrine of the essential difference between Israel and the church. The law is for Israel, not for the church. The other side of this heresy is that the gospel is for the church, not for Israel. Inherent in dispensationalism’s denial of the unity of Israel and the church is the teaching that Old Testament Israel was saved in some other way than by faith in Jesus Christ. Gerstner presses this charge against dispensationalism, showing that even those contemporary theologians who try to distance themselves from Scofield’s teaching that the Jews were to be saved by the law deny that the object of faith in the Old Testament was Jesus Christ.
But dispensationalism withholds the gospel even from the New Testament church. For in spite of the protestations of some dispensationalists that they are “four-point Calvinists” (they openly admit to denying the doctrine of limited atonement), dispensational theology is “five-point Arminianism” (p. 149). It rejects and opposes every one of the five points of Calvinism, that is, the gospel of salvation by free, sovereign grace. The only one of the five points of Calvinism that dispensationalism makes any substantial pretense of holding is the fifth, the perseverance of saints. But this is thoroughly corrupted by dispensationalism’s antinomian doctrine of the “eternal security” of those who live impenitently in wickedness. Gerstner demonstrates that dispensationalism is “five- point Arminianism” in the hard-hitting, critically important chapter en-; titled, “Spurious Calvinism” (pp. 105- 147). The gravity of this criticism of dispensational theology, Gerstner indicates when he remarks that “Calvinism is just another name for Christianity” (p. 107).
The chapter, “Spurious Calvinism,” is of special interest to the Protestant Reformed since in it Gerstner condemns the doctrine of the “well-meant offer of the gospel.” Because of Gerstner’s stature as a Reformed theologian and in view of the almost universal acceptance of the “well-meant offer” by Calvinistic churches, this repudiation of the “well-meant offer” as un-Reformed has sent a tremor throughout the Reformed world. The passage deserves to be quoted in its entirety. In the context of his treatment of dispensationalism’s denial of limited atonement, Gerstner notes that also some Reformed theologians display weakness regarding this doctrine. He then takes up the issue of the “well-meant offer of the gospel”:
We must also sadly admit that the majority of Reformed theologians today seriously err concerning the nature of the love of God for reprobates. We mention this here only because this defect in contemporary Reformed theology makes it all the easier for the dispensationalists to continue in their abysmal error.
Most Reformed theologians also include, as a by-product of the Atonement, the well-meant offer of the gospel by which all men can be saved. Some Reformed theologians take a further step still and say that God even intends that they should be saved by this Atonement which nevertheless was made only for the elect. For example, John Murray and Ned Stonehouse write: “Our Lord . . . says expressly that he willed the bestowal of his saving and protecting grace upon those whom neither the Father nor he decreed thus to save and protect.” One may sadly say that Westminster Theological Seminary stands for this misunderstanding of the Reformed doctrine since not only John Murray and Ned Stonehouse but also Cornelius VanTil, R.B. Kuiper, John Frame, and, so far as we know, all of the faculty, have favored it. The Christian Reformed Church had already in 1920 taken this sad step away from Reformed orthodoxy and has been declining ever since. The Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. had even earlier, though somewhat ambiguously, departed and the present mainline Presbyterian church affirms that “The risen Christ is the savior for all men.”
The Presbyterian Church in the United States (now part of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.) is not far behind, and the separatist Presbyterians such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America are following in this train. Only the Protestant Reformed Church seems willing to hold to the whole counsel of God on this doctrine (pp. 127, 128).
Wrongly Dividing takes its place with O.T. Allis’s Prophecy and the Church as outstanding Reformed critiques of dispensationalism and outstanding defenses of covenantal theology against dispensationalism.
The book will serve one very practical purpose: Put it into the hands of the man or woman who professes to be Reformed but who is contemplating leaving the Reformed church for a dispensational church.
(Editor’s note: A lengthier review of this book has been published in the Fall 1992 issue of the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal.)
God’s Law in the Modern World: The Continuing Relevance of Old Testament Law, by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 1993. 81 pages, $4.95 (paper). [Reviewed by the Editor.]
Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. is a “theonomist.” He tells us that the purpose of the book is “briefly to introduce the reader in a non-technical way to the case for the modern use of God’s Law in ethics.” According to Gentry, “the ethic that is rigorously based on God’s Law is known as theonomic ethics” (p. xi).
Much of the very short book is basic Reformed teaching on the place of the law in the life of the redeemed Christian. The law has the important functions of making us to know our misery and of guiding our thankful life. The law does not justify. What Gentry has to say on these matters, every Reformed person raised on the Heidelberg Catechism has known from his childhood.
The characteristic theonomic views are for the most part merely asserted, and not proved, e.g., that Old Testament Israel’s civil laws are still binding in the New Testament that the state today is called to enforce the Mosaic law, including the civil code; and that church and state were separate institutions in Israel. What little is said about these notions appears in five pages in chapter six.
Who has decided that the ethics rigorously based on God’s Law shall now be called “theonomic ethics”? If one rejects theonomy because of its peculiar tenets, can he no longer maintain an ethics “rigorously based on God’s Law”? If a Reformed or Presbyterian believer holds what the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Larger Catechism teaches about the Law, does he have an ethics “rigorously based on God’s Law”?
For such a big subject, the book is exceedingly brief. There are barely 70 pages of text, and the text is interspersed with large areas of blank space.