In the July 1 issue of our Standard Bearer p. 421, the Rev. Harbach suggests that I could perhaps give an evaluation of the theology of Lewis Sperry Chafer with respect to the question whether or not it is Calvinistic. As he surmises, we do indeed have Chafer’s “Systematic Theology” in our seminary library; and therefore I am able to give an answer to this question.
Dr. Chafer’s “Systematic Theology” is a very extensive work of eight volumes; and it would be impossible to give a detailed review and summary in these columns. Nor is this necessary. I will confine myself to the specific question.
In the first place, this claim of being Calvinistic is found in a biographical sketch written by Dr. C. F. Lincoln, also of Dallas Theological Seminary, and found in Volume VIII. We find there this statement: “Dr. Chafer himself said that ‘the very fact that I did not study a prescribed course in theology made it possible for me to approach the subject with an unprejudiced mind and to be concerned only with what the Bible actually teaches.’ This independent research has resulted in this work which is unabridged, Calvinistic, premillennial, and dispensational.” (pp. 5 and 6)
In the second place, the claim that Dr. Chafer’s theology is premillennial and dispensational is certainly true. One does not have to study this “Systematic Theology” very long before he discovers that it is, in fact, a thorough-going dispensationalistic theology. It was the avowed purpose of Dr. Chafer to fill what he believed was a lack in the field of theology, namely, to write a dogmatics which was both unabridged and dispensational. This purpose, I would say, he achieved completely. Not only is there dispensationalism in Chafer’s theology, but dispensationalism permeates his entire theology.
In the third place, there are without doubt someCalvinistic elements (I prefer to say Reformed elements.) in Dr. Chafer’s theology. I need not go into detail as to these elements. For the question is not whether there are elements of Calvinism present in Chafer’s theology, but whether his very theology is Calvinistic. There is, indeed, a difference. I may have many elements of an automobile; but if an indispensable element like the engine or the transmission is missing, it can hardly be said that I have an automobile. Or I may have many elements of a tree; but if the very life of that tree is missing, it can hardly be said that I have a tree. Thus, a theology may have some, even many, elements of Calvinism; but if that theology is not essentially Calvinistic, —that is, if one or more indispensable elements are absent, — it can hardly be called a Calvinistic theology.
Precisely at this crucial point, in the fourth place, Dr. Chafer’s theology is found wanting. Calvinism and dispensationalism are in their essence mutually exclusive. Here is an important point. Very often the Calvinistic insistence upon the sovereignty of God, and specifically upon sovereign predestination and sovereign grace, is emphasized as constituting an indispensable element of Calvinism. Now this is true, and I would be the last to deny it. What is often overlooked, however, and what must be characterized as a twin truth of Calvinism, if not an even more underlying truth, is the fact that Reformed theology isfederal theology, covenant theology. It is with respect to the latter truth that Chafer deviates from Calvinism fundamentally, and that for the very reason that he is a deliberate and thoroughgoing dispensationalist. And it is for this basic reason and because Chafer’s entire theology proceeds consciously from a dispensationalist viewpoint that I would deny that his theology may be called Calvinistic.
Finally, we may confront the question whether Dr. Chafer’s theology gives evidence of being non-calvinistic in concrete instances. My answer is affirmative.
As a first item, I would point to the fact that Dr. Chafer, in characteristic dispensationalist fashion, holds to two elections, — an election of Israel and an election of the church. (Vol. VII, “Doctrinal Summarization,” pp. 132-138). Now this is a decidedly anti- Calvinistic view. For proof of this I will cite that thoroughly Calvinistic creed, the Canons of Dordrecht, I, A, 8:
There are not various decrees of election, but one and the same decree respecting all those who shall be saved, both under the Old and New Testament: since the scripture declares the good pleasure, purpose and counsel of the divine will to be one, according to which he hath chosen us from eternity, both to grace and glory, to salvation and the way of salvation, which he hath ordained that we should walk therein.
As a second item, also stemming directly from his dispensationalism and its corruption of the Scriptural truth of God’s eternal covenant of grace, I would point to Chafer’s denial of infant baptism. This is, of course, characteristically dispensationalist; it is also closely connected with the fact that Baptists are usually dispensationalist.
As a third item,— and here the relation to Dr. Chafer’s dispensationalism is not at once clear, — I would point to his denial, mild though it may be, of the thoroughly Reformed doctrine of limited atonement.
Without doubt many more specific departures could be itemized, most of which stem from Chafer’s dispensationalist view. Let these, however, suffice.
The above remarks lead me to a more general observation concerning this entire matter. Not infrequently we read and hear of so-called Calvinistic Baptists. These are Baptists who strive, or claim to strive, to maintain the truths of sovereign grace. Undoubtedly it is a cause for joy, in this day of Arminianism gone wild, to come into contact with those who desire to maintain the truth of salvation by sovereign grace only.
It is another question entirely, however, whether such Baptists are indeed Calvinistic, or whether the nameCalvinist applied to a Baptist is after all a misnomer. As Reformed people, we should not be misled on this score. For if not explicitly, then implicitly, there is, behind the baptistic views of such a theology a denial of the one and eternal covenant of grace which is intrinsically dispensationalist. Baptist theology is not federal, or covenant, theology. For the same reason, I believe, it has been historically impossible to remain Baptist and to remain Calvinistic as to the truth of sovereign grace. That accounts also for the fact that most Baptists today are also Arminian.
The importance of the Reformed truth of God’s eternal covenant of grace with His people is indeed great. This truth is basic. Let us appreciate it and hold it fast, both in doctrine and in life!