Presented to the 2013 Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics as “Dispensationalism’s Feet of Iron Mixed With Clay: How We Arrived at an “Open-But-Cautious” View on Non-Cessationism.”


We owe a tremendous debt to many traditional dispensationalists who labored to blaze trails more Biblical than those of their forefathers. Still, we must refine the system for an increasingly more Biblical understanding. To that end, this paper has three concerns.

First, it explores dispensationalism’s concurrent dissatisfaction with non–literal eschatology and contentment with thomistic and reformed (hereafter, TR) platforms in soteriology and ecclesiology. Due to historical sympathy toward these platforms, we have failed to fully deconstruct our theology and reconstruct from a hermeneutically sound Biblical perspective. Consequently, our systematic theology is not univocally systematic or Biblical, but rather is an amalgamation of broadly informed historical systems.

doveSecond, as such amalgamations eventually breaks down in favor of one system over another, we are not surprised in soteriology to see a settling in the lordship salvation debate, for example, as illustrated by the increasing prominence of the Young Restless, and Reformed, and the New Calvinists. Likewise, in evangelical ecclesiology there is an increasing drift toward an open but cautious view on non-cessationism, fostered in part by shared methodology of MacArthur and Piper on the issue.

Finally, as a remedy to drift favoring TR methodology and conclusions, we propose a full deconstruction of dispensational theology, and a reconstruction in order on literal grammatical–historical principles. If dispensationalism is to have any true explanatory value, it must fully extricate itself from the systems it has concurrently espoused and eschewed.


The primary (inductive) argument of this paper is presented here in short form:

P1: Dispensationalism has historically disagreed with fundamental aspects of TR ecclesiology and eschatology.

 P2: The explanation for the differences, according to representatives of each group, is centrally theological and hermeneutical.

 P3: Dispensationalism has historically agreed with fundamental aspects of TR soteriology, while disagreeing on some points (as illustrated by Chafer).

 P4: An explanation for the soteriological similarities is found centrally in the shared methodology of appealing to TR authorities (as illustrated by MacArthur and Piper).

 P5: TR methodology is compatible with an open but cautious view on non-cessationism.

C: As long as dispensationalism appeals to TR methodology for any of its doctrines, inconsistencies identifiable in TR eschatology and soterology will be present within dispensational thought. With respect to the cessationism debate, this means dispensationalism will have increasing difficulty in arguing against non-cessationism unless it abandons TR methodology altogether.


Premise 1: Dispensationalism has historically disagreed with fundamental aspects of TR ecclesiology and eschatology.

 While this disagreement is common knowledge, the historical differences relating to Israel’s present and future are worth noting here. Ronald Diprose observes, “Christian theology should consider Israel for her own sake and not as an adjunct to a particular theological system.”[1] Diprose notes that there are a number of passages viewed by some as being compatible with replacement theology, including John 8:30-59; Matthew 21:42-44; Acts 15:1-18; Galatians 3:26-29, 6:16; Ephesians 2:11-22; Hebrews 8:1-13; 1 Peter 2:4-10; Philippians 3:4-9, and 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16.[2] (I would also add Revelation 20:1-10 as a central passage in the discussion.) How these particular passages are handled goes a long way in determining ecclesiology and eschatology. While there are several permutations of supersessionist thought,[3] the purpose here is not to explicate them all, but only to show a central point of contrast between dispensational and TR thought in this area.

Diprose traces early strands of replacement theology from the Epistle of Barnabas, where it is said, “But let us see whether this people is the heir or the former, and if the covenant belongs to them or to us.”[4] Justin Martyr considered the church to be the true Israelitish race,[5] Diprose further catalogs how Iranaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, Cyril, Pope Gregory I, Constantine, and subsequent canon law all were influential in swaying the church toward a predominantly supersessionist perspective.[6]

Thomas Aquinas later solidifies supersessionism, commenting on Galatians 6:16 that, “He therefore is the Israel of God who is spiritually an Israel before God…Hence even the Gentiles have become the Israel of God…”[7] Martin Luther, in his commentary on Galatians makes no direct distinction between Israel and the church, nor does he equate the two.[8] However, an editorial comment in Luther’s Commentary on Romans illustrates Luther’s wrestling and final resolution on the identity of Israel in Romans 11:

“Luther at first wavered with regard to the conversion of “all Israel.” In Romans he at times speaks as though he believed in the final conversion of the Jews, though he also emphasizes the fact that only the elect will be saved. Later he definitely accepted the opinion of Origen, Theophylact, Jerome, and others, who identified “all Israel” with the number of the elect, to which corresponds the expression “the fullness of the Gentiles.”[9]

John Calvin adds, citing Galatians 6:15, that, “The Old Testament has reference to one nation, the New to all nations.”[10] Commenting on 6:16, he suggests that

“There are two classes that bear [Abraham’s] name, a pretended Israel, which appears to be so in the sight of men, – and the Israel of God. Circumcision was a disguise before men, but regeneration is a truth before God. In a word, he gives the appellation of the Israel of God, to those whom he formerly denominated the children of Abraham by faith (Galatians 3:29), and thus includes all believers, whether Jews of Gentiles, who were united into one church.”[11]

Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin illustrate, by their exposition, a common strand of basic supersessionism that has come to dominate church history, yet which is contradicted in premillennial and especially dispensational thought.

Premise 2: The explanation for the differences, according to representatives of each group, is centrally theological and hermeneutical.

Unlike the TR approach, John Darby notes that the Israel of God referred to “any of that people [Israel] who were circumcised in heart, who gloried in the cross according to the sentiments of the new creature.”[12] Darby was careful to maintain the ethnic distinction, though he does add, with reference to them in 6:16, “Moreover every true Christian was of them according to the spirit of his walk.”[13]

While Charles Ryrie admits that grammar is not dispositive in Galatians 6:16, for example,[14] he carefully exposits:

“The argument of the book of Galatians does favor the connective or emphatic meaning of “and”…Use of the words Israel and Church shows clearly that in the New Testament national Israel continues with her own promises and the Church is never equated with a so-called “new Israel” but is carefully and continually distinguished as a separate work of God in this age.” [15]

S. Lewis Johnson agrees, and underscores a major issue encountered in the thomistic/reformed interpretation of the kai as explicative:

“If there is an interpretation that totters on a tenuous foundation, it is the view that Paul equates the term “the Israel of God” with the believing church of Jews and Gentiles. To support it, the general usage of the term Israel in Paul, in the NT, and in the Scriptures as a whole is ignored.”[16]

What Johnson observes is that in order for some to favor a particular theological conclusion, characteristics of common usage are not properly appreciated. The TR interpretation, though driven by presuppositions, employs different methodology than that used to derive the dispensational understanding.

Oswald T. Allis observes, “One of the most marked features of Premillennialism in all its forms is the emphasis which it places on the literal interpretation of Scripture. It is the insistent claim of its advocates that only when interpreted literally is the Bible interpreted truly.”[17] He recognizes that dispensationalists “are literalists in interpreting prophecy,” but criticizes them for being inconsistent in other areas.[18]

Louis Berkhof critiques premillennialism as a theory “based on a literal interpretation of the prophetic delineations of the future of Israel and of the Kingdom of God, which is entirely untenable.”[19] He adds, “The New Testament certainly does not favor the literalism of the Premillenarians. Moreover, this literalism lands them in all kinds of absurdities…”[20]

John Gerstner takes an important step in recognizing that the distinctions aren’t simply hermeneutic, but also theological – specifically regarding pre-commitment to theological conclusions:

“We all agree that most literature, including the Bible, is usually meant to be understood according to the literal construction of the words which are used….At the point where we differ, there is a tendency for the dispensationalists to be literalistic where the non-dispensationalist tends to interpret the Bible figuratively. But to say on the basis of that limited divergence of interpretation that the two schools represent fundamentally different approaches is not warranted. Many on both sides think that this minor “hermeneutical” difference is a more foundational difference than the theological. We profoundly disagree for we believe that the dispensational literal hermeneutic is driven by an a priori commitment to dispensational theological distinctives.”[21]

While I believe Gerstner understates the hermeneutical disagreement and accuses the wrong side of theological pre-commitment, he is right to emphasize the importance of theological pre-commitment, since such presuppositions are a part of theological method and can have a tremendous impact on hermeneutical principles.

Robert Saucy makes a slightly different argument than the aforementioned TR thinkers. He suggests that,

“An analysis of non-dispensational systems, however, reveals that their less-than literal approach to Israel in the Old Testament prophecies does not really arise from an a priori spiritualistic or metaphorical hermeneutic. Rather it is the result of their interpretation of the New Testament using the same grammatico-historical hermeneutic as that of dispensationalists…So the fundamental issue between dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists is neither a basic hermeneutic principle nor the ultimate purpose of human history. The basic issue is the way we understand the historical plan and the goal of that plan through which God will bring eternal glory to himself.”[22]

While Saucy downplays hermeneutic distinctions even more than does Gerstner, Saucy still recognizes the differences exist, but attributes them to a broader, rather than narrower, theological understanding. Hence, while there are differences regarding the extent of the hermeneutic differences and the exact nature of the theological disagreement, there seems to be a common recognition that the differences between dispensational and TR thought are (1) primarily theological and hermeneutic, and (2) found largely in prophetic passages.

Premise 3: Dispensationalism has historically agreed with fundamental aspects of TR soteriology, while disagreeing on some points (as illustrated by Chafer).

 Lewis Sperry Chafer accomplished inestimable gains for dispensational soteriology and sanctification, as his Systematic Theology remains to this day arguably the most comprehensive dispensational work on both topics. While Chafer’s volumes are tremendously helpful, they also betray an important reliance on TR thought, as evidenced by Chafer’s own theological method. Chafer suggests that “theology may be extended properly to include all material and immaterial realities that exist and the facts concerning them and contained in them.”[23] This curiously broad characterization is advanced in his definition of systematic theology, which he describes as, “A science which follows a humanly devised scheme or order of doctrinal development and which purports to incorporate into its system all the truth about God and His universe from any and every source [emphasis mine].[24] Chafer admits that his source material for the systematic theology is much broader than the Scriptures themselves (though he acknowledges that Biblical theology relies exclusively on Scripture).

A further methodological characteristic of Chafer’s theology is his proclivity to include large portions of quoted material – not to illustrate ideas, but to state them initially, as primary source material. This approach is not unique to Chafer, being characteristic of his times. However, this penchant for relying on secondary source data as primary, and his methodological admission that secondary source material may have equal standing with Scripture is troubling for the development of dispensational theology.

To illustrate the influence of these two methodological traits on Chafer’s theology, note his first extended quote of the volume on soteriology. The initial quotation includes no less than three full pages reproduced from W. Lindsay Alexander’s System of Biblical Theology, on the accomplishment of Jesus’s death. Chafer introduces the quote by saying that Alexander “discusses this feature of Soteriology in a manner well suited to this thesis.”[25] Chafer offers a remark immediately following the quote: “In conclusion it may be observed…”[26] Instead of building his theology directly and exclusively from Scripture, Chafer imports a tremendous portion of the doctrine of atonement from Alexander’s work. That is not to say that Alexander is either right or wrong, only to acknowledge that he was steeped in TR thinking,[27] and Chafer allowed him to have a significant role in the newly systematized dispensational understanding of the atonement.

To his credit, in the spirit of scholastic integrity, Chafer also extensively quoted those with whom he disagreed. In the same volume, Chafer allows John Miley a six-page quotation, but only so out of respect for Miley’s scholarship on the issue of the governmental theory of the atonement.[28] Chafer concludes his chapter on the atonement with a ten-page quotation of B.B. Warfield’s “Modern Theories of the Atonement,” lauding Warfield’s address as “the most clarifying analysis of this subject ever published.[29]

By contrast, Chafer’s volume on eschatology shows a reluctance to rely on TR sources. Besides the introduction (in which he quotes numerous TR thinkers to illustrate the importance of eschatology) and the section discussing the history of chiliasm (where one expects and finds a number of quotes from historical sources), with two exceptions Chafer only quotes extensively from C.I Scofield,[30] Frederick Taylor,[31] H.A. Ironside,[32] Henry Thiessen,[33] Ford Ottman,[34]  and J.J. Van Oosterzee,[35] all dispensational thinkers in their eschatology. As for the exceptions, Chafer cites George Peters, but only to agree with Peters’ argument that we should pay more attention to the Davidic Covenant,[36] and he cites B.B. Warfield, but only to compare historical views on immortality in the eternal state.[37]

My point here is not to impeach Chafer or his scholarship, but simply to demonstrate that his theology – the most comprehensive theology dispensationalism has yet produced – allows TR thought to do some heavy lifting in certain key areas, while restricting TR influence in others – and that by Chafer’s own design. Later influential thinkers would capitalize on this, attempting to bring definition to areas that remained otherwise underdeveloped in Chafer’s dispensational thought, but doing so in deference especially to TR thought.


[1] Ronald Diprose, Israel and the Church (Waynesboro, GA: authentic Media, 2004), 3.

[2] Diprose, 33-54.

[3] The distinct systems are well cataloged by Michael Vlach in “Various Forms of Replacement Theology” in The Masters Seminary Journal 20:1 (Spring, 2009): 57-69.

[4] Diprose, 73.

[5] Diprose, 75.

[6] Diprose, 77-96.

[7] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, trans. F.R. Larcher, OP (Albany, NY: Magi Books, 1966), electronic edition.

[8] Martin Luther, Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: CCEL, 1991), 135.

[9] Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, trans. Peter Miller (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954), 162.

[10] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1940), 2:11:11.

[11] John Calvin, Commentary on Galatians and Ephesians, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: CCEL), 154.

[12] J.N. Darby, Synopsis of the Books of the Bible, Vol. IV (London, England: Cooper and Budd, Ltd., 1965), 281.

[13] Darby, 281.

[14] Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1965), 139.

[15] Ryrie, 140.

[16] S. Lewis Johnson, “Paul and “the Israel of God” an Exegetical and Eschatological Case Study, in The Master’s Seminary Journal, 20/1 (Spring, 2009): 54.

[17] Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1945), 16.

[18] Allis, 21.

[19] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 712.

[20] Berkhof, 713.

[21] John Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 2000), 92-93.

[22] Robert Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), 20.

[23] LS Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1993), 3.

[24] Chafer, Vol. 1, 5.

[25] LS Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1993), 68.

[26] Chafer, Vol. 3, 72.

[27] E.g., Alexander’s supersessionism is evident in James Ross, W. Lindsay Alexander, D.D., L.L.D.,: His Life and Work (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1887), 267 and 330.

[28] Chafer, Vol. 3, 147-152.

[29] Chafer, Vol. 3, 155ff.

[30] LS Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1993), 286-287; 311-312; 357-358; 413-414.

[31] Chafer, Vol. 4, 307-311.

[32] Chafer, Vol. 4, 335-336.

[33] Chafer, Vol. 4, 338; 348-349; 361-363; 369-370.

[34] Chafer, Vol. 4, 354-357.

[35] Chafer, Vol. 4, 423-426.

[36] Chafer, Vol. 4, 324-325.

[37] Chafer, Vol. 4, 421.