Saturday, 27 February 2016

A Primer on Dispensationalism, by John Gerstner

John H. Gerstner, A Primer on Dispensationalism, 1982 Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.

Dispensationalism is a system of Evangelical theology that holds that Christ's return is Premillennial and makes a consistent distinction between God's program for Israel and God's program for the Church. This is the view of most sensational 'end times' books and of those who expect the 'rapture' of the Church. As a Protestant, I was an enthusiastic Dispensationalist and for my PhD thesis, I examined the life and work of John Nelson Darby, who introduced this system of theology.

This book, by Reformed theologian John Gerstner is a critique of Dispensationalism from a Calvinst perspective. It is a somewhat harsh critique and it has been argued by many that he does not fairly represent the views of those he is criticizing. In particular he makes the accusation that Dispensationalism teaches two ways of salvation, one for the Church and one for Israel. I think this charge is untrue. I don't think Dispensationalists have always articulated themselves well, but I think the difference in salvation is a matter of sanctification, rather than justification (for Protestants, justification and sanctification are two vitally different acts, while we Catholics, to grossly simplify things, would say they are two aspects of the same thing).

Gerstner also accuses Dispensationalists who profess to be Calvinists of being crypto-Arminians. I think this charge is also wrong. I was not unhappy to be called an Arminian when I was a Dispensationalist. I considered Dispensationalists such as Ryrie and Chafer who were moderate Calvinists to differ from myself on election and predestination. Calvinistic Dispensationalists often try to muddy the waters and make imprecise statements on the subject, but they are Calvinists, if weak Calvinists. They sometimes try to claim that one must affirm both sovereignty and free will and thus be both Arminian and Calvinist. However, in doing so they basically affirm Calvinism. There is no middle ground between monergism and synergism. Either one believes in unconditional election or one does not. Either one holds that God has chosen some to salvation without regard to foreseen faith or one denies this.

Gerstner accuses Ryrie of being antinomian. I think he is right, but he never actually quotes Ryrie's books to show that this is true and how exactly Ryrie is antinomian. I think that is a little unfair.

It is interesting that Gerstner spends most of this book discussing soteriology, rather than eschatology, which is often thought of as central to Dispensationalism. I think Vern Poythress did a much better job of critiquing Dispensationalism in Understanding Dispensationalists. I wouldn't recommend reading this without also reading the best works of Dispensationalists themselves, such as those of Ryrie and Pentecost.

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