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Dispensationalism Part 7: Lewis Sperry Chafer

Updated on September 10, 2018
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Barry is the founder and director of Expositors International Ministry and dean of Bible Expositors Seminary, Philippines.

Lewis Sperry Chafer (February 27, 1871 – August 22, 1952)

Sperry was raised in a Christian home. His father was a Congregational minister who died when Lewis was only 11 years old. Sperry only had three semesters of Bible school. His main focus was on music. He began his ministerial career as a music minister and evangelist. In 1901 he moved to Northfield, MO and became involved in the Northfield Conferences. It was here that he was first exposed to Dispensational ideas. In 1909 he became the president of the conferences and began teaching at the Mt. Hermon School for Boys. In 1907 he published his first book Elementary Outline Studies in the Science of Music. He also edited a collection of songs entitled Northfield Seminary Songs and wrote several scores for Selected Hymns for Music.[1] He later published Satan and True Evangelism.

After the death of Scofield in 1921, Chafer moved to Texas to pastor the Church Scofield had founded. He also took over the mission society and became a leading speaker in conferences. In 1924 Chafer founded the Evangelical Theological College (which later would be renamed as Dallas Theological Seminary). Chafer served for the rest of his life, almost thirty years, as the school’s president and professor of systematic theology. In 1926 Lewis publish Major Bible Themes. This book was the precursor to his later and better-known Systematic Theology.

William Henry Griffith Thomas

William Henry Griffith Thomas (1861-1924), born in Owestry, Shropshire, England, was an Anglican clergyman and scholar. He received his B.A. from King’s College, London and his D.D. from Oxford (1895). Following pastorates in London, Griffith Thomas moved his family to Toronto Canada in 1910 where he joined the faculty of Wycliffe College. While there he taught Old Testament literature and exegesis. In 1919, the family moved to Philadelphia, and where Griffith Thomas continued speaking in conferences in North America, Britain, and elsewhere as well as writing. He authored several books including a systematic theology entitled The Principles of Theology based on the 39 Articles of the Anglican Communion. Theologically conservative, Griffith Thomas was both Calvinistic in his soteriology and premillennial in his eschatology. Having befriended Lewis Sperry Chafer in Philadelphia, the two eventually co-founded the Evangelical Theological College (now Dallas Theological Seminary) in 1924, the year he died.

Thomas was a professor at Wycliffe College in Toronto, Canada. He was once invited to give the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary in 1913 by B. B. Warfield. This raises in my mind an interesting question. Given that Thomas was affiliated with two seminaries why would he join with Chafer to create a third? What did he see missing in these other institutions that would prompt him to create a new institution? Surely it had to have been his desire for a school that taught Dispensationalism.

"Nine Decades of Dallas Seminary"

Dallas Theological Seminary

Chafer along with his friend Griffith Thomas founded the Evangelical Theological College in 1924. Griffith agreed to be a visiting professor but he died before he was able to do so. In 1936 the school's name was changed to Dallas Theological Seminary and Graduate School of Theology. This was to emphasize that the school offered a graduate program and was not an undergraduate college. In 1969 the name was shortened to Dallas Theological Seminary. DTS became the leading Dispensational school in the world and graduated such well-known men as Chuck Swindoll, Tony Evans, Andy Stanley, David Jeremiah, J. Vernon McGee, Hal Lindsey, John F. Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, and Bruce Wilkinson. Today DTS is still a well-known school and produces many graduates every year. The school continues to hold to Dispensationalism.

Article V of DTS’s Doctrinal Statement Affirms “the dispensation of the Mosaic Law, the present dispensation of grace, and the future dispensation of the millennial kingdom.” The doctrinal statement that the school has today affirms the belief that salvation in all times was by “grace through faith.” This is important to note. Classical dispensationalism teaches that salvation for the Jewish people was through covenant obedience. DTS moved away from Classical Dispensationalism to Progressive Dispensationalism, which we will discuss in a future article.

Chafer's Systematic Theology

After ten years of labor, Chafer published the first edition of his systematic theology in 8 volumes. It was the first systematic theology written from a Dispensational frame work. The first printing sold out in six months. It was printed a third time within two years after the first printing. The volumes continue to sell well today.

While Dispensationalism may have had humble beginnings in the Bible conference movement in North America, by the 1940s the teaching was widely accepted. Moody Press produced the Sunday school material. Men could self-study and preach through the Scofield Reference Bible. Chafer produce a Systematic Theology to explain Dispensationalism and ministers could be trained through the Dallas Theological Seminary. Through these avenues Dispensationalism became the prevailing eschatological view in the churches in North America east of the Mississippi River.

Merging Streams

This is a good place to pause and make a few observations. Irving, Darby, Moody, Scofield and Chafer all had very little to no formal theological training. I cannot help but wonder that if they were better grounded in Biblical doctrines and if they understood consistency that comes from studying systematic theology, would they have come to the same conclusions. Another way to say this would be to say that those who were steeped in Biblical training including exegesis, systematic theology, church history, etc. never came to the conclusions of the Dispensationalism. In all fairness Brookes and Thomas were formally trained but depart from their religious tradition to embrace Dispensationalism. I cannot help but to see a correlation between a lack of Biblical training, and therefore a lack of understanding and knowledge that seems to accompany those who embraced Dispensationalism early on.

Along the same line, Brookes (Presbyterian), Scofield (Congregationalist), Chafer (Congregationalist) and Thomas (Anglican) would all at least have been confessionally Calvinistic. Irving was also a Presbyterian but as we saw in a previous article he clearly veered away from his mother church. Moody, was by all accounts a-theological and at least in word and deed an Arminian. As to Grave, it is hard to say. He seems to contradict himself in his writings. This maybe do to his own confusion on the topic, his failure to articulate his position clearly or this may be as a result of changes in his views overtime.

While at the beginning of Dispensationalism we find a mixture of Arminian and Calvinistic soteriology, today without doubt almost all if not all Arminians are Dispensationalists or at least Pre-Millennials of one stripe or another. It is rare to find a person that holds to both a Reformed view of soteriology as well as a Pre-Millennial or Dispensational eschatology. Examples of such rare men who claim to be Calvinistic in their view of salvation but Pre-Millennial in their eschatology would be Dr. John MacArthur, Dr. Steve Lawson and Dr. John Piper. In a future chapter we will discuss the merits and challenges of Pre-Millennialism and ask if it is compatible with reformed theology. In a later chapter we will discuss this in greater detail.

DTS today does affirm total depravity (taken from their doctrinal statement).

Article IV—Man, Created and Fallen

“…We also believe that this spiritual death, or total depravity of human nature, has been transmitted to the entire human race of man, the Man Christ Jesus alone being excepted; and hence that every child of Adam is born into the world with a nature which not only possesses no spark of divine life, but is essentially and unchangeably bad apart from divine grace…[2]

After a cursory glance at their doctrinal statement one could conclude that it would be possible, based upon the statement alone, for Calvinists and Arminians to co-exist and teach at the school. However, the school has generally produced Arminians (please see the list of alumni) and has a long history of argued against the Calvinistic views. This is especially noted the Lordship Salvation controversy.[3]


[1] Evangelical America: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Religious Culture edited by Timothy J. Demy Ph.D., Paul R. Shockley Ph.D., ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA, 2017, p.51

[2] DTS Doctrinal Statement <> Sept. 3, 2018

[3] The “Lordship Controversy” or “Lordship Salvation” refers to the denial by men at DTS that it is necessary for saved people to be obedient to Christ. They said that it is possible for a person to be genuinely converted but not completely surrender to Christ as Lord. They referred to such people as “carnal Christians" by wrongly applying the words of Paul to the Corinthian church "For ye are yet carnal" (1 Corinthians 3:3)

© 2018 Barry G Carpenter


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