Essay / On This Day

Today is Lewis Sperry Chafer’s Birthday (1871)

Lewis Sperry Chafer (February 27, 1871 – August 22, 1952) is famous for his role in promoting and consolidating dispensational theology. That pigeonholes him well enough, and he was happy enough to bear that label. In fact, he was proud to have been the first theologian to take up the task of thinking through all of Christian theology with the particular commitments of dispensationalism in mind. Before Chafer took up that task, there had been a great deal of dispensationalist Bible teaching, and considerable big-picture synthesis (think of those charts and lists produced within the movement!), but Chafer was the first to take up the traditional categories of systematic theology and teach them from a self-consciously dispensational point of view.

Having set himself that task, Chafer worked assiduously and in earnest, ultimately producing eight volumes. There are a handful of characteristic Chaferian ideas that are worked out consistently throughout the eight volumes. But reading around in the volumes today, I am struck by the amplitude of Chafer’s mind, and his ability to offer full-scale discussions of important doctrinal matters without needing to make them identifiably dispensational. Indeed, only a single-idea person, or a crank, would force the whole range of Christian theology into a pre-conceived interpretive grid on purpose. Imagine trying to develop a dispensational or non-dispensational theology of angels, anthropology, or atonement, or other theology words that start with A –not to mention all the doctrines between there and Z. Chafer was no crank, nor a single-idea person. His theological work takes twists and turns as it finds itself normed and formed by the material under consideration.

For example, Chafer’s treatment of salvation in the third volume of his Systematic Theology is a solid performance. In it, Chafer finds a wise balance between simply stringing together Bible passages on the one hand, and only indicating the broadest overarching categories on the other hand. Anyone who has tried to explain a subject within systematic theology knows the difficulty of keeping a sense of the whole forest while giving due attention to each of the most prominent trees. If Chafer’s soteriology is a bit prolix (60 pages), it is because he leaned a bit more toward attention to individual aspects of salvation, sticking very close to biblical terminology. Under the chapter heading, “The Riches of Divine Grace,” Chafer provides sections for no fewer than 33 numbered riches:

1. In the Eternal Plan of God. 2. Redeemed. 3. Reconciled. 4. Related to God through Propitiation. 5. Forgiven All Trespasses. 6. Vitally Conjoined to Christ for the Judgment of the Old Man “unto a New Walk.” 7. Free from the Law. 8. Children of God. 9. Adopted. 10. Acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. 11. Justified. 12. Made Nigh. 13. Delivered from the Power of Darkness. 14. Translated into the Kingdom of the Son of His Love. 15. On the Rock, Jesus Christ. 16. A Gift from God the Father to Christ. 17. Circumcised in Christ. 18. Partakers of the Holy and Royal Priesthood. 19. A Chosen Generation, a Holy Nation, a Peculiar People. 20. Heavenly Citizens. 21. Of the Family and Household of God. 22. In the Fellowship of the Saints. 23. A Heavenly Association. 24. Having Access to God. 25. Within the Much More Care of God. 26. His Inheritance. 27. The Inheritance of the Saints. 28. Light in the Lord. 29. Vitally United to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 30. Blessed with the Earnest or First-Fruits of the Spirit. 31. Glorified. 32. Complete in Him. 33. Possessing Every Spiritual Blessing.

This is a lot of (blessed!) detail, and it comes under the chapter-head “The Riches of Divine Grace,” which is itself under the umbrella category of “The Saving Work of the Triune God.” Though the details do predominate, because Chafer loves a long list when it comes to salvation, he also orders things well in a sequence of thought that leads from the list through a discussion of the assurance of salvation and finds its climax in an extended exposition of Romans 8 in a chapter called “The Consummating Scripture.”

Is it recognizably a product of a particular theological school, a dispensational one? Here and there in this soteriology a perceptive reader can find such signs. But it’s also dozens of pages of good theology of a “mere Christian” sort, which readers from any theological tradition could affirm with only a handful of line-item vetoes which we all need when we read each other’s theology. Chafer had the courage of his convictions and a systematic mind, but he was no crank. In fact, it seems to me that only a crank would dismiss these eight volumes out of hand just because their theological commitments can be recognized and labelled.

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