This World Is Not My Home, The Origens and Development of Dispensationalism

By Michael Williams
Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland : Christian Focus (2003). 236 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Larry Pettegrew
15.1 (Spring 2004) : 134-139

Michael Williams is associate professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. The purpose of his book is to analyze dispensationalism, and more specifically classic dispensationalism, through the theology of two of its best-known adherents, C. I. Scofield and Lewis Sperry Chafer. According to Williams, his book is a theological not an exegetical analysis.

For the dispensational reader, the book may come across as an anxious attempt to isolate classic dispensationalism to the fringes of Christianity. It has a few compliments, but for the most part, the author paints an ugly picture of dispensationalism, especially classic dispensationalism. True, most modern-day dispensationalists would not wish to try to defend everything that Scofield and Chafer taught. But there are still many concerns with this book.

A couple of questions arise in the area of historiography. In the first place, is it possible for a theological opponent of dispensationalism to give a fair critique of dispensationalism? Many dispensationalists believe that covenant theologians have a bad record in this regard. This book will not help the record.

Second, can a broad theological movement like dispensationalism be analyzed by focusing on only two early-twentieth-century proponents? Though directed first against Scofield and Chafer, and second against classic dispensationalists, Williams’ criticism does include all dispensationalists at times. For example, “Dispensationalism . . . comes dangerously close to the idea of election as license . . .” (127). Williams is correct in maintaining that Scofield and Chafer were two of the most influential promoters of classic dispensationalism, but dispensationalism is a not at all a creedal system. It seeks to be a biblicist theology, and nothing that Scofield and Chafer wrote has ever been a manual for all dispensationalists or even all classic dispensationalists.

In chapter one, Williams introduces Scofield and Chafer to his readers. In a somewhat ad hominen attack, Williams implies that Scofield’s biographers are being hagiographical when they report that Scofield quit drinking alcoholic beverages immediately after his conversion. This is only standard revivalist rhetoric, according to Williams. Moreover, Williams claim s that Scofield abandoned his wife and two daughters after his conversion (24, #17). It would have been fairer to mention Scofield’s side of the story, that his Roman Catholic wife wanted nothing to do with a serious born-again Christian and left him. Williams may also be stretching the readers’ credulity when he encourages them to read postmillennialist Loraine Boettner’s book for a “brief factual account of Scofield’s life” (24, #17).

Williams also tries to connect Scofield directly with John Nelson Darby and the Brethren (what is so bad about that?). In his reference Bible, all Scofield did, says Williams, was to formulate Darby and the Brethren (32). But this is much too narrow an interpretation. Williams should have at least mentioned the influence on Scofield of James Brookes and the Bible teachers associated with the Niagara Bible Conference. After his conversion, Scofield studied directly under James Brookes, the pastor of the influential Washington and Compton Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri. Scofield later fellowshiped with the teachers of the Niagara Bible Conference and served as a teacher there.

Charles Ryrie has also shown that Scofield’s dispensational arrangements are much closer to Isaac Watts than to Darby. Moreover, many of the notes in the Scofield Bible are merely standard orthodox definitions and explanations. He surely did not get them only from Darby. Williams is also unhappy with the influence of the Scofield Reference Bible, mentioning more than once that Scofield put his notes on the same page with the inspired Bible, as though that were the only study Bible to do so. As to style, Williams says that there is “a lifeless quality in Scofield’s work . . .” (32).

In chapter two, “Satan and the Satanic System,” Williams expounds his major thesis. He writes, “Throughout this study, we will notice an otherworldliness in the thought of both men that de-emphasizes and even demonizes the physical world” (46). This is the basis for the title of the book, “This World Is Not My Home.” Williams’ comes close to saying that classic dispensationalists were so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good. He speaks of classic dispensationalism in terms of dualism, Platonism, and Gnosticism because its adherents believe that even the good in society is still under the control of Satan. “Chafer’s understanding of Satan as an incompetent substitute for God comes perilously close to the creation myth of ancient gnosticism, in which the demiurge in clumsy imitation of the high deity fashions the material universe and inspires human culture” (49).

But after he argues this point, Williams is compelled to admit, “Yet to their credit, Scofield and Chafer were not saying that Christians are not to be doing anything in society. . . . Both affirmed the necessity of good government, moral living, the proper education of children, and so on” (56-57). The author follows this approach more than once in the book. He argues what he thinks the implications of classic dispensational theology are, but then backs off and admits that Scofield and Chafer did not actually teach such things.

In chapter three, Williams critiques Scofield’s and Chafer’s view of the church: (1) that classic dispensationalists sublimated the church to the nation of Israel; and (2) that classic dispensationalists over-emphasized the mystical body of Christ to the neglect of the visible church. Some dispensationalists, including this reviewer, would agree with Williams that the local church was not always given its due in Scofield’s and Chafer’s writings. Nevertheless, as Williams is again compelled to admit, “Dispensationalists have always been very active in such activities as church-planting ministries and the erection of educational institutions to train leaders and workers for the church” (71). Moreover, Scofield was a pastor of a local church.

The author also believes that the classic dispensationalists’ stress on the body of Christ leads them to over-emphasize the idea that Christians are only strangers and pilgrims here on earth in the midst of a hopelessly evil social order that will be changed only by the eschatological kingdom. In a later chapter he argues that the classic dispensationalists’ pessimism about the present age comes not from the Bible, but from catastrophes and social upheavals (immigration problems, labor strikes, Darwinism, conspiracy theories) of the late nineteenth century (113). Of course, premillennialists of all kinds would disagree.

Williams is also unhappy with the doctrine of ecclesiastical separation that he believes classic dispensationalists learned from Darby (86). In one of the most amazing statements in the book, Williams writes that instead of fighting against liberalism, “separation from that which is judged a ruined work and the construction of counter institutions was the only action that was ideologically consistent with the classical dispensationalist understanding of history. Attempting to battle the modernist foe within the denominational seminary, and ultimately within the denomination itself would only result in corruption of one’s own allegiances. . . . The dispensationalist insistence upon separation rather than confrontation made it an unwilling though unconscious co-conspirator in the secularization of American society” (35).

The doctrine of ecclesiastical separation has to be judged on the basis of Scripture, of course. But Williams must not be familiar with the battles in the Baptist denomination in the 1920s and 1930 s wherein conservatives, many of whom were dispensational and almost all premillennial, battled the liberals over the seminaries and colleges as well as the heart and soul of the denomination itself.

On the other hand, James Brookes, the father of dispensationalism in America and the teacher of C. I. Scofield, never left the Presbyterian denomination, but fiercely opposed the theological liberalism he found in it. He was in fact, the major opponent of Charles Briggs in the heresy trials of the 1890’s. Moreover, in the later struggles over Princeton Seminary and the Presbyterian denomination in the north, those who eventually separated to form Westminster Seminary, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and other colleges and seminaries were not dispensationalists, to say the least. It is impossible to maintain the point that Darby and the dispensationalists were the source of cowardly ecclesiastical separation.

There are some straw-man arguments in chapter four. For example, Williams believes that dispensationalists understand the future of Israel and the kingdom only in a political sense: “The salvation of Israel . . . is yet future for her deliverance is not of a metaphysical nature, as in the case of the church. It is, rather, political. Salvation for Israel is her yet future deliverance from her national enemies and oppressors” (98). This is only a half-truth, for dispensationalists believe that Israel’s future deliverance from her national enemies will be consummated only when there is a spiritual revival in the nation (Zechariah 12).

Also in this chapter, Williams critiques the classic dispensationalists’ scheme of dispensations. First, their view of the decree of God is a “particularly scholastic understanding of God and a radically deterministic view of history” (99). This is a switch. Covenant theologians usually criticize dispensationalists for not having a deterministic enough view of the decree. Williams especially dislikes the way the dispensations work their way out as “a drama of damnation” (102). Instead, biblical history is the unfolding of redemption, Williams says. And to say that God works all things for His own glory in human history is a “fundamentally flawed notion” (103). According to the author, such a view misses the biblical images of God as father, king, and shepherd. In fact, though believers are to be theocentrists, God “is an unabashed anthropocentrist” (103).

And what about the doctrine of the rapture? Williams believes that no one would ever have developed such a doctrine if it were not for dispensationalism. The reason dispensationalists devised it was to get the church out of the wicked world. “The social and ecclesiastical implications of pretribulationism were entirely negative for classical dispensationalism” (112).

Dispensationalists’ emphasis on Israel is the theme of chapter five. Once again, many dispensationalists would believe that Williams has some overstatements and straw-man arguments here. Williams should have at least footnoted his source when he wrote, “Scofield sought the restoration of the Jews to their covenanted homeland, not their conversion to Christianity. He did not chide the Jew for rejecting Christ but for rejecting Palestine. Classical dispensationalist concern for Israel concerned itself with Israel as a political entity rather than a community of faith” (121). Williams must not be aware of the Jewish evangelism ministries of Scofield’s close friend, A. C. Gaebelein, as well as other classic dispensationalists. Gaebelein, in fact, learned Yiddish and published a paper in Hebrew in order to evangelize Jews.

Williams goes so far as to say that because classic dispensationalists believe Christ offered a kingdom to Israel when He came to earth, “the purpose of the incarnation, then, was not soteriological, in any Christian sense at least, for classical dispensationalism” (130). Probably all classic dispensationalists would strongly disagree with this accusation. A fair analysis ought at least to begin with one’s opponent being able to say, “Yes, that’s what I believe.”

Much of chapter six is taken up with detailing how Keswick theology is an inadequate theology of sanctification. But this really has nothing to do with the essence of classic dispensationalism. Many classic dispensationalists would agree with his evaluation. Williams also includes a lengthy section describing the attack of the liberals at the University of Chicago against dispensationalism. Another section on Schweitzer’s consistent eschatology follows. Williams says, “Both Schweitzer and the dispensationalists, consequently, spiritualized apocalyptic away into a program of otherworldliness for the church” (168). Of course, the author does admit that “the dispensationalist accepted the apocalyptic worldview of Jesus as true while Schweitzer rejected it” (168). These sections read like research that the author wanted to include in the book, but they make little impact on the development of his thesis.

In chapter seven there is another “birds of a feather flock together” argument. Williams says that the dispensationalists’ tendency to divide the Bible into dispensations closely parallels higher criticism (179). And in another straw-man argument, Williams writes that Chafer believed that OT Israelites were saved by keeping the Law of Moses (197). Of course, he has to concede later that “neither Scofield nor Chafer ever explicitly stated that Old Testament Jews were saved by keeping of the law” (206, also 207). In fact, Williams includes a quote from Chafer (208) where he explicitly denies believing in more than one way of salvation. Chafer says that there is a difference between testing faithfulness, of which there are more than one means, and salvation, of which there is only one way. But Williams believes, nonetheless, that Chafer’s theology implies more than one way of salvation.

Other overstatements and attacks include the following: For classic dispensationalists, “Jesus belongs to Israel; the church must settle for Paul and a hellenized Pauline Christ” (199); “The escapist hope of dispensationalism is clearly far closer to gnosticism than it is to the Apostle’s Creed” (200); “The doctrine of the rapture renders the resurrection utterly inoperable” (201); “The docetic Christ of classical dispensationalism rescues the believer from the creation of the Old Testament Creator God” (202); “Jesus Christ plays only a minor role in the eschatology of dispensationalism” [!!] (201).

The last chapter includes a section on hermeneutics in which Williams points out that Scofield tended to spiritualize the historical sections of the OT. This may be true of him, but of very few others, especially in the last fifty years. Williams himself argues for what he calls the typological interpretation of prophecy.

Williams concludes his work by returning to his thesis. Referencing Mark Noll, Williams says that dispensationalism “could not find a vision for Christian business, education, the arts, politics, or anything having to do with mankind’s public life” (222). And then an almost audacious statement: “Chafer’s dispensationalism simply could not tell one how to make their way in family life, political existence, economic affairs, or career decisions” (223). And finally, “The really pernicious barb of all forms of Gnostic retreat is that they come across as sounding so pious, so serious about religion, while the reality is that the god conceived by the Gnostic believer is too small to be worthy of a human being’s devotion” (225).

It must be apparent by now that Williams is really upset with dispensationalism. But his analysis will not be helpful to many Christians. For one thing, the book is not exegetical, and the value and accuracy of any theological system is ultimately dependent on a correct exposition of Scripture. And for another thing, the book is not an analysis of classic dispensationalism as much as it is an analysis of what covenant theologians (or maybe just one covenant theologian) think two important dispensationalists must have meant by what they taught. For this reviewer who grew up in dispensational churches in the middle of the twentieth century, much of what Williams charges classic dispensationalists as believing sounds strangely unfamiliar.