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Historic Documents in American Presbyterianism:
1944 PCUS Report on Dispensationalism
Recently it has come to our attention that Dr. D. James Kennedy, when examining a candidate for ordination, routinely asks for that candidate's views on the subject of dispensationalism, and particularly asks him to state his agreement with or disapproval of the 1944 report issued by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (i.e., the Southern Presbyterian Church). In light of that anecdote and in an effort to assist those hapless candidates who might otherwise have no knowledge of this document, we reproduce it here. Excerpted from the Minutes of the Eighty-Fourth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, as it met in the Anderson Auditorium at Montreat, North Carolina, May 25-30, 1944. This Report of the Ad-Interim Committee occurs in the Appendix to the Minutes, on pages 123-127. As noted on page 44 of these same Minutes, the Report was adopted as amended.
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  APPENDIX  123
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III. REPORTS OF AD INTERIM COMMITTEES
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1. Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Changes in the Confession of Faith and Catechisms

THE QUESTION AS TO WHETHER THE TYPE OF BIBLE INTERPRETATION KNOWN AS DISPENSATIONALISM IS IN HARMONY WITH THE CONFESSION OF FAITH

   The Ad Interim Committee appointed by the Assembly to consider this question (Minutes, 1941, p. 60; 1943, p. 46) presents the following report.

   Before calling attention to certain doctrines which we believe to be out of accord with the Standards of our Church, we desire to define the terms DISPENSATION and DISPENSATIONALISM.

   The word “Dispensation” is used by both the Confession of Faith and by Dispensationalism. Both systems use it in the sense of “an administration” of some purpose or plan of God, but they differ on the question of what is administered.

   That which is “administered” is made very plain in the Confession of Faith (Ch. VII, Sec. 5-6), where, speaking of the Covenant of Grace, we read, “This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel:  under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, . . . Under the gospel, when Christ the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed, are the preaching of the word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper; . . . There are not, therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.”

   Here it will be seen that the administration of God’s purpose under the law (the 0. T. dispensation) is stated to be different in form, as we know it was in organization and ceremony, from the administration under the gospel (our own dispensation), but the point which the Confession of Faith emphasizes is that these two dispensations do not differ in substance, but there is only one and the same Covenant of Grace to be administered under the various dispensations. Students of the Reformed Faith

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have differed as to the number of dispensations into which we may properly divide the dealing of God with man since the fall; but they have all agreed, in accordance with our Confession of Faith, that these various dispensations are all administrations of one and the same Covenant of Grace.

The opposing viewpoint, on the other hand, as presented by Dr. L. S. Chafer, is as follows: “Since there is so much in the Confession of Faith which is in no way related to this discussion and which is the common belief of all, the issue should yet be narrowed to the difference which obtains between Dispensationalism and Covenant­ism. The latter is that form of theological speculation which attempts to unify God’s entire program from Genesis to Revelation under one supposed Covenant of Grace. That no such covenant is either named or exhibited in the Bible and that the covenants which are set forth in the Bible are so varied and diverse that they preclude a one-covenant idea, evidently does not deter many sincere men from adherence to the one-covenant theory.” (Chafer, Bibliotheca Sacra, editorial on “Dispensational Distinctions Challenged,” Vol. 100, No. 399, p. 338.)

   Thus the “various and diverse” covenants are set over against the “one Covenant of Grace,” i. e., one plan of salvation, which is central to our Church’s view of the teaching of the Bible. All acquainted with dispensational thought know what Dis­pensationalists mean by their rejection of the Covenant of Grace; they do not hold that God has one plan of salvation for all men, but that He has had various and di­verse plans for different groups. (Chafer, Grace, p. 135.) Some of the chief points of divergence will be pointed out below.

DISPENSATIONALISM, therefore, as shown above, rejects the doctrine that God has, since the fall, but one “plan of salvation” for all mankind and affirms that God has been through the ages “administering” various and diverse plans of salvation for various groups.

   Such dispensational teaching is expounded by many in our day, but we shall limit our quotations to the writings of two outstanding exponents of Dispensationalism:  Dr. C. I. Scofield (especially as found in certain notes in the Scofield Reference Bible) and Dr. L. S. Chafer, who has written extensively on this subject. They both teach a dispensational view of God’s various and divergent plans of salvation for various groups in different ages, although they do not agree on all inferences which may be drawn from this fundamental starting point.

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THIS FUNDAMENTAL DIVERGENCE OF DISPENSATIONALISM FROM THE COVENANT THEOLOGY OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MANIFESTS ITSELF IN MANY WAYS, SOME OF WHICH ARE THE FOLLOWING:

A. The Rejection of the Unity of God’s people.

1. The Confession of Faith clearly teaches that God has one people who were brought into saving relation with Him, some under the law, others under the gospel dispensation. The Confession of Faith calls this one people of God “The Church.” (Confession of Faith, Ch. XXV, Sec. 2.)  Whatever may be the national destiny of the Jewish people, according to the Confession of Faith their becoming a spiritual blessing to the world and to the Church will be contingent upon their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah and thereby becoming a part of the Church.

   2. Dispensationalism teaches that God has at least two distinct peoples, namely, the Jewish Nation and the Christian Church. He has distinctly different purposes for them, and each of these two peoples is united to Him by various and diverse covenants quite different in character.  (Dispensationalism reprinted from Bibliotheca Sacra, No. 372, Vol. 93, p. 396 ff., esp. p. 448.)

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B. The Rejection of One Way of Salvation.

1.  The Confession of Faith teaches that there is but one plan of salvation—that men are saved only in Christ, by grace through faith. (Confession of Faith, Ch. III, Sec. 5; VII, Sec. 3; VIII, Sec. 6; X, Sec. 1, 2, 4.)

2.    Dispensationalism, magnifying the distinction which is made between law and grace (which dispensationalists hold to be mutually exclusive—Chafer,   Grace, p. 231 ff.), agrees that men are NOW saved by grace through faith, but teaches that in other dispensations men have been saved by “legal obedience.” “The point of testing is no longer legal obedience as the condition of salvation, but acceptance or rejection of Christ . . .“ (Scofield Reference Bible, p. 1115; also see Chafer, Dispensationalism, pp. 415-16; Grace, pp. 123, 124-126.)  It also holds that after the present age of grace, there will be a reversion in the kingdom age to an extreme system of meritorious obligation. (Chafer, Dispensationalism, pp. 416, 440, 441, 443; Grace, p. 223.)

C. The Rejection of One Destiny for All of God’s People.

1.  The Confession of Faith teaches that God’s people, the righteous, go into “ever­lasting life” (Confession of Faith, Ch. XXXIII, Sec. 2)  which is also spoken of as “an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven.” (Confession of Faith, Ch. VIII, Sec. 5.) The wicked shall be cast into everlasting torment. Such is the final destiny of the saved and the lost, and the Confession of Faith  nowhere suggests that the saved are divided into different and distinct groups which will enjoy different blessings according to the purpose of God.

2.    Dispensationalism teaches that the two groups of God’s people, the Jewish Nation and the Christian Church, are entirely distinct bodies, and in the millennial kingdom will enjoy different blessings, the Jews enjoying earthly and material blessings, and the Church spiritual and heavenly blessings. Some Dispensationalists, like Dr. Chafer, continue this distinction in destiny into eternity, holding that in eternity there are three groups: the lost in hell, the earthly people of God on earth forever, and the Church, the heavenly people of God in heaven forever. (Dispensationalism, p. 448.)

D. The Rejection of the Bible as God’s one Revelation to His One People.

1.  The writers of the Confession of Faith had not heard of the Dispensational method of “rightly dividing the word of truth” for it was not taught in their day. However, all acquainted with the view of the Reformed Church know that the Church has held that “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son.” (Hebrews 1:12) The Confession of Faith states that God has given His people (which the Confession of Faith calls the Church) a unified and progressive revelation, culmi­nating in the revelation in Christ, and most clearly expressed in the New Testament which was written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit who led the Apostles to see the purpose of God in Christ. (Confession of Faith, Ch. I, Sec. 1, 2; VII, Sec. 6.)

2.    Dispensationalism rejects both the unity of God’s revelation and the fact that God’s purpose is “held forth with more fullness” (Confession of Faith, Ch. VII, Sec. 6) in the New Testament than it is in the Old. Dispensationalism holds that large portions even of the New Testament are for the Jewish Nation, not for the Church. In speaking of the Scriptures for the Church, Dr. Chafer says, “The Scrip­tures addressed specifically to this company are the Gospel by John—especially the upper room discourse,—the Acts and the Epistles.” (Dispensationalism, pp. 406-07.) Dispensationalism declares that the Sermon on the Mount is for the Jews of the Kingdom period, and is “law not grace.” Scofield Reference Bible, pp. 989, 1230; Dispensationalism, p. 443.) The Lord’s Prayer and the Great Commission are as­signed by some to the Jews of the “tribulation” period, and not to the Church. (Grace, pp. 174, 176, 179, 181.)

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THERE ARE ALSO DISPENSATIONAL DIVERGENCIES FROM THE CONFESSIONAL INTERPRETATION OF THE WORK OF THE EXALTED CHRIST

A. The Confession of Faith speaks of the kingly work of Christ and what is included in the exaltation of Christ.  A study, for example, of answers 26 and 28 of the Shorter Catechism will show that Christ, “sitting on the right hand of God the Father,” is now exercising His kingly function, “in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.”  (It should be noted that the Larger Gatechism, in answer to question 45, devotes twice as much space to His kingly as to the prophetic and priestly work.)


   The second function of the Exalted Christ taught by our Confession of Faith is His coming to judge the world at the last day. This “judgment” naturally is the climax of his victorious activity in “subduing all his and our enemies.” All that then remains will be the pronouncement of the final verdict.

B. Dispensationalism rejects or minimizes the present kingly office of Christ, and deviates from the conception of the Resurrection and Judgment, as set forth in our Standards.

1. Dispensationalism teaches that Christ is not now exercising His kingly power, but is only Head of the Church. It reserves the kingly work of “subduing his and our enemies” exclusively to the kingdom dispensation which will follow his second advent. (Scofleld Reference Bible, note on p. 990.)

2. The Confession of Faith speaks of the Resurrection as follows: “At the last day, such as are found alive shall not dies but be changed; and all the dead shall be raised up with the self-same bodies, . . .“ (Confession of Faith, Ch. XXXII, para­graph II.) The Larger Catechism, in answer to question 88, states that “Immediately after the resurrection shall follow the general and final judgment of angels and men, . . .“  In dealing with the Judgment, the Confession of Faith says, “God hath appointed a day, wherein he will judge the world in righteousness by Jesus Christ, to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father. In which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged; but likewise all persons, that have lived upon the earth, shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil.” (Confession of Faith, Ch. XXXIII, paragraph I. See answers to questions 85, 86, 87, 88 of Larger Catechism.)

Dispensationalism teaches a series of resurrections and judgments, spaced over more than a thousand years. It is the opinion of your Committee that the above state­ment of the Confession of Faith does not admit of a multiplicity of resurrections and judgments as taught by many Dispensationalists.

CONCLUSION:

It is the unanimous opinion of your Committee that Dispensationalism as defined and set forth above is out of accord with the system of the doctrine set forth in the Confession of Faith, not primarily or simply in the field of eschatology, but because it attacks the very heart of the Theology of our Church, which is unquestionably a Theology of one Covenant of Grace. As Dr. Chafer clearly recognizes, there are two schools of interpretation represented here, which he rightly designates as “Covenant­ism” as over against “Dispensationalism.” (Bibliotheca Sctcra, Vol. 100, No. 399, p. 338.)

In fact, the divergence of Dispensationalism from the Covenant Theology of our Church is so obvious to Dr. Chafer that he suggests a revision of the Standards of the Church so as to make room for those who no longer hold to the Reformed tradi­tion of a Covenant Theology. (ibid., p. 345.)

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Inasmuch as there is some difference of opinion concerning the status and use of such a report, your Committee desires to state that it does not understand that the Assembly instructed it to provide a statement of doctrine which shall be a substitute for, or an amendment to, any doctrinal statements contained in the Constitution of the Church or any part thereof. Nor does it understand that this report, if approved by the Assembly, is to be regarded as an amendment to ordination vows of ministers, ruling elders, or deacons. It is simply an interpretative statement which may be used by the Presbyteries as they deem wise.

Your Committee wishes also to make the following statement of clarification:

Most, if not all, adherents to the type of Dispensationalism dealt with in this report hold the Premillennial view of our Lord’s return; but not all Premillennialists accept this form of Dispensationalism. Therefore, the Committee wishes to make it clear that it has endeavored solely to consider the particular type of Biblical interpretation defined above, and known as Dispensationalism and that it understood the assignment of the Assembly to limit it to this task. In view of this fact, this report should not be considered as in any sense a criticism of Premillennialism as such.

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Respectfully submitted,

F.   B. GEAR, Chairman
J.    E. BEAR
L.    NELSON BELL
J.    B. GREEN
J.    P. MCCALLIE
E.    W. MCLAURIN
SAMUEL H. SIBLEY

 
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[Excerpted from the Minutes of the Eighty-Fourth General Assembly of the PCUS, 1944, pages 123-127.]