CALVINISM EX CATHEDRA:
A REVIEW OF JOHN H. GERSTNER’S
WRONGLY DIVIDING THE WORD OF TRUTH:
A CRITIQUE OF DISPENSATIONALISM1
ZANE C. HODGES
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
John H. Gerstner is a well-known and prolific writer/theologian from the Reformed tradition. His recent book, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, is a trenchant assault on Dispensationalism in general and Grace theology in particular. The latter he flatly labels as Antinomianism.
I welcome this book. The issues are sharply drawn and the author has largely avoided pejorative rhetoric and harsh verbal abuse. Some readers may not think this is so, but this reviewer would differ with them. Gerstner’s criticisms of Dispensationalism are certainly severe. But given his own position, they must be seen as his frank and candid assessments of an opposing theology.
Perhaps the last paragraph of his conclusion expresses his spirit as well as anything else that he says:
My plea to all dispensationalists is this—show me the fundamental error in what I teach or admit your own fundamental error. We cannot both be right. One of us is wrong—seriously wrong. If you are wrong (in your doctrine, as I charge), you are preaching nothing less than a false gospel. This calls for genuine repentance and fruits worthy of it before the Lord Jesus Christ whom we both profess to love and serve.
Soli Deo Gloria!2
Fair enough! Who could object to such an attitude? We have no quarrel with Gerstner himself, therefore. Our quarrel is with his theology. Within the obvious limitations of an article like this, we will examine that theology as best we can.
I. What Gerstner Presupposes
Gerstner rejects the apologetic presuppositionalism which is associated especially with the name of Cornelius Van Til and Westminster Seminary.3 Yet the theological approach of Gerstner’s book seems to this reviewer to be essentially presuppositional.
Accordingly, on just the fourth page of his section on “Theology” (Part III of his book) we read this:
We believe with the great Baptist preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, that Calvinism is just another name for Christianity. The denial of Calvinism is a very grave mistake.4
“Calvinism is just another name for Christianity“! This is an astounding claim even if it was previously made by Spurgeon! We would expect, therefore, some systematic defense of such a bold assertion.
But this we do not find. What we have instead is the measuring of Dispensationalism by the yardstick of Reformed theology, especially as articulated by the Synod of Dort (1618-1619).5 Thus Gerstner is committed to 5-point Calvinism or, as I will call it for clarity’s sake, “Classical Calvinism.”
To he sure, Gerstner does interact with, and seeks to refute, dispensational arguments against his theological stance. But this is not the same as establishing the case for “Classical Calvinism” from the Bible. Of course, to do that, Gerstner would have needed to write another book, if not a series of books. That would have been impractical.
But the overall effect of Gerstner’s approach is unsatisfactory. The grid out of which he works (“Classical Calvinism”) becomes, in effect, the arbiter of dispensational exegesis and theology. His outlook is not much different than that of a committed Roman Catholic polemicist who takes the authoritative doctrines of his church as his starting point.
In other words, here we have Calvinism ex cathedra! Dortian theology is Gerstner’s starting point as well as his only goal. Whatever contradicts his “Classical Calvinism” is of questionable orthodoxy for this author. We are not saying that Gerstner is not entitled to his convictions. He surely is. But his approach will hardly be persuasive to those who wonder whether “Classical Calvinism” is a biblical form of theology at all.
II. What Gerstner Ignores
Strikingly, Gerstner passes by in silence one of the most significant theological issues of our day. This issue touches close to the core of the dispensational/Reformed debate. The issue is the relationship between Calvin himself and “Classical Calvinism” in regard to the nature of saving faith and the grounds for the assurance of salvation.
Again, for purposes of clarity, we shall refer to “Calvin’s Calvinism” as over against “Classical Calvinism.”
The two are not identical. As R. T. Kendall has so effectively shown, Calvin himself held to unlimited atonement and to the doctrine that assurance is of the essence of (i.e., an integral part of) saving faith. Kendall’s book on this subject (1979)6 is based on his D. Phil. thesis done at Oxford. Kendall told this reviewer in person that one of his readers was J. I. Packer, a well-known “Classical Calvinist,” and that Packer told Kendall that he thought Kendall had demonstrated his case concerning Calvin’s beliefs. So also M. Charles Bell agrees with Kendall in Calvin and Scottish Theology (1985).7 Another Calvin scholar, A. N. S. Lane, took much the same view independently of Kendall.8
Gerstner refers only once to Kendall’s work, and that in a footnote referring to the subject of the atonement.9 (Strangely, Kendall’s name is omitted from the index of Gerstner’s book, perhaps because it does not appear in Gerstner’s text.) So far as the reviewer has noticed, there is no reference at all to Bell or Lane.
But a scholar of Gerstner’s stature cannot possibly be ignorant of the discussion about the nature of faith in “Calvin’s Calvinism’ vis-a-vis “Classical Calvinism.” Perhaps he would have found it awkward to admit that “Classical Calvinism” no longer holds Calvin’s view of faith and assurance, whereas many dispensationalists do! And that includes this reviewer.
Such an admission by Gerstner would indeed be necessary. Even in the last century, the distinction was forthrightly admitted by Robert L. Dabney, a Reformed theologian and scholar. Dabney wrote two articles entitled (in his collected writings) “Theology of the Plymouth Brethren.” There he says this:
The source of this [Plymouth Brethren] error is no doubt that doctrine concerning faith which the first Reformers, as Calvin and Luther, were led to adopt from their opposition to the hateful and tyrannical teachings of Rome… These noble Reformers… flew to the opposite extreme, and (to use the language of theology) asserted that the assurance of hope is of the essence of saving faith. Thus says Calvin in his Commentary on Romans: “My faith is a divine and spiritual belief that God has pardoned and accepted me” [italics in Dabney].10
Later he adds these telling comments:
It is very obvious… that these views of faith and assurance… ground themselves in the faulty definitions of saving faith which we received from the first Reformers. They, as we saw, defined saving faith as a belief that “Christ has saved me,“ making the assurance of hope of its necessary essence. Now, the later Reformers, and those learned, holy and modest teachers of the Reformed Churches, whose influence the Plymouth Brethren regard as so unhealthy for true religion, have subjected this view to searching examination, and rejected it (as does the Westminster Assembly) on scriptural grounds [italics in Dabney].11
Here, then, is a facet of the discussion which Gerstner has completely suppressed. According to him, Dispensationalism has its roots in the Plymouth Brethren movement.12 The Gospel proclaimed by both, he charges, is antinomian in character.13 But we are never told by this writer that the dispensational/Plymouth Brethren view of saving faith has its roots in Reformation theology!
This is a little bit like trying to explain the World Series competition to someone without ever mentioning the baseball season which led up to it. In tracing the roots of the contemporary debate on the Gospel, Gerstner stops digging just before he hits pay dirt!
III. What Gerstner Believes about Faith
The reviewer confesses that he is displeased with Gerstner’s claim that “Hodges fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the issue when he thinks that works are some sort of addendum, something beyond the faith itself. We maintain that it is implicit in the faith from the beginning” [italics added]14
Gerstner has just quoted a statement I made in The Gospel Under Siege to the effect that “to faith are added other conditions or provisos, by which the essential nature of the Gospel is radically transformed.”15 I doubt that Gerstner would deny that some theologies do exactly that.
But Gerstner should have read on.
In the next few sentences I state exactly what Gerstner has claimed I don’t understand:
Often, in fact, a distinction is drawn between the kind of faith which saves and the kind of faith which does not. But the kind of faith which does [italics in my text] save is always seen to be the kind that results in some form of overt obedience. By this means, the obedience becomes at least an implicit part of the transaction between man and God. “Saving “faith has thus been subtly redefined in terms of its fruits [italics added].16
Isn’t this precisely what Gerstner has claimed I do not comprehend? Reformed theologians are fond of asserting that those who oppose their theology do not understand it. This implies that, if their opponents did understand, their objections would be null. But that is not the case.
Many contemporary Grace writers understand the Reformed position perfectly well. But they charge that such theology is doing a semantic dance around the biblical concepts of faith and works. Thus Reformed writers like Gerstner want to have it both ways—salvation by faith alone, but no salvation without works! In this way they affirm Pauline orthodoxy and subvert it at the same time.
Nowhere is this clearer in Gerstner’s book than when he writes (speaking about an article by L. Blauvelt), as follows:
Again, this fundamental failure to comprehend is evident. [Again, this charge!] Lordship teaching does not “add works,” as if faith were not sufficient. The “works” are part of the definition of faith [italics added].17
Exactly! And this is precisely the error of Reformed thought about faith. Reformed theology teaches a synergy of faith and works which is blatantly at odds with Paul and with the Reformers.
Thus the Apostle wrote:
And if by grace, it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work (Rom 11:6).
Compare this with:
Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace… (Rom 4:16).
Reformed theology has created a theological hybrid which abandons the Pauline antinomy between faith and works. From the Pauline perspective, the “grace” of which Reformed thinkers speak is no longer grace at all. Once “‘works’ are part of the definition of faith,” faith has been redefined in non-Pauline terms.
John Calvin knew nothing of any such definition of faith either. Indeed, his own definition is justly famous:
Now, we shall have a complete definition of faith, if we say, that it is a steady and certain knowledge of the Divine benevolence towards us, which, being founded on the truth of the gratuitous promise in Christ, is both revealed to our minds, and confirmed to our hearts, by the Holy Spirit (Institutes III. ii. 7).18
Note that for Calvin faith is “knowledge.” Elsewhere Calvin “describes faith as illumination (illuminatio) [Institutes III. i.4], knowledge as opposed to the submission [!!] of our feeling (cognitio, non sensus nostri submissio) [Institutes III. ii. 2], certainty (certitudino) [Institutes III. ii. 6], a firm conviction (solidapersuasio) [Institutes III. ii. 16], assurance (securitas) [Institutes III. ii. 16], firm assurance (solida securitas) [Institutes III. ii. 16], and full assurance (plena securitas) [Institutes III. ii. 22]. “19
The Reformed “definition” of faith as including “works” is utterly alien both to Calvin and to Paul. Insofar as such a definition depends on Reformed theology’s standard treatment of Jas 2:14-26, it is resting on a foundation of sand.
To his credit, Gerstner seeks to address my argument from Jas 2:26. There James states:
For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
I have urged that this simile clearly implies that a dead faith was once alive, just as a dead body that has lost its spirit was once alive.20
But what is Gerstner’s own reading of Jas 2:26? It is this:
James 2:26 makes the point of the passage perfectly clear. All that James says is that, just as you cannot have a man without a body and spirit together, so you cannot have a Christian without works and faith together.21
What impartial reader would ever get this idea out of the text of James? In no way does James say that one does not “have a man” without body and spirit being together. Is a man non-existent simply because his spirit has left his body? Has he never existed? But Gerstner implies that a Christian has never existed as a Christian if his faith is not accompanied by works!
James is manifestly comparing a dead faith to a dead body from which the spirit has departed. Gerstner’s exegesis is a transparent case of reading into a text what one wants to get out of it.
Of course, Gerstner would also say to me (as in fact he does) that I am overlooking a significant distinction when I discuss “works.” Gerstner writes:
So we see… that Hodges does not critique the traditional orthodox [!] position accurately… Hodges, and virtually all dispensationalists, do not see the elementary difference between non-meritorious “requirements,” “conditions, necessary obligations,” “indispensable duties,” and musts, as the natural outworking of true faith, in distinction from faith in the Savior plus meritorious works as the very basis of Salvation. “22
Here I plead guilty. I admit that I “do not see the elementary difference” Gerstner is talking about. In fact, I deny it. Not only is it in no way “elementary,” it is not even biblical!
We must note that Paul did not say,
Now to him who works meritoriously…,
Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt (Rom 4:4; italics added).
For Paul, “works” always implied “debt”—i.e., they were meritorious! Neither does Paul say,
But to him who does not work meritoriously, but believes (and is willing to work non-meritoriously)…,
but he does say,
But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness (Rom 4:5).
Reformed theology makes a shambles of the Pauline contrast between faith and works. Gerstner’s “elementary difference” is really a non-existent difference!
IV. What Gerstner Says on Other Matters
Even in an article-size review like this one, it is impossible to deal with all the significant issues raised by Gerstner’s book. We must now be satisfied to discuss more briefly a number of other matters addressed by this author.
Gerstner is a frank and unapologetic believer in the doctrine of limited atonement. Indeed, his statements on this issue are so bald that one is tempted to shudder at them.
Take this one as an example:
[John 3:16] is supposed to teach that God so loved everyone in the world that He gave His only Son to provide them an opportunity to be saved by faith. What is wrong with this interpretation? First, such a love” on God’s part, so far from being love, would be a refinement of cruelty. As we have seen, offering a gift of life to a spiritual corpse, a brilliant sunset to a blind man, and a reward to a legless cripple if only he will come and get it, are horrible mockeries (italics added).23
But can we not say that if God ordains the existence of immortal beings for whom He makes no provision at all that they should escape eternal torment, that this too is a “refinement of cruelty”? Is it not also a “horrible mockery” for God to send His temporal blessings (Matt 5:45; Acts 14:17) on the “unjust” whose fate is eternally sealed and whose creation had no other possible outcome in view except everlasting damnation?
With its total rejection of any and all capacity in man to respond to God’s love and favor, “Classical Calvinism” leaves itself with a cruel God who is only a caricature of the generous and loving Creator of the Bible.
As is characteristic of “Classical Calvinists,” Gerstner charges that dispensationalists hold to a “total separation of justification and sanctification.”24 But this is a manifest distortion of our convictions.
Just because a dispensationalist does not hold that a high-degree of present sanctification is an “inevitable result” of justification, does not mean that his theology views them in “total separation.” An astute theologian like Gerstner should know better than to say so.
In fact, most dispensationalists (including the reviewer) hold that some measure or degree of sanctification will indeed result from justification.25 Moreover, we hold that final sanctification is an inevitable result of justification (“and whom He justified, these He also glorified”—Rom 8:30). What we do not believe is that assurance of salvation is dependent on the measure or degree of one’s sanctification in this life.
It is in his discussion of sanctification that Gerstner makes perhaps the most wildly inaccurate statement in the entire book:
Its [Dispeniationalism’s] preaching has always been very lopsidedly balanced in favor of their notion of grace with a conspicuous absence of moral stress [italics added] 26
To anyone who has moved for years in dispensational circles, as this reviewer has, this claim is absurd. Evidently the author has heard very few dispensational messages indeed. Either that, or he has heard the wrong kind!
Gerstner makes liberal use of Reformed theology’s favorite theological cuss word”—Antinomianism. According to him, both the Plymouth Brethren and consistent dispensationalists (such as John F. Walvoord and Charles C. Ryrie, for example) preach an antinomian gospel. He even states that my book, The Gospel Under Siege, “should be entitled, ‘Antinomianism Under Siege’ “27—an amusing suggestion which I have no plans to act upon!
But the meaning of the term, Antinomianism, is notoriously slippery. Gerstner holds this view:
From the essential truth that no sinner in himself can merit salvation, the antinomian draws the erroneous conclusion that good works need not accompany faith in the saint. The question is not whether good works are necessary to salvation, but in what way they are necessary. As the inevitable outworking of saving faith, they are necessary for salvation” [italics in Gerstner].28
This statement is preceded, two sentences earlier, by this:
Thus, good works may be said to be a condition for obtaining salvation in that they inevitably accompany genuine faith [italics added].29
This is precisely the issue. In Reformed thought good works are a condition for salvation. A deft Reformed thinker, like Samuel Logan, might add that good works are not a cause of salvation, while faith is both a cause and a condition for this.30 But the bottom line is that, for Reformed Theology, there are two conditions for final salvation—faith and works!
This articulation of things is clearly foreign, not only to the Apostle Paul, but also to Calvin and Luther, who confronted essentially the same theology in Roman Catholicism. No doubt Gerstner would argue that the NT teaches the necessity of good works for final salvation; and, if it did, they would be a condition for that. But the NT does not teach this, not even in James 2.
The real issue is not quite what Gerstner appears to think it is. One can hold (as I do) that some good works, at least, are inevitable—unless the Christian dies immediately after believing in Christ. But one can equally hold that the presence or absence of good works would not at all determine the validity of a person’s faith. With Calvin I can affirm that “my faith is a divine and spiritual belief that God has saved me, “31 which is founded on the truth of the gratuitous promise in Christ.”32 Since assurance is of the essence of saving faith, such confidence in God’s Word is self-authenticating and does not need further confirmation by works. Whether works are present or absent is irrelevant. Faith in Christ saves and the believer has assurance at the moment of faith.
It is the Reformed effort to verify and authenticate faith by works which leads to a redefinition of faith in which “‘works’ are a part of the definition of faith.”33 Thus “works” logically become a co-condition with faith for final salvation. The result is not reformational or biblical orthodoxy at all, but a full-scale retreat toward Roman Catholic synergy. Though expressed in theological categories quite different from Catholicism, the results of Reformed and Catholic thought about final salvation are not fundamentally very different at all.
We could define “Antinomianism” in the way the American Heritage Dictionary (2nd College Edition, 1985) does as “holding that faith alone is necessary for salvation.” If that were what was meant by the term, I would be quite comfortable with it. Unfortunately, because “Antinomianism” implies to many minds a disregard for moral issues, I must reject this designation. I urge my Reformed counterparts to drop this term because of its pejorative, and often unfair, connotations and overtones. But I will not hold my breath waiting for them to do so!
Although this review has been primarily negative, the reviewer does not mean to leave the impression that everything in this book is wrong. That is certainly not the case.
Gerstner is correct in perceiving a theological drift by some dispensationalists in the direction of Reformed thought. Dallas Seminary is his major illustration of this (47-49). Gerstner is also right, I believe, in his claim that dispensational theology and Reformed theology are essentially incompatible. In Gerstner’s view, no one can be a true dispensationalist and a Calvinist (= “Classical Calvinist”) at the same time. Rather effectively he shows that dispensationalists have normally rejected or modified all of the so-called “5 points of Calvinism.” The reviewer wonders why anyone would wish to plant his foot in both theological camps. The doctrinal divide between them is enormous and essentially unbridgeable.
Thus, overall, Gerstner’s book has the effect of sharply and clearly delineating the two camps which are the primary participants in the debate over “Lordship Salvation.” Gerstner clearly dispels the myth that this debate is largely semantic and does not represent a significant cleavage in evangelical thought. We appreciate this result and commend Gerstner for his effectiveness in bringing this deep cleavage to light. For that reason alone, if for no other, every serious student of Grace theology ought to obtain this book.
And for responsible leaders in the Grace movement, Gerstner’s volume is not optional—but mandatory—reading.
1 John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, Inc., 1991), xii+ 276 pp. In this review article, Hodges has followed Gerstner’s policy of capitalizing Dispensationalism (the theology) and lower-casing dispensationalists (its adherents). Ed.
25See my discussion in Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation (Dallas and Grand Rapids: Redención Viva and Zondervan Publishing House, 1989), 213-15 (found in endnote 4 for chapter 6).
33Gerstner, 257. I am aware that both Calvin and Reformed thinkers maintain a doctrine of spurious, temporary faith. For a good discussion of this issue, see Kendall, 21-28. Calvin, it seems, did not really consistently integrate his concept of temporary faith with his own definition of saving faith. I think he would be appalled at the way Reformed theology has done this.