Monday, October 13, 2008

Chafer on Grace

As some of you know, Lewis S. Chafer was the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary and his Systematic Theology was formational and foundational for dispensational theology. A huge component of this theology is his understanding of grace and it's relationship with law. I discovered a perspective in his theology that included this comment in Volume 4, pages 162-4, under the category "Rules of Life in the Old Testament". To give you some context, he has been saying that God's bringing the people out of Egypt was an expression God's grace. He now continues:

(begin quote from Chafer) "Until that hour they had been sustained in the faithfulness of Jehovah and in spite of their wickedness; His plan and purpose for them had remained unchanged. He had dealt with them according to the unconditional covenant of grace made with Abraham. The marvelous blessedness of that grace-relationship should have appealed to them as the priceless riches of the unfailing mercy of God, which it was. The surrender of the blessings of grace should have been allowed by these people on no condition whatever. Had they said at the hearing of the impossible law, "None of these things can we do. We crave only to remain in that boundless mercy of God, who has loved us, and sought us, and saved us from all our enemies, and who will being us to Himself," it is evident that such an appeal would have reached the very heart of God. And the surpassing glory of His grace would have been extended to them without bounds; . . . In place of the eagles' wings by which they were carried unto God, they confidently chose a covenant of works when they said: "All that the LORD hath spoken we will do." They were called upon to face a concrete choice between the mercy of God which had followed them, and a new and hopeless covenant of works. They fell from grace. . . . The children of Israel definitely chose the covenant of works, which is law, as their relationship to God" (end quote from Chafer)

Well, what do you think? When God gave the law to Israel gave the 10 commandments and the rest of the law on Mt. Sinai, was he giving them a choice that He actually hoped they wouldn't accept? Or is law somehow also an expression of grace? Or is there another option?


eric O said...

This is certainly one of the areas where I'm hoping that progressive dispensationalism has improved on the classic model. This just seems wacko and, since I don't remember it being mentioned in seminary and can't find a mention of a "covenant of works" in Blaising and Bock's Progressive Dispensationalism, I think that should be the case. It sure seems that, if this is really took place, i.e. God giving the Law and expecting the Israelites to humbly confess that they could not keep it and them embracing it as something that they could fulfill in their own strength, there would be some mention of it elsewhere is Scripture. Such a major misstep by the Israel would have certainly been the theme of many a prophet. This observation makes it even less likely that I'm going to go to Chafer in my theological research.

Matt said...


Greetings again....I think it's been about a year since I visited the blog. [I've since taken a call to a Presbyterian church in San Diego, and we relocated a few months ago.]

You'll have to pardon that I don't travel in 'Chafer circles'....I found the quote you mentioned quite interesting, at least from where I sit on the Reformed end of theological spectrum.

This has been one of the perpetual problems for Reformed theology as well, which very often [particularly in the modern period] ends up burying all of the Mosaic legislation under the so-called 'covenant of grace'! So you'll get something like John Murray saying that the Mosaic Covenant is a 'gracious covenant more legally administered'!

But, interestingly, if you go back to the Protestant Scholastics of the 16th and 17th centuries [and I'm thinking primarily of those within the Reformed camp], you'll actually find a fair bit of variety in terms of how to articulate the relationship of the Mosaic Covenant to other covenants, soteriology, etc. And there were a number of even lesser-known debates (until recently) that show the complexity of the matter.

A number of them were quite insistent on seeing the Sinaitic legislation as what they would call a 'republication' of that original Adamic covenant of works. John Owen, Herman Witsius, Francis Turretin, etc.

And so I an appreciate Herman Ridderbos' saying more recently, "We are faced here with an exceedingly complex problem," (Paul: An Outline, p. 153)

Anyhow, just like Progressive Dispensationalism is recoiling against some of what old-guard dispensationalism thought about the Mosaic covenant, so are a lot of Reformed guys recoiling against the notion that the Mosaic covenant can only be thought of as a 'covenant of grace'! IOW, there are a lot of subtle options here 'in the middle' that we can work from.

This, btw, is one of the reasons Meredith Kline is frequently called a 'closet dispensationalist' by those in the Reformed camp. It's clear that they aren't talking about his eschatology....but rather Kline's rather unique understanding of the 'works principle' operating within the Mosaic Covenant.

There's a new book that just came out called, "The Law is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant" (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishers, 2009). It goes into a lot of details about these very issues. I know the editors that put it together, so if there's an easy way to send you a copy, I'd be happy to mail you one.

There's a lot more I could say (since I've done a lot of thinking on this myself) contact me off list ( if you want to further dialog on these matters.

Cordially in Him,
Matt Morgan
New Life Presbyterian Church
La Jolla, Ca