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  • « Study Bible Recommendations | Main | What must I do? »

    Book Review: Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, by John Gerstner

    wronglydividing.jpgAnyone who remembers the firestorm of controversy occasioned by the publication of the late John Gerstner's polemical magnum opus against Dispensational theology may be apt to wonder, “Why another reprint? Aren't these disputes largely a relic of the not-so-distant past? Haven't we moved on from the sort of Dispensationalism Gerstner is arguing against?” In fact, there were not a few critics who thought that Dispensationalism had moved beyond Gerstner's critique before the critique was published! But is that really the case? In academic circles, perhaps to a degree. But what kind of world could sustain the immense popularity of the Left Behind novels, which came out significantly after this work? It must certainly be a world that still stands in desperate need of the rigorous and unabashed sort of refutation brought by Dr. Gerstner. The academics may have moved beyond the debate; but in a tragic sort of disconnect, the average pew-sitter is still left in the lurch.

    What was it about Wrongly Dividing that was so inflammatory? Well, to anyone claiming the label “Dispensationalist,” it's obvious. Dr. Gerstner is not one to mince words, and his basic contention is that Dispensationalism was begun in very suspect circumstances with very suspect theological undergirdings; it erroneously laid claim to four of the five “points” of Calvinism while intending them in a manner much more consistent with classic Arminianism; and worse yet, it embraced certain errors so germane to the heart of Christianity that they can only be labeled a denial of the gospel. Furthermore, Gerstner contends, the underlying errors are just as prevalent in today's Dispensationalism as they were in Scofield's day. The only changes have been superficial and largely irrelevant.

    So is Gerstner right, or do all the critics have a point? In his well-documented indictment, he makes a very compelling case for the dubious Evangelicalism of the early Dispensationalists; but more importantly, he makes a very good case as well for the essential similarity of the later Dallas theologians such as Ryrie, Hodges, and Walvoord. This is important, for the Ryrie/Walvoord type of Dipensationalism still has widespread influence on the Evangelical masses in America (and across the world!). If Gerstner is correct, there is still serious need of a warning call.

    Where the critics have a legitimate point, however, is in Gerstner's lack of allowance for other Dispensationalists who have truly moved away from the dubious Evangelicalism of the past. The Progressive Dispensationalists, for instance, are scarcely addressed; and perhaps more importantly, after devoting a major and hard-hitting part of the book to displaying Dispensationalism's essential antinomianism – an insightful and important portion – he makes the offhand observation that John MacArthur has truly escaped this antinomian snare, as evidenced in his controversy with Zane Hodges. The problem is, Gerstner gives no account for how he could have done so; he does not show that MacArthur's Dispensational premises logically require Hodges' antinomianism. He does not show, in other words, that MacArthur is being inconsistent with his Dispensationalism when he rejects antinomianism. And in order to strengthen the case against him and his sort, that logical connection is requisite to show.

    Of course, one could make the point that MacArthur is not Gerstner's target – rather, his target is the classic Dallas position which still has such widespread influence among the common crowds. And furthermore, although he did not show the logical connection between antinomianism and MacArthur's version of Dispensationalism, he still did an excellent job of refuting those Dispensational distinctives of MacArthur on their own terms – distinctives, that is, such as the essential distinction between Israel and the Church as two peoples of God. Whether that distinctive logically requires antinomianism or not, it is inherently wrong, as Gerstner capably proves.

    This edition is particularly helpful in that it includes some of the sharpest critiques of the book, including those from Hodges, John Witmer, and Richard Mayhue, together with Gerstner's responses. Whether or not Gerstner was guilty of the charges brought against him, he has a forum at least to defend himself and show the ongoing validity of his case.

    So back to the original question: is a republication necessary or likely to be helpful? Ask yourself that question the next time you see someone sitting in the airport reading Left Behind! I, for one, think it is. Even in a day when academic Dispensationalism is largely advancing beyond the Ryrie formulation, there is much Ryrianism out there. The publisher's preface rings true:

    Unfortunately, as noted above, the older, classical and revised modern system still has an enormously large installed base.... Dispensationalism's “head” may have died but the body still moves in Frankenstein-like fashion, creating a continuing fascination among the masses armed with torches and continuing to look for the Antichrist. And because so many still cling to the old rugged dispensationalism, we need to keep harpooning it until we witness its final collapse.... Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth probably will not be read by the masses who still delight to play “pin the horns on the Antichrist.” But it will be read by some of the more astute students within the movement. And if they read far enough within, they may succumb and begin challenging their fellow stumblers.

    May that “final collapse” soon come!

    Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: Available at Monergism Books.

    Posted by Nathan on December 9, 2009 02:20 PM


    I read Gerstner's "Wrongly Dividing..." several years ago and was not convinced that there is no distinction between Israel and the church.

    I would love to know how Gerstner interprets passages such as Is. 65 or Zech. 12-14 without allowing for a furture for ethnic Israel, not to mention Romans 11.

    You may find this short piece helpful:
    An Observation about Israel in Ephesians 2:11-21 & 3:5, 6

    Also, if you're specifically troubled by the prophets' visions of the restoration of Israel, this might be helpful:

    John MacArthur & Pretrib Rapture

    Who knows, maybe John (Reformedispy) MacArthur is right and the greatest Greek scholars (Google "Famous Rapture Watchers"), who uniformly said that Rev. 3:10 means PRESERVATION THROUGH, were wrong. But John has a conflict. On the one hand, since he knows that all Christian theology and organized churches before 1830 believed the church would be on earth during the tribulation, he would like to be seen as one who stands with the great Reformers. On the other hand, if John has a warehouse of unsold pretrib rapture material, and if he wants to have "security" for his retirement years and hopes that the big California quake won't louse up his plans, he has a decided conflict of interest. Maybe the Lord will have to help strip off the layers of his seared conscience which have grown for years in order to please his parents and his supporters - who knows? One thing is for sure: pretrib is truly a house of cards and is so fragile that if a person removes just one card from the TOP of the pile, the whole thing can collapse. Which is why pretrib teachers don't dare to even suggest they could be wrong on even one little subpoint! Don't you feel sorry for the straitjacket they are in? While you're mulling all this over, Google "Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty" for a rare behind-the-scenes look at the same 180-year-old fantasy.

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