Book Review: Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, by John Gerstner
Anyone 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, â€œWhy 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?â€ 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 â€œDispensationalist,â€ 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 â€œpointsâ€ 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 â€“ an insightful and important portion â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€œheadâ€ 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 â€œpin the horns on the Antichrist.â€ 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 â€œfinal collapseâ€ soon come!
Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: Available at Monergism Books.