Welcome to this detailed DDT Product Review of Lewis Sperry Chafer’s Systematic
Theology (henceforth in this article to be referred to simply as CST). No matter what
“version” of this work that you are interested in, you’ll find out what’s most important
about it: the content.
I want to give you enough information to make sure that you are an informed buyer. I
also want you to know right up front my theological perspective so you’ll be able to
understand what I write (I think that’s important, and I’m quite sure you’ll agree!).
Finally, I know that you’ve already looked at the DDT Rating, so you already know
the conclusion: this is the single greatest Systematic Theology ever written. Now,
let us commence with the Review!
DDT Introductory Comments
CST was the first attempt by a Dispensational theologian to write an all-
The dispensational study of the Bible consists in the identification of certain well-
...God's program is as important to the theologian as the blueprint to the builder or the chart to the mariner. Without the knowledge of it, the preacher must drift aimlessly in doctrine and fail to a large degree in his attempts to harmonize and utilize the Scriptures. Doubtless a spiritually minded person who does not know the divine program may discern isolated spiritual truths, much as one might enjoy a point of rare color in a painting without observing the picture itself or the specific contribution which that color makes to the whole.
In spite of its importance as one of the qualifying features of doctrine, Systematic Theology, as set forth generally in textbook, is without recognition of the divine program of the ages.
And speaking of “the divine program of the ages,” many readers will want to know
Chafer’s perspective on Creationism. It should be noted that in the day Chafer wrote,
Dispensationalists as a group broadly rejected a Young Earth Creationism, and instead
were either “Day-
A general contention arises which claims that man has lived much longer on the earth than the date 4004 b.c., estimated by Archbishop Usher. These imperative demands of modern scientists deserve candid consideration on the part of theologians. The question may be asked whether conservative theology is committed to the dates which are based on the Usher chronology.
...With respect to his beginning, man is the most recent of all creatures; and in spite of the fact that scientists are wont to talk in terms of vast ages when dealing with the problem of human life on the earth—especially the evolutionist whose assumption depends so completely on the whole matter of origin being buried in the oblivion of an incomprehensible past—the reasonable extension of human history back several thousand years beyond the dates proposed by Usher—which extension does not conflict, as before stated, with the Biblical record—allows sufficient time for all justified contentions of the historian, the geologist, the archaeologist, and the philologist.
....human types and characteristics are ever changing under the force of various
influences; but above all this, the human family is unchangeable. It retains its
unity and physical structure, exhibiting the same capacities, the same moral and
religious nature. Parts of the race may sink into heathenism, or go the way of the
highest revelation; yet the facts and forms of human reality cannot change. There
are no hybrid restrictions between the most distant races. This alone asserts the
unity of the human family. Neither polygenism —which contends that there have been
separate creations for each of the distinct species—nor pre-
When men reject the Bible and seek to find their way through the problems of human life, their gropings are of little value, though they may be sincere. The Bible discloses that which God would have man know. “Through faith we understand” (Heb 11:3).
This is light years ahead of where dispensationalism found itself in 1948! With this
one sentence -
Neither polygenism —which contends that there have been separate creations for each
of the distinct species—nor pre-
Chafer doesn’t utilize current “Young Earth” lingo (because Young Earth Creationism did not develop as a system until after 1961 with the publication of Henry Morris’ The Genesis Flood), but he writes as an early proponent of Young Earth Creationism.
Order & Layout
CST uses a standard theological layout. The only mild surprise I found was that he placed some material I would consider “Christology” under the “Theology Proper” section. (You can read about it there.) It in no way, though, diminishes the value of the work.
You can see his major doctrinal division schemata from this section near the end of his Prolegomena:
VII. The Major Divisions of Systematic Theology
1. Bibliology. A consideration of the essential facts concerning the Bible.
2. Theology Proper. A consideration of the facts concerning God—Father, Son, and Spirit, apart from their works.
3. Angelology. A consideration of the facts concerning the angels, unfallen and fallen.
4. Anthropology. A consideration of the facts concerning man.
5. Soteriology. A consideration of the facts concerning salvation.
6. Ecclesiology. A consideration of the facts concerning the Church.
7. Eschatology. A consideration of all in the Scripture which was predictive at the time it was written.
8. Christology. A consideration of all the Scripture concerning the Lord Jesus Christ.
9. Pneumatology. A consideration of the Scriptures concerning the Holy Spirit.
10. Doctrinal Summarization. An analysis of each major doctrine in its individual character including various important tenets which, because of their independent character, do not appear even in an unabridged treatment of Systematic Theology.
Here is how they are ordered in the original 8 volume set:
Volume 1 -
Volume 2 -
Volume 3 -
Volume 4 -
Volume 5 -
Volume 6 -
Volume 7 -
Volume 8 -
The 4 volume set combines two original volumes into one new volume four times. (Duh.) Digital versions may rearrange the contents (some will be alphabetical, thereby placing Angelology first and Prolegomena near the end), but the complete comments of the set will not otherwise be edited. A key word to look for when buying digitally will be Unabridged. If you see that word, you can be comfortable knowing that you’re buying CST8. Also, some digital versions may not include the final volumes indices. If that is important to you, make sure you ask up front.
Major Division Summaries
I will now take a look at each of the major doctrinal divisions, and provide some analysis of the contents.
This short section is basically a detailed study of the word “Theology.” Nicely done, too.
If you want to know the backbone to CST, here it is:
Since Systematic, or Thetic, Theology is the collecting, scientifically arranging, comparing, exhibiting, and defending of all facts from any and every source concerning God and His works, and since the Bible in its original writings is by its own worthy claims and by every test devout minds may apply to it the inerrant Word of God, it follows that, if any progress is to be made in this science, the theologian must be a Biblicist—one who is not only a Biblical scholar but also a believer in the divine character of each and every portion of the text of the Bible. Primarily, the theologian is appointed to systematize the truth contained in the Bible and to view it as the divinely inspired Word which God has addressed to man. Therefore, such investigations as men may conduct in the field of proof or disproof that the Bible is God's inerrant message to man are, for the most part, extratheological and to be classified as pertaining to Biblical criticism rather than Systematic Theology. The student who in spite of the claims of the Bible to be the Word of God is yet groping for added light on that aspect of truth, cannot even begin the study of Sysematic (sic) Theology (bold emphasis mine).
Sadly, Chafer only asserts the inspiration of the “original writings” (did he not know that the originals no longer exist?). Understanding this one “fly in the ointment” will make this work about as perfect as perfect can be. When balanced against his views on the preservation of the Scriptures, however, “the fly” gets pretty small:
The preservation of the Scriptures, like the divine care over the writing of them and over the formation of them into the canon, is neither accidental, incidental, nor fortuitous. It is the fulfillment of the divine promise. What God in faithfulness has wrought, will be continued until His purpose is accomplished. There is little indeed that men can do to thwart the effectiveness of God's Word, since it is said of that Word, “Concerning thy testimonies, I have known of old that thou has founded them forever,” and, “For ever, O Lord, thy word is settled [established] in heaven” (Ps 119:152, Ps 119:89). To the same purpose Christ said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my word shall not pass away” (Matt 24:35); and the Apostle Peter asserts that “the word of God” is that “which liveth and abideth for ever” (1Pet 1:23).
Chafer gladly uses the King James Version of the Bible throughout CST.
This section has eighteen “chapters,” or subsections, that overviews the broad doctrines
of God -
Some passages you might expect to find elsewhere in a Systematic are found here: such as the explanation of kenosis along with several other specific doctrinal concepts related to Christology. Broadly speaking, the human elements of Christology are located under the “Christology” section, while the divine elements of Christology are located here, under “Theology Proper.” If the reader understands that going in, all is well.
If I were writing a Systematic Theology, I would separate “Angelology” and “Satanology/Demonology”
into two separate sections. Chafer has included both sub-
This section has three sub-
Chafer does not place the angels as “The Sons of God” in Genesis 6. In fact, as far as I can tell (I haven’t read every word of the 8 volumes, in case you were wondering...), he doesn’t mention that cryptic passage at all. Good for him.
This section includes fifteen subsections about Anthropology and it’s key sub-
In this section, Chafer has this to say about evolutionists:
Had they anything which they were willing to put in its place, thinking men would not tolerate a system which offers not one proof for any claim which it advances. The act of bringing man into being is an achievement of stupendous proportions. To make man to be the result of an accidental evolutionary process springing from some supposed primordial germ—which germ itself cannot be accounted for apart from a Creator—and all this as a pure imaginative fancy without so much as a shadow of substance on which it may rest for proof, bears all the marks of mental desperation and bankruptcy of ideas.
Well said! In these fifteen chapters of “Anthropology,” Chafer moves from the “Origin of Man,” through man’s problem with sin in “The Fall,” to the “Final Triumph Over All Sin.” It’s organized just exactly as you would expect it, making it relatively easy to find specific content when browsing.
This section has 21 chapters. And here is where Chafer’s “Moderate 4 Point Calvinism” can be expected to come to full bloom. Let us examine some of his statements that will show us his “Moderate 4 Point Calvinism,” and why he rejects the “L” in the “TULIP” (“L” stands for Limited Atonement, the Calvinist doctrine that Christ did not die for all men).
On “The Fact of Divine Election”
Though the doctrine of divine election presents difficulties which are insolvable by the finite mind, the fact of divine selection is not limited to God's choice of some out of the many for eternal glory; it is observable anywhere in the universe. There is a variety in all God's creation. There are classifications among the angels. One star is said to differ from another star in glory. Men are not born of the same race with the same advantages, nor with the same native abilities. These variations in the estates of men cannot be accounted for on the basis of the efficacy of the free will of man. Men do not choose their race, their life conditions, whether it be in civilization or in heathendom, nor do they choose their natural gifts. On the other hand, it is as clearly disclosed to those who will receive the revelation, that God's attitude toward the entire human family is one of infinite compassion and boundless sacrificial love. Though the two revealed facts—divine election and the universality of divine love—cannot be reconciled within the sphere of human understanding, here, as elsewhere, God may be honored by believing and by resting in Him. Therefore, to God be all the glory!
But he also writes:
It is God who hath chosen His elect; and while this selection is both sovereign and final, nevertheless not one human being who desires to be saved and who complies with the necessary terms of the gospel, will ever be lost.
Calvinism’s weakest link in the 5 point system is Limited Atonement; in other words: Christ only died for those God chose to salvation. In the chapter “For Whom Did Christ Die?”, Chafer writes this:
It is true that the doctrine of a limited redemption is one of the five points of Calvinism, but not all who are rightfully classified as Calvinists accept this one feature of that system.
He also writes this:
There is nothing incongruous in the fact that many unlimited redemptionists believe, in harmony with all Calvinists, in the unalterable and eternal decree of God whereby all things were determined after His own will; and in the sovereign election of some to be saved, but not all; and in the divine predestination of those who are saved to the heavenly glory prepared for them.
Many (most?) five point Calvinists would disagree with that statement. From their perspective, if The Atonement is Unlimited, then God’s sovereignty can be thwarted. But Chafer here is setting up the position that one can be a Calvinist without adhering to all five points. He divides Calvinists into three groups: 1) Extreme Limited Redemptionists: these are the “Ultra Calvinists” who disagree with evangelism; 2) Moderate Calvinists Who are Limited Redemptionists: these are five point Calvinists who see evangelism as an imperative (i.e., Charles Spurgeon); 3) Moderate Calvinists Who Are Unlimited Redemptionists: a four point Calvinist (who rejects “Limited Atonement”). Chafer places himself in this third group and writes this:
The men who belong to this school of interpretation defend all of the five points of Calvinism excepting one, namely, “Limited Atonement,” or what has been termed “the weakest point in the Calvinistic system of doctrine.” This form of moderate Calvinism is more the belief of Bible expositors than of the theologians, which fact is doubtless due to the truth that the Bible, taken in its natural terminology and apart from those strained interpretations which are required to defend a theory, seems to teach an unlimited redemption (emphasis mine).
Chafer sees himself as an expositor first. His desire to be “Biblical” in his Systematic Theology requires he surround his system to the text of the Scripture. He is to be highly commended for that!
Chafer’s four point Calvinism will broadly appeal to all those except the non-
When I think about ecclesiology, I think first in practical terms: local vs. invisible church; pastors, elders, bishops, deacons; etc. Chafer starts philosophically, explaining why the NT Church is not God’s ultimate fulfillment of OT Israel. Nicely done, sir.
This section emphasizes the invisible church. While Baptists and other congregationalists
would undoubtedly prefer a greater emphasis on the local church, Chafer’s point of
emphasis is on the universal church: the redeemed body of believers. He does write
about the local bodies of Christ; he just give more space to the invisible church.
This might be a good place to point out that Chafer was Presbyterian, and that Dallas
Theological Seminary was founded as a non-
Here is a telling quote that summarizes his belief in the local church and his emphasis of the invisible church:
The organized church is recognized in the New Testament. A church existed wherever
a group of believers were met together in the bonds of fellowship. This meeting of
Christians answered the fundamental meaning of the name church, by which they were
identified. They were a called-
Evidently some church organization was divinely intended since officers are named and their duties defined. These were to be chosen carefully from among men of good repute in spiritual matters. There is, however, no record of an enrollment of church members, nor is there any example in the New Testament of a person joining a church. On the other hand, church membership, as now conceived, is not interdicted. Naturally, much depends upon conditions existing at a given time or place; but the great emphasis of the present day upon church membership—almost equal to salvation itself—is not sustained in the Scriptures. Fortunately, or unfortunately, there is no record of any situation in the days of the apostolic church where believers became so numerous in one locality that more than one assembly was demanded. This could easily have been true in Jerusalem where such great multitudes were saved; but, had two centers of meeting been required, it is unthinkable that the believers would have made their particular group the center of their affection or that they would have been censored by others for lack of church loyalty if they fellowshiped with those of the other group. Closed communion which excluded believers from the assembly is that sectarian sin which has been reserved for the enlightened days of the end of the age.
While the theology of this section is sound, readers will also profit from smaller, “denominational specific” help when studying Ecclesiology.
This is where the importance of a dispensational Systematic Theology can be most clearly seen. Reformed theology ultimately ends with Amillennialism; and Dispensational theology ultimately ends with Premillennialism. The section of “Eschatology” will be very different among those two schools of theology!
Chafer has 15 chapters on Eschatology. The chapters focus on prophecy; but not just the future from the modern day perspective. Chafer includes chapters on The Four Major Covenants, Prophecy Concerning the Gentiles, Satan, and the Church.
I’m guessing that the chapter which will be just about everyone’s favorite is: “Predicted Events in Their Order.” It starts with Noah’s predictions of his sons and culminates with “The Day of God.” (That’s like eating ice cream and chocolate cake!)
If you want to understand Premillennialism, there is no better statement of it anywhere than right here in CST.
Chafer includes the elements of Christ’s humanity in his 14 chapters on “Christology.”
His key word is “Incarnate” -
Many theologians include the divine elements of Christ in their section of “Christology,” but Chafer included those in “Theology Proper.”
Chafer wrote 17 chapters on pneumatology. One of the reasons he writes so profusely on this particular subject is his perception that pneumatology is all but ignored by most Systematics. (He’s right on that, by the way.)
Of course Chafer believes that He is the Third Person of the Trinity; but most will want to know if Chafer is charismatic in his understanding of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and His work in the believer. Let’s take a look at a few quotes:
From the doctrinal viewpoint or as a foundation for all truth respecting the relation between the Holy Spirit and the believer in the present age, there is no more characterizing or determining fact than that the Holy Spirit indwells every regenerated person....
No progress can be made in the knowledge of the Holy Spirit's relation to the believer until this feature in the doctrine of the Spirit is recognized and accepted as declared by the Sacred Text. The failure to discern that the Holy Spirit indwells every believer was the common and all but universal error of men two generations ago....
The notion that the Holy Spirit is received as a second work of grace is now defended only by extreme holiness groups. In other words, it is more clearly understood than it was earlier that there can be no such a thing as a Christian who is not indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This truth is so emphatically declared in the New Testament that it seems almost impossible that any other view could ever have been entertained.
Enough said: he’s not Charismatic, Pentecostal, nor holiness. His understanding that
the Holy Spirit indwells every believer (which happens at the moment of salvation)
corresponds with his belief of the priesthood of the believer. Every believer therefore
has the opportunity -
Volume 7 is a “Doctrinal Summarization” that is more like a “Doctrinal Dictionary” or “Doctrinal Encyclopedia.” It’s a great “Quick Reference” volume with 184 unique articles. Do not be mistaken: these are not “brief” dictionary entries. As an example, I include the entry on “Faith” here for your preview:
According to the simplest conception of it, faith is a personal confidence in God.
This implies that the individual has come to know God to some degree of real experience.
Not all men have faith, so the Apostle declares (2 Thessalonians 3:2). Thus lying
back of faith is this determining factor, namely, knowing God. Regarding the personal
knowledge of God, Christ said: “All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and
no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save
the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). This statement
is decisive. No one knows the Father except the Son and those only to whom the Son
may reveal Him. However, with that divinely wrought knowledge of God in view, the
invitation is immediately extended by this context for all the world-
It is important to notice that Hebrews 11:1 is no exception to the rule that “faith”
normally means “reliance,” “trust.” There “Faith is the substance [or possibly, in
the light of recent inquiries into the type of Greek used by New Testament writers,
‘the guaranty’] of things hoped for, the evidence [or ‘convincing proof’] of things
not seen.” This is sometimes interpreted as if faith, in the writer's view, were,
so to speak, a faculty of second sight, a mysterious intuition into the spiritual
world. But the chapter amply shows that the faith illustrated, e.g. by Abraham, Moses,
Rahab, was simply reliance upon a God known to be trustworthy. Such reliance enabled
the believer to treat the future as present and the invisible as seen. In short,
the phrase here, “faith is the evidence,” etc., is parallel in form to our familiar
saying, “Knowledge is power.” A few detached remarks may be added: (a) The history
of the use of the Greek pistis is instructive. In the LXX it normally, if not always,
bears the “passive” sense, “fidelity,” “good faith,” while in classical Greek it
not rarely bears the active sense, “trust.” In the koinē, the type of Greek universally
common at the Christian era, it seems to have adopted the active meaning as the ruling
one only just in time, so to speak, to provide it for the utterance of Him whose
supreme message was “reliance,” and who passed that message on to His apostles. Through
their lips and pens “faith,” in that sense, became the supreme watchword of Christianity.
In conclusion, without trespassing on the ground of other articles, we call the
reader's attention, for his Scriptural studies, to the central place of faith in
Christianity, and its significance. As being, in its true idea, a reliance as simple
as possible upon the word, power, love, of Another, it is precisely that which, on
man's side, adjusts him to the living and merciful presence and action of a trusted
God. In its nature, not by any mere arbitrary arrangement, it is his one possible
receptive attitude, that in which he brings nothing, so that he may receive all.
Thus “faith” is our side of union with Christ. And thus it is our means of possessing
all His benefits, pardon, justification, purification, life, peace, glory.-
In its larger usage, the word faith represents at least four varied ideas: (1) As
above, it can be personal confidence in God. This the most common aspect of faith
may be subdivided into three features: (a) Saving faith, which is the inwrought confidence
in God's promises and provisions respecting the Savior that leads one to elect to
repose upon and trust in the One who alone can save. (b) Serving faith, which contemplates
as true the fact of divinely bestowed gifts and all details respecting divine appointments
for service. This faith is always a personal matter, and so one believer should not
become a pattern for another. That such faith with its personal characteristic may
be kept inviolate, the Apostle writes: “Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before
God” (Romans 14:22). Great injury may be wrought if one Christian imitates another
in matters of appointment for service. (c) Sanctifying or sustaining faith, which
lays hold of the power of God for one's daily life. It is the life lived in dependence
upon God, working upon a new life-
While faith, basically considered, must be divinely inwrought, it is ever increasing
as the knowledge of God and experience in His fellowship advances. It is natural
for God not to be pleased with those who distrust Him (Hebrews 11:6). Faith, indeed,
vindicates the character of God and frees His arm to act in behalf of those who trust
Him. Thus because of the heaven-
Volume 8 includes a biographical sketch of Chafer written by C.F. Lincoln, authorial index, and a topical index. I would have preferred his authorial index instead be a Bibliography, but it is still somewhat useful. The topical index is great.
This is the greatest Systematic Theology ever written. To be quite frank, it’s a
bargain at any price. When your finances allow you to add this to your library, run
Covenant Theologians: if you really want to know what modern day evangelical dispensationalism believes, it’s time to move past 1920's era “dispensational chartism.” This is the definitive work to use in understanding what Dispensationalism teaches and believes. If you are going to use “straw men” to defeat dispensational theorists, make sure your scarecrow favors Lewis Sperry Chafer.
John Walvoord (Chafer’s heir to the president’s office of Dallas Theological Seminary) wrote a professional (and obviously glowing) review of CST in Bibliotheca Sacra. You can read it here.
Google Books offers 43 reviews of CST (as of September 29, 2011). Their average rating is 4.5/5 stars. Of the 43 reviews, there were two “1 Star Ratings” (from Covenant Theology supporters; one of them simply wrote this: “I absolutely love the books. Iam [sic] sure I will get a blessing from them in my studies.” How could that be a 1 star rating?). One was a three star rating: “Although I'm convinced that the Dispensational creed concerning Israel/Church distinction is not biblically supported, I think it is important to have the Chafer's set in one's Christian library.” There were three 4 star ratings (and each thoroughly commended the work). And the rest were 5 stars.
Amazon offers 18 reviews which average 4.5/5 stars. Two of those reviews are 1 Star and are quite ridiculous (one even compares Chafer to Monty Python. Are they serious?) Otherwise the Amazon rating would be 4.9/5. Read it here.
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This comprehensive review is by Dr. David S. Thomason. Copyright 2011. All rights reserved.
REVIEW: Lewis Sperry Chafer’s Systematic Theology
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Chafer was the first dispensationalist to write an entire Systematic Theology. Sixty plus years later, it is still universally considered to be the best premillennial Systematic ever published. I consider it the single best Systematic Theology ever written regardless of theological perspective.
“Best of Class” Award