Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952) was a well-known American
premilleniarian, dispensationalist, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary,
writer, and conference speaker. Chafer was born in Rock Creek, Ohio, the second
of three children born to a graduate of Auburn Theological Seminary, a
Presbyterian/Congregational institution in New York. His father, Thomas
Franklin Chafer, was a Congregational pastor, and Thomas and his wife, Lomira
Sperry Chafer, were devoted, caring parents.
Thomas Chafer's battle with tuberculosis, however, brought a constant strain to the family as pastorates were chosen with the hope that a more beneficial climate would assuage the disease. The battle was lost in 1882. Aside from the pain and loss of his father, which brought severe sadness and uncertainty into an otherwise music-filled, joyful home, two important events occurred that would shape the young man's life. First, though rarely mentioned, he was converted to Christ under the tutelage of his parents at the age of six during his father's first pastoral charge in Rock Creek; and, second, in the context of his father's death he heard an evangelist named Scott, who was suffering with tuberculosis also, who challenged him to a career in Christian service.
Facing financial uncertainty, Lomira, a schoolteacher in the Rock Creek schools, determined to provide for the family. When the eldest, Rollin Thomas Chafer, finished elementary school, she moved the family to South New Lyme, Ohio, where the children entered the New Lyme Institute, a preparatory school under Jacob Tuckerman, the man who has been instrumental in their father's conversion at Fanner's College in Cincinnati. Then the family moved to Oberlin, Ohio, where Lomira managed a boarding house so that the children could attend college. Initially, Lewis entered the preparatory school attached to the college (1889) and then the Conservatory of Music of Oberlin College. He studied music in the conservatory for three semesters, fall and spring 1889-90 and the spring of 1891. There are no indications that Chafer took religious studies at Oberlin College or elsewhere.
Financial constraints prevented further study. Beginning in the fall of 1889, he associated with A. T. Reed, an evangelist under the auspices of the Congregational Church in Ohio, as a baritone soloist and choir organizer in the meetings. During these years he gained enormous insight into the work of the traveling evangelist. In 1896, he married Ella Lorraine Case, whom he had met at Oberlin College, and the two formed an evangelistic team (Lewis preaching and singing with Lorraine playing the organ). They briefly settled in Painesville, Ohio, where they served as directors of the music programme of the Congregational church though they continued to travel, often with other evangelists such as Wilbur Chapman and A. T. Reed.
In 1889 Lewis became the interim pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Lewiston, New York, although in the fall of the year he began a two-year ministry as an assistant pastor in the First Congregational Church of Buffalo. The initial year appears to have been an apprenticeship with a view to his formal ordination as a minister in the Congregational community, which took place in April 1900.
The circumstances of Chafer's move to Northfield, Massachusetts, in 1901 are not at all clear. It is reasonable to assume that he became increasingly well known within evangelical circles through his ministerial gifts and within the Congregational ranks by his ordination and pastoral associations. Residing at Northfield, where he operated a farm and his wife served as organist at the annual conferences, Chafer continued to travel in evangelistic endeavours, particularly in the winter months. In 1904 the Southland Bible Conference was inaugurated in Florida, a counterpart of the Northfield conferences; Chafer was president of the conference after 1909. Through the Northfield conferences, the Chafers met an array of prominent evangelicals from both sides of the Atlantic, among them G. Campbell Morgan, F. B. Meyer, A. C. Gaebelein, James M. Gray, and W. H. Griffith Thomas.
By far, however, the most important contact was with Cyrus Ingerson Scofield, then pastor of the Trinitarian Congregational Church, Moody's church, in Northfield. Chafer found in Scofield a clear, biblically oriented teacher, and the two were thereafter bound together in ministry for two decades. Scofield lead the younger Chafer into his particular understanding of the Scriptures, as well as into a change of careers. No longer an itinerant evangelist, Chafer progressively joined his mentor as a travelling Bible teacher, increasingly becoming a central participant in the Bible conference movement. Gradually, through enlarged exposure in the major Bible and prophetic conferences, the publication of books and articles, and teaching in short-term Bible institutes, Chafer emerged in the early 1900s as a quiet, energetic leader of one segment of the emerging evangelical movement.
From 1906 to 1910, he taught at the Mount Hermon School for Boys, instructing in Bible and music (his first published book was Elementary Outline Studies in the Science of Music, 1907). In 1906, he left the Congregational community to join the Troy Presbytery, Synod of New York, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), reflecting his discomfort with liberalizing trends in the denomination and Scofields ecclesiastical sympathies. In these years, he published two additional books, Satan (1909, Scofield wrote the foreword) and True Evangelism (1911).
His close identification with Scofield increased in the second decade of the century as Chafer moved to East Orange. New Jersey, to join the staff of the New York School of the Bible, an agency that distributed Scofield's increasingly popular Bible correspondence course, written in 1892, and an office for the coordination of conference activities. As a member of the "oral extension department" of the "school," Chafer began a rather extensive travelling conference ministry throughout the South.
In 1913, he assisted Scofield in founding the Philadelphia School of the Bible, apparently writing the curriculum. Due to his growing southern ministry, Chafer joined the Orange Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1912. In 1915, he published The Kingdom in History and Prophecy, a work endorsed by Scofield and dedicated to Chafer's father. It was a defence of pretribulational, dispensational premillennialism. Several other works followed: Salvation (1917), He That Is Spiritual (1918), Seven Major Biblical Signs of the Times (1919), and Must We Dismiss The Millennium? (1921).
Scofields declining health, resulting in increasingly limited itinerant ministry, brought another shift in the sphere and nature of Chafer's work. Moving to Dallas, Texas, in 1922, he became pastor of the First Congregational Church, which had been founded in 1882 by Scofield (it was renamed Scofield Memorial Church in his honour during Chafer's pastorate in 1923); Chafer pastored the church from 1922 to 1926 in addition to increased conference speaking. Further, he became general secretary of the Central American Mission, a missionary society founded by Scofield in 1890. He transferred his ministerial credentials to the Dallas Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1923.
During this period, Chafer founded the Dallas Theological Seminary (originally, the Evangelical Theological College) in 1924, serving as its president as well as professor of systematic theology from its inception until his death in 1952. Though he resigned from both the church and the mission, he continued a rigorous conference ministry; his publications mushroomed. In addition to regularly contributing to evangelical periodicals, he wrote Grace (1922) and Major Bible Themes (1926). After the seminary acquired Bibliotheca Sacra in 1933, a journal with roots in the early nineteenth century, Chafer wrote numerous articles that, combined with portions of his books, were published as his largest work, Systematic Theology (1948). The advanced age, the burden of carrying on a school without secure financing, the growing turmoil over Scofieldian dispensationalism in his own Presbyterian church, and the death of his wife in 1944 were factors that progressively limited his public ministry. After 1945, the operations of the school devolved to his executive assistant, John F. Walvoord. Chafer died due to heart failure while on a conference tour in Seattle, Washington, in August 1952.
Chafer's contribution and lasting legacy to American evangelicalism in the twentieth century was enormous; he stands with his mentor, C. I. Scofield, as well as his successors, John F. Walvoord and Charles Ryrie, as a proponent of the Bible conference movement's distinctives from the late nineteenth century, which emerged as an integral and influential subsegment of twentieth-century evangelicalism, the premillennial dispensational camp. In essence, Chafer's contribution to the ongoing life of the church can be seen as the broadening and deepening of the Bible conference movement. This can be illustrated through both his institutional and theological contributions.
Institutionally, Chafer's legacy is the creation of Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924; it represented an extension of the Bible-conference emphases at the postgraduate level of education, just as the Bible institutes extended them at the undergraduate level. Chafer's vision for a ministerial school began with his contact with students at the Mount Hermon School for Boys. His travels under Scofields auspices lead to contact with numerous pastors (whom he consulted about the deficiencies of their formal ministerial training), denominational colleges, and seminaries, particularly throughout the South. He came to believe that the unique emphases of the Bible conference movement-intensive English Bible instruction, dispensational premillennialism, and the victorious Christian life teachings-were the additional ingredients, when added to an otherwise standard seminary curriculum, that could adequately prepare Christian missionaries and pastors-a combination of ingredients he described as "a new departure" in ministerial training.
The stress on the English Bible provided the content of the minister's preaching; dispensational premillennialism was the intellectual grid for interpreting the Bible; a mild Keswick holiness emphasis on two works of grace in the believer's life (as well as the distinction between obedient and fleshly Christians as spiritual states) provided the ground for a right relationship to the Holy Spirit, the source of power in ministry. The goal of the institution - to place men into the mainline churches after training in an independent school - proved illusive, however. Though the school was deeply influenced by Presbyterianism - Chafer and Scofield were both ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as were most of the early faculty - the distinctive ideas of the Bible conference movement were not accepted by many Presbyterian leaders or by other mainline denominations as useful preparation for the ministry. They increasingly viewed the emphases as antithetical to historic Presbyterianisim. In the 1930s and 40s, Presbyterians in the North and South became openly hostile to dispensationalism. As a result, graduates of the seminary found placement in the mainline churches difficult.
At the same time, numerous denominational splinter groups, independent churches, and para-ecclesiastical organizations (Chafer supported many of them) were emerging in the country. The seminary became the major graduate-level source for their leaders. Thus, the distinctives of the Bible conference movement were carried into this emerging evangelical submovement of the American church.
In addition to institutionalizing the Bible conference movement, Chafer systematized its unique theological emphases with the publication of his Systematic Theology (8 vols.) in 1948, the first major attempt to set forth the teaching of dispensational premillennialism within the rubric of traditional systematics. What Scofields notes delineated in a dispensational approach to the Bible. Chafer's theology book simply enlarged. The work reflects Chafer's attachment to Scofield and the notes of the Scofield Reference Bible (1909, 1917). The work became the definitive statement of dispensational theology.
Chafer's theology, and subsequently that of the seminary's, reflects his attachment to three somewhat diverse traditions within historic orthodoxy: Augustinianism, Keswick theology, and (Plymouth) Brethrenism. From the first source, Chafer's systematics is Reformed or Calvinistic in anthropology and soteriology (i.e., the doctrines of election, predestination, humanity's plight, and the origin and cause of Christ's redemptive mercies). It reflects his adherence to Presbyterian confessionalism, although he deviated from the tradition by advocating an unlimited view of the intent of Christ's sacrifice. It is profoundly Princetonian (i.e., Warfieldian inerrancy) in its delineation of the doctrine of the Scriptures.
In the second, Chafer's understanding of the spiritual life, as put forth in He That Is Spiritual, reflects a view that Warfield opposed. It was essentially a counteractivist understanding of the relationship of the Spirit and the believer relative to the duty of spiritual progress (i.e., a stress on the believer's duty to be rightly related to the Spirit as the cause of growth), rather than the more traditionally Reformed emphasis on suppressionism by the Holy Spirit (a stress on the activity of God as the cause of the believer's sanctification).
Finally, reflecting the influence of the Brethren movement, which made significant inroads into American evangelicalism in the late nineteenth century through the emerging Bible conference movement, Chafer embraced the teachings of dispensationalism, modern premillennialism, and pretribulational eschatology.
Chafer's third major legacy, and arguably the primary one, was his emphasis on the centrality of Christ and the grace of God; the preeminence of Christ and Calvary was the very heart of Chafer's religious passion. In this Chafer stands without question in the orthodox tradition of the church. Chafer was at heart a heralder of the Gospel, and the motto of the seminary he founded reflects this emphasis: "Preach the Word" (2 Tim. 2:2). To effect this mission, he felt that one had to know the Bible with intensity and affection, which implied a correct understanding of its overall purposes (i.e., dispensational premillennialism), and one must be in a correct relationship to the Holy Spirit (i.e., sanctified). This is clearly seen in his career; he was involved in itinerant evangelism for over a decade, and out of that experience he published a criticism of the errors he found in it (True Evangelism), causing quite a stir among his contemporaries in the field. Two works devoted to the theme of the Gospel followed: Salvation and Grace as well as briefer statements in other works, Major Bible Themes and Systematic Theology.
It can be argued that the centrality of Christ in Chafer's understanding of the unfolding plan of redemption in the Bible is why he seemed to denigrate the revelation of God in the Old Testament. The superior light of the revelation of God in Christ caused a shadow of insignificance to fall over the less clear revelation of Him in the Old Testament. This created in his mind, as Scofield had seen before him, a discontinuity between the two testaments that became a defining characteristic in his understanding of the Bible.
John D. Hannah Taken from Dictionary of Premillennial Theology, Couch
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