March 31, 2012

John Hannah on Issues of Calvinism at DTS and S. Lewis Johnson’s Departure

I am including this quote in order to let people read about Dr. Johnson's departure from Dallas Theological Seminary over the issue of the extent of the atonement. One can see the confusion that existed there at the time, and some of this confusion still remains, even in the language that Hannah himself uses to describe the different positions regarding the atonement ("effective extent of the atonement," for example, is misleading). Though Hannah is merely being descriptive with this Walvoordian language, I'll add that the difference was not in Johnson's embracing of so-called "Dordtian Calvinism" (since the moderate orthodox view was also present at the Synod of Dort), but in his adoption of the higher orthodox or strict position present at Dort, which taught a limited imputation of sin to Christ, or a limited substitution (i.e. Owenism).

The usefulness of this quote is not that it will help one to properly understand the categorical differences in the debate about the extent of the atonement, but rather that it will help one to understand the historical circumstances and issues surrounding Johnson's departure from DTS.

Hannah wrote:
The Issue of Calvinism. Clarification of doctrinal issues is usually a product of challenges and controversy. The institution historically described itself as within the Calvinistic tradition, and distanced itself from the Arminian tradition. Walvoord was willing to speak for the ailing Chafer, stating, "Arminianism is a departure from the faith."153 The creed of the seminary makes this clear by affirming such doctrines as the total corruption of all human faculties because of Adam's first sin in which the race was implicated; the priority of divine grace in salvation rooted in divine, unconditional election and predestination; the creature as the respondent to grace, not the cause of grace; and eternal security. The consistent designation for the kind of Calvinism expressed in the creed is most appropriately "moderate Calvinism." The moderation stemmed from two factors: first, the school consistently affirmed an unlimited purpose in the atonement of Christ. The position was rooted in a firm belief that this is taught in Scripture, and a limiting of the atonement would limit the Great Commission, leaving the relationship of the free offer of salvation to all and divine election as "a great mystery."154 Second, the dispensational premillenarian position of the seminary made it historically an uneasy fit in Calvinism.

Conflict emerged when a prominent teacher at the seminary embraced a more strident form of Calvinism, dubbed "extreme Calvinism," "strict Calvinism," or "Dordtian Calvinism." S. Lewis Johnson came to the seminary as a student in 1942, completing the ThM in 1946 and the doctorate in 1949. He eventually became the chair of the department of New Testament studies, replacing J. Dwight Pentecost, who would chair the department of Bible exposition. He began his teaching career at the seminary in 1946; it would span thirty years. As the years passed, however, Johnson became increasingly uncomfortable with the seminary's moderate Calvinism as well as the general academic direction of the institution. Writing from Europe, where he was on study leave, Johnson expressed concern that the curriculum revisions of 1973 weakened the academic strength of the institution (he perceived a weakening of language requirements and theological instruction). Further, he felt the faculty to be generally in need of strengthening at that instruction should be taught through a comprehensive worldview of life (which he considered to be completely lacking). "The change needed at Dallas is a change from emphasis upon one level to another deeper level of learning. Let us not abandon the practical emphasis which has been a winning thing for us, but let us deepen our approach to the Word of God. I am for beefing up our program at Dallas, not thinning it down."155

Walvoord's reply constituted a denial of Johnson's assertions (the institution was not weakened by the 1973 curriculum revision, the professional purpose of the institution was consistent with a greater emphasis on the practical, and the school does present a world and life view to the students, though he conceded that the faculty could be strengthened). At this point, Walvoord raised the issue of doctrinal deviation, based on hearsay, particularly Johnson's view of the extent of the atonement.156 Johnson made it clear that he had embraced the view he was accused of affirming and was willing to resign. However, Walvoord stated that Johnson's view was not contrary to the school's creed, if held in moderation. "Our traditional point of view has been unlimited atonement as you know, but I do not believe that our doctrinal statement prohibits the limited atonement view unless it is unduly pressed."157

Johnson must have taken Walvoord's comments as offering no hindrance to his return to the school, in spite of his more-than-moderate Calvinism. Walvoord's view was that Johnson was expressing theological issues that he was still in the process of resolving when he returned in 1973 (and later took a strident Calvinistic position); Johnson's view was that he had expressed himself clearly before returning to the school and he was accepted. Subsequent correspondence suggests that the charge that brought about Johnson's resignation was that he "pressed" his view inordinately to the detriment of the institution.158

The doctrinal issues were two: the effective extent of the atonement of Christ and the relation of divine regeneration to human faith. Johnson argued that placing faith before regeneration decays absolute human inability, resulting in a loss in the vitality of Christianity. Walvoord responded that such views were contrary to the doctrinal statement, adversely affecting the student body, and would prove a disruptive influence among the churches that trusted the seminary to supply pastors reflective of the seminary's doctrine. More importantly, "We believe that extreme Calvinism goes beyond what the Scriptures teach, affirming that Christ died only for the elect."159

Johnson was granted a leave of absence in the fall of 1977, and when his contract expired in December of that year, it was not renewed.160 The Board of Regents minutes states that the reason for the nonrenewal of his contract was the embrace of five-point Calvinism; in particular, it was noted, "He is in agreement with Dordtian Calvinism, and holds that Christ died for the elect and that regeneration precedes faith."161 The issue of the relationship between regeneration and accenting faith is more difficult to untangle. A phrase in the doctrinal statement ("When the unregenerate believes...") seemed to be a flashpoint. Johnson argued that it is impossible for the unregenerate to believe, because to do so would reduce the wonder of redemption to a bilateral contract, denying that grace is without condition.

There is evidence that the administration sought to accommodate Johnson on the first issue, but his position on the second was too much.162 This is interesting because Walvoord had expressed himself earlier to the effect that faith does not precede regeneration; the two occur simultaneously: "The Calvinist position is that regeneration is simultaneous with salvation."163 It is easy to gain the impression that the controversy was a battle of two friendly titans, one desiring to narrow the school's theological creed (perhaps sensing also a decline of a rigorous Calvinism on the part of faculty and boards) and the other seeking to preserve the school within "moderate Calvinism." The president had the tradition of the institution and the creed on his side. Though the parties may not have separated in the most amiable of circumstances, in 1987 Johnson was accorded the title of Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis, Emeritus, in recognition of his contribution to the school.
153. Letter, John F. Walvoord to Arthur F. Williams, Dallas, Texas, 14 April 1948, ADTS. Later he wrote, "As our doctrinal statement indicates, we are in the Reformed tradition of theology" (Letter, John F. Walvoord to J. J. Barnhart, Dallas, Texas, 29 October 1949, ADTS).
154. Letter, John F. Walvoord to Mr. and Mrs. Jim Halston, Dallas, Texas, 5 April 1982, ADTS. Walvoord extended the same "mystery" to the relationship of evangelism to predestinarianism. It seems accurate to say that the practical missions concerns of the seminary's leaders were a paramount motive in maintaining these tensions.
155. Letter, S. Lewis Johnson to John F. Walvoord, Basel, Switzerland, 30 April 1973, John F. Walvoord Papers, ADTS.
156. Letter, John F. Walvoord to S. Lewis Johnson, Dallas, Texas, 10 May 1973, John F. Walvoord Papers, ADTS.
157. Ibid., 5.
158. Letter, S. Lewis Johnson to John F. Walvoord, Dallas, Texas, 2 October 1977. John F. Walvoord Papers, ADTS. Wrote Johnson, "I had expressed such views to you about four years earlier in a letter to you. It was your view that such a deviation from the doctrinal statement was not sufficient to prevent one from teaching at the institution, and I taught at the seminary for the intervening years under the impression that my deviation was not so serious as to preclude faculty service." See also Letter, S. Lewis Johnson to John F. Walvoord, 17 October 1977, John F. Walvoord Papers, ADTS ("I have taught for four years with the assurance that you stood behind your words to me in 1973").
159. Letter, John F. Walvoord to Terry Branscombe, Dallas, Texas, 3 October 1979, ADTS. See also Letter, John F. Walvoord to Alvin L. Baker, Dallas, Texas, 23 November 1981, ADTS; and Letter John F. Walvoord to Mr. and Mrs. J. E. Salser, Dallas, Texas, 15 May 1979, ADTS. Further see Letter, S. Lewis Johnson to John F. Walvoord, Dallas, Texas, 14 January 1977, John F. Walvoord Papers, ADTS.
160. Minutes, Executive Board of Regents, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas, 7 March 1977, 129; Minutes, Board of Regents, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas, 13 October 1977, 137; and Minutes, Board of Incorporate Members, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas, 14 October 1977, 117.
161. Minutes, Board of Regents, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas, 13 October 1977, 137.
162. Ibid.
163. Letter, John F. Walvoord to Howard Gould, Dallas, Texas, 26 September 1947, ADTS. He wrote further, "Simultaneously the individual believer is regenerated, repents, is justified, adopted, and positionally sanctified. I do not believe that there is any possibility of working out satisfactorily the logical order of all these elements."
John D. Hannah, An Uncommon Union: Dallas Theological Seminary and American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 174–176.


Chris Poe said...


Thanks for posting this. I trust that having this excerpt readily available should help clear up any confusion about Dr. Johnson's departure from DTS. There are also his own words in the "Divine Purpose" series and no doubt several others.

ChaferDTS said...

That is a good article. I personally found it very intresting. I had always wondered about Dr. Johnson's departure from Dallas Theological Seminary.