On Censoring Dabney and Denying “Sola Fide”

Shortly after my article on R.L. Dabney was published at Desiring God (Providence Is No Excuse: Exposing a Reformed White Supremacist), Taylor Sexton wrote a response at his blog (“Racism, White Confederate Theologians, and Justification by Faith Alone). Unfortunately, I just discovered it earlier this week, and thought it was worth responding to.

I’ve never met Taylor, but I suspect we have quite a bit in common, and I’m guessing we’d get along quite well. I’m really grateful for the time and thought he put into engaging my post, and I think we actually agree on a large number of things. In fact, I think that his largest criticisms are based on a misunderstanding of what I wrote, and the responsibility for that lies with me for not being more clear.

So with that in mind, I’d like to try to clarify some things in an effort to either remove any disagreement, or help us see more exactly where it lies.

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t”?

Taylor’s first “issue” with the article is with this sentence: “for those of us who are white, Reformed, American Christians, eulogies to King sound hollow while the echoes of white supremacy still haunt our halls.” He interprets me as positing a catch-22: “when white people are silent about racism, they are racists; when they speak out about it, they are ‘hollow.’”

I’d like to clarify this point. Notice that I mentioned a specific kind of activity eulogies to Kingand not “speaking about racism” in general. I also had in mind another kind of hypocritical activity, namely, criticisms of King and/or his theology. I actually think that there is plenty of work to be done by white people in fighting against racism and dismantling white-supremacy in evangelical spaces and institutions, but there are also plenty of superficial and hypocritical ways of going about it. On MLK Jr. Day especially, it’s easy to talk about King and avoid the more difficult, controversial, but utterly necessary work. Daniel Hill captures this point well in his book White Awake: “Dismantling white supremacy trumps the seeking of diversity.” Until we directly confront white supremacy in our midst, everything else will sound hollow — eulogies of King, criticisms of King, praising diversity, etc. Once we’ve removed the plank in our own eye, we’ll see more clearly  in order to have constructive conversations on this issue. I’m not calling for “white silence,” I’m calling for us to be vocal in calling out white-supremacy—that’s why I wrote the article!

“Where, exactly, have I ‘afflicted atrocious injustice’ on anyone”?

The next sentence that Taylor takes issues with is this one: “Just because we embrace traditional Reformed orthodoxy does not mean we have not afflicted atrocious injustice on our fellow human beings.” He asks: “Where, exactly, have I ‘afflicted atrocious injustice’ on anyone?”

Here, I think, Taylor makes a fair criticism. This sentence reads like a blanket and imprecise accusation.

To be completely honest, that’s actually not what I originally wrote. I went back and forth with the editors at DG a couple of times, and the last draft I submitted contained this sentence: “Just because you embrace traditional Reformed orthodoxy does not mean you won’t also inflict atrocious injustice on your fellow human being.” I stand by that sentence. Unfortunately, simply changing “you” to “we” and “won’t also inflict” to “haven’t also inflicted” completely alters the sense. I wouldn’t have signed off on the sentence the way it was published, and I can’t defend it. Oh, the difference that person, number, and tense can make!

Taylor’s right — rather than an aid to precise analysis, that sentence became a stumbling block and a distraction to my real point.

Should we censor Dabney’s books?

This was a common reaction to the article, and I actually wrote an entire post addressing it (Should we Burn Dabney’s Books?). Taylor, though, takes it to another level by turning it into a question about justification by faith alone. Here I think he missed my point entirely.

He first asks the question: “why does this author feel the need to comment on the fact that Dabney’s books are still being printed, sold, read, and even quoted?”

I felt the need to mention it in order to support the claim I made in the preceding sentence. Here’s how it reads together: “Robert Dabney’s influence has not disappeared in Reformed circles. His books are still being repackaged, reprinted, and sold.” I anticipated a certain reaction, namely, “why are you talking about an irrelevant old dead guy from 150 years ago that no one has ever even heard of?” (In fact, I did receive this response numerous times; see: Social Justice Dung and other thoughts on Dabney). I mentioned the fact that his books are still being reprinted (and recommended at big conferences) in order to support the claim that “his influence has not disappeared.”

Taylor goes on: “This author has an underlying premise… that the very fact we are printing, selling, and reading Dabney’s works means we are in reality supporting everything he taught and believed.”

Actually, I don’t believe that, and I didn’t say that. I’ve never thought that. In fact, I’ve resisted the opposite accusation whenever someone impugns a blanket accusation of “abandoning the gospel for Marxism” whenever someone appropriates a few genuine Marxist insights.

Taylor: “It might even be sinful to buy his works! …why else would the author express concern about someone’s writings merely being ‘sold’?”


Oh dear — I sure hope it’s not sinful to buy Dabney’s books, otherwise I’m the chief of sinners!

My point in mentioning that his books are still printed and sold was not so much to express “concern” as to to prove “continuing influence.”

Taylor, though, sees a “refusal to think that anything he had to say was God-honoring.” Perhaps I’ve even implicitly denied “justification by faith alone” as the title of the post suggests. Given that his premise doesn’t fit (I never called for any kind of “censorship” let alone the “blatant” kind) I’d submit that none of the rest of the charges stick either.

Unfortunately, though Taylor quoted my paragraph in full, he never addressed my main concern: “He is still quoted in our own books without caveat or qualification.”

Note carefully: my concern is not that “he is still quoted in our own books.” My concern is that for an entire generation of Reformed American Christians, we have done so “…without caveat or qualification.” That’s the issue. White supremacy long unchecked, unexposed, and unaddressed.

Was Dabney even a Christian?

Taylor correctly notes that I “made no assertion of the sort.” In fact, he thinks that to question Dabney’s salvation would amount to “legalism.”

I didn’t say it in the article because I didn’t even think about it at the time. However, I’ve read quite a bit of Dabney since then, and I do want to go on record saying that I think that’s actually a very good question. While I pray that I will see Dabney in the new heavens and new earth, I personally do not have utmost confidence in his salvation. Dabney persisted in unrepentant sin until the end of his life, which Paul warns desperately against. He bitterly resisted all attempts to raise the social and ecclesial status of black Christians until the end of his life, even when he was a lonely minority in a changing south. He persuaded an entire denomination to discriminate against and segregate black Christians and thus caused a division in Christ’s church that lasted over 100 years. For these sins, Dabney would be excommunicated from any self-respecting Gospel church today. Given that this never happened in his own day, I don’t know whether it might have been used to bring him to repentance, and I can’t pass any final judgment. I will say, though, that given the evidence we have, it doesn’t look good.

Even if he was genuinely saved, I consider him utterly unqualified for the office of a teacher in the church, and I don’t intend to treat him like one. None of his “impeccable Reformed theology” or vaunted reputation changes this in my opinion, it only serves to heighten his hypocrisy. There’s a difference between saying “we should censor his books!” and “we shouldn’t treat him as a ‘great teacher’ in the church.”

What about Jonathan Edwards?

Taylor thinks that not mentioning Jonathan Edwards’s slaveholding was “an unfortunate omission from Desiring God, who is the primary popular venue by which Edwards’s theology and philosophy is spread.” He later says “the standard is never applied fairly; e.g., Jonathan Edwards as mentioned above.”

I’m not really sure what Taylor is talking about here. John Piper and Desiring God have addressed Jonathan Edwards’s slaveholding numerous times over the years in podcast episodes, articles, videos,  book chapters, and again in a recent Q&A.

I’m not sure what kind of “unfortunate omission” Taylor is talking about. On the other hand, until my article, Dabney’s racism had never been treated at DG even though his books had been recommended on their site and quoted in Pastor John’s books. I’m grateful that they were willing to publish my article, but it’s really no surprise if you know Pastor John and his track record of leaning hard into these issues. 

Dabney’s life and legacy

I can’t tell from reading the post how familiar Taylor actually is with Dabney’s life and legacy. He references a biographical message by Iain Murray, but unfortunately that message is an utter white-wash—not just of Dabney’s white-supremacy, but of the civil war, and southern slavery itself.

Taylor admits that he isn’t sure whether Dabney defended “the American form of slavery, or the idea of slavery in general.” The answer is “both” and he used the latter to do the former. This could be cleared up by reading Dabney own words, or a clear-eyed biography (like Sean Michael Lucas’s). In fact, I suspect that a large part of the reason we’ve approached this differently is because of the different kinds of exposure we’ve had to his vile ideology. It grieves me, it makes me sick to my stomach to read some of Dabney’s addresses, and sicker still think that his racist influence infected Reformed American Christians for over 100 years. I don’t hear those same notes of lament in Taylor’s post, and it makes me wonder if he’s really looked Dabney’s sin as squarely in the eye as it ought to be. The fact that he describes himself in another post as ”an enthusiast about the Southern Presbyterian and Reformed pastors and theologians during the nineteenth century (e.g., Dabney, Thornwell, Girardeau, etc.)” makes me wonder if he’s really looked as long and hard as he should.

Hopefully this puts to rest what I think are some misunderstandings of my position and sets us up to discuss any that remain. This is the kind of work we need to engage in–wrestling hard with the legacy of Reformed white-supremacy and what we should do about it.

(Photo by Hans Vivek on Unsplash)


What’s So Bad About R.L. Dabney?

R.L. Dabney has been so thoroughly whitewashed in reformed evangelical circles that it comes as a surprise when he is criticized for his virulent white-supremacy. The whitewashed version of Dabney started with his close friend and first biographer Thomas Cary Johnson, and was passed along to reformed evangelicals by Iain Murray  (see here, for example) and Banner of Truth publishers. He was then picked up by men like John MacArthur, who gave him unqualified recommendation for over 38 years.

What could possibly be so bad about Dabney? I suspect that very few people have actually read for themselves the kinds of things Dabney said. If they had, I simply cannot imagine them giving him the kind of praise that they have.

Before anyone accuses me of over-reacting to Dabney, or making a mountain out of a molehill, I simply ask you to read for yourself a handful of articles. These are all available for free in the public domain. You can find them on Google Books or on archive.org. I’ve uploaded pdfs of each relevant chapter or address. If you haven’t faced Dabney’s racism and white-supremacy for yourself, you simply cannot make an accurate assessment of his life and legacy. If you only have time to read one, read “Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes.” If you have time for a second, read “The Negro and the Common School.” Read it all if you really want to know how abhorrent his teaching and influence has been.


Letter to Major General Howard, Oct 21, 1865 (pdf here)

In 1865 Dabney wrote a letter to the Chief of the Freedman’s Bureau which was formed to help former black slaves in the aftermath of the civil war. The Letter is a mixture of a rosy white-washed picture of southern slavery, irony and sarcasm when confessing the South’s “inferiority” to the North, and a concluding section on the challenges of helping African-Americans:

“One of your difficulties is in the thriftlessness of the Africans themselves, and their want of intelligent foresight; a trait which was caused, not by domestic servitude, but by the savage condition from which they were taken, and which we had partially corrected when they were taken out of our hands” (41).

“The larger part of them evidently confound liberty with license; and to them, liberty means living without earning a living” (42).

“You have this task then, gently to educate them out of this innocent mistake of Stealing everything which comes to their hand” (43).

“You, sir, are appointed to do what no other mortal has hitherto done successfully: to transmute four millions of slaves, of an alien race and lower culture, all at once into citizens, without allowing them to suffer or deteriorate on your hands” (44).

Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes, Nov. 9, 1867 (pdf here)

This one address encapsulates everything that is wrong with Dabney. Not only was he a white-supremacist, but he influenced his entire Southern Presbyterian denomination in this speech to not grant equality in the church to black preachers. Thus, to the sin of racial animosity, we can add the sin of dividing Christ’s church, and that of influencing many others to stumble. This is Paul and Peter, Galatians 1 territory. Ironically, Dabney quotes Galatians 1 in this address, getting the sense exactly opposite. In Dabney’s surreal version, he himself is Paul, and those arguing for racial equality are Peter.

The effect of this speech was powerful in the Presbyterian assembly. Sean Michael Lucas notes that this speech “turned the tide against racial equality in the Southern Presbyterian church… and set the ‘racial orthodoxy’ of the Southern Presbyterian church for the next hundred years” (Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 148–49). The whole thing is really vile, and I urge readers to read it for themselves or they will be incapable of making an honest assessment of Dabney. Here are a few excerpts:

“an insuperable difference of race, made by God and not by man, and of character and social condition, makes it plainly impossible for a black man to teach and rule white Christians to edification” (201)

“I greatly doubt whether a single Presbyterian negro will ever be found to come fully up to that high standard of learning, manners, sanctity, prudence, and moral weight and acceptability which our constitution requires” (202).

“Now, who that knows the negro does not know that his is a subservient race; that he is made to follow, and not to lead; that his temperament, idiosyncrasy and social relation make him untrustworthy as a depository of power?” (203–4).

“Our brethren, turning heart-sore and indignant from their secular affairs, where nothing met their eye but a melancholy ruin, polluted by the intrusion of this inferior and hostile race, looked to their beloved church for a little repose. There at least, said they, is one pure, peaceful spot not yet reached by this pollution and tyranny” (205).

“Every hope of the existence of the church and of state, and of civilization itself, hangs upon our arduous effort to defeat the doctrine of negro suffrage” (205)

“These tyrants know that if they can mix the race of Washington and Lee and Jackson with this base herd which they brought from the fens of Africa, if they can taint the blood which hallowed the plains of Manassas with this sordid stream, the adulterous current will never again swell a Virginian’s heart with a throb noble enough to make a despot tremble… We have before our eyes the proof and illustration of the satanic wisdom of their plan.” (206)


A Defense of Virginia and the South, 1867 (pdf here)

Dabney wrote a 350 page defense of slavery, in which he claimed that the Bible supported the slavery and that only infidels and unbelievers disagreed. See here for an assessment of his treatment of the book of Philemon. Sean Michael Lucas offers an insightful analysis of the book on pages 117–128 of his biography of Dabney, which I highly recommend. Portions of this book are “willful propaganda of the highest order and manifestly untrue.” It’s astonishing to me that Doug Wilson calls this work of Dabney’s “excellent.”

“for the African race, such as Providence has made it, and where he has placed it in America, slavery was the righteous, the best, yea, the only tolerable relation” (25).

“domestic slavery here has conferred on the unfortunate black race more true well-being than any other form of society has ever given them” (261).

“On the Civil Magistrate” in Systematic Theology, 1871 (pdf here)

But racism doesn’t affect theology, right? No, Dabney’s white supremacy even made it into his systematic theology:

Thus, if the low grade of intelligence, virtue, and civilization of the African in America, disqualified him for being his own guardian, and if his own true welfare, and that of the community, would be plainly marred by this freedom; then the law decided correctly that the African here has no natural right to his self-control, as to his own labour and locomotion. (869)

The State Free School System, April 22, 1876 (pdf here)

Here Dabney repeats arguments that he made frequently before about slavery as a “true education” fitting for the condition of the African, and wields it to oppose public-schools in Virginia:

“So, our own country presents an humbler instance in the more respectable of the African freedmen. Tens of thousands of these, ignorant of letters, but trained to practical skill, thought, and resource, by intelligent masters, and imitating their superior breeding and sentiments, present, in every aspect, a far “higher style of man” than your Yankee laborer from his common school, with his shallow smattering and purblind conceit, and his wretched newspaper stuffed with moral garbage from the police-courts, and with false and poisonous heresies in politics and religion. Put such a man in the same arena with the Southern slave from a respectable plantation, and in one week’s time the ascendancy of the Negro, in self-respect, courage, breeding, prowess and practical intelligence, will assert itself palpably to the Yankee and to all spectators. The
slave was, in fact, the educated man” (250).

The Negro and the Common School, 1876 (pdf here)

Dabney goes even further in his attacks against the notion of educating the newly freed slaves in his letter to the editor of the Farmer and Planter:

“The tenor of the argument concedes, what every man, not a fool, knows to be true: that the negroes, as a body, are now glaringly unfit for the privilege of voting. What makes them unfit? Such things as these: The inexorable barrier of alien race, color, and natural character, between them and that other race which constitutes the bulk of Americans: a dense ignorance of the rights and duties of citizenship: an almost universal lack of that share in the property of the country, which alone can give responsibility, patriotic interest and independence to the voter: a general moral grade so deplorably low as to per- mit their being driven or bought like a herd of sheep by the demagogue: a parasitical servility and dependency of nature, which characterizes the race everywhere, and in all ages: an al- most total lack of real persevering aspirations: and last, an obstinate set of false traditions, which bind him as a mere serf to a party, which is the born enemy of every righteous interest of our State” (178–79).

“What is called ‘impartial suffrage’ is, however, permitted by their new Constitution. We should at once avail ourselves of that permission, and without attempting any discrimination on grounds of “race, color, or previous condition of bondage,” establish qualifications both of property and intelligence for the privilege of voting. This would exclude the great multitude of negroes…” (187).


Everyone has blind spots. Even our most beloved heroes have feet of clay. However, what should we do when the whole thing is filled with clay? When the blind spot becomes large enough to divide an entire denomination for over 100 years? We need unequivocally repudiate it, lament and ask forgiveness for our unqualified endorsement of such a man, and then rethink whether we ever want to do so again. We can’t even start this process until we see for ourselves what’s really there.

John MacArthur on R.L. Dabney

“Dabney is a very helpful writer” – John MacArthur (here)

“One of the wonderful old past generation American preachers was a man named R.L. Dabney. And reading him is always refreshing. He’s like a Puritan out of his time and out of his place.” – John MacArthur (here)

John MacArthur has quoted and recommended R.L. Dabney regularly over the years, both in his preaching and at various conferences.


Dabney on Preaching

The first reference I can find is also MacArthur’s favorite: Dabney on the “three stages through which preaching has repeatedly passed with the same results.” He found this in Dabney’s, Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures of Preaching:

Dabney says, “And it is exceedingly instructive to note that there are three stages through which preaching has repeatedly passed with the same results. The first is that in which scriptural truth is faithfully presented in scriptural garb. That is to say, not only are all the doctrines asserted which truly belong to the revealed system of redemption, but they are presented in that dress and connection in which the Holy Spirit has presented them without seeking any other from human science. This state of the pulpit marks the golden age of the church. The second is the transition stage. In this, the doctrines taught are still those of the Scriptures, but their relations are molded into conformity with the prevalent human dialectics.” That’s a hundred-year-old book.

“God’s truth is now shorn of a part of its power over the soul. A third stage is then near in which not only are the methods and explanations conformed to the philosophy of the day, but the doctrines themselves contradict the truth of the Word. Again and again have the clergy traveled this descending scale and always with the same disastrous result.” So he says, “May we ever be content to exhibit Bible doctrine in its own Bible dress.” You can’t improve on it because that’s the way God chose to communicate it. Now, we’re in that transition, aren’t we, evangelicals? There’s still some Christian doctrine but nobody wants to put it in the Bible dress.

([Feb 3, 1980?] – Insight into a Pastor’s Heart, Part 1)

Dabney on preaching–the need for expositional preaching, and the three stages–is MacArthur’s most often cited reference, all the way up to last year.

— Feb 10, 1980 –  Insight into a Pastor’s Heart, Part 2

— Oct 29, 2000 – Deliverance: From Sin to Righteousness, Part 2

— Feb 22, 2009 – The Consequences of Non-expositional Preaching, Part 1

— Oct 23, 2011 – Exposition: The Heart of Biblical Ministry

— Nov 6, 2011 – Modeling Bible Study Through Preaching

— Aug 1, 2017 – Answering Contemporary Challenges to Scripture: John MacArthur with Phil Johnson


Dabney on Other Doctrines

MacArthur did not just quote Dabney on preaching, but on a number of other subjects as well:

— May 9, 1993 – Saving Grace, Part 2 – quotes three times from Dabney’s, The Five Points of Calvinism.

— Jan 1, 1995 –  The Love of God, Part 4 – quotes Dabney giving the example of George Washington signing the death warrant of Major Andre.

— Mar 14, 2004 –  Divine Holiness in Human Flesh – “R. L. Dabney said, “‘Holiness is to be regarded, not as a distinct attribute, but as the sum of all God’s moral perfection.'” (repeated at the 2004 Ligonier conference).

— Mar 17, 2013 – Usurping the Seat of Christ:

“R.L. Dabney, who was an American Reformed theologian from two centuries earlier, said, “Our decadent, half-corrupted Protestantism in action, blindly and criminally betraying her own interests and duties.” That’s what we do. Even then he could say that. Our decadent, half-corrupted Protestantism is in action.” quoting from Dabney, The Attractions of Popery.” [Note: in the immediate context of the quote, Dabney launches directly into a critique of “The Jacobin theory of political rights,” which, for Dabney, included all forms of abolitionism. It’s a strange article to quote from, in my opinion.]


MacArthur at Larger Conferences

In 2002 he expounded on the “three stages of preaching” at his Shepherd’s conference message (March 8, 2002 –  The Sufficiency of God’s Grace), recommending Dabney to a large gathering of other pastors. “Dabney is a very helpful writer” he says at the 27:25 mark and speaks on him until 32:00.

MacArthur quoted Dabney in his message at the 2004 Ligonier Conference (Mar 12, 2004 – There Is No Other: The Holiness of God): “R. L. Dabney wrote, ‘Holiness is to be regarded not as a distinct attribute, but as the result of all God’s moral perfection together.'”

At his own Strange Fire conference in 2013, MacArthur includes Dabney in a list alongside Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Owen, and others (Jul 14, 2013 – Strange Fire Q&A, Part 2):

“You’ve got twenty centuries when nobody was affirming that except aberrant groups. Voices from church history, we have John Chrysostom, the fourth century, Augustine, Theodoret of Cyrus in the fifth century, Martin Luther in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, John Calvin, John Owen, Thomas Watson, Matthew Henry, John Gill, Jonathan Edwards, James Buchanan, Robert Dabney in the nineteenth century, Charles Spurgeon in the nineteenth century, George Smeaten in the nineteenth century, the great Abraham Kuyper in the nineteenth and a little into the twentieth, William Shedd in the nineteenth, Benjamin Warfield in the twentieth century, Arthur Pink, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, they all are cessationists. They all declare that these things have ceased. So to say that there has been a continual stream of legitimate, biblical scholarship conviction and confidence in the sign gifts is just not the case.”


MacArthur’s Unqualified Endorsement of Dabney

In messages spanning over 38 years of ministry, MacArthur has repeatedly quoted and recommended Dabney to both his own church and to the broader evangelical world through conferences. After searching his site (gty.org) I have been unable to find a single qualification or caveat, let alone a warning or caution regarding Dabney’s racism, white supremacy, and views on slavery. The only words have been words of explicit commendation or tacit endorsement by way of citation. (Note: if any reader can point me to a place where he has made such qualification, I would gladly include it here).

“Not [only] as a slave but [also] as a brother”

Last year I did a fresh reading of the book of Philemon for a hermeneutics class at Bethlehem College & Seminary and was struck by how masterfully Paul orchestrated the situation in order to display the power of the gospel to transform the heart of a slave-owner such that he would free his former slave while his whole house-church and all  of Paul’s companions looked on.

Or so I thought. Apparently, not everyone has read the book of Philemon this way.

R.L. Dabney, in his A Defense of Virginia and the South has a chapter on the “New Testament Argument” for slavery, and within it, a section on “Philemon and Onesimus” (176–185). For Dabney, “the Epistle of Philemon is peculiarly instructive and convincing as to the moral character of slavery. This Abolitionists betray, by the distressing wrigglings and contortions of logic to which they resort in the vain attempt to evade its inferences” (176). Indeed, “such are the wretched quibblings by which abolitionism seeks to pervert the plain meaning of God’s Word” (185).

To the contrary–I hope to demonstrate that it is Dabney who has cleverly wriggled out of the clear inferences of this epistle.

The main verses that I wish to highlight are 15–16:

For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Τάχα γὰρ διὰ τοῦτο ἐχωρίσθη πρὸς ὥραν, ἵνα αἰώνιον αὐτὸν ἀπέχῃς, οὐκέτι ὡς δοῦλον ἀλλʼ ὑπὲρ δοῦλον, ἀδελφὸν ἀγαπητόν, μάλιστα ἐμοί, πόσῳ δὲ μᾶλλον σοὶ καὶ ἐν σαρκὶ καὶ ἐν κυρίῳ.

In particular, note carefully the phrase in verse 16:

οὐκέτι ὡς δοῦλον ἀλλʼ ὑπὲρ δοῦλον ἀδελφὸν ἀγαπητόν
no longer as a slave but more than a slave a brother beloved

When I read this verse in a “simple” “straightforward” manner this verse says that Paul is urging Philemon to liberate Onesimus: “no longer as a slave.”

So how does Dabney (and others) get around this verse? By adding some words to their translation and interpretation. He starts by quoting at length “the judicious Dr. Thomas Scott” who was himself “a declared enemy of slavery.” Scott commented on verse 16 with this:

“In this case he knew that Philemon would no longer consider Onesimus merely as a slave, but view him as ‘above a slave, even a brother beloved” (179).

Note the addition: the verse says “no longer as a slave”; Scott’s paraphrase is “no longer merely as a slave.”  See how much hangs on even a single word. That one word–“merely”–is the difference between slavery and freedom!

Dabney knew that some had found in this epistle an argument against slavery. They “learn that he was manumitted by the letter of Paul; so that they find here, not a justification of the slaveholder [which Dabney has found], but an implied rebuke of slavery… The ground claimed for the latter position is, v. 16” (184).

After relying on Scott earlier, Dabney does the same thing. He adds words to text of Scripture in order to suit his favored interpretation:

“Now the obvious sense of these words is, that Philemon should now receive Onesimus back, not as a slave only, but as both a slave and Christian brother.”

I must confess, the sense is not “obvious” to me at all; in fact, precisely the opposite. Dabney’s reconstruction has no basis the original text of Scripture itself:

οὐκέτι ὡς δοῦλον ἀλλʼ ὑπὲρ δοῦλον ἀδελφὸν ἀγαπητόν
no longer as a slave but more than a slave a brother beloved
not as a slave [only] but as [both] —— a slave [and] a brother [Christian]

You should know that Greek has a way of saying “not onlybut also Y.” In fact, it does this pretty regularly. The phrase is Greek is “οὐ μόνον X ἀλλὰ καὶ Y.” It appears in a number of verses:

Matthew 21:21 So Jesus answered and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done.

John 5:18 Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.

This combination appears dozens of times in the NT, and Paul uses it quite frequently:

Romans 1:32 who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.

2 Corinthians 7:7 and not only by his coming, but also by the [a]consolation with which he was comforted in you, when he told us of your earnest desire, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced even more.

Ephesians 1:21 far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.

Philippians 2:27 For indeed he was sick almost unto death; but God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.

1 Thessalonians 1:5 For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake.

(There are many more; see also: Rom 4:12, 4:16, 5:3, 5:11, 8:23, 9:10, 9:24, 13:5, 16:4; 2 Cor 8:10; 8:19; 8:21, 9:12; 1 Thess 1:8, 1 Thess 2:8; 1 Tim 5:13; 2 Tim 2:20; 4:8)

Clearly, Paul has resources in the Greek language for saying “not only X but also Y.” If he had wished to urge Philemon to receive Onesimus “not only as a slave but also as a beloved brother” he could easily have said that. He says it all the time elsewhere; but that is emphatically not what he says. He says–unambiguously–that Philemon is not to receive him as a slave any more — that relationship has been dissolved by the power of the gospel of King Jesus — but instead is to receive him as he would receive Paul himself (v. 17), as a beloved brother.

Paul uses this particular constructions two other places in his epistles (“οὐκέτι X ἀλλά Y” — “no longer X but Y”):

Galatians 4:6–7 And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.

Ephesians 2:19 Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,

How ironic (and sad) that the two other places Paul uses the construction speak of our own deliverance from slavery (Gal 4) and our reconciliation with God and our fellow man which crosses ethnic barriers and walls of hostility (Eph 2). If we treated these passages the way Dabney (and others) treat Philemon 16, we would subvert the central message of the gospel itself.

Those who sought to defend slavery from the Bible did not simply read the text in a “straightforward manner.” In at least this case, they had to resort to adding to the words of scripture to make it mean precisely the opposite of what it actually says. Such Scripture-twisting, and the fruit that resulted from it, is abominable and deserves a verdict like this:

“the distressing wrigglings and contortions of logic to which he resorts in the vain attempt to evade its inferences; the wretched quibblings by which he seeks to pervert the plain meaning of God’s Word.”

Banner of Truth on Dabney and the Southern Presbyterians: An Index

The following is an index of the books and articles published by Banner of Truth on the Southern Presbyterians, particularly R.L. Dabney, B.M. Palmer, and J.H. Thornwell (Eugene Genovese called Thornwell and Dabney “the South’s most formidable and influential theologians” in his A Consuming Fire, p. 4).


Southern Presbyterianism

1992 Kelly, Preachers with Power: Four Stalwarts of the South [Baker, Thornwell, Palmer, Girardeau]

2000 White, Southern Presbyterian Leaders 1683-1911 [Thornwell, Palmer, Dabney, many others]

2012 Calhoun, ‘Our Southern Zion’: Old Columbia Seminary (1828–1927) [Thornwell, Palmer, others]




1979 Dabney, Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures on Preaching

1980 Johnson, The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney

1982 Dabney, Discussions of R.L. Dabney, 3 Vols.

1985 Dabney, Systematic Theology


1967 Jan/Feb Murray, “R.L. Dabney of Virginia”

1967 May/Jun Murray, “Reintroducing the Best Teacher of Theology in the United States: Reprint of R.L. Dabney Discussions”

1970 Dabney, “When Morality Becomes Impossible”

1975 Dabney, “Britain: An Inverted Pyramid”

1976 Dabney, “Dabney on Preaching”

1977 Johnson, “Robert L. Dabney”

1977 Johnson, “Facing Blindness” (extract from Dabney)

1978 Wray, “Summary of Robert L. Dabney on Spurious Religious Excitements”

1986 Woods, “Dabney: Prince Among Theologians and Men”

1998 Berry, “Robert Lewis Dabney and the Westminster Standards: A Commemoration”

2015 Dabney, “The Influence of False Philosophies upon Character and Conduct”




1987 Johnson, Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer

2014 Palmer, Selected Writings of Benjamin Morgan Palmer


1987 Johnson, “Doctrine and Sanctification: Extract from The Life and Letters of Palmer”

2014 Willborn, “Selected Writings of Benjamin Morgan Palmer”

2014 Palmer, “Never Too Late”




1974 Palmer, The Life and Letters of James Henry Thornwell

1986 Thornwell, The Collected Writings of James Henry Thornwell, 4 vols.


1965 Thornwell, “When Grace Ceases to be Grace”

1969 Thornwell, “Knowing the Divine Will”

1975 Thornwell, “Zeal for God’s Glory”

1978 Aitken, “Readings from a Covenant Father’s Heart” (from Thornwell’s Letters)

Should We Burn Dabney’s Books?

This was one of the objections I received after the article I wrote on how Dabney’s white-supremacy infected his doctrine of Providence. In the article, I said that we should “acknowledge, lament, and repudiate such toxic and deadly doctrinal distortions.” I didn’t say anything about censorship, but the reaction was shrill: “are you saying we should ban his books?!”

The question was raised again for me as I discussed Dabney with someone recently. They brought up the fact that King David was a horrible sinner (adultery, murder) and yet we read his writings in the Bible. Shouldn’t we apply the same logic to Dabney? Can’t we appreciate his good theological writings but just leave out his racism?

Don’t Whitewash

First let me say that I entirely agree that we should read books written by sinners, otherwise we wouldn’t read any books at all, even the Bible. No disagreement there. However, here are a couple of differences I see between someone like King David and the Southern Presbyterians. David’s sins are not hidden from view, but are prominently displayed, rebuked, and repented of in the Bible. In many Reformed spheres, the virulent sin of white-supremacy has not been addressed, but rather tucked away and not talked about. Even now, as some of us try to examine and repudiate these influences on our movement, there is a lot of resistance.

John Piper helpfully explains that “no one is helped when we whitewash our heroes.” The Bible doesn’t whitewash its heroes. Unfortunately, the white reformed community has whitewashed our entire theological history for a long time. I’m encouraged that this is starting to change, but there is still a lot of work to do.

I’m actually thankful that we still have all of Dabney’s writings available to read (most of them are free digitally on Google Books). If all we had were the positive quotes and references from people we respect, we would never see the real picture. We should read Dabney’s works, especially his racist white-supremacist ones, so that we actually face and begin to deal with this legacy in our camp.

Infected Theology

Here’s another difference that I see — I have no reason to believe that David’s sin influenced his theology, other than to produce repentance. There was no syncretism between “murder/adultery” and “YHWH-worship.” However, this is not the case with the Southern Presbyterians. Their racism was woven into the very foundations of their view of society, Christianity, and civilization itself. It profoundly influenced their views of ecclesiology, providence, the family, and even Christian honor and piety. It was an entire worldview, not just an isolated aberration. It’s not as simple as plucking out the racism and keeping the rest. The racism deeply influenced the rest, and I don’t think we (conservative reformed evangelicals) have dealt with this yet. I’d recommend Sean Michael Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life as a great starting point for some of these things.

On a further point, folks who love Dabney’s theology so much can avoid much of the trouble with his white-supremacy if they would skip Dabney and just go straight to Turretin.

Dabney’s systematic theology course at Union Seminary relied heavily on Turretin’s magisterial Institutes of Elenctic Theology. One student recalled that in Dabney’s theology class, Dabney would assign a topic with a set of questions and readings for the student to pursue, mainly from Turretin in Latin (Lucas, 86–87).

The structure of Dabney’s Systematic Theology followed Turretin’s Institutes fairly closely… One of the most surprising differences was that, while Turretin devoted a lengthy section to the doctrine of Scripture, Dabney did not deliver a lecture on Scriptures inspiration and authority (87).

Dabney reasoned that “revealed theology cannot be a progressive science” and cannot gain new truth. Once the Reformed faith was recovered by Calvin, Turretin, and the Westminster divines, there was no further need to innovate but rather to conserve the tradition (88).

Now, there might be problems with Turretin! But to reclaim reformed theology from white-supremacy, we need to go further back than Dabney.

Continuing Influence

One more difference: I don’t know of any movement of men who defended murder and adultery as a godly thing to do and relied on David’s example to do so. Dabney, however, is a hero to Christian white-supremacists and neo-confederates even to this day. Lucas points out how his influence “set the ‘racial orthodoxy’ of the Southern Presbyterian church for the next hundred years” (149). For that reason, I think we need to more carefully examine, disentangle, and repudiate his unbiblical racism from the rest of his theology and influence; and we can’t do any of that without first acknowledging it.

So the answer is a hearty, “no” — I don’t think we should ban (or burn) Dabney’s books. But that doesn’t mean we should necessarily buy them, quote appreciatively from them, or recommend them either. Dabney’s works preserve an important record of the deep sinfulness found in our tradition, and if we hope to live more faithfully today, we need to deal with it, not whitewash it.

(Photo by Maxim Lugina on Unsplash)

The Bible vs. Southern-Slavery: a downward hermeneutical spiral

Mark Noll wrote The Civil War as a Theological Crisis “to explain why clashes over the meaning of the Bible and the workings of providence… revealed a significant theological crisis” (6). One key element of the crisis is how, as Lincoln said, both sides “read the same Bible” but came to such opposite conclusions. In fact, the interpretation of the Bible’s teaching on slavery and its application to Southern-slavery turned into a downward spiral of reactions that pushed both sides further from the truth.

Just Open the Bible, Read it, and Believe it

One important element in the crisis was an Enlightenment induced confidence in one’s ability to easily understand the world, including the Bible: “understanding things was simple.” Our entire country, after all, was founded on truths that are “self-evident” (22).

The significance of this marriage between Christianity and the Enlightenment influenced the harsh polemical tone and the firmly drawn battle lines of the debate:

“On the one side, it bestowed great self-confidence as Americans explained the moral urgency of social attitudes and then of national policy. On the other, it transformed the conclusions reached by opponents into willful perversions of sacred truth and natural reason” (20). 

There was a foundational naivety in reading the Bible that ignored the interpretive process. Questions like “what did that word mean in its original context, and are there any important differences in my own context that would affect my understanding?” were rarely asked. The process was much more simple: “In effect: open the Bible, read it, believe it” (33).

Southern-Slavers’ Conflation and Abolitionist Reaction

One fascinating dynamic was the interplay between abolitionists and the defenders of slavery over the Bible. At the very root of the entire conflict is the confusion between what the Bible refers to as slavery, and Southern-slavery as it was actually practiced in America. When slave holders conflated the two and appealed to the Bible to defend their horrific practices, they created a stumbling-block over Biblical truth. Some abolitionists responded by simply discarding those portions of the Bible. William Garrison said this: “to discard a portion of scripture is not necessarily to reject the truth, but may be the highest obedience that one can give of his love of truth” (32). I think the warnings in Mark 9 against causing others to stumble apply squarely to the defenders of Southern-slavery:

But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me [i]to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea (Mark 9:42).

By entangling the Bible with their unbiblical system, Southern-slavers caused others to reject the Bible. Given a choice between the clear dictates of conscience and this twisting of Scripture, I can understand why the abolitionists sided with their consciences in their “love of truth.”

The Southern-Slavers’ Counter-reaction

This, of course, fueled a counter-reaction by the “Biblically orthodox” slavers: “the willingness of Garrison and a few others to favor abolitionism in place of Scripture actually worked to the advantage of those who defended slavery on the basis of Scripture.” In fact, the counter-reaction entangled the issues even more tightly: “biblical defenders of slavery were ever more likely to perceive doubt about the biblical defense of slavery as doubt about the authority of the Bible itself” (32). This is why if you read any of “the Southern divines” (as Genovese calls them) you frequently hear “abolitionism” paired with “infidelity.” Henry Van Dyke claimed: “Abolitionism leads, in multitudes of cases, and by a logical process, to utter infidelity” (32); or R.L. Dabney:

“the Word is on our side, and the teachings of Abolitionism are clearly of rationalistic origin, of infidel tendency, and only sustained by reckless and licentious perversions of the meaning of the Sacred text” (A Defense of Virginia, 21).

When abolitionists accepted the slave-holders’ false premise—that Biblical slavery is the same as Southern-slavery—and attacked slavery as an evil in itself, including a willingness to discard the Bible’s teaching on this subject, they created a very confusing situation for the “moderates.” Many of these moderates “had also grown troubled about America’s system of chattel bondage, but who were not willing to give up loyalty to Scripture” (36). The slaveholders’ conflation of the two set everyone on the wrong course.

As the hermeneutical conflict wound itself up, those in the South could encourage themselves with statements like this: “your cause is the cause of God, the cause of Christ, of humanity. It is a conflict of truth with error — of Bible with Northern infidelity—of pure Christianity with Northern fanaticism” (39). This “biblical” defense of slavery “increasingly came to look like a defense of Scripture itself” (45).

How appalling and heartbreaking that this syncretism between between Southern slave-culture and “christianity” was so thorough and so entrenched.

The Hard Work of Untangling

In this context, some of the best and most important work was the work of disentangling Southern-slavery from the Bible. Men like David Barrow, Francis Wayland, James M. Pendleton, and Taylor Lewis all worked to prove that the Bible described “a very different situation than prevailed in the South” (46). Pendleton observed that “there are points of material dissimilarity between that system and our system of slavery… it does not follow necessarily that Abraham’s servants were slaves in the American acceptation of that word” (47). Taylor Lewis argued that “‘the Patriarchal Servitude’ in ancient times was very different from the slavery found in the American South” (48). As I hope to demonstrate in another post, these “points of dissimilarity” were sharp and they were many. I take my stand with those who held both to abolitionism and to Scripture, and in fact argued for the former precisely from the latter. 

The whole complicated scenario demonstrates the importance of carefully untangling and refuting false teaching, especially when perpetrated by otherwise “orthodox” Christians. To fail in this task is to make a stumbling-block out of the Bible, and a steep barrier to Christianity. This has lamentably been the case in our country for a long time, and is still seen when people reject evangelicalism because of her entanglements with obvious wickedness. When we hear these criticisms, we should set about the important work of untangling dangerous syncretism and dismantling any elements in our presentation of Christianity that actually poison our message. White-supremacy is just one significant form of such American-syncretism.