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)

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