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).

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“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.”