(Note: this post is part of a series—, see “John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney,” for an introduction and links to the other articles)
The first reference to Robert Lewis Dabney in the works of John Piper appears in his dissertation Love Your Enemies: Jesus’s Love Command in the Synoptic Gospels and the Early Christian Paraenesis. Published in 1979 by Cambridge University Press, it was originally written between 1972 and 1974 in Germany (The Collected Works of John Piper Vol. 1, 11). As in many dissertations, this reference is contained in a passing footnote that appears to be a result of a “survey of the literature.” Piper had been reviewing what the Dead Sea Scrolls had to say about “enemies.” The Qumran community seems to have developed a “side of the Old Testament seen in Psalms 69:21–28; 109; 139:19–22,” the “imprecatory Psalms.” This could have been a result of their view of “election”: “From God’s absolute election follows the clear division of those to be loved and those to be hated.” The footnote falls in this section and reads as follows:
The early Christian teachers would probably have disputed that such a development from these psalms was necessary or proper. Both Paul (rom. 11:9, 10 = Ps. 69:22, 23) and Luke (Acts 1:20 = Ps. 69:25) are able to see in the imprecatory psalms the decrees of God rather than the mere vindictiveness of an individual. Cf. J. Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2:74; R. L. Dabney, Discussions: Evangelical and Theological (London: Banner of Truth, 1967), 1:706–21; C Martin, “Imprecations in the Psalms,” PTR 1 (1903): 537–53.John Piper, Love Your Enemies, in The Collected Works of John Piper, 1:93.
Banner of Truth had just reprinted Dabney’s Discussions (see Dabney’s article here) five years prior (in 1967), and apparently it was accessible and part of the literature review required in Piper’s dissertation.The bare reference is all there is, with no discussion, and no commentary.
“The only remedy is just vengeance”
The piece by Dabney, though, is interesting in its own right. It was an article entitled “The Christian’s Duty Towards His Enemies,” and had been originally published in The Southern Presbyterian Review in December 1866, shortly after the Civil War. Dabney had himself fought in the Civil War alongside Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and the fall of the Confederacy “was epochal” in Dabney’s life. Thomas Cary Johnson, Dabney’s biographer, describes how bitterly Dabney resented this loss and the subsequent Reconstruction. In a letter apparently written July 1864, Dabney (ironically) expresses that the Federal government had reduced the South to the status of “slaves,” and that the answer is “vengeance”:
The [Virginia state] government, by its non-retaliatory and defensive system, is permitting the person at Washington to educate the Southern people into Oriental slaves. A little more such suffering unavenged, and their hearts, once so heroic, will be tamed for the yoke. The only remedy is to give the people just vengeance. They must be permitted and encouraged to react against their aggressors, with an active resistance as fiery and intense as their wrongs are aggravated.”Johnson, The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney [hereafter LLD], 290, italics original.
For Dabney, this sense of “oppression” and “injustice” had specifically racialized terms:
In 1865, and on into the seventies [note: the eighties as well], he loathed with all the strength of an honest man whose very life it was to love the good and hate the wrong, as he saw it. To be governed and to know that his beloved country was governed by aliens, was as the bitterness of death. To be governed by the semi-civilized freemen, which his prophetic soul saw was to follow on the cessation of the government by the army of invaders, was worse.”Johnson, LLD, 292.
Particularly horrid was the prospect of Black people voting:
“Universal suffrage, which he had always hated and fought, is coming, he sees. And slaves, of an inferior race, under the leadership of the vilest men, are to have the power of voting, till, in the words of another strong man, ‘that dirty chimney shall be burnt out.’ The seats of power once graced by Virginia’s noblest sons are to be trampled through by these. They are to dispense justice! In this hour of awful stress some of Virginia’s sons will go over to the oppressors.”Johnson, LLD, 292–93.
Johnson describes this period as setting the tone for the rest of Dabney’s life:
He thought of the invaders of the South as he had always thought of them; he thought of her subjugators and new sovereigns according to the truth. Henceforth, for long years, he is to be a grimmer man, with less in the world to love. The iron had entered his soul.
There is no measuring his sense of chagrin and indignation, degradation and woe, at the issue. His spirit was unconquerable. He believed that infidelity, usurpation and oppression had triumphed.”Johnson, LLD, 294.
One of Dabney’s students at Union Theological Seminary gives an illustration of this:
During the war and its aftermath of reconstruction, he became so embittered by the ruthless methods of Federal officers like Sheridan and Sherman, and the efforts of Congress to impose Negro rule on the South that he almost went off his mental balance. Being once taken to task for the violence of his denunciation of these leaders, he made no reply, but preached the following Sunday on the text, “Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate Thee?”Samuel Hall Chester, Memories of Four-Score Years (1934), 77.
“The Christian’s Duty Towards His Enemies”
This is the context for Dabney’s article, and as such, it reads as a theological expression of his bitterness and hatred for the North. He starts the article by saying that the “Christian’s duty towards his enemies” is “a duty whose ‘metes and bounds’ are ill understood by many of the people of God.” Specifically, some “afflict themselves with compunctions for and vain endeavors against feelings which are both proper and natural to us as rational beings” (706). This “embarrassment is increased by the current opinion that there is an inconsistency between the teachings and examples of the Old Testament and the New upon this subject.” Some read the imprecatory Psalms, for example (Psalm 35, 39, 109, 137, 139) but then turn to the Sermon on the Mount, and “thereupon imagine a discrepancy, if not a contradiction between them, and adopt the mischievous conclusion that the two Testaments contain different codes of Christian ethics.” He admits that the Old Testament “stops short of that fulness of detail to which the New Testament afterwards proceeded. But while there is a difference in degrees of fulness, there can be no contrariety” (707). For Dabney, to downplay the Old Testament treatment of “enemies” in favor of the New, is to move dangerously toward rejecting the authority and inspiration of Scripture.
Dabney ridicules his modern age, which had “witnessed a whole spawn of religionists, very rife and rampant in some parts of the church, who pretentiously declared themselves the apostles of a lovelier Christianity than that of the sweet Psalmist of Israel. His ethics were entirely too vindictive and barbarous for them, forsooth; and they, with their Peace Societies, and new lights, would teach the world a milder and more beneficent code!” (709).
Dabney then moves to a scholastic discussion of the distinctions between resentment, moral indignation, moral disapprobation, the judgment of demerit, and when each is warranted. He distinguishes “three elements of offence”: personal loss, guilt, and moral defilement, and the remedy for each. For moral defilement, the remedy is repentance; for guilt, the cross of Christ; the remedy for personal loss is “reparation” (717–18). Interestingly, this demand for “repentance” would be made by Dabney in 1874 as a requirement for reunion with Northern Presbyterians—they must repent of saying that slavery was a sin and that the Confederacy was rebellion, or else he would not forgive (Johnson, LLD, 374).
Dabney concludes the article by asserting this: “To resist wrong within the lawful limits, or to evade the power of the oppressor when resistance is no longer feasible, may be the first obligation which man owes to his own virtue” (721). This language of “oppressor” is consistent with Dabney’s regular use of the terms oppressor and oppression when describing the United States federal government, and it seems clear that these are the “enemies” that he has in mind in this article (see for example Johnson, LLD, 212, 226, 229, 288, 293, 294, 300, 301, 302, 305, etc.)
What Dabney expressed in this article in 1866 set the stage for for decades of bitter resistance to any fellowship with Northern Christians well into the 1880s. For example, in 1870 Dabney would wield his influence in his Southern Presbyterian General Assembly to oppose “fraternal relations” with Presbyterians from the North. He had been appointed Moderator of the General Assembly, and several representatives from the North were visiting with the “olive branch” extended. After a number of speeches that seemed amenable to the idea, Dabney finally took the floor and reflected later that “I felt that I must just let myself loose. It was a fight for life or death” Dabney expressed his opposition like this:
“I do not profess to be as good as some people; I hear brethren saying it is time to forgive. Mr. Chairman, I do not forgive. I do not try to forgive. What! forgive these people, who have invaded our country, burned our cities, destroyed our homes, slain our young men, and spread desolation and ruin over our land! No, I do not forgive them.”Johnson, LLD, 352–53.
Dabney’s speech “turned the debate,” (Sean Michael Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney, 152), and one of the Northern Presbyterians reported it like this: “They have stripped every leaf from the olive branch, and made a rod of it to beat us with” (LLD, 355). (For official records, see Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (1870)).
This was only the first of Dabney’s efforts to resist any fellowship with Northern Christians; much more could be written tracing this out, but those interested will have to consult Dabney’s articles “Fraternal Correspondence” (1876); “Fraternal Relations” (1877); “The Atlanta Assembly and Fraternal Relations” (1882)).
“A good tree cannot bear evil fruit”
Interestingly, just a few sections later in Piper’s dissertation, he comments on Jesus’s words in Matthew 6:15: “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Piper elaborates further:
“the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23–35) makes explicit a principle which underlies Jesus’ command to forgive and love: the forgiveness and love of God precedes the servant’s forgiveness of his brother. Therefore loving one’s enemies is not the test by which one proves to God that he is worthy to be forgiven and accepted into the Kingdom; the reverse is the case: God first forgives and accepts in order that a man through faith in his acceptance may pass the test of loving his enemies. When Jesus calls for a man to love those who do not love him, he is not calling for heroes who, by the sheer will to self-surrender, act for the good of others. He is calling for insecure and self-indulgent children to trust their Father and thus find the security and gladness which will enable them to take patiently whatever pain or humiliation may come from loving their enemies. Having his own longings satisfied in God’s acceptance, the disciple is freed to satisfy the longings even of his enemy. But a man who does not love his enemy will not enter into the Kingdom of God: a good tree cannot bear evil fruit (Matt 7:18; cf. 24:12–13).Piper, Love Your Enemies, 122–23.
One can only wonder what Piper would say of Dabney in light of Jesus’s words, and this analysis of them.
Dabney’s article on “The Christian’s Duty Toward His Enemies” is not an abstract theological treatise—it relates directly to his life and the context of his hatred for Northern Presbyterians. Let me say again, that I am not saying that Piper is at fault for not knowing this context and for not including it in his dissertation. It was a single reference in a footnote, after all! But this instance does illustrate the way that historical context is crucial to interpreting an author. When you ignore historical context, and focus only on the abstract theological ideas presented, you will miss information that is important for properly understanding a person’s work and the role that it played in their context.
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