“The Great Pattern of American Manhood”: John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 3

(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)

In 1991, John Piper published The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God. The book has been praised highly: “perhaps the most important book that John Piper has written” (D. A. Carson); “If I were on a desert island and could have only three books, in addition to the Bible, I’d choose Desiring God, and The Pleasures of God by John Piper,” (Sam Storms); “Of all of Pastor John’s books, this is the most radical” (Mark Dever); “A rich feast for the serious believer” (John MacArthur). In 1987 Piper had taken a four-day study leave from preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church, and “went to northern Minnesota with my Bible and a concordance.” There he “looked up all the places in the Bible where God’s delights and pleasures and joys are mentioned” and from that study, preached a series of sermons that would then be expanded (“quadrupled in size”) to become this book (“Preface to Volume 2,” in The Collected Works of John Piper). 

The Pleasures of God

Chapter 5 of The Pleasures of God is called “The Pleasure of God in Election,” and is the part of the book where Calvinism is expressed most directly. Piper opens by asking:

“Can controversial teachings nurture Christlikeness? Before you answer this question, ask another one: Are there any significant biblical teachings that have not been controversial? I cannot think of even one, let alone the number we all need for the daily nurture of faith… The teaching of Scripture on election has been controversial. But I believe with all my heart that it is precious beyond words.”

Piper, The Pleasures of God, 121, 122 (citations from the 2000 reprint of the 1991 edition).

After articulating the doctrine, Piper then closes the chapter with “seven reasons why this teaching is precious to me and why I believe God has pleasure in it” (143). Reason number four is that “this truth is the good news of a salvation that is not just offered but effected” (145). But this prompts a question:

“It is perfectly legitimate to ask whether this teaching means that the gospel is a sincere expression of compassion to those whom God has not chosen to convict and call and draw to the Son with effectual grace.”

Piper, The Pleasures of God, 145.

In other words, when Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest”—how can this be a sincere invitation, if Jesus knows that the only people who can and will come, are the ones that he has already chosen?  It seems that his invitation is insincere.

It is here that Piper recommends Dabney:

“I go back more than a hundred years to find the most helpful explanation I know of. It comes from an essay by Robert L. Dabney, a Presbyterian minister and theological professor whose writings have proved helpful for over a century. His treatment is very detailed and answers many objections that go beyond the scope of this book. I will simply give the essence of the solution which seems to me to be on the right track, though he, as well as I, would admit we do not ‘furnish an exhaustive explanation of this mystery of the divine will.’”

Piper, The Pleasures of God, 147.
Robert Lewis Dabney

“God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy”

Piper then interacts at length with Dabney’s article entitled, “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy, As Related to His Power, Wisdom, and Sincerity” (Phil Johnson, executive director of John MacArthur’s Grace to You, calls this “my all-time favorite Dabney piece”). The article was originally published in The Princeton Review (1878): 33–66, and reprinted in volume 1 of Dabney’s Discussions (Banner of Truth, 1967): 1: 282–313. In it, Dabney is is attempting to address the same dilemma posed to Calvinists that Piper is addressing:

If God makes proposals of mercy to men, who he foresees will certainly reject them and perish, and whom he immutably purposes to leave without effectual calling, how can his power and wisdom be cleared, save at the expense of his sincerity? or his sincerity at the expense of his wisdom or power? This is obviously the point in the Reformed or Augustinian theology most difficult of adjustment.”

Dabney, “Indiscriminate Proposals,” in Discussions, 1:282.

Dabney’s article is over thirty pages long, but Piper focuses in particular on “an analogy from the life of George Washington,” in which Washington felt genuine reluctance and pity to condemn a man to death, but due to “a complex of superior judgments… of wisdom, duty, patriotism, and moral indignation” made the choice to do so anyway (Piper, 147–148). Piper, citing Dabney, applies the analogy to God: 

“there can be, in a noble and great heart (even a divine heart), sincere compassion for a criminal that is nevertheless not set free. Therefore I affirm that God loves the world with a deep compassion that desires their salvation; yet I also affirm that he has chosen from before the foundation of the world whom he will save from sin.”

Piper, The Pleasures of God, 149–50.
The Footnote

Piper heavily cites Dabney throughout this section, including a footnote that takes up nearly the entire page, an editorial decision that draws particular attention to Dabney. In addition to the analogy itself, Piper quotes lengthy excerpts from Dabney, defending the analogy from various objections posed against it. In all, this entire section of the chapter (“Reason #4”) is basically devoted to Robert Lewis Dabney.

George Washington and Major André

I was unfamiliar with the incident cited by Dabney—the story of George Washington and Major André—so I followed Dabney’s reference to “Chief Justice Marshall’s ‘Life of Washington,’” and found Justice John Marshall’s multi-volume biography, Life of George Washington, originally published 1803–1805. The chapter telling the story of Washington and André can be found here. The story is a real life spy thriller, and is fascinating in its own right.

Major André

Major John André was “an aid-de-camp of Sir Henry Clinton, and adjutant general of the British army” (Marshall, The Life of George Washington, 3:256). As Benedict Arnold began his efforts to betray the Americans to the British, André “was selected as the person to whom the maturing of Arnold’s treason, and the arrangements for its execution should be entrusted” (Marshall, 256–57). Arnold and André arranged an in-person meeting in order for Arnold to pass along sensitive information regarding West Point, and they would have gotten away with it but for a series of unfortunate events that led to André’s capture. The whole episode is fascinating. Arnold escaped, but André didn’t, and since he was a spy, the verdict was decreed that he “ought to suffer death” (261). Major André wanted to die with honor, but the Americans determined an example needed to be made of this British officer:

André was deeply affected by the mode of execution which the laws of war decree to persons in his situation. He wished to die like a soldier, not as a criminal. To obtain a mitigation of his sentence in this respect, he addressed a letter to General Washington, replete with the feelings of a man of sentiment and honour. But the occasion required that the example should make its full impression, and this request could not be granted.

The general officers lamented the sentence which the usages of war compelled them to pronounce ; and never perhaps did the Commander- in-chief obey with more reluctance the stern mandates of duty and policy. The sympathy excited among the American officers by his fate, was as universal as it is unusual on such occasions; and proclaims alike the merit of him who suffered, and the humanity of those who inflicted the punishment. 

Great exertions were made by Sir Henry Clinton, to whom André was particularly dear, first, to have him considered as protected by a flag of truce, and afterwards, as a prisoner of war.

Marshall, Life of Washington, 262–62.

John André was executed October 2, 1780.

The Death of Major André

Interestingly, the Americans viewed the whole episode as an act of Providence:

When the probable consequences of this plot, had it been successful, were considered, and the combination of apparent accidents by which it was discovered and defeated, was recollected, all were filled with awful astonishment; and the devout perceived in the transaction, the hand of Providence guiding America to independence.

Marshall, Life of Washington, 266.

Dabney on Washington

George Washington

Marshall’s descriptions of Washington are much more sparse than Dabney’s. Dabney takes Marshall’s sketch and elaborates and expands on what Washington must have been thinking and feeling, and it is these expansions that become the substance of his analogy for God. In understanding what motivated Dabney to do this with Washington, it’s instrutive to take a step back and consider the many occasions that Dabney referred to George Washington in the rest of his writings.

For starters, Washington, like Dabney, was a Virginian, and Virginians had great pride in their heritage. Thomas Cary Johnson, Dabney’s biographer, notes this connection:

“Robert Lewis Dabney was the product of a phase of our Southern civilization peculiarly fitted for the development of many-sided and great men… It was no accident that Washington was the preëminent man of Revolutionary times in military talent, nor that the Colony of Virginia furnished so many of the civil leaders of distinguished prowess in the same period.”

Johnson, Life and Letters of Dabney, 13–14).
Washington & Jackson

When Dabney was writing his Lost Cause biography of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson (published 1867), he frequently compared him to Washington as a way of illustrating what he considered to be Jackson’s highest virtues. In one passage he considers Jackson, Oliver Cromwell, and George Washington:

To liken Jackson to Cromwell is far more incorrect… In place of harboring Cromwell’s selfish ambition, which, under a veil of a religiousness that perhaps concealed it from himself, grew to the end, and fixed the foulest stain upon his memory, Jackson crucified the not ignoble thirst for glory which animated his youth, until his abnegation of self became as pure and magnanimous as that of Washington.

Dabney, Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, (Stonewall Jackson), 113.

Dabney’s biography of Jackson is littered with these kinds of phrases: 

“the ability of his [Jackson’s] mind displayed itself, as in Washington, by the practical skill with which he handled everything which claimed his attention.”

“the Federal Government ought to continue what it was in the purer days of Washington and Jefferson.”

“Washington, and his illustrious associates of the Convention of 1787.”

Dabney, Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, (Stonewall Jackson), 118, 126, 132.

Even Dabney’s venomous white-supremacy calls upon the figure of George Washington. In his “Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes” (1867), he argues against Black pastors being granted equal status in his Presbyterian denomination because of the horror of racial “amalgamation”:

“He must be ‘innocent’ indeed who does not see whither all this tends, as it is designed by our oppressors to terminate. It is (shall I pronounce the abhorred word?) to amalgamation !Yes, sir, these tyrants [“the negro and his allies”] 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.”

Dabney, “Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes,” in Discussions, 2:206.

Later, Dabney appeals to George Washington in his appeal for Christian nationalism in his essay on “Secularized Education” (1878):

“Last, let Washington be heard, in his farewell address, where he teaches that the virtue of the citizens is the only basis for social safety, and that the Christian religion is the only adequate basis for virtue.”

Dabney, in Discussions, 4:283.

Dabney revered George Washington, his fellow slave-holding Virginian, as a model of American Christianity, patriotism, and virtue. It makes sense that he would appeal to this episode from Washington’s life, and expand upon it to create an illustration of the character of God.

Back to Dabney’s essay “Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” here are his descriptions of George Washington in full:

We have seen how wisdom, justice, and patriotism in Washington’s breast strove with and mastered the pity which pleaded for the life of the spy who had nearly ruined America. But the majestic calmness of that great man did not desert him. Had a weaker nature been called upon to perform the painful duty of signing that death-warrant he would have shown far more agitation… But this would not have proved a deeper compassion than Washington’s The cause of the difference would have been in this, that Washington’s was a grander and wiser as well as a more feeling soul.”

“Who does not perceive these good ends: that the virtue and philanthropy of him who was to be the great pattern of American manhood might have their appropriate manifestation; that the claims of the divine attribute of pity might be illustrated for us all in our provocations by the homage of a Washington; that the unavoidable rigors of war might be mitigated so far as justice allowed”.

Dabney, “Indiscriminate Proposals,” 298, 305.

George Washington—“the great pattern of American manhood.” Even the most abstract of theological questions like the one Dabney is considering cannot be separated from one’s historical context, including notions of patriotism, masculinity, and virtue, and the national heroes that are deemed representatives of these ideals. It was because Dabney revered his fellow Virginian Washington that he found in him a fitting analogy to attempt to illustrate the very character of God.

The Pickets

One other interesting feature of “Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” is the illustration that Dabney draws from his experience as a Confederate soldier:

“This truth should be familiar to the Calvinist, but it may not be amiss to make it clear. A wise commander has his army in the presence of the invader. He has been regularly guarding his approaches by keeping one regiment from each five out as pickets of twenty-four hours. The duty is full of hardship and danger…”

Dabney, “Indiscriminate Proposals,” 299–300.

I can’t find an episode in Dabney’s biography of Jackson that fits this description, so perhaps it is completely fictional, drawn from the common experience of Civil War soldiers out on “the pickets” awaiting the approach of the enemy. Even an incidental illustration like this shows how the life experience of a Confederate soldier and seminary professor is not separate from, but is indeed drawn materially into the articulation of his theology.

Reprinted Again, and Again, and Again, and Again

This reference to Dabney is (by my count) the most often repeated in all of Piper’s works. This section of The Pleasures of God (published in 1991) was reprinted in a blog post on Desiring God’s website in 1995 (“Are There Two Wills in God?: Divine Election and God’s Desire for All to Be Saved“). In 1995, Piper also reprinted this material as his contribution to the edited volume Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, edited by Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware. Piper’s chapter “Are There Two Wills in God?” appeared alongside contributions by Robert Yarbrough, Tom Schreiner, Wayne Grudem, D.A. Carson, J. I. Packer, Jerry Bridges, and Edmund Clowney, and includes everything from this section of The Pleasures of God, including the page-length Dabney footnote.

In 2013, the material was reprinted yet again as a standalone booklet (John Piper, Does God Desire All to be Saved?) with the Dabney material appearing on 48–53. The material for this edition was slightly revised, and the lengthy footnote was edited to become part of the body of the text, with a short paragraph on Calvin inserted into the middle.

Is George Washington a fitting analogy for God? I’m not so sure. To get there, you must join Dabney in his deep love and reverence for George Washington, that “great pattern of American manhood,” loading all of your ideals of virtue and manhood into this national figure. Should John Piper have known more about Dabney before quoting his article in 1991? Perhaps: Piper knew enough about Dabney to introduce him to his readers as “a Presbyterian minister and theological professor whose writings have proved helpful for over a century.” For me, any time I know an American theologian lived through slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, I am immediately interested to know where they stood on those issues. Apparently, Piper didn’t feel the same way. To see Dabney’s portrayal of Washington in full, Piper would have needed to read widely in Dabney, including his biography of Stonewall Jackson, and his “Ecclesiastical Equality” to see just how much freight Dabney was loading onto his portrayal of Washington. And in the end, historical context wasn’t the point, the point was to defend Calvinism, and Dabney was the best he could find.

From 1991 to 2013, Piper commended this article of Dabney’s as “the most helpful explanation I know of.” Who can tell what this consistent endorsement did for Dabney’s reputation among reformed evangelicals?

Next post: 4. Future Grace.


8 thoughts on ““The Great Pattern of American Manhood”: John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 3”

  1. These posts would be a valuable resource for those evaluating the reformed movement as led by John Piper and others. Perhaps a book. The investigative time and examination of these materials are insightful and valuable!

    Liked by 1 person

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