“Great Saints of the Past”: John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 7

(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 2005, the Desiring God National Conference was devoted to the topic “Suffering and the Sovereignty of God.” Once again, the material from the conference was converted into a book: Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. One of the chapters is entitled “Waiting for the Morning during the Long Night of Weeping,” by Dustin Shramek. Shramek is listed in the book as a “cross cultural peacemaker, the Middle East and Minnesota,” and had trained under Piper as part of The Bethlehem Institute’s first class, alongside Matt Perman, Justin Taylor, Stephen Witmer, and others (see the dedication to John Piper Counted Righteous In Christ). Like the last post in this series (“Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner“), while this post does not deal directly with Piper, it does illustrate how Dabney was viewed and recommended in his immediate sphere of influence at Bethlehem and Desiring God.

Shramek opens his chapter with a familiar note: “Good theology is essential if we are going to suffer well” (175). But, Shramek notes, “We also need to delve into the depths of our pain in suffering so that we can be honest” (176). In “the West” we have a particular problem, that “we don’t like to confront grief or suffering” (178). We even prefer our Christian heroes to act like Stoics: 

“When we read about great saints of the past, we hear about their suffering, which is immediately followed by their triumph through Christ. Rarely do we truly enter with them into their dark night of the soul, when all around them nothing makes sense” (179).

Immediately after calling our mind to “great saints of the past,” Shramek gives us an example from the life of Robert Lewis Dabney:

“Consider the nineteenth-century theologian, Robert Dabney. In a matter of about a month he lost two of his sons, Jimmy and Bobby. This is what he says: ‘When my Jimmy died, the grief was painfully sharp, but the actings of faith, the embracing of consolation, and all the cheering truths which ministered comfort to me were just as vivid.’ This is what we like to hear. We like to hear that the truths of the gospel encouraged him and that his faith was strong. 

But he goes on in the same letter, ‘But when the stroke was repeated, and thereby doubled, I seem to be paralyzed and stunned. I know that my loss is doubled, and I know also that the same cheering truths apply to the second as to the first, but I remain numb, downcast, almost without hope and interest.” When we hear this we get uncomfortable. The great truths of the gospel fell flat after his second son died and he remained “numb, downcast, almost without hope and interest.” It is true that God carried him through and that Dabney proved to be faithful. He did triumph. He experienced the truth of Psalm 34:19, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all.” But let us not so quickly go from the affliction to the deliverance and thus minimize the pain in between. God’s promise of deliverance does not mean that he will immediately deliver us. For many, deliverance only comes with death’” (179).

Shramek cites for this anecdote Thomas Cary Johnson’s The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977).

The rest of the chapter includes the story of Shramek’s own experience of losing a son, a helpful meditation on Psalm 88, and Jesus in Gethsemane and on the cross. Overall, I actually find the chapter to be an honest and helpful encouragement to those suffering difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, I can’t help asking “Why Dabney?” There are countless examples of Christians who have suffered greatly, even the death of their children. Even sticking within the white Reformed community, John Calvin lost his one and only child; Martin Luther and Katerina lost multiple children, one of whom died in his arms. Even Jonathan Edwards and the death of his daughter Jerusha would seem a more likely candidate for a Piperian illustration than a Southern Presbyterian like Dabney. Evidently though, Robert Lewis Dabney was enough of a figure at Bethlehem at the time that his 500+ page biography was being read and cited.

Lucas, Dabney

This is good place to pause and consider context. 2005 also saw the publication of Sean Michael Lucas’s Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life. Lucas’s work is an excellent starting point for understanding Dabney’s life and theology, and he does not shrink back from facing up to Dabney’s white-supremacy.–I highly recommend it. Until 2005, almost all reference to Dabney’s white-supremacy was limited to discussion in academic journal articles (here is just a sampling):

Pastors and laypeople can be forgiven for not staying up to date on all of the discourse that takes place in the academy. They can reasonably claim “we didn’t know about Dabney’s white-supremacy!” But with the printing of Lucas’s biography by a mainstream evangelical publisher (Presbyterian & Reformed), this excuse begins to evaporate.

Further still, Johnson’s Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney is loaded with references to Dabney’s views on race, slavery, the Confederacy, “the negro,” and Reconstruction. Once this book is on the table, one can legitimately start expecting you to address these deeply troubling facts (or wonder at your silence).

“The Sovereignty of God and Ethnic-Based Suffering”

Ellis

Also in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God is a chapter by Carl Ellis, Jr. titled “The Sovereignty of God and Ethnic-Based Suffering” (a video of Ellis’s conference message by the same title can be seen here). While Ellis’s chapter makes no reference to Dabney, it does include a very helpful analysis of “Anglo-American” theology, an analysis which could have had a tremendous impact, if only it had been heeded:

“Anglo-Americans without this paradigm [for understanding oppression, which includes personal and systemic elements] tend to view African-American protest against marginalization as “playing the race card.” African-Americans, on the other hand, may view Anglo-Americans’ protest as being in denial. When this happens we will speak past each other, because we do not understand that marginalization is the foundation of ethnic-based suffering. The theology of the Christian community has been weak in that area. If we are going to be a prophetic voice against marginalization, we will need to address it with some serious theology” (131).

Ellis’s uses the categories of “dominant” and “sub-dominant” to articulate the dynamics of oppression:

“An aspect of restraining evil involves seeking to minimize the dominant/sub-dominant dynamics in human relationships in general and within the body of Christ in particular. We may not be able to do a lot about the consequences of sin in the fallen world, but we can certainly do something about it within the household of faith” (137).

Ellis hits the nail right on the head in his diagnosis of Reformed communities: 

“We do faith fairly well, but we don’t do works well at all. Why? Because we have lost the doxological motivation in spirituality. Maybe it is time for a new reformation. The first Reformation rediscovered the salvific dimension. The new reformation will rediscover the doxological dimension. Doxology was what distinguished the Reformed movement. But somehow we’ve lost it. This is why our works have become shabby. This is why we have not had a strong prophetic voice regarding issues like ethnic-based suffering. And the world is poorer for it” (139).

Ellis is realistic about the disconnect between the ideal and the reality in the American church:

“As strangers and aliens, we in the body of Christ should have no real vested interest in the world system as it exists. We should be completely focused on our sovereign God and his kingdom. We are called to be change-agents for the kingdom in this world. Thus, to identify with suffering should be as natural as breathing. Ethnic-based suffering should be a rare occurrence within the body of Christ. Indeed, we have a long way to go” (140).

I feel the incongruity when I line up Ellis’s trenchant critique of the church and his assessment of how far we had to go, with yet another uncritical reference to Robert Lewis Dabney in the very same book. I feel the tension that some must have felt in 2005—would the dream of “a single river” become a reality? Could these two deeply inconsistent things hold together? Would Piper ever call out Dabney’s white-supremacy, or just continue to endorse and recommend him, while calling Black brothers and sisters to “cut us some slack”?

We find the answers as we survey instances from the next decade, 2006-2015:

Next: 8. Whose Calvinism? Which Community?

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