Book Review: Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism 

Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism. Richmond, VA: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1895. Reprint Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1992. pp. 80.

The year is 1895. Robert Lewis Dabney is 75 years old, and will pass from the earth in just a few years (1898). He had fought his whole life for two main things: Calvinism and white supremacy, and to the last, these topics flow from his pen. His hagio/biographer, Thomas Cary Johnson, gives us in two successive paragraphs: “During the year 1895, Dr. Dabney published, through the Presbyterian Committee of Publication, Richmond, Va., his excellent little tract of eighty pages, on the ‘Five Points of Calvinism,’ and contributed occasional articles to the newspapers, notably one or two philippics against the effort to remove Union Theological Seminary from Hampden-Sidney to Richmond” (The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 510–511); “He waged war, by private correspondence, against the removal of Union Theological Seminary. He plead for the retention of the Seminary in Southside Virginia as needed to help the white people in their struggle to prevent their sections being Africanized” (LLD, 511).

Lest anyone object that this is an unfair juxtaposing of two unrelated issues (Calvinism and White Supremacy), note that the man who was a professor of systematic theology and ecclesiastical history at Union Theological Seminary, not only wrote on these two topics at the very same time, but felt that the Theological Seminary would aid in the “struggle” for White Supremacy—theological instruction had an active and constructive role in its maintenance.

Why did I bother reading this book? It came on my radar several years ago, when I saw Desiring God’s post “What are Some Books that DG Recommends?”and Dabney’s book was recommended in the category of “Providence and Predestination.” Recently, it was noticed that the online class on “TULIP: The Five Points of Calvinism” taught by John Piper, and hosted on the TGC website also recommended Dabney’s book on the landing page (it appears that sometime in November 2021, TGC removed this link to Dabney, perhaps in response to this tweet). For awhile now, I’ve been wrestling with this question:“How and why was a white-supremacist like Robert Lewis Dabney commended to my generation as a great theologian to read?!?” As I’m working my way through the material, this one was next.

1618 & 1619

Theologically speaking, the book is mostly unremarkable, just Dabney’s articulation of the five points of Calvinism. Historically, though, I find a number of points of interest. On page 2, he refers to “the famous Synod of Dort,” a church council hosted in the Netherlands in 1618, responding to the Arminians, and formulating “The Five Points” for the first time in that particular form. The very next year, 1619, a Dutch ship would deliver twenty enslaved Africans to the shores of the American colony of Virginia (see W. E. B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the Slave Trade, 17). Lest you think Dort is a religious affair, and unrelated the “secular” national interests, remember that in the Netherlands had an official state church, and the two were intertwined, so much so that the State persecuted Arminians, even with the death penalty, for dissenting (Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2: 229–33); see also Gerald F. De Jong, “Dutch Reformed Church and Negro Slavery in Colonial America,” Church History 40.4 (1971): 423–36 | on JSTOR).

A “well-bred [white] lady”

Dabney’s work is sprinkled throughout with illustrations, and several of these highlight the fact that so much of the material for our theology is drawn from our circumstances, and the same is true of Dabney. In his explication of the concept of “Total Depravity” or “Original Sin,” he goes on for several pages with an example: “I suppose that a refined and genteelly reared young lady presents the least sinful specimen of unregenerate human nature” (10; he will later refer to her as “the well-bred young lady” (19)). Knowing Dabney’s context (the 19th century South), and his ideology (white supremacy), including his explicit statements regarding Black people (see “What’s So Bad About R. L. Dabney?”), we can reasonably infer that what he means is “a refined and genteelly reared young [white] lady.” Dabney draws on an explicitly gendered, and implicitly racial, conceptions of Southern Womanhood to illustrate his theological point about sin. And his point here is that even this “least sinful specimen” is indeed “totally depraved” unless she is converted.

Master and Servant

In discussing “free will,” Dabney poses this hypothetical: “If a master would require his servant to do a bodily act for which he naturally had not the bodily faculty, as, for instance, the pulling up of a healthy oak tree with his hands, it would be unjust to punish the servant’s failure” (17). Dabney was born in 1820, grew up in a family that enslaved a number of Black people (Johnson, 18, 24), and directly oversaw them later in his life. No doubt, he found the “master and servant” relationship a ready illustration for this theological points, even thirty years after Emancipation.

A “Rural Sanctuary”

a Southern “rural sanctuary”

In the section explaining “Effectual Calling” (what is otherwise known as the I in TULIP “Irresistible Grace”), Dabney explicitly draws our attention to the ante-bellum South: “Let us suppose that fifty years ago [i.e., 1845] the reader had seen me visit his rural sanctuary, when the grand oaks which now shade it were but lithe saplings” (32). What picture does Dabney want in your mind? Where should you imagine yourself? The stereotypical Southern Plantation, with the Big House off in the distance, and the oak trees recently planted. He blesses the site of so much human horror as a “sanctuary,” its rural setting removed from nosy neighbors or other onlookers affording the occasion for so much human violence unwitnessed by the outside world (for a vivid illustration of this, see the final act of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Simon LeGree’s isolated property). Again, the material used to construct and illustrate the theology is thoroughly situated in Dabney’s context, and it is explicitly the context of ante-bellum (1845) enslavement.

A “wise and righteous general”

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson

In the section on “God’s Election” Dabney compares God’s foreknowledge with “a wise and righteous general conducting a defensive war to save his country” (40). It’s hard to miss the allusion to the Confederacy and the Civil War here. Dabney served as an officer in the Confederate Army under General Stonewall Jackson, and published Jackson’s first biography, Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, (Stonewall Jackson) (1866). Dabney regularly refers to Jackon’s “wisdom” and “righteousness,” and holds him up as a shining example of Christian character (for more on this see Daniel W. Stowell, “Stonewall Jackson and the Providence of God,” in Religion and the American Civil War, edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, Charles Reagan Wilson (1998)). Dabney’s description of “a defensive war to save his country” is exactly how he characterized the Civil War in his A Defense of Virginia, and Through Her of the South (1867).

Dabney’s point is that this “wise and righteous” general may change his plans as the war develops, but God, knowing all, never changes his plans. The material used to illustrate this theological point is reflective of his own Lost Cause narrative of the Confederacy and the Civil War.

“Plausible Pretender”?

There is one point with which I agree with Dabney, and it appears mainly in his discussion of the “Perseverance of the Saints.” Here are a few passages of Scripture to set the stage:

“He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now… he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”

1 John 2:9, 11

“In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: whoever does not practice justice (δικαιοσυνην) is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother.”

1 John 3:10

“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”

1 John 4:20

Early on in the book, Dabney notes the hardening effects of sin:

“Now, the soul’s duties towards God are the highest, dearest, and most urgent of all duties; so that wilful disobedience herein is the most express, most guilty, and most hardening of all the sins that the soul commits. God’s perfections and will are the most supreme and perfect standard of moral right and truth. Therefore, he who sets himself obstinately against God’s right is putting himself in the most fatal and deadly opposition to moral goodness.”

“The Five Points of Calvinism,” 12.

The first and greatest commandment is to love God; the second is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself. Dabney correctly notes that disobedience to these greatest commands is “the most express, most guilty, and most hardening of all the sins that the soul commits.” What is more “directly disobedient” to this command to love, than the sin of white-supremacy?

When distinguishing between genuine and false believers, Dabney notes that “the shepherd knows that it is always the nature of wolves to choose to devour the lambs instead of the grass” (52). What is more wolf-like than Dabney’s venomous explosion in the Synod of Virginia, “The Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes”?

His section on the Perseverance of the Saints is his fullest treatment of this dynamic:

“We do not believe that all professed believers and church members will certainly preserve and reach heaven. It is to be feared that many such, even plausible pretenders, “have but a name to have while they are dead.”

“The Five Points of Calvinism,” 68.

He acknowledges that genuine believers can “backslide,” but asserts that “a covenant-keeping God will recover them by sharp chastisements and deep contrition… if he is a true believer he has to be brought back by grievous and perhaps by terrible afflictions; he had better be alarmed at these!” One would be hard pressed to imagine a more sharp chastisement to White Supremacy than the horrors of the Civil War, yet Dabney was never “alarmed” out of his hatred, indeed, he became even more deeply entrenched in it in the years following.

“the Presbyterian similarly backslidden is taught by his doctrine to say: I thought I was in the right road to heaven, but now I see I was mistaken all the time, because God says, that if I had really been in that right road I could never have left it. Alas! therefore, I must either perish or get back; not to that old deceitful road in which I was, but into a new one, essentially different, narrower and straighter.”

“The Five Points of Calvinism,” 69–70.

Dabney himself sets the alternatives starkly in front of us: either get back, or perish. “No man can be saved in his sins, therefore this man will certainly be made to persevere in grace” (70). What then of the man who does not!

Dabney later alludes to 2 Peter 2:22 “The sow that was washed returns to her wallowing in the mire.” He expounds that “She is a sow still in her nature, though with the outer surface washed, but never changed into a lamb; for if she had been, she would never have chosen the mire.” I will only note that the “washings of a sow” can, and do, include the theological, the draping of Orthodox Calvinism over a mire-ridden core of white supremacy.

The verdict of the great Judge will sort this all out, but note His warning: “by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). No anachronism, or “presentism” is needed to evaluate Dabney—his own words suffice.

Conclusion

In the final paragraph of the book, Dabney notes that Calvinism “corresponds exactly with experience, common sense, and true philosophy” (79). Indeed, Dabney drew repeatedly on his own life experience and notions of “common sense,” both forged deeply in the bellows of White Supremacy and slaveholding. It is not surprising that his explication of Calvinism is woven throughout with these notions; what may initially seem more surprising is the blindness of Dabney’s 20th century admirers as they perpetuated his legacy. Now, in the 21st century, may that Lord grant us all clearer eyes to see.

Roger Olson on Augustine on Calvinism

Roger Olson and John Frame have at least one thing in common: they both make sweeping claims about Augustine without offering a single citation to back it up.

In his book Against Calvinism Olson references Augustine four times (24, 104, 152, 189), usually to make some variation of this assertion:

Some of its [Calvinism’s] crucial tenets cannot be found before the church father Augustine in the fifth century (24).

He later repeats this claim regarding limited atonement (152) and unconditional election (189). In all four cases he doesn’t offer a single footnote, nor even a single reference to secondary literature, some study of “the first four centuries,” perhaps. Not one. I guess we’re supposed to take his word for it as some expert on patristics and medieval theology?

Olson is certainly capable of citing sources when he wishes. He quotes Calvin, Boettner, Sproul, Piper, and others extensively in his endnotes.

Perhaps Olson is right about Augustine and “the first four centuries.” If so, it should be simple enough to demonstrate that to the reader, rather than to merely assert it.