Whose Calvinism? Which Community? John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 8

(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)

So far our series has taken us from a footnote in 1979 to a full endorsement of Dabney in 1991, again in 1995, with reprints of those recommendations echoing for decades. We’ve paused to consider Piper’s efforts toward “ethnic harmony” from 1994 to 2015, and are now comparing words with actions, using Dabney as a test case. So far, we’ve only seen continued endorsements in 2002, and 2003, and this post will now consider the crucial years from 2007 to 2014. The question driving this exploration is this: “How and why was a white-supremacist like Robert Lewis Dabney recommended to a whole generation of Reformed evangelicals, and what role did John Piper and Desiring God play?”

What Are Some Books That DG Recommends?

In 2006 Desiring God published a post What Are Some Books That DG Recommends? By my rough count, the list includes 354 books (or sets of books) in 68 categories, including theology, literature, education, culture, and racial harmony. If Piper’s dream of “a single river” was to start becoming a reality, a massive booklist would be one easy place to start.

It might be useful to pause for a moment to consider the place of the “recommended book list” in Reformed circles. Books are highly prized in this tradition, and the movement has been perpetuated in large part through the publishing of books. Every Desiring God conference included a massive book store, and often a bag full of free books for attendees; Piper himself has devoted himself to a writing ministry and published over 50 books; Justin Taylor graduated from The Bethlehem Institute under Piper and has gone on to become the executive vice president of book publishing at Crossway. In a movement that loves ideas and the books that contain them, a “recommended book list” carries great weight in helping to shape its followers.

So, did this recommended book list move forward the dream of “a single river” articulated just four years earlier? Well, out of those 354 books, there were two written by African American Christians, a whole 0.5% of the list. Both books were relegated to the “racial reconciliation” category, one merely as a co-author. For comparison, a number of white men (D. A. Carson, Wayne Grudem, Iain Murray, R. C. Sproul) are recommended on the list multiple times in a variety of categories. Next to John Piper himself (12x), the most recommended author on the list is Douglas Wilson (9x). Let that sink in—Douglas Wilson alone is recommended more than 4x as many times as all of the African American Christian authors combined [CORRECTION: two of those books were written by Nancy Wilson, Douglas Wilson’s wife. The math should read “3.5x as many …”]. Also featured in the list? Southern Presbyterian white-supremacists Robert Lewis Dabney and Benjamin Morgan Palmer.

I think in some ways this book list encapsulates in one place what is wrong with the Reformed movement. The “single river” was a lofty aspiration, but in the end, was merely wishful thinking detached from any meaningful action, even the simplest act of recommending a book. In this book list we are so far removed from “two strong streams mingling in a single river”—all we have is a tiny trickle mingling with a rushing river full of white water. 

Wilson, Black & Tan

And not only has this list done nothing to address the “poison of racist slavery” and white supremacy, the list perpetuates it, by recommending to its readers racist enslavers (like Dabney), and slavery apologists (like Douglas Wilson). While (thankfully?) the list did not recommend Wilson’s recently published book on slavery and the Confederacy (Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America (2005)), or his previously published pamphlet Southern Slavery as it Was (1998), nevertheless, the list demonstrates a remarkable familiarity with the catalog of Wilson’s writings. It would be surprising if they did not know about Black & Tan at the time, and negligent if indeed they did not.

Desiring God recommends Douglas Wilson

I think the list as whole demonstrates what is wrong with the white Reformed movement, but one recommendation in particular is the quintessential example: Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism. Dabney wrote this book at the end of his life (in 1895), at the very same time that he was pleading for the “retention of the [Union Theological] Seminary in Southside Virginia as needed to help the white people in their struggle to prevent their sections being Africanized” (The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 510–11). The book contains allusions to “well bred [white] lady,” to an ante-bellum plantation, to a Confederate General, and to the case of a “master and servant” For a complete review of the book see my “Book Review: Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism”). This book, written by this man, at this time, is what is recommended to those who want to learn more about the topic “Providence and Predestination.”

Douglass; Du Bois; Grimké; King

Imagine what could have been. What if the “Literature” section of the list had included the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, and The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois? There is not a single book on the Black church—what if Carter G. Woodson, The History of the Negro Church or Leroy Fitts, A History of Black Baptists had made the list? What if even a single biography of Martin Luther King Jr. had been included in the section on biography? What if the The Works of Francis J. Grimké (4 volumes) had been included among the recommended “Sets”? What if Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South by Albert Raboteau had been included in the “History” category? What if Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man had been deemed worthy of inclusion in the literature section? Lemuel Haynes is absent from the list; John Perkins’s classic Let Justice Roll Down (1976) is absent; Tom Skinner Black and Free is absent;not even Carl Ellis Jr.’s Free at Last?: The Gospel in the African American Experience, which had allegedly made such an impact on Piper five years previously, is worth recommending on this list. Nor is Anthony Carter’s On Being Black and Reformed, which had been published a few years earlier in 2003. Had all of these books been included, the list would still be a far cry from that “single river,” but it would have been a tiny step closer.

Douglas Wilson

How the dream of “a single river” would play out in reality is further seen in the way Piper and Desiring God gave Douglas Wilson a platform beginning in 2009. It appears that Piper had met Wilson once, at a Ligonier conference in 2000 (see “Mohler, Piper, Sproul, and Wilson: Questions and Answers #1”), but by 2008 still had not met him in person. It was Mark Driscoll who seems to have made the connection (see “John Piper on Doug Wilson”). By 2006, Desiring God was recommending more Douglas Wilson books than any other author than Piper himself (see above), but it was 2009 when Wilson was first invited to share the stage at a Desiring God National Conference.

Wilson; Dabney

What is relevant for this series on Robert Lewis Dabney, is that although other
Reformed evangelicals (John MacArthur, Iain Murray) have promoted Dabney over the years, Wilson seems to have drunk the most deeply from this southern well and considers Dabney to be one of the men “I am most indebted to philosophically” (see “Doug Wilson on R.L. Dabney”). In his book Black & Tan, Wilson quotes Dabney more than any other figure, and repackages Dabney’s Lost Cause propaganda for slavery and the Confederacy for his contemporary audience. Douglas Wilson, the self-proclaimed “paleo-confederate,” has promoted Robert Lewis Dabney, the actual Confederate, more extensively than anyone else in modern memory. Southern Slavery as it Was was co-authored with Steve Wilkins, long time board member of the neo-Confederate group The League of the South. (For more on Wilson and Wilkins, see William Ramsey and Sean Quinlan, “Southern Slavery As It Wasn’t: Coming to Grips with Neo-Confederate Historical Misinformation” (2004); Euan Hague, Heidi Beirich, and Edward Sebesta, editors, Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction (2005)).

The way Piper promoted Douglas Wilson is an example of why “a single river” was never going to work (for a full account of this, including my own meager efforts for change while working at the institution, see “Bethlehem College & Seminary, Ethnic Harmony, and Doug Wilson”).

Rigney, Piper, Wilson (2013)

Rather than addressing the “poison” of “racist slavery,” Piper allowed its most prominent contemporary apologist his largest platform at conferences and on the Desiring God website. When Thabiti spilt gallons of digital ink debating Wilson over these issues in 2013, Piper gave Wilson the stage to explain his views (see “A Conversation on Christ and Culture with John Piper and Douglas Wilson”). When Wilson offered a vague and heavily qualified “apology,” and Thabiti carefully explained why it was insufficient, Piper called it “all good,” without ever addressing Thabiti’s unresolved concerns. Observe Piper’s interactions with the Reformed African American Network, a young “Black and Reformed” organization at this time. In an interview with Phillip Holmes, Piper claimed that Thabiti Anyabwile “drew forth appropriate concessions” from Wilson (“What Can the Church Learn from the Doug Wilson and Thabiti Anyabwile dialogue?”). Jemar Tisby and Tyler Burns, who were in the room for that RAAN interview, describe Piper’s defense of Wilson as a key turning point in their own realization that white Reformed evangelical institutions were not places they belonged (see “Pass the Mic: Leave LOUD–Jemar Tisby’s Story,” 50:30–57:30). Here’s how I’ve summarized the whole situation: 

“Whether or not we intended it, here’s the message that I’m afraid minorities heard: ‘come to the table for hard work on racial reconciliation; then, when extremely racially insensitive statements are made with no (or vague and heavily qualified) apologies, we’re going to call it “a great dialogue” and chastise you for being too thin-skinned.’ Minorities have gotten the message, and they’ve left the table.”

Bethlehem College & Seminary, Ethnic Harmony, and Doug Wilson,” 13

Returning to the theme of this series, as long as the spirit of Dabney was alive and well in Reformed circles, the “soul-dynamic” of the Black church would never truly be welcome. One or the other would have to go, because the poison of white-supremacy cannot remain unchecked forever without manifesting itself and pushing out that which is its opposite. This is exactly what we have seen play out over the last twenty years.

“Lemuel Haynes and Robert Dabney”?

On March 12, 2014, Piper was invited to deliver the annual “Gaffin Lecture on Theology, Culture, and Mission” at Westminster Theological Seminary. Piper chose as his theme “The New Calvinism and the New Community: The Doctrines of Grace and the Meaning of Race” and the   message and transcript are available here.

At the time, there was much discussion about the “New Calvinist” movement, (also called “Young, Restless, and Reformed”), and there were intra-mural fights about the boundary lines between “New Calvinism” and “Old Calvinism.” In describing the issue, Piper said this:

I do not mean for these features of the new to be dividing lines between the new and the old. I don’t think there are such lines. I don’t think there is a clear distinction between the new and the old except perhaps in regard to the use of media and technology that didn’t exist 20 years ago. How can there be distinctives unique to the New Calvinism when the Old is as diverse as:

St. Augustine and Adoniram Judson, Francis Turretin and John Bunyan, John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon, John Owen and George Whitefield, John Knox and J. I. Packer, Cotton Mather and R. C. Sproul, Abraham Kuyper and William Carey, Lemuel Hanes [sic] and Robert Dabney, Theodore Beza and James Boice Isaac Backus and Martyn Lloyd-Jones?

If there is such diversity in the Old, can we find dividing lines between the Old and the New? I don’t think so.

Dabney | Haynes

This a fascinating list, and in particular, the pairing of Lemuel Haynes and Robert Lewis Dabney  shines a glaring spotlight on the issues of race and the poison of white supremacy in the Reformed theological tradition. Dabney explicitly and repeatedly opposed the equality of Black teachers in his Presbyterian denomination for his entire life (see “What’s So Bad About R. L. Dabney?”). His efforts “set the racial orthodoxy” in the PCUS for the next hundred years (Sean Michal Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 148–49). Dabney himself would never have allowed a Black preacher like Lemuel Haynes to exist on equal terms within his own definition of “The Church,” and the idea of a Black preacher to a white congregation enraged Dabney more than anything. Piper lumps together men under the table “Old Calvinism” that are so disparate, they never could have even co-existed in their own time.

Regarding the “New Calvinism” Piper claims this: 

“The New Calvinism is international in scope, multi-ethnic in expression, and culturally diverse. There is no single geographic, racial, cultural, or governing center.” 

This is massively disputable. While there may have been “outcroppings” of Reformedish theology in many diverse places, the “New Calvinism” very  much had institutional centers: Desiring God; The Gospel Coalition; Acts 29. And these spaces did very much have a cultural and racial center: whiteness. Just see the list of “recommended books” above: overwhelmingly white. A statement like this is wishful thinking, elevating a tiny minority into more than it really was. By overstating the role of the “Black and Reformed” movement, the urgency to deal with White Supremacy was diminished. And by failing to deal with White Supremacy, the powerful figures at the cultural center of New Calvinism pushed the Black and Reformed out, whether they intended to or not.

Piper acknowledged that this diversity was tentative: “It may be short-lived, or it may be deep and wide and long. God will decide.” Notice how he appeals to “providence” rather than his own responsibility: “God will decide.” As if God’s sovereignty did not work through means; the means of conference speaker lineups; the means of book lists; the means of decisions of who to defend and who to critique; the means of decisions to speak or to remain silent in key situations. 

The year before this address Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by vigilante George Zimmerman, and this event started to highlight again the already existing differences in the Black and white “streams” even within the “Calvinist community.” Later that year, in August 2014, Michael Brown would be shot and killed in Ferguson, and this would accentuate these differences even more, especially with the creation of Black Lives Matter, and the white backlash to such outspoken advocacy. The racial diversity within the New Calvinism would indeed be short-lived: key leaders at the center of the movement had proved unwilling to deal with the root issues of white supremacy, and thus the community would be unable to withstand the coming storms.

Next: Conclusion: “Wave It, Flag It, Acknowledge It”


“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.

Benjamin B. Warfield on Robert Lewis Dabney: Nine Reviews (1891–1905)

The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 1 (1890)

In 1890 Benjamin B. Warfield helped found The Reformed and Presbyterian Review, and remained its chief editor for its twelve years of existence until 1902. In this publication Warfield reviewed a number of book by or about Robert Lewis Dabney. Here is a listing of all (I believe!) of Warfield’s literary reviews of Dabney, as well as one from the Presbyterian Quarterly and another later review from The Princeton Theological Review. I have included OCRed pdfs and links to the originals on Google Books.

(My analysis of Warfield’s treatment of Dabney’s legacy in the last two review articles can be found here: ““May His Memory Be Increased!”: Benjamin B. Warfield on Robert Lewis Dabney and Race.”)

  • Benjamin B. Warfield, “Review of Discussions Vol. 1: Theological and Evangelical, by Robert L. Dabney,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 2 (1891): 714.

pdf here | original on Google Books here

  • Benjamin B. Warfield, “Review of Discussions Vol. 2: Evangelical, by Robert L. Dabney,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 3 (1892): 593.

pdf here | original on Google Books here

  • Benjamin B. Warfield, “Review of Discussions Vol. 3: Philosophical, by Robert L. Dabney,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 5 (1894): 359.

pdf here | original on Google Books here

  • Benjamin B. Warfield, “Review of The Five Points of Calvinism, by R. L. Dabney,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 8 (1897): 360.

pdf here | original on Google Books here

  • Benjamin B. Warfield, “Review of Memorial Volume of the Westmin­ster Assembly, 1647-1897,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 9 (1898): 178–79.

pdf here | original on Google Books here

  • Benjamin B. Warfield(?), “Review of Christ Our Penal Substitute, by Robert L. Dabney,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 10 (1899): 370.

pdf here | original on Google Books here

  • B. B. Warfield, “Review: Dabney’s Christ Our Penal Substitute” The Presbyterian Quarterly 45 (1898): 440–42.

pdf here | original on Google Books here

  • Benjamin B. Warfield, “Review of In Memoriam: Robert Lewis Dabney,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 12 (1901): 320–21.

pdf here | original on Google Books here

  • Benjamin B. Warfield, “Review of The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, by Thomas Cary John­son,” The Princeton Theological Review 12 (1905): 155–57.

pdf here | original on Google Books here

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.


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.