“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?

“A Single River” or a “Poisonous Stream”? John Piper [and Robert Lewis Dabney], Interlude

(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)

This post is an interlude in the series on John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney. Here we will step back for a moment for context and look more broadly at Piper’s efforts to address the issue of “racial reconciliation.” What Piper did not say and do in this regard may be as important as the actual actions, words and books we have been considering so far.

Fresh Initiatives

The first formal efforts toward “racial reconciliation” under Piper’s ministry appears to have begun in October 1994 when the Bethlehem Baptist Church Master Planning Team met, and then deliberated for a year before presenting the church with a Mission/Vision Statement and “Six Fresh Initiatives” in September 1995 (see “Major Master Planning Vision Statement to Be Unveiled,” September 12, 1995; “Paul’s Ambition and Bethlehem’s Mission: Unpacking the Master Planning Team Document,” September 24, 1995). 

Fresh Initiative #3 was this:

Racial Reconciliation: Against the rising spirit of indifference, alienation, and hostility in our land, we will embrace the supremacy of God’s love to take new steps personally and corporately toward racial reconciliation, expressed visibly in our community and in our church.

Racial Reconciliation: Unfolding Bethlehem’s Fresh Initiative #3,” January 13, 1996.

In January 1998, Piper preached the first “Ethnic Harmony” sermon the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a tradition that would continue every year at Bethlehem until today. In 2000, Piper led a 6-part seminar for the church on “Racial Harmony,” and around that time Bethlehem also formed a “Racial Harmony Task Force” to “assist the elders in assessing our progress and making suggestions and interviewing staff candidates” (“Why Deal With Racial Issues?,” November 29, 2000; Bloodlines, “Appendix 3,” 261).

The Soul Dynamic

All of this effort culminated for Piper in the summer of 2001 when he read Carl Ellis, Jr’s book Free at Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience. Ellis was a Black pastor in the PCA, and his book described the “soul-dynamic” in the African American experience. Piper describes the effect the book had on him:

“I felt, in reading this book about the soul dynamic and the black experience in America, that everything I had ever seen and savored of the sovereignty of God and the centrality of God and the supremacy of God was a preparation for being a part of this reality—that is, a God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated rebuilding of black and white evangelical culture not primarily around color but around the triumphant, sovereign glory of the all-knowing, all-governing, crucified, suffering, and living Christ.”

John Piper, “The Sovereignty of God and the Soul Dynamic: Why This Topic?” (Desiring God 2002 Conference for Pastors)
Carl Ellis, Jr.

Six months later, Ellis was invited as the main speaker to the 2002 Desiring God Conference for Pastors, and the topic of the conference was “The Sovereignty of God and the Soul Dynamic: God-centered Theology and the Black Experience in America, Past and Future.”

Piper had a goal for the conference: 

“my aim is to light a fire in you that would forge a link between the sovereignty of God and God-centered theology, on the one hand, and the soul dynamic and black experience in America, on the other hand. There is, I believe, an explosively powerful coming together of these that I want to advance and be a part of.”

He knew that this seemed unlikely:

“Can a link be forged between such a rich and deep and living reality and the seemingly cerebral conceptuality of Reformed theology? The very terms seem in tension from the outset. The metals out of which I dream of forging such a link seem to be so different that they could never be welded together. The term soul dynamic points to a personal energy and life and deeply felt suffering and human kinship, unshakeable soul-conviction, while the term sovereignty of God, in contrast, points to a divine, objective power outside ourselves imposing itself down from above, not up from within.

The term black experience in America points to the weight of history and tradition and suffering and passion and people and culture and warmth, but the term God-centered theology, in contrast, points to the burden of rationality and reflection and concepts and ideas. So from the outset, the prospect of forging a link between the sovereignty of God and God-centered theology on the one hand, and the soul dynamic and black experience in America on the other hand, looks dim.”

Nevertheless, Piper was not willing to give up without trying:

“I am not willing for the greatness of God and the supremacy of God and the centrality of God and “the preeminence of the glory of God” (which is the essence of the Reformed tradition) to be hijacked by a white, Western, over-rationalized, cool tradition that alienates the black experience which has drunk so deeply at the wells of suffering and scorn.”

The problem for Piper here, in my opinion, is that it was far too late for that. The danger was not that the Reformed tradition might be “hijacked” by a white, Western tradition (indeed, let’s name it, by White Supremacy itself), the problem was that White Supremacy had been deeply entrenched in the Reformed tradition for centuries by this point. The urgent need was not to “watch out for hijackers from outside” but rather “how do we eradicate this cancer from within?” Piper knew this, but it did not shape his overall approach to the subject. A little later he said this: “And, O yes, I know that those white, Reformed, Puritan roots are contaminated with the poison of racist slavery.” But here, Piper attempts a “both-sides” approach that assumes a symmetry of power and influence that has never once existed in 400 years of American history: 

“I know that those white, Reformed, Puritan roots are contaminated with the poison of racist slavery; and I know that the deeper roots of black culture are contaminated by African paganism. But if we are willing to cut each other some slack here and see the working of God’s providence in and through the imperfections or our histories, then the ax of Carl Ellis falls not only against the modern black tree of Godlessness, but also against the modern white tree of Godlessness.”

For Piper, the answer to the contamination of “the poison of racist slavery” is inter-personal: “cut each other some slack.” There is no mention of any deeper systemic changes to address; no acknowledgement of the fact that Piper himself had been recommending Reformed racist enslavers in his books for years; in fact, no proposal whatsoever for addressing “the poison” — just a call to overlook it (“cut each other some slack”).

“A Single River”

Piper used the metaphor of “a single river” to illustrate his aspirations:

“Even though there are thousands of whites and thousands of blacks who stumble over the theological systems of dead white men from Geneva and Northampton and Princeton; and even though there are whites and blacks who ridicule the God-rooted soul dynamic of the black experience in America, nevertheless there is an untried vision to see the mountain streams of God’s supremacy and sovereignty and centrality and glory, flowing from the Reformed tradition, on one side, together with the soul dynamic, flowing from the black experience in America, on the other side, to make a river—a single river—that runs deep with life and hope and joy through the valley of pain and death—a river of love that causes all who drink, not to make much of themselves, and not even to make much of others, but to lay down their lives to help others enjoy making much of our God, Jesus Christ. That’s what I am pursuing.”

I have a couple of observations regarding this image. First, it sounds wonderful, and in my mind I picture two streams of equal size and volume blending together on terms of equality, a genuine partnership. But this vision was never actualized, even in the ministry of Piper, both at Bethlehem Baptist Church, or at his Desiring God conferences. For example, one year later, Desiring God honored the 300 year anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Edwards with an entire conference devoted to him (“A God-Entranced Vision of All Things: The Unrivaled Legacy of Jonathan Edwards.” The the plenary speakers feature an all-white cast, which is not surprising given that a slaveholding theologian was the man being honored. Other conferences would often feature a single Black plenary speaker in the midst of an otherwise white cast, more resembling a tiny stream merging with an already swelling river. In at least one prominent area, the dream of “a single river” sounded good in theory, but was never implemented in practice. If Piper really wanted to see “two mountain tributaries becoming a single river” it would take more intentional effort than this. Lest anyone think I am being hyper-critical, Piper himself reflected in 2020 on the lack of progress he saw in this area:

 “’One of my biggest battles over the years is not to become jaundiced,’ Piper said. He feels the failures more than the successes. ‘One of my greatest regrets is how little impact we seem to have had in the Native American community.’ Nor is Bethlehem as multiethnic as he hoped it would be.”

Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “Riots in John Piper’s Neighborhood

A second observation is this: if one of the mountain streams is, as Piper says, “contaminated with the poison of racist slavery,” how can that stream mingle with another? You must first either deal with the poison, or you must not be surprised if eventually people realize “there is bitterness in the water!” and decide to find another river. Piper’s shallow solution to this poison (“Just cut us some slack!”) meant that the issue would go unresolved, and would remain a lingering infection until it burst forth several years later.

The reason Piper thought that this attempt at racial reconciliation would be more successful than others was because it was not just “Calvinism” it was “Calvinism through the lens of Christian Hedonism.” This reflects the fervent belief in Christian Hedonism as “unique,” as The Fundamental Truth; as The Answer to Everything, including racism. But in the end, Christian Hedonism, for all of its lauded benefits, has proved to be no more effective at addressing racism in the church than the “plain old” Reformed tradition itself.

Piper’s 2002 message was republished in article form as  “The Sovereignty of God and the Soul Dynamic: God-Centered Thinking and the Black Experience in America, Past and Future,”  in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 8/2 (Summer 2004): 24–33 (pdf available here). This “vision” appealed to broader—though predominantly white—evangelical networks.

Bloodlines

A decade later, in 2011, Piper reproduced the article again as “Appendix Two” in his book Bloodlines. Though some had started to taste the bitter waters of unresolved white-supremacy in Reformed circles, the issue had not fully metastasized in Piper’s circles yet. Piper was still optimistic as he reflected on his aspirations from a decade earlier: “In the subsequent years [since the 2002 conference], I have some encouragement to believe that the dream it expresses is becoming a reality” (“Appendix Two,” Bloodlines, 241).

Piper pointed to books like Anthony Carter, On Beting Black and Reformed (2003), and the recently published Glory Road: The Journeys of 10 African Americans into Reformed Christianity (2009) as evidence that “in our own day there is a kind of awakening among many black Christians to the truth and beauty of this God of the Bible” (Bloodlines, 132). Ironically, between Glory Road (2009) and Bloodlines (2011), one of the contributors to that volume, Anthony Bradley, was sounding the alarm in the PCA, and among his eighteen specific complaints was this: “Why didn’t anyone tell us [Black Presbyterians]… (5) The racial views of Robert L. Dabney?” (Anthony Bradley “Why Didn’t They Tell Us?: The Racist & Pro-Segregation Roots Of The Formation Of RTS, The PCA, And The Role Of First Prez In Jackson, Miss In All Of It” (2010)). Piper’s encouraging signs were already beginning to disintegrate, though he seemed unaware of it. 

Bloodlines is  a book devoted to tackling the issues of “Race, Cross, and the Christian,” and one might expect that Piper would directly deal with the glaring issue of “the poison of racist slavery” here, if anywhere, but while Piper does briefly acknowledge it in one section of the book, he treats it in only the most general terms, and again offers shallow solutions. He does not once, for example, make any specific mention of Jonathan Edwards’s slaveholding, nor does he make any reference to Robert Lewis Dabney — a white supremacist he had been quoting and recommending for decades.

He does speak in general terms, though, about slavery and racism: 

“The point of bringing up Reformed theology is not that its representatives have always been the best examples in its history of how to pursue racial harmony. I gave up looking for perfect heroes a long time ago. Everyone but Jesus lets you down. There have been good models of racial reconciliation among those who do not embrace all of the Reformed faith. And there have been many who embraced much of the Reformed faith who have fallen short.”

Piper, Bloodlines, 130. 

That’s it — “no one is perfect.” The brutal horrors of chattel slavery in America?—“not the best examples.”

Nevertheless, Piper thinks that “the truths themselves, when rightly understood and embraced and cherished with a good heart, cut the legs out from under racist attitudes.” My question is — why then, for centuries, did this not happened with Reformed Christians in America? If this “good theology” will “itself” cut the legs out from under racism, why did it so rarely happen? In fact, to the contrary, the most deeply entrenched White Supremacy in the country was often in those places that held most vigorously to “Calvinist orthodoxy.”

Piper knew this, and does acknowledge “the heavily Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity that coexisted with American slavery and the Dutch Reformed church that coexisted with South African apartheid. These two historical realities have tarnished the Reformed Faith” (Bloodlines, 131). But Piper thinks we need to walk a fine line between “honestly admitting the stain but distinguishing between causation and association” (Bloodlines, 132).

Piper reads American history and finds that “the day came when the very Bible, and the very faith, that had once been used to condone slavery was finally seen to undo it” (131). Frankly, I question the historical accuracy of that claim when compared with reality of the Civil War and Emancipation. It was not the Bible that undid slavery, it was War. In fact, as Lincoln famously recognized, in that very war “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” It was not the Bible, or the belief in the sovereignty of God that undid slavery—hence the “theological crisis” so aptly described by Mark Noll and others (see Noll, “The Bible and Slavery,” in Religion and the American Civil War (1998); Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (2006); John R. McKivigan, The War Against Proslavery Religion: Abolitionism and the Northern Churches, 1830–1865 (1984)). For Piper to claim that “the very Bible and the very faith that had once been used to condone slavery “was finally seen to undo it” seems like wishful thinking to me.

So as far as treating the record of slavery and white-supremacy in the Reformed tradition, in a nearly 300 page book, that’s it. “No one is perfect”; enslavers, I suppose, are “not the best examples.” In the entire book there is no acknowledgement of Jonathan Edwards’s slaveholding, nor of the legacy of White Supremacy that was built into the DNA of the Southern Presbyterian tradition. Robert Lewis Dabney, who had been recommended by Piper for two decades, is not even mentioned in the book, let alone any attempt to remove his poisonous influence from the stream.

The 1960s

Iain Murray

It is also deeply ironic to read what he says about the 1960s and segregation, in light of Iain Murray and Banner of Truth’s collaboration with Mississippi segregationists in the 1960s (though it is almost certain that Piper was completely unaware of these things), given Piper’s own partnership with Murray (see ““A Leading Theologian”?: Herman Bavinck on Robert Lewis Dabney”).

Piper opens his introduction to Bloodlines like this: “A book on race written by a baby boomer, who came of age in the 1960s, has to begin with the civil rights movement. It still grips us, defines us, in so many ways… Things were done and said in those days that need to be known by those who weren’t there” (23). Indeed, things were done and said in those days by Iain Murray and the faculty at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson Mississippi that need to be known. When Piper says in the first chapter that “Those who defend the noble spirit of Southern slaveholders by pointing to how nice they were to their slaves, and how deep the affections were, and how they even attended each other’s personal celebrations, seem to be naïve about what makes a relationship degrading”— he could have been talking directly to Iain Murray (see “Dabney was truly a Caleb”: Iain Murray’s biography of Robert Lewis Dabney”) or Douglas Wilson.

Piper could have started the hard, painful, but necessary work of specifically calling out the poison of white supremacy where it lingered in his own Reformed circles. He did not.

Why So Few?

In 2015, Piper issued a podcast episode of “Ask Pastor John” answering the question “Why So Few African-American Calvinists?” Piper offers four reasons why, and the first is this:

“1. Blacks were excluded from Reformed churches. In history, blacks were excluded from white churches where Reformed theology was articulated, as they were from virtually every other kind of white church. This is to our shame. It is not news. Why it happened is a huge issue for another time, but it is utterly relevant to the question. You can’t exclude a whole people from the rigors of weekly Reformed preaching and expect the doctrines to flourish, at least not in the same way they might if seeds of truth are watered every week in that kind of church. That is number one.”

This phrase is telling: “Why it happened is a huge issue for another time, but it is utterly relevant to the question.” Indeed, this is a “huge issue,” it is “utterly relevant,” and yet I am not aware of “another time” when Piper has addressed this. This very question—“why it happened”—has been a burning question for me.

Conclusion

This post has been different that the others in this series. The other posts analyze how and why Piper recommended Dabney repeatedly for decades, acts of commission. This post is the reverse: why did Piper not make any reference to Dabney in the midst of his most energetic efforts for racial reconciliation, a glaring (non)-act of omission. If the predominantly white Reformed theological stream was going to flow alongside the “soul dynamic” of the Black tradition in “a single river,” more work would need to be done. Would it be?

Next: 6. “Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner”