Robert Lewis Dabney: An Index

Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898) was a Southern Presbyterian pastor, Confederate soldier, and seminary theology professor. He was also a venomous white-supremacist. Though he died over a century ago, in the 1960s his reputation was rehabilitated when Iain Murray and the Banner of Truth republished his writings and commended him to a new generation of Reformed Evangelicals in America. As a result, a number of leading evangelical figures began to read, cite, and commend Dabney to their followers. Only recently has the problematic elements of his thought, including his white-supremacy, been acknowledged. This page is an index of a number of articles and compilations of sources I’ve written on Dabney and his legacy.

Robert Lewis Dabney: Primary Sources

What’s So Bad about Robert Lewis Dabney?

Start here if you’ve never encountered Dabney’s racist views, and are wondering “what’s the big deal?”

[Nine of] Eleven Letters by Chorepiscopus [Robert Lewis Dabney] to the Richmond Enquirer, on “The Moral Character of Slavery,” (1851)

In 1851, Dabney published these letters. I transcribed them and made them available for the first time.

“Worse than Questionable”: Commentary on Dabney’s 1851 Letters on Slavery

My thoughts on Dabney’s letters.

The Civil War and the Failure of White American Christianity

Dabney’s views on the Civil War shine a spotlight on the failure of White American Christianity.

“Not [only] as a slave but [also] as a brother”

Shows how Dabney distorted the book of Philemon to mean the opposite of what it says.

Review: Ecclesiastical Relation of Negroes: Speech of Robert L. Dabney, in the Synod of Virginia, Nov. 9, 1867, Against the Ecclesiastical Equality of Negro Preachers in Our Church, and Their Right to Rule Over White Christians

This one address encapsulates everything that is wrong with Dabney.

Robert Lewis Dabney in The Christian Intelligencer, 1872–73

Dabney wrote two articles on Black churches and Black theology — I transcribed and made them available here for the first time.

Robert Lewis Dabney, White Supremacy, and Public Schools

From 1876 to 1879, Dabney wrote several articles on the topic of education and public schools. This gives the historical context for that conflict.

Book Review: The Public School in Its Relations to the Negro

In 1875 and ’76, Bennet Puryear wrote several articles opposing Black education, using some of the most vile white-supremacy I’ve ever seen. Dabney endorsed these articles, and used them as a springboard for his own article “The Negro and the Common School” published in 1876.

Book Review: The New South

This piece is a great example of first-generation Lost Cause propagation, the way the ideology was formed, preserved, and passed down.

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

Dabney’s book has been recommended as a great book on reformed theology. This review examines the historical context and material in the book.

Reception of Dabney: Contemporaries

Book Review: In Memoriam: Robert Lewis Dabney, Born, March 5th, 1820, Died, January 3rd, 1898

After his death, Dabney’s sons collected several of the commemorative articles and addresses in this volume to honor their father.

The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney: Review and Reception

Thomas Cary Johnson wrote a 600 page biography of Dabney after he died. Here’s my review, and a few other reviews of the book.

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

Warfield reviewed a number of Dabney’s works over the years, and this post collects those reviews in one place.

“May His Memory Be Increased!”: Benjamin B. Warfield on Robert Lewis Dabney and Race

Warfield has been praised for his courageous stance on racial issues; considering his treatment of Dabney, and contrasting him with contemporary Francis Grimké complicates the picture.

From the Knights of the White Camelia to Secretary of Foreign Missions: Samuel Hall Chester (1851–1940), Race, and Southern Presbyterian Missions

Chester was one of Dabney’s students, and is the source for an interesting anecdote about Dabney as a professor. Chester himself is a fascinating study of white-supremacy and Presbyterian leadership.

R. J. Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction

A “Man of Faith and Courage”: Robert Lewis Dabney in the Journal of Christian Reconstruction, 1974–1999

Dabney was a major influence on R. J. Rushdoony and the Christian Reconstruction movement. This post documents that influence in their Journal.

Iain Murray and Banner of Truth

“Dabney was truly a Caleb”: Iain Murray’s biography of Robert Lewis Dabney

Iain Murray’s biography of Dabney white-washes his white-supremacy, and passes on the Lost Cause myth of the Civil War and slavery.

“A Leading Theologian”?: Herman Bavinck on Robert Lewis Dabney

Banner of Truth claimed that Bavinck endorsed Dabney as a “leading theologian.” That turned out to be an embellished claim, due to their partnership with Mississippi segregationists.

Banner of Truth on Dabney and the Southern Presbyterians: An Index

No one has done more to supply Reformed evangelicals with Dabney’s works than Banner of Truth.

John MacArthur

John MacArthur on Robert Lewis Dabney

“One of the wonderful old past generation American preachers was a man named R.L. Dabney. And reading him is always refreshing.” – John MacArthur

Douglas Wilson

Douglas Wilson on Robert Lewis Dabney

Douglas Wilson describes Dabney as one of “the men I am most indebted to philosophically.” Others have loved Dabney for his Reformed Theology, but Wilson loves him for his views on slavery, too.

Douglas Wilson and the Association of Christian Classical Schools

Shows how Dabney has been commended to educators interested in Christian Classical education.

John Piper and Desiring God

John Piper first cited Dabney in his dissertation, and then recommended him for decades in his books and on Desiring God’s website. This series of posts documents and wrestles with this.

John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney

“Love Your Enemies”? John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, part 2

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

“For Theologians”: John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 4

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

“Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner”: John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 6

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

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

“Flag It, Wave It, Acknowledge It”: John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney, Conclusion

Providence is No Excuse

Providence is No Excuse (on DesiringGod.org)

This was the article that started it all, demonstrating that racism was not a category separate from Dabney’s “good theology” but rather infected it.

“Social Justice Dung,” and other thoughts on Dabney

Some people didn’t appreciate the DG article (above). This was my response to some of their objections.

Should We Burn Dabney’s Books?

One objection in particular kept coming up; this post addresses it.

On Censoring Dabney and Denying “Sola Fide”

Another author claimed that I had bordered on denying “justification by faith alone.” He’s since deleted the post.

Zachary Garris

Book Review: Dabney On Fire: A Theology of Parenting, Education, Feminism, and Government

In 2018, Zachary Garris reprinted four of Dabney’s “greatest essays” on “biblical hierarchy.” Several of the essays are filled with white-supremacy and pro-Confederacy. I do not recommend the book.

“Flag It, Wave It, Acknowledge It”: John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney, Conclusion

(Note: this post is the conclusion to a series; see “John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney,” for an introduction and links to the other articles)

The last time John Piper or Desiring God referenced Robert Lewis Dabney was in 2018, on three separate occasions. These included the first explicit acknowledgement of Dabney’s white-supremacy, but also included continued recommendations, and finally, a call from Piper to do just what I have attempted to do in this series.

Providence is No Excuse

In some ways this whole “Dabney project” started for me in January 2018. I was in my second year of the MDiv program at Bethlehem College & Seminary, and we were taking a J-Term course taught by John Piper titled “Sightings of the Sovereignty of God: Issues and Applications of Divine Providence.” There were two textbooks for this one-week course: John Piper, The Pleasures of God and Roger Olson, Against Calvinism. As I read The Pleasures of God I noticed the references to Dabney (see “The Great Pattern of American Manhood”: John Piper and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 3). 

I should back up a little. In October 2017 I had picked up Benjamin Morgan Palmer’s Theology of Prayer because it had been recommended by Desiring God (“What Are Some Books DG Recommends?”). I wanted to know who Palmer was, so I googled his name, and learned that he was a Presbyterian pastor who used the doctrine of providence to justify slavery (see my thoughts from that time here). I learned from this to always look up an author to get context for their book.

So I was curious—did Dabney do the same thing? Did he also use “providence” to justify racism and slavery? I did a little searching, and started finding things like “Ecclesiastical Equality of the Negro,” and was stunned. I asked Piper after class one day, “Will we be discussing the way the doctrine of ‘providence’ has been used by Christians to justify evil?” 

“Like what?” 

“Like Dabney, racism, and slavery.”

After hearing me out a little, he asked, “Would you be willing to write an article on this for Desiring God?”

So I did, and it was published the following week: “Providence Is No Excuse: Exposing a Reformed White Supremacist.” The point of the article was not that Dabney was a theologian who just happened to be a white-supremacist, as if those were two separate things, but that the two were intertwined: his racism actually infected his theology, and his theology reinforced his racism.

The reactions were interesting. Many people were appreciative, and since then, it’s been gratifying to know that others have continued to find it helpful. I think I was a little näive, however, to think that all people needed was to see the truth, and of course they would begin to see things rightly. The reactions were initially surprising to me. I was called all kinds of names on social media (see: “Social Justice Dung,” and other thoughts on Dabney“); I was accused of denying the doctrine of “justification by faith alone” (see “On Censoring Dabney and Denying “Sola Fide”); I found myself on a “side” when I didn’t know there were sides—“isn’t everyone opposed to white-supremacy?,” I thought. 

This was 2018, and things were heating to a boiling point in evangelicalism more broadly. Later that year we would see the MLK50 conference in Memphis on one side, and then The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel on the other, and the chasm widened.

“Leave Your Century for a While”

A few months later, Piper published an article titled “Leave Your Century for a While: Why I Read Christian Biographies,” as part of the promotion for his new book. As a young pastor, Piper says that “one of the ways I pursued wisdom for the pastoral work in front of me was the reading of pastoral biographies.” He enjoyed reading Warren Wiersbe’s short biographies, but found Iain Murray’s particularly helpful:

But one of the most enjoyable and inspiring things I did to deepen my grasp of the pastoral calling was to listen to a master life-storyteller, Iain Murray. Murray had been a pastoral assistant with Martyn Lloyd-Jones in London and had served as a pastor in two churches in England and Australia. He is a co-founder of the Banner of Truth Trust, and has devoted a great part of his life to biographical writing.

He is well known for his biographies of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Jonathan Edwards, to mention only two. But not as many people know that Iain Murray is a master at taking an hour in a ministerial conference and telling the story of a great Christian in a way that instructs and inspires. For example, even today you can go online and find the (forty-plus-year-old) audio stories of Charles Spurgeon, Robert Dabney, William Tyndale, Ashbel Green, George Whitefield, John Knox, John Newton, William Jay, Thomas Hooker, and more.

The latest technology in the early 1980s was the Walkman — a small cassette player that let me take Murray with me on my morning jogs or in the car. I listened to everything biographical I could get. This stoked the embers of my affections for biography.

Iain Murray

Piper provides links to each of these biographical messages, including Robert Lewis Dabney’s. The Dabney biography can be found on Youtube (“Iain Murray – Life of Robert L. Dabney (Christian biography)”) and was also hosted on The Gospel Coalition website until recently pulled from the website (as of December 6, 2021).

Unfortunately, (like his biography of Edwards), Murray’s biography of Dabney is more of a hagiography, and in it, Murray whitewashes Southern slavery, and promotes the myth of the Lost Cause on the Civil War. A full transcription of the message can be found here: “‘Dabney was truly a Caleb’: Iain Murray’s biography of Robert Lewis Dabney.”

Here are a few quotes:

“His life gives us the most impressive example, that I know, of courage and heroism in the Christian ministry. I mean, of course, outside the pages of Scripture, but outside the pages of Scripture, I do not know a life which is more moving in terms of the quality of courage and endurance than the life of Robert Dabney. Dabney was truly a Caleb.”

“ I am quite convinced that in the hearts of these Christians in the South, I say Christians in the South, there was very great regard and love to their colored slaves and servants.”

“I had wanted to say something on the attitude of these men to the Negro question and the slavery question because of course it was the great propaganda of the North and propaganda that was accepted by the world that the civil war was fought simply for the abolition of slavery. I think I can give you sufficient evidence to show that that simply cannot be true… They were not fighting to preserve slavery.”

Is this where Piper was first exposed to Dabney in a meaningful way? If this happened early in Piper’s ministry, as he says, then it is Iain Murray’s version of Dabney that Piper inherited, and Piper would have had to actively work against the “hero-worship” in order to see the true Dabney.

Regardless, in 2018 there was no caveat in Piper’s recommendation of Murray’s biographies, not even of Dabney. And, consistent with the list of “Books that Desiring God Recommends,” there is not a single link to a biography of a Black Christian — no Lemuel Haynes, no Daniel Payne, no Francis Grimké. In part, this is because Piper is simply passing along Murray’s biographies, and Murray, as far as I can tell, never considered a Black Christian worthy of biographical treatment in this long list of biographies. But Piper himself never delivered any biographies of Black Christians for the “encouragement” of his own conference attendees and readers. His own book, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy, which collects all of Piper’s biographical messages over the years, does not include a single African American Christian. Once again, Piper’s dream of “a single stream” proves to be just a dream, not a reality, even in his own work. 

“Flag It, Wave It, Acknowledge It”

In July 2018, Piper did an interview with Justin Taylor for the “Theologians on the Christian Life” conference called “Friends You Need Are Buried in the Past: Q&A on Reading Christian Biographies.” (As an aside, notice that there is not a single African American in that book series either). In the interview, Piper was asked “How do we think of the unrepentant and ongoing blind spots and sins of our heroes such as Edwards and MLK?”

Piper responded with this: 

“The first thing I would say is that no one is helped by whitewashing our heroes, your heroes. No one has been helped by it… you don’t benefit by whitewashing your heroes. You won’t ever ask yourself the hardest questions about life if the people you love are whitewashed and you don’t ever come to terms with their sinfulness.”

Then Piper said this, and referenced Dabney specifically:

“And another thought comes to my mind, namely, that if you see in Edwards, Luther, Dabney, if you see sin, you should flag it, wave it, acknowledge it. That’s why the book, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy has the subtitle Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful. “Flawed” — put that right on the cover. If you see it, you should wave the flag and then be alert. Where might that have infected the theology I love, right? So I love Jonathan Edwards’s theology, but his theology didn’t keep him from having blind spots. So why not? Is there something about his theology I could discern where it needs to be tweaked so that if he would have had that right, then he would have had this right? That’s a huge benefit from acknowledging the sins. It makes us intensify our vigilance over our appropriation of their theology.”

“Flag it, wave it”

I think this is right, and in some ways, this is what this “Dabney project” has been, an effort to “flag it, wave it, acknowledge it” and then to ask “where might that have infected the theology I love?” But in addition, I’ve been driven to take a step back even further and ask “How did we get here? How did a white-supremacist become one of our theological heroes in the first place? How and why did that happen?” And that has driven me to further historical and historiographical questions, because understanding how and why we got here tells us something out ourselves.

Concluding Reflections

As we conclude this series, I want to go back again for some insights that cast light on the Reformed movement as whole. In 1985 George Marsden offered an insightful analysis of what it meant to be “Reformed and American,” (in Reformed Theology in America, edited by David F. Wells). The book as a whole is consistent with the pattern we have seen, in that while there are chapters devoted to Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, James Henry Thornwell, and Robert Lewis Dabney, there is not a single chapter devoted to Black Presbyterians, and the index contains not even a single reference to a figure like Francis Grimké.

Nevertheless, Marsden’s chapter is insightful for understanding what it means to be “[White,] Reformed and American” as we take a step back and reflect on this series as a whole. Marsden described how even in the 1980s, “within most of the larger Reformed denominations, conservatives and progressives are locked in intense struggles over the true meaning of the faith” (1). He described three main types: the “doctrinalist,” the “culturalist,” and the “pietist,” acknowledging that there are spectrums and mixtures of each. Marsden then gave a historical survey of the various streams which is fascinating, and well worth looking up. His conclusion, though, is telling:

“Perhaps the greatest fault of American Reformed communities since Puritan times is that they have cultivated an elitism. Ironically, the doctrine of election has been unwittingly construed as meaning that Reformed people have been endowed with superior theological, spiritual, or moral merit by God himself… The great irony is that … the doctrine of grace ought to cultivate humility as a conspicuous trait of Reformed spirituality… Yet too often Reformed people have been so totally confident of their own spiritual insights that they have been unable to accept or work with fellow Reformed Christians whose emphases may vary slightly.”

Marsden, “Reformed and American,” 11.

This rings true to me. The white American Reformed tradition has been so proud of its theological precision, that it was unwilling to learn from other Christians, especially the Black church. The dream of “a single river” will never become a reality until this theological pride is repented of. Further, this confident elitism blinds us to the glaring sins in the tradition, like racism, and chattel slavery. They result in a movement with enslavers enshrined as “heroes” and a reluctance to look those realities squarely in the face.

It’s interesting to me that over the years, on some issues, Piper has been willing to name names and battle publicly for a position. When the Sovereignty of God was at stake, Piper publicly disputed with Greg Boyd and advocated for his removal from Bethel Seminary. Over the doctrine of hell, Piper famously said “Farewell, Rob Bell.” But he has not been willing to do this over racism. Piper has never been willing to publicly critique Douglas Wilson, and my article is the only time Desiring God has done this with Robert Lewis Dabney.

What we choose to say (and not to say) affects the streams of history. What Mark Noll said of Dabney’s fellow Southern Presbyterian James Henry Thornwell applies equally to Dabney: “To an uncomfortably large degree, Thornwell’s reputation rested on the accidents of American social development” (“The Bible and Slavery,” 69). Noll offers this as a corrective to Eugene Genovese’s claim that “Thornwell was ‘arguably, second to none [among theologians] in the United States.’” In other words, is their theology actually “so intrinsically good” that it necessarily rises to the top? Or are there historical processes that explain how a person’s reputation is created, maintained, and passed along to others? I think Mark Noll’s corrective is also warranted in the case of Dabney. His vaunted reputation rests on historical accidents, both in his time, and for a century and a half to follow.

But such is true of all of history. Value-laden judgments of historical figures (“the ‘best’ theologian”; “the ‘greatest’ preacher”), are inescapably the product of historical accident, as reputations are formed, deconstructed, books are published, go out of print, are rediscovered and republished, passed along from hand to hand, by word of mouth, and “Recommended Reading” lists. We were told to esteem and read and emulate Jonathan Edwards and Robert Lewis Dabney, as much because of the these historical accidents, as because of any intrinsic worth in their theology. Other authors, theologians, and faithful Christians whose lives were more worthy of our attention and emulation have been lost (or erased) from the pages of history, and ignored in the “Recommended Reading” lists. As Thabiti Anyabwile has said, “we should actually imagine and pursue a different canon for a different future.”

“The Truth Demands It”

Someone told me recently that I had “reduced Dabney to his sins” which was “un-neighborly.” Have I been unfair to Dabney in this process? Have I been uncharitable? On the contrary, I believe I have treated Dabney exactly as he would have wished to be treated. Here’s how his first biographer, Thomas Cary Johnson, opens up the preface to his book:

“An effort has been made to present, as nearly as possible, the genuine Robert Lewis Dabney in this book. He did not relish the thought of being trimmed to suit the notions of an author or an editor, and thus presented to the public. When his Collected Discussions were being brought out, there was some criticism of one of the articles to be presented in the first volume. The critic made the point that the article objected to would injure Dr. Dabney’s reputation if republished. The Doctor, on hearing this, turned somewhat sharply us, and said: ‘What do you think of this? Do you like the plan of trimming a man, whose life and work you would perpetuate, to suit your notions, and then handing the resultant down as if it were real?’ We made answer, that it seemed to us that, if a man’s works and life are worthy of preservation through the medium of the press, they and he should be handed down as they were, warts and all. He replied emphatically, ‘The truth demands it, sir.’ The memory of this little conversation helps to explain the presence of some features of the book. He was so intensely honest that he would have abhorred any effort to present him sheared to the demands of current moral and religious tastes.”

Johnson, Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, v.

I think that Dabney would similarly bristle at the idea that his support of slavery and white-supremacy was merely a “blind spot.” White supremacy was something he believed in to the core of his being, and fought for to the end of his life. I think he would have considered it dishonorable to treat him otherwise. “Oh Robert, you didn’t really mean to say that, did you?” — “Oh yes! And let me say it again! and again! and again!” In fact, I imagine that if Dabney is indeed in heaven right now, he is looking down on my project and grateful that some of the damage of his sins is being undone. In fact, I wonder if he would applaud this project, and join the chorus encouraging us to read Francis Grimké instead.

Dabney as a Case Study and a Litmus Test

As American evangelicals continue to struggle to make progress on issues of racial justice and reconciliation, I think that Robert Lewis Dabney makes for an instructive case study, as we have seen throughout this series. If we can figure out what went happened here, we might start to make the tiniest bit of progress on the larger issues of race and justice and the church. 

Dabney certainly is a litmus test for me — if you offer unqualified praise for Dabney, my response is to be: 

  1. skeptical about your historical awareness/ignorance; 
  2. skeptical about what you have to say about race in the church and/or social justice; 
  3. skeptical about your claims regarding the implications of the gospel; 
  4. skeptical about your assessment of “good theology”; or 
  5. all of the above.

If you consider the entire scope of John Piper and Desiring God’s work, he/they have not offered “unqualified praise” of Dabney, at least when you consider my article and his comments in 2018. I am thankful that he was willing to publish my article, and has encouraged others to “flag it, wave it, acknowledge it.” But when I also consider the decades long span of his work, for most of those years he repeatedly commended a white-supremacist like Robert Lewis Dabney to thousands of pastors, church leaders, and readers. When I consider the question “how and why was Robert Lewis Dabney commended to a generation of reformed evangelicals?” John Piper has played a significant role.

Rivers in the Desert

When I consider “what happened to the vision of ‘a single river’ and the ‘Black and Reformed’ movement of the 2000s?” the case of Robert Lewis Dabney is one piece of that puzzle. We’re in a different place in 2021 than we were in 2001 or 2011. Is there still hope for that “single river” to materialize this side of eternity? As things stand, white Reformed evangelicalism has shown little interest in changing, finding ever ready reasons to resist “social justice”; fear-mongering around Critical Race Theory; “anti-wokeness”; and who knows what so-called “threats to the gospel” 2022 might bring?. But there are also some encouraging signs of white evangelicals leaving behind those streams and seeking others. That single river might still happen, though probably not from “the mountain stream of Reformed theology,” but from elsewhere. As many feel lost as their familiar institutions fracture and crumble around them, who have tasted bitterness in the streams they looked to for refreshing water, and now feel like they are wandering in the wilderness, we should remember that we serve a liberating God who “makes a way in the sea, and a path through the mighty waters,” who makes “a road in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.”

I give waters in the wilderness

And rivers in the desert,

To give drink to My people, My chosen.

This people I have formed for Myself;

They shall declare My praise.

Isaiah 43: 16, 19, 20–21

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”

“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?

“Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner”: John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis Dabney, Part 6

(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 2003, Desiring God devoted their entire National Conference to the 300 year anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Edwards. The conference was entitled “A God-Entranced Vision of All Things: The Unrivaled Legacy of Jonathan Edwards,” and featured an all-white cast of plenary speakers: John Piper, Iain Murray, J. I. Packer, Mark Dever, Sam Storms, and Noël Piper. The following year, Crossway published a book, A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards (2004), edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. The book was “a continuation and expansion of that tercentenary celebration” and the whole effort had a specific purpose: “the aim of introducing readers to Edwards, and more importantly to his ‘God-entranced vision of all things’” (Justin Taylor, “Introduction,” in A God Entranced Vision of All Things, 13).  The book was dedicated “To Iain H. Murray whose life and labors proclaim a God-entranced vision of all things” (A God Entranced Vision of All Things, 5).

Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner”

Sherard Burns

The book contains some chapters that are not available as conference messages on desiringgod.org, including one by Sherard Burns, then the “Associate Pastor of Evangelism, Discipleship, and Assimilation, Bethlehem Baptist Church,” entitled “Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner.” The fact that Edwards had been a slaveowner had recently been re-discovered in the Yale archives, and historians, theologians, and admirers were forced to take this into consideration (for more on this see “John Piper, Desiring God, Jonathan Edwards, and Slavery”).

While the chapter, like the conference, is focused on Edwards, Burns references Dabney near the end, and several portions of the chapter apply generally to both Edwards and Dabney.

Burns begins by acknowledging that 

“Nothing has been more of a stain on our history than the institution and cruelty of slavery in America… what formed the very heart of slavery was the belief that some had the authority to impose their rights on others in such a way that stealing men, women, and children from their native land, tearing families apart, and systematically dehumanizing them was condoned and rewarded. Hence merchandise was made of oppression.”

Burns, “Trusting,” 145–46. 

Indeed, this belief characterizes Dabney fully (see for example, “[Nine of] Eleven Letters by Chorepiscopus [Robert Lewis Dabney] to the Richmond Enquirer, on “The Moral Character of Slavery,” (1851)”).

Burns then highlights the issue of Christian enslavers: 

“One of the most troubling facts concerning slavery was its association with Christianity. Not only those who were deemed unregenerate and heathen owned slaves; those who professed to have met the true Liberator, Christ, also refused such liberty to men… In preparing this chapter I wanted to understand how Edwards, with his intellect and theological understanding and love for God, could own slaves and do so till the day of his death. ”

Burns,”Trusting,” 146.

Later he articulates the central question this way: 

“Slavery was and still is a blemish upon America. Even after its abolition the residual effects are evident in the culture at large and regrettably within the church. As an African American who loves Reformed theology and Jonathan Edwards and who desires to see these truths embraced by all, especially those within the African-American context, I have to make sense of this hypocrisy.”

Burns, “Trusting,” 162. 

This effort to “make sense of this hypocrisy” is what I have been trying to do as well.

“Giants of the Christian Faith”?

Burns offers a caveat early on: 

“R. C. Sproul has said that when he disagrees with the giants of the Christian faith, he does so with fear and trembling. I feel the same way as I write this concerning Edwards. It is a difficult thing to posit that Edwards compromised theologically when what we have known of him in virtually every other case is theological precision and conviction. Yet the facts remain. However, though such compromise happened, we must be careful to remember that, though he was a brilliant thinker, he, like all of us, still fought against the remaining effects of sin.”

Burns, “Trusting,” 148.

Here I need to pause and ask a question: who gets to decide who the “giants of the Christian faith” are? What are the qualifications for such an elevation of status? Here, it appears to be “theological precision” and being “a brilliant thinker,” “a man of great learning and religion” (148). This, to me, is part of the problem. Our criteria for “giant of the Christian faith” is ethically anemic; it elevates intellect, and ignores the obedience of love and justice. We elevate “heroes” based on their “theology,” and then find ourselves in a conundrum: “Now what do we do with their glaring inconsistencies?” Maybe we need to go all the way back to square one, and re-evaluate what makes a “giant,” and only hold those in esteem who are actually worthy of imitation, not just those who intellectually stimulate us through their books.

Burns then explores Edwards’s own words and actions regarding enslavement, and since the topic of this post is Robert Lewis Dabney, we won’t dig into that here (for my own reflections on Edwards and slavery, see: “The Edwards of History: A Reply to Doug Wilson”). However, in the middle of this section, Burns offers an assessment of the sin of owning slaves, which applies to Dabney as well: 

“In the cosmic sense of reality, owning slaves is no different from any other sin, in that all sin is against God, and all of us are capable of the greatest of evils were God to release his restraining hand for his eternal purposes. What is interesting, however, is that while we must see sin as the cause of Edwards’s behavior, Edwards himself never called what he and his other colonists were doing “sin.” To Edwards, slavery was a necessary evil that served some positive good in the natural order that God had decreed—a thought his disciples would take up some years following his death. Yet if Edwards was wrong, it is not his God or his theology that is to blame—only his sin (footnote 34: I am grateful to John Piper for this insight.) Reformed theology did not produce a heart to own slavery.”

Burns, “Trusting,” 156.

Here, again, I must take issue with this “insight” which Burns credits to Piper “it is not his theology that is to blame—only his sin. Reformed theology did not produce a heart to own slavery.” Unfortunately, I don’t think it is this simple. Reformed theology fit perfectly with the hierarchical view of the world that both Edwards and Dabney shared (i.e., “God has sovereignly appointed each his ‘proper place’”). It was just this intertwining of Reformed theology and White supremacy that started me on this project (“Providence is No Excuse: Exposing a Reformed White Supremacist”). The more I have dug into this, the less I am convinced that “it is not their theology that is to blame”—I fear that it is indeed their theology that bears at least some of the blame. Whether the theology actively contributed to white-supremacy and enslavement (which it did at times) or passively failed to produce the necessary works of love or the impetus to dismantle enslavement and racism, the theology seems very much to blame.

“Men of their times”?

On the next page, Burns repeats an oft-heard warning: 

“Marsden cautions us against the natural inclination to view men of history from our own contexts, stating that we should think ‘about Edwards as an eighteenth-century figure and about how that context should shape [our] understanding of him . . . it would be a failure of imagination if we were to start out by simply judging people of the past for having outlooks that are not like our own. Rather, we must first try to enter sympathetically into an earlier world and to under- stand its people.’”

Burns, “Trusting,” 157, quoting George Marsden’s biography of Edwards, 2). 

However, judging enslavers like Edwards or Dabney is not a matter of importing a present moral judgment onto the past. An anti-slavery witness has existed in North American since as early as 1688 (see “Quaker Protest Against Slavery in the New World, Germantown (Pa.) 1688”), and one of Edwards’s contemporaries, John Woolman (1720–1772), argued vehemently against enslavement, and even for reparations (plus interest!) to the descendants of slaves (see The Journal and Essays of John Woolman, and Woolman, “A Plea for the Poor”). One need not read 21st century sensibilities onto the 18th or 19th centuries in order to condemn slaveholders; one needs only to be better acquainted with those centuries.

Burns demonstrates an awareness of some of the recent scholarship on Dabney in particular when he cites Sean Michael Lucas’s article, “‘He cuts up Edwardsism by the roots’: Robert Lewis Dabney and the Edwardsean Legacy in the Nineteenth-Century South,” (in The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards) which interacts specifically with Dabney’s opposition to the Edwardsean abolitionists. This is important because some might say “we just didn’t know about Dabney’s racism until much recently.” The scholarship has been there for decades, and it was accessible to the staff at Bethlehem at the time.

It is in his concluding section that Burns references Dabney explicitly: 

“’the challenge of the African American within the Reformed context is that we are called to embrace the theology of our oppressors and to reject the theology of our liberators.’ This means that the odd and ironic position of the African American who seeks to be shaped by orthodox theology must reject, in many respects, the theology of a Martin Luther King, Jr., and embrace the theology of a Jonathan Edwards or Robert Dabney. While I admire Dr. King for his work and efforts in fighting for the freedom of African Americans in this country (my freedom), I am not hesitant to note that he will not offer much help in theological precision. While, on the other hand, Edwards never held the mantle as social liberator, his theology will saturate a man in orthodoxy.”

Burns, “Trusting,” 170.

I agree with Burns that it does seem “odd and ironic,” and this sense sharp sense of irony is why I think there is more to see here than what Burns, or Piper, have acknowledged. I would call into question this conclusion that the theology of slaveholders will “saturate a man in orthodoxy.” If our theological calculus results in conclusions like this, we need to re-evaluate what it truly means to be “orthodox.”

Burns thinks that good theology will eradicate racism: 

“the eradication of racism today, as would be the case with slavery then, will not come about through programs, but by means of a God-centered and God-entranced view of reality… Whatever we may think of Edwards, one thing is for certain: He left the American church with the necessary theological truths to kill racism in our hearts and to be conquerors of it in the church.”

“the eradication of racism today, as would be the case with slavery then, will not come about through programs, but by means of a God-centered and God-entranced view of reality… Whatever we may think of Edwards, one thing is for certain: He left the American church with the necessary theological truths to kill racism in our hearts and to be conquerors of it in the church.”

Burns, “Trusting,” 170–71.

Again, I must demur. The “eradication of slavery” did not come through Edwards’s “God-entranced view of reality” — it only finally came as a result of a bloody Civil War. As much as we may wish that “good theology” is all it takes to change the world, we must face the actual historical record: Edwards did not leave the church with the necessary theological truths to end slavery and kill racism, and the evidence is seen a thousandfold on the pages of actual history, in the lives of 18th century Reformed slaveholders, 19th century Reformed white-supremacists, 20th century Reformed segregationists, and their 21st century Reformed admirers. To pretend otherwise is wishful thinking.

Conclusion

Burns had acknowledged up front that this topic is complex and vast: 

“I do not suppose that I will answer every question that will arise from the reading of this chapter. The topic is so vast and varied that it may raise additional questions that, I hope, will compel each of us to dig and find what is there to be explored and attained”

Burns, “Trusting,” 146. 

Indeed, this is what I have felt as I face the issue of Reformed White-Supremacy. In this Burns was successful: I have felt compelled to dig and explore and the more I dig, the more “additional questions” my digging has raised.

This post has not focused directly on John Piper, but is part of the slightly broader circle of people who served with him in ministry at Bethlehem Baptist Church, and were published as part of Desiring God’s efforts. It illustrates the kind of influence that Piper’s ministry had on those around him, including a Black pastor like Sherard Burns. As the “two streams” of the Black “soul dynamic” and the white “Reformed theology” mingled, the Black stream was faced with white-supremacy and forced to wrestle hard with it. I still haven’t found the chapter or article from a white figure entitled “Trusting the Theology of a Liberation Theologian.” It seems like all this work to assimilate into the “single river” was being done from one direction.

Next: 7. “Great Saints of the Past” (Suffering and the Sovereignty of God)

“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”

John Piper, Desiring God, and Robert Lewis 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.”

John Piper, The Pleasures of God

Over the past few years, I’ve been wrestling with the question “How and why was a white-supremacist like Robert Lewis Dabney recommended to generations of evangelicals?” How did it happen is a historiographical question, why did it happen is an analytical one; and I am convinced that as evangelicals continue to struggle with the issues surrounding race, that there is much to learn from our reception of Dabney. There are many figures who played a part in the long chain passing down Dabney from the 19th to the 21st century. Not all played as large a role as others, but all did have their part: there was Clement Read Vaughan, editor of Dabney’s Discussions; Thomas Cary Johnson, Dabney’s first biographer; Morton H. Smith, promoter of Dabney in the 1960s; Iain Murray and Banner of Truth, who reprinted Dabney’s works in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s; and then there were the leaders of the last generation: John MacArthur, Douglas Wilson, and yes, even John Piper.

John Piper hits the closest to home for me of all these figures (I attended Bethlehem Baptist Church and Bethlehem College & Seminary for seven years), and, and I’ve spent considerable time wrestling with his endorsement of Dabney. It was Piper’s request to write an article on Dabney for Desiring God that started me on this “Dabney project” back in January 2018, and ever since then, part of that project has included the question “what role did John Piper play in all this?” 

This series of articles is an attempt to wrestle thoroughly with that question. This post serves as an introduction, and here is a “Table of Contents” with links (forthcoming) to the other posts in the series:

  1. Introduction [this post]
  2. “Love Your Enemies”?
  3. “The Great Pattern of American Manhood” (The Pleasures of God)
  4. “For Theologians” (Future Grace)
  5. Interlude: “A Single River” or “A Poisonous Stream”?
  6. “Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner” (A God Entranced-Vision of All Things)
  7. “Great Saints of the Past” (Suffering and the Sovereignty of God)
  8. Whose Calvinism? Which Community?
  9. Conclusion: “Flag It, Wave It, Acknowledge It”

Piper and Dabney?

John Piper is well-known for his love of Jonathan Edwards, and has perhaps done more than any other figure to popularize Edwards to his generation. But Piper’s love of Calvinism also caused him to recommend Robert Lewis Dabney repeatedly for decades. In these posts, I retrace Piper’s steps through the footnotes. I’ve re-read each of the works by Dabney that Piper cites, and I’ve commented on both Dabney and Piper along the way. If Piper errs on the side of downplaying historical context and emphasizing “the text alone” (see, for example, his discussion with D.A. Carson), I will add the opposite emphasis: highlighting the historical context, and historiographical features of Dabney’s works and Piper’s use of him. 

I should acknowledge how much I have been shaped in this regard by Piper himself. Piper has repeatedly sounded the call to be a “first-hander” and not a “second-hander”—read the primary sources for yourself, don’t merely rely on the judgments of others. I’ve applied this to Dabney: rather than resting content to receive him from others, I’ve been reading him for myself, and coming to my own conclusions. I’ve also expanded the scope slightly beyond just Piper himself to include those articles and book chapters published on Desiring God, even if not written by Piper himself. This will illustrate the way that the reception of a figure like Dabney works not just on the individual level (Piper himself), but begins working outwardly through the community of people surrounding him, and through them, to even more broad segments of evangelicalism. I should note that I do not intend this series mainly as a critique of Piper (though there will certainly be some critiques along the way), but as an attempt to answer the question “how and why?”

The Digital Age

I want to acknowledge at the outset that I live under different informational conditions in 2021 than John Piper did in 1971, or 1991, or 2001. I can access all of Dabney’s works in digitized, searchable format online, and a quick search for “slavery” or “negro” instantly pulls up search results that would have taken hours of reading and indexing to find, just a few decades ago. In pointing out historical context from Dabney’s life and thought, I am not necessarily saying that Piper ought to have known this. In some cases, perhaps, but not always. And we must keep in mind that Piper himself received Dabney passed along to him from others, figures who (like Iain Murray) had a vested interested in downplaying Dabney’s racism and highlighting his Calvinism. To make observations about what happened is not necessarily to assign blame. Nevertheless, there was some moral shock when I realized, “There’s an actual white-supremacist on my bookshelves. How did that happen?” This is part of my grappling with that question.

A Note on Indexes

As a preliminary note, readers should know that the original indices to Piper’s books and the new Bibliography and Indexes in Piper’s Complete Works are missing several references to Dabney that actually do appear in those volumes. In addition to those indexes, I have also relied on searches of digitized versions of the books, and have even “randomly” encountered others that I would otherwise have missed. This series is as complete of an account as I have found at this time, but I make no claim to absolute completeness.

Next Post: 2. “Love Your Enemies”?

“Emotional Blackmail” and “The Sin of Empathy”

When Joe Rigney published his first article on “The Enticing Sin of Empathy” on the DesiringGod website in May 2019, many were bewildered — where did this come from? In subsequent articles, Rigney has unpacked some of the sources of his position, including the work of Edwin Friedman and his “The Fallacy of Empathy.” But another significant source for this idea is found in the teachings of John Piper himself, particularly the concept of “emotional blackmail.” Piper developed this concept over the course of several years, from talking about our “emotionally fragile age” in 2006, to the way children “emotionally blackmail” their fathers in 2007, to a speculation regarding A.W. Tozer’s wife in 2008. Through Piper, the language of “emotional blackmail” became widespread among conservative reformed evangelicals, especially at The Gospel Coalition, so when Rigney wrote his articles on “the sin of empathy” a decade later, they found a ready platform at DesiringGod, and a ready audience (among some) in conservative evangelicalism, because they so closely resembled Piper’s original concept, if perhaps dressed up in new, more provocative, language. The following post documents this development from 2006 to 2021.

“An Emotionally Fragile Age”

John Piper does not include the phrase “emotional blackmail” in his 2006 book What Jesus Demands from the World, but he develops several points that he will pick up in later sermons and comments on “emotional blackmail.” In the chapter titled “Love Your Enemies—Lead Them to the Truth,” Piper includes a section under the heading “Challenging the Absoluteness of the Beloved”:

The next obvious implication of Jesus’ words for the meaning of love is that it is not unloving to call someone an enemy. We live in an emotionally fragile age. People are easily offended and describe their response to being criticized as being hurt. In fact, we live in a time when emotional offense, or woundedness, often becomes a criterion for deciding if love has been shown. If a person can claim to have been hurt by what you say, it is assumed by many that you did not act in love. In other words, love is not defined by the quality of the act and its motives, but by the subjective response of others. In this way of relating, the wounded one has absolute authority. If he says you hurt him, then you cannot have acted lovingly. You are guilty.

No one I have ever known in person or in history was as blunt as Jesus in the way he dealt with people. Evidently his love was so authentic it needed few cushions. It is owing to my living with the Jesus of the Gospels for fifty years that makes me so aware of how emotionally fragile and brittle we are today. If Jesus were to speak to us the way he typically spoke in his own day, we would be continually offended and hurt. This is true of the way he spoke to his disciples and the way he spoke to his adversaries.

The point of this is that the genuineness of an act of love is not determined by the subjective feelings of the one being loved.

I am stressing another side of the problem that seems unusually prevalent in our psychologized world. I am simply drawing attention to the fact that feeling unloved is not the same as being unloved. Jesus is modeling for us in his life the objectivity of love. It has real motives and real actions. And when they are loving, the response of the loved one does not change that fact.

pp. 641–43 in The Collected Works of John Piper, Volume 6.

Though Piper does not use the term “emotional blackmail” in this chapter, he will explicitly use some of this same language (“feeling unloved is not the same as being unloved”) when describing “emotional blackmail” in 2008.

One point seems interesting and important to note here. Piper draws attention to the fact that Jesus sometimes used sharp words in “the way he spoke to his disciples and the way he spoke to his adversaries.” All of the scripture references in this section of What Jesus Demands are directed toward his twelve disciples, Pharisees, Herod, and Jesus cleansing the temple. Though Piper would later apply this reasoning to a wife who claimed that she did not feel loved by her husband, casting doubt on her claim, and wondering whether she might be engaging in “emotional blackmail,” it is striking that this is a significant leap from the text of the scriptures that Piper cites to support his initial claim. What Jesus directs toward hard-hearted disciples and Pharisees, Piper will apply to wives, and anyone else who he thinks is too “emotionally fragile.” Whether such a leap from text to application is warranted, the reader must judge.

Children Blackmailing Fathers

The first reference to “emotional blackmail” in Piper’s works can be found in a 2007 sermon on Ephesians 6:1–4: “Marriage Is Meant for Making Children . . . Disciples of Jesus, Part 2: A Father’s Conquest of Anger in Himself and in His Children.” While unpacking the phrase “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger,” Piper acknowledges that angry children are not necessarily evidence of a sinful father:

So what shall we say to us dads about this matter of anger in our children? First, we should say that this verse may not be used as emotional blackmail by the children. Blackmail would say, “I am angry, Dad, so you are wrong.” Some people never grow out of this childish self-centeredness: “My emotions are the measure of your love; so if I am unhappy, you are not loving me.” We have all experienced this kind of manipulation. We know Paul does not mean that because Jesus himself made many people angry, and he never sinned or failed to love perfectly. Since all children are sinners, therefore, even the best and most loving and tender use of authority will provoke some children sometimes to anger.

(Note: this paragraph (indeed, the whole sermon) was reproduced in book form in 2009 under the heading “No Emotional Blackmail” in This Momentary Marriage (p. 151))

Though the focus of the sermon is on fathers and children, note that Piper broadens the scope to include people who “never grow out of this childish self-centeredness,” and manipulate others with their emotions. 

Aiden and Ada Tozer

The following year, Piper would use the term “emotional blackmail” in a discussion surrounding the wife of A.W. Tozer. Tozer (1897–1963) was a pastor and author who is probably best known for his two books The Pursuit of God (1948) and The Knowledge of the Holy (1961). In 2008, Lyle Dorsett published a biography of Tozer, A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer. Dorsett’s biography included frank descriptions of his home life,  including the fact that his wife Ada felt neglected by him.

The occasion that prompted Piper to write was a brief reflection on Dorsett’s book by Sean Michael Lucas, then the associate professor of church history at Covenant Theological Seminary. In his post, “A Passion for God,” Lucas said this:

Dorsett exposes a fundamental contradiction in Tozer’s character that raises all sorts of questions about holy zeal and its effect on the whole of life. The contradiction could be summed up: how did Tozer reconcile his passionate longing for communion with the Triune God with his failure to love passionately his wife and children? Perhaps the most damning statement in the book was from his wife, after she remarried subsequent to his death: “I have never been happier in my life,” Ada Ceclia Tozer Odam observed, “Aiden [Tozer] loved Jesus Christ, but Leonard Odam loves me” (160).

Now, certainly all human beings have flaws; that is not the point here. Rather, the point that Dorsett failed to explore adequately is how Tozer reconciled his pursuit of God with his failure to pursue his wife. This reconciliation–or failure to reconcile–should have raised questions about Tozer’s mystic approach and prophetic denunciation of the church and nuanced the value of his teaching on the Christian life. After all, if his piety could spend several hours in prayer and also rationalize his failure at home, then it should raise questions about his approach to piety. 

In his blog post on The Gospel Coalition, “Tozer’s Contradiction and His Approach to Piety,” Justin Taylor published an excerpt from Lucas’s post, and added that “John Piper writes in with a helpful caution.” Here was Piper’s “caution”:

Sean Lucas seems to say that Tozer’s wife’s greater happiness with her second husband implies Tozer’s “failure to love passionately his wife.” When she remarried after his death she said, “”I have never been happier in my life. . . “Aiden [A. W. Tozer] loved Jesus Christ, but Leonard Odam loves me.” Lucas may be right to infer from this sentence that Tozer loved his wife poorly. But Tozer’s wife’s statement does not prove it.

We would need to be as penetrating in our analysis of her spiritual condition as we are of A. W. Tozer’s. Not feeling loved and not being loved are not the same. Jesus loved all people well. And many did not like the way he loved them. Was David’s zeal for the Lord imbalanced because his wife Michal despised him for it? Was Job’s devotion to the Lord inordinate because his wife urged him to curse God and die? Would Gomer be a reliable witness to Hosea’s devotion? I know nothing about Tozer’s wife. She may have been far more godly than he. Or maybe not. It would be helpful to know.

Again I admit Lucas may be totally right. Tozer may have blown it at home. Lucas’ lessons from this possibility are wise. But I have seen so much emotional blackmail in my ministry I am jealous to raise a warning against it. Emotional blackmail happens when a person equates his or her emotional pain with another person’s failure to love. They aren’t the same. A person may love well and the beloved still feel hurt, and use the hurt to blackmail the lover into admitting guilt he or she does not have. Emotional blackmail says, “If I feel hurt by you, you are guilty.” There is no defense. The hurt person has become God. His emotion has become judge and jury. Truth does not matter. All that matters is the sovereign suffering of the aggrieved. It is above question. This emotional device is a great evil. I have seen it often in my three decades of ministry and I am eager to defend people who are being wrongly indicted by it.

I am not saying Tozer’s wife did this. I am saying that the assumption that her feeling unloved equals her being unloved creates the atmosphere where emotional blackmail flourishes.

Maybe Tozer loved his wife poorly. But his wife’s superior happiness with another man does not show it. Perhaps Lyle Dorsett’s new biography of Tozer, A Passion for God, penetrates to the bottom of this relationship.

A few things are noteworthy. First, it seems clear that Piper has not read Dorsett’s book (“Perhaps Dorsett’s new biography penetrates to the bottom of this relationship”). Everything he writes here about Ada Tozer is pure speculation. 

Second, note what Piper is “jealous” about, what provokes him to write: upon hearing of Ada Tozer’s claim that her husband neglected her for the sake of his ministry, Piper is not jealous to “raise a warning” to pastors. He could have said “Pastors, whatever you do, be sure to love your wife. If you have to leave the ministry, be sure to love your wife. Do whatever it takes to love your wife.” Rather, Piper is jealous “to raise a warning against emotional blackmail.” 

Third, note that in this post he draws together material from two previous occasions (1) What Jesus Demands from the World on “emotional fragility” and the fact that “Not feeling loved and not being loved are not the same” and (2) his teaching on the way that children attempt to manipulate and use “emotional blackmail” on their fathers; and then directs this combination at the claims of a wife that her husband was neglecting her and their family for the sake of his ministry.

(Note: for another review of Dorsett’s book from a reformed evangelical a few years later (2011) see Tim Challies, “A.W. Tozer: A Passion for God,” which highlighted the dichotomy in Tozer’s life and ministry, but did not question Ada’s account, or hypothesize on whether it amounted to “emotional blackmail”).

Ray Ortlund and Jared Wilson

Piper’s quote and particularly his phrase “emotional blackmail” was eventually picked up by other figures in the reformed evangelical network. In 2013 pastor Ray Ortlund republished Piper’s quote in a TGC blogpost (“Emotional Blackmail at Church”), and added his own analysis:

When a church’s mentality — the very categories and assumptions with which they process reality — is not biblical but therapeutic, this “great evil” can be perpetrated without any troubling of the conscience.  But no one should ever be pressured to confess as sin aspects of their behavior which the Bible itself does not identify as sin.  It is the Word of God, chapter and verse, and only the Word of God, not human expectations or emotions, which defines sin.  When we forget this, we exalt ourselves to the place of God with our own self-made demands and haughty accusations.  This is indeed a great evil, though self-exaltation rarely feels evil.  Misguided moral fervor feels good, even virtuous.

The following year (2014) Ortlund would reproduce this point, including Piper’s quote and discussion of “emotional blackmail” in his book in the 9Marks “Building Healthy Churches” series: The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ (p. 101).

Jared Wilson also republished the quote on his TGC blogpost “Piper on Emotional Blackmail in the Church.” (This post appears to have been removed from the TGC website, but can still be found on Wayback).

As an observation, this is the way that a phrase and a concept work their way through a broader community, in this case, conservative reformed evangelicalism. Terms are coined, and then delivered in sermons and conference messages, then published in blog posts, and then in books, spread around by other influential pastors and writers. After a few years “emotional blackmail” became a part of the reformed evangelical vocabulary.

Marg Mowczo’s Critique

Not everyone appreciated Piper’s “warning.” In 2015, Marg Mowczo wrote a post critiquing Piper’s use of the term “emotional blackmail.” She also noted that “It seems the people at TGC really like these words” (“John Piper and Emotional Blackmail”). Mowczo found “a few things disturbing in John Piper’s words”:

First, John uses the examples of three women in the Bible who, for various reasons, had a problem with the godly zeal and devotion of their husbands. These three women—Michal, Job’s wife, and Gomer—are presented in a negative light in the Bible, and John compares their negative attitudes, words, and actions with the feelings of a woman who he admits he doesn’t know, Tozer’s widow.

The statement I have the biggest problem with, however, is this reference to Tozer’s widow: “… the assumption that her feeling unloved equals her being unloved creates the atmosphere where emotional blackmail flourishes.”

This is unfair. Why not believe her when she says she felt loved by her second husband, with the implication that she didn’t feel loved, or as loved, by Tozer. Why cast it as an “assumption”? And why attach her feelings to the issue of emotional blackmail? 

…It is disrespectful for John Piper to have used Tozer’s widow to explain “emotional blackmail.” But there is more to this quotation. 

He suddenly makes it personal and talks passionately about the emotional blackmail he claims he has often seen in his ministry…

John believes that some church members have wrongly assumed that he and other ministers have hurt them, when in fact they have loved them. He asserts that some hurting church members failed to feel the love of their pastors and then resorted to emotional blackmail.

I know of people who have been hurt by pastors. This usually occurs when people have unrealistic expectations of their ministers. Yet these expectations are usually reinforced from the pulpit or by church culture, or both. When pastors allow the perception that they are powerful people with a better or deeper spiritual understanding, maturity, or capacity than other church members, or when pastors accept accolades to that effect, then some church members will expect more than what pastors can actually give. Some members may even expect to be loved in such a way that they will feel loved.

To some extent I agree with John that “a person may love well and the beloved still feel hurt,” but what concerns me the most about his words is that John never admits that there were times when he failed to love well. He puts all the blame and guilt on those who have felt hurt.

Being a pastor can be a very difficult role, and there are times when pastors need protection. But John seems intent on protecting himself and his fellow shepherds at the expense of his fellow sheep. To protect A.W. Tozer’s reputation, he maligns his widow. To protect his fellow shepherds who have been emotionally blackmailed, he puts all the blame on the sheep. Surely there must be a way of supporting and caring for the shepherds without resorting to unhelpful and uncaring insinuations against fellow Christians.

For the record, I agree with Mowczo’s critiques here. I find Piper’s criticisms unwarranted and seeming to “protect shepherds at the expense of the sheep.”

Erik Raymond

In 2016, Boston pastor Erik Raymond published an article on TGC on “Common Evangelical Attacks Against Sola Scriptura.” In it he listed “3 common attacks upon the sufficiency of Scripture” and the third was “The unmeasurable and devastating emotional blackmail.” Raymond favorably quotes Piper’s 2008 remarks on the Tozers and concludes the paragraph with this: 

How does this undermine the sufficiency of Scripture? It does so because the Bible gives us the basis for interpreting what loving behavior actually is. There is fruit that corresponds with love. And sometimes it doesn’t make us feel very good.

“Emotional blackmail” had moved from a tactic used by children on their fathers, to a dismissal of a wife’s claims, to an attack on the sufficiency of Scripture.

Joe Rigney and The “Sin of Empathy”

In 2019, Joe Rigney published his first article on “The Enticing Sin of Empathy.” In this initial article, he does not use the term “emotional blackmail” but the ideas are consistent. In the genre of a “Screwtape Letter” Rigney has the demon Screwtape explain the plan for emotional manipulation:

Our policy has been to teach sufferers to resent all resistance to their feelings. Any holding back, any perceived emotional distance — especially a distance that is driven by a desire to discover what would actually be good for them — must be regarded as a direct assault on their dignity and an affront to the depth of their suffering.

Over the next couple of years, as Rigney further elaborated on “the sin of empathy,” he began to explicitly tie it to Piper’s language of “emotional blackmail.” In a January 2020 post on DesiringGod “Dangerous Compassion: How to Make any Love a Demon” Rigney analyzes a passage from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, and includes a section under the heading “Emotional Blackmail.” One of Rigney’s “takeaways” is that we don’t always recognize 

“when our compassion ceases to be compassion and instead becomes a subtle tool of emotional blackmail. But if Lewis is right that the highest and best things become demoniac when they begin to be gods, then we ought to be aware that compassion — which is one of the highest and best things — can also fall into this trap.”

In May 2020, Rigney published another article “Do You Feel My Pain? Empathy, Sympathy, and Dangerous Virtues.” In this article, Rigney again puts an entire section under the heading “Emotional Blackmail” and this time explicitly references Piper: “Under the influence of empathy, we may open ourselves up to what John Piper calls ’emotional blackmail.’” He then includes a block quote from Piper’s 2008 speculation regarding Ada Tozer.

Others began to weigh in on the discussion, including Kevin DeYoung. In a March 2020 blog post on TGC (“Sympathy Is Not the Point”), DeYoung used the language of “emotional blackmail” to make his point: 

“feelings are not infallible. Sensitivity is one thing, sacrosanct is another. I am always responsible for what I do; I am not always responsible for how you feel. If emotional ineptitude is a problem for some, then emotional blackmail is for others.

In a May 2020 blogpost, Bethlehem College & Seminary professor Andy Naselli published a post summarizing Rigney’s articles on the sin of empathy (“How Empathy Can Be Sinful”). In this post, Naselli explicitly connected the dots between Piper’s “emotional blackmail” (quoting his comments on Ada Tozer) and our “emotionally fragile age” (quoting from What Jesus Demands from the World) and Rigney’s “The Sin of Empathy.” Naselli, too, affirms this as a “thought-provoking, insightful, and wise way to apply the Bible.”

“Empathy Blackmail” and “Ethnic Harmony”

Later that year, Naselli would apply this concept to the issues of race, or what Piper has termed “ethnic harmony.” Naselli taught a seminar at Bethlehem Baptist Church’s campus on “Ethnic Harmony” (“Ethnic Harmony 2020 North Campus Seminar”), and then published a journal article “What the Bible Teaches about Ethnic Harmony,” in the Midwestern Journal of Theology (2020). In the article, Naselli includes this point: “iv. Christians who are victims of ethnic partiality must not nurture resentment or show ethnic partiality in return.” He notes that:

“This statement might sound insensitive—the opposite of showing compassion. But that is not my intent. My intent is to show compassion by lovingly sharing the truth and by not withholding the truth” (38).

He then applies the concept of “empathy blackmail” to minorities who claim to have been on the receiving end of actual “or perceived” racism:

“here I am addressing Christians who are at the receiving end of actual or perceived ethnic partiality. With love I want to gently warn against adopting the mindset of a victim that is so common in our culture now. I am warning against empathy blackmail: “You must completely agree with me and share my perspective, or else you don’t love me.” I am warning against weaponizing empathy and manipulating others with it. I am warning against being oversensitive about what you perceive as micro-aggressions with the result that you are so easily “triggered” that you cannot live out what the NT says about loving your neighbor” (39–40).

To support his point in his article, he footnotes four of Joe Rigney’s blogposts on “the sin of empathy.”

2021

In April 2021, Joe Rigney published yet another article on empathy (“Where Do We Disagree?: Golden Rule Reading and the Call for Empathy”), and again explicitly tied the two concepts (“empathy” and “emotional blackmail”) together: 

If you’ve seen or experienced emotional blackmail in the name of empathy, or if you’ve seen Christians divided because some have adopted the logic that “I’m hurt; therefore you sinned,” then you’re more likely to be aware of that danger and thus emphasize the need for a deep respect for objective truth and goodness in our efforts to help.

And in May 2021, John Piper used the phrase again, this time to describe unbelievers (“Can Joy Come in Sorrow?”)

The enemies of Christ cannot succeed with emotional blackmail against Paul — that is, they cannot manipulate him by demanding the ruin of his joy because of their unbelief.

Conclusion

“Emotional blackmail” and “the sin of empathy” appear to be essentially the same thing. In what Piper thinks is an “emotionally fragile age,” he and those who have been influenced by him are concerned that we, especially fathers, pastors, and husbands, are not manipulated by the emotions of others, including children, women, and racial minorities.

To me, it is striking that one of the most important moments for the development of this concept, the discussion of Ada Tozer, was based on such flimsy evidence, from both the Tozer’s lives, or from Scripture. Without even having read the biography, while acknowledging that perhaps all of it was true, Piper felt “jealous” to expound on the danger of “emotional blackmail.” Though all of Jesus’s “hard words” were directed toward His heard-hearted disciples, Pharisees, or unbelievers, Piper directed this idea toward women. Once articulated in this way and in this context, the phrase spread broadly through conservative reformed evangelicalism.

Sometimes when you find yourself in a mess, you need to backtrack and figure out how you got there. What if we went back revisited this particular point? What if the warning about “emotional blackmail” was the wrong take then, and that’s what led us to “the sin of empathy” now? What if instead of “jealous to raise a warning against emotional blackmail” we were jealous for the flourishing of everyone in our communities? What if we stopped defending pastors and institutions at the expense of the sheep? Doing so may require going further back than we imagined, in order to untangle and undo years of harm.

Piper on Lloyd-Jones, part 6: Cessationism Quenches the Spirit

“Therefore, we may say emphatically that Lloyd-Jones was not a Warfieldian cessationist.

I think it is quite without scriptural warrant to say that all these gifts ended with the apostles or the Apostolic Era. I believe there have been undoubted miracles since then. (The Fight of Faith, 786; Joy Unspeakable, 246)

And when he speaks of the need for revival and for the baptism with the Holy Spirit and for a mighty attestation for the word of God today, it is crystal clear in Lloyd-Jones, he meant the same sort of thing as was meant in Acts 14:3, signs and wonders attesting to the Word of God. “It is perfectly clear…” – (Everything is perfectly clear to Martyn Lloyd-Jones) –

It is perfectly clear that in New Testament times, the gospel was authenticated in this way by signs, wonders and miracles of various characters and descriptions … Was it only meant to be true of the early church? … The Scriptures never anywhere say that these things were only temporary—never! – (you can hear him saying it, can’t you?) – There is no such statement anywhere. (The Sovereign Spirit, 31-32)

He deals with cessationist arguments, and says some mighty powerful things, that I can’t imagine Iain Murray would leave out of his biography, which he did. “To hold such a view as Warfield held is simply to quench the Spirit (SS, 46).  Because Iain Murray was publishing it [Warfield] at the time.  Pushing it.  These views, according to their dear father, Dr. Jones, is the quenching of the Holy Spirit!  and he didn’t want to lose his friends any more than he already was losing them, probably, and so he didn’t want them published until he was gone.

~From “A Passion for Christ Exalting Power

Piper on Lloyd-Jones, part 5: Signs and Wonders

“And now, note, next step, we’re just moving closer and closer in to power evangelism.  Spiritual gifts, healing, miracles, prophecy, tongues, the whole area of signs and wonders, Lloyd-Jones is talking about power evangelism in terms more careful, more clear, more strong than John Wimber ever has, before John Wimber ever thought of it.

He says that spiritual gifts are a part of the authenticating work of revival and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We need the result of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is spiritual gifts in their sign form, and it is a “supernatural authentication of the message” (The Sovereign Spirit, 24).

Now, I’m going to back off for a minute, and reflect with you for a minute about what we reformed types have to come to terms with when we love the Word of God and esteem its uniqueness in power.  When we hear Paul say, “Jews desire signs, and Greeks seek wisdom, but  WE PREACH!” I can hear people saying that to Wimber, “WE PREACH! You desire signs, we preach, which is the power of God.” and I can hear them quote Romans 1:16: “The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation.  DON’T DILUTE THE POWER OF GOSPEL BY COMPROMISING IT WITH YOUR SIGNS AND WONDERS AS THOUGH THE GOSPEL WERE TOO WEAK TO SAVE SINNERS!” Do you hear that coming out of Banner of Truth?

Well, it isn’t that simple, is it. And the issue here is not contemporary Vineyard, Third Wave versus Paul; the issue is Paul versus Paul.  Let me try to explain.  Evidently Peter and Paul and Stephen and Philip, who, would you agree with me, were the greatest preachers that the world has ever known.  Evidently they did not think that the attestation of signs and wonders alongside their unparalleled powerful preaching compromised the integrity or the sufficiency or uniqueness of the power of God through the gospel. (Mark 16:20; Acts 14:3; Heb. 2:4). Evidently they didn’t.

Lloyd-Jones is really impressed by this fact.  He says, “If the apostles were incapable of being true witnesses without unusual power, who are we to claim that we can be witnesses without such power?” (SS, 46). And when he said that , he did not mean simply the power of the word. He meant the power of spiritual gifts. And I’ll show you that from a quote:

[Before Pentecost the apostles] were not yet fit to be witnesses … [They] had been with the Lord during the three years of his ministry. They had heard his sermons, they had seen his miracles, they had seen him crucified on the cross, they had seen him dead and buried,  they had seen him after he had risen literally in the body from the grave. These were the men who had been with him in the upper room at Jerusalem after his resurrection to whom he had expounded the Scriptures, and yet it is to these men he says that they must tarry at Jerusalem until they are endued with power from on high. The special purpose, the specific purpose of the baptism with the Holy Spirit is to enable us to witness, to bear testimony, and one of the ways in which that happens is through the giving of spiritual gifts. (SS, 120)

Now here’s my answer, I wish Lloyd-Jones had given his but I couldn’t find it.  here’s my answer to the question that we must come to terms with, it is utterly essential, of how the power of the Word of God relates to the authenticating function of signs and wonders.  First of all notice the Bible teaches that the Gospel preached is the power of God unto salvation (1 Cor. 1:23) the Gospel preached is the power of God (Rom 1:16) but, the Bible also says that Paul and Barnabas “remained a long time in Iconium speaking boldly for the Lord,”  Would you dare to equate anybody’s preaching today with that preaching?  That was powerful preaching! They were preaching in Iconium with power, speaking boldly for the Lord, “Who, bore witness to the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.”

Take all the conflicts today, go back to the New Testament and deal with them there. Don’t let anybody tell you it’s today versus the New Testament.  The issue is, how could preaching and signs and wonders not compromise each other then, not now. Forget now! Forget Wimber, forget everything in the 20th Century, explain Acts.  Explain how you could have the best preaching that ever was preached, described as the power of God unto salvation, and have alongside it God bearing witness with signs and wonders attesting to His word of grace, without saying by that, “My word is insufficient by itself.” Why did God compromise His word, by showing off His power physically? That’s the issue, not today.  Who cares about today, it’s the Bible that matters.

Now here is my effort to understand the Bible, which then maybe would help us today. Could we not say, in putting all this together, that signs and wonders – that is, I mean, healings, exorcisms, and so on – signs and wonders function in relation to the word of God, as a striking, wakening channel for the self-authenticating glory of Christ in the gospel? That may be the most important sentence I’ll give you.  Let me say it again: “Could it be, that signs and wonders function as a striking, wakening, channel, along which, through which, the self-authenticating glory of Christ in the Gospel moves, arrives.  I say emphatically, signs and wonders do not save. I say emphatically, signs and wonders do not transform the heart. I say emphatically, the glory of Christ seen in the gospel is the only power that regenerates, converts, transforms the heart, I base that on 2 Cor. 3:18-4:6. But, evidently, God chooses at times to use signs and wonders along side the regenerating word to win a hearing, to shatter the shell of disinterest, to shatter the shell of cynicism, to shatter the shell of false religion, and to help the heart fix its gaze on the glory of Christ in the gospel (see note 42).  Which, as 2 Cor. 4:4 says, is then like God saying “Let there be light” and boom, there is a new creature.

That’s my best effort at how to account, not for what’s happening today, but for what was happening in Paul’s life, and Philip’s life, and Stephen’s life, and Barnabas’s life, and Peter’s life.  The greatest preaching accompanied by signs and wonders.  Not the greatest preaching, so great it doesn’t need signs and wonders.”

~From “A Passion for Christ Exalting Power