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”

“Fraternal” to Whom? White Evangelicalism’s Centuries-long Problem with Race

For hundreds of years white American evangelicalism has been a compromised group, like oil and water, or “iron mixed with clay” that struggles to “adhere together” (Daniel 2:43). Issues of race and slavery have been at the core of what has plagued the movement from the very beginning, and they are still plaguing us today, as black and brown Christians who bit on the promise of “multi-ethnic” churches and ministries began yet another “silent exodus” in recent years and are now “leaving loud” and shaking the dust off of their feet.

One of the factors that has caused this exodus has been the fact that time and time again “white Christians in the U.S. constantly and continually choosing whiteness over brothers and sisters in Christ” (Michael Emerson, The Grand Betrayal). Under the banner of “unity” with fellow Christians, otherwise well-intentioned Christians have remained silent in the face of divisive racialized rhetoric from their fellows. Though they maybe wouldn’t “say it that way” or “differ in some particulars” nevertheless, for the sake of “gospel unity” it is determined important to retain “fraternal relations” with their brothers in Christ.

But a crucial question remains unasked: “fraternal” to whom? Because when one “brother” begins attacking another, one is faced with a choice — will you refrain from rebuking a divisive and contentious brother in order to maintain “unity,” while permitting another brother to be attacked and not coming to their defense? In so doing, you have chosen “fraternal relations” with one brother at the expense of another, and we have seen this play out time and time again. Jemar Tisby’s testimony is just one more example of this (see: “Leave Loud: Jemar Tisby’s Story”).

None of this is new. This consistent choice to compromise in the name of “unity” has plagued white evangelicalism for centuries. One particular controversy from the 1850s seems instructive for navigating our times now, the controversy surrounding one of the largest white evangelical ministries of the day, the American Tract Society. In their effort to maintain ties to “both sides” they failed to take any clear moral stand, and the end result was a split. The lukewarm position of the “white moderate” has always proved dissatisfactory on any issue demanding moral clarity, but it has never satisfied the white-supremacist side either. Eventually iron and clay must separate and the idol topple over. (For an account of William Lloyd Garrison’s engagement with the ATS, see “We have much theology, but what does it amount to?”: William Lloyd Garrison’s critique of the American Tract Society”).

Here is a paper further exploring this controversy and the various compromises displayed in it:

Here are a few quotes from the paper:

The Weymouth and Braintree Female Anti-Slavery Society held the conviction that separation from fellowship with slave-holders was “an essential requisite of Christian character. ‘If any man love not his brother whom he hath seen, he cannot love God whom he hath not seen. No man can love his brother and enslave him, or connive at his being enslaved, or apologize for or commune with the enslavers… By this rule do we judge and reject the majority of the American churches, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and the American Tract Society and other kindred societies. By this rule, too, do we judge the so-called evangelical churches of this town.”

The ATS adopted five resolutions, including, that, “the political aspects of slavery lie entirely without the proper sphere of this Society, and cannot be discussed in its publications; but that those moral duties which grow out of the existence of slavery, as well as those moral evils and vices which it is known to promote, and which are condemned in Scripture, and so much deplored by evangelical Christians undoubtedly do fall within the province of this Society, and can and ought to be discussed in a fraternal and Christian spirit.”

“William Lloyd Garrison introduced a series of resolutions condemning the ATS yet again, for pretending to move on the issue, while not moving at all. He mocked the resolution passed by the special committee of the ATS. They were now willing to discuss “those moral duties which grow out of the existence of slavery.” Imagine a tract on  “‘The moral duties growing out of the existence’ of piracy, high­way robbery, and burglary ! Why, these are sins to be exterminated at once, and the moral duty is to slay them at once.”

“Does any moral duty throw out of drunkenness, to the drunkard, except that of immediately turning from it? Does any moral duty grow out of adultery, to the adulterer, except that of immediately turning from it? Does any moral duty grow out of either of these sins, to those in the community who have not committed them, except utter opposition to them, at all times and in all places? It is utterly absurd to speak of any moral duty but this growing out of a sin!”

“The society wished to discuss slavery, and all other issues, “in a fraternal spirit.” But Charles K. Whipple posed the crucial question: “Fraternal to whom? To the slave, sympathizing with his bondage ‘as bound with him’ [Hebrews 13:3]? Is there the slightest probability that Rev. Baron Stow, with those members of his ‘respectable white’ church who have a vote in the Tract Society, had this in their minds when they voted?”

On the contrary, “fraternity” and “Christian spirit” had always been extended toward slave-holders, not to the slaves nor to anyone too ardently anti-slavery. Whipple’s judgment was that the Boston society was gaining “the reputation” of opposing slavery without having taken any real steps to actually do so, and that the majority of people were being deluded into believing that they had done their duty by supporting Boston and not New York. Whipple concluded that this belief was “pernicious,” was “an acceptance of something false as true,” and as “a direct, and gross, misleading of the minds of men in regard to the actual truth.”