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.
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.
“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:
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.
Robert Lewis Dabney has been so thoroughly whitewashed in reformed evangelical circles that it comes as a surprise when he is criticized for his virulent white-supremacy. The whitewashed version of Dabney started with his close friend and first biographer Thomas Cary Johnson, and was passed along to reformed evangelicals by Iain Murray (see here, for example) and Banner of Truth publishers. He was then picked up by men like John MacArthur, who gave him unqualified recommendation for over 38 years.
What could possibly be so bad about Dabney? I suspect that very few people have actually read for themselves the kinds of things Dabney said. If they had, I simply cannot imagine them giving him the kind of praise that they have.
Before anyone accuses me of over-reacting to Dabney, or making a mountain out of a molehill, I simply ask you to read for yourself a handful of articles. These are all available for free in the public domain. You can find them on Google Books or on archive.org. I’ve uploaded pdfs of each relevant chapter or address. If you haven’t faced Dabney’s racism and white-supremacy for yourself, you simply cannot make an accurate assessment of his life and legacy. If you only have time to read one, read “Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes.” If you have time for a second, read “The Negro and the Common School.” Read it all if you really want to know how abhorrent his teaching and influence has been.
But I was about to say that, in considering these supposed evils of slavery, we must remember that the real evil is the presence of three millions of half-civilized foreigners among us; and of this gigantic evil, domestic slavery is the potent and blessed cure. This foreign and semi-barbarous population was placed here by no agency of ours. The cupidity of the forefathers of American and British abolitionists placed it here, against our earnest remonstrances, and left us to find the remedy for its presence. It would have been a curse that would have paralyzed the industry, corrupted the morals, and crushed the development of any nation, thus to have an ignorant, pagan, lazy, uncivilized people intermixed with us, and spread abroad like the frogs of Egypt. The remedy is slavery. And let us ask, what has slavery done to rescue the South and the Africans in these portentous circumstances? It has civilized and christianized the Africans, and has made them, in the view of all who are practically acquainted with their condition, the most comfortable peasantry in the world. It has produced a paucity of crimes, riots and mobs, that far surpasses the ‘‘land of steady habits,” the boasted North; as is proved by the statistics of crime.— It has rendered political convulsions in our own borders impossible. It has developed a magnificent agriculture, which in spite of the burden of unequal legislation, has enabled the South to maintain a proportionate increase with its gigantic rival. A reference to the statistics of the religious denominations of the country shows that slavery has made about a half a million, one in every six of these pagan savages, a professor of Christianity. The whole number of converted pagans, now church members, connected with the mission churches of the Protestant world, is supposed to be about 191,000, a goodly and encouraging number indeed. But compare these converted pagans with the 500,000 converts from the pagan Africans among us, and we see that through the civilizing agency of domestic slavery, the much-slandered christianity of the South has done far more for the salvation of heathen men than all the religious enterprise of Protestant christendom! And this is, no doubt, but the dawn of the brighter day, which the benevolent affection of the masters will light up around the black population, if they are not interfered with by the schemes of a frantic fanaticism (“Letter 10”).
Letter to Major General Howard, Oct 21, 1865 (pdf here)
In 1865 Dabney wrote a letter to the Chief of the Freedman’s Bureau which was formed to help former black slaves in the aftermath of the civil war. The Letter is a mixture of a rosy white-washed picture of southern slavery, irony and sarcasm when confessing the South’s “inferiority” to the North, and a concluding section on the challenges of helping African-Americans:
“One of your difficulties is in the thriftlessness of the Africans themselves, and their want of intelligent foresight; a trait which was caused, not by domestic servitude, but by the savage condition from which they were taken, and which we had partially corrected when they were taken out of our hands” (41).
“The larger part of them evidently confound liberty with license; and to them, liberty means living without earning a living” (42).
“You have this task then, gently to educate them out of this innocent mistake of Stealing everything which comes to their hand” (43).
“You, sir, are appointed to do what no other mortal has hitherto done successfully: to transmute four millions of slaves, of an alien race and lower culture, all at once into citizens, without allowing them to suffer or deteriorate on your hands” (44).
Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes, Nov. 9, 1867 (pdf here)
This one address encapsulates everything that is wrong with Dabney. Not only was he a white-supremacist, but he influenced his entire Southern Presbyterian denomination in this speech to not grant equality in the church to black preachers. Thus, to the sin of racial animosity, we can add the sin of dividing Christ’s church, and that of influencing many others to stumble. This is Paul and Peter, Galatians 1 territory. Ironically, Dabney quotes Galatians 1 in this address, getting the sense exactly opposite. In Dabney’s surreal version, he himself is Paul, and those arguing for racial equality are Peter.
The effect of this speech was powerful in the Presbyterian assembly. Sean Michael Lucas notes that this speech “turned the tide against racial equality in the Southern Presbyterian church… and set the ‘racial orthodoxy’ of the Southern Presbyterian church for the next hundred years” (Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 148–49). The whole thing is really vile, and I urge readers to read it for themselves or they will be incapable of making an honest assessment of Dabney. Here are a few excerpts:
“an insuperable difference of race, made by God and not by man, and of character and social condition, makes it plainly impossible for a black man to teach and rule white Christians to edification” (201)
“I greatly doubt whether a single Presbyterian negro will ever be found to come fully up to that high standard of learning, manners, sanctity, prudence, and moral weight and acceptability which our constitution requires” (202).
“Now, who that knows the negro does not know that his is a subservient race; that he is made to follow, and not to lead; that his temperament, idiosyncrasy and social relation make him untrustworthy as a depository of power?” (203–4).
“Our brethren, turning heart-sore and indignant from their secular affairs, where nothing met their eye but a melancholy ruin, polluted by the intrusion of this inferior and hostile race, looked to their beloved church for a little repose. There at least, said they, is one pure, peaceful spot not yet reached by this pollution and tyranny” (205).
“Every hope of the existence of the church and of state, and of civilization itself, hangs upon our arduous effort to defeat the doctrine of negro suffrage” (205)
“These tyrants know that if they can mix the race of Washington and Lee and Jackson with this base herd which they brought from the fens of Africa, if they can taint the blood which hallowed the plains of Manassas with this sordid stream, the adulterous current will never again swell a Virginian’s heart with a throb noble enough to make a despot tremble… We have before our eyes the proof and illustration of the satanic wisdom of their plan.” (206)
A Defense of Virginia and the South, 1867 (pdf here)
Dabney wrote a 350 page defense of slavery, in which he claimed that the Bible supported the slavery and that only infidels and unbelievers disagreed. See here for an assessment of his treatment of the book of Philemon. Sean Michael Lucas offers an insightful analysis of the book on pages 117–128 of his biography of Dabney, which I highly recommend. Portions of this book are “willful propaganda of the highest order and manifestly untrue.” It’s astonishing to me that Doug Wilson calls this work of Dabney’s “excellent.”
“for the African race, such as Providence has made it, and where he has placed it in America, slavery was the righteous, the best, yea, the only tolerable relation” (25).
“domestic slavery here has conferred on the unfortunate black race more true well-being than any other form of society has ever given them” (261).
“On the Civil Magistrate” in Systematic Theology, 1871 (pdf here)
But racism doesn’t affect theology, right? No, Dabney’s white supremacy even made it into his systematic theology:
Thus, if the low grade of intelligence, virtue, and civilization of the African in America, disqualified him for being his own guardian, and if his own true welfare, and that of the community, would be plainly marred by this freedom; then the law decided correctly that the African here has no natural right to his self-control, as to his own labour and locomotion. (869)
The State Free School System, April 22, 1876 (pdf here)
Here Dabney repeats arguments that he made frequently before about slavery as a “true education” fitting for the condition of the African, and wields it to oppose public-schools in Virginia:
“So, our own country presents an humbler instance in the more respectable of the African freedmen. Tens of thousands of these, ignorant of letters, but trained to practical skill, thought, and resource, by intelligent masters, and imitating their superior breeding and sentiments, present, in every aspect, a far “higher style of man” than your Yankee laborer from his common school, with his shallow smattering and purblind conceit, and his wretched newspaper stuffed with moral garbage from the police-courts, and with false and poisonous heresies in politics and religion. Put such a man in the same arena with the Southern slave from a respectable plantation, and in one week’s time the ascendancy of the Negro, in self-respect, courage, breeding, prowess and practical intelligence, will assert itself palpably to the Yankee and to all spectators. The slave was, in fact, the educated man” (250).
Dabney goes even further in his attacks against the notion of educating the newly freed slaves in his letter to the editor of the Farmer and Planter:
“The tenor of the argument concedes, what every man, not a fool, knows to be true: that the negroes, as a body, are now glaringly unfit for the privilege of voting. What makes them unfit? Such things as these: The inexorable barrier of alien race, color, and natural character, between them and that other race which constitutes the bulk of Americans: a dense ignorance of the rights and duties of citizenship: an almost universal lack of that share in the property of the country, which alone can give responsibility, patriotic interest and independence to the voter: a general moral grade so deplorably low as to per- mit their being driven or bought like a herd of sheep by the demagogue: a parasitical servility and dependency of nature, which characterizes the race everywhere, and in all ages: an al- most total lack of real persevering aspirations: and last, an obstinate set of false traditions, which bind him as a mere serf to a party, which is the born enemy of every righteous interest of our State” (178–79).
“What is called ‘impartial suffrage’ is, however, permitted by their new Constitution. We should at once avail ourselves of that permission, and without attempting any discrimination on grounds of “race, color, or previous condition of bondage,” establish qualifications both of property and intelligence for the privilege of voting. This would exclude the great multitude of negroes…” (187).
Everyone has blind spots. Even our most beloved heroes have feet of clay. However, what should we do when the whole thing is filled with clay? When the blind spot becomes large enough to divide an entire denomination for over 100 years? We need unequivocally repudiate it, lament and ask forgiveness for our unqualified endorsement of such a man, and then rethink whether we ever want to do so again. We can’t even start this process until we see for ourselves what’s really there.
“Dabney is a very helpful writer” – John MacArthur (here)
“One of the wonderful old past generationAmerican preachers was a man named R.L. Dabney. And reading him is always refreshing.He’s like a Puritan out of his time and out of his place.” – John MacArthur (here)
John MacArthur has quoted and recommended R.L. Dabney regularly over the years, both in his preaching and at various conferences, without ever mentioning Dabney’s venomous white-supremacy (see “What’s so Bad about Robert Lewis Dabney?“).
(UPDATE: 2022-06-22 — The original 2018 post only included references to Dabney in MacArthur’s sermons. I have since updated it to include references in MacArthur’s print books, and Phil Johnson’s web page devoted to Dabney’s writings. I will not be including much analysis of these references, merely documenting them (for the most part). For more extensive thoughts on Dabney’s life and legacy among reformed evangelicals, see “Robert Lewis Dabney: An Index.”)
The Love of God (1977)
The first reference to Robert Lewis Dabney in John MacArthur’s works is in The Love of God (1977). MacArthur calls Dabney one of the “Reformed stalwarts” and cites from his essay “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” later in the book:
“These same truths have been vigorously defended by a host of Reformed stalwarts, including Thomas Boston, John Brown, Andrew Fuller, W. G. T. Shedd, R. L. Dabney, B. B. Warfield, John Murray, R. B Kuiper. and many others. In no sense does belief in divine sovereignly rule out the love of God for all humanity” (18).
The Love of God, 18.
“About this [John 3:17–18], Robert L. Dabney wrote, ‘A fair logical connection between verse 17 and verse 18 shows that “the world” of verse 17 is inclusive of “him that believeth” and “him that believeth not” of verse 18. . . . It is hard to see how, if [Christs coming into the world) is in no sense a true manifestation of divine benevolence to that part of “the world” which “believeth not,” their choosing to slight it is the just ground of a deeper condemnation, as is expressly stated in verse 19.’
The Love of God, 106; citing R. L. Dabney, “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” inDiscussions: Evangelical and Theological, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982 reprint), 1:312.
The next reference in print is found in The Vanishing Conscience: Drawing the Line in a No-Fault, Guilt-Free World (1994). The chapter on “Sin and Its Cure” includes a section entitled “The Theological Problem Posed By Evil,” and here MacArthuc quotes Dabney:
“The most satisfying theodicy is implied in the cross of Christ. As R. L. Dabney wrote, “The doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice, coupled with His proper divinity, enables us to complete our ’theodicy’ of the permission of evil. . . . For had there been in God the least defect of [holiness or benevolence], He certainly would never have found it in His heart to send His infinite Son, more great and important than all worlds, to redeem anyone.’”
MacArthur cites Dabney again in “Appendix 1: Gaining Victory over Sin, a Closer Look at Romans 6”:
“R. L. Dabney argued against an early form of the two-nature view more than a century ago. He noted the doctrine’s “antinomian tendencies”:
‘If one believes that he has two “real men,” or “two natures” in him, he will be tempted to argue that the new man is in no way responsible for the perversity of the old. Here is a perilous deduction. . . . |And if) the old nature never loses any of its strength until death; then the presence, and even the flagrancy of indwelling sin need suggest to the believer no doubts whatever, whether his faith is spurious. How can it be denied that there is here terrible danger of carnal security in sin? How different this from the Bible which says Jas. ii: 18, “Show me thy faith without thy works; and I will show thee my faith by my works.” If then any professed believer finds the “old man” in undiminished strength, this is proof that he has never “put on the new man.” ‘
MacArthur’s New Testament Commentary series Index cites a reference to his commentary on Titus, page 110 (I don’t have access to this volume).
MacArthur’s commentary on 1 Timothy cites Dabney on the phrase in 1 Timothy 2:6 “gave himself a ransom for all”:
“That does not mean that all will be saved. Again, “many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14). Christ’s death was sufficient to cover the sins of all people, but it is applied to the elect alone. The price paid was infinite. If billions more had been added to the number of the elect, Christ would not have been required to suffer one more stroke of divine wrath to pay the price for their sin. On the other hand, “had there been but one sinner, Seth, elected of God, this whole divine sacrifice would have been needed to expiate His guilt.”
So the infinite price our Savior paid was certainly sufficient for all. “Christ’s expiation . . . is a divine act. It is indivisible, inexhaustible, sufficient in itself to cover the guilt of all the sins that will ever be committed on earth.”
MacArthur Commentary on 1 Timothy, 72–73; citing R. L. Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism [reprint; Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle, 1992], 61.
The year 2005 also saw the publication of Fool’s Gold: Discerning Truth in an Age of Error, edited by John MacArthur, with contributions from multiple authors. Included is a chapter by Carey Hardey, “Just As I Am: A Closer Look at Invitations and Altar Calls.” Hardey includes a quote from Dabney:
“those who look honestly at statistics related to crusade altar calls know that a minority of those who have made decisions display any signs of conversion even a few weeks after their altar call experience. With this in mind, R. L. Dabney once commented that most people in his day had come “to coolly accept the fact that forty-five out of fifty, or even a higher ratio, will eventually apostatize”
Fool’s Gold, 137–38.
I have searched for, and cannot find the quote in Dabney’s works. The citation in the endnotes is to Jim Ehrhard, Dangers of the Invitation System, 15. Whether this is indeed an accurate citation of Dabney, I can’t tell.
Preaching: How to Preach Biblically2005
In 2005 another multi-author volume was published by “John MacArthur and the MAsters Seminary Faculty”: Preaching: How to Preach Biblically. Chapter 1 is by Richard Mayhue, “Rediscovering Expository Preaching,” and the chapter closes with a quote from Dabney:
“Although R. L. Dabney wrote over a century ago, we join him today in urging that the expository method . . . be restored to that equal place which it held in the primitive and Reformed Churches; for, first, this is obviously the only natural and efficient way to do that which is the sole legitimate end of preaching, convey the whole message of God to the people.”
citing Dabney, Sacred Rhetoric.
Alone With God (2006)
In 2006, MacArthur published Alone With God: Rediscovering the Power and Passion of Prayer. The chapter on “Praying for the Lost” includes what is basically a “copy/paste” from the commentary on 1 Timothy 2:6, including the quote from Dabney:
“The phrase ‘gave himself a ransom for all’ is a comment on the sufficiency of the atonement, not its design…
Christ’s death was sufficient to cover the sins of all men, but it is applied to the elect alone. The price paid was infinite—it was sufficient for all. “Christ’s expiation … is a divine act. It is indivisible, inexhaustible, sufficient in itself to cover the guilt of all the sins that will ever be committed on earth.”
Alone with God, 174, 175; citing Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism.
Strange Fire (2013)
In 2013 MacArthur held a conference on the gifts of the Holy Spirit and followed up with a book: Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship. At the end of the book is an“Appendix: Voices from Church History,” a list of quotes that MacArthur believes supports his position. In the list of quotes is one by Dabney:
“Robert L. Dabney (1820-1898)
“After the early church had been established, the same necessity for super natural signs now no longer existed, and God, Who is never wasteful in His expedients, withdrew them. . . . Miracles, if they became ordinary, would cease to be miracles, and would be referred by men to customary law.”
Strange Fire, 257–58); citing Robert L. Dabney, “Prelacy a Blunder,” in Discussions: Evangelical and Theological (Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1891), 2:236-37.
Ironically, Dabney (a slaveholder)’s quote is immediately followed by one from Charles Spurgeon who famously said “I do from my inmost soul detest slavery anywhere and everywhere, and although I commune at the Lord’s table with men of all creeds, yet with a slaveholder I have no fellowship of any sort or kind” (see “Spurgeon’s “Red-Hot Letter” on American Slavery“).
The Shepherd as Theologian (2017)
In 2017, MacArthur edited another multi-author volume The Shepherd as Theologian. The chapter by Phil Johnson on “The Extent of the Atonement” includes a reference to Dabney in a list of “mainstream Calvinist writers”
“If you want to sample some moderate opinions on the extent of the atonement from leading mainstream Calvinist writers, read what Andrew Fuller, Thomas Boston, Robert L. Dabney, William G.T. Shedd, B.B. Warfield, and Charles Hodge wrote on the subject. They may surprise you.”
The Shepherd as Theologian, 128.
Biblical Doctrine (2017)
In 2017 MacArthur published his own “Systematic Theology”: Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth. Each chapter in the book contains a “Select Bibliography,” a list of “prominent theologies from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries ” (35). Nearly every chapter in the MacArthur’s book includes Dabney in these bibliographies The only chapter that that does not reference Dabney is the one on “Bibliology.” This is because the way theology courses were structured at Union Seminary, the doctrine of the Bible was covered in a separate class, and thus Dabney’s Systematic Theology does not have a chapter on it. Every other chapter includes a recommendation:
“God the Father: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 5–193.” (231).
“God the Son: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 182—193, 500–553” (329).
“God the Holy Spirit: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 193–201.” (394).
“Man: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 292–305.” (480).
“Sin: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 306–51.” (481).
“The Application of Redemption: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 553–713.” (662).
“Angels: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 264–75.” (736).
“The Church: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 758–817.” (822).
“Eschatology: Select Bibliography — Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic Theology, 817–862.” (916).
In a section in the book itself on “The Nature of Sanctification,” MacArthur cites Dabney:
“Dabney says, “Sanctification, in the gospel sense, means then, not only cleansing from guilt, though it presupposes this, nor only consecration, though it includes this, nor only reformation of morals and life, though it produces this; but, essentially the moral purification of the soul.”
Biblical Doctrine, 639 n. 139; citing R. L. Dabney, Syllabus and Notes of the Course of Systematic and Polemic Theology, 2nd ed. (St. Louis, MO: Presbyterian Publishing Company of St. Louis, 1878), 661.
The first reference to Dabney that I can find in MacArthur’s is also MacArthur’s favorite: Dabney on the “three stages through which preaching has repeatedly passed with the same results.” He found this in Dabney’s, Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures of Preaching:
Dabney says, “And it is exceedingly instructive to note that there are three stagesthrough which preaching has repeatedly passed with the same results. The first is that in which scriptural truth is faithfully presented in scriptural garb. That is to say, not only are all the doctrines asserted which truly belong to the revealed system of redemption, but they are presented in that dress and connection in which the Holy Spirit has presented them without seeking any other from human science. This state of the pulpit marks the golden age of the church. The second is the transition stage. In this, the doctrines taught are still those of the Scriptures, but their relations are molded into conformity with the prevalent human dialectics.” That’s a hundred-year-old book.
“God’s truth is now shorn of a part of its power over the soul. A third stage is then near in which not only are the methods and explanations conformed to the philosophy of the day, but the doctrines themselves contradict the truth of the Word. Again and again have the clergy traveled this descending scale and always with the same disastrous result.” So he says, “May we ever be content to exhibit Bible doctrine in its own Bible dress.” You can’t improve on it because that’s the way God chose to communicate it. Now, we’re in that transition, aren’t we, evangelicals? There’s still some Christian doctrine but nobody wants to put it in the Bible dress.
MacArthur did not just quote Dabney on preaching, but on a number of other subjects as well:
— May 9, 1993 – Saving Grace, Part 2 – quotes three times from Dabney’s, The Five Points of Calvinism.
— Jan 1, 1995 – The Love of God, Part 4 – quotes Dabney giving the example of George Washington signing the death warrant of Major Andre.
— Mar 14, 2004 – Divine Holiness in Human Flesh – “R. L. Dabney said, “‘Holiness is to be regarded, not as a distinct attribute, but as the sum of all God’s moral perfection.'” (repeated at the 2004 Ligonier conference).
“R.L. Dabney, who was an American Reformed theologian from two centuries earlier, said, “Our decadent, half-corrupted Protestantism in action, blindly and criminally betraying her own interests and duties.” That’s what we do. Even then he could say that. Our decadent, half-corrupted Protestantism is in action.” quoting from Dabney, “The Attractions of Popery.” [Note: in the immediate context of the quote, Dabney launches directly into a critique of “The Jacobin theory of political rights,” which, for Dabney, included all forms of abolitionism. It’s a strange article to quote from, in my opinion.]
–March 10, 2019 – MacArthur preached another sermon, calling him “an American Puritan of sorts,” and citing Dabney’s quote: “holiness is not to be regarded as a distinct attribute…” (The Lord’s Vengeance, Part 4) Thanks to Erin Harding for pointing this out.
MacArthur at Larger Conferences
In 2002 he expounded on the “three stages of preaching” at his Shepherd’s conference message (March 8, 2002 – The Sufficiency of God’s Grace), recommending Dabney to a large gathering of other pastors. “Dabney is a very helpful writer” he says at the 27:25 mark and speaks on him until 32:00.
MacArthur quoted Dabney in his message at the 2004 Ligonier Conference (Mar 12, 2004 – There Is No Other: The Holiness of God): “R. L. Dabney wrote, ‘Holiness is to be regarded not as a distinct attribute, but as the result of all God’s moral perfection together.'”
At his own Strange Fire conference in 2013, MacArthur includes Dabney in a list alongside Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Owen, and others (Jul 14, 2013 – Strange Fire Q&A, Part 2):
“You’ve got twenty centuries when nobody was affirming that except aberrant groups. Voices from church history, we have John Chrysostom, the fourth century, Augustine, Theodoret of Cyrus in the fifth century, Martin Luther in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, John Calvin, John Owen, Thomas Watson, Matthew Henry, John Gill, Jonathan Edwards, James Buchanan, Robert Dabney in the nineteenth century, Charles Spurgeon in the nineteenth century, George Smeaten in the nineteenth century, the great Abraham Kuyper in the nineteenth and a little into the twentieth, William Shedd in the nineteenth, Benjamin Warfield in the twentieth century, Arthur Pink, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, they all are cessationists. They all declare that these things have ceased. So to say that there has been a continual stream of legitimate, biblical scholarship conviction and confidence in the sign gifts is just not the case.”
“An R. L. Dabney Anthology”
Phil Johnson is “the executive director of Grace to You. He has been closely associated with John MacArthur since 1981 and edits most of Pastor MacArthur’s major books” (“Phil Johnson“). He edits a number of websites and pages, including one devoted to Robert Lewis Dabney:
The page contains links to thirteen of Dabney’s works, as well as a biographical sketch from the Banner of Truth magazine. Among the pieces linked are “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” of which Johnson says:
My all-time favorite Dabney piece, one I have wanted to post on this Web site for years… This article overhauled and revitalized my understanding of the doctrines of grace.
Johnson also links to “Against Musical Instruments in Public Worship,” and “The Public Preaching of Women.” (see here for my critique of another Dabney essay where he connects his opposition to women’s rights with white-supremacy).
MacArthur’s Unqualified Endorsement of Dabney
In books and messages spanning over four decades of ministry, MacArthur and his colleagues at Grace to You and the Master’s Seminary, have repeatedly quoted and recommended Dabney to both his own church and to the broader evangelical world through conferences. After searching his site (gty.org) I have been unable to find a single qualification or caveat, let alone a warning or caution regarding Dabney’s racism, white supremacy, and views on slavery. The only words have been words of explicit commendation or tacit endorsement by way of citation.
(Note: if any reader can point me to a place where he has made such qualification, I would gladly include it here).