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

Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism. Richmond, VA: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1895. Reprint Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1992. pp. 80.

The year is 1895. Robert Lewis Dabney is 75 years old, and will pass from the earth in just a few years (1898). He had fought his whole life for two main things: Calvinism and white supremacy, and to the last, these topics flow from his pen. His hagio/biographer, Thomas Cary Johnson, gives us in two successive paragraphs: “During the year 1895, Dr. Dabney published, through the Presbyterian Committee of Publication, Richmond, Va., his excellent little tract of eighty pages, on the ‘Five Points of Calvinism,’ and contributed occasional articles to the newspapers, notably one or two philippics against the effort to remove Union Theological Seminary from Hampden-Sidney to Richmond” (The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 510–511); “He waged war, by private correspondence, against the removal of Union Theological Seminary. He plead for the retention of the Seminary in Southside Virginia as needed to help the white people in their struggle to prevent their sections being Africanized” (LLD, 511).

Lest anyone object that this is an unfair juxtaposing of two unrelated issues (Calvinism and White Supremacy), note that the man who was a professor of systematic theology and ecclesiastical history at Union Theological Seminary, not only wrote on these two topics at the very same time, but felt that the Theological Seminary would aid in the “struggle” for White Supremacy—theological instruction had an active and constructive role in its maintenance.

Why did I bother reading this book? It came on my radar several years ago, when I saw Desiring God’s post “What are Some Books that DG Recommends?”and Dabney’s book was recommended in the category of “Providence and Predestination.” Recently, it was noticed that the online class on “TULIP: The Five Points of Calvinism” taught by John Piper, and hosted on the TGC website also recommended Dabney’s book on the landing page (it appears that sometime in November 2021, TGC removed this link to Dabney, perhaps in response to this tweet). For awhile now, I’ve been wrestling with this question:“How and why was a white-supremacist like Robert Lewis Dabney commended to my generation as a great theologian to read?!?” As I’m working my way through the material, this one was next.

1618 & 1619

Theologically speaking, the book is mostly unremarkable, just Dabney’s articulation of the five points of Calvinism. Historically, though, I find a number of points of interest. On page 2, he refers to “the famous Synod of Dort,” a church council hosted in the Netherlands in 1618, responding to the Arminians, and formulating “The Five Points” for the first time in that particular form. The very next year, 1619, a Dutch ship would deliver twenty enslaved Africans to the shores of the American colony of Virginia (see W. E. B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the Slave Trade, 17). Lest you think Dort is a religious affair, and unrelated the “secular” national interests, remember that in the Netherlands had an official state church, and the two were intertwined, so much so that the State persecuted Arminians, even with the death penalty, for dissenting (Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2: 229–33); see also Gerald F. De Jong, “Dutch Reformed Church and Negro Slavery in Colonial America,” Church History 40.4 (1971): 423–36 | on JSTOR).

A “well-bred [white] lady”

Dabney’s work is sprinkled throughout with illustrations, and several of these highlight the fact that so much of the material for our theology is drawn from our circumstances, and the same is true of Dabney. In his explication of the concept of “Total Depravity” or “Original Sin,” he goes on for several pages with an example: “I suppose that a refined and genteelly reared young lady presents the least sinful specimen of unregenerate human nature” (10; he will later refer to her as “the well-bred young lady” (19)). Knowing Dabney’s context (the 19th century South), and his ideology (white supremacy), including his explicit statements regarding Black people (see “What’s So Bad About R. L. Dabney?”), we can reasonably infer that what he means is “a refined and genteelly reared young [white] lady.” Dabney draws on an explicitly gendered, and implicitly racial, conceptions of Southern Womanhood to illustrate his theological point about sin. And his point here is that even this “least sinful specimen” is indeed “totally depraved” unless she is converted.

Master and Servant

In discussing “free will,” Dabney poses this hypothetical: “If a master would require his servant to do a bodily act for which he naturally had not the bodily faculty, as, for instance, the pulling up of a healthy oak tree with his hands, it would be unjust to punish the servant’s failure” (17). Dabney was born in 1820, grew up in a family that enslaved a number of Black people (Johnson, 18, 24), and directly oversaw them later in his life. No doubt, he found the “master and servant” relationship a ready illustration for this theological points, even thirty years after Emancipation.

A “Rural Sanctuary”

a Southern “rural sanctuary”

In the section explaining “Effectual Calling” (what is otherwise known as the I in TULIP “Irresistible Grace”), Dabney explicitly draws our attention to the ante-bellum South: “Let us suppose that fifty years ago [i.e., 1845] the reader had seen me visit his rural sanctuary, when the grand oaks which now shade it were but lithe saplings” (32). What picture does Dabney want in your mind? Where should you imagine yourself? The stereotypical Southern Plantation, with the Big House off in the distance, and the oak trees recently planted. He blesses the site of so much human horror as a “sanctuary,” its rural setting removed from nosy neighbors or other onlookers affording the occasion for so much human violence unwitnessed by the outside world (for a vivid illustration of this, see the final act of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Simon LeGree’s isolated property). Again, the material used to construct and illustrate the theology is thoroughly situated in Dabney’s context, and it is explicitly the context of ante-bellum (1845) enslavement.

A “wise and righteous general”

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson

In the section on “God’s Election” Dabney compares God’s foreknowledge with “a wise and righteous general conducting a defensive war to save his country” (40). It’s hard to miss the allusion to the Confederacy and the Civil War here. Dabney served as an officer in the Confederate Army under General Stonewall Jackson, and published Jackson’s first biography, Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, (Stonewall Jackson) (1866). Dabney regularly refers to Jackon’s “wisdom” and “righteousness,” and holds him up as a shining example of Christian character (for more on this see Daniel W. Stowell, “Stonewall Jackson and the Providence of God,” in Religion and the American Civil War, edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, Charles Reagan Wilson (1998)). Dabney’s description of “a defensive war to save his country” is exactly how he characterized the Civil War in his A Defense of Virginia, and Through Her of the South (1867).

Dabney’s point is that this “wise and righteous” general may change his plans as the war develops, but God, knowing all, never changes his plans. The material used to illustrate this theological point is reflective of his own Lost Cause narrative of the Confederacy and the Civil War.

“Plausible Pretender”?

There is one point with which I agree with Dabney, and it appears mainly in his discussion of the “Perseverance of the Saints.” Here are a few passages of Scripture to set the stage:

“He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now… he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”

1 John 2:9, 11

“In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: whoever does not practice justice (δικαιοσυνην) is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother.”

1 John 3:10

“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”

1 John 4:20

Early on in the book, Dabney notes the hardening effects of sin:

“Now, the soul’s duties towards God are the highest, dearest, and most urgent of all duties; so that wilful disobedience herein is the most express, most guilty, and most hardening of all the sins that the soul commits. God’s perfections and will are the most supreme and perfect standard of moral right and truth. Therefore, he who sets himself obstinately against God’s right is putting himself in the most fatal and deadly opposition to moral goodness.”

“The Five Points of Calvinism,” 12.

The first and greatest commandment is to love God; the second is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself. Dabney correctly notes that disobedience to these greatest commands is “the most express, most guilty, and most hardening of all the sins that the soul commits.” What is more “directly disobedient” to this command to love, than the sin of white-supremacy?

When distinguishing between genuine and false believers, Dabney notes that “the shepherd knows that it is always the nature of wolves to choose to devour the lambs instead of the grass” (52). What is more wolf-like than Dabney’s venomous explosion in the Synod of Virginia, “The Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes”?

His section on the Perseverance of the Saints is his fullest treatment of this dynamic:

“We do not believe that all professed believers and church members will certainly preserve and reach heaven. It is to be feared that many such, even plausible pretenders, “have but a name to have while they are dead.”

“The Five Points of Calvinism,” 68.

He acknowledges that genuine believers can “backslide,” but asserts that “a covenant-keeping God will recover them by sharp chastisements and deep contrition… if he is a true believer he has to be brought back by grievous and perhaps by terrible afflictions; he had better be alarmed at these!” One would be hard pressed to imagine a more sharp chastisement to White Supremacy than the horrors of the Civil War, yet Dabney was never “alarmed” out of his hatred, indeed, he became even more deeply entrenched in it in the years following.

“the Presbyterian similarly backslidden is taught by his doctrine to say: I thought I was in the right road to heaven, but now I see I was mistaken all the time, because God says, that if I had really been in that right road I could never have left it. Alas! therefore, I must either perish or get back; not to that old deceitful road in which I was, but into a new one, essentially different, narrower and straighter.”

“The Five Points of Calvinism,” 69–70.

Dabney himself sets the alternatives starkly in front of us: either get back, or perish. “No man can be saved in his sins, therefore this man will certainly be made to persevere in grace” (70). What then of the man who does not!

Dabney later alludes to 2 Peter 2:22 “The sow that was washed returns to her wallowing in the mire.” He expounds that “She is a sow still in her nature, though with the outer surface washed, but never changed into a lamb; for if she had been, she would never have chosen the mire.” I will only note that the “washings of a sow” can, and do, include the theological, the draping of Orthodox Calvinism over a mire-ridden core of white supremacy.

The verdict of the great Judge will sort this all out, but note His warning: “by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). No anachronism, or “presentism” is needed to evaluate Dabney—his own words suffice.

Conclusion

In the final paragraph of the book, Dabney notes that Calvinism “corresponds exactly with experience, common sense, and true philosophy” (79). Indeed, Dabney drew repeatedly on his own life experience and notions of “common sense,” both forged deeply in the bellows of White Supremacy and slaveholding. It is not surprising that his explication of Calvinism is woven throughout with these notions; what may initially seem more surprising is the blindness of Dabney’s 20th century admirers as they perpetuated his legacy. Now, in the 21st century, may that Lord grant us all clearer eyes to see.

Comparing Princeton, Edwards, and the Dutch on the Bible and Society

Mark Noll contributed a chapter to Reformed Theology in America on “The Princeton Theology.” Toward the end, he compares the theologians of Princeton with two other representatives of Reformed theology: Jonathan Edwards and the Dutch. His second point of comparison, on the Bible and society, was illuminating:

“Second, the three differed in how their approach to Scripture affected their picture of the Christian’s task in society. Princeton used the Bible to construct dogma, while it was content to accept the cultural conventions of the merchant-yeoman middle class without question. To Edwards the Bible was a resource for reflective piety, for discovering the divine and supernatural light that graciously converts the darkened heart; his absorption was so thorough on this theme that he seems to have given little thought to the late-Puritan society in which he lived. The Dutch, by contrast, almost defined themselves by their capacity to find scriptural principles for cultural formation, whether in education, politics, voluntary organizations, or economics. These varied uses of Scripture have appeared complementary in some circumstances and competitive in others” (28–29).

What’s So Bad About R.L. Dabney?

R.L. 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.

“The Moral Character of Slavery,” April–May, 1851 

The earliest record I can find of Dabney’s venomous white-supremacy is in a series of letters published in the Richmond, Enquirer in 1851. The full set of letters can be found here: “[Nine of] Eleven Letters by Chorepiscopus [Robert Lewis Dabney] to the Richmond Enquirer, on “The Moral Character of Slavery,” (1851).” Dabney later “revised, recast, and enlarged” the letters in 1863 in his Defence of Virginia, (And Through Her of the South) — on which, see below. The original letters contain some of the vilest racism in all of Dabney’s work:

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).

The Negro and the Common School, 1876 (pdf here)

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).

 

Conclusion

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.

(updated 10/20/2021)

Performing Theology

Various metaphors have been used to shed light on the nature of theology. Drama and symphony are two recent analogies. Along those lines, but in an arena more familiar to me, I want to argue that theology is like jazz piano. Each aspect of the theological task corresponds to the musical task of a jazz musician: there is the player, the bass note and its corresponding key; the “head”, or, first and final chorus; the inner chord voicings; and the audience. Likewise theology has a subject, the Church; a defining material object, God and his revelation; an ultimate goal, love; a process along the way, spiritual formation; and a watching world. Like most jazz, theology has a basic structure, but it also improvises along the way as it interacts with various contextual factors. Different players will emphasize different aspects, and some of the “inner voicings” will be nuanced and particular. The unique theological styles of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Karl Barth exemplify this variety within basic structural unity. Later theologians will borrow certain motifs, and downplay others. Certain notes will ring out loud and clear in one, and you will have to strain your ear to catch it in another. Nevertheless all the basic elements are there, and our own task will be to play this song in its fullness to our present day audience.

(read more: Kleven – Performing Theology)

Barth on Luther; Luther on Aquinas; myself on neither

Karl Barth, in preparing for his discussion of Calvin’s theology, sets the historical stage with reference to “The Middle Ages”:

An even more striking example is the way i71IhRVGCeNLn which both Luther and Calvin avoided the man in whom they must have recognized, even if he was not then the most widely read author, and whom they ought to have fought as their most dangerous opponent, the true genius of the Catholic Middle Ages. I refer to Thomas Aquinas. We have in his case a demonstration how often even the greatest among us, precisely in fulfilling their deepest intentions, often do not know what they are doing. The reformers engaged in close combat with late scholastics of the age of decline, about whom we say nothing today, when all the time behind these, and biding his time, stood their main adversary Thomas, in whom all modern Roman Catholicism has come to see more and more definitely its true classic; and apart from a few inconsequential complaints by Luther [here Barth footnotes Seeberg, Lehrbuch Der Dogmengeschichte, 74 and n. 2], they left him in peace, apparently not realizing that their real attack was not on those straw figures but on the spirit of the Summa, on the Gothic cathedral and the world of Dante. How could it be possible that in the first half of the 17th century a Lutheran theologian from Strassburg could write a book entitled Thomas Aquinas, veritatis evangelic confessor! All this shows strikingly, however, that the reformers did not see their work in the context of a great philosophy of history but in a fairly relative pragmatic context. Perhaps it is precisely the manner of truly creative people to take this view

The Theology of John Calvin, 22

Luther in “Against Latomus”:

His [Latomus’s] discussions of penance and of indulgences are worthless, for he proves everything from human writings. Neither Gregory nor any angel has the right to set forth or teach in the church something which cannot be demonstrated from Scripture. I think I have sufficiently shown from their own writings that scholastic theology is nothing else than ignorance of the truth and a stumbling block in comparison with Scripture. Nor am I moved when Latomus insinuates that I am ungrateful and insulting to St. Thomas, Alexander, and others, for they have deserved ill from me. Neither do I believe that I lack intelligence [to understand them]. This Latomus himself will admit, and it is certainly not difficult to see that I work hard. My advice has been that a young man avoid scholastic philosophy like the very death of his soul. The Gospels aren’t so difficult that children are not ready to hear them. How was Christianity taught in the times of the martyrs when this philosophy an theology did not exist? St. Agnes was a theologian at the age of thirteen, likewise Lucia and Anastasia–from what were they taught? In all these hundreds of years up to the present, the courses at the universities have not produced, out of so many students, a single martyr or saint to prove that their instruction is right and pleasing to God while [the ancients from their] private schools have sent out swarms of saints. Scholastic philosophy and theology are known from their fruits. I have the strongest doubts as to whether Thomas Aquinas is among the damned or the blessed, and would sooner believe that Bonaventure is blessed. Thomas wrote a great deal of heresy, and is responsible for the reign of Aristotle, the destroyer of godly doctrine. What do I care that the bishop of bulls has canonized him? I suppose that my judgment in these matters is not entirely ignorant, for I have been educated in them and have been tested [in debate] by the minds of my most learned contemporaries, and I have studied the best writings of this sort of literature. I am at least partly informed concerning Holy Writ, and besides I have to some extent tested these spiritual matters in experience, but I clearly see that Thomas, and all who write and teach similarly, have neglected this. Therefore I advise him who would fly to take warning. I do what I must, so with the Apostle I again admonish you: “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit”–this I confidently and emphatically apply to scholastic theology–“according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe”–these are the laws of the bulls and whatever is established in the church apart from Scripture–“and not according to Christ” [Col. 2:8]. Here it is clear that Paul wants Christ alone to be taught and heard. Who does not see how the universities read the Bible? Compare what is read and written in the Sentences [Peter Lombard] and on philosophy with what they write and teach about the Bible–which ought to flourish and reign as the most important of all–and you will see what place the Word of God has in these seats of higher learning.

found in Luther’s Works, vol. 32, 257-59

Might Barth have misread Luther, slightly? Might Luther have misread Aquinas, ever so slightly?  I’m not up for adjudicating this one, but I find the material fascinating.

“The crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching”

The lynching tree–so strikingly similar to the cross on G71TL6ZHN0zLolgotha–should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus’ death. But it does not. In fact, the lynching tree has no place in American theological reflections about Jesus’ cross or in the proclamation of Christian churches about his Passion. The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. In the “lynching era,” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly 5,000 black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these “Christians” did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.

As Jesus was an innocent victim of mob hysteria and Roman imperial violence, many African-Americans were innocent victims of white mobs, thirsting for blood in the name of God and in defense of segregation, white supremacy, and the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race. Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists—the lowest of the low in society. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. They were stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, mocked and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, and tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment. In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place.

The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar that one wonders what blocks the American Christian imagination from seeing the connection.”

James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree30-31

“A Friendly Conversation”

71wiJCVrghLIt’s exam week. As usual, Karl Barth has words to keep everything in perspective:

No one should study merely in order to pass an examination, to become a pastor, or in order to gain an academic degree. When properly understood, an examination is a friendly conversation of older students of theology with younger ones, concerning certain themes in which they share a common interest. The purpose of this conversation is to give younger participants an opportunity to exhibit whether and to what extent they have exerted themselves, and to what extent they appear to give promise of doing so in the future. The real value of a doctorate, even when learned with the greatest distinction, is totally dependent on the degree to which its recipient has conducted and maintained himself as a learner. Its worth depends, as well, entirely on the extent to which he further conducts and maintains himself as such. Only by his qualification as a learner can he show himself qualified to become a teacher. Whoever studies theology does so because to study it is (quite apart from any personal aims of the student) necessary, good, and beautiful in relationship to the service to which he has been called. Theology must possess him so completely that he can be concerned with it only in the manner of a studiosus.

Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, 172

 

Ferguson, Race, and The Goodness of Created-Physical-Existence

Consider this one very small contribution to what is a huge and beyond complicated subject that I would much rather listen than contribute to.

One of the ways to approach this subject is to try to formulate a Christian account of race in light of the Gospel. A key text here is Ephesians 2:14-16–“For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity.” (NKJV)

In framing the discussion, I’ve heard some who seem be saying “We should talk about this subject as Christians. Not as black Christians or white Christians, but simply as mere Christians. In Christ there is neither ‘Barbarian, Scythian, slave, nor free’, after all. Paying special attention to a black perspective on this subject is divisive to the body of Christ where black and white don’t matter anymore.” And then those commentators who are perceived to maintain this kind of “spiritual neutrality” are praised for their “Christ centered objectivism” and those who “keep bringing up race” are accused of being divisive, and just throwing gas on the fire. “If you would quit bringing it up it would quit being a problem” is the (sometimes) unspoken hint.

I think we need to be careful here that we don’t unwittingly act out an unwarranted, almost gnostic, dismissal of our identity as physical beings in favor of a more “spiritual”, race-less, Christian identity. A robust account of our identity as persons created in the image of God with real physical bodies is essential to staying on course here. God created a physical world and called it very good. He’s not afraid of matter, and he’s not afraid of the physicality of our human bodies. He made us this way, and then he became embodied in physical flesh Himself! When he created humans and later divided them at Babel, he certainly knew of the thousands of different people groups, languages, cultures, perspectives, and skin tones (there are thousands) that would result. He points us to a future, not in which race is “done away” along with the tears and the pain, but one in which re-embodied people distinguished as from every tribe and tongue and people and nation are gathered around the throne praising the Lamb.

God created us in real bodies with real melanin, and that’s a good thing. In the body of Christ, we come from different perspectives that have been informed by our backgrounds, including our ethnic background. That’s a good thing. The mere existence of ethnic differences in the body of Christ is not in itself divisive, but only when those difference are allowed to form the basis for sinful division. Hence, the answer is not to pretend that those differences aren’t real, but to love one another through them, in them (and not “in spite” of them!). The glory of God in the gospel is when His Spirit takes those real differences and makes of them a unity in Christ–but not by pretending that those differences are not real or significant. What kind of glory is that? “Look, these people are getting along! (when they figured out that their skin color is illusory and irrelevant).” The unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace across ethnic boundaries is not made more glorious by ignoring those differences, but rather by robustly affirming them. The power of the gospel is not manifest by “not talking about race” but by bringing race to the table in all of its complications and messiness, and working through it in love. When a person becomes a Christian, does their physical body cease to matter? Is it merely an illusion, a distraction,–or worse–a necessary cause of division?

“Not talking about race” is not gospel unity–it’s superficial, and it might even be symptomatic of worse: a subtle denial of our good, created, physical, bodies, in color, no less.

I can’t wait until we have perfect unity around the throne. Until then, as a white-Christian, I need to hear from those parts of the body who can help me see my blind spots, and who are experiencing suffering because they are black-Christians, or otherwise. In my own limited and finite perspective, I need to hear from black-Christians. 

I’m not capable of participating in a “race-less” Christianity yet. If I’m reading my Bible right, I don’t think we ever will.

“How are Things in Your Heart?”

71wiJCVrghLA word for theologians, (and theologians in training):

The story if told that the once famous Professor Tholuck of Halle used to visit the rooms of his students and press them with the questions, “Brother, how are things in your heart?” How do thinks stand with you yourself?–not with your ears, not with your head, not with your forensic ability, not with your industriousness (although all that is also appropriate to being a theologian). In biblical terms the question is precisely, “How are things with your heart?” It is a question very properly addressed to every young and old theologian!

The question might also read: “Adam, where are you?” Are you perhaps–in your interior and exterior private life–fleeing from the One with whom you as a theologian are pre-eminently concerned? Have you hidden yourself from him in the shrubbery of your more or less profound or high-flown contemplation, explication, meditation, and application? Are you perhaps living in a private world which is like a snail’s shell?

There is no avoiding the fact that the living object of theology concerns the whole man. It concerns even what is most private in the private life of the theologian. Even in this sphere the theologian cannot and will not flee this object. If this situation should not suit him, he might, of course, prefer to choose another and less dangerous discipline than theology. But he should be aware that it is characteristic for the object of theology to seek out every man in every place sooner or later (see Psalm 139). It will seek him out wherever he may be and pose to him the same question. Therefore, it would probably be simpler to remain a theologian and learn to live with God’s claim upon even the most intimate realms of the theologian’s humanity.

Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, pp. 83-4

 

“Avengers of Their Grandfathers”

71wiJCVrghLMore Barth, on how to view our theological fathers:

Time and time again, the community grows used to living from what was said in it and to it yesterday: as a rule it lives from the Christian knowledge of yesterday. In the meantime, it is to be hoped, theology has advanced somewhat further, and what it supposes to know, what it ventures to think and to say today, will only seldom agree completely with what the fathers of yesterday thought and said. The far greater likelihood is that the newer theology will vigorously take exception to the fathers, especially to the immediate fathers. Even if this tension is justified by the vigorous nature of theological science, theology will still do well to keep in contact with its predecessors.

By no means will we drop the problems which concerned them; instead, we will pursue them further, repeatedly considering the very problems they posed, although at the same time no doubt putting them in the right perspective. Otherwise, theology might find the sons of today proving tomorrow to be enthusiastic rediscoverers and perhaps avengers of their grandfathers. The work of overcoming past weaknesses and errors, a work which was perhaps only apparently completed, would then have to begin all over again. Ma the good Lord preserve us from that!

Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, pp. 46-7