On Censoring Dabney and Denying “Sola Fide”

Shortly after my article on R.L. Dabney was published at Desiring God (Providence Is No Excuse: Exposing a Reformed White Supremacist), Taylor Sexton wrote a response at his blog (“Racism, White Confederate Theologians, and Justification by Faith Alone). Unfortunately, I just discovered it earlier this week, and thought it was worth responding to.

I’ve never met Taylor, but I suspect we have quite a bit in common, and I’m guessing we’d get along quite well. I’m really grateful for the time and thought he put into engaging my post, and I think we actually agree on a large number of things. In fact, I think that his largest criticisms are based on a misunderstanding of what I wrote, and the responsibility for that lies with me for not being more clear.

So with that in mind, I’d like to try to clarify some things in an effort to either remove any disagreement, or help us see more exactly where it lies.

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t”?

Taylor’s first “issue” with the article is with this sentence: “for those of us who are white, Reformed, American Christians, eulogies to King sound hollow while the echoes of white supremacy still haunt our halls.” He interprets me as positing a catch-22: “when white people are silent about racism, they are racists; when they speak out about it, they are ‘hollow.’”

I’d like to clarify this point. Notice that I mentioned a specific kind of activity eulogies to Kingand not “speaking about racism” in general. I also had in mind another kind of hypocritical activity, namely, criticisms of King and/or his theology. I actually think that there is plenty of work to be done by white people in fighting against racism and dismantling white-supremacy in evangelical spaces and institutions, but there are also plenty of superficial and hypocritical ways of going about it. On MLK Jr. Day especially, it’s easy to talk about King and avoid the more difficult, controversial, but utterly necessary work. Daniel Hill captures this point well in his book White Awake: “Dismantling white supremacy trumps the seeking of diversity.” Until we directly confront white supremacy in our midst, everything else will sound hollow — eulogies of King, criticisms of King, praising diversity, etc. Once we’ve removed the plank in our own eye, we’ll see more clearly  in order to have constructive conversations on this issue. I’m not calling for “white silence,” I’m calling for us to be vocal in calling out white-supremacy—that’s why I wrote the article!

“Where, exactly, have I ‘afflicted atrocious injustice’ on anyone”?

The next sentence that Taylor takes issues with is this one: “Just because we embrace traditional Reformed orthodoxy does not mean we have not afflicted atrocious injustice on our fellow human beings.” He asks: “Where, exactly, have I ‘afflicted atrocious injustice’ on anyone?”

Here, I think, Taylor makes a fair criticism. This sentence reads like a blanket and imprecise accusation.

To be completely honest, that’s actually not what I originally wrote. I went back and forth with the editors at DG a couple of times, and the last draft I submitted contained this sentence: “Just because you embrace traditional Reformed orthodoxy does not mean you won’t also inflict atrocious injustice on your fellow human being.” I stand by that sentence. Unfortunately, simply changing “you” to “we” and “won’t also inflict” to “haven’t also inflicted” completely alters the sense. I wouldn’t have signed off on the sentence the way it was published, and I can’t defend it. Oh, the difference that person, number, and tense can make!

Taylor’s right — rather than an aid to precise analysis, that sentence became a stumbling block and a distraction to my real point.

Should we censor Dabney’s books?

This was a common reaction to the article, and I actually wrote an entire post addressing it (Should we Burn Dabney’s Books?). Taylor, though, takes it to another level by turning it into a question about justification by faith alone. Here I think he missed my point entirely.

He first asks the question: “why does this author feel the need to comment on the fact that Dabney’s books are still being printed, sold, read, and even quoted?”

I felt the need to mention it in order to support the claim I made in the preceding sentence. Here’s how it reads together: “Robert Dabney’s influence has not disappeared in Reformed circles. His books are still being repackaged, reprinted, and sold.” I anticipated a certain reaction, namely, “why are you talking about an irrelevant old dead guy from 150 years ago that no one has ever even heard of?” (In fact, I did receive this response numerous times; see: Social Justice Dung and other thoughts on Dabney). I mentioned the fact that his books are still being reprinted (and recommended at big conferences) in order to support the claim that “his influence has not disappeared.”

Taylor goes on: “This author has an underlying premise… that the very fact we are printing, selling, and reading Dabney’s works means we are in reality supporting everything he taught and believed.”

Actually, I don’t believe that, and I didn’t say that. I’ve never thought that. In fact, I’ve resisted the opposite accusation whenever someone impugns a blanket accusation of “abandoning the gospel for Marxism” whenever someone appropriates a few genuine Marxist insights.

Taylor: “It might even be sinful to buy his works! …why else would the author express concern about someone’s writings merely being ‘sold’?”

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Oh dear — I sure hope it’s not sinful to buy Dabney’s books, otherwise I’m the chief of sinners!

My point in mentioning that his books are still printed and sold was not so much to express “concern” as to to prove “continuing influence.”

Taylor, though, sees a “refusal to think that anything he had to say was God-honoring.” Perhaps I’ve even implicitly denied “justification by faith alone” as the title of the post suggests. Given that his premise doesn’t fit (I never called for any kind of “censorship” let alone the “blatant” kind) I’d submit that none of the rest of the charges stick either.

Unfortunately, though Taylor quoted my paragraph in full, he never addressed my main concern: “He is still quoted in our own books without caveat or qualification.”

Note carefully: my concern is not that “he is still quoted in our own books.” My concern is that for an entire generation of Reformed American Christians, we have done so “…without caveat or qualification.” That’s the issue. White supremacy long unchecked, unexposed, and unaddressed.

Was Dabney even a Christian?

Taylor correctly notes that I “made no assertion of the sort.” In fact, he thinks that to question Dabney’s salvation would amount to “legalism.”

I didn’t say it in the article because I didn’t even think about it at the time. However, I’ve read quite a bit of Dabney since then, and I do want to go on record saying that I think that’s actually a very good question. While I pray that I will see Dabney in the new heavens and new earth, I personally do not have utmost confidence in his salvation. Dabney persisted in unrepentant sin until the end of his life, which Paul warns desperately against. He bitterly resisted all attempts to raise the social and ecclesial status of black Christians until the end of his life, even when he was a lonely minority in a changing south. He persuaded an entire denomination to discriminate against and segregate black Christians and thus caused a division in Christ’s church that lasted over 100 years. For these sins, Dabney would be excommunicated from any self-respecting Gospel church today. Given that this never happened in his own day, I don’t know whether it might have been used to bring him to repentance, and I can’t pass any final judgment. I will say, though, that given the evidence we have, it doesn’t look good.

Even if he was genuinely saved, I consider him utterly unqualified for the office of a teacher in the church, and I don’t intend to treat him like one. None of his “impeccable Reformed theology” or vaunted reputation changes this in my opinion, it only serves to heighten his hypocrisy. There’s a difference between saying “we should censor his books!” and “we shouldn’t treat him as a ‘great teacher’ in the church.”

What about Jonathan Edwards?

Taylor thinks that not mentioning Jonathan Edwards’s slaveholding was “an unfortunate omission from Desiring God, who is the primary popular venue by which Edwards’s theology and philosophy is spread.” He later says “the standard is never applied fairly; e.g., Jonathan Edwards as mentioned above.”

I’m not really sure what Taylor is talking about here. John Piper and Desiring God have addressed Jonathan Edwards’s slaveholding numerous times over the years in podcast episodes, articles, videos,  book chapters, and again in a recent Q&A.

I’m not sure what kind of “unfortunate omission” Taylor is talking about. On the other hand, until my article, Dabney’s racism had never been treated at DG even though his books had been recommended on their site and quoted in Pastor John’s books. I’m grateful that they were willing to publish my article, but it’s really no surprise if you know Pastor John and his track record of leaning hard into these issues. 

Dabney’s life and legacy

I can’t tell from reading the post how familiar Taylor actually is with Dabney’s life and legacy. He references a biographical message by Iain Murray, but unfortunately that message is an utter white-wash—not just of Dabney’s white-supremacy, but of the civil war, and southern slavery itself.

Taylor admits that he isn’t sure whether Dabney defended “the American form of slavery, or the idea of slavery in general.” The answer is “both” and he used the latter to do the former. This could be cleared up by reading Dabney own words, or a clear-eyed biography (like Sean Michael Lucas’s). In fact, I suspect that a large part of the reason we’ve approached this differently is because of the different kinds of exposure we’ve had to his vile ideology. It grieves me, it makes me sick to my stomach to read some of Dabney’s addresses, and sicker still think that his racist influence infected Reformed American Christians for over 100 years. I don’t hear those same notes of lament in Taylor’s post, and it makes me wonder if he’s really looked Dabney’s sin as squarely in the eye as it ought to be. The fact that he describes himself in another post as ”an enthusiast about the Southern Presbyterian and Reformed pastors and theologians during the nineteenth century (e.g., Dabney, Thornwell, Girardeau, etc.)” makes me wonder if he’s really looked as long and hard as he should.

Hopefully this puts to rest what I think are some misunderstandings of my position and sets us up to discuss any that remain. This is the kind of work we need to engage in–wrestling hard with the legacy of Reformed white-supremacy and what we should do about it.

(Photo by Hans Vivek on Unsplash)

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)

John MacArthur on R.L. Dabney

“Dabney is a very helpful writer” – John MacArthur (here)

“One of the wonderful old past generation American 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 his views on slavery and white-supremacy.

 

Dabney on Preaching

The first reference I can find 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 stages through 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.

([Feb 3, 1980?] – Insight into a Pastor’s Heart, Part 1)

Dabney on preaching–the need for expositional preaching, and the three stages–is MacArthur’s most often cited reference, all the way up to last year.

— Feb 10, 1980 –  Insight into a Pastor’s Heart, Part 2

— Oct 29, 2000 – Deliverance: From Sin to Righteousness, Part 2

— Feb 22, 2009 – The Consequences of Non-expositional Preaching, Part 1

— Oct 23, 2011 – Exposition: The Heart of Biblical Ministry

— Nov 6, 2011 – Modeling Bible Study Through Preaching

— Aug 1, 2017 – Answering Contemporary Challenges to Scripture: John MacArthur with Phil Johnson

 

Dabney on Other Doctrines

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).

***Update: on March 10, 2019 MacArthur preached another sermon citing this Dabney quote on “holiness is not to be regarded as a distinct attribute…” (The Lord’s Vengeance, Part 4) Thanks to Erin Harding for pointing this out.

— Mar 17, 2013 – Usurping the Seat of Christ:

“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.]

 

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.”

Update (5/3/19)

As recently as 2019 MacArthur was still quoting Dabney from the pulpit, calling him “an American Puritan of sorts,” and referencing his quote on holiness (March 10, 2019, The Lord’s Vengeance, Part 4)

MacArthur’s Unqualified Endorsement of Dabney

In messages spanning over 38 39 years of ministry, MacArthur has 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).

Should We Burn Dabney’s Books?

This was one of the objections I received after the article I wrote on how Dabney’s white-supremacy infected his doctrine of Providence. In the article, I said that we should “acknowledge, lament, and repudiate such toxic and deadly doctrinal distortions.” I didn’t say anything about censorship, but the reaction was shrill: “are you saying we should ban his books?!”

The question was raised again for me as I discussed Dabney with someone recently. They brought up the fact that King David was a horrible sinner (adultery, murder) and yet we read his writings in the Bible. Shouldn’t we apply the same logic to Dabney? Can’t we appreciate his good theological writings but just leave out his racism?

Don’t Whitewash

First let me say that I entirely agree that we should read books written by sinners, otherwise we wouldn’t read any books at all, even the Bible. No disagreement there. However, here are a couple of differences I see between someone like King David and the Southern Presbyterians. David’s sins are not hidden from view, but are prominently displayed, rebuked, and repented of in the Bible. In many Reformed spheres, the virulent sin of white-supremacy has not been addressed, but rather tucked away and not talked about. Even now, as some of us try to examine and repudiate these influences on our movement, there is a lot of resistance.

John Piper helpfully explains that “no one is helped when we whitewash our heroes.” The Bible doesn’t whitewash its heroes. Unfortunately, the white reformed community has whitewashed our entire theological history for a long time. I’m encouraged that this is starting to change, but there is still a lot of work to do.

I’m actually thankful that we still have all of Dabney’s writings available to read (most of them are free digitally on Google Books). If all we had were the positive quotes and references from people we respect, we would never see the real picture. We should read Dabney’s works, especially his racist white-supremacist ones, so that we actually face and begin to deal with this legacy in our camp.

Infected Theology

Here’s another difference that I see — I have no reason to believe that David’s sin influenced his theology, other than to produce repentance. There was no syncretism between “murder/adultery” and “YHWH-worship.” However, this is not the case with the Southern Presbyterians. Their racism was woven into the very foundations of their view of society, Christianity, and civilization itself. It profoundly influenced their views of ecclesiology, providence, the family, and even Christian honor and piety. It was an entire worldview, not just an isolated aberration. It’s not as simple as plucking out the racism and keeping the rest. The racism deeply influenced the rest, and I don’t think we (conservative reformed evangelicals) have dealt with this yet. I’d recommend Sean Michael Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life as a great starting point for some of these things.

On a further point, folks who love Dabney’s theology so much can avoid much of the trouble with his white-supremacy if they would skip Dabney and just go straight to Turretin.

Dabney’s systematic theology course at Union Seminary relied heavily on Turretin’s magisterial Institutes of Elenctic Theology. One student recalled that in Dabney’s theology class, Dabney would assign a topic with a set of questions and readings for the student to pursue, mainly from Turretin in Latin (Lucas, 86–87).

The structure of Dabney’s Systematic Theology followed Turretin’s Institutes fairly closely… One of the most surprising differences was that, while Turretin devoted a lengthy section to the doctrine of Scripture, Dabney did not deliver a lecture on Scriptures inspiration and authority (87).

Dabney reasoned that “revealed theology cannot be a progressive science” and cannot gain new truth. Once the Reformed faith was recovered by Calvin, Turretin, and the Westminster divines, there was no further need to innovate but rather to conserve the tradition (88).

Now, there might be problems with Turretin! But to reclaim reformed theology from white-supremacy, we need to go further back than Dabney.

Continuing Influence

One more difference: I don’t know of any movement of men who defended murder and adultery as a godly thing to do and relied on David’s example to do so. Dabney, however, is a hero to Christian white-supremacists and neo-confederates even to this day. Lucas points out how his influence “set the ‘racial orthodoxy’ of the Southern Presbyterian church for the next hundred years” (149). For that reason, I think we need to more carefully examine, disentangle, and repudiate his unbiblical racism from the rest of his theology and influence; and we can’t do any of that without first acknowledging it.

So the answer is a hearty, “no” — I don’t think we should ban (or burn) Dabney’s books. But that doesn’t mean we should necessarily buy them, quote appreciatively from them, or recommend them either. Dabney’s works preserve an important record of the deep sinfulness found in our tradition, and if we hope to live more faithfully today, we need to deal with it, not whitewash it.

(Photo by Maxim Lugina on Unsplash)

Civil War: War and Aftermath

I realized this summer that I knew very little of substance about America’s Civil War. Louis Masur’s The Civil War: A Concise History was a fantastic primer on this part of our country’s history and reading it prompted a number of reflections on my part. (This is Part 2, reflecting on the War itself and its aftermath. See part 1 on some of the causes and background to the war).

Southern lust for war

I’ve heard the Civil War called “the war of northern aggression” but listen to this quote from the same Atlanta newspaper quoted in part 1: “let the consequences be what they may—whether the Potomac is crimsoned in human gore, and Pennsylvania Avenue is paved ten fathoms in depth with mangled bodies… the South will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln” (19). I had forgotten that the South actually fired the first shot of the war — on Fort Sumter. “Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs had warned against this action… ‘it puts us in the wrong. It is fatal’” (24). The south was not some innocent, passive victim of invasion. They fully played their own part in the conflict.

An easier way out

I’ve heard southern sympathizers lament that the North waged a war to end slavery that cost hundreds of thousands of lives when slavery could have been ended in some other way. Interestingly, Lincoln repeatedly offered them some other way. In 1862 “Lincoln appealed again to border-state members of Congress to adopt a plan for gradual, compensated emancipation… they had a chance to get something in return for their property.” However, they “rejected his plea” (40). I say their blame rests on their own heads.

Emancipation

We view the emancipation proclamation as a great act by Lincoln. I hadn’t recalled how vehemently the south reacted. Jefferson Davis called it “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man” (48). This is telling at how deeply distorted southern Christian values were.

Caving in on itself

Part of the southern states’ reason for seceding from the Union was over states’ rights (namely, the right to own slaves). They resented the “tyrannical” federal government telling them what to do. But in order for the confederacy to work together in the war, it needed to have a centralized organized government (what could possibly go wrong?) “States’ rights ideologues, who believed that the reason for secession was to escape a tyrannical centralized government, were increasingly reluctant to comply with the Confederate government’s demands, essential though they were to waging war effectively” (49). You reap what you sow. Eventually the southern governors “resisted Davis’s call for men and material” (63). The separatist impulse that started the war also helped lose the war.

Racial violence in the North

The country was founded on white supremacy, and even at the time of the war the entire country was still white supremacist. The South expressed it through slavery, but the North did it in other ways. I had never heard of the New York City Draft Riots in 1863. People were angry that “they had to compete for jobs with free blacks, whose numbers they believed would only grow with emancipation. The rioters overwhelmed the police and let loose on the black community a wave of horrific racial violence. They burned buildings, including the Colored Orphan Asylum, and lynched more than a dozen blacks, stringing them up from lamp posts” (56). Nearly everyone was white supremacist in the 1850s.

White Supremacy in the Union Army

Black soldiers fought in the Union army, but they suffered at the hands of white supremacy even there. They “suffered the taunts of white soldiers… Prejudice against them meant not only skepticism about their ability to fight but also harsher punishments and unequal treatment. They served in segregated units commanded by white officers and received less pay than white soldiers” (58). One incident reminds me of the of the later plea from the civil rights era: “ain’t I a man?” A soldier wrote directly to the president: “we have done a Soldier’s duty. Why can’t we have a Soldier’s pay?” (58). White supremacy was ubiquitous and systemic.

“But slavery ended 150 years ago”

I’ve heard some people say, “slavery ended so long ago, so why is race still an issue?” Well, it did, and it didn’t. After Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson became president. Johnson “supported state’s rights generally. A former slaveholder, he also shared in the dominant racial ideology [i.e., white supremacy] of his day” (80). Johnson opposed a measure that would give blacks the right to vote. Southern states passed laws that “forbade blacks from serving on juries, stipulated harsher punishments for crimes than those given to whites, and outlawed interracial marriage” (82). Johnson vetoed a bill that would have continued the Freedman’s Bureau devoted to helping blacks. He also vetoed a civil rights bill passed by Congress. Not just in the south, but in even in northern states like Ohio and Minnesota “black men in the North could not vote any more than freed slaves in the South” (85). Did slavery itself end? Sure, but as one Southern lawyer said, “Blacks have freedom in name, but not in fact” (89).

The problem is that slavery went away, but white supremacy didn’t, and it found other ways of effectively oppressing black people that would linger on far longer, even to this day.

(Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash)

“Social Justice Dung,” and other thoughts on Dabney

I wrote an article last week for Desiring God on Robert Lewis Dabney: Providence is No Excuse.

The responses on Facebook reminded me why I’m not on Facebook. They did alert me, though, to some ways that I think I’m being misread, so in the interests of clarity, here goes…

“What an absolute butcher job on Dabney, nothing short of slander.”

I tried to let Dabney speak for himself. There was so much that I couldn’t include because of space constrictions, and I had to boil it down to the essential points. I wish every white Reformed American Christian would read Dabney’s “Ecclesiastical Equality of the Negro” for themselves, as well as the other passages I quoted. Rather than butchering or slandering, you’ll see that this was just an appetizer. You can find them for free online:

Ecclesiastical Equality

Civil Magistrate

Universal Education

“liberal discourse plucked from some guys doctoral thesis!”

I wish! Sean Michael Lucas already wrote the doctoral thesis (here). This was just the fruit of a couple of days reading Dabney carefully for myself and responding.

“The article doesn’t say much, since most Reformed people would probably already agree that Dabney is a racist”

Interesting, because a more frequent comment was:

“I never heard of Dabney”

I asked several guys in my seminary classes “have you heard of Dabney?” None of them had. Nobody knew anything about him. I agree that some people have acknowledged that Dabney was a racist, but the point of the article was more than just that. It’s not just that Dabney was reformed and that he also happened to be racist, but that his reformed theology and his racism were deeply intertwined. I haven’t seen that addressed anywhere publicly (though I did find it referenced in a few scholarly journals: check out Lucas, “Southern Fried Kuyper” if you can find it).

“For those who may fall for the clickbait: This article is “exposing” someone from the 1800’s. Someone whose backwards and sinful ideas on slavery are well known and unhidden for anyone who is interested to look.”

“it is about a guy that died 120 years ago. And a guy I have never heard of”

“some liberal intellectual telling me about something that happened 150 years ago”

I anticipated this “so what?” response, which is why I gestured toward the echoes of Dabney in our halls today. Talking about Dabney is important because he is still influential today, including his views on race. Doug Wilson’s book on slavery relies heavily on Dabney. Dabney is quoted in Piper’s books, and recommended on Desiring God without caveat (until now). There are certainly more prominent examples of the entanglement of of racism and reformed theology (Abraham Kuyper) and less prominent (Benjamin Palmer) but Dabney was fresh because I had just seen him footnoted that very week. If white Reformed folks are going to continue to quote him in our books then we also need to be responsible to tell the whole story. I’m grateful to the folks at Desiring God for the having enough humility to publish the piece.

“sowing division and white guilt”

“falsely accusing all white Reformed people of harboring feelings of white supremacy”

“class guilt to white people for the sins of other white folk from previous centuries.”

If you read carefully, that’s not what I wrote at all. But, you know what they say about the dog that yelps…

Some random epithets:

“race baiting”

“identity politics”

“political correctness”

“virtue signalling” [or it’s adjective form] “virtue signally”

“social justice dung,” “social gospel drivel,” “new evangelical social justice warriors”

It’s amazing to me how some people can spot a “social justice warrior” from a mile away, and denounce “virtue signaling” with passion and zeal, but never once speak up about the actual injustices going on in the world. “You strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel.” The political epithets (I was waiting for the “marxist” label to come out) are mostly amusing to me, except that I hear thoughtful people, who I think should know better, using them as well. It’s a way of avoiding real engagement. 

I do wonder though, what these people make of Moses, David, Isaiah, Amos, James, and especially Jesus. Were they “virtue signalling” when they denounced injustice? Whatever you want to call it, sign me up with them.

“Are you saying don’t read Dabney because he was a sinner? Abraham, Moses, David were sinners. Martin Luther was a sinner.”

One key difference between Abraham, Moses, and David is that they repented of their sin, and the Bible flat out repudiates it for us to learn from. Dabney never repented of his racism, he held it bitterly to the end, and his example has not been clearly repudiated. Hence the article.

“Should we ban his books? nullify his ministry?”

“Toss him out of the bookstores, never quote him again unless you throw a disclaimer in the beginning to make sure to poison that well nice and good.”

The reactivity here is instructive, because again, I didn’t say that. I used the line “his books are still repackaged, republished, and sold” as supporting evidence of my claim that “his influence is still among us.” I didn’t say that I don’t think Dabney should ever be quoted and his books should never be read. That might be true, but that wasn’t what I claimed in this piece. I thought I was clear about what I thought should be done: acknowledge, lament, and repudiate Dabney’s doctrinal distortions. To my knowledge that hadn’t been done by my camp, at least not in any noticeable way. If someone could show me where that has been done, I’d love to see evidence to the contrary. I searched Desiring God, The Gospel Coalition, and a few other sites and couldn’t find anything. The fact that many readers couldn’t even bring themselves to do these basic things is disheartening, because to me it seems obvious.

“But what about King’s failures?”

I agree that King had theological and moral failures. However, loud critiques of King from those who haven’t yet faced up to the failures of their own tribe sound hollow and hypocritical. I hope to dive deep into King eventually (maybe soon), and I hope to understand him and his context thoroughly (not just quotes from early seminary papers); but before I get to a critique of King, it seems obvious that there’s still a lot of work to be done in my own neck of the woods.