The great Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney has been mentioned a number of times on this site. It is a very telling indication of our times that such a visionary man is so little known, and usually slandered when mentioned at all. You can find the entire collection of his written works at the Dabney Archive, all of which are well worth reading. However, such a massive undertaking can be a bit overwhelming, and so on Sundays I have begun posting bite-sized excerpts from Dabney’s works with perhaps a little bit of my own commentary. This will be done in hopes of promoting wider readership for this great man. You can find links to all the previous “Dabney on Sunday” posts at the bottom of this post.
The following excerpt is taken from a sermon Dabney preached at the 1871 Presbyterian General Assembly, entitled “Broad Churchism.”
Fathers and Brethren: It has been hitherto both the characteristic and the boast of our branch of the Reformed Church that it was a strict advocate of doctrinal correctness. Our Confession is one of the longest and most detailed, as it is the most orthodox and judicious, among the symbols of Protestantism. It has been the fixed principle of Presbyterianism in all its better days, that its teachers must subscribe its honored standards in the strict sense of the system of doctrine which they embody. The following statement of facts evinces the correctness of my assertion. . . .
When the two Synods were united in 1758, after the schism, it was on the following basis as to doctrine: “1. Both Synods having always approved and received the Westminster Confession and Larger and Shorter Catechisms as an orthodox and excellent system of Christian doctrine, founded on the word of God, we do still receive the same as the Confession of our faith, and also adhere to the plan of worship, government and discipline contained in the Westminster Directory; strictly enjoining it on all our ministers and probationers for the ministry that they preach and teach according to the form of sound words in the said Confession and Catechisms, and avoid and oppose all errors contrary thereto. 2. That no Presbytery license or ordain to the work of the ministry any candidate, until he give them competent satisfaction as to his learning and experimental acquaintance with religion and skill in divinity and cases of conscience, and declare his acceptance of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms as the confession of his faith, and promise subjection to the Presbyterian form of government in the Westminster Directory.
This time-honored principle is, in these latter days, by many misunderstood, and by not a few despised. I propose, therefore, to invite this venerable Assembly of the guardians of God’s church and truth to a scriptural discussion of it, founded upon the injunctions of the holy apostle to Timothy and Titus. . . .
To Timothy the apostle says: “Hold fast the form of sound words which thou hast heard of me.” It is not necessary for me to assert that this phrase indicates literally a verbal formula enjoined upon Timothy as a fixed “confession of his faith.” But “the form of sound (or healthful) words” was a pattern of doctrine which Timothy had heard of Paul, and which the disciple was to preserve jealously, and transmit (2 Tim. 2:2) to succeeding presbyters and evangelists. The succeeding verse calls it a deposit, or trust, of an excellent and responsible nature, committed to Timothy by God, to be kept by the aid of the Holy Ghost. This description clearly implies that the doctrinal code was a definite thing, marked by clear characters, and that Timothy had no discretion or license to remit or modify any part of it.
So in the parallel injunction to Titus (1:9), the man who is appointed presbyter or bishop over a Christian church must “hold fast the faithful word as he had been taught.” The most competent expositors agree in construing this to mean the word which is trustworthy, as of divine authority, being in accordance with Paul’s apostolic teaching. The purpose of this orthodox fidelity sufficiently evinces its nature. That purpose is to exhort and edify Christians, and to confute gainsayers, by “sound (healthful) doctrine.”
In both precepts the authorized doctrinal code is called a “word,” [pattern of sound words], and notwithstanding the concession which was made above, this language does at least authorize us to infer that the system committed to the Christian ministry is to be preserved aud taught by them with exactness all its parts. The solemn iterations with which the holy apostle urges this duty may both assure you that we do not misrepresent its nature, and teach you the importance which he attached to it. The minister of Christ is “a steward of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required in stewards that a man be found faithful.” (1 Cor. 4:1-2.) The heterodox teacher “who consents not to wholesome words, the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness, proud, knowing nothing, but doting,” etc. (1 Tim. 6:3-4.) The minister must be “a workman approved unto God, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:15.) Timothy must “continue in the things which he had learned and been assured of, knowing of whom he learned them.” (2 Tim. 3:14.) Titus must “show in doctrine uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity, sound speech that cannot be condemned.” (Titus 2:7-8.)
In enforcing upon church teachers and rulers the sacred obligations of strict orthodoxy, Presbyterians fully admit that some doctrines of the Christian system are not fundamental to salvation. By this we mean that a soul who embraces the fundamental and necessary points will be saved, notwithstanding his failure, through ignorance or misconception, to embrace the former. We accordingly gladly receive into the body of Christ’s church catholic, and into the communion of saints, all such persons, although they do not receive sundry truths which we are assured God has revealed. Again, in obedience to Rom. 14:1, “Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations,” we uniformly receive private or lay members to the full communion of our own branch of the church who profess only the primary rudiments of the faith, and we require nothing more of them than that they confirm that profession by a life of repentance. Our Directory, Chap. 9. Sec. 1, instructs pastors to inquire only whether the life of the applicant be consistent, and if he has knowledge to discern the Lord’s body. As to the flock, there is no church under heaven more catholic and liberal than ours, in receiving all, whatever their doctrinal differences from us, provided they truly receive Christ as their Redeemer. We believe, indeed, that of the shepherds who undertake to guide the flock, our divine Head exacts more perfect knowledge and agreement. But even where they fail of that doctrinal harmony with us to such an extent that we dare no longer to entrust to them a part of the flock for which God has made us responsible, we still act with respectful consideration for the uncertainties of the human reason, and draw a broad distinction between the misfortune of honest error, and the criminality of wilful transgression. (See Book of Discipline, Chap. 5, Sec. 14).
But with these allowances we are compelled to conclude that our text requires of all church teachers and rulers a strict and harmonious conformity to revealed doctrine.
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