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 an article Dabney wrote for the Presbyterial Critic, published in July 1855 and entitled “The Gospel Idea of Preaching.”
There have been two stages in the defection of the church from the simplicity of the gospel in past days. The first has been when the ministry have held to the truths of the gospel system, but have insisted on arranging and presenting them according to the methods of the fashionable human philosophy the day. The second, and it is close to the first, has been when they have gone to human philosophy, both for their arrangement and their doctrines. The eras of efficiency and spiritual might have always been prior to both stages, when the ministry were content to set forth Bible truths in Bible aspects. The preaching of the primitive church was simply scriptural and expository, and the word had free course and was glorified. From Origen’s day we find the Christian Fathers constructing their discourses on the principles of philosophy, and a false, artificial rhetoric. Then began the season of shallow and heartless conversions and of general corruption. And soon after came Arianism, Prelacy, Neo-Platonism, Pelagianism, Popery. The same steps of decline were trodden again after the Reformation. Luther and Zwinglius, Farel and Calvin, Latimer and Knox, preached expository sermons, in which the word of God was simply set forth in its application to the soul; and the consequence was a revival almost as wide as Christendom. In the next century succeeded the age of scholastic preaching and the bandying to and fro of orthodox symbols, under which the odium theologicum was far more cultivated than the love of God; and then came Rationalism. Many of us are now in the first stage of decline, and many more among us have illustrated its tendencies by passing down to the second. How many are the pulpits in New England, now Socinian, which fifty years ago rung with the metaphysics of religion! (A la Jonathan Edwards, as they vainly supposed. They forgot that Edwards wrote his Freedom of the Will for philosophers, and preached the simple gospel for his flock.) This class of preachers seems to have selected its favorite and prevalent topic, not by asking what is most nourishing to a believing soul, but “what is best adapted to display my powers of discussion or of analysis?” And so some have occupied the Sabbaths of their people with those polemics by which the philosophic theologian has defended the outworks of Christianity, bordering on the foreign domain of human psychology against infidel assailants. And thus they have committed the absurdity of feeding the flock inside the fold with the bristling missiles which should have been hurled at the wolves without. Others of them have dissected, or sublimated, or evaporated, truths which they should have embodied in the warm proportions of life, as though they would try to feed the sheep with an analysis of grass instead of the grass itself, tender, rich and fresh from the green pastures; or would present a kind of chemical resolution into first elements of skin, horns and hair, instead of pieces of the strong meat of the word itself.
If the business of the preacher is simply to make the people see and feel what is in the word of God, preaching should usually be what is popularly known as “expository.” In most cases it is no fair exposition of the divine meaning to single out a single proposition from its connection, and fix the whole attention on it, to the exclusion of those truths which God has placed beside it. The Scriptures are a whole. To resume the illustration of the die, if we would produce a whole impression we must impress the whole die. We shall never obtain a symmetrical image by detaching little fragments of a feature, a wreath, or a letter or two of the legend here and there, and enstamping them with great force. Passages of Scripture must be unfolded in their connection. Yea, whole books and epistles must be so applied to the Christian soul. And where we depart from this method, to preach topically upon a single proposition of the Scriptures, it should yet be a true exposition, an evolution of the meaning of the spirit in that text. There seem indeed to be but two classes of subjects where such preaching is strictly consistent with the gospel minister’s position. One is where a single proposition of the word of God contains a truth so fundamental and so operative that it justifies an unusual expenditure of time. Such are the cardinal doctrines of depravity, the new birth, faith, repentance. The other class is composed of what we may call representative texts; where the single proposition contains the point of a discussion, or the moral of a story, stated for us by the Holy Ghost himself. Thus, Romans 6:1, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” states the subject of discussion of the whole sixth chapter. We may take this one verse for our text, but in doing so it becomes our duty to unfold the argument of the apostle upon it, and not one of our own devising. The sermon is still a true exposition. So Luke 18:7 sums up the instruction of the parable of the importunate widow. In preaching on it we expound that parable. The representative text may also be fairly used, though not in juxtaposition with the passages it represents; as John 17:21 states what is unfolded in John 15:1-8, 1 Cor. 12:11-27, Eph. 4:16, etc., etc. But still it is God’s discussion which is expounded, and not man’s.
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