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.” (Note that the term “latitudinarian” refers with negative connotations to those who are widely tolerant of other religious views and feel that matters of doctrine, liturgical practice, and ecclesiastical organization are of relatively little importance.)
Let the farther proof of this proposition [that church leaders hold strictly to church doctrine] be introduced by some admissions which all are ready to make. Every honest man believes that the individual teacher in the church is absolutely bound to declare the “whole counsel of God” as he himself conscientiously understands it. He is Christ’s herald; the duty of a herald is to convey precisely the message of his king without addition or diminution. He is a steward of the divine mysteries, bearing an office of trust, whose first virtue is fidelity to his charge. He can only claim to be clear of the blood of all men by claiming with the apostles (Acts 20:27) that he “hath not shunned to declare unto them all the counsel of God.” Now, God has set down in his word some truths which are not fundamental to salvation in the sense we have agreed on above. If He has not, how does any one come to know that there are doctrines which are true and still not fundamental? Moreover we can point to such in the New Testament, as while Paul tells us (Rom. 14:14) that distinctions of meats are no longer obligatory, and yet that the believer ignorant or incredulous of this proposition may be redeemed by Christ (verse 15). Now, then, God certainly put these doctrines into his word to be preached. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Such truths, therefore, are profitable, though not fundamental. The preacher is expressly enjoined to make full proof of his ministry (2 Tim. 4:5). So that no herald of Christ does his duty who keeps back any known divine truth. Its suppression may ruin some soul, and must mar, to some degree, the sanctification of all whom he guides.
All Protestants admit the sacred right of private judgment, and most of all must the latitudinarians do so, since their peculiarity is to urge it into an excess. Then the meaning of the Scriptures is to each man the Scripture, and this meaning each must deduce for himself. In other words, each man’s honest judgment must be his own standard in interpreting what the word contains. There is no infallible umpire, as in the apostle’s day, between competing interpretations. The reason, even in renewed men, can be only an imperfect agent, so that good men will sincerely differ to a partial extent. The only honest preaching, then, is that in which each man delivers all that which he believes, when, judging in the fear of God, He intended to delivery in His word.
These admitted truths will be found to contain two inferences, first, that there must be different denominations of Christians, amicably respecting each other’s liberty of doctrine not fundamental, within the invisible church catholic. Second, that each denomination is bound to bear a full witness for God according to its agreed understanding of God’s message.
But here we are met by a rival conclusion, adopted by those who style themselves “advocates of comprehension,” and sometimes by a less truthful euphemism, advocates of liberal subscription in doctrinal beliefs. They claim that the doctrinal standards of the churchy shall be so lowered as to embrace in one denomination all whom we recognize as within the church catholic, and as holding the truths fundamental to salvation. Let the advocates of strict doctrine say they preach all their higher creed if their consciences impel them, and let the moderate have equal liberty to propagate their lower system, all in the same communion. If the more strict are the more correct, the truth has thus, they claim, as full opportunity to assert itself, and to discredit the looser and erroneous code, as it can have, unless men are ready to recur to violence and persecution. By this method charity would, according to them, be much promoted, the scandals and weakness of the divisions of the sects removed, and the unity of Protestant Christianity displayed. In support of such comprehension they attempt also to array Scripture against us. They remind us that when the apostle enjoined ministers, under the penalty of exclusion, to consent ” to the doctrine which is according to godliness,” or to ” hold fast the form of sound words,” it was even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the “pattern received from him.” But they urge, the strained hyperorthodoxy of the sects can claim no “thus saith the Lord” for its peculiarities. To the fair mind the reply to this shallow plausibility is clear. We think we have a “thus saith the Lord.” We are as honestly convinced that every point of our orthodoxy is received from Christ and his apostles, as they are concerning their different creeds, which are always found, by the way, to include at least as many points of detail, and which they assert at least as tenaciously as orthodoxy does its peculiar features. But our conscientious conviction of what our Lord hath delivered unto us must be our imperative rule, in the absence of an infallible umpire between us and them. And when they seek to enforce their different convictions upon us. who have as much right to judge for ourselves as they for themselves, what is this but elevating their latitudinarianism into the starkest spiritual despotism?
These advocates of comprehension also recite very confidently all the precepts of the epistles where Christians are exhorted to mind the same things,” to have no “divisions among them,” not to be called by the names of men, and to avoid strife and schisms. The express command of the apostle (Titus 3:10) “to reject the man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition,” is transmuted by a species of exegetical jugglery to an opposite meaning, namely, that every friend of orthodoxy who seeks to “reject” a heretic shall be himself rejected as a heretic for doing so. The only refutation which this needs is the obvious remark that it contradicts itself; the proposition commits a logical “felo de se.” Grant that the “heretical man” of the text is a “sect-maker,” rather than a speculative errorist, it is impossible to exclude the fact that it is always the doctrinal error which generates the sect, whence the criminality arises out of the false doctrine as its source.
Previous Dabney on Sundays:
Doctrinal Confessions, Part 1