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.” (“Comprehension” in this context refers to the ecclesiastical decision of who is a Christian and thus allowed into fellowship.)
Seeing each communion is sacredly bound to deliver some one consistent testimony, which one shall it be? There can be but one answer, that one which is conscientiously believed by its associated teachers; and the principle of association must be this, that those who can honestly see eye to eye shall associate into one body or branch of the visible church. Does it necessarily follow hence that there will be several denominations of Christians within the church catholic, limiting partially its external unity? We answer, so be it; it is the smaller of the unavoidable evils, unless all human minds which imbibe any Christian truth can be rendered infallible, or unless the right of private judgment be destroyed, or else unless an inspired umpire in doctrinal differences can be found on earth. The position of the pope is a very expressive avowal of this conclusion, for in attempting to exact of all Christians a formal unity he professes infallibility.
The former cannot be reasonable without the latter. The result which we have embraced is found as conducive to peace as to purity of doctrine. The Presbyterian communion, the strictest of all in exacting full orthodoxy, according to her standard, of all her ministry, is also the most truly catholic of all the Protestant churches. Her overtures to other branches of Christ’s church, and, whenever they are accepted, her actual relations with them, are of the most fraternal character. But if all these denominations were aggregated, there must be either unfaithfulness to truth or strife. The debates of denominations over doctrinal differences are far less bitter than those of earnest men differing within the same pale. Witness the comparative heat of the strifes between the Old and New Schools before their separation, and of the Evangelicals and Puseyites in the Anglican Church.
So true is this that there is no communion on earth formed in this theory of comprehension that is true to it. None include all who hold the essentials of the faith. None can include all who, on their own theory, are faithful to all the fundamental doctrines; but they find themselves compelled to make a term of full ministerial communion of one or another of the lesser points. Suppose two bodies, one of which heartily admitted lay preaching, and the other as sincerely believed it anti-scriptural and disorganizing. How could they possibly administer a common government in the same church courts? Pedobaptists and immersionists cannot join in the same spiritual family. Those who hold that prelatic ordination is essential to a valid ministry cannot work in the same government with us, who hold that presbyterial ordination is not only sufficient, but more scriptural. Now we, at least, are willing to admit that neither lay preaching, nor immersionism nor prelatic ordination is a fundamental error. Yet in a communion of the opposite belief they necessarily exclude their advocates. The theory of comprehension, if consistently attempted, would be found impossible.
Indeed, as though its advocates were fated to demonstrate its falsehood by the greatest possible absurdities, we find them combining a rejection of some brethren, on grounds not fundamental, in the teeth of their own theory, with the cordial embracing of other false brethren, in spite of differences which are fundamental, in the teeth again of their own theory. The “Church of the Reformers” in our land is avowedly constructed by the founder, Alex Campbell, on the broadest plan of comprehension. It glories in having no creed. It began by declaring that the test for communion should have but one question in it, “Do you receive Jesus as Saviour?” But let the brother seek admission into its fold who purposes to practice the amiable weakness of “baby-sprinkling,” and he is strictly excluded, notwithstanding every other grace of an eminent Christian. Yet this charity which is too narrow to allow this error so obviously non-essential, if an error, is yet capacious enough to embrace him who discards the whole office work of the Holy Ghost and the very calling of grace by which alone any soul ever became Christian. . . .
Northern Calvinism, as it styles itself, has no charity for the holiest man in our land who declines to insert the creed of a humanitarian politics into his gospel; but it has comprehension enough to receive a Pelagianism as outspoken as was ever condemned by the church of all ages in Celestine or Pope Zosimus. So did the world see that association which announces its great mission to man to be the patronizing of comprehension and fraternity, the “Evangelical Alliance,” spurn from it the purest church on earth in creed and character, because it was not ready to declare criminal that relation of domestic servitude in which all the patriarchs and prophets lived, and which Christ and his apostles authorized. But they could gladly embrace the Reformed Church of France, which tolerates those who flout the central truths of redemption, the divinity and vicarious satisfaction of Christ, the fall of man, and the person and work of the Holy Ghost. Are such hands, I ask, the ones to heal the breaches of Christendom? If a true Protestant unity is ever to exist, it must be the work of a broader wisdom and equity than theirs. If we may learn from these various instances, this theory of comprehension appears to be more a composition of indifference to truth, and factious zeal for human crotchets, than the temper of Christ.
Previous Dabney on Sundays: