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.)
But the advocates of [broad] comprehension plead that if the laxer theologians in this mixed communion do preach negative truth or partial error, the more orthodox have equal liberty to preach the whole truth. Thus, say they, The remedy may go along with the contagion, if contagion it be, as fully as any other system. I reply, Not so; the application of this remedy is fatally obstructed by the complication of dissimilar elements. And this is my final plea against the system: that the effectual defence of orthodoxy is excluded by it. There is, first, a homely maxim which substantiates this objection, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It is much easier to keep out error than to conquer it after it is in. How imprudent is this plan of campaign, which brings the enemy into your own camp and arms him from the resources of your own power before you begin to contend against him! Again, the friends of truth have found, to their cost, that as one cannot fight his adversary until he gets him at arm’s length, so an effective testimony against error can never be borne until the struggling elements separate themselves. Either the internal strife against error tends directly to that separation, or it is futile. Witness the abortive struggles of the evangelicals in the Anglican church. They have had on their side numbers, learning, zeal, orthodoxy, honesty of purpose. But they were resolved, at the outset, that the glorious comprehension and unity of the church should in no case be sunk for the interests of doctrinal truth. Consequently their very anxious testimony has mainly gone for nothing. Their adversaries advance steadily Romeward, regarding their protests only as impertinence, carrying, it is to be feared, the body of churchmen with them. So in Scotland, the only men who did anything to rebuke “moderatism” and “patronage” were the Gillespies, Erskine, and Chalmers, who did it by seceding. The reasons of this are plain. In such a communion the orthodox Protestant is borne down by a practical consciousness that he cannot assail his own brethren and equals. They would raise against him the cry that he is disturbing the peace of the church. The temptation is thus powerful to suppress all reference to disputed dogmas and usages, and the testimony of the whole body becomes merely negative. Again, according to the constitution of such a church, the laxer creed is as fully authorized by her as the better. The testimony which denies the distinctive points of orthodoxy is the church’s testimony also. The world, which holds a Pelagian creed by natural inheritance, finds, of course, the lower testimony more acceptable than the stricter. As no fortress is stronger than its weakest bastion, so the doctrinal weight of a denomination never goes for more with the outside world than that of the lowest doctrine which that communion teaches. A church may have a decided Calvinistic creed and many Calvinistic ministers; but I appeal to the sense of every intelligent hearer, if she tolerates Arminianism, does she ever, as a body, make a Calvinistic impression upon Christendom?
We conclude, then, that if we would be faithful to our charge and our Master, we must, like the apostle, require all our ministers “to hold fast the faithful word as they have been taught, that they may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince gainsayers.” Should it be that our little Zion will remain the last advocate of faithful subscription and a strict adherence to doctrinal purity in this land, and possibly in the Protestant world, then how solemn yet illustrious is the mission to which Christ calls us! In strict fidelity to that mission will be our very existence as a church. Forfeit that, and the world I will judge, may we not say that Christ himself will conclude that the ground of our useful existence as a denomination is gone.
But let us not forget that this testimony for the “form of sound words which we have heard of” the apostles must be borne “in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.” Unhallowed is that zeal for the truth which is animated merely by rivalry, or the spirit of party, which is not founded in solemn conviction, the result of faithful study and earnest prayer, which contends for wrath, and not for conscience’s sake. The apostle here teaches us, in two words, what is that spirit of orthodoxy which God requires. It values revealed truth because it has humbly received it with adoring reverence, as the gift and trust of infinite wisdom and love, and because it sees in those doctrines the instruments of glory to God and endless blessing to blind, erring man; yea, to our enemies and opposers. Let us, then, while we hold fast to the pattern of sound words, ever study to do it in faith and love.
Previous Dabney on Sundays:
Cruelty of Humanitarian Philanthropy
Preaching, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Doctrinal Confessions, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5