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 will post 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 which appeared in the Southern Pulpit (April 1881), entitled “Vindicatory Justice Essential to God.”
In order, then, to lay a foundation for your understanding of this way of salvation, I ask you to consider the scriptural account of God’s punitive justice. I have chosen, for this purpose, one of the fullest and most solemn declarations of the whole Bible: “But, after thy hardness and impenitent heart, treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; who will render to every man according to his deeds: to them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life: but unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil; of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; but glory, honor, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: for there is no respect of persons with God.” . . . Here we have, then, the simple account of God’s distributive justice, in his own words. He rewards and punishes, not mainly to reform the offender for his good, nor mainly out of a benevolent expediency, but mainly because his rectitude requires it. Sin is punished because of its desert of punishment in the estimate of the divine equity. God’s fundamental motive to punish is the honor of his own principles, as a holy sovereign and impartial ruler. . . .
It may be quickly decided whether God’s penalties on sin can be explained as means designed for the benefit of the sinner. Many of his most notable punishments summarily destroyed the culprits; the flood; the doom of Sodom; the extermination of the Amorites, when their “iniquities were full”; the final and endless punishments of hell. At the simple mention of these instances this part of the false theory dissolves like a thin cloud.
But it may be argued, the amendment of these sinners had become hopeless and their continued existence incompatible with the welfare of the more numerous and more righteous fellow-creatures. Let love, say they, be God’s sole and consummate moral attribute. Let all virtue be defined as benevolence. Then the moral ground for inflicting the misery of penalties on sinners will be found solely in this fact, that such sufferings are the necessary expedients of wise benevolence to curb the evils of sin within the narrowest possible limits. God punishes the incorrigible sinner only because by this means he secures “the greater good of the greater number.” “His seeming vengeance is but love.” Thus, these theorists, placing a fragment of the truth in place of the whole truth, turn upon us and arrogantly contrast what they claim to be the mildness and sweetness of their creed, with the vengeful severity of ours. Our God, say they, is the God of love. Yours is the brutal theology of ancient barbarians, who sanctified their malicious revenge under the name of vindicatory justice, and represented to themselves a God, like themselves, pleased with the fumes of his enemies’ blood. It is “the theology of the shambles.” Our God has no emotion towards any of his creatures but benevolence; he desires no retribution of the sinner for “its own sake!”
Let us see how this will stand the test of reason and sacred Scriptures. Does God love a good man any more than he loves a wicked one? You are compelled to say yes. Then, for what does God love the good man most? For his righteousness. Then God loves righteousness? Yes. If he did not he would be himself unrighteous. But righteousness and sin are the opposite poles of character; to love the one is to hate the other, just as necessarily as the attraction of the North Pole for one end of the magnet implies its repulsion of the other end.
This pretended resolution of punitive justice into benevolent expediency is, in its result, impious towards God, and practically identical with the ethics of supreme selfishness. The sacred Scriptures teach that “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The humanitarian scheme proposes as our most virtuous end, not God’s glory (this would be, say they, to make God the infinite egotist), but advantage to man. To man in general, not self. This, they claim, is true disinterestedness. But by what logic can it be denied that whatever is made our highest ultimate end is practically made our God? It is nothing to the purpose that names and titles are decently exchanged, and man is still called the creature, and Jehovah the God. Virtually, the aggregate of humanity is made our true divinity by being made our moral end, and Jehovah is only retained, if retained at all, as a sort of omnipotent conveniency and servitor of this creature-God. Further: this result is also involved, that inasmuch as the benevolent man is himself a part of this aggregate humanity, which is his moral end, he is a part of his own God. He himself is, in part at least, his own supreme end! Here begins to crop out the tendency of this scheme of pretended benevolence towards supreme selfishness.
The completion of the process is easy and short. If the advantage of aggregate humanity is my proper moral end, and I am one of the integers thereof, “by nature equal to any other,” what so reasonable as that I should recognize the humanity embodied in myself as my own nearest and most attainable end? Does not nature herself seem to sanction this conclusion by the instinct of self-love? Man’s powers are very narrow; hence, were he to direct the efforts of his benevolence equally to the whole aggregate, they would be wholly nugatory. He can only serve the mass by serving a few individuals in it. Nature has given me more direct means to benefit my own destiny than any other man’s. Hence, obviously, the best mode for me to seek the advantage of aggregate humanity is to make my own advantage my supreme end! Such is the abominable conclusion of the process; and the process is, from these principles, perfectly valid.
Previous Dabney on Sundays:
Divine Justice, Part 1