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.”
If punishment of sin is only a benevolent expedient to reform the transgressor and repress crime, then the expedient which is most effectual is most just. . . . Here is an outlaw, hardened and desperate in crime, callous to shame, and weary even of his life, whom you propose to curb by penal inflictions. But what cares he for your threats? . . . He defies your threats, and mocks your fiercest severities. Your penal expediency has lost its whole power with him. But now steps forward one of your police-agents and informs you that there is one green spot in that seared and arid heart; that this desperado has a child whom he loves, an only child, a tender daughter, whose purity has strangely exempted her from the contamination of her father’s character. Punish her with stripes; let him look on and see her tender flesh torn with the scourge, and hear her screams; and this rugged heart will relent, which else would look the cruelest death in the face and refuse to quail. The success of the result justifies its righteousness, does it not? “Punitive justice is but a benevolent and necessary expediency to repress crime.” That is the doctrine! In this case, the scourging of tender innocence is most expedient—yea, the only expedient—and therefore the most righteous. Can any human heart consent to this? No! You repel the monstrous iniquity with just abhorrence. Then you must reject the plausible, but hateful error, from which it flows as a necessary consequence.
But there is another difference between human authority and divine, which has been overlooked by this false theory. “Expedients” are the resort only of the weak. Omnipotence has no need of expedients, for it can march straight to its desired ends, and command success in their attainment by whatever road it prefers. All Christians hold that God is omniscient in knowledge and omnipotent in power; that his understanding is infinite, and his power competent to every effect. Now, if benevolence is his exclusive moral attribute, constituting his whole moral nature, God must be infinitely benevolent. His omnipotence makes it as easy for him to prevent transgression by some other system, not involving penal sufferings, as by this expedient. Hence, his infinite benevolence must prompt him to prefer that other system, for thereby there would be a clear gain of the aggregate of happiness to creatures. And if benevolence constitutes God’s whole moral nature, then that aggregate happiness, the largest possible, must be his chief end as to them. Why did he not convert Judas, instead of punishing him? “Had he not the residue of the Spirit?” Here is a father, whose heart is nothing but kindness, as this theory represents. Many of his children are scourged by virulent ulcers; and the pitying father amputates their limbs or burns out the sores with cauteries, lest they should terminate in the worse evil of death, and infect also the other children. But suppose it should appear that this father is able to cure these ulcers radically by a healing word, without more than a momentary pang. Then, if kindness is the only consideration, why did it not decide this father to adopt the latter means for arresting the misery among his children? Why all this gratuitous resort to the knife and cautery? Truly, it would rather seem as though this parent, instead of having a nature made up exclusively of kindness, must be possessed by an unmitigated malignity, which took pleasure in inflicting agony for its own sake.
But especially is it impossible on this theory of expediency to account for everlasting punishments under the government of an almighty God. Here the plea that the penal pain is for the good of the sufferer, is utterly inapplicable, for he is to sin and suffer for ever, without amendment or advantage. Nor will the other plea avail, that penalties are for the prevention of crime in others, for the Scriptures represent the awful infliction as continuing on and on through everlasting ages, after all the penitent shall have been perfected, and all the perfect securely enclosed in the protecting walls of heaven. Why has God adopted this system of just rewards and punishments, resulting, as he must have foreseen, in this measureless aggregate of woe, when his wisdom and power might have provided some other plan which did not include this terrible incident? To this utilitarian philosophy there is no answer. He who holds it consistently should either go consistently to universalism, and assert that there is no hell, or he must deny the omnipotence of God and contradict the sacred Scriptures, and insult its author by saying that he punishes a Judas because he is unable to convert him.
The scheme, my brethren, will not do. “God is love,” and “God is also a consuming fire.” He is infinitely benevolent in all ways consistent with his honor, and also infinitely just. Sin is punished by him, not mainly out of a benevolent expediency, but because its ill desert requires punishment; because the honor of God’s impartial justice, as the infinite sovereign for whose glory all creatures exist, and as the Chief Magistrate of his vast republic, necessitates his dealing with every moral act as it deserves.
Previous Dabney on Sundays: