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.”
The affirmative argument of this truth will, briefly, compose the second part of this discourse.
My first appeal is to your own consciences. Every man who believes in a God recognizes the justice of God, and that imprinted on the conscience of the creature, as the same in principles or rudimental nature. For two reasons we must believe this, because our souls were created in the spiritual image of God (of which conscience is the chief lineament which is not obliterated), and because government and governed must avouch and live by the same code of justice, in order that the government may be honored. Let any man, then, dispassionately examine his own conscience, and ask himself why he approves of the punishment of sin. The simple answer of the mind is, because sin deserves to be punished. . . . We judge and feel that the righteous agent deserves well; the wicked agent deserves ill. Desert or ill-desert is inseparable from moral agency. . . . The connection between transgression and punishment, by its ill-desert, is immediate, and morally necessary. . . .
Let me take an instance from the more familiar transactions of human justice. Whenever a secular crime has been committed, flagrant enough to arrest your attention, you feel a certain desire that just punishment shall follow. And when, as too often happens through the arts of unscrupulous counsel, or the incompetency of juries, the criminal escapes his just deserts, you feel as though you had been wronged. You feel that you have a right to complain, and with a certain indignation you cry that “the gallows has been cheated.” Let us suppose now that the discharged criminal turned upon you and asked, “Why this grief in you at my good fortune? Why this heat and sense of wrong? Were you thirsting to gratify your malignity with my blood? Would the sight of my death-agony and of the anguish of my bereaved and dishonored family have been so sweet to you that you coveted to gloat upon it, and begrudge this disappointment of your barbarity?” You, my hearer, would have indignantly repelled such an interpretation of your feelings as an outrage against the truth and yourself. You would have warmly replied: “No, my sentiments were not those of cruelty, but of justice. The sufferings which you deserved would have been, in themselves, no joy to me, but a pain. I complain only that justice is robbed of her dues, and every righteous man is wronged along with her. My heat is not that of cruelty, but of generous justice.” Thus your reason would teach you to distinguish in your own case between malice and justice, and you would instinctively feel that while the sentiment of cruelty and revenge is criminal and odious, that of justice is praiseworthy. Here, again, you find your reason proceeding without hesitation upon the intuitive judgment that punishment is what sin intrinsically deserves. . . .
Is then the punishment of every sin inevitable? “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” (Rom. iii. 24-26.) Here, then, is the fundamental design of Christ’s obedience and sacrifice, to make satisfaction to the justice of God, so that he may be just, and yet the justifier of the ungodly which believeth in Jesus. It is this for which chiefly Christ suffered, that the sin might be righteously punished (in our substitute) and the sinner forgiven. Do men tell us that Christ’s sacrifice was designed to be an example to us; that it was made to be an attestation of the divine pity; that it is God’s expedient to draw us to him by the constraining love of the cross? All this is true. But if any of these objects is advanced as the prime design, the incidental is thrust into the place of the essential. All these statements are subordinately true, but they are true because, and only because, Christ’s sacrifice has satisfied the divine perfection outraged by our sins, and thus enabled our God to instruct and melt and allure us by the example of Calvary without dishonoring his eternal justice. . . .
Let me beseech every soul, then, who is conscious of sin, to pay this tribute to the rights and honor of the divine justice, namely, to accept Christ’s vicarious, penal satisfaction as the necessary provision for the remission of the guilt which he confesses.
To add some of my own commentary: Dabney here shows that true morality requires us to have a concern for justice as a principle of intrinsic worth; we ought to be concerned with justice as such, seeing the correspondence of merit or demerit to righteousness or sinfulness as intrinsically good, independent of other considerations. Morality is not simply a concern for human welfare, as if moral principles involved nothing more than increasing the flourishing and decreasing the suffering of all conscious beings, but also involves separate principles of intrinsic worth, such as justice – and, I would add, truth, beauty, goodness, charity, and many other virtues and principles. These virtues and principles are intrinsically worthy of our regard and reverence, and our moral duties involve a concern not only for human well-being, but also for these principles, ultimately located in and characterized by God Himself.
Contrast this rich and robust view of morality with the logical consequences of atheistic-materialistic ethics. If we have simply evolved by natural selection, being the production of millions of years of matter acting upon matter – somehow resulting in consciousness – then it is extremely unlikely that part of our constitution as free agents would involve some sort of connection with the abstract realm of moral principles and virtues. (This is not to affirm that moral principles and virtues can exist in an atheistic framework, but I’m assuming so for the sake of argument anyway.) Such a concern for the abstract would not necessarily be conducive for the propagation of one’s genes, and morality, if it could exist at all, would involve nothing more than a concern for the welfare of other evolved agents – that is, for the increased flourishing and decreased suffering of all conscious agents. But there could be no concern for justice or other moral principles as such, because any such concern would be entirely out of place. If we are simply evolved medleys of matter, then a concern for the intrinsic and unbreakable connection between wrongdoing and punishment would be far from our cares. But our consciences present this connection as clearly as any.
In sum: only a robust theism can account for our conscience’s careful concern for justice.
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