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.”
On like grounds, I assert that such a salvation as is imagined by this humanitarian theology would be as corrupting to men as dishonoring to God. It is easy to retort on the advocates of that scheme, with crushing effect, the charges which they fling upon the moral effects of our gospel. They flout the idea of an intrinsic obligation to penalty in every sin. They say the pretended justice which demands it is but barbarian revenge cloaked under the veil of equity, and the creed which symbolized this necessity of just retribution by the perpetual stream of sacrificial blood, was but “a theology of the shambles.” They declare substitution and imputation immoral. But I forewarn you, when you hear one of these advocates of “advanced thought” babbling this shallow creed, if he be not only babbling in the idleness of his conceit, you had best regard him as a man not to be trusted. He is shamelessly confessing his insensibility to moral obligation. The obligation of ill-desert to penalty is as original as the right of well-desert to its reward. He who boasts his indifference to the one will not be slow to betray his indifference to the other. He who is ready so flippantly to strip his God of his judicial rights will not stickle to plunder a fellowman of his rights. In this theory of sin, punishment and atonement, he has adopted the creed of expediency, as distinguished from that of just principle. Will he not act on a similar one in his own affairs? Worse than all, he has fashioned to himself a God of expediency. Nothing on earth can be so corrupting to the soul as to have an imperfect or corrupt model exalted upon its throne as the object of its adoration, the standard of its imitation, the regulator of its principles and conduct. It is of the inventors of idols that the Psalmist says (cxv. 8), “They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.” As the arrow is ever prone to sink somewhat beneath the mark, so will human imitation degrade itself always below the level of the God whom it has proposed to itself; men will ever allow themselves more license than they impute to their divinities.
Nor can any preceptive stringency in the law of God repair this corrupting effect. God has, indeed, spoken plainly enough to us as to the code of ethics on which he requires us to act. He tells us that we are in no case to sacrifice principle to policy or simple justice to kindness. “Neither shalt thou countenance a poor man in his cause.” (Ex. xxiii. 3.) ” He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the Lord.” (Prov. xvii. 15.)
If life itself comes into competition with truth or right, life must be sacrificed rather than they. Such is the high and holy standard he has enjoined upon us. But this God has also told us that our holiness is to consist in the imitation of him. Can he, then, adopt a standard of expediency for himself which he has so sternly prohibited to us? But if he could, what effect could his prohibition have on us, save to make us mean and truckling eye-servants? A father prohibits his sons, under the severest penalty, from ever postponing principle to policy, even under the enticement of the greatest advantage. But the sons see their father do the very thing as often as plausible occasion arises. Such a family government as this may make them skulking hypocrites; it can never make them honest men. I repeat, then, that this “school of advanced thought,” which is as old, stale, and trite as Pelagianism, is only an advancement backwards, towards unprincipled morals, and is, therefore, dishonorable to God. Let this, then, be the conclusion of the matter: that God stakes his own glory, which is the supreme ultimate end of all his action, upon rendering to every work according to its desert. Guilt, once incurred, is irremissible before him. God’s attributes of impartial justice, of truth, of holiness; yea, of benevolence also, O sinner! with every right and interest of his vast commonwealth of holy creatures, rise up in adamantine array to forbid your escape from guilt until it is removed by the penal satisfaction of the cross. (Isaiah liii. 5.) But if you will honor God by pleading this satisfaction, then “He will turn again; he will have compassion upon you; he will subdue your iniquities; he will cast all your sins into the depths of the sea.” (Micah vii. 19.)
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