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 Dabney’s Systematic Theology, Lecture XXXII, on the fourth commandment.
There is, perhaps, no subject of Christian practice on which there is, among sincere Christians, more practical diversity and laxity of conscience than the duty of Sabbath observance. We find that, in theory, almost all Protestants now profess the views once peculiar to Presbyterians and other Puritans; but, in actual life, there is, among good people, a variety of usages, from a laxity which would almost have satisfied the party of Archbishop Laud, up to the sacred strictness of the “Sabbatarians” whom he and his adherents reviled and persecuted. It is a curious question: how it has come about that the consciences of devout and sincere persons have allowed them such license of disobedience to a duty acknowledged and important; while on other points of obligation equally undisputed, the Christian world endeavors, at least, to maintain the appearance of uniform obedience. The solution is probably to be found, in part, in the historical fact, of which many intelligent Christians are not aware—that the communions founded at the Reformation, were widely and avowedly divided in opinion as to the perpetuity of the Sabbath obligation. A number of the Reformation churches, including some of the purest, professed that they saw no obligation in the Scriptures to any peculiar Sabbath observance; and the neglect of everything except attendance on the public exercise of Christianity, and that cessation of secular labor required by secular statutes was, in them, at least consistent. Now the descendants of these communions, in this mixed country, live dispersed among the descendants of Presbyterians and Puritans; and while they no longer defend the looser theory of their forefathers, they retain the traditionary practices and customs in their use of the sacred day. Thus, by example and the general intermingling of religions, a remiss usage is propagated, which is far beneath the present professed theory of Protestant Christendom. And hence, we conceive that it will be interesting and profitable to give a history of opinions on this subject, before we proceed to that full discussion of the whole grounds of our belief and practice which we shall attempt.
It may be stated then, in general terms, that since the primitive times of Christianity, two diverse opinions have prevailed in the Christian world. The first is that adopted by the Romish, Lutheran, and most of the continental communions in Europe, including, it must be confessed, those founded by Calvin. This theory teaches that the proper sanctification of one day from every seven was a ceremonial, typical, and Jewish custom, established when the Levitical institutions were introduced; and, of course, abrogated by the better dispensation, along with the rest of the typical shadows. The Lord’s day is, indeed, worthy of observance as a Christian festival, because it is the weekly memorial of the blessed resurrection, and the example of the primitive Church commends it; not because its obligation is now jure divino. The cessation of our worldly labors is a beneficent and commendable civil institution; and while the magistrates enjoin it, is, for this reason, of course to be practised by all good citizens. Public and associated worship is also a duty of Christians; and, in order that it may be associated, it must be upon a stated day and hour; and what day so appropriate as this, already famous for the great event of the new dispensation, and set apart by civil laws from the purposes of business. But this is all. To observe the whole day as a religious rest, under the supposition of a religious obligation, would be to Judaize, to remand ourselves to the bondage of the old and darker dispensation.
The second opinion is that embodied in the Westminster symbols, and, to the honour of Presbyterianism be it said, first avowed in modern times, even among Protestants, by that party in England. This is, that the setting apart of some stated portion of our time to the special and exclusive worship of God, is a duty of perpetual and moral obligation (as distinguished from positive or ceremonial), and that our Maker has, from the creation, and again on Sinai, appointed for all races and ages, that this portion shall be one day out of seven. But when the ceremonial dispensation of Levi was superadded to this and the other institutions of the original, patriarchal religion, the seventh day did, in addition, become a type and a Levitical holy-day; and the theory admits that this feature has passed away with the Jewish ceremonial. After the resurrection of Christ, the perpetual Divine obligation of a religious rest was transferred to the first day of the week, and thence to the end of the world, the Lord’s day is the Christian’s Sabbath, by Divine and apostolic appointment, and is to be observed with the same religious spirit enjoined upon the patriarchs, and the Israelites, abating those features which proceeded from its ceremonial use among the latter, and from their theocratic government. . . .
The manner in which it is desecrated, commonly, throughout the Protestant States of the continent is shocking to the feelings and usages of strict, American Protestants; and seems to them to approximate only too much to the license of Popery. But we have now seen that this desecration is not an accidental irregularity: it is the natural and proper result of the theory in which these Churches have been educated since the Reformation. That the greatest and best of the Reformers should have failed to embrace the truth concerning the Lord’s day, is indeed no subject of surprise. That men emerging at a bound from the meridian darkness of Popery into Gospel light should see all things correctly at first, was not to be expected. That they saw so many things “eye to eye,” and erred in so few, is a wonder, only to be explained by the presence of the Spirit of all truth. It is wholesome to become acquainted with their few errors, and to explode them; for it will tend to correct that overweening spirit of party which ever prompts Christians to call themselves by the name of men, like those who said; “I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas.” But it may well be inquired also, whether a part of the spiritual decline which has almost extinguished the true light in the ancient seats of Luther, Calvin, Witsius and De Moor, is not due to this misconception of Sabbath obligation, and its consequent neglect. The sacred observance of one day in seven is God’s appointed means for the cultivation of piety: when piety vanishes, orthodoxy necessarily follows it in due time.
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