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.
We proceed now to the attempt to give a full but summary statement of the grounds upon which Presbyterians assert the doctrine of a Christian Sabbath as it is set forth in their Confession. And first: it is most obvious, that if the Sabbath-law contained in the decalogue is “a positive, moral and perpetual commandment, binding all men, in all ages,” and not ceremonial and positive, like the Jewish laws of meats, new moons and sacrifices, it cannot have passed away along with the other temporary shadows of Judaism. If it was not introduced by the Levitical economy for the first time, but was in force before, and if it was binding not on Jews only, but on all men, then the abrogation of that economy cannot have abrogated that which it did not institute. The Apostle Paul justifies us here, by using an argument exactly parallel in a similar case. “The covenant that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law which was four hundred and thirty years after cannot disannul.” Gal. iii: 17. Upon the question whether the fourth commandment was of Mosaic origin, or earlier, the fathers were divided: and this fact is another among the many proofs of their slender acquaintance with the Hebrew literature and antiquities.
That it is a positive, moral, and perpetual command, we argue from the facts that there is a reason in the nature of things, making such an institution necessary to man’s religious interests; and that this necessity is substantially the same in all ages and nations. That it is man’s duty to worship God, none will dispute. Nor will it be denied that this worship should be in part social; because man is a being of social affections, and subject to social obligations; and because one of the great ends of worship is the display of the Divine glory before our fellow-creatures. Social worship cannot be conducted without the appointment of a stated day; and what more reasonable than that the Divine authority, who is the object of this worship, should meet this necessity, by Himself fixing the day for all mankind? And even for the cultivation of our individual devotion, a periodical season is absolutely necessary to creatures of habit and of finite capacities, like us. What is not regularly done will soon be omitted; for periodical recurrence is the very foundation of habit. Unless these spiritual thoughts and exercises were attached to some certain season, they would inevitably be pushed out of the minds of carnal and sensuous beings like man, by the cares of this world. Now, when it is our duty to perform a certain work, it is also our duty to employ all the necessary means for it. The question, whether the Sabbath command is moral or positive, seems, therefore, to admit of a very simple solution. Whether one day in six, or one in eight, might not have seemed to the Divine wisdom admissible for this purpose; or which day of the seven, the first or last, should be consecrated to it, or what should be the particular external ceremonies for its observance; all these things, we freely admit, are of merely positive institution, and may be changed by the Divine Legislator. But that man shall observe some stated, recurring period of religious worship, is as much a dictate of the natural reason and conscience, as immediate a result of the natural relations of man to God, as that man shall worship his God at all. And no reason can be shown why this original moral obligation was more or less stringent upon the Israelites of the Mosaic period, than on men before or since them. If the ground of the Sabbath institution, in the moral relations existing by nature, is universal and perpetual, is it not reasonable to expect the precept to be so also?
This brief excerpt from Dabney brings to light one of the most fascinating issues concerning the moral perpetuity of Sabbath-observance: its being grounded in the nature of things. One of the more intuitive objections against the Reformed understanding of Sabbath-observance is that, according to the nature of the duty, it must be solely positive and not moral. As the objection goes, it does not make sense to say that I am morally forbidden from working in the backyard for an hour on Sunday between church services, in the same way that I am morally forbidden from committing murder. The latter is evidently prohibited by the very nature of the act independently of a positive injunction, but the former would seem entirely permissible (even righteously industrious) except for its being prohibited – and thus cannot be intrinsically immoral. But against this objection, Dabney here explains how Sabbath-observance is indeed grounded in the nature of things, though he also provides the qualification that certain elements of Sabbath-observance are left to be fixed by divine positive command.
Nevertheless, because I find Dabney’s philosophical coverage of the Sabbath’s moral perpetuity to be unclear in certain respects, and to still leave room for variegated anti-sabbatarian objections, I will be posting an article in the future which explicates more overtly the moral perpetuity of the Sabbath. This will more fully answer the previous paragraph’s objection, and it will also show how the fourth commandment contains in principle a great number of other moral facts of reality.
Previous Dabney on Sundays:
The Sabbath’s Moral Perpetuity, Part 1