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 will now proceed, in the second place, to consider the passages of the New Testament from which the abrogation of the Sabbath obligations has been argued, together with some considerations growing out of them. . . .
The first passage is that contained, with some variation, in Matt. xii: 1-8; Mark ii: 23-28; Luke vi: I-5. The reader, on examining these places in connection, and supplying from the second or third evangelist what is omitted by the first, will find that our Lord advances five ideas distinguishable from each other. His hungry and wearied disciples, passing with Him through the fields of ripe corn, had availed themselves of the permission of Deut. xxiii: 25, to pluck, rub out, and eat some grains of wheat, as a slight refreshment. The Pharisees seize the occasion to cavil that He had thus permitted them to break the Sabbath law, by engaging in the preparation of their food in sacred time; objecting thus against the trivial task of rubbing out, and winnowing from the chaff a few heads of wheat as they walked along. Our Saviour defends them and himself by saying, in the first place, that the necessity created by their hunger justified the departure from the letter of the law, as did David’s necessity, when, fleeing for his life, he employed the shew-bread (and innocently) to relieve his hunger; second, that the example of the priests, who performed necessary manual labour without blame about the temple on the Sabbath, justified what His disciples had done; third, that God preferred the compliance with the spirit of His law, which enjoins humanity and mercy, over a mere compliance with its outward rites; for, in the fourth place God’s design in instituting the Sabbath had been purely a humane one, seeing He had intended it, not as a burdensome ceremonial to gall the necks of men to no benevolent purpose, but as a means of promoting the true welfare of the human race; and last, that He Himself, as the Messiah, was the Divine and Supreme authority in maintaining the Sabbath law, as well as all others—so that it was enough for Him to pronounce that His disciples had made no infraction of it.
The first general view presented hereupon by the anti-Sabbatarians is, that Christ here, for the first time, introduces the freer, more lenient law of the new dispensation, by His Messianic authority, as a substitute for the stricter Mosaic law. The simple and short answer is, that it is the Sabbath as it ought to be observed by Jews, under the Mosaic laws, which our Saviour is here expounding. . . . The whole drift of His argument is to show that when the Mosaic law of the Sabbath is properly understood, (as Jews should practice it,) His disciples have not broken it at all. They have complied with it; and need no lowering of its sense in order to escape its condemnation. Bearing this in mind, we proceed to the second erroneous inference. This is, that our Saviour illustrates and expounds the Sabbath law, by two cases of other laws merely ceremonial, the disposition of the old shew-bread and the Sabbath sacrifices. Hence, the inference, that the Sabbath also is but a ceremonial law. But to those who will notice how entirely the Jewish Scriptures neglect, in their practical recitals and discussions of religious duties, the distinction which we make between the “moral” and the “positive,” this inference will be seen to be utterly worthless. . . . But again: It has been admitted that the external and formal details of Sabbath observance may be of only positive obligation, while the obligation to keep religiously a stated season is moral. It does not, then, at all imply that the substantial observance of such a stated day is not of moral and perpetual obligation, because any of those details concerning the labours of necessity or mercy which are wholly compatible with such observance, are illustrated by comparison with other ceremonial precepts. It is argued again, that our Saviour, in His third point, implies that Sabbath observance is but ceremonial, while the duty of mercy is of moral obligation, when He indicates that if the two clash, the Sabbath observance is to give way. “The positive gives way to the moral.” The force of this is entirely removed by recalling the fact that it is not a failure of Sabbath observance, which He excuses by the argument that the positive should give place to the moral; but it is an incidental labour of necessity wholly compatible with Sabbath observance. There had been no failure. Nor is it true that when we are commanded to let one given duty give place to the higher demands of another, the former is, therefore, only positive, while the latter is moral. There is a natural, moral, and perpetual obligation to worship God; and yet it might be our duty to suspend any acts of worship, to almost any number, in order to meet the demands of urgent cases of necessity calling for our compassion. The wise man expresses precisely the sense of our Saviour’s argument when he says: “To do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.” (Prov. xxi : 3.) . . . Our Saviour, then, does not imply that the Sabbath is an institution merely ceremonial, by comparing it to sacrifice. . . .
The concluding words of the passage, in Matthew, have suggested an argument which is at least more plausible. Calvin paraphrases them thus: “The Son of man, agreeably to His authority, is able to relax the Sabbath-day just as the other legal ceremonies.” And just before: “Here He saith that power is given to Him to release His people from the necessity of observing the Sabbath.” The inference is obvious, that if this is His scope in these words, then the Sabbath must be admitted by us to be only a ceremonial institution; for we have ourselves argued that moral laws are founded on the unchangeable nature of God Himself, and will never be changed, because God cannot change. But this is clearly a mistaken exposition. . . . Calvin, of course, makes this conjunction regard the ceremonials just mentioned: The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath also,” (as well as of matters of shew-bread and sacrifice). But we should almost certainly read the clause without the conjunction: ” If ye had known what this means, ‘I prefer mercy rather than sacrifice,’ ye would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” What force shall we assign to the illative “for,” wholly neglected by Calvin? There is no reasonable explanation of it, but that which makes it introduce the ground on which the innocence of the disciples is asserted. “These men, blamed by you, are innocent; it is enough that I defend them: for I am Lord of the Sabbath. This law is my law. Mine is the authority which enacts it, and if I am satisfied, that itself is innocence in my subjects.” But this is comparatively unimportant. The evident reason which shows Calvin’s paraphrase to be entirely a misconception, is this: As we have said, the whole drift of our Saviour’s argument is not to excuse His disciples, but to defend them. . . . Now, to represent Him as shielding them by asserting a right in Himself to relax the Sabbath law for them, makes Him adopt in the end a ground of defence contradictory to the former. The last argument would stultify all the previous ones. And, as a question of fact, is it true, that Christ did, at this time, exercise His divine authority to relax any Mosaic institution in favour of His disciples? Is it not notorious, on the contrary, that He taught them to give an exemplary compliance in every respect, until the time was fully come after His resurrection?
But to conclude. It is most obvious that, whatever is our exposition of the particular parts, our Saviour’s drift is to unfold the true nature of the Mosaic Sabbath, as then obligatory on Jews still obedient to the ceremonial law, as He admitted Himself and His disciples to be; and not the nature of the Christian Sabbath. The latter was not to be introduced until many months after, as our opponents themselves admit. And this short view is a sufficient refutation in itself.
Previous Dabney on Sundays:
Cruelty of Humanitarian Philanthropy
Preaching, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Doctrinal Confessions, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Divine Justice, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
The African Slave Trade
Women Preachers, Part 1, Part 2. Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Dangerous Literature, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
Spurious Religious Feelings, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
The Virginia Matron, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
The Sabbath’s Moral Perpetuity, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3