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 have begun posting 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 a sermon Dabney preached at the 1871 Presbyterian General Assembly, entitled “Broad Churchism.” (Note that the term “latitudinarian” refers with negative connotations to those who are widely tolerant of other religious views and feel that matters of doctrine, liturgical practice, and ecclesiastical organization are of relatively little importance.)
Thus is suggested to us a fatal objection to this so-called theory of comprehension: that the church as a body will bear no distinctive testimony for Christ, co-extensive with his commission to her. As a body, she arrests her testimony at those fundamental truths which all must adopt in order to hold the Christian name in the judgment of charity. Whenever any such weak brother in the faith takes exception against any of the other doctrines, all of which are profitable for instruction in righteousness, she forthwith drops that from her organic testimony, though she may be convinced that it is a part of Christ’s teaching. Then is she, to that extent, recreant to her great end as an associated body. It may be that persons in her pale deliver a distinctive and full testimony for Christ, but it is also testimony against their own comrades, who claim an equal ecclesiastical right to deliver a testimony against them and against Christ their master. There may be much individual right testimony, but there is no complete church testimony. The tendencies of such a state are either to make the body a “house divided against itself,” which “cannot stand,” or to resolve it into a mob of discordant individuals, and thus to terminate its visible church character. That this conclusion is just, the latitudinarian himself virtually proves when he is constrained to repudiate the official declaration of some brother who has come to dispute some article of the short creed which has been adopted as their church covenant. The communion must disavow and exclude that dissentient from the ranks of her ministry, or he ceases to have even the short latitudinarian creed. The principle is conceded. Then if we are right in believing that Christ has given his church a fuller creed to witness, the same principle sustains us.
This demonstration is enhanced by the fact that the truths of redemption are a connected system. To say that it carries evidence to the human reason is to admit that its several propositions must have a logical dependence; for if the reason of man has any methodical law, a corresponding method must appear in that set of affirmations which are to commend themselves to the reason as truths. When, therefore, the advocates of doctrinal license say, meaning to utter a reproach, that “orthodoxy is remorselessly logical,” they have in fact spoken the highest praise. That it is logical in the dependence of its propositions is one of the prime signatures of truth. The revealed system is a regular arch; the removal of the smallest stone loosens another, and that another, until the very keystone is shaken and the whole structure endangered. The surrender of a point of doctrine not fundamental to salvation endangers others more important than itself. When men once begin to drop out a part of “the testimony of Jesus,” “their word will eat as doth a canker.” (2 Tim. 2:17). What pastor does not know how original sin and regeneration stand or fall together, or Christ’s divinity and justification? But let us consider an instance less obvious. Does God’s foreknowledge of the future generate his purpose concerning it, as in some of the thoughts of his rational creatures? Or is the reverse true of the infinite supreme cause: that his eternal purpose generates his foreknowledge of the future? A question this, you will say, nice, abstruse, far remote from the practical issues of faith and redemption. Well, I believe that many an imperfect believer who has answered it wrong is now glorified through the mercy of God in Christ. But he who follows the two propositions to their strict consequences must at last admit that if it is true that God’s foreknowledge always generates his purpose; then the “election of grace” is conditioned on some foreseen spiritual good in man. Then the sinner’s will must be self-moved, in its first action, to quicken itself to choose God as his spiritual good. And then native depravity is not radical; and the lost sinner should be taught to look to himself, rather than to Christ, to initiate his salvation and to preserve it. Thus this very remote abstraction will become so practical as to modify every prayer which comes out of the believing sinner’s mouth, if he is only sufficiently consistent in his logic.
Thus the rejection of a truth not fundamental may jeopardize those that are. Do you ask: Will not this virtually abolish the distinction, making all error, even the least, necessarily destructive, since the less leads on so logically to the greater heresy? I reply, there is always some liability to such a result, in the man who adopts any substantive error in theology; but he is not regularly subject to it, because the spirit and providence of God, who loves him if he is a true penitent, guard him against the natural consequences of his error, and maintain in him a principle of holiness whose tendencies are stronger than the logical tendencies of a defective creed. But the herald and teacher of others is expected to be thoroughly informed and to have logical consistency of mind. “Every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.” (Matt. 14:52.) There are two reasons for not tolerating in them, as teachers, the error which we lament in the private Christian whom we yet embrace as a brother. That the mind of the educated, professional man is more likely to be consistent in its error, and to push it to mischievous results; and that he who undertakes to guide others, especially where immortal souls are the irreparable stakes, is justly required to attain unto a fuller accuracy.
Previous Dabney on Sundays:
Cruelty of Humanitarian Philanthropy
Preaching, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Doctrinal Confessions, Part 1, Part 2