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. “Comprehension” in this context refers to the ecclesiastical decision of who is a Christian and thus allowed into fellowship.)
A church, whose teachers are not heartily agreed in doctrine, can only have peace within itself at the cost of a Sadducean indifference to truth. Suppose a higher and lower theology beside each other in the same communion, and the former advocated by men who entertain an honest zeal for God’s truth. None but men of this stamp are of any value in propagating the truth and making an effective impression upon the kingdom of darkness. Suppose, also, that the erroneous teachers are equally zealous for their false creed. What can result, except the most unseemly strifes? A part of the testimony of one pulpit is contradicted by another; and both speak by the same ecclesiastical authority! Which shall the laity follow? Or shall this disgraceful contradiction be arrested by a compact, that both parties shall preach only the fundamentals in which both are agreed? Such a covenant the erroneous are never willing to keep, and the orthodox dare not. For no revealed truth is valueless. Every doctrine of the Scriptures is a part of the herald’s message. Any suppression is liable, though not necessarily certain to mislead a soul. Shall I conceal it, and thus possibly get the blood of souls upon my skirts, when the sword comes and takes them without adequate warning? I dare not, and will not. Thus we should be always liable to that preposterous result which a few years ago was presented in the latitudinarian Reformed Church of Paris; in the same pulpit, and by the same authority, A. Monod might be heard, with matchless eloquence, defending that divinity of Christ which his colleagues, the next Sabbath, would assail with equal ingenuity.
Indeed, the ends designed by this so-called comprehension can only be gained by indifferentism, The theory has an obvious tendency to disparage the importance of truth. What clearer proof is needed that, when even we hear the most pious of its advocates, while asserting their own personal orthodoxy, speak of the points assailed by the opponents of the doctrines of grace as the “uncertain” points of the Christian system; while those in which errorists condescend to concur are borrowed as the “certain points”? Tried by such standards, what precious truth would not be uncertain; for which one has not, by its very holiness, provoked numerous dissentients? Such representations are mischievous, as well as unjust to the history of the church catholic. For when we examine the testimonies of its different branches in the purer ages of the reform, we find that they are unanimous in condemning the errors which this modern latitudinarianism would now fain comprehend, as not being certainly erroneous, as the church has always been in asserting the fundamental doctrines of the faith. These loose statements are not true to the glorious consensus of the true Protestant churches. Are any so ill-informed at this day of the church’s history, as not to know that indifference prompts negative preaching, and that this, sooner or later, ripens into positive error? . . .
So benumbing is the spirit of indifferency begotten by this comprehension that its tendency is to extinguish all true life in the church which practices it. Nothing except a prevalent secular motive has usually been able to restrain this tendency; and that motive has usually been presented in the form of a state establishment, or a common political project. An established and endowed church has indeed been seen to survive this spirit of moderatism more than once, and to survive it long. In those cases the power of honest conviction and attachment, knitting kindred minds around a common centre of precious truth, has been so far substituted by the carnal desire for the “loaves and fishes” of preferment, as to keep a heterogeneous body peaceable and numerous. But where this cohesive power of money and place is lacking, the only permanent bond of union, the only effective energizer of concerted action, is a sincere community of convictions. Experience presents us two results from this policy of comprehension, where it has been attempted by unendowed churches: either peace is banished by intestine struggles, which, operating like a harsh medicine, remove the danger of spiritual torpor by separating the discordant elements; or else peace is preserved at the expense of life, and the motley body dies in the stupor of its own indifference. The latter seems to have been the issue of the alliance of 1691, between the Presbyterians of England and a part of the Independents. In that “plan of union,” it was covenanted that the diversities in the testimonies of the two should be suppressed for the sake of outward unity. The bargain was kept; and the result was, that, despite the presence of a Watts and a Doddridge, English Presbyterianism was at the end of the eighteenth century virtually dead, asphyxiated by this dishonest peace, into Socinianism.
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