Robert Lewis Dabney: A Review (Part One)

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This is Part One of a two-part review of Dr. Sean Lucas’ biography of the Southern theologian, Robert Dabney.

Robert Lewis Dabney is one of the more polarizing figures in American Presbyterian history. Depending on whom you ask, Dabney was a staunch defender of biblical authority and the Westminster Standards, an important leader upholding the Southern Presbyterian “spirituality of the church,” and a faithful pastor and theologian. Or you might find that Dabney was a racially prejudiced Southerner, who used a fallacious doctrine to give his racist practices and views a biblical veneer – though a “faithful Presbyterian,” his primary legacy is the negative impact on race relations in the Church. Dr. Sean Lucas advances the discussion beyond these simplistic polarities in his biography, Robert Lewis Dabney, by offering a nuanced and evaluative portrait of Dabney’s life and work. [1]

Having grown up in the South, I have a tense relationship with the legacy of Southern Presbyterianism that remains a part of the PCA’s history. I have trouble seeing through the explicit racism of some of these churchmen to see their valuable contributions in other areas of theology. As such, I initially started this book expecting to be frustrated. However, I was quickly drawn into the story of Dabney’s life and ministry. Dr. Lucas offers an excellent work of history, sympathetic to the man while offering unflinching criticism of his problematic decisions or positions. Because of Lucas’ honest picture of this Southern churchman, modern readers are enabled to glean from Dabney’s virtues, while assessing his profound flaws.

By situating Dabney within the pre- and post-Civil War South, Lucas demonstrates that Dabney serves as a model for understanding the ideologies of the Southern culture and Southern church – Old School Presbyterian, anti-modern philosopher, a true believer in the just cause of the Confederacy, opposing abolition and advocating political conservatism. Lucas explores these themes at every stage in Dabney’s life, from seminarian to pastor to scholar and churchman. He demonstrates how Dabney’s theological convictions (Scriptural inerrancy, strict subscription to the Westminster Standards, ‘spirituality of the church’) and his societal convictions (pro-Confederacy, pro-slavery, hierarchical, republican, agrarian) interacted as he attempted to produce a holistic systematic theology of Church and State for the Southern Presbyterian Church before and after the Civil War.

This system of theology stemmed from Dabney’s convictions that actions and beliefs could be divided into three categories: what the Bible affirms, what the Bible prohibits, and what the Bible is silent about. Dabney’s ecclesiology allowed for church courts to speak to the first two categories, shaping Christian action in conformity to the Bible’s clear teaching. For the third category, where the Bible made no positive or negative command, the Church ought to remain silent. Dabney’s “spirituality doctrine” stated that the Church’s ministry of Word and Sacrament must remain separate from social matters – the role of the institutional church was to win, nourish, and guide souls, not form societal politics where there were no clear biblical demands. When properly interpreting Scripture, this view allowed Dabney to be a gifted and strong combatant for the faith against the rise of modernity. However, when his views were more cultural than biblical, this doctrine permitted Dabney to foster racism in the church under the guise of “Christian liberty.”

Because Dabney’s “spirituality” ecclesiology formed an intimate part of his overall work, but is not simply the whole of it, this review will be divided into two parts. Here, Dabney’s key positive and negative contributions will be considered, with the initial conclusion that Dabney’s complicated legacy ought to make us more humble in our own work and thankful for God’s sovereignty. In the second part, I will critically engage Dabney’s “spirituality doctrine.”

Positive and Negative Impact

Rising from his core commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible, one of Dabney’s most positive contributions was a strong and coherent critique of philosophical modernism, or positivism – in his terms, “the sensualistic theology.” Dabney understood the modernists to be empiricists who would only trust in that which could be logically proven through observable data. They dispensed with the metaphysical of any sort, fighting against the concept of miracles or the assertion that biblical revelation could have the last word over scientific data. Dabney presented a multifaceted attack on this positivism, tracing out its materialism, fatalism, and utilitarianism. He pointed out their philosophical inconsistencies, namely that the modernists, while attempting to jettison any “laws of thought” not empirically verifiable, actually depended on some of these “innate norms” to make their arguments; specifically, they depended on logic, the predictability/regularity of events, and “the trustworthiness of sensation.” Ultimately, Dabney developed his argumentation from the reality that all humans have a longing for God, trusting that humanity would continue to pursue spiritual truth out of this universal thirst for relationship with the divine.

Dabney applied his critique of modernism to the ideas of evolution, undermining evolutionist thought on the basis of materialism and philosophical inconsistency. In these debates, we see Dabney’s desire for the Church to uphold the Bible as authoritative where it clearly spoke, honoring God as author of the created world. He showed himself to be an able philosopher and broad reader. As such, his conclusions still have force today, allowing Christians to enter the debate over evolution, recognizing the faith commitments on display in each theory.

Dabney’s most troubling legacy is his social theory of hierarchy and its relationship with racial subjugation. Dabney was concerned with growing cultural egalitarianism (encapsulated in feminism and abolitionism). To counter these egalitarian movements, he advocated “Bible Republicanism,” with the basic social unit being households under the authority of and represented by the white father and master. These households were comprised of the father and mother, children, and slaves. Here we find Dabney’s conflation of biblical paradigms and American ideals; Lucas writes: “Dabney was convinced that his Bible Republicanism was scripturally sound because it was advocated by Job and the apostle Paul as well as by George Washington and John Adams” (182).

This conflation of the Bible with cultural views extends most problematically to the sphere of race relations. Dabney fiercely opposed abolitionism and defended slavery through his understanding of Scripture; however, as Lucas notes amply, racism clearly underlies Dabney’s biblical interpretations. In keeping with his ideal hierarchical society, Dabney viewed slavery as the appropriate permanent state for Africans due to “the peculiar moral degradation of a part of the race.” Because of this “moral degradation,” it was the God-ordained duty of white Americans to govern them, in large part through the system of slavery. Thus, attempts to free the slaves were against God’s design; Dabney taught that the “Word is on our side, and the teachings of Abolitionism are clearly of rationalistic origin, of infidel tendency, and only sustained by reckless and licentious perversions of the meaning of the Sacred text.” It is clear that Dabney’s unacceptable view of Africans was shaped by racial prejudice, not the biblical doctrine of creation, where all persons are made in the image of God and are owed dignity and respect as such. The result of Dabney’s social theology was to defend a racist system as biblical, indeed the “one safe position for the sacramental host: to stand on the whole of Scripture. And refuse to concede a single point” (182).

Once slavery was outlawed following the Civil War, Dabney attempted to preserve this societal distinction by demanding church segregation. Dabney refused to support proposals that would create a united, interracial church, with African-Americans holding church offices alongside whites; he could not, in the end, stomach the idea of the ecclesiastical equality of African Americans. Instead, he advocated supporting, even funding, separate institutions for blacks. His fervent argumentation won the day, setting “the ‘racial orthodoxy’ of the Southern Presbyterian church for the next hundred years” (149). Thus, in the sphere of race relations, Dabney failed his ecclesiology; instead of building a church that was a Kingdom apart from the culture, Dabney’s church instead embodied the culture of racial prejudice and fear that marked much of the pre- and post-Civil War South.

Gleaning from Dabney’s Legacy

Lucas’ comprehensive analysis of Dabney’s positive and negative contributions offers some helpful ways for American Presbyterians to appropriate the work of this influential man. First, we can be thankful that God continues to build his church using faithful and flawed humans. Throughout the biography, readers see Dabney for who he is: both beautiful and broken. Dabney was prideful and had racist ideas that motivated sinful church practices. At the same time, he was a man seeking to live a godly life – spiritually devout, passionate about evangelism and church growth through missions, committed to the formation of ministers. This reality allows readers to resist holding Dabney either as a saint or a devil; as well, this motivates humility, as all ministers seek to be faithful, yet, because of sin’s impact, can do damage as well as good. Above all, we see how our God is quite generous to use broken individuals and quite powerful to use broken efforts to further his Church.

On a similar note, Dabney’s legacy forces us to grapple with how we lean on the work of these flawed theologians within our own context. For example, Dabney’s racism does not nullify his insights into modernity; therefore, we ought not demonize everything he said, but can learn from the areas of his strength. At the same time, we must examine if we should continue to use his work, because his harmful views often outweigh his good; the racism of the past hinders the work of racial reconciliation within our churches today. There needs to be an open conversation within the PCA about how best to appropriate the mixed legacy of our Southern heritage, perhaps moving towards theologians who embody the best of our tradition without the baggage of racism. These decisions need to be made in community, listening carefully to the voices of our brothers and sisters of color in our denomination, as they give insight for speaking of our shared history with humility and repentance.

Finally, Dabney teaches us that we need to be circumspect about our own exegesis and theologizing. His views on race were clearly motivated by hateful ideology rather than the biblical text, yet he believed the Bible allowed freedom on the slavery issue because he saw no clear prohibition of slavery. When facing issues such as race, creation care, fertility, and family issues, pastors and congregants need robust theological discussion to discern where God is indeed speaking clearly, even if there is no explicit command or prohibition; likewise, we must remain careful to not bind consciences where there is room for Christian freedom. This conclusion leads directly to an analysis of Dabney’s ecclesiology, in Part Two.

~~~~~~~~~

[1] I’m thankful to P&R Publishing for providing a review copy of this book.

About Billy Boyce

Billy is a pastor in Arlington, Virginia. His work and life aim to see Christ's Gospel embodied in the community of the Church for the sake of the world and the glory of God.

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