Robert Lewis Dabney: A Review (Part Two)

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This is Part Two of a review of Dr. Sean Lucas’ biography of the Southern theologian, Robert Dabney.

In Part One of this review, readers were invited to consider the impact of Robert Lewis Dabney’s life and work. This overview of Dabney’s life shows that, like every minister, he was both a saint and a sinner, having both positive and negative impact through his work. Much of Dabney’s negative impact hinged on his appropriation of the Southern ecclesiological “spirituality doctrine” to defend his racist practices. To more fully assess Dabney’s legacy, we must consider both his use of this doctrine and its merits and flaws.

“The Spirituality Doctrine”

Fundamental to Dabney’s systematic and applied theology was his three-part division of biblical application; the Bible gave positive commands, gave negative prohibitions, and left other areas ambiguous, allowing Christian freedom. While this is a common division within Reformed theology, Dabney’s ecclesiology, with its “spirituality doctrine,” added a further qualification. He held that life was divided neatly into the Kingdom of the Church and the Kingdom of the World. The Kingdom of the Church (the sacred) was tasked with matters of salvation, while the Kingdom of the World (the secular) encompassed all other social, common matters. Thus, the Church, as an institution, was authorized to speak clearly on matters pertaining to the Gospel and morality, not matters of civil life. This is the “spirituality doctrine” – the spiritual mission of the institutional Church is to proclaim the Gospel alone, remaining silent on cultural issues where the Bible did not speak definitively.

Dabney appropriated this doctrine throughout his career in numerous ways. He used this doctrine to critique the Northern Presbyterian Church when it passed the 1861 Gardiner-Spring Resolution, which threatened church censure upon Southern ministers who maintained their loyalties to the Confederacy. Dabney took exception by declaring that the Northern Church had subverted the “spirituality of the church” by taking a moral stand on purely social issues. He also used the doctrine to defend slavery. In his book A Defence of Virginia, Dabney attempted to substantiate the claim “that slavery per se was not a sinful social and economic relationship.” In his mind, if he could show that the Bible simply permitted slavery, then the Church could not take a moral stand for or against the institution, but would cede responsibility to individual Christians to decide based on their own consciences. However, as Lucas shows amply, Dabney’s logic and exegesis was thoroughly tainted by racist ideology; therefore his opinions were more cultural than biblical.

Dabney’s efforts to articulate his view of Christian social engagement involved keeping the sacred and the secular distinct, and yet in practice, he often observed these boundaries inconsistently. This is particularly evident in his conviction that, to preserve the “spirituality of the church,” ministers ought not to speak on social issues. Lucas states that, “while Dabney attempted to distinguish between what he did in his official capacity as a minister and what he did as a private citizen, it appeared that he and other Southern Presbyterians gained their entrance into the political debate and exercised their cultural authority as ministers, not as private citizens…The lines between secular and sacred were blurred…by the difficulty of reconciling Christian devotion to one’s country with loyalty to a ‘kingdom not of this world’” (104). Because Dabney’s efforts to keep these two categories distinct were inconsistent and often tainted by sinful beliefs, we must move beyond Dabney himself to better assess this doctrine. For this, we turn to Dr. Lucas’ analysis, offered in the concluding chapter of the biography.

Lucas’ Analysis

Lucas differentiates between Dabney’s doctrinal principles and his application of them. Lucas is sympathetic to Dabney’s doctrine of the “spiritual nature of the Church;” however, he is critical of Dabney’s inconsistent use of the doctrine. Lucas states strongly that Dabney’s racism clouded his biblical interpretation; Dabney failed to see that, biblically, slavery is a moral issue and the Church ought to have spoken against it as such. Racial reconciliation could have been pursued within the strictures of “the spirituality doctrine.” Lucas envisions a more pure “spirituality doctrine,” avoiding the pitfalls of Dabney and other Southern leaders who allowed the culture of racism to wield greater influence over their practice than their theology.

Here, Lucas offers an interesting comparison with Abraham Kuyper’s theology. He charts the similarities and the dissimilarities, noting that in many ways, Kuyper and Dabney envisioned a similar social project – a social sphere where Christians were free to act according to their consciences and a Church free to proclaim God’s word. Kuyper, like Dabney, saw a distinction between the institutional Church and other cultural institutions. For example, Dabney and Kuyper took similar stands on the role of the family in society and on state-funded education. As well, Kuyper noted the spiritual battle between Christ and Satan, termed the “antithesis,” that becomes embodied in the Church’s resistance of sin (i.e., “the World,” or that which is opposed to God). Though there are differences between Kuyper’s transformationalism (with its robust theology of common grace, envisioning a “Christianizing” of the public realm) and Dabney’s more reactive ecclesiology (which sought mainly to distinguish the Church’s boundaries), Lucas observes that the results in history are quite similar. If Dabney’s legacy reflects a tacit embrace of culture over Scripture at certain points (e.g. race relations), Kuyper’s legacy reflects a similar trend; as Kuyper’s followers lost their predecessor’s emphasis on the biblical “antithesis,” the culture became increasingly secularized rather than Christianized.

Thus, the legacies of Dabney and Kuyper demonstrate the imperative for the Bible to remain central in the Church, rather than capitulating to the influence of culture – something both the Dutch Kuyperian system and Dabney’s Southern system needed to heed with greater care. While acknowledging the possibility for a more chastened transformationalism, Lucas returns to the “spirituality of the church” as the more biblical model, stating that “the Christian’s highest priority is what he or she does on the Lord’s Day in the worship of the church. That is where redemption ultimately happens in Word and sacrament.”

A Kuyperian Response

Dr. Lucas’ comparison of Dabney and Kuyper is insightful, because, in addition to offering many unexpected similarities, it demonstrates the fundamental disagreement between Dabney and Kuyper. Dabney’s ecclesiology was founded, primarily, on an impassable boundary between the “sacred” Church and the “secular” World, with the institutional Church remaining silent wherever the Bible was silent; for Dabney, “the Gospel” had nothing to say to social issues. Kuyper, however, re-envisioned the relationship between the sacred and the secular. The distinction between “Church” and “World” has more to do with an attitude of the heart rather than specific institutions. His oft-cited dictum – “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” – means that Christ cares passionately about, and is actively reclaiming under his dominion, all of life – public and private, church and government. There are certainly issues in public life where the Bible does not speak definitively, and these issues require Christian freedom and debate. However, because social issues are often also moral issues, the Church has the obligation to speak into cultural areas clearly, if not definitively, as Christ spreads his kingdom into every square inch of the cosmos.

Because of Christ’s expansive claim, Christians see themselves as agents of reconciliation in every aspect of their lives; Kuyper’s teaching brings to life the doctrine of Christian vocation. In one sense, Dr. Lucas is absolutely correct to insist that worship is the Christian’s highest priority. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism states beautifully, the chief end of humanity is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” However, this glorification is not contained solely on Sunday morning. Rather, as we express our love for God in corporate worship, we become more able to love God in all spheres of life. While worship is indeed an end in itself, it is at the same time the means to an additional end – all of life dedicated to God. In short, church worship equips believers for vocational worship. [1]

These priorities of worship and vocation further inform the Church’s special role in the public sphere. The Church as institution must be a part of cultural dialogue, simply because Christians are called to bring every area of life under Christ’s lordship. As such, pastors have a unique role in their office, teaching congregants how to apply God’s Word in their various vocations to engage the culture for the Kingdom. This is the crux of the matter: the Church as institution is not the entirety of the Kingdom, but rather an indispensable part of the Kingdom – the steward of the means of grace, the engine of discipleship, and the mother of all believers.

Conclusion

Given proper parameters, Dabney’s and Kuyper’s systems are “ecclesial cousins,” and each can sharpen the other. As Lucas notes, a chaste and sober “transformationalism” and a gracious and expanded “spirituality of the Church” could look quite similar in practice. At the same time, there are underlying systemic differences, most significantly, the disagreement concerning the relationship between the Kingdom and the Church. Thus viewed, a few conclusions can be drawn out.

Dabney’s life shows the need to maintain and reexamine the “antithesis.” Once we lose sight of the conflict between the World and the Church, then the Church loses its prophetic voice and baptizes the culture without converting the culture. Similarly, pastors must respect their limits within the public sphere, being faithful without overreaching. Although Kuyperians affirm the ability of the Church to speak to social issues, we must also avoid becoming strident, demanding absolute uniformity in issues where there is legitimate debate. Such stridence goes against Kuyper’s own devotion to pluriformity. Thus, to maintain the ‘antithesis’ while engaging the Church’s proper role in public life, we need our theological argumentation to move beyond mere proof-texting; after all, it was simplistic proof-texting that led many Americans to defend the institution of slavery. In developing robust theological ethics, the Church will properly witness to Christ’s lordship in the public realm, calling Christians to faithfulness in every area.

Ultimately, Dabney’s life calls us to humility. With humility, we can confess the sins of the fathers and seek to heal the wounds that came from their pens and actions; as well, we learn to appreciate their God-given successes. Kuyper, too, had sinful views on race, yet God still works through his labors. With humility, we see ourselves rightly, both beautiful and broken. With humility, we can be a Church for the World, while recognizing that Christ is the sole Redeemer of all.

~~~~~~~~

[1] I’m sure that Dabney would agree with this sentiment in general – Christians are supposed to be faithful in their work. However, I believe that the neo-Calvinist tradition offers a more robust and dignifying doctrine of vocation, namely, all vocations are Kingdom work, rather than common work. This distinction can be seen in the contemporary debate between transformationalism and Two Kingdoms theology.

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.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Robert Lewis Dabney: A Review (Part One) | Allkirk Network - December 4, 2014

    […] 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. […]

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