D is for Dabney
R. L. Dabney is a very interesting, informative, and, in some ways, controversial figure. He unified at the same time as creating division. He lived during the 1800’s in the southern states and was very much a product of his times. Even today, almost 150 years from his writing, his words are valuable and highly instructive. He was a great intellect and was used by the Lord to influence many people of his day; in fact, he still does. He is an excellent example of old southern Presbyterianism.
Robert Lewis Dabney was born on March 5, 1820. He graduated from Hampden-Sydney College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1837 and received a Master’s degree from the University of Virginia in 1842. In 1846, he graduated from Union Theological Seminary. Dabney was far more than a theologian. He also served as a local missionary, a pastor, a school teacher, a seminary professor, seminary president, inventor (holding several patents), and political economist. He was not only an officer and chaplain in the Army of the Confederate States of America, but ultimately served as Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff. He was even commissioned by Jackson’s widow to author the official biography of this tremendous figure of southern history. He had a rich and varied career which spanned from theology to being of great value in the War Between the States. Many of his writings are still available to us today.
He was a product of the age and culture into which he was born. He was raised with racial prejudice as well as a positive view of slavery. Before the war, this was a very common way of life. He deeply believed that the emancipation would result in catastrophic difficulties for the south. Some of his writings deeply reflected these values. To the reader in the twenty-first century, this may stir sensibilities and scandalize the modern way of thinking, but we must remember the context into which Dabney was immersed. There is positive and negative to anyone’s life. Just like the rest of us, Dabney was an imperfect man. No matter what our opinions concerning the Civil War era, that does not invalidate Dabney’s theological writing or teaching. They are still held in high regard, particularly by the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). A number of his works are still in print and can easily be read.
On the theological side, he is best known for his volumes, Systematic Theology, Penal Character of the Atonement of Christ Discussed in the Light of Recent Popular Heresies, and Syllabus and Notes of the Course of Systematic and Polemic Theology. In terms of political and military writing, we can find his A Defense of Virginia, and Through Her, of the South, in Recent and Pending Contests Against the Sectional Party. He also wrote several biographies including Life of General Thomas J. Jackson and Memoir of Rev. Dr. Francis S. Sampson. This shows well the breadth of his career – so capable in so many areas. He should be celebrated for this success even alone.
Being a Calvinist, the doctrines of predestination and election were highly important in his work. He wrote an excellent pamphlet on the five points of Calvinism. He was quite reformed in his theology and his church polity. At dabneyarchive.com you can find a repository of many of his works without charge. This includes works of political nature, theology, philosophy, preaching, and a few other topics. If nothing else, it makes fascinating reading; anyone who will take the time to survey his writings will certainly find plenty to challenge, encourage, and transform.
Dabney was a theologian who changed the world.
Here are a few quotes indicative of Dabney’s intellect and ministry: “It is only the atheist who adopts success as the criterion of right.” This astute observation on atheism presents the logical fallacy of that manner of thinking. He also had much to say about ethics and the public arena. “There can be, therefore, no true education without moral culture, and no true moral culture without Christianity. The very power of the teacher in the school-room is either moral or it is a degrading force. But he can show the child no other moral basis for it than the Bible. Hence my argument is as perfect as clear. The teacher must be Christian. But the American Commonwealth has promised to have no religious character. Then it cannot be teacher.” The absolute truth of the need for morals and the reality that true morals can only be found within a Christ-centered worldview. Speaking of the well-being of children, his descrition of who is ultimately responsible for our children would be very beneficial today and would fly in the face of the “it takes a village” approach. “It is the teaching of the Bible and of sound Political ethics that the education of children belongs to the sphere of the family and is the duty of the parents. The theory that the children of the Commonwealth are the charge of the Commonwealth is a pagan one, derived from heathen Sparta and Plato’s heathen republic, and connected by regular, logical sequence with legalized prostitution and the dissolution of the conjugal tie.” How more pointed could his words be? An outward assertion that the idea that our children belong to the state is a pagan or heathen idea. We need much more of this kind of preaching today. Lastly, a theological quote deals with our justification as believers. “While our works are naught as a ground of merit for justification, they are all-important as evidences that we are justified.” This is a profound statement on the proper place of grace and works; both are needed, but on their correct placement.
Dabney was a very skilled and talented recipient of God’s grace. He wielded his influence sometimes in all too human terms, but he did have a profound impact for good in addition to areas that most twenty-first century American Christians would find unacceptable. His skills were multi-disciplinary. Few men can provide expertise in theological matters as well as military concerns; to go on to incredible endeavors in inventing as well as authoring proves he was a man deserving of respect. Just as he spoke to his generation, his message merits a second hearing in our culture. He stands as an honorable testimony to southern Presbyterianism.
Comments are always welcome.