Weekly Update 43 – How not to use primary sources, and some praise of Dabney!

Well I’ve finally managed to get some writing done on my thesis this week.  The chapter I was meant to have finished by the end of January (The Free Offer in Reformed Creeds up to Westminster) is now around 50% done.

In writing up this week I came across one of the most egregious uses of primary sources I have yet discovered in my research.  There was an article in a respected academic journal which aimed to outline the view of the Synod of Dort on the free offer.  The author argued that Dort was against a free offer of the gospel.  After some general points the author examined two theologians in detail, Calvin and Turretin, (neither of whom were contemporary with Dort – one being dead and the other yet to be born!).  Anyway, the author’s thesis is that both these men denied that God desires (in any sense) the salvation of all men (and that they therefore deny the free offer).  He quotes the following from Turretin to support his case and demonstrate Turretin’s understanding of the gospel call:

“It is one thing to will reprobates to come, i.e. to command them to come … another to will that they should not come, i.e. not to will to give them the power to come.” (Turretin, Institutes, 15.2.15, P&R ed 2:507).

So the will of God, for Turretin, in the gospel offer is simply a command you see and nothing more.   Now I thought this quote was familiar to me but felt lacking so I checked the primary source.  I found that the quote misses out four words under the “…” – and can you guess what they are?  Well here they are – “and to desire it”!  So the quote actually reads:

“It is one thing to will reprobates to come, (i.e. to command them to come and to desire it) another to will that they should not come, i.e. not to will to give them the power to come.” (Turretin, Institutes, 15.2.15, P&R ed 2:507).

So the author is making a case that Turretin denies that God desires the salvation of all men while knowingly excluding from a quotation Turretin’s explicit statement that God does (in some respect) desire the salvation of the reprobate.  Is this a responsible handling of the primary sources – simply excluding material from quotes which don’t fit the polemic case at hand?  Now, I’m sure the author had his own understanding of what Turretin meant by “and to desire it” and would explain the phrase accordingly but to simply exclude it from the quotation seems unhelpful to me.  [I have left the author anonymous here, though of course I can’t do this in the actual thesis].

Anyway on to more pleasant things.  For some light relief this week I was reading a few extracts from a PhD thesis on one of my theological heroes, Robert L. Dabney.  As an aside I would commend his Systematic Theology to any interested readers as one of the best Systematics to read – infinitely preferable to Robert Reymond’s recent work which, despite its widespread acceptance, is defective in many areas (among which is the free offer of the gospel).  Dabney’s work was the first ST I read and every time I go back to it I appreciate it more e.g.  as I have read more of the “course reading material” Dabney assigns at the start of each lecture (Calvin, Turretin, Dick, Thornwell, Hodge, etc) I appreciate his interaction with these figures more fully.  Recent criticisms of Dabney as a theologian are unfortunate and misplaced – a correct estimation of Dabney is given by A.A. Hodge in stating that Dabney was “the profoundest thinker and writer on theological subjects, in my judgement, that America has produced”.  (Of course his views on race are to be utterly rejected.  Also don’t be put off by the first 130 pages or so of Dabney’s ST – very hard going.  After that it is all good until his consideration of the establishment principle.)

The Southern Presbyterians of the 19th C as a whole I find very congenial theological companions.  Thornwell, Dabney and Girardeau are all worth reading and studying.  Anyway, the PhD I was reading is called Reflections on the Life and Thought of Robert Lewis Dabney with particular Reference to his views on Divine Sovereignty and Human Free Agency by David Coffin (WTS, 2003).  As an aside, I think this thesis captures the essence of Dabney’s genius much better than Sean Michael Lucas’ recent biography (which is a good and informative read but doesn’t really convey a sense of Dabney’s greatness).  After recounting a theological controversy between Dabney and Girardeau, Coffin quotes the following moving account of their final meeting:

He [Girardeau] and Dr R.L. Dabney did not agree on every point in theology, nevertheless they were warm personal friends.  They had been chaplains together in the Confederate army, they were recognised as the two leading theological teachers of the Southern Presbyterian Church, and in most public controversies they were in harmony.  When, therefore, Dr. Dabney, himself afflicted with blindness, heard of the partial paralysis of his friend, he came to Columbia to visit him.  Their communion was sweet and in a measure the spirit of other days seemed to come back on them.  On Sunday, Dr Dabney preached to the large congregation… on the power of love.  The sermon was one of extraordinary power, and when he came in his discourse to the love of Jesus for his aged servants many in the congregation were weeping.  Dr. Girardeau himself was deeply moved, while the hearty congregational singing, unaccompanied by any instrument of music, seemed to greatly affect Dr. Dabney.  When the service was over the two men came down the aisle together; they were men of imposing presence, each like the son of a king; their faces showed the influence of chastening grace; their foreheads betokened the mighty intellects behind them; venerable men! dignity, goodness, and greatness sat with ease and naturalness upon them.  Dr. Girardeau said: “Doctor, that was a glorious sermon this morning.” Dr. Dabney replied, “This has been a sweet service to me, and the singing carries me back to old Tinkling Spring.” Dr. Girardeau said: “But what will it be in heaven?”  The answer of Dr. Dabney was lost in the trampling of the congregation.  And so blind, and lame these princes of Israel walked on, talking of the past and future worship of God.  A few months after this meeting they both joined the general assembly and church of the first born in the majestic worship of their God and Saviour.
George Blackburn, The Life Work of John L Girardeau, Columbia: The State Company, 1916, 367-8.

Like I said, very moving.

7 Responses to “Weekly Update 43 – How not to use primary sources, and some praise of Dabney!”

  1. cath Says:

    Will you award any prizes if we can correctly guess who was guilty of the Turretin abuse? 🙂

  2. cath Says:

    PS – have been reading your blog on and off for a few weeks – not quite sure how i found it but like the topic!

  3. David Says:

    Hey there,

    Ah you are talking about Engelsma? Yes I found that back in my old EPC church. When Engelsma first write his Hypercalvinism and the Call of the Gospel, he was working from the old Gerstner Selections. Now, dont get me wrong, the critical phrases left out were there too in the Selection. Engelsma pulls the same thing with Calvin and with Turretin.

    I posted on this here: David Engelsma and “Hypercalvinism and the Call of the Gospel”

    And Turretin on love here: David Engelsma and “Hypercalvinism and the Call of the Gospel” (Cont.)

    The entire PRC edifice is built on misinformation and untruths.

    Years ago I tried to show my old EPC friends what Engelsma had done and still they would not admit anything wrong, either with their denial of the free offer and general love, or with Engelsma’s scholarship.


  4. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Cath

    Thanks for your kind words. I hadn’t seen your blog before so it was good to be directed to it. You have lots of excellent material on there.

    I’d better confess whose article it was so no prizes I’m afraid!

    Hi David

    No, it wasn’t Engelsma I was talking about! I agree with your comments on his book though – it was poorly done.

    The actual article was:

    Blacketer, R.A. “The Three Points in Most Parts Reformed: A Re-examination of the So-Called Well-Meant Offer of Salvation.” Calvin Theological Journal, April 2000

    He does the same thing with Calvin as he does with Turretin. He quotes from Calvin’s commentary on Ezekiel 18:23 all the while arguing that Calvin denies that God desires the salvation of all men. However, the relevant section of Calvin’s commentary is never quoted:

    “God desires nothing more earnestly than that those who were perishing and rushing to destruction should return into the way of safety” (Commentaries 12:246).

    Every blessing
    Donald John

  5. David Says:

    Hey Don,

    Ah, now thats interesting. Is Blacketer just unthoughtfully quoting Engelsma do you think? I scanned that article years ago and didnt like it then. Its an article that has popped up as “recommended” in a few of my interactions with hypercalvnists.

    The thing is, hardly anyone is going to the primary sources. As much as the internet frustrates me, it is creating a level playing field tho. Some of us are trying to put primary sources out there for easy access.

    Its just a shame that people are not reading the primary documents.

    Thanks for your work, keep it up.


  6. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi David

    I don’t understand why Blacketer quoted the way he did. It makes no sense to me. Suffice to say the article will not be getting a favourable assessment in my thesis 🙂

    I agree – the PRC historiography (and Blaketer’s) just will not stand an examination of the primary source material. Hopefully my work will demonstrate this beyond doubt in the case of Durham.

    Every blessing
    Donald John

  7. David Says:

    Hey Donald,

    It may be that he just cited it from Engelsma’s book. Engelsma does exactly the same thing. It may be that he just didnt like what he read and so wanted to selectively quote Turretin. It has to be dishonest.

    My former EPC pastor in Australia once quoted whole chunks from Durham on providence (for a paper arguing against common grace in Reformed theology), but everywhere Durham had the phrase “common mercy” or something like that, my pastor deleted it and in its place inserted elipses. I had access to Early English Books on Microfilm (this was before EEBO) and so I was able to verify his “quotes.”

    I cant recall which Durham volume right now as I dont have my copies here.

    So nothing surprises me.

    Thanks and take care,

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