Archive for the ‘Robert L. Dabney’ Category

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

February 23, 2008

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.

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Weekly Update 33 – Robert Murray M’Cheyne

December 15, 2007

I’m currently in the middle of preparing to write up my chapter on the credal history of the free offer of the gospel in Reformed churches, with particular reference to the Westminster Standards.  This involves a lot of fairly dry reading.  So instead of posting on that I’m going to share a few gems from a minister who faithfully preached Christ and him crucified – Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843).  M’Cheyne was one of the greatest of the Reformed preachers of the 19th century and is an example of the preaching which has been heard in the Scottish church in all her best times.  May it please the Lord of the harvest to send forth labourers into the harvest field who are animated with the same Spirit!

When [Christ] wept over Jerusalem… there was much that was human in it.  The feet were human that stood upon Mount Olivet.  The eyes were human eyes that looked down upon the dazzling city.  The tears were human tears that fell upon the ground.  But oh, there was the tenderness of God beating beneath that mantle!  Look and live, sinners.  Look and live.  Behold your God!  He that has seen a weeping Christ has seen the Father.  This is God manifest in the flesh.  Some of you fear that the Father does not wish you to come to Christ and be saved.  But see here, God is manifest in the flesh.  He that has seen Christ has seen the Father.  See here the heart of the Father and the heart of the Son laid bare.  Oh, why should you doubt?  Every one of these tears trickles from the heart of God.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Memoirs and Remains, Banner of Truth, p472

M’Cheyne’s point here is that we can’t simply write off Christ’s weeping over Jerusalem as pertaining only to his human nature.  It tells us something about God.  This is in line with Calvin who believes that in his lament over Jerusalem Christ is speaking as God.  His thoughts are also echoed by Dabney who writes, “Christ [is] the manifestation to us of the divine nature…. It is our happiness to believe that when we see Jesus weeping over lost Jerusalem, we “have seen the Father;” we have received an insight into the divine benevolence and pity. And therefore this wondrous incident has been so dear to the hearts of God’s people in all ages.”

Oh for the… [tenderness/mercy] of Jesus Christ in every minister, that we might long after all! … And here I would observe what appears to me a fault in the preaching of [today].  Most ministers are accustomed to set Christ before the people.  They lay down the gospel clearly and beautifully, but they do not urge men to enter in.  Now God says, ‘Exhort’ – beseech men – persuade men; not only point to the open door, but compel them to come in.  Oh, to be more merciful to souls, that we would lay hands on men and draw them in to the Lord Jesus…  How anxious was Jesus Christ in this!  When he came near and beheld the city he wept over it.  How earnest was Paul! ‘Remember that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears!’
Ibid, p402-404.

I think M’Cheyne hits on something absolutely crucial to the true nature of biblical preaching here.  What he is saying is that to declare facts is simply not enough.  True preaching is patterned after the tears of Christ and Paul.  There must be earnest beseeching and persuading to truly enter into the biblical concept of preaching.

Next week I’d like to post something on Rev 22:17 from James Durham and a member of the Westminster Assembly, William Greenhill.

PS These quotes originally came from David Gay’s book on the free offer: The Gospel Offer is Free, Biggleswade: Brachus, 2004.