My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: "O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!"

17 February 2006

Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life
by Sean Michael Lucas

Mostly for good, R. L. Dabney (1820-1898) is seeing something of a revival of interest these days. Dr. Lucas' book is the first in a series by Presbyterian & Reformed focusing on prominent figures in American Reformed thought. Dabney most certainly qualifies. A southern gentleman, a powerful preacher and pastor, friend and staff to Stonewall Jackson, an influential professor at Union Theological Seminary, and a towering intellectual, Dabney does indeed serve Lucas' purpose of showing forth a "southern presbyterian life."

This is an even-handed biography, showing clearly the brilliance of Dabney as he takes on theological liberalism and generaly wishy-washyness and this new-fangled Darwinianism - indeed, it seems that Dabney was one of the church's most prudent objectors to macro-evolution theories, seeing in it far more evil than Charles Hodge did. But Lucas does not hide from the warts, either. It is no secret that Dabney was a racist, and there is simply no excusing his writings on behalf of race-based slavery, or his refusal to support full membership of blacks or qualified black men as pastors in presbyterian churches. Dabney also comes across as overly dogmatic in certain ecclesiastical situations. At least he's got a really kickin' beard.

I do recommend this book, not just as a biography or even a good reformed biography, but as a book that made me think, really think. Here are some questions I'm wrestling with as a result of reading this book:

  • Lucas mentions quite often that Dabney was very concerned to be a professional pastor. For Dabney this meant excellence in everything he did, as well as struggling by his excellence to see the pastorate take its place alongside the other high callings of society (e.g., medical, legal, political fields). This clearly rubs against John Piper's philosophy-of-ministry book, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. Piper's point is that pastors simply cannot desire or find a way to put their vocation on the same shelf as other "professionals," and to attempt to do so is both damaging and prideful. So, now I'm stuck between Dabney and Piper; like Dabney, I wish the pastorate were as respected as it once was and I wish all those in pastorate would give themselves to excellence, especially in their dealings with Scripture. Yet I remained persuaded by Piper that our work is of a different nature than any other work - not that it's better, just that it simply cannot be measured on the same scale. There is no dollar amount you can put on a sermon, there is no way to count the hours of a faithful pastor, and there is no way to equate the spiritual work of pastoring with other vocations.
  • Although I find no good way to take sides in the North vs. South debate that still rages hither and yon, I will admit that I am very offended by Dabney's racism, so much so that it causes me to look askew at other things he wrote; even in his cultural context, how could such a man of God have such a huge, gospel-denying blind spot? More importantly, then: what are my blind spots? What has our society & culture and even my upbringing sewn into my consciousness that denies the gospel? And how do I root it out?
  • How seriously do I view threats upon orthodoxy? How much value do I place upon Biblical, reformed theology? How far am I willing to go to defend it? Over the course of his life, Dabney gave up more and more, from his friends to his professorship to his influence to even his name, in order to defend reformed theology in the southern presbyterian church. It is a testimony of strength and commitment.
Because it made me think and because it is a genuinely good biography, I highly recommend this book.


I added some new bookmarks on the right: Voice of the Martyrs, Prairie Home Companion, and Car Talk. Enjoy.


Tamara said...

Whimper, if only I knew how to read. :( I can write, but reading drives me bonkers.

Ellen Olivetti said...

You mentioned you were offended by Dabney's racism. Don't be too hard on him. You must remember in what era he lived. People honestly believed that black people were sub-human, and children were raised believing that.

Even as late as the 1950s and 1960s, this manifested itself.
Because your Pop Pop came from the deep south (and yet lived in NJ, where I was born, there was a world of difference between metropolitan NY thinking and that of people in the south. Every year, we made the long (three day) drive to Florida to visit my father's family. With no superhighways, I remember passing through many small towns in the south. I remember bathrooms and water fountains marked "Whites Only" and "Coloreds Only." I was amazed by this, because nothing of that sort was openly evident in NJ.

When we got to Florida, we were embraced by the most loving family; my dad's family was just great. Yet, these very same people, who were some of the nicest I knew, were openly racist. They thought nothing of it. It was the way they were raised and objectivity did not enter into the picture.

My cousin, aunts and uncles all believed that blacks were somehow "less" - less worthy, less important, less intelligent - just less. They treated this as a fact and based all other conclusions on that foundation.

We all have to evaluate the way we were raised and the prejudices we carry - whether for black people or for some other ethnic or racial people. And we have to constantly evaluate that in the light of Scripture.

One of the most impressive things i can tell you about my dad was that, one day in Florida, one of my uncles, berating black people in general, asked my dad if he would want his daughter marrying a black man (but he didn't call him a black man; he had another term for him.) My dad, who was brought up in that same atmosphere of racial prejuduce, didn't miss a beat and said, "That would depend on whether or not the black gentleman was a Christian." I was so amazed at his comeback because I knew how far the Lord had brought him in helping him discard those prejudices he was raised with.

Maybe Dabney just didn't get that far.

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