Racism, White Confederate Theologians, and Justification by Faith Alone

The other day, I read an article by the internet megaphone of Dr. John Piper, “Desiring God.” The article is titled “Providence Is No Excuse: Exposing a White Supremacist.” In this blog post, I want to respond to some of the statements and even suppressed premises of the article in a systematic fashion.

As the title of the article indicates, the author seeks, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2018, to expose the white supremacy of a certain theologian—a man by the name of Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898). R.L. Dabney, as the article states, was one of the most revered Reformed theologians of the nineteenth century; he was admired by men of such great caliber as Charles Hodge at Princeton. In fact, Hodge at one point begged Dabney to come to Princeton to fill a spot in the church history department, an offer which, to Hodge’s disappointment, Dabney turned down.[1]

Dabney is most famous, most certainly, for two things: 1) his defense of the Confederacy and 2) his defense of slavery. (I am still unsure, to be honest, whether Dabney defended the American form of slavery, or the idea of slavery in general.) Nevertheless, Dabney, living in his prime through the ugliness that was the American Civil War, fell, as they say, “on the wrong side of history,” virtually on all accounts. He supported slavery, and defended the Confederacy, as far as I can tell, to his dying breath.

Before I proceed in addressing the Desiring God article, I would like to emphasize few things. First, Dabney was wrong about slavery. This the article gets right. Some of his comments about African-Americans are indeed shocking, even appalling, and they should be named what they are: racist. Second, racism is evil. There should be no dispute about this. There is nothing in Scripture that gives even the slightest hint that racism is a virtue to be desired. Rather, it is a sin to be named and expunged from our lives. Third, the intent of this blog post is not—I repeat: not—to defend Dabney in any of his racist beliefs or defenses of slavery, in whatever form or fashion he envisioned it. If you, reader, are not willing to accept these my working assumptions, then, please, do me a favor and do not continue reading what I have to say.

The article begins very well. The author’s first sentence: “History teaches us that proper thought does not necessarily lead to proper action.” Amen! This is a sad fact of fallen humanity. Humans are by nature hypocrites; we say one thing and do another. Unfortunately for our fellow humans—our companion image-bearers—this fact spills over into they way we treat each other. Violence ensues: wars, factions, coups, tensions, murders, slander, and, of course, slavery.

The author then focuses in on American racism. Right again. No one with a sound mind will deny that America has had no flowery history when it comes to the treatment of darker-skinned human beings. America literally was given birth in and by it, and we still feel the effects of it today. No one—myself especially included—denies that.

Everything the author has said so far has been absolutely right, and should not be denied.

My issue with this article, however, comes with the third paragraph, which states:

…for those of us who are white, Reformed, American Christians, eulogies to King sound hollow while the echoes of white supremacy still haunt our halls. Just because we embrace traditional Reformed orthodoxy does not mean we have not afflicted atrocious injustice on our fellow human beings.

Although my reaction now is a little more nuanced and multifaceted, my initial reaction went something like this: “Well, damned if you do, damned if you don’t!” What I mean is this. One of King’s most famous complaints against the white community of his day was their silence over racism; that sentiment is shared by many today. Silence for them is, at the very least, tacit support of racism. Well, here’s the problem with the above statement: When white people are silent about racism, they are racists; when they speak out about it, they are “hollow.”

That’s what I read in this statement, anyway. Now, I acknowledge that I am speaking as a white person. However, it sometimes seems to me that, in the course of some discussions about racism, the white person will be shamed or blamed in some way, regardless of their efforts, intent, or heart. In my experience, this is becoming more and more common. I remember vividly a class I took here at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on Christian worship. We had to read a book by a former TEDS graduate who was quite passionate and vocal about her stance on social justice, particularly as it involved minorities. She took several opportunities in her book to cast judgment upon, underhanded jabs at, and give lectures to her white readers, often with little apparent attempt to make genuine reconciliation. The intent often seemed merely to guilt. One of my classmates—also a white male—made a comment about the book that I remember well: “I get so frustrated at these books sometimes because I feel that, as a white male who is genuinely concerned about racial issues, I come to these books looking for help, but I only get shouted at.” I resonated with this. (That I have let this blog post sit in my “Drafts” box for over a week now, wondering if I should post it for fear of the reaction from some of my TEDS colleagues, is, I believe, another testament to this sad reality.) And I feel the same frustration with this article. If you fail to eulogize King, you are a racist sympathizer; if you eulogize him, you are “hollow.”

I think this line of thinking is again manifested in the author’s next statement: “Just because we embrace traditional Reformed orthodoxy does not mean we have not afflicted atrocious injustice on our fellow human beings.” My issue with this should be obvious. Where, exactly, have I “afflicted atrocious injustice” on anyone? Of course, I would not be so naïve as to believe that I have never afflicted injustice on anyone. I am a sinner, am I not? However, I would hardly chalk up anything I have ever done to “atrocious injustice.” What, then, does the author mean by this? This is where I become concerned. Is this “atrocious injustice” my “whiteness”? Am I an oppressor merely by virtue of the fact that I am white? Or, am I being held personally responsible for my racial and theological forefathers (such as Dabney)? It seems that this is the only alternative, and it is a narrative that, frankly, seems to me to be as unhelpful as it is fanciful—not to mention just plain offensive and hurtful. I do not deny that, as a white male, I have privileges in this country that many people of color are not afforded. However, is this language a little extreme? I think so. Again, this seems to be a case of being shouted at rather than helped. One thing is for sure: it does not inspire in me, as a white person, the desire to offer myself to the author’s cause.

The article goes on to address Dabney directly. I agree with many of the things the author says about him, and I have no reason to disagree with him. Dabney did indeed defend slavery, even with the argument from divine providence (which I am frankly surprised to see coming from the pen of a man with as great an intellect as Dabney). I would like to emphasize yet again (so as to disarm certain people who may read this blog post), we should be quick to take note people like Dabney for their failures in thinking, especially when they, as the author of this article says, “should know better,” a statement with which I agree. Dabney knew better, I believe; being “a man of his time” is certainly no excuse. I think the author does a good job of pointing out Dabney’s error in a concise and convincing way.

In fact, I don’t have another issue with this article until the conclusion, entitled with the subheading, “Echoes in Our Day.” Most of the conclusion is very good. Yes, “white Reformed Christians should acknowledge, lament, and repudiate such toxic and deadly doctrinal distortions” as Dabney and others propagated—without hesitation!

But, what of this next paragraph?

Robert Dabney’s influence has not disappeared in Reformed circles. His books are still being repackaged, reprinted, and sold. He is still quoted in our own books without caveat or qualification. We cannot turn a blind eye to the sins of Dabney. Those of us who would trumpet “the supremacy of God in all things” need to be sure we aren’t also trumpeting “the supremacy of white culture in all things,” even if unwittingly.

Again, there are so many things that are good in this paragraph, especially this: “We cannot turn a blind eye to the sins of Dabney.” Indeed, this should be our hermeneutic for all the historical figures we engage. Why? They, like us, were all sinners, and they all had blind spots—some big ones.

But, why does this author feel the need to comment on the fact that Dabney’s books are still being printed, sold, read, and even quoted? Here is where I was and still am deeply disturbed by the article, even in the midst of so many good statements. This concern of the authors—the concern about Dabney’s books—did not come out of thin air; no, it came from somewhere. But where? Here is the source I fear: This author has as an underlying premise—along with, I fear, many evangelicals—that the very fact we are printing, selling, and reading Dabney’s works means we are in reality supporting everything he taught and believed.

My response is simple: This just isn’t true, and it need not be the case. Are we really willing to apply that principle to everything we read? Are we not going to read Augustine because he had some negative things to say about women, or because he advocated governmental force to suppress the Donatists? Are we not going to read Calvin because he did not offer his own body to be burned in an effort to save Servetus from death? Are we not going to read Edwards because he owned slaves? (I actually find this to be an unfortunate omission from Desiring God, who is the primary popular venue by which Edwards’ theology and philosophy is spread.) Even worse, are we not going to read the writings of the Apostle Peter because he was over the course of his life a gospel-denying, legalist-leaning, anti-Gentile? Of course not; such a philosophy is absurd, and our practice confirms it (i.e., because we read all of these people without thinking twice about it).

That leads to my next question. Why out of all the sins committed by these men listed above is racism the cardinal? Let me emphasize for a third time, racism is wrong, and it is terrible. It offends God and neighbor alike. But, why is this the sin that, if someone commits it, ends the possibility of us ever finding any value in them as Christians? That is why hovering above this concern of mine is an even greater concern: justification by faith alone. Why? Simply put, I fear that, with all of this “exposing” going on in many of the evangelical blogs and websites (i.e., to the level of “don’t read this author because they committed this particular sin we really don’t like”), we are denying the very article on which, as Martin Luther put it, our entire faith turns. How? Well, judging by the statements made by this author above, it would seem that we should not merely be quick to call Dabney out for his racism (which we should), but we should also not read, print, or sell any of his works. Why? I can come up with no other reason than this: his sin makes his writings as a Christian worthless, or at least of very little value. In fact, it may even be sinful to buy his works! (This may seem like a caricature, but why else would the author express concern about someone’s writings merely being “sold”? It is difficult for me to conclude otherwise based on what I read.)

Besides blatant censorship, how is this anything but a denial of justification by faith alone? Was Dabney justified, or was he not? If we want to argue that he was not justified—that he was not a Christian at all—that is another thing, and we can go there, if one is really comfortable with such legalism. But, this author made no assertion of the sort. How, then, do we reconcile 1) the fact that Dabney was both justified and indwelt by the Spirit of God with 2) our refusal to think that anything he had to say was God-honoring? Personally, I don’t think we can reconcile the two. This, frankly, is why I read, and even quote, Dabney (look on my Facebook status feed). In fact, I spent the better part of my Christmas break last month reading some of his works. I found him to be very helpful and edifying. Does that make me a racist, a tacit supporter of his error? If it does, then I think my thesis here is confirmed; if not, then what is the issue? Can I not read Dabney for the good he has to say (which is a lot, by the way; the man was utterly brilliant) while at the same time calling racism exactly for what it is, and thereby throwing it out, maybe even learning from it?

In conclusion, I fear that, amid all of the effort to battle the racism that still exists in our culture, our nation, our world, and even our own souls, we have drifted into an area which our Protestant theology should find troublesome. Friends, it is possible to read theologians of the past, even greatly sinful ones, with great benefit, and even edification in the Spirit. Why? Because the Spirit works through sinful people, sometimes awfully sinful people. Are we truly ready to deny that he has and does? Even worse, are we really ready to deny our own great sin? (Do I really need to mention our general silence over abortion as a evangelicals?) You see, in my view, if we take the standards implicit in this article seriously and apply them fairly, is there any Christian literature which can or should be read? Indeed, is there even any biblical writings—inspired by the Holy Spirit—that are worthy of our consumption? These are honest questions that should be answered honestly.

So, I would like to suggest that, instead of expending so much effort on “exposing” individuals of the past (which really does nothing because the standard is never applied fairly; e.g., Jonathan Edwards as mentioned above), foisting guilt upon unsuspecting supposed perpetrators (many of whom actually wish to help), and offering advice which, when considered for a moment, is founded upon rather unreasonable premises, we should expend our efforts in constructive ways, moving forward for those who are alive today. I hope I made it clear in this article—multiple times—that I am not arguing that we should forget the past, or the sins of our predecessors; absolutely not. We should learn from their mistakes. But, when our consternation devolves into aggression, and when aggression devolves further into forgetting our Protestant theology, that is when, in my humble opinion, we need to tap the brakes, shake the fog out of our heads, and press forward again.


[1] See this lecture by Dr. Iain Murray on the life of Dabney.

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One thought on “Racism, White Confederate Theologians, and Justification by Faith Alone

  1. Pingback: On Censoring Dabney and Denying “Sola Fide” – βιβλιοσκώληξ

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