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Dabney and Certain Objections to Effectual Redemption, (cont.,)

July 23, 2007

In the previous section, Dabney has asserted that in some cases the import of terms like “world” and “all men” can be adequately and legitimately explained as meaning, “people of every nation” without distinction. Thus, whether we agree or disagree with Dabney, on those verses he thinks a basic generality of people from all nations is being described.

So now we come to a small of group of verses which Dabney holds that the former interpretation cannot follow:

But there are others of these passages, to which I think, the candid mind will admit, this sort of explanation is inapplicable. In John 3:16, make “the world” which Christ loved, to mean “the elect world,” and we reach the absurdity that some of the elect may not believe, and perish. In 2 Cor. 5:15, if we make the all for whom Christ died, mean only the all who live unto Him—i. e., the elect it would seem to be implied that of those elect for whom Christ died, only a part will live to Christ. In 1 John 2:2, it is at least doubtful whether the express phrase, “whole world,” can be restrained to the world of elect as including other than Jews. For it is indisputable, that the Apostle extends the propitiation of Christ beyond those whom he speaks of as “we,” in verse first. The interpretation described obviously proceeds on the assumption that these are only Jewish believers. Can this be substantiated? Is this catholic epistle addressed only to Jews? This is more than doubtful. It would seem then, that the Apostle’s scope is to console and encourage sinning believers with the thought that since Christ made expiation for every man, there is no danger that He will not be found a propitiation for them who, having already believed, now sincerely turn to him from recent sins.

Lectures, p., 525.

Now on the surface, it does look like Dabney is saying that 1 Cor 5:15 has Christ died for more than the body of the elect, that the “world” of 3:16 cannot be restricted to the elect, and that the “whole world” of 1 Jn 2:2 actually and properly does comprehend all men. Now I say “on the surface” because believe it or not, one modern internet theologian has asserted that Dabney here is not actually saying what he appears to be saying. Take this example:

As for the quotation from Systematic Theology to the effect that “Christ made expiation for every man,” one is obliged to observe the context. He is interacting with the usual Calvinistic manner of explaining the “universalistic” texts. He is not siding with Arminians. He merely states what the text “seems” to be saying. He does not tell us what he thinks the text “is” saying. As he explains himself he makes it clear that he is sensitive to the historical process whereby the secret counsel of God is manifested. At most it is safe to say that Dabney taught that Christ died for every man upon condition that he believe. Which, as Dabney himself tells us, is not atonement.

You can see the broader thread here.

What does one say to that? It is actually quite hard to respond to that because the poster actually says nothing that is substantial. It’s actually a very useless comment. He seems to make much of Dabney’s use of the word “seem” but it is clear that this is just ‘style’ and the intent is something like this, to paraphrase, “it would be apparent then that this is his true meaning…..” Is Dabney saying that ‘whole world’ is merely phenomenologically unlimited to the observer? That is easily absurd. As to the allegation that Dabney is not saying what he thinks the text is saying, well he just did: ‘every sinning believer can be assured that there is an expiation for them, because Christ has made an expiation for every man, so they should have no doubts that there is an expiation sufficient for their sin.’

But leaving what is ‘seems’ to be obvious aside, what evidence can we give to prove the contrary of the above assertion?

1) His reference to 2 Cor 5:15 seems clear. He says the ones for whom Christ died, cannot be restricted to the elect. Here there is no doubt that Dabney is not resorting to the problem of observer phenomenology.

2) His reference to John 3:16 is clear too. Dabney denies that the world there can be restricted to the elect. For this we have his confirming argument from his published article, Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy, where he says:

We may best exemplify the manner in which the correct view applies by that most important and decisive passage, John 3:16-19. Here is the most plausible exposition of it which can be presented on the supralapsarian side. When “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son,” “the world” must mean only the “body of the elect”: 1, Because there is no greater gift that could evince any greater love to the elect; 2, Because this chief gift must include all the rest, according to Rom. 8:32; 3, Because “the world “of the whole passage is that which God sent his Son (verse 17) not to condemn but to save; 4, The foreseen preterition of many to whom the Gospel is offered expresses nothing but divine hatred, such as is incompatible with any love at all.

But now, per contra, if “the world” in verse 16 means “the body of the elect,” then, 1, We have a clear implication, that some of that body may fail to believe and perish; 2, We are required to carry the same sense throughout the passage, for the phrase, “the world”—which is correct; but in verse 19, “the world,” into which the light has come, working with some the alternative result of deeper condemnation, must be taken in the wider sense; 3, A fair logical connection between verse 17 and verse 18 shows that “the world” of verse 17 is inclusive of “him that believeth,” and “him that believeth not,” of verse 18; 4, It is hard to see how, if the tender of Christ’s sacrifice is in no sense a true manifestation of divine benevolence to that part of “the world “which “believeth not,” their choosing to slight it is the just ground of a deeper condemnation, as is expressly stated in verse 19. Are gospel-rejectors finally condemned for this, that they were so unfortunately perspicacious as not to be affected by a fictitious or unreal manifestation? It is noticeable that Calvin is too sagacious an expositor to commit himself to the extreme exegesis.

How shall we escape from this dilemma? Looking at the first and second points of the stricter exposition, we see that if it were question of that efficient decree of salvation, from which every logical mind is compelled to draw the doctrine of particular redemption, the argument would be impregnable. Yet it would make the Saviour contradict his own exposition of his statement. The solution, then, must be in this direction, that the words, “so loved the world” were not designed to mean the gracious decree of election (though other Scriptures abundantly teach there is such a decree), but a propension of benevolence not matured into the volition to redeem, of which Christ’s mission is a sincere manifestation to all sinners. But our Saviour adverts to the implication which is contained even in the very statement of this delightful truth, that those who will not believe will perish notwithstanding. He foresees the cavil: “If so, this mission will be as much a curse as a blessing; how is it, then, a manifestation of infinite pity?” And the remaining verses give the solution of that cavil. It is not the tendency or primary design of that mission to curse, but to bless; not to condemn, but to save. When it becomes the occasion (not cause) of deeper condemnation to some, it is only because these (verse 19) voluntarily pervert, against themselves, and acting (verse 20) from a wicked motive, the beneficent provision. God has a permissive decree to allow some thus to wrest the Gospel provision. But inasmuch as this result is of their own free and wicked choice, it does not contravene the blessed truth that Christ’s mission is in its own nature only beneficent, and a true disclosure of God’s benevolence to every sinner on earth to whom it is published.

Dabney, “Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” in Discussions, 1:312-313.

In this more extended comment, some of the ideas are repeated. Such as, 1) If world is limited to the elect, then it would imply some of the elect could fail to be saved. This does seem to follow if such a restriction is retained. 2) John uses world uniformly, or not? And then there is his clear affirmation that the love of Jn 3:16 is not an electing love, but a benevolent propension, a general love.

Dabney, rejects the standard interpretations of these three verses as is often posited by men like Owen, Turretin and Cunningham. He finds their “solutions” unsatisfactory. We can add that the old idea that John’s second epistle was mainly written to Jews is hardly accepted anymore. It was an archaic assumption.

Thus, 1 John 2:2, for Dabney, is in this class of examples where terms like “all men” or “world” cannot be limited to the elect. And as it is clear that Dabney is not positing that the text only seems to imply a universality, even though the real meaning is otherwise. If that were the case, then it would not, could not be grouped with the other two verses. Rather what this other poster has done is just an act of desperation in order to sanitize Dabney.

Lastly, what can be said that at most all that can be understood from Dabney here is that he is saying that ‘Christ died for all conditionally, which is no atonement.’ This cannot be substantiated and ignores his own solution and explicit statements in other contexts. How could Dabney have asserted that Christ died for all conditionally, and yet have allegedly held that for all whom Christ died, the conditions are infallibly imparted? I would again suggest that this poster is just making all this up. I am sure that if he could have sourced this idea from Dabney, he would have.

To wrap up, in terms of positive contribution, Dabney shows us a way to conceptualize Redemptive history which is outside of the strict Calvinist lapsarian strictures. It is impossible to reconcile standard strict Calvinist lapsarian categories with an unlimited reading of “world” in John 3:16 and 1 John 2:2 (recall Dabney rejects all lapsarian ordering). What Dabney, along with Shedd, proposes is a different way of integrating a strong predestinarianism with an unlimited expiation and the free offer. What we need to do is either agree or disagree with Dabney, but heavens, let’s not try and sanitize him in a way that is so transparently fallacious.

The real question is, how in terms of Dabney’s understanding of true penal substitution could he claim that Christ made an expiation for every man? The answer to this lies in his doctrine of imputation of sin. And to that he is slowly working his way.


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