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Dabney on the Atonement

March 31, 2008


3. The third point objected to is our brief statement of the doctrine of the atonement. And this has been assailed most vehemently of all. Say your memorialists, “We understand the report as representing Christ to be the substitute of all mankind alike.” … “Thus, according to the Confession, the decree of election would seem to have, in the order of thought, preceded in the divine mind the redemption wrought out by the Saviour. But the report appears to us to teach, according to the New School view of the subject, that first, the redemption was decreed for all men alike, and then God elected some of these as the redeemed ones to be saved.”

The illustration of these criticisms is, we believe, best to be found in the periodicals which have sustained them. In showing how unfounded they are, I would premise by saying that there is among Calvinists, among ourselves, a slight difference in the arrangement of some details concerning the atonement and its application; yet both classes have always recognized each other as holding the essentials of the doctrine of particular redemption. Thus your memorialists adjust those details in such an order as to represent a sequence of thought in the divine mind itself in forming the decree, and in this sequence place the predestination of the elect first, and the purpose to send Christ to redeem them second. Others, as Amyraut, with whom possibly a few of our brethren still hold, suppose such a sequence only in an inverted order: first, the purpose to send Christ to die for man, and then out of the race to sovereignly elect some, to whom this universal provision should be applied in effectual calling. Now to us it is perfectly clear that the Confession commits itself to neither of these schemes, for the reason that, whatever be their correctness or incorrectness, they contain refinements which go beyond the word of God. I have been taught to think, along with Dr. Baxter, upon this subject of a sequence between the parts of the divine decree, that the human reason can go no farther than this: its infirmity constrains it to think of that vast plan in parts, which in the infinite mind of God has no parts, but is one, eternal, single, all-embracing purpose. So, in our minds, the apprehension of one part must follow after that of another part. But with God it cannot be so; for that which is one and eternal must be absolutely contemporaneous. If, then, we impute our sequences to God, we plunge into error. The most we can comprehend is that God, in entertaining from eternity one part of this contemporaneous purpose, has regard to a state of facts as to that part destined by him to result from his same purpose as to other parts of his moral government. I presume to go no farther. And this view I am pleased to find sanctioned by the powerful support of Principal Hill, when he says: “Hence it may be observed how idly they are employed who presume to settle the order of the divine decree, and how insignificant are the controversies upon this subject which in the days of our fathers divided those who were agreed as to the general principles of Calvinism.”

Now we suppose that the Westminster divines were guided by precisely the same wise view in passing over in silence, as they certainly do, the question between supra- and infra-lapsarians. And I regard the slight difference between your memorialists and the Westminster divines in precisely. the same light. In stating that common basis of Calvinism, touching this doctrine of the atonement, upon which we should invite our brethren of the United Synod to meet us, was it proper to demand of them the admission of refined details, not agreed on among ourselves, not demanded by the Scriptures, nor by the Confession? To do so would have been preposterous and positively unjust. The aim of your committee, then, was to state, after the example of the Confession, those features of the doctrine which distinguish Calvinists hereupon from Arminians and the New England school, and to introduce sentences which should clearly and beyond a peradventure cut up by the root all the notions which reduce the atonement to a didactic display, a moral drama, an exemplary incident, or a governmental expedient. Hence, we either say, or expressly imply, that Christ was our substitute; that his sufferings were truly vicarious; that they were properly penal; that they were a true satisfaction to justice; that they were necessary to make pardon possible, consistently with the perfections of God. Is not this right?

But it is objected that the report suggests error concerning the application and extent of the atonement. On this subject there are two aspects which Calvinists have always distinguished. One regards the nature of the atonement; the other its design; and we all hold that, in its intrinsic nature, the atonement is infinite. This is the consequence of the infinite dignity of the Mediatorial Person. Its value is, intrinsically, as sufficient for the sins of all men as of one. Its limitation to the elect is not to be sought, then, in it nature, but in its design; and this design, as to its actual application to them, is nothing else than the decree. It is not something else, different and separate, but the decree itself. Now the section of our report under remark, in its first sentences, speaks of the nature of the atonement, and in its last of its application. In its first sentences it uses general terms, “man’s guilt,” “our sins,” etc., for it is speaking only of the nature of Christ’s atoning work, which has no limits.’ And in speaking thus, I claim that the report does but imitate the Scriptures–”God so loved the world,” etc.; “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world,” etc.–and the Confession itself. Why, then, should it be charged with error for using the same sort of language which the Bible itself does in this connection? But when the report proceeds to speak of the application of redemption, it declares, as I assert, in exact accordance with the spirit of our standards, that God applies it to all the elect, and to no others; and that this application is itself through the purchase of Jesus Christ. We do not invent a statement to establish a supralapsarian order of sequence between the purpose to save the elect and to send Christ to die; but neither, I does the Confession. It merely declares that redemption is applied through this work of Christ precisely to those to whom it was God’s eternal purpose to apply it; and that is, his elect. The report speaks the same thing.

Moreover, the committee used the word redemption, as they believe, in strict accordance with Calvinistic ‘usage, in a sense distinct from the word atonement. Redemption means, not only a provision of a vicarious penalty to satisfy for guilt, but in addition all the gracious gifts, of active obedience to be imputed, of effectual calling, of sanctification, and of glorification, which make up a completed salvation. All this is designed, purchased, and bestowed for the elect in and through Christ. And in this view they may quote, among many Calvinistic authorities, this of old Willison, Catechism, Ques.: “How doth Christ redeem his people from their bondage?” Ans. “Partly by price, or purchase; partly by power, or conquest.”

In a word, the committee intended to express summarily that sound, but not ultra, view of the atonement held by Calvinists, and expressed in the ancient formula, “Christ died sufficiently for the race, efficaciously for the elect.”

But the member from New Orleans, Dr. Palmer, insists that the report is, to say the least, “not happily worded,” in that its phraseology leaves a loop-hole for the lubricity of the new theology. Well, Mr. Moderator, I presume that the committee would at any time have partly assented to this judgment; for you will bear us witness that our estimate of our labors has been modest. We did not claim that our phraseology was absolutely the best, but only that it would do. We admitted that language is an instrument so flexible that an indefinite improvement may be made in the verbal dress of any thoughts by continued care and criticism. But, sir, the course of this discussion inclines me to place a more self-applauding estimate upon our humble labors; and I must profess that I think our doctrinal statements are rather happily worded on this point. I have been convinced of this by the very objections of the critics.

One of these was that the phrase, Christ bore his sufferings “as the penalty” of guilt, was loose and incorrect, because it suggested, by the little word as, not only a substitution of one person for another–Christ for the sinner–but of one penalty for another; whereas, it was urged, we should have taught that Christ suffered the identical penalty due the sinner. Thus, they complained, the deceitful errorist was enabled to cheat us honest folk by talking about a penal satisfaction for sin, when, after all, he only meant a loose sort of quasi satisfaction. Now I have been made very happy to find that our much abused little “as” expresses so much truth and so accurately. For the substitution, not only of one person for another, but of one penalty for another, in the atoning transaction called by theologians satisfaction, is the very thing asserted by the standard authors. It is obvious that if one person is substituted for another, then the penalty substituted cannot be identical with that in the room of which it came, in the sense of a numerical identity, however absolutely conformed it might be in a generic identity. And this distinction the acute Whately points out, in the introduction to his Logic, if I remember aright, in connection with this very subject. But farther, these divines all assert most emphatically, that in a case of penal satisfaction there is not an absolute generic  identity between the penalty due and the penalty substituted. Turrettin,Rill, Dr. John H. Rice, I find saying, with entire unanimity, that satisfaction is where something else, not exactly the debt due, but a moral equivalent, is accepted as sufficient by the injured party. According to those acute critics, the Southern Presbyterian and Southern Presbyterian Review, little “as”  suggested this idea. But this, say these great masters, is just the idea of Christ’s satisfaction. Is not this rather happy?

Again: we had defended ourselves against the complaint by pleading that the phrase, bore these sufferings “as the penalty” of guilt, was so natural, so common, and so fairly understood in the orthodox sense. Now all this is substantiated by the fact that the member from New Orleans, even in the midst of a passage objecting to it, could not help using the very phrase. In the Southern Presbyterian Review, p. 298, he complains that our “slippery opponents,” while pretending to use many words that sound orthodox, will not say that “the sufferings of Christ were inflicted as the penalty threatened to the transgressor,” etc. This, then, is what he would have them say, in order to be indisputably orthodox. But this is just what our committee asks them to say.

On the other hand, the Southern Presbyterian says this is not enough; nor that they shall say Christ’s sufferings were vicarious, or that they were substitutionary, or that they were a satisfaction for guilt, because they may say all these in a loose sense. No; he will not be entirely pleased unless they say in express words, without the  “as,” that Christ “bore the penalty” of guilt. Well, we thought that this was lifting the standard pretty high, when we remembered that good old Dr. Alexander was accustomed to say, that he who admitted the atonement to be vicarious, was substantially sound on that point. But we looked a few lines downward, and perceived that our report, in the article on justification, also used those very words, and said expressly, without the “as,” that Christ “bore the penalty” of guilt. Thus, our paper has been so happy as to satisfy both these most lynx-eyed sentinels of orthodoxy exactly, even in demands which are, in appearance, contradictory. The difference between themselves they must settle.

Once more, I am led to believe that our effort to make a brief statement of the substance of this doctrine is rather happy, by noting a remarkable conformity between its structure and the Canons of the great Synod of Dort, on the atonement, and the article in which the National French Synod at Alençon caused Amyraut and Testard to recant their rash speculations, and the Heidelberg Catechism, and indeed the standards of the Reformers generally. The Heidelberg Catechism, the symbol of the German Reformed Church, which our own Assembly embraced as the very pink of orthodoxy, uses language which goes farther than our report. So that, while we have stated the doctrine in accordance with the belief of the purest Reformed churches, we have been even more guarded than some of them. Thus, Ques. 37 : “What dost thou believe when thou sayest, ‘He suffered ?'” (in the creed). Ans. “That he bore in his body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the universal human race, during the whole period of his life which he passed in the earth, but especially in its end; so that by his passion, as the sole propitiatory sacrifice, he might deliver our body and soul from eternal damnation, and purchase for us the grace of God, righteousness and eternal life.”

R.L. Dabney, ‘Speech on the Fusion of the United Synod,” in Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, 2:305-310.

David: This is very interesting. Here we see a couple of critical points. For Dabney,  what distinguishes Amyraldianism is the alleged ordering of the decree–something with Amyraut himself actually never bought into or used, but which was unfairly attributed to him by his opponents, and then picked up and used against his position, ad nauseum, since then. However, there is the basic idea of an expiation that has no limit, but a decreed intended limited application. So the expiation has no limit, while the application is limited. That’s the critical heart of classic and moderate Calvinism.

What is more, the fact that he reads the Heidelberg Catechism honestly, is very good. Some of the names there are interesting too. In that Dabney thereby reveals in this that there were divisions within 19thC American Presbyterian Calvinism on this point.

[Cf., the Dabney file here.]

What do you think?


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Martin T permalink
    April 1, 2008 5:59 pm

    A very good and interesting find. Whilst you say there were clearly divisions, one gets the impression that Dabney may have been speaking for the majority view.

    It is interesting to see Dabney here dealing with the same three recurring themes that we have seen from Owen’s day to the present:
    1. a supposed order in the divine decrees,
    2. strict equivalentism regarding the penalty paid by Christ on our behalf, and
    3. the commercialistic thinking to which it contributes which, in turn, leads to a conflating together of the expiation and its application.

    At back of all three is the elevation of logic above the word of God.


  2. Flynn permalink
    April 1, 2008 8:09 pm

    hey Martin,

    I think Dabney is being a little diplomatic on the one hand, and very confident on the other. Dabney knows his own Presbyterian tradition–thats clear. He knew he stood solidly in the tradition of C Hodge, AAlexiander, Shedd and some of the earlier guys.

    I am a little hesitant to say that Turretin is on the same page there. I will have read Turretin again later. I do know that in other works Dabney slams Turretin for ultra-Calvinism.

    Dabney’s honest regarding the HC question is very good. And the New- Old-school thing is something I have to brush up on.

    Thanks Martin,
    Take care,

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