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RL Dabney on Question 37 of the Heidelberg Catechism

December 8, 2008

[Note: The following is part of a speech R.L. Dabney gave on the issue of union with the United Synod. The speech related to a committee declaration upon various subjects, one of which was the question of the atonement. An accusation was made that the committee’s declaration was opposed to the Westminster Confession. In this speech, Dabney responds to certain objections. The conclusion of the speech can be found in Dabney’s Works, 2:298-311. The relevant portion of Dabney’s speech where he speaks to the atonement question can be found in the Dabney file. What interests us here is Dabney’s comment regarding the Heidelberg Catechism, wherein he recognizes its explicit commitment to universal sin-bearing and his brief interpretation thereof, which actually images the very explication of this Q&A by Ursinus.]

Dabney:

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, 2:309-310.

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