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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

R. L. Dabney's Attempt to Justify Penal Substitution--Part One

Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898) was an American Christian theologian, a Southern Presbyterian pastor, and Confederate Army chaplain. He was also chief of staff and biographer to Stonewall Jackson. His biography of Jackson remains in print today (Life and Campaigns of Stonewall Jackson). Dabney was Professor of Theology at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA for nearly 30 years. He was a staunch Calvinist and a vocal proponent of the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the Atonement. In October of 1897, a few months before his death he delivered the Davidson College Divinity Lectures which were later published in a volume entitled, Christ Our Penal Substitute. Dabney also wrote a Systematic Theology in which he discusses the PST in chapter 35.

In the lectures, Dabney defends the PST against what he calls "rationalizing nominal Christians" (p. 5). These rationalists, according to Dabney,
say that they must reject it [PST] as essentially unjust, as thus obnoxious to necessary moral intuitions, and so impossible to be ascribed to a righteous God. . . . They claim that, while ancient or pagan peoples, taught by barbarism and debasing forms of religious belief, made constant use of the cruel principle of substitution in their "antipsychoi" and hostages, civilization, Christianity, and correct ethics, have banished these usages from modern christendom. And this, they say, is but the testimony of a more enlightened, a better age, against the cruelty and injustice of substituting the innocent in place of the guilty under punishment (pp. 5-6).
Throughout the lectures, Dabney employs a number of analogies which he believes illustrates that the PST is just. For example, he talks about the function of a bail bondsman. He writes:
The distinction between sinfulness as an attribute and as a penal obligation often receives more practical concrete application. Here is a treasurer who has given an official bond upon which a friend goes security. The treasurer commits the felony of embezzlement, and by flight escapes the clutches of the law. Thereupon the Commonwealth forces the security to pay the official bond; that is to say, it exacts from him the legal obligation which is made his by imputation. And this exaction is, to the good man, a heavy penalty, a mulct, inflicting, perhaps, much suffering on him and his family. Does anybody dream that a shadow of the embezzler's meanness or sinfulness is transferred to, or infused into this generous friend, who suffers for another's crime? Not at all. All honor the unfortunate man for the generous friendly help which prompted him to go security, and for the honesty with which he makes good society's loss. Yet the Commonwealth acts with perfect justice in exacting the money from him. Here is the clearest distinction between actual guilt and sinfulness; nobody is so stupid as to pretend not to see it. Let the vital proposition be repeated, that, in the penal substitution of Christ, it is the actual guilt of sinners as above defined, and nothing else, which is transferred from them to him (pp. 13-14).
Does this really illustrate what happens under the PST? I don't think so. First, in the case of a bail bondsman, the guilt of the embezzler's crime is never imputed to him. He pays the bond because there has been a legal arrangement constructed in which the bondsman guarantees that the defendant will show up in court. The bondsman's responsibility is to make certain that the criminal appears in court; if he fails in that responsibility, then he has to pay the bond. His "sin" is that he didn't produce the defendant in court. He is not held responsible for the actual crime committed by the embezzler. Second, once the bondsman pays the bond to the court, the embezzler's guilt is not removed. If he can be found (and the bondsman will do his best to find him), he will still stand trial for his crime. So, this analogy is not even close to representing the PST of the atonement.

Next, Dabney argues that while it might be wrong for a human magistrate to accept a substitute's payment of the penalty, it is not so for God. He argues that the same rules that apply to human jurisprudence do not apply to divine jurisprudence. The main distinction is that human government has delegated authority whereas God's authority is inherent or intrinsic to him. He states:
The principles of righteousness for the two rulers, God and a human magistrate, are the same; the details of prerogative for the two may differ greatly, while directed by the same holy principles. How simple is this! How ready and facile the instances! Thus, a father entrusts his boy to a distant teacher, and tells him to consider himself as in loco parentis to the child. Does this authorize the pedagogue to inflict any kind of punishment for the boy's faults which would be righteous for the father, as, for instance, disinheritance? By no means. This plain view makes the inference of our opponents worthless, that because God has told his servants they must not do a certain thing, therefore it is immoral for him to do it....

And the reasons limiting the two cases differently are plain and strong. The first is: "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." The prerogative of retribution is God's alone; magistrates only possess a small fraction of it by delegation from him. Hence, they are properly bound by such restrictions as he chooses to impose upon their judicial functions
(pp. 20-21).
Dabney is saying that God in his delegation of authority to human government has not allowed man to use penal substitution. But the question is why hasn't he? Dabney goes on to answer this question:
Next, men lack the wisdom and infinite serenity of moral judgment which are requisite for these exalted and far-reaching acts of retribution. Third, they cannot possibly find subjects suitable for holy penal substitution. One of the conditions necessary for righteous substitution is the free consent of the substitute, that is, where he himself is innocent. No human being is thus innocent before God, but each is guilty for himself. Now, a guilty life forfeited to the law cannot possibly buy off another guilty life also forfeited to law (pp. 21-22).
So, according to Dabney, God doesn't allow human government to utilize penal substitution because (1) man lacks the wisdom and serenity to make that judgment and (2) because there is no truly innocent person to substitute. I don't find (1) convincing. If man has the wisdom to make any kind of judicial decisions, it seems that he would be able to make this one too. God could have explained in detail how the judge would go about finding a just substitute. His (2) also misses the mark in my opinion because a human substitute, lets say for the embezzler mentioned above, would not have to be sinless in every aspect of his life in order to not deserve punishment for the embezzlement; he would just have to be innocent of any involvement with the particular crime of embezzlement under consideration.

Next, Dabney argues that the justice of the PST can be seen in the "Law of Reprisal." He writes:
Still another instance of penal imputation is found in the law of reprisal; and this is still asserted by all Christian nations. One commonwealth commits sin by breaking its treaty-obligations to another. Thereupon the injured commonwealth seeks retribution by issuing letters of marque and reprisal against the property of any citizen of the sinning commonwealth found upon the high seas. Let the aggressive commonwealth have a representative government; let the citizen whose goods are seized upon the sea for reprisal plead that he voted against the aggressive actions of his own commonwealth, and, therefore, is not morally and personally responsible therefor; there is not an admiralty court in Christendom which would yield to this plea. This merchant must bear his part of the retribution due to his sinning commonwealth, because he is a member of it (pp. 34-35).
Here Dabney is arguing that a citizen of a country is justly held responsible for what his country does. The justice of the law of reprisal, seizing the property of a citizen of an outlaw country on the high seas, was debated in this country in the 19th century. An article published in the New York Times on June 4, 1858, read:
Reprisals, though authorized by the "law of nations," are but one of the hundred barbarities which find full sanction in the same code. . . . The right which is still retained to plunder private property on sea, is unquestionably a relic of barbarism [the law of reprisal did not permit the plundering of private property on land but only in international waters] . . . . Nothing is more needed than a general and absolute recognition, by all the Christian Powers, of the sacredness of private property under all circumstance, unless in case of the owner's malfeasance. . . . To plunder him who plunders, and kill him who kills, is a rough sort of justice, which satisfies men's instincts tolerably fairly; but to plunder one member of a community because some other member of it has committed an outrage, is the acme of clumsy justice. . . . It may possibly be useless to seek satisfaction at the hands of their national authorities for injuries our citizens may sustain; but this is no reason for sending the navy of the United States to plunder private individuals, and bring the booty into our ports to be disposed of by the United States District Courts. The unfortunate inhabitants of those wretched countries suffer sufficiently from the insecurity, anxiety and violence caused by chronic internal convulsions and disorders, without our stepping in to visit upon individuals the consequences of offences in which they may never have participated, and of which they very probably never heard.
As the author of the Times article points out, the law of reprisal is at best "clumsy justice," and in reality is a relic of "barbaric justice," which is really injustice. It was practiced because of the frustration of nations who had been wronged by another nation and they were unable to exact reparation in any other way. To use this law as a means of illustrating the justice of the PST actually backfires because the law of reprisal is thought by many to be unjust.

Then Dabney offers the following example:
The military laws of every civilized nation provide for cases of penal imputation, and of none is this more true, both in theory and practice, than of those of the United States. Let an officer who has surrendered in battle or by capitulation be slain by the enemy while an unresisting prisoner of war, then a captive officer of equal rank among the enemies will be condemned and shot, although, personally, he had never broken any rule of civilized warfare, or, perhaps, had never yet drawn his weapon against any adversary (p. 35).
I am quite confident that the execution of a prisoner of war would not be condoned by the US military code of justice and it is prohibited by the Geneva Code. If Dabney thinks it is just to execute a prisoner of war in the fashion described, then it is no surprise that he thinks the PST is just. Both are patently unjust.

Dabney goes on to argue that only the PST is just and that the moral exemplar theory and the governmental theory are not. He writes:
If Providence did ordain the sufferings of Jesus, while he bore no guilt, then the case which we have is this: That God punished, or intentionally permitted the punishment of the one man of purest and sublimest virtue who ever appeared on earth with miseries more dire than he ever visited upon a Cain or a Judas. What lesson of patience or fortitude under suffering does this contain for us? It would be only a lesson of hatred against the government we live under, and of horror and despair. And last: the gratuitous sufferings of Jesus would remain a dramatic exhibition of God's hatred of innocence and virtue rather than of vice (p. 66).
What Dabney fails to acknowledge, however, is that under the PST, Jesus does not have the actual sin of mankind imputed to him but merely the guilt. As I argued against Charles Hodge, one cannot have personal guilt without personal sin. To say that the guilt of Adam's race is imputed but not the actual sin is to separate the effect from the cause. Guilt is caused by sin. One is only guilty if one has sinned. So, Dabney's theory fares no better than the moral exemplar or governmental theory that he disdains. All three have an innocent man suffering the wrath of God.

Dabney devotes chapter 8 to what he calls the "philosophic" objection to the PST. He writes:
The grand and cardinal objection against Christ's substitution is the philosophic one. It has, therefore, been reserved for separate and special discussion. As already stated, its claim, as a moral intuition, that a just government, human or divine, cannot transfer one man's guilt to another who is innocent, under any possible conditions, because punishment loses its moral significance, and becomes cruelty and wickedness as soon as it is transferred from the sinning person to another (p. 71).
Dabney argues that since the Bible, the Word of God, clearly teaches the PST, then one must accept its justice and reject any moral intutitions to the contrary. He states:
The reader must understand what our opponent's position is, that whatever be the Bible's testimony for Christ's penal substitution, it cannot be true, because they know it to be false by an immediate, self-evident, necessary intuition, which is to say that they set their philosophy above all the authority claimed for God's word. To those who know the history of philosophy and the picture it presents of the uncertainty of human metaphysics, this towering self-confidence would appear ludicrous were not the results so tragical. If the philosophy, which they worship, has settled anything, it has agreed that these should be the traits of an intuitive judgment; it should be primary (resting upon no prior premises), self-evident, necessary, and universal. Should it not have given some pause to their philosophic dogmatism to remember that most Christians for several thousand years sincerely believed what these dogmatists pronounce self-evidently false? How was it that not only the most devout Christians, but the greatest thinkers and philosophers of all ages -- a Lactantius, an Augustine, an Anselm, an Aquinas, a Luther, a Calvin, a Pascal, a Claude, a Turretin, a Butler, a Newton, a Chalmers, an Edwards, a Wesley, an Alexander, a Thornwell -- saw no difficulty in this proposition which our Socinianizers find so unspeakably absurd? There is modesty with a vengeance! One would think, to hear them, that intuitions had only been invented, like the telegraph and telephone, in the nineteenth century (pp. 72-73).
Dabney maintains that since Christians throughout history have taught the PST without finding any moral contradictions, then there must not be any real moral contradictions in the theory. Could it be, though, that these Christians accepted the doctrine for the same primary reason that Dabney does--they believed it to be the teaching of the divine Word of God and thus they could not question it? The fact is that punishing a person for a crime he did not commit is self-evidently unjust. It is a basic moral intuitition as even Dabney recognizes above. He says that under the moral and governmental theories an innocent person is punished and that the theories are false for that reason. He believes that the PST escapes this problem by the imputation of guilt, but as also shown above one cannot have guilt apart from sin. He believes that Jesus inherited guilt but not sin.

The discussion of Dabney's defense of the PST will be continued in the next post.


  1. ---

    Excellent post. I see that Dabney has no problem arguing that we can't place our moral intuitions above God's because we can't possibly hope to understand how God's mind works. Even though penal substitution might be an affront to our basic intuitions, we shouldn't place our intuitions above the unfathomable mind of God. Ok...

    Yet in the same breath, he decries the governmental and moral theories as being self-evidently unjust, and therefore unbecoming of a just god. Well, which is it? Can our intuitions be of any guidance to us, or not?

    I saw this phenomenon mostly during my study of the doctrine of hell, when I encountered Arminians, Calvinists and Universalists. Arminians felt that Calvinistic God was cruel, unjust and unrighteous, the Universalists thought both the Calvinistic and Arminian God were cruel, unjust and unrighteous. The Arminian would tell the Universalist that Hell may seem unjust and unloving, but who is the Universalist to use hiw moral intuitions over God's divine word. The Calvinists would use the exact same argument against the Arminians and Universalists. Each one's theology fit their moral intuitions just fine.

    Basically each had things that they "knew" God wouldn't do because of moral intuitions, but when someone else objected to what they believed their God did, they claimed that the objector was placing their intuitions in a higher place than God's word. Hypocrisy at its finest...

  2. Dabney's listing of great minds is a feeble argument. It suggests he should have embraced Catholicism because, hey, look at Augustine, Aquinas, Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis, etc. Or Unitarianism, because of Newton (whom he lists), Locke and Milton. What about the great minds that rejected the Christian faith itself?: Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and many others. What does any of that prove?

  3. I noticed Dabney rails against the Socinians. When I read their Racovian Catechism 20 years ago, I thought these maligned people were the freshest, most intellectually rigorous Christians I'd ever run across. They didn't spare any of the encrusted traditions in their pursuit of correct biblical interpretation, practicing "sola scriptura" in a way Dabney wouldn't dare. But throwing stones is easy when you're in the majority.

  4. Exploring,

    Thanks. Your points are excellent. Each person uses moral intuition when it favors their position and then rejects it when it doesn't. The same thing is seen I think in my series on infant salvation. The theology of MacArthur for example should demand that he see infants as guilty before God and thus damned but his moral intuitions tell him that is barbaric.

    Another example is that some evangelicals think it unjust that the heathen (ie., someone who never heard the gospel) would go to hell. They thus invent some scenarios whereby the heathen can be saved without hearing of Jesus or where if the heathen "responds to the light" that he has, God will send him more light and eventually a missionary will show up on his doorstep. MacArthur and other Calvinists though would reject this idea saying that all men deserve hell and the fact that anyone is saved at all is pure grace. They would add that man cannot respond to any light because he is blind.
    But then they invent scenarios whereby infants and mentally challenged people can be saved without "believing" in Jesus.

  5. Steve,

    Yes the Socinians were the "first liberals," according to some. However, what they did was to consistenly apply reason to the Scripture text. This led them to reject the Trinity and the PST among other things.

  6. As a believer in PST, I agree that Dabney makes some pretty poor arguments, and you were right to compare his defense of PST to his defense of slavery.

    And agreed that @exploring raises good points.