Search This Blog

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

R. L. Dabney's Attempt to Justify Penal Substitution--Part Two and Evangelicals Attempt to Defend Slavery--Part Five

In this post, I continue my discussion of R. L. Dabney's attempt to justify the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the Atonement. Towards the end of the post, Dabney's defense of slavery will illustrate how one's surrender of moral intuitions, which has to be done to defend the PST, can lead to heinous conduct.

Dabney uses the the analogy of someone who hires another to commit a murder as an analogy showing the justice of the PST.
They [rationalists] may exclaim, "Yes, it is an ethical intuition that one man cannot justly be made responsible for another man's righteousness or sin;" yet the slightest close analysis will show that they are making a very shallow confusion of their pet proposition with another which is different. There is an intuition, universally held by thinking and just men, for which they mistake their opinion. The true predication is this: The consequences of righteousness or sin may not be transferred to another, unless he is in some way reasonably responsible therefor (emphasis original). Now, in order to identify this proposition (which everybody accepts} with theirs, they must assert that there is no way in which a moral agent can become reasonably responsible except solely by personally doing himself the moral or immoral actions in question. Is that self-evidently true? Is it at all true? Manifestly not. They have heedlessly begged the whole question. Every good jurist, yea, every man of common sense, knows that there are other ways in which moral responsibility may attach besides the personal doing of the responsible acts, as by the voluntary assumption of the responsibility for the sake of some valuable consideration. Here is another class of instances. The law justly holds "accessories before the fact" to a murder guilty of death. Here the law claims two victims for one murder, the life of the assassin and the life of the man who bribed him. Yea, if twelve men combine to hire him, there would be thirteen, each guilty of death for one and the same murder, while only one single hand perpetrated it. How comes this to be just? Because the twelve voluntarily associated themselves in the responsibility of an immoral act, which neither of them personally executed. Again, does the just law punish the accessory for the sin of suborning a murderer, or for murder itself? The correct answer is, for both: for his sin of subornation, because it was his own personal act and was evil, and for the murder, because he voluntarily associated himself in the responsibility of it (pp. 77-78).
I believe Dabney is wrong here. My understanding is that in the scenario described above the person who hires the murderer is guilty of conspiracy to commit murder but not murder itself. The penalty may very well be the same but technically the crime is different. Charles Manson, for example, received the death penalty (which was later commuted to life in prison) for the crime of "conspiracy to commit murder." He didn't actually commit the murders but he was instrumental in them. No one would say that Manson is innocent and that the guilt of his followers murders were imputed to him, as would be the case with Jesus under the PST. The reason the conspirators are prosecuted is because they are guilty of wrongdoing.

Next, Dabney refers to a father who refuses to give his daughter's hand in marriage to a man because the prospective bridegroom's own father is in the penitentiary. Dabney says in this case, even though the bridegroom is not personally guilty of a crime, his father's guilt is imputed to him tarnishing his reputation. He writes:
There are, for example, two citizens of high moral and social rank, each of whom has a marriageable daughter who is refined and beloved. One is sought in marriage by a John Doe, the other by a Richard Roe. Both these young men are personally reputable, industrious, and intelligent. The one parent says to John Doe, you cannot have my daughter; because a man whose father is now serving his long term in the penitentiary for a bad felony cannot be a son in my family, and husband to my pure daughter. The other parent gives the same refusal, and justifies it by reminding Richard Roe that he is "filius nullius." The young men sorrowfully protest, and urge that these misfortunes were not their own faults; but each parent persists in declaring: I have nothing against you personally, but you cannot marry my daughter, become a son to her mother and a brother to my other children. But society fully justifies their decision, and there is not one of our opponents who would not concur. Here, then, is the partial transfer of penal responsibility (emphasis added) where the consent of the second party is not even asked, yet the judgment may be just(pp. 79-80).
These unfortunate men in Dabney's example do not receive a "partial transfer of penal responsibility" as he claims. They have their reputation's tarnished because of what their fathers have done but they are not being legally punished. This example does not reflect what transpires under the PST.

Dabney maintains that those who object to the justice of the PST commit a logical fallacy. He says:
Then their common sense tells them, as it tells everybody else, that essential attributes, being subjective personal qualities, are not transferable from the person whom they really qualify to another person. And so they jump to the non-sequitur that therefore guilt is equally untransferable, and its imputation an immoral legal fiction. . . . In syllogistic form the process of thought would be this enthymeme: personal subjective qualities are untransferable therefore a personal relation conditioned on actions which these qualities have determined, must be equally untransferable. Manifestly the suppressed premise must be the universal proposition: that all such relations are as inalienable, or as incapable of being substituted as such subjective qualities. But who is absurd enough to believe that (p. 83)?

Dabney wants us to believe that even though "personal subjective qualities," such as sinfulness cannot be transferred, the "personal relation conditioned on actions [sins] which these qualities have determined," namely guilt can be. As pointed out above, personal guilt only results from personal sin. To take sin out of the equation is to take guilt out as well.

He argues that retribution, which is what God's nature requires for sin, can be fulfilled by a substitute.
Let us take the true theory, that the just punishment of guilt is dictated primarily by God's essential attribute of distributive justice, not by expediency; that the remedial and deterrent effects of punishments among human sinners who are still under a dispensation of hope are secondary and subordinate in God's purpose; and that in his punishment of reprobate men and angels, these have no place at all, but God's whole purpose is moral equalization in his government by the due requital of sin (just as by the due requital of righteousness) to the glory of his own holiness and honor. Then there remains no reason why this purpose of retribution, pure and simple, may not be as completely gained from a substitute as from the sinner, provided a voluntary substitute be found who is able to fulfill the other proper conditions. Such a substitute is our Messiah (p. 85).

This fails to understand the most basic principle of retribution which is that the the one who commits the crime is the one who must face retribution. Retribution, which means to "pay back" or to "recompense," only makes sense when it is the one who committed the wrong that is "paid back" (The word "back" or the prefix "re" in retribution loses its meaning otherwise). As C. S. Lewis said: the concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice (God in the Dock, p. 288).

Next Dabney gives the same argument William Shedd gave concerning the idea that no one has grounds to complain with regard to the PST.
The reasonableness and righteousness of this plan of vicarious redemption may be very shortly proved by pressing this plain question: Whom does it injure? God, the lawgiver, is not injured, for the plan is his own, and he gains in this way a nobler satisfaction to the penal claims of law and to his own holiness, truth, and justice, than he would gain by the punishment of the puny creatures themselves. The Messiah is not injured, because he gave his own free consent, and because the plan will result in the infinite enhancement of his own glory. Certainly, ransomed sinners are not injured, because they gain infinite blessedness, and the plan works moral influences upon them incomparably more noble and blessed. The unsaved are not injured, for in bearing their due punishment personally they receive exactly what they deserve and precisely what they obstinately preferred to redemption in Christ. None of the innocent subjects of God's moral judgment on earth or in all the heavens are injured, because this vicarious redemption of believing men originated a grand system of moral influences far sweeter, more noble, more pure, and more efficacious than those which they would have felt without it. But how can there be injustice when nobody is injured' (pp. 85-86)?

As I responded with regard to Shedd, this argument misses the point. The point to be proven is that the punishment of an innocent can be just not that no one was harmed by it. If the God of the Bible is righteous and just by nature, then whatever he does must also be righteous and just.

Dabney concludes by arguing that only God's word is infallible and if man's moral intutitions are contradicted by God's Word, then God's Word must be believed and man's intuitions disregarded. He writes:
Philosophy and moral intuitions are not infallible but God's Word is. Much of our argument has been run into the field of rational discussion, because our opponents are rationalists, and they, by their attacks on God's truth, have made it necessary to follow them to their own ground. But the reader must not infer from this that we think that human philosophy is the superior, and Scripture the inferior source of evidence. Our comparative view of the sources of authority -- a view taught by a long acquaintance with the contradictions, mutations, and vagaries of the most boastful human philosophies -- may be truly expressed in the apostle's words: "Let God be true, but every man a liar." What saith the Scripture? When that is carefully and honestly ascertained, it should be the end of controversy. Therefore, the main thing which we have to allege in support of our thesis is this: that the doctrine of Christ's substitution under our penal obligations, and the imputation of his satisfaction for guilt to be the ground of our justification, is, either implicitly or expressly, taught throughout the Scriptures. It is so intertwined as an essential part of the whole warp and woof of the fabric that it can only be gotten out of it by tearing it into shreds (pp. 87-88).

This kind of thinking allowed Dabney to defend slavery in the Old South. He wrote an entire book in defense of the institution, A Defense of Virginia and the South.

In the aforementioned book, Dabney argues that the Bible has authority over man's conscience. He writes:
[T]he cause of our defence is the cause of Gods' Word, and of its supreme authority over the human conscience. For, as we shall evince, that Word is on our side, and the teachings of Abolitionism are clearly of rationalistic origin, of infidel tendency, and only sustained by reckless and licentious perversions of the meaning of the Sacred text. It will in the end become apparent to the world, not only that the conviction of the wickedness of slaveholding was drawn wholly from sources foreign to the Bible, but that it is a legitimate corollary from that fantastic, atheistic and radical theory of human rights, which made the Reign of terror in France, which has threatened that country, and which now threatens the Untited States, with the horrors of Red-Republicanism. Because we believe that God intends to vindicate His Divine Word, and to make all nations honour it; because we confidently rely on the force of truth to explode all dangerous error; therefore we confidently expect that the world will yet do justice to Southern slaveholders. The anti-scriptural, infidel, and radical grounds upon which our assailants have placed themselves, make our cause practically the cause of truth and order (pp. 21-22).
When one believes that one has divine sanction, one is capable of acts that would normally violate one's conscience. To hold another human being as property and force that human being to be a slave is a violation of human dignity. One would never want that for one's self or one's family. However, if one believes that God condones it and even ordained it, then the pangs of conscience can be silenced.

Dabney believed that the black people were actually under a divine curse. Commenting on Genesis 9:20-27, he states:
[I]t gives us the origin of domestic slavery. And we find that it was appointed by God as the punishment of, and remedy for (nearly all God's providential chastisements are also remedial) the peculiar moral degradation of a part of the race. God here ordains that this depravity shall find its necessary restraints, and the welfare of the more virtuous its safeguard against the depraved, by the bondage of the latter. He introduces that feature of political society, for the justice of which we shall have occasion to contend; that although men have all this trait of natural equality that they are children of a common father, and sharers of a common humanity, and subjects of the same law of love; yet, in practice, they shall be subject to social inequalities determined by their own characters, and their fitness or unfitness to use privileges for their own and their neighbours' good. But second: this narrative gives us more than a prediction. The words of Noah are not a mere prophecy; they are a verdict, a moral sentence pronounced upon conduct, by competent authority; that verdict sanctioned by God. Now if the verdict is righteous, and the execution blessed by God, it can hardly be, that the executioners of it are guilty for putting it in effect (p. 103).

Dabney believes the black race to be inferior to the white race mentally and morally. He writes:
[W]hen once abolition by federal aggression came, these other sure results would follow: that the same greedy lust of power which had meddled between masters and slaves, would assuredly, and for the stronger reason, desire to use the political weight of the late slaves against their late masters: that having enforced a violent emancipation, they would enforce, of course negro suffrage, negro eligibility to office, and a full negro equality: that negro equality thus theoretically established would be practical negro superiority: the tyrant section, as it gave to its victims, the white men of the South, more and more causes of just resentment, would find more and more violent inducements to bribe the negroes, with additional privileges and gifts, to assist them in their domination: that this miserable career must result in one of two things, either a war of races, in which the whites or the blacks would be, one or the other, exterminated; or amalgamation. But while we believe that "God made of one blood all nations of men to dwell under the whole heavens," we know that the African has become, according to a well-known law of natural history, by the manifold influences of the ages, a different, fixed species of the race, separated from the white man by traits bodily, mental and moral (emphasis added), almost as rigid and permanent as those of genus . Hence the offspring of an amalgamation must be a hybrid race, stamped with all the feebleness of the hybrid. and incapable of the career of civilization and glory as an independent race. And this apparently is the destiny which our conquerors have in view. If indeed they can mix the blood of the heroes of Manassas with this vile stream from the fens of Africa, then they will never again have occasion to tremble before the righteous resistance of Virginia freemen; but will have a race supple and vile enough to fill that position of political subjugation, which they desire to fix on the South (pp. 352-53).

So, ultimately Dabney believes in the PST because he believes that is what the Bible teaches. Even if it runs counter to man's moral sensibilities, one is to surrender his conscience in favor of the divine Word. I maintain that this approach is dangerous and can lead to unbelieveably inhumane practices such as slavery.


  1. Hello Ken, nice to meet you!

    My name, or the one that the Manson researchers know me by, is MsBurb, High Chief Mucky-Muck (as it were!) of TLB2 - 2nd Official Tate-Labianca Murders Blog...

    While you are definitely expert more than enough to voice a learned opinion (as many or not!) on the facts and fallacies of Christianity or any other human religion in general, I thought I would just waste your time and pick gnat shit out of pepper as it were, and let you know that Charles Manson DID actually commit direct murder in '69.

    Not with the TLB murders on August 9 & 10th but with Spahn ranch-hand Donald Jerome "Shorty" Shea on a date somewhere around August 17-28th and he was the first to stab musician Gary Hinman three days before he was died from that wound and 4 four stabs committed by Manson family member Bobby Beausoleil, on July 25-27th.

    Even if the law of conspiracy hadn't equalled direct murder, he would have been found guilty of the two other murders and no doubt still given the Death Penalty.

    I agree with your premise that, especially, southern American evangelical Christianity has gone way too extreme in their obsessive beliefs, to the point that their political power in the US makes it almost a sacrilege to talk against such "Bible Thumpers" as I like to refer to them...sorry!

    My Mother was Catholic and my Father an you can imagine where my head it at!

    Have always considered myself a believer in a higher power but have not thought much about human religion and its quite ridiculous rules and regs...???

    Can one really be an agnostic atheist, and if so, what would that I've considered myself an agnostic since childhood but still believe in a higher power???

    As for Christ, well, I know he lived and was a prophet but I have a hard time putting him as the son of God any more than the rest of us humans are or are not...same goes with all the rest of the world's prophets...for me, just spiritually connected leaders who spread the word as they saw more, no less...

    Congrats on your site and if you ever want to wallow in the extremes of forensic murder aka Manson-style, come visit TLB2 anytime! I and my Guest Authors would LOVE to have a religious expert over there, as much of what Manson espoused was tied up in edgy religious connections/beliefs...

    Sincerely, MsBurb

  2. Ms. Blurb,

    Thanks for your comments. So just to make it clear--Manson was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder with regard to the Sharon Tate murder? Even though he did not personally commit the murder? I understand that he committed murders himself after that. Was he ever charged with the murders he himself did?

  3. Hi,

    My name is Rev Robert Wright, Editor for, a social network made specifically for Christians, by Christians. We embarked on this endeavor to offer the entire Christian community an outlet to join together and better spread the good word of Christianity. has many great features like Christian TV, prayer requests, finding a church, receiving church updates and advice. We have emailed you to collaborate with you and your blog to help spread the good word of Christianity. I look forward to your response regarding this matter. Thanks!

    Rev. Robert Wright

  4. ---

    Excellent post once again, Ken.

    I finally figured out why I have a problem with the argument that Christians make, and Dabney makes here, wherein he argues that we should eschew rationality in favor of God’s word because God word is infallible and men are fallible. This is a self-defeating argument because it is, itself, a rational argument. It uses the tools of logic and rationality to argue that rationality is unreliable and should be ignored when it contradicts Scripture, but if rationality is unreliable, then this argument holds no force. It’s like being involved in a debate, where your position is that debates can’t settle any argument. Self-defeating.

    Dabney’s analogies to the PST are just simply terrible. For example, when he compares the situation where CO-CONSPIRATORS to a murder are rightly judged as complicit in THEIR crime to Jesus Christ, who was allegedly completely innocent, being the substitute for sinners on the cross, I was baffled. That he could see any parallel between the two cases blows my mind, and makes me wonder if he actually had even a modicum of an understanding of the claims of the PST.

    Than he gives a situation where one is actually innocent, but is punished for the impropriety and incarceration of his father, and uses this to show that the PST is just. Here, though, he completely begs the question, because he asserts without argument, that the situation he outlined is, itself, just. But, that’s what we’re trying to figure out! What’s next? Will he argue that human sacrifice is morally permissible because the Mayans practiced it?

    He goes on to argue that no one was injured due to Christ’s sacrifice. While Kens’ point is right on that this says nothing about whether it was just or not, I have another point of contention. Dabney is dead wrong here, because someone was injured due to Christ’s sacrifice, and it was CHRIST HIMSELF! Did not Christ sweat drops of blood the night before, and ask that God remove form him the cup that he was about to bear? Did Christ not get beaten within an inch of his life and then suffer the ignominy of crucifixion, death and burial. If this isn’t injury, than what could injury possibly mean? Just because Christ’s injury wasn’t permanent and debilitating doesn’t negate the fact that he was injured. Did Dabney forget the words “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, by his stripes we are healed”? Christ was injured and he HAD to be injured. That’s the point!

    I can’t even comment on Dabney’s defense of slavery, because he is defending bigotry, plain and simple, and there is simply no defense for bigotry, and there never will be, especially when bigotry is a springboard for enslavement. Dabney is an especially terrible defender of his faith, and yet another black eye on the face of Christianity’s past.