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Doctrinal D�j� Vu
An Old Issue: Faith and Assurance
By Zane C. Hodges1
"What goes around, comes around,"
people often say. And though they rarely
do so, they could say it about theological
Recently my attention was called to a
hundred year old book entitled, Discussions by Robert L.
Dabney, D.D., L.L.D.,
Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Texas, and for
Many Years Professor in Union Theological Seminary in
Virginia.2 (I'm not kidding-all of that
was part of the title!) The particular discussion I have in mind
was one called "Theology of the Plymouth Brethren" (pp.
169-213). In this segment of the book, Dabney
roundly criticizes the errors of Plymouth
Dabney himself was a Southern Presbyterian theologian,
strongly committed to
the Calvinist, or Reformed, system of his
denomination. To read him here is like
reading the contemporary debate about
salvation. Virtually all the central issues
are surfaced in Dabney's critique: the nature of saving faith,
the grounds of assurance, sanctification and the two natures,
Dabney is particularly adamant in rejecting the Plymouth
Brethren view that assurance is of the essence of saving faith.
with a remarkable candor that we could use
more of today, he traces this "error" to
Luther and Calvin! Listen to this:
The source of this error is no doubt that
doctrine concerning faith which the first
Reformers, as Luther and Calvin, were
led to adopt from their opposition to the
hateful and tyrannical teachings of
Rome...These noble Reformers...flew
to the opposite extreme, and...asserted
that the assurance of hope is of the
essence of saving faith. Thus says Calvin
in his commentary on Romans: "My
faith is a divine and spiritual belief that
God has pardoned and accepted me" (p.
173: italics in Dabney).
Following the discussion from which I have
just quoted, there is another bearing the
same title ("Theology of the Plymouth
Brethren," pp. 214-228). In this one Dabney replies to a
critical correspondent (M.
N.), who had found fault with the previous
discussion. Apparently, M. N. had objected to Calvin being
charged with the
view that assurance is of the essence of
saving faith. Dabney replies that he still
asserts: "That Calvin and Dr. Malan, and
the Plymouth Brethren, hold a definition of
saving faith which is, in one respect, contrary" to the
Westminster Confession and to
the Scriptures, as well as to the great body
of the confessions of the Presbyterian
Churches, and of their divines since Calvin's
To M. N.'s apparent unwillingness to
admit this, Dabney adds: ". . . for as sure as
truth is in history, Luther and Calvin did fall
into this error, which the Reformed
churches, by the Westminster Confession,
have since corrected" (p. 215)!
Quite an admission, don't you agree?
To drive the final nails into the coffin of
M. N.'s argument, Dabney goes on like this:
He [Calvin] requires everyone to say, in
substance, I believe fully that Christ has
saved me. Amidst all Calvin's verbal
variations, this is always his meaning;
for he is consistent in his error. What
else is the meaning of that definition
which M. N. himself quotes from the
Institutes: "Our steady and certain
knowledge of the divine benevolence
toward us." But I will show, beyond all
dispute, that the theological "Homer
nodded," not once, but all the time on
this point. See the Institutes, Book III,
Chap. II, Sec. 16. "In short, no man is
truly a believer, unless he is firmly persuaded that God is a
benevolent father to him. . .and feel an
undoubted expectation of salvation"
Other quotations from Calvin follow, in
Dabney's text, but my space here does not
allow me to quote them.
(p. 216; italics in Dabney).
But what is Dabney's view? It is the
typical Reformed view that works are
needed to verify my faith. The hopeless
quagmire into which Reformed theology
plunges its adherents is neatly (though
unwittingly stated) by Dabney:
There is a spurious as well as a genuine
faith. Every man, when he thinks he believes, is conscious of
he thinks is faith. Such is the correct
statement of these facts of consciousness. Now suppose the faith,
the man is conscious, turns out a spurious faith, must not his be
a spurious consciousness? And he, being without the
illumination of the Spirit, will be in the
dark as to its hollownes
What a tragic position! The believer in
Christ cannot know whether his belief is
genuine or spurious. He must, therefore,
search for a way to have faith in his faith--to
believe that he has believed. But what if,
after self-examination, he is wrong there,
(pp 180-181; italics in Dabney).
Obviously, the kind of theology Dabney
represents strips believers of their grounds
of assurance and dangles them over an
abyss of despair.
But, as you can see, we are not the first
people to fight this battle over assurance.
Calvin fought it, long ago, with Rome.
1Zane Hodges is on tie pastoral staff of Victor
Street Bible Chapel in Dallas, Texas and is a
member of the GES Board.
2Volume I: Theological and Evangelical,
edited by C. R. Vaughan, published by the
Presbyterian Committee of Publication,
Richmond, VA., 1890.
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