By Zane C. Hodges
*This article originally appeared in the February 1989 issue of what was then Grace in Focus newsletter.1
“What goes around, comes around,” people often say. And though they rarely do so, they could say it about theological controversy, too!
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 Brethren teaching.
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, etc.
Dabney is particularly adamant in rejecting the Plymouth Brethren view that assurance is of the essence of saving faith. But 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’s 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 nature or essence 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 day” (p. 215).
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, led 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 then Institutes, Book III, Chap. II, Sec. 16. “In short, no man is truly a believer, unless he is firmly persuaded that God is a propitious and benevolent father to him. . . .and feel an undoubted expectation of salvation” (p. 216, italics in Dabney).
Other quotations from Calvin follow in Dabney’s text, but my space here does not allow me to quote them.
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 exercising what he thinks is faith. Such is the correct statement of these facts of consciousness. Now suppose the faith, of which 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 hollowness (pp 180-181, italics in Dabney).
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, too?
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.
Zane taught NT at DTS for 27 years, authored over a dozen books, and was passionate about the grace of God.
1 Some suggested that after Zane went to be with the Lord in 2008, he had only recently adopted the view that assurance is of the essence of saving faith. This 1989 article shows that he held that
view from the start of GES. Indeed, based on his writings and messages, it appeared he held this view since the time he came to faith in Christ (approx. 1942).
2 Originally published in 1890, the book is available free electronically online at library.logcollegepress.com/Dabney%2C+Robert+Lewis%2C+Discussions+Vol.+1.pdf.