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Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life (American Reformed Biographies) Hardcover – April 1, 2005
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"The nineteenth-century Southern church boasted intellectually and morally impressive men who exercised considerable influence over political and social life. Among them, none overmatched Robert Lewis Dabney as a theologian, teacher, and social critic. Sean Lucas has provided a long-needed critical study of this great if problematic man, thereby illuminating our time as well as his." --Eugene D. Genovese, past president, The Historical Society
"A model biography--accurate, interesting, sympathetic, and critical. Dr. Lucas has mastered his material, and the result is a portrait of Dabney that will live on. Not only do we come to know the great Virginian better in this book, but we are also given a wonderfully nuanced treatment of the political, intellectual, and ecclesiastical climate of the nineteenth-century South." --David B. Calhoun, professor of church history, Covenant Theological Seminary
"Lucas's brisk, delightfully clear writing masks the great difficulty of his achievement. He gets closer to the ideal of objectivity than Dabney's contemporaries--let alone Lucas's own contemporaries--could probably imagine. This book is a tremendous feat of scholarly labor and intellectual discipline." --David L. Chappell, author of A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow
"An important resource. Lucas draws on the many sources for knowledge of Dabney's life and thought, places him squarely in his historical setting, and appropriately balances and relates the biographical and theological parts of his task. He also points out, and wrestles ably with, some of the knotty questions that Dabney's story and his legacy still pose for his present-day admirers and critics." --Jack P. Maddex Jr., professor of history, University of Oregon
About the Author
Sean Michael Lucas is adjunct professor of church history at Covenant Theological Seminary and the coeditor of The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards.
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Top Customer Reviews
Lucas develops his thesis in 8 chapters, all alliterated: Preparation, Pastor, Professor, Patriot, Presbyterian Partisan, Passing, and Perspective. The last two chapters were top-notch. The chapters on Presbyterian Partisan and Patriot were not very well-done. I will take particular issue with Lucas on those two chapters. I will briefly note some of Dabney's distinctives in the other six chapters. Dabney held to a conservative, doctrinal Presbyterianism that found strict adherence to the Westminster Standards. His epistemology, Common-Sense realism, allowed him a unique plank to attack unbiblical thought, namely "The Sensualist Philosophy."
Was Dabney a hero or coward concerning his military performance? Lucas sets the stage with a scene from Ivanhoe. This book helped define the Southern ideal as one of true courage and the desire (and demand!) of the Christian knight to seek glory (especially) in the face of death. Continuing this line of thought Lucas says that Dabney struggled to embrace the Southern manhood concerning the war because he, by virtue of his position as a chaplain, could not participate in the fighting. At this point Lucas engages in intense pyschologizing of Dabney. Objectively, Lucas is right. Dabney, being a minister, didn't do much fighting (although he was a key player in a few battles). Subjectively, I don't think this bothered Dabney like Lucas said it bothered Dabney. In fact, I don't recollect Dabney saying this bothered Dabney.
And then there is the strong counter-evidence from General Stonewall Jackson himself. Jackson said Dabney was one of the finest officers he knew. (This is the type of evidence that wins the discussion). Lucas recognizes this strong statement by Jackson and tries to dismiss it by quoting other historians and officers of the war who criticize Dabney as not being a professional soldier and not staying long enough in the campaigns (Dabney was forced to the home-front because of extreme illness). Even granting their points (and I don't), this doesn't prove that Dabney was indecisive as a soldier. I, with General Jackson, believe that Dabney was a competent man in the military who did what he was called to do.
Lucas then tries to point out inconsistencies in Dabney's ethic: How could Dabney support war as a minister of the gospel? The argument is that Dabney should have seen the inconsistency in being a chaplain on one hand (the saving of souls) and fighting as an officer on the other hand (the killing of men). I maintain, to the contrary, that Dabney exercised the "Two Kingdoms" ethic in the most consistent manner. Dabney, like all of us who are aliens in this commonwealth, are called to seek the prosperity of "the City (Jeremiah 29)." Therefore, Dabney, prophetically seeing the destruction of a Christian civilization that a Northern victory would bring, urged men to defend "the City." This was his "civic" or secular duty. This in no way contradicted his "sacred" duty. If it does, then the Two Kingdoms ethic falls (which few in Reformed circles would be willing to grant).
I admit that Dabney warranted much criticism in this chapter. But we should be cautious in these criticisms. Dabney was wrong to forbid the ordination of African-Americans. Also, much of Dabney's opposition to the Northern church was wrong-headed (although his overall perspective and position is correct). While Dabney was correct to point out that the Bible, either Old Testament or New Testament, does not forbid slavery and the Bible cannot be used as an argument against slavery, he should have seen that the Bible has provisions for the long-term freeing of slaves.
But let's get to the heart of the issue. Dabney's rhetoric and refusal to forgive can only be understood in the context of Reconstruction. If one does not understand the nightmare of Reconstruction (drive through downtown Natchez, MS today), then one cannot understand Dabney's fight. Dabney saw that Reconstruction was the overturning of constitutionalism and the rule of law in the land. Dabney could not just "forgive and forget" a people who raped his homeland, destroyed the finest of a civilization, and in many cases, attacked the Christian faith. Perhaps he should have forgiven some (not all!) of the Northern crimes.
Is the Book worth getting? Yes. It incorporates new material and employs good, technical scholarship. I do wish that Lucas had been more sympathetic to Dabney. I understand why he kept his distance in this book. This book is written in the context of professional scholarship and "the academy." Dabney's ideas, obviously, are not that popular. We hope one day they will be.
By situating Dabney within the pre- and post-Civil War South, Lucas demonstrates that Dabney serves as a model for understanding the ideologies of the Southern culture and Southern church – Old School Presbyterian, anti-modern philosopher, a true believer in the just cause of the Confederacy, opposing abolition and advocating political conservatism. Lucas explores these themes at every stage in Dabney’s life, from seminarian to pastor to scholar and churchman, demonstrating how Dabney’s theological convictions (Scriptural inerrancy, strict subscription to the Westminster Standards, ‘spirituality of the church’) and his societal convictions (pro-Confederacy, pro-slavery, hierarchical, republican, agrarian) interacted as he attempted to produce a holistic systematic theology of Church and State for the Southern Presbyterian Church before and after the Civil War.
Having grown up in the South, I have a tense relationship with the legacy of Southern Presbyterianism that remains a part of the PCA’s history. I have trouble seeing through the explicit racism of some of these churchmen to see their valuable contributions in other areas of theology. As such, I initially started this book expecting to be frustrated with the content. However, I was quickly drawn into the story of Dabney’s life and ministry. Dr. Lucas offers an excellent work of history, sympathetic to the man while offering unflinching criticism of his problematic decisions or positions. Lucas’ analysis is precise and thought-provoking, engaging with Dabney’s theological principles and offering an unexpected counterpoint in the figure of Abraham Kuyper. Because of Lucas’ honest picture of this Southern churchman, modern readers are enabled to glean from both Dabney’s virtues and his flaws. This book earns five stars for its honest historical coverage of Dabney’s life and thought-provoking analysis of Dabney’s theological convictions.
I’m thankful to P&R Publishing for providing a review copy of this book.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I became a fan of Lucas from his excellent pieces in the Westminster Theological Journal.Read more