Sunday, September 16, 2007

Review of Lucas' biography on Dabney

I began this biography on Robert Lewis Dabney with mixed emotions. On one hand I was glad a new biography was written on Dabney. I view Dabney as one of the more heroic Christian leaders of the American church. There should be a plethora of material on him. For this reason, Lucas is to be praised. On the other hand, sadly, if one is not a Southron, it is hard to understand Dabney. This proved to be true in Lucas' case. Lucas' thesis--with which I agree--is that Dabney is far from unusual or aberrant, but rather represents the 19th century Southern Presbyterian Church and Southern Conservative Tradition (217). By understanding Dabney's mind, we have a window in which to see the minds of an entire sociological group--the modern-day Southern conservative.

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).

Presbyterian Partisan
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.

In all honesty I think Lucas damned Dabney with feigned praise. He overplayed Dabney's faults and did not do justice to Dabney's ideal of "Christian heroism." I do not believe we should whitewall Dabney. Dabney made some statements that cannot be justified biblically. He could have fought (and won) the same battles had he fought them on biblical and doctrinal lines. The last chapter, Perspective, was quite good. Lucas did some good, hard thinking on this part. He makes a very good comparison to Abraham Kuyper and notes that both Kuyper and Dabney developed, more fully than anyone else, the idea of a "Public Theology." Lucas hints that both Kuyper and Dabney have "theonomic" tendencies (241). I agree.

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.


Heidi said...

I especially like the alliteration. It makes the chapter headings so much harder to remember....

How was the United States at that time, a 'Christian civilization' to be preserved or destroyed? If slavery is biblical, then how can states rights be considered 'Christian' as opposed to a more centralized govt? And though the North was wicked despite its religious heroes, I don't think the South was really much better. Perhaps the idea of complete, because lifelong, possession in slavery was the foundation of where we departed from biblical models but it also manifested itself in many other very heinous ways. Even Dabney, true man of God that he was (and so he wasn't raping, torturing, denying the word of God to his own slaves while 'supporting missions to the heathen' elsewhere, starving, impoverishing, etc), proves how very despicable slavery had become in his whole attitude to African Americans. I'm just not sure how a Christian civilization could have continued if the South had won any more than the North, or even that it existed beforehand.

I do want to read more Dabney though.... thanks for the review.

Anonymous said...

I am not a huge student of Dabney, however I understand that jackson called on him to be his chief of staff. Incredibly, he handed him a volume on war and Dabney subsequently become chief of staff to one of the finest maneuver units in the history of war. That took guts and brains! There is much to be commended from this man as well as much to say "there but for the grace of God go I!" I enjoyed the review.


David A Booth said...

Like you, I was glad to see a recent biography on Dabney being published. Yet, I was quite surprised by Lucas' inability to sympathetically grapple with the Southern point of view in the war - even if he was ultimately going to condemn the South as wrong.

Lucas does not bring out how horrendous some of the war crimes committed by the North were during the civil war. This background would have made Dabney's reluctance to embrace the North after the war seem far less idosyncratic than he might appear to those unfamiliar with these atrocities.

What makes this omission particularly surprising is that Lucas did his Doctoral dissertation on Dabney.

Sadly, it is unlikely that another publisher will decide that there is a sufficient market for another Dabney biography for at least another 10 years.


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