Dabney on Trinitarian Thought

We find ourselves speaking almost inevitably of 1st, 2d, and 3d persons; thus implying some order in the persons. No orthodox Christian, of course, understands this order as relating to a priority of time, or of essential dignity. To what, then, does it relate? And is there any substantial reason for assigning such an order at all? We reply: There must be; when we find that where the three persons are mentioned by Scripture, in connection, as in Matt. xxviii:19, &c., &c., they are usually mentioned as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and not in reversed order; that in all allusions to the properties and relations of the three, the Father is always spoken of (e.g. the word Father) by some term or trait implying primary rank, and the other two, by some implying secondariness; as Christ is His Son, the Holy Ghost His Spirit; they are sent, He the Sender; and in their working, there is always a sort of reference to the Father’s primariness, (if I may coin a word,) directing their operation. See also Jno. v; 26; x:38; xiv:11; xvii:21; Heb. i:3.

But if it be asked, what is the primariness, the answer is not so easy. It was the usual answer of the ante-Nicene, and especially the Greek Fathers, that it indicated the order of derivation, that the personality of the Son is from that of the Father, not the Father’s from the Son; and so of the Holy Ghost. (And so far, it must be allowed, the fair force of the Scripture facts just stated, carries them properly enough.) The Father they regarded as anaitios, as pege theou, or arche theou, the Son and Holy Ghost as aitiaitoi, theoi ek theou, and as deriving their personal subsistence from the eternal act of the Father in communicating the divine essence to them in those modes of subsistence. And this view was embodied in both forms of the Nicene Creed, of A.D. 325 and 381, where the Son is called, “God of God, Light of Light, and very God of very God;” language never applied to the Father as to the Son. Their idea is, that the Father, the original Godhead, eternally generates the person, not the substance of the Son, and produces by procession the person, not the substance of the Holy Ghost, by inscrutably communicating the whole indivisible divine substance, essentially identical with Himself in these two modes of subsistence; thus eternally causing the two persons, by causing the two additional modes of subsistence. This statement, they suppose, was virtually implied in the very relation of terms, Father and His Son, Father and His pneuma, by the primariness of order always assigned to the Father, and by the distinction in the order of working. And they relied upon this view to vindicate the doctrine of the Trinity from the charge of tritheism.

Was it objected, that they represented the 2d and 3d persons as beginning to exist, and thus robbed them of a true self-existence and eternity? These Fathers could answer with justice: No; the processes of personal derivation were eternal, immanent processes, and the Father has a personal priority, not in time, but only in causation; e.g. the sun’s rays have existed precisely as long as he has; yet the rays are from the sun and not the sun from the rays. And the 2d. person may be derived as to His personality, thoes ek theou, and yet self-existent God; because His essence is the one self-existent essence, and it is only His personality which is derived. They regard self-existence as an attribute of essence, not of person.

Was it objected that these derived personalities were unequal to the 1st person? They answer: No; because the Father put His whole essence in the two other modes of subsistence. Was it said, that then the personal subsistence of the 2d. and 3d. was dependent on the good pleasure of the 1st.; and therefore, revocable at His pleasure? They answered, that the generation and procession were not free, contingent acts, but necessary and essential acts, free indeed, yet necessitated by the very perfection of the eternal substance. You will perceive that I have not used the word subordination, but derivation, to express this personal relation. If you ask me whether I adopt the Patristic view, thus cleared, as my own, I reply, that there seems to me nothing in it inconsistent with revealed truth; yet it seems to me rather a rational explanation of revealed facts, than a revealed fact itself.

~Lectures in Systematic Theology pg. 204

Dabney is here a better historical source than Hodge and Warfield, and though he might lament the “rational explanation” to a point, I can’t imagine a better or more straightforward explanation.

Dabney also mentions a “peculiar view of some Trinitarians” in which the sonship of Christ is given “a merely temporal meaning.” Among these are “the notorious Alex. Campbell.”

Dabney on Unlimited Expiation

Dabney is certainly sympathetic to the Amyraldians. He doesn’t agree with Hodge’s criticisms, though he does believe that the Amyraldian solutions fail to achieve what they set out to do. For Dabney, the “limitation” of the atonement (this is a word he doesn’t much care for either) comes in the covenant of redemption and not in the content of Christ’s expiation. Dabney critiques the Amyraldians for failing to affirm that Christ purchases effectual calling for the elect, but I have to admit that I’m having trouble understanding how the purchase of effectual calling relates with the expiation, of which Dabney admits is unlimited. It seems to me that the covenant of redemption is wholly bound up in God’s secret will, and thus we ought not say too much about how it comes about. I think that Dabney comes out pretty close to “hypothetical universalism,” whatever that actually is. Perhaps Flynn will enlighten us all.

To begin with, he notes the genuine offer of the gospel to all, stating that God really does desire, in a true sense of that word, that even the reprobate would be saved, even though He has not decreed it to come about. Dabney says that limited atonement is analogous to election, but is quick to state, “redemption is limited precisely by the decree, and by nothing else” (Systematic Theology pg. 527).

Dabney gets into the more specific question of the content of Christ’s death, and his distinctions are very helpful:

Now Christ is a true substitute. His suffereings were penal and vicarious, and made a true satisfaction for all those who actually embrace them by faith. But the conception charged on us seems to be, as though Christ’s expiation were a web of the garment of righteousness, to be cut into definite pieces, and distributed out, so much to each person of the elect; whence, of course, it must have a definite aggregate length, and had God seen fit to add any to the number of elect, He must have had an additional extent of web woven. This is all incorrect. Satisfaction was Christ’s indivisible act, and inseparable vicarious merit, infinite in moral value, the whole in its unity and completeness, imputed to every believing elect man, without numerical division, subtraction or exhaustion.
(528)

Dabney also adds, “Remember, the limitation is precisely in the decree, and no where else.” He states the the real limitation is in the personal relationships decreed to come about. His conclusion is of vast importance:

The only New Testament sense the word atonement has is that of katallage, reconciliation.  But expiation is another idea.  Katallage is personal.  Exilasmos [expiation] is impersonal.  Katallage is multiplied, being repeated as often as a sinner comes to the expiatory blood: exilasmos is single, unique, complete; and, in itself considered, has no more relationship to one man’s sins than another.  As it is applied in effectual calling, it becomes personal, and receives a limitation.  But in itself, limitation is irrelevant to it.  Hence, when men use the word atonement, as they so often do, in the sense of expiation, the phrases, “limited atonement,” “particular atonement,” have no meaning. Redemption is limited, i.e., to true believers, and is particular. Expiation is not limited.
(528)

Now Dabney’s discussion is wholly concerned with penal substitution. There is no mention made of Christus Victor, which, were such written today, would be a glaring omission, but in Dabney’s day the neglect was standard and can perhaps be forgiven.

As I understand it, the “limited” only applies to the secret will of God and the covenant of redemption. Being secret, it seems a hard doctrine to preach directly to people, and I think Dabney admits as much. The entire issue is basically one of the via negativa. Given that it was a rejection of a contrary proposal, this makes good sense.

The gospel is part of God’s revealed will though, and as such I think we are free to speak of it to all. Dabney is more reserved on what this looks like, although I can’t see wherein he and I would really disagree, especially if broader atonement models are figured in. That Christ has satisfied God’s wrath and in him is peace and reconciliation ought to be the very object of our faith. That is what we are to believe. In Christ, we are reconciled to God.

How Can God Both Desire Your Salvation and Condemn You?

R L Dabney answered this question by an analogy:

The direction in which the answers are conceived to lie may be best indicated by an analogical instance. A human ruler may have full power and authority over the punishment of a culprit, may declare consistently his sincere compassion for him, and may yet freely elect to destroy him. A concrete case will make the point more distinct. Chief-Justice Marshall, in his Life of Washington (Vol. 4., Chap. 6.), says with reference to the death-warrant of the rash and unfortunate Major André “Perhaps on no occasion of his life did the commander-in-chief obey with more reluctance the stern mandates of duty and of policy.” In this historical instance we have these facts: Washington had plenary power to kill or to save alive. His compassion for the criminal was real and profound. Yet he signed his death-warrant with spontaneous decision. The solution is not the least difficult either for philosophy or common sense. Every deliberate rational volition is regulated by the agent’s dominant subjective disposition, and prompted by his own subjective motive. But that motive is a complex, not a simple modification of spirit. The simplest motive of man’s rational volition is a complex of two elements: a desire or propension of some subjective optative power, and a judgment of the intelligence as to the true and preferable. The motive of a single decision may be far more complex than this, involving many intellectual considerations of prudence, or righteous policy, and several distinct and even competing propensions of the optative powers. The resultant volition arises out of a deliberation, in which the prevalent judgment and appetency counterpoise the inferior ones. To return to our instance Washington’s volition to sign the death-warrant of André did not arise from the fact that his compassion was slight or feigned; but from the fact that it was rationally counterpoised by a complex of superior judgments and propensions of wisdom, duty, patriotism, and moral indignation. Let us suppose that one of André’s intercessors (and he had them, even among the Americans) standing by, and hearing the commanding general say, as he took up the pen to sign the fatal paper, “I do this with the deepest reluctance and pity,” should have retorted, “Since you are supreme in this matter, and have full bodily ability to throw down that pen, we shall know by your signing this warrant that your pity is hypocritical.” The petulance of this charge would have been equal to its folly. The pity was real; but was restrained by superior elements of motive. Washington had official and bodily power to discharge the criminal; but he had not the sanction of his own wisdom and justice. Thus his pity was genuine, and yet his volition not to indulge it free and sovereign.


Certainly aware of objections, Dabney proceeded to answer them in this lengthy essay. One of the more interesting aspects of the essay is Dabney’s criticism of Thomistic versions of divine simplicity. Hodge agreed with him in this respect, though it seems a historical oddity.

Here is his response to that issue:

The attempt to illustrate the action of the divine will from the rise of rational volition in man, has doubtless been prejudiced by the scholastic explanations of God’s absolute simplicity. They would have us believe, not only that this excludes all composition and aggregation of quantitative parts, but all true distinction of essence and attributes. They would have the idea of God as absolutely devoid of construction in thought as his substance is of construction in reality. We must, in his case, identify essence and attributes. God is actus purus [pure impulse]. Any attribute is God; and hence one attribute is differentiated from another only by our apprehension of it. With him cognition and effectuation are identical. It does not satisfy them to say that God is an infinite monad, as the rational human soul is a finite monad; and that his attributes, like man’s essential powers of intelligence, sensibility, and will, are not limbs or parts attached to the spirit, but essential modes of functions with which it is endued. They require us to identify God’s attributes with his essence in a way inconceivably closer than we do man’s essential powers with his essence. Now, if this speculation be correct, the attempt to apprehend the action of the divine will by the human must be wholly erroneous. There could be no such distinction, as is true of man, between motive and volition, or between the optative powers and the power of choice. Nor could there be any sense whatsoever in which God’s subjective motive could be complex.
    But we deny that the speculation is correct, susceptible of proof, or possible to be valid to the human mind. Evidently the cognition of such a being is inaccessible to man’s intelligence. The only way he has of knowing substance is through its attributes; and the only cognition we have of it is as the intuitive notion, which the reason necessarily supplies, of the subjectum to which the attributes perceived must be referred. Hence, to require us to think substance as literally identical with each attribute rationally referred to it, is to forbid us to think it at all. Again, reason forbids us to think different attributes as identical. We intuitively know that thought is not conation, and conation is not sensibility; it is as impossible to think these actually identical in God as in ourselves. Last, this speculation brings us too near the awful verge of pantheism. Were it true, then, it would be the shortest and most natural of steps to conclude that God has no other being than the series of activities of the several attributes with which they seek to identify the being. Thus we have the form of pantheism next to the gulf of nihilism. If the attributes are identical with the being of God and with each other, and if it be thus shown that God’s thought makes the object thereof, then, since God is eternally, necessarily, and infinitely intelligent, these results must rigidly follow: That all objective being known to God must be also as eternal and necessary as God; and that it must be as infinite as he is. What more would Spinoza have desired to found his mathematical proof of pantheism? The speculation is not true any more than it is scriptural. The Bible always speaks of God’s attributes as distinct, and yet not dividing his unity; of his intelligence and will as different; of his wrath, love, pity, wisdom, as not the same activities of the Infinite Spirit. We are taught that each of these is inconceivably higher than the principle in man which bears the corresponding name; but if the Scriptures do not mean to teach us that they are distinguishable in God, as truly as in man, and that this is as consistent with his being an infinite monad as with our souls’ being finite monads, then they are unmeaning.


A great essay if you’ve got the fortitude. Dabney should be read more often!

Dabney’s Solution to the Lapsarian Debate

This is worth quoting in detail. I’m very intrigued by Dabney’s particular understanding of divine simplicity, as he and Hodge were both very critical of the more Thomistic definition.

The attempt to illustrate the action of the divine will from the rise of rational volition in man, has doubtless been prejudiced by the scholastic explanations of God’s absolute simplicity. They would have us believe, not only that this excludes all composition and aggregation of quantitative parts, but all true distinction of essence and attributes. They would have the idea of God as absolutely devoid of construction in thought as his substance is of construction in reality. We must, in his case, identify essence and attributes. God is actus purus [pure impulse]. Any attribute is God; and hence one attribute is differentiated from another only by our apprehension of it. With him cognition and effectuation are identical. It does not satisfy them to say that God is an infinite monad, as the rational human soul is a finite monad; and that his attributes, like man’s essential powers of intelligence, sensibility, and will, are not limbs or parts attached to the spirit, but essential modes of functions with which it is endued. They require us to identify God’s attributes with his essence in a way inconceivably closer than we do man’s essential powers with his essence. Now, if this speculation be correct, the attempt to apprehend the action of the divine will by the human must be wholly erroneous. There could be no such distinction, as is true of man, between motive and volition, or between the optative powers and the power of choice. Nor could there be any sense whatsoever in which God’s subjective motive could be complex. Continue reading