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Dabney vs. Palmer

Speaking of Dabney and the atonement, David Ponter and Michael Lynch have dug up a fascinating historical debate. In debating the plan of Union between New School and Old School Presbyterians in the Southern Presbyterian Church, the two Southern Presbyterian champions R. L. Dabney and Benjamin Morgan Palmer engaged in outright hostility concerning the nature of the atonement. Dabney maintained his typical moderate Calvinism, in line with that of Charles Hodge, whereas Palmer accused Dabney of “positive blasphemy” for maintaining too strong a distinction between the nature of the satisfaction of Christ’s death and the intent to apply that satisfaction to the elect:

It was, therefore, with a feeling of sadness, like that one feels at the grave of the dead, that we first read the following challenge of Dr. Dabney; “he demands that we shall say that Christ was only the elect’s substitute, and bore the guilt only of the elect’s sins–show us the place where either the Bible or Confession says so.”

There is a good amount of abusive rhetoric, false charges, grandstanding, and apparently willful misunderstanding, being employed by all of the interlocutors. Still, it highlights the diversity of opinion and intensity of disagreement that could exist among members of the same “Old School.” Just imagine– Dabney was considered to be on the liberal wing!

It’s also amazing to see both the scrupulous nature of the theological discourse at points, quarreling over the appropriateness of using “as,” contrasted then against Dabney’s (perhaps overly) confident pronouncement that a sort of broad Calvinism or hypothetical universalism was permitted by the Westminster Confession of Faith. The exchange also greatly clarifies the nature of the disagreement between the stricter Calvinists and the moderates like Dabney and Hodge. The former fully subsumed the satisfaction of Christ under the intent of the covenant of redemption, whereas the latter believed that a strong distinction between the two notions was necessary and useful for important theological and practical concerns.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.