Dabney, Discussions vol 3

I reject what Dabney says on race.  He is wrong.  He’s also wrong on the Lord’s Supper.  I am simply reviewing this as it is part of a key moment in 19th Century American life.

We remember Dabney as a follower of Common Sense Realism.  This volume is best seen as an application of that philosophy. It spans anthropology, theology, social ethics, logic, and philosophy proper.  


Calvinists mean by “will” the whole subjective activities.  This includes disposition and subjective desires, both of which lead to volition (III: 221).  The important point for Dabney is that volition–the act of willing–must be cause or influenced by something.  The Calvinist finds the proximate cause in our disposition and subjective desires.

While he doesn’t expand the point, Dabney’s comments show that Calvinists do not believe that the will is corrupt.  Rather, “‘corruption of will’…means rather the conative movements preceding volition, rather than volition itself” (281). 

 Dabney reduces–and clarifies–Edwards’ argument to this:  Motives determine volitions.  But what are motives? The soul’s subjective desire is spontaneous.   As Dabney points out concerning the word “necessity:” if we suppose that the subject motive is present, the volition will not fail to rise (238).  Well then, does that mean we believe in “free will” after all?  Not quite.  The will may indeed act spontaneously, but the intellect directs it (237).  This isn’t fatalism because an intellect’s directing the will is another way of saying that the action isn’t random and mindless.

This discussion explains effectual calling and regeneration: In regeneration God efficiently produces the holy disposition which regulates, concurrent with a renewed intellect (acts as proximate cause), man’s volitions (227).

Common Sense Realism

While he doesn’t have a chapter on Common Sense Realism, he does helpfully define its basics in his last chapter.  He notes, “We have found that whenever we see properties we must believe in substances to which the mind refers these properties.  Wherever we see action going on we must believe in substantive agents” (575).  The strength of CSR is the conclusions one draws from negating it:  “If I were to doubt my own consciousness, I should have to doubt everything else, because everything I know is known to me only through the medium of this consciousness” (574-575).  Thus, CSR is not a set of neutral principles, pace the Van Tillian, but rather a mode of knowing.  

Social Ethics

We are quick to reject Dabney on slavery, but we must be careful that in rejecting his view on slavery, we do not fall prey to Jacobinism (atheistic French Revolution). His larger question:  “What is the moral ground of my obligation to obey the magistrate, whom yesterday, before he was inducted to office, I would have scorned to recognize as my master, to whom today I must bow in obedience” (302)? There are several answers to this question:  Hobbesianism (I must obey any official simply because he is an official), social contract theory, and biblical theory.

  The Hobbesian theory rests on incoherent presuppositions.  If “Bob” is my master today, but he is usurped by “Jim” tomorrow (which action most would call sinful, per Romans 13), then Jim is the divinely ordained master.  Repeat ad infinitum.  While I may have to give Bob-Jim obedience for conscience’s sake, it is obvious that if two contradictory men, both of whom claim post facto legitimacy, neither can claim the moral high ground.  There is no moral foundation. Thus, Hobbesianism is morally bankrupt.  

Dabney deals likewise with Social Contract Theory.  Before we continue with infidel theories, Dabney has an interesting and challenging discussion of church and state.  He gives a solid criticism of the 19th century Scottish church:  when you accept government money, you have to accept the conditions the government lays down for having the money (325).  

Unlimited Rights Incompatible with Scripture

The Jacobin theory of rights asserts that no one in society may have a right and privilege that the other doesn’t have and you cannot impute the consequences of one to the other (and the reasoning is the same:  one man cannot be “above” the other in representing him).  

Dabney, following the Larger Catechism (Q. 124), says that we have obligations to inferiors, superiors, and equals.  Our functions and privileges differ, but the same law protects our common rights (Dabney 499).  We have different relations within society.  

Even more embarrassing for modern man, “God distributed the franchises unequally in the Hebrew commonwealth” (504).  And all of this leads Dabney to his comments on slavery.  We might not like them, but we must deal with what the Bible says. 

Even more, the Hebrew commonwealth has those who are neither domestic slaves nor fully enfranchised citizens.  Is that unjust? Dabney continues with a few more reductios.


This is not easy reading, but the essays do follow a logical pattern.   While we may not accept all of his conclusions, this is a remarkable snapshot of cultural life in the postbellum South.


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