Monday, August 27, 2007

Carl Trueman on southern theologians

Carl Trueman is back at it again with a thoughtful post listing three reasons why 19th century southern theologians are not worth one's time (along with a reference to my long-lost brother, Rob Lowe). While admitting that perhaps they aren't the most useful when it comes to systematic theology (a debatable point--Dabney, for example, was the theologian who best convinced me about the biblical and theological rationale for infant baptism), I would submit that it is exactly on the issue of how theology operates within cultural systems that Dabney and Thornwell prove most useful. That is to say, Dabney and Thornwell are important for historical reasons (and contemporary lessons), even when they may fail our tests for theological purposes.

I think this was one of the points that I tried to weave throughout my biography on Dabney. It was why I used this Dabney quote as the epigraph for the entire book: "We shall be wise, therefore, if we harken to the striking instruction of these instances, and make it our method to submit with modesty to the sober teachings of the past in all our legislation for the future." All too often, we have a hard time thinking self-critically about how our theological claims serve to legitimate (illegitimately!) various familial, economic, political, social, moral choices we make. By looking critically at someone like Dabney or Thornwell who blew it so royally on race and slavery, we have a better opportunity for noticing our own blind spots in our cultural systems.

I've made this point before from the perspective of cultural history (here ; here, here, here, and here; as well as here and here)--but it bears repeating: we can only gain perpsective on our present cultural systems through a critical appraisal of the way others have lived in cultural systems in the past. But even more, it is only as we view this past critically and sympathetically do we really understand that all human beings are deeply and profoundly sinful and flawed, save one: Jesus is the only hero of the historical story.


Anonymous said...

Mark Noll would certainly agree with your point, namely that Dabney and Thornwell repay careful study because their cultural blindspots had such huge ramifications in American history. (I'm thinking of Noll's 'The Civil War as a Theological Crisis'.) It would be interesting to see if Carl would agree. But, in the end, you seem to be conceding most of what Carl is saying about Dabney and Thornwell. Are you? Just curious.

--Tim Keller

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Tim: Yeah, I concede most of what Carl says--after all, I was the "Rob Lowe" character to whom he refers in his post. I don't find Dabney as theologically significant as Charles Hodge--in some regard, he doesn't say or do a whole lot different than Hodge in the main. Where I found Dabney interesting (and Thornwell for that matter) is on these "public theology" issues that help us understand how theology operates within cultural systems.

The other thing that I almost said is that under Carl's three criticisms, the only thing that saves Jonathan Edwards is that he says things that are original and, hence, interesting (because, after all, JE owned slaves and wrote densely). But it is just here that some would criticize JE (like D. G. Hart) for his very innovation--which raises the separate question of what makes a good theologian and raises someone to the level of the "theological canon," if you will. Best, sml

yeliab said...

JE owned slaves??

On a more serious note, thanks for the point toward Trueman's post.

Nicholas T. Batzig said...

I can't believe that Trueman would suggest Owen as a more enjoyable read than Dabney or Thornwell. It is far more tedious to read Owen than Dabney, and sometimes more tedious than Thornwell.

Trueman's claim that he has "never read anything useful by them that cannot be found better stated elsewhere," must certainly be challenged. When he asks "Is there anything they say that is (a) original and (b) worth saying?" we should affirm that at the very least Thornwell's volume on Ecclesiology is unsurpassed from American writers and Dabney's section on Covenant Theology proves to be a very beneficial work as well.

To claim that these two Southern Presbyterian giants never produced anything worth reading where you can't get it better elsehwere is short-sghted.

With regard to the racism associated with at least Dabney, we should not let that color the way we veiw the Southern Presbyterian Theologians as a whole. John L. Girardeau, Charles Colcock Jones, Stuart Robinson, etc. all had very fruitful pastoral ministries to the slave populations where they lived. All of these men where also better theologians than so many that the Presbyterian church sees today. I would submit your attention to some posts I posted recently o my blog ( for a few recommendations on very helpful theological works by some southern Presbyterians. I haven't yet mention there Stuart Robinson's "Discourses of Redemption" or his "Curch of God." The cheif theological contribution of these men was a blend of biblical theology with ecclesiology and as you have said, Sean, a wrestling with the cultural application of their theolgy.

Anonymous said...

I have several responses to the above:

Bannerman, Church of Christ -- far superior to Thornwell on ecclesiology.

On covenant, I don't see Dabney saying anything that the seventeenth century men (Owen, Ball, Cocceius, Bulkeley, Witsius, Voetius etc etc) don't cover better or more thoroughly.

On Owen as a tedious stylist -- maybe, though a careful reading demonstrates incredibly subtle humour and literary allusion throughout many of his writings; but again, with Owen you see a great mind in action, interacting with the sweep of historical theology at a level which you do not find in Dabney or Thornwell.

And I concede the usefulness of D and T as providing texts from which one can engage in useful critical/cultural reading; but the fans of these gents whom I have met on my travels over here are generally not interested in that; they typically want to puff them as `giants' and, in so doing, jump through all kinds of hoops to excuse (not critique) the cultural milieu or -- worse still -- endorse it.


Nicholas T. Batzig said...

As far as the previous comments are concerned, I agree. Many times Dabney and Thornwell are hailed as giants in the church simply because they cared about sound theology when in the Northern church so many were departing from Calvinism. Its true that, one the whole, Calvinism was preserved among Presbyterians in the Southern church and this, it seems to me, should at least gain the SP theologians some acknowledgment.

Dabney should be criticized for his terrible comments about slaves but at the same time his work should not be cast aside. Just because a tiny fraction of men in the Presbyterian church raise Dabney to some level of praise that perhaps he doesn't deserve shouldn't stop us from reading and appreciating what we can learn from him.

I would also suggest that the Southern Presbyterian camp as a whole has largely been criticized by men in the Presbyterian church who have never taken the time to read more than a few pages here and there (this is not at all directed to Carl Trueman since I am sure that he has read much more than most). Simply put, there were literary gems that came from the SP's and we should search for them. For instance, Thomas Peck and Stuart Robinson produced two very valuable volumes of the "Presbyterian Critic." John Holt Rice edited several volumes of the Evangelical and Literary Magazine. These works as well as many other lesser known writings of the SP's ought to be studied and appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Is not Trueman's Marxism the real reason he does not favor Dabney and Thornwell? After all, they defended the class system, and Trueman is touchy about his family's position in the English working class.

Anonymous said...

There is something to be said for a man's remaining in his station. Carl Trueman's boorish behavior is no secret. You can take the boy out of Birmingham, but you can't take Birmingham out of the boy. - Percy

Anonymous said...

“All too often, we have a hard time thinking self-critically about how our theological claims serve to legitimate (illegitimately!) various familial, economic, political, social, moral choices we make. By looking critically at someone like Dabney or Thornwell who blew it so royally on race and slavery, we have a better opportunity for noticing our own blind spots in our cultural systems.”

So, Rev. Lucas is not free from blind spots in his cultural system. Why then should we give any credence to his views on race and slavery? Isn’t he the product of his twentieth-century American evangelical “cultural milieu?” Isn’t Dr. Trueman the product of twentieth-century British socialism? Rev. Lucas’s and Dr. Truemans’ perspective implies a certain skepticism and relativism.

Dr. Trueman has blogged (R. Scot Clark’s “Heidelblog,” May 26, 2009), “Unwelcome also was my hint that the gay issue is the result, in part, of hermeneutical shift on the Bible’s teaching on women’s ordination (`not a hill to die on’ according to the Stillites) which shift has now come back to haunt the evangelicals on the issue of homosexuality.” One might add that unwelcome also were Dabney’s hints (e.g., R. L. Dabney, “Women’s Rights Women”) that the women’s issue is the result, in part, of a hermeneutical shift on the Bible’s teaching on slavery, which shift has now come back to haunt the evangelicals on the issues of women’s ordination and homosexuality. (See Jack Rogers’s Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality)

Anonymous said...

Boorish behavior?! We should just be grateful Dr. Trueman's wife and child are not American! (

Anonymous said...

Carl Trueman fancies himself a modern-day Martin Luther, but he would appear to have more in common with Thomas Muntzer!

Anonymous said...

He's rather the Gordon Ramsay of evangelicalism.