Dabney on Damaged Protestantism

I often hear people talking about how Machen considered Romanists to be a different form of Christianity while liberal Protestantism was an entirely different religion. This is often touted as a uniquely insightful thought, but it looks like Dabney beat him to the punch on this one.

“The Attractions of Popery,” Presbyterian Quarterly, No. 28, April 894, pp. 161-163.:

To the shame of our damaged Protestantism, popery remains, in some essential respects, more faithful to God’s truth than its rival. For instance, while multitudes of scholars, calling themselves Protestant Christians, are undermining the doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures, Rome holds fast to it in her catechisms and formal declarations. True, she claims inspiration for others than the prophets, evangelists, and apostles, for her popes, namely, and prelates, holding to “the apostolic succession.” But if one must err, it is better to err by excess than by defect on a point like this, where negation cuts the blinded soul of man off absolutely from the divine guidance. Thousands of pretended Protestant believers are advancing their destructive criticism to assert that the Pentateuch is a literary fraud. Rome firmly maintains that it is God’s own work through Moses. A thousand deceitful arts are plied to degrade the conception of inspiration, as giving only thoughts, and not the words, or as consisting only in an elevation of the consciousness by poetic genius, and such like treacherous views. Rome still teaches the old-fashioned, honest view. What right have such deceitful Protestants to scold Rome for dishonesty of those historical and spiritual impostures upon which she founds the claims of the popes? Truly, they are dirty enough; for the forged decretals, for instance, too much contempt and reprehension cannot be expressed. But they are not a whit dirtier than the mental dishonesty of the men who, after asserting that they have proved the Pentateuch mostly a literary fraud, done by priestcraft more than a thousand years after its pretended date, still assure us that its value as Scripture and divine rule of faith is not wounded. These recent justifiers of pious fraud cannot convict the older ones. The old imposture, like a rotten roof, has become moss-grown with age, and is picturesque and venerable in many eyes. The new imposture stands ugly and malodorous in its rank freshness.

Again, multitudes of pretended Protestants utterly deny the trinity, the very corner-stone of a theology of redemption. Rome affirms it in all the fulness of the creeds of Nice, Chalcedon, and Athanasius. Myriads of pretended Protestants revere their own ethical philosophy so much more than they do their God that they must needs utterly reject Christ’s vicarious satisfaction for the guilt of sin. Rome continues to assert it, in spite of spurious philosophy, although she does add to it superstitious claims of human merit. Myriads of our men have become such “advanced thinkers” that they cannot away with supernatural regeneration. Rome teaches it invariably, even if it is in the form of baptismal regeneration, and still ascribes it to the power of God. Such are a few of the biting contrasts. We cannot wonder that many, even of honest and reverent minds, when they witness this ruthless destruction of the essentials of the gospel, draw two plain inferences. One is, that all such men pretending to be Protestant believers are, in fact, nothing but infidels wearing a mask, probably for the sake of the loaves and fishes as yet connected with the clerical calling; so that it is mere impudence for such men to assume to warn them against popish impostures—rather too near akin to Satan reproving sin. The other is, that the Romanist theologians must have been right in asserting, ever since the days of Luther, that our Protestant way of establishing a divine rule of faith by a rational and explicit credence must turn out nothing but rationalistic infidelity. Souls which value a divine redemption for man shudder as they behold this wild havoc of everything characteristic of a saving gospel; and they naturally exclaim, “There is no security except in going back to that old foundation, implicit trust in the witness of ‘Holy Mother Church’ to the Scriptures!” Now, true Protestants know that this conclusion is wretchedly sophistical, but it is dreadfully natural for honest, half-informed men.

A couple thoughts on this:

  1. There are lots of Roman heretics, especially post-Vatican II. Ironically, I think it’s probably more common to run across more Papists who deny Mosaic authorship, for example, than Protestants. Rome does a really good job of presenting as one big happy family when they’re anything but. There is as much, if not more, theological diversity among Papists than among Protestants. Institutional unity does not equal unity in doctrine or piety.

  2. Rome does a really good job of presenting as one big happy family. To the untrained (read: mega-church evangelical) eye, Romanism solves all the problems with “Protestantism”1 They claim to have got pretty liturgies and great philosophers and deep devotion, and Splash Impact Community Church does not. Now, I believe that the liturgy, philosophy, and devotion of Rome are fatally flawed, and what these people are looking for is just genuine historic Protestantism. We’ve got liturgy without idolatry, philosophy without sophistry, and devotion without mysticism. But these people disenchanted with SICC (that is, Splash Impact Community Church) don’t know that, and I’m not sure most Reformed folks do either. Thus, the great challenge of the Reformed church today is to reclaim her heritage and to proclaim it to the world. And we have to proclaim it, not on the basis of its being traditional, but on the basis of its being biblical.

PS: This ended up begin more developed than I was thinking it would be, so I might have to come back around and flesh this out. Be on the lookout for that.

  1. Mega-church evangelicalism is not Protestant in any meaningful way as far as I am concerned. If you can’t submit to one of many Reformation confessions without crossing your fingers, I don’t see how you could represent the Protestant tradition. ↩︎