R.L. Dabney:

For the Southern Presbyterian

Dr Dabney on the Plan of Union.


5. But the most serious objection of all seems to be made to § 3. Of art. 1, touching the atonement which offends in many points. Great exception is taken again and again, to the sentence which repudiates the opinion that “the atonement was so limited only, that if God had designed to redeem more Christ must have suffered more, or differently.” The fault here, says the Southern Presbyterian, is not that the error thus repudiated is not an error; but that it was needless to notice it, because he never heard of anybody who held it. “There are real errors enough in the world: Let us not fight shadows.” And again:

Dr Waddell intimates that the committees know of somebody, somewhere, who holds the absurd error condemned in the report, in regard to the amount of our Lord’s sufferings. Of course we are open to better information on that point, and would recommend that the party holding such an error be exhibited as a curiosity. But it seems curious that whole monstrous and dangerous errors on the great doctrine of the atonement abound on all sides of us, the report should pass them by, and select for condemnation an absurd and obscure dogma, which can be held by at most very few, and they people can do no harm.

We will venture to give a little of the information asked for about them. One of those absurd, harmless, and almost un-heard-of people, was Fautus Socinus, (former of a sect with flattered itself it had made some noise in the world ever since), who in his work De Servatore, argues at length that if we hold to particular redemption, and proper vicarious satisfaction for guilt, our Surety would have to suffer so much the more for every additional number redeemed. And there was an orthodox theologians, who used to be read a long while ago, who thought this an objection ingenious enough, to give it a labored answer, both on his treatise in theology, and in his controversial tracts. His name was Francis Turretin. When the New England theology was fashioned, in the earlier part of our own generation [1] this error was revived and charged on Calvinists, as a necessary consequence of their premises; and so successfully, that some of the Old School actually accepted it as a just and necessary consequence. This class Dr. Baxter usually characterized as the Gethsemane school. For instance, this was the view of a man who used to be heard occasionally in his day. Dr. Ezra Styles Ely. But to come nearer; there was a man named Nathan S. Beman, a little notorious in his prime, as a leader of the New School party on the floor of our Assembly, with whom we believe “the men of 1837" had some trouble. A few years ago, he wrote a book on the atonement, in which he has such statements as these. The Old School are represented as teaching that “the Son of God endured the exact amount of suffering due on legal principles, to sinners” (page 100). Again: “The amount of Christ’s suffering must consequently be the same as the aggregate sufferings included in the eternal condemnation of all those who are saved by his Merit,” (page 107). “If one soul were saved by the atonement, Christ must sustain an amount of suffering equal to that involved in the eternal condemnation of that one soul; and if a thousand were to be saved, a thousand times that amount and in the same proportion for any greater number who are to be rescued from perdition and exalted to glory,” (page 146). And this book was written by a leader of the New School, and was judged of importance enough to be answered at length by one Charles Hodge, who, a very few years ago, was a little known, as the man who did the thinking for the Old School. He takes a good deal of pains to disclaim and refute this doctrine of the book, among others. Such are a few instances of these “curiosities.” [2]

Now there was this very good reason why our General Assembly and the United Synod, in coming together again, should clear their doctrine of this perversion both because the brethren of the United Synod had just cause of complaint against a few Old School men, who had been ultra as to adopt it: [3] and (for a far stronger reason), because this is one of the staple cavils, which will be thrown against the brethren of the United Synod upon uniting with us, by those doctrinal New School men, with whom they have been unjustly accused of holding. There is then an eminent propriety in our jointly clearing our skirts of the misrepresentation. [4]

The complaint of the Southern Presbyterian, that while we condescend upon an obscure and harmless error, we are silent as to grave and monstrous ones, is utterly ungrounded. The reader, we think, will believe with us, that this error is not very obscure. But on the other hand, it is not true that we leave the door open to graver errors. There is not one important point concerning the doctrine of atonement which has been mooted between New and Old School in which the error is not excluded by some perspicuous word or statement from that section. We challenge the criticism to the present one. [5]

The most curious piece of hyper-criticism is that which says, that our words, Christ’s suffering were “borne as the penalty of man’s guilt, are ambiguous, because the conjunction as is employed. The charge is, that it leaves the question unsettled, “whether Christ actually suffered something else different, and in the place of it.” By this astonishing way of criticism, we suppose the Apostle Peter, when he commands Christians to “love as brethren,” does not signify Christians are brethren, but only that they bear some sort of relation analogous enough to that of Christian brethren, to justify the affection. When John 1:14 says: “We beheld the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,” he does not mean that Christ is the only begotten of the Father, but only something put the place of him. When Paul says, 2 Corinthians, 2:17, “For we are not as many, who corrupt the word of God, but as of sincerity,” &c., he does not mean that he actually had sincerity in preaching, but only some sort of sham, or affected sincerity. [6] Nobody misunderstands these constructions: why insist on misunderstanding us. The reviewer is convinced out of his own mouth of violating our immediate context, in order to force this construction on our phrase. [7] He says: (September 10th), “As to the point of these which is eminently the vital point of subject, the Old School differ essentially with a large portion of the New School. The former hold that the atonement, was, in its nature, a real satisfaction to the divine justice,” &c., &c. According to the Southern Presbyterian itself, the vital point on this head is, whether Christ’s suffering were a real satisfaction to divine justice. The Old School hold that they were; the New that they were not. Now, in our report, the very next words to those who persists in making ambiguous in the New School sense, are these: “and were a vicarious, yet true satisfaction therefor, to the justice of God.” Is there any difference between “real satisfaction to divine justice,” and “true satisfaction to the justice of God.” But the reviewer says that his words express the truth on “the vital point.” Then he had before his eyes the evidence, that we were certainly correct on that point. [8]

But he asks, if we meant honestly that Christ’s sufferings were penal, why did we not say, “He bore the penalty,” &c., without the as! (Unlucky little word! strange that a little monosyllable can hold so much heresy.) We answer; we preferred to say “His sufferings were borne as the penalty,” &c., precisely because it is more accurate than the formula he would dictate. And this we shall evince, again, from the reviewer’s own assertions, “although he meant not so.” October 1st, he says: “Nothing in our observation of the use of language is more common than such employment of ‘us,’ when substitution of one thing for another is meant.” Precisely so; substitution is the very word, the word precious to all true Calvinists, embalmed in the Calvinist theology of the Latin and English races alike, as expressing the very heart of the truth that Christ suffered to make a penal satisfaction for guilt: substitution of Christ’s suffering “instead of” (another phrase which the reviewer elsewhere marks, as tainted with the wickedness of that little “as”), instead of penal sufferings of the sinner. And because nothing is more common than the employment of “as” to express substitution, therefore, we employed it; for our purpose was to assert the old doctrine of Christ’s substitution. [9]

We think we can safely venture to relieve the difficulty of the Southern Presbyterian by assuring it that there is nobody else who will see an equivoke in this place. But the reader will perceive that the whole of that strangely artificial structure of logic, by which, grade by grade, it reaches the conviction that our own section on the atonement is instinct[?]1 with Pelagian error, is built on the misrepresentation of this phrase. This set right,2 all the structure falls. [10] But we proceed to notice other points. His next objection is, that we imply an indefinite, Pelagian view of the atonement, where we say Christ was “our” substitute under the law, and that the guilt of “men’s” sins was imputed to him. He demands that we shall say Christ was only the elects’ substitute, and bore the guilt only of the elects sins. [11] We reply, show us the place where either the Bible or the Confession of Faith says so. [12] The truth is, that under the question of the extent of the atonement, two inquiries come in, one as to its nature, the other as to God’s design in it. And all intelligent Calvinists are accustomed to teach that the limitation which attaches to the atonement is not in its nature, but only in its design; while their enemies, Arminians and Pelagian, industriously charge upon them what they as industriously repudiate, that they teach it is limited by its nature. Thus Dr. Hodge “They are merely beating the air. Those who deny that Christ died for Judas as much as for Paul, for the non-elect as much as for th elect, and who maintain that he died strictly and properly only for his own people, do not hold that there is any limitation in the nature of the atonement. They teach as fully as any men, that an atonement sufficient for one is sufficient for all.” Again, he says, that “the atonement as it its nature is infinite, and as to its nature, to all, as to one.” Hence it follows, that an accurate writer, when speaking specifically of the nature of the atonement, as the committees were speaking in the first part of the third section, will properly use general terms. So does the Bible: “Him who knew no sin, to be a sin for us.” 2 Cor. 5:21, ‘He bore the sin of many,” Isaiah 53:12. “His own self bore our sins,” 1st Peter 2:24. “A ransom for many,” Matthew 20:28. “By the righteousness of one the free gift come upon all men unto justification of life,” Romans 5:18. The propriety of such language, when speaking of the nature of the atonement is so great, that the reviewer himself adopts it, as is justly stated by Dr. Waddell. [13] But he objects the former, while his own language is afterwards qualified by what follows, the language of the committee is not, and is thus left to suggest rather and indefinite and heretical belief, than a true one, as to the persons form whom the atonement was made. We reply that the assertion is incorrect: we do qualify. For, when we pass, at the end of the section, from the nature to the design of the atonement, we state that the limitation, in terms fairly equivalent to those of the Confession, and fairly expressive of the revealed facts. We there teach that the design of the atonement, which is nothing else than the decree of God, limits it to the effectually called. [14] Southern Presbyterian [Columbia, S.C.] New Series 2, no., 4 (1863) [no page numbers]. [Some reformatting; some spelling modernized; italics original; footnotes mine; and underlining mine.]

A.A. Porter’s Reply3:


REMARKS.—[1] We do not know what the length of time Dr. Dabney counts to a generation. We believe it is usually computed at about thirty years, or three generations to a century. New England theology was somewhat “fashioned” by Edwards, who died more than a hundred years ago, though it was never much better than a chaos of conflicting schools, running through all the degrees from strict orthodoxy to arrant Socinianism. During the present generation it has been nondescript, mostly.

[2] We have a suspicion that Dr. D. Is trying to raise a smile at our expense. But though it may be rather stupid, we cannot help a little laugh at him. In regard to the error condemned by the report, we said, “we do not know any body any where who holds it,” meaning of course at present. In a subsequent article we expressed our belief that it had not existed in the modern Church, and that we supposed there is not now one such errorist in the world. In reply, Dr. D. Tells us that Socinus argued that if we hold the orthodox doctrine then this error would follow as a necessary inference, and Turretin answered his argument: that moreover Dr. Beman represents the Old School as teaching this error, and “the Charles Hodge” disclaims and refutes this doctrine of Dr. Beman’s book! Dr. D. Further says that when the New England theology was fashioned in the earlier part of our own generation (we do not know when this was) this error was revived and charged on Calvinists, and some of the Old School (he does not tell us who) accepted it, and that Dr. Ezra Styles Ely held this view. It appears then that the only persons who can be found holding this error, were some unnamed Old School men who lived when New England theology was fashioned, and Dr. Ely. We have heard of the latter as a man of some notoriety in his day, but never as one whose theological views attracted any attention. He passed into obscurity and died some years ago, having been, we believe, an adherent of the New School party, but of this we are not certain.

Now will our readers look at what “one Charles Hodge” says about this error. Dr. Beman has charged it in the Old School, and said, “to this scheme there are insurmountable objections.” “True enough,” Dr. Hodge replies “but who held that scheme?” “This doctrine * * * is not found in any Confession of the Protestant churches, nor in the writings of any standard theologian, nor in the recognized authorities of any church of which we have any knowledge. This whole objection is a gross and inexcusable misrepresentation. He adds in a note (written eighteen years ago) that “there was a little anonymous work called Gethsemane, republished some years ago in this country which taught” this error. “But we do not know a single man, now of our Church, who adopted the sentiments of that work.”

Our readers can now judge whether or not this error is, “obscure and harmless.” For the live “curiosities we inquired for, Dr. D. produce two opponents of the old theology charging this error on it, two of its friends disclaiming and refuting it, “some,” unknown and anonymous Old School men long ago accepting it, and one man of some notoriety who hold it, but who has been long dead and buried and almost forgotten. “Risum teneaitis amica?

[3] We cannot admit that the error alluded to is the extreme of the Old School doctrine as the word ultra here implies. It is not that doctrine carried out too far, but another doctrine altogether, something different. And if one error of a few dead and forgotten men, against which the living may have “just cause of complaint” is to be raked up and condemned, why not another, why not all, why not one side as well as the other?

[4] Our readers we think will agree with us that is rather a vain attempt to forestall the “staple cavils” which have always overthrown against the old theology. It’s enemies will not cease to use them, notwithstanding all disclaimers. The thing has been tried. But to do them justice in this instance, they do not so much charge this error as actually held by the Old School, as a necessary consequence from our doctrine. And they can do so just as well as if we adopt the report as if we do not.

[5] “Utterly ungrounded,” says Dr. Dabney. Will the reader refer to the report? The one single, solitary, lone and lonesome error condescended on by it specifically and expressly, is the obscure and harmless one, which some anonymous persons long ago and the deceased Dr. Ely believed. Others may be “excluded by implication and inference, but this is the only one singled out for express and specific condemnation. In reply to the challenge of Dr. Dabney, we mention the prevalent error as to the extent of the atonement, and that as to its efficiency which we have before explained and will refer to again, neither of which is, “excluded,” either expressly or by implication, by the report.

[6] Every body knows that in a debate as to the use of language, it is very easy to select examples in which one or the other meaning is necessarily to be understood. But this proves nothing. Dr. D. Has given a number of cases in which the construction is evidently in his favor. In reply to Dr. Waddell we furnished one showing the construction to have the same force as we affirm it may have in this phrase of the report. We will now give two or three in imitation of Dr. D., from the Bible. According to his “way of criticism,” when Paul says, 1 Corinthians 4:13, “we made as the filth of the earth,” he does not mean that the Apostles were treated in a manner similar to that in which filth of the earth is treated, but that they are the filth of the earth: when he says 2 Corinthians 11:15, the ministers of Satan are “transformed as the ministers of righteousness,” he does not mean that they appear some sort of sham and pretended ministers of righteousness, but are changed actually into them; when he says, 1 Thessalonians 2:4, that the son of perditionas God, sits in the temple of God,” he does not mean that the son of perdition is something put in the place of God, but that is God. But what do we or Dr. D. prove by such examples? The language of the report must stand on its own bottom.

[7] We have not insisted on misunderstanding the report, or tried to force any construction on the language. All we have said on the phrase under notice is that it is equivocal, susceptible of two meanings. We have admitted that it may have the meaning which Dr. Waddell says the committee

[8] Grant it for the sake of argument, is not wise and proper to change an ambiguous phrase, so as to make the meaning of the report clear and consistent throughout, and avoid the possibility of an errorist having a hook to hang his error on? We never charged the committee with error “on that point.” We only objected to an ambiguity in one phrase.

[9] One would have supposed Dr. D. Would understand us on this point. But it seems he did not. We thought every one even a a little read in the controversies on this subject, knew that some of the New School teach a twofold substitution in the atonement, first of Christ for sinners, and secondly of some other kind of suffering for the penalty of the law. They hold to the truth that Christ was a substitute for sinners, but deny that He suffered the penalty of the law. Mr. Barnes, for example, laboriously insists on both these points. He proves clearly and expressly the first, and then insists on the second substitution, teaching that Christ’s “sufferings themselves were substituted sufferings,” not the real penalty of the law, but something less in the place of that penalty. This latter substitution so far from precious to all Calvinists, is one they have rejected and contended against from the days of the fathers until now.

The importance of this point will be evident when it is remembered that many of the New School hold and teach that our Lord was the “substitute” of sinners, that His sufferings were “vicarious,” and that they were a “satisfaction” to Divine justice, freely using these terms of the Old School dialect, but attaching to them a sense more or less erroneous and different from that intended by the opponents. But when we pursue them from point to point whether Christ suffered the penalty of the law, then and there their error is unmasked. They cannot pronounce this shibboleth of our faith, and their heresy becomes manifest. Hence our opinion, in giving a deliverance on this subject our Church should do as Dr. Dabney says the ancient Church did in preparing the Nicene Creed, adopt language which our opponents cannot adopt “without belying themselves,” and “adjust” it “to the existing dialectics and definitions of the day.” Though indeed these distinctions and definitions are not new. Hundreds of years ago the orthodox fought battles with the errorists over the same question of the penalty. Those who have read the old writers will remember their phrases “solutio ejusdem,” “solutio tantidem,” and “satisfactio,” and that while some held to a “satisfactio” they denied “solutio” of any sort. If therefore we wish to make a statement which will “exclude” errorists, such language as “substitution” will not serve the purpose. They believe more of it than we do. “Vicarious” will not do. “Satisfaction” is not sufficient. Whether the phrase “His sufferings were borne as the penalty of the law,” is “more accurate,” as Dr. D. Less ambiguous and liable to be misunderstood, than the simple statement that “He bore the penalty of the law,” our readers can judge for themselves.

[10] The reader of our criticisms on the report will have noticed that they are all independent of each other, and any one may be overthrown and leave the rest in full force.

[11] We regret the necessity of correcting Dr. D. so often. What we said that the old doctrine is that our Lord was the substitute only of the elect and bore only the guilt of their sins, but proposed that the report instead of “our” and “men should say “His elect” without the “only.”

[12] We fear that Dr. D. will have to forgive our readers something more than “a pretty round amazement” at this. We cannot suppose he intends the poor quibble that neither the Bible, nor the Confession say so totidem verbus. The question is, what do the Bible and Confession teach, what do we understand them to mean? It is impossible to understand Dr. D. any other way than as denying that the Bible and Confession teach that Christ was the substitute only of the elect and bore only their guilt. The sentence can have no meaning or force, except with this interpretation, and the sorrow of our readers will be more profound than their surprise. If he should go further and deny that the old theology, the old reformed, Calvinistic theology teaches this doctrine in opposition to what has been called “new” through many generations, we should not deem the denial worthy of refutation. He who should think it needs proof that such is and always has been the view of the old theology would be ever more fatuous than the denier of it. The thing is notorious. The question perhaps more than any other disputed between the old and the new has ever been whether Christ made atonement for any besides the elect. This those who adhered to the former steadfastly denied, while the friends of the latter, shifting their grounds and eve adopting some new theory from age to age, but ever known as the new theology, as earnestly affirmed. And to this very day all the world knows that, not all who belong to the Old School Presbyterian Church, not even all its ministers, but all who hold to the old theology, believe and teach that Christ was the substitute of His elect only.

We would be worth of blame, however, if we passed this point without referring our readers to the 3rd chapter and the 4th section of the Confession, and reminding them of its express language, totidum verbis, It says, “Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, sanctified and saved, but the elect only.” Whatever meaning may be given to the word “redeemed” it must be admitted to include atonement. And if the language can be made to teach that Christ made atonement for the elect “only” this does it. We are not ignorant that pitiful quibbles have been invented to distort the meaning of the Confession here, but we know also that they are pitiful quibbles and nothing more. The honest and candid having no conflicting theories to reconcile with the Confession cannot mistake it. The reader will observe also that Dr. Hodge, in the passage quoted below by Dr. Dabney, defending the Old School, speaks of them as those “who maintain that He died strictly and properly for his own people.”

[13] In our first criticism on this part of the report, we stated that all of us use this language properly on many occasions, and our objection was that the report nowhere gives a deliverance on the question of the extent of the atonement, and that therefore in the absence of any such deliverance these indefinite and general terms, “our” and “men” may be understood as favoring the general atonement theory. True, both the Bible and all Old School men use these terms in speaking of the nature of the atonement, but in the formal and authoritative enunciation of our faith, in which the truth, as we hold it on the extent of the atonement is not limited and defined at all, the door is left open to error.

[14] Theological readers will observe that Dr. D. mystifies the question by not distinguishing between the design of the atonement as to the persons for whom it was made, and the design as to whom its benefits should be applied, or in the language of the books, between its extent and application. The report does limit the latter but not the former. And it is well known that there was any debate between the Old and New Schools as to the latter, while the former was the one of their chief battlefields. If the reader will keep this distinction in view, he will see that Dr. D.’s reply to us throughout this paragraph evades the point and comes to nothing. Every New School man who believes in doctrine of election believes the limited application of the atonement as firmly as we do, and that while he holds that the sufferings of Christ were designed to make atonement for all men. Southern Presbyterian [Columbia, S.C.] New Series 2, no., 4 (1863) [no page numbers]. [Some reformatting; some spelling modernized; italics original; footnotes mine; and underlining mine.]

B.M. Palmer’s Reply:

3. Our failing space warns us to take up the third section of the committee’s report, of the atonement, as follows:

Concerning the atonement of Jesus Christ, we hold that He, being very God and very man in one person, was our substitute under the law; that the guilt of men’s sins was imputed to him; that His sufferings were borne as the penalty of that guilt, and were a vicarious, yet true satisfaction therefor, to the justice of’ God; and that without this, God’s perfections would forbid’ the pardon of any sin. This atonement, we believe, though by temporary sufferings, was by reason of the infinite glory of Christ’s person, full and sufficient for the guilt of the whole world; and is to be freely and sincerely offered to every creature, inasmuch as it leaves no other obstacle to the pardon of all men under the Gospel, save the enmity and unbelief of those who voluntarily reject it. Wherefore, on the one hand, we reject the opinion of those who teach that the atonement was so limited and equal to the guilt of the elect only, that if God had designed to redeem more, Christ must have suffered more, or differently. And on the other hand, we hold that God the Father doth efficaciously apply this redemption, through Christ’s purchase, to all those to whom it was His eternal purpose to apply it, and to no others.

Upon this fundamental doctrine of atonement, the utterance of the committee should have been the most full and explicit, instead of being the most exceptionable in their whole paper. The first question turns, of course, upon the nature of the atonement-what is it that makes the death of Christ a true satisfaction to the broken law? The uniform testimony of our standards is, that Christ, as the strict and proper substitute for his people under the law, rendered a perfect obedience to its precepts, and incurred the penalty denounced against the transgressor; which, by virtue of his federal relation to the elect, is reckoned to them as their righteousness, so that, when received by faith, they are not only discharged from condemnation, but are accepted in their persons before God. Thus the Confession, ch. 8, sec. 4–“This office the Lord Jesus did most willingly undertake, which, that he might discharge, he was made v:nder the law and did perfectly fulfill it," &c. Again, in section 5; "The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself, which He, through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance,” &c. The Larger Catechism, Question 49, on the humiliation of Christ–“having also conflicted with the terrors of death and the powers of dankness, felt and borne the weight of God’s wrath, He laid down His life an offering for sin,” &c. Language like this it would seem impossible to mystify. For if’ Christ was made under the law, and did perfectly fulfill it, one would think he must come under and perfectly fulfill the two parts of law, the precept and penalty, the union of which constitutes the formal nature of law. If He fulfilled the precept by obeying it, He must equally have fulfilled the penalty by enduring it; and this is the obedience unto death of which the Scriptures speak. Yet our slippery opponents, who seem to think, with Talleyrand, language an invention to conceal thought, through a subtle interpretation contrive to evade the force of all this testimony. They admit, for example, that Christ was a substitute for the guilty. that His sufferings and death were vicariously endured, that they were penal inflictions, and rendered satisfaction to the injured law and insulted majesty of God. All this is well, if the words were employed in their usual signification; but when the key to the cipher is put into our hands, it turns out that they are all to be understood in a quasi sense. Thus, the sufferings of Christ were not inflicted as the penalty threatened to the transgressor, but what was an equivalent in effect for it; and they are termed penal, constructively, because the demands of the law or lawgiver are virtually answered by the death of Christ, and the end of’ the penalty sub served, to wit, the manifestation of God’s holiness, and the maintenance of His authority. That the reader may not suspect us of drawing a caricature of their views, we present an extract from A. H. H. B., in the Christian Observer for March 13, 1862. And we quote thus frequently from this writer, because he is an acknowledged leader in the United Synod, because he has been endorsed by his own brethren in their election of him as a professor in their projected seminary, because he has written these sentences with special reference to a union between his body and our own, and because, with these utterances yet warm upon his lips, he has accepted the paper of the committees of conference upon which we are now commenting. Dr. Boyd says:

But it may be asked, did Christ suffer the penalty of the law? We answer, yes, if it be meant to inquire whether the sufferings of Christ had the same effect and a like value in the moral government of God as the penalty of the law. But if it is intended by the question to inquire whether Christ suffered, in kind or degree, the exact penalty threatened to the sinner, or whether he endured the penalty of the law in such as a sinner as that God is bound by his justice to deliver from punishment all for whom he died, we answer, no.

He then goes on to show that the Savior’s sufferings were not eternal, and that he had no remorse of conscience, to all which we agree, and that these constitute the very essence of the penalty, which we as distinctly deny. Then he adds:

The great practical question, with reference to this point, is not whether Christ suffered the precise penalty threatened to the sinner, but whether his sufferings were penal in their nature–that is, whether they were designed by the law-giver to uphold his government by being substituted in place of the punishment due to transgressors. They were not mere chastisements; they were not intended by God simply to be instructive or symbolical, and as an illustration of patience under suffering. But the great peculiarity of the Savior’s agonies was that they were a vicarious, expiatory offering, designed to accomplish all the ends to be secured by the intention of the penalty of the law upon transgressors. The demands of the law or lawgiver are virtually answered by the death of Christ, inasmuch iii all the good ends of the law, which would have been secured by the sinner’s punishment, have been accomplished by Christ’s obedience and death. His sufferings therefore were literally and truly penal in their nature.

Literally and truly penal, indeed! When it is openly declared that they were a substitution for the penalty, and of another kind from that inflicted upon the transgressor! Can the reader fail to penetrate the fraud, which is practiced by all heresiarchs, of using even to profuseness the consecrated dialect of the Church, which, by a transposition of meaning, is made to convey the very errors it was intended to disown and denounce? What have we here beyond a merely technical penalty, and a constructive and fictitious imputation? The adroitness of the argument by which this view is supported, is worthy of the subtlety in which it was invented. Put in a compact form, it runs thus: the penalty against the sinner is deathChrist did not die eternally, therefore He did not undergo the precise penalty, but only an equivalent to it. The conclusion is vitiated, however, by the quiet assumption that eternity of suffering is of the essence of the penalty. H this should be disproved, the whole argument falls to the ground. Now, in the Scriptures, the phrase, the wrath of God, is used with almost technical precision for the judicial displeasure of God against sin expressed in the penalty of the law. “The wrath of God,” says the apostle, “is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men." In like manner, the Catechism describes the sufferings of Christ in their relation to the law, as the “feeling and bearing the weight of God’s wrath.” This wrath, when it terminates upon such a being as man, issues in death; as terminating upon his body, in temporal death; as terminating upon his soul, in separating it from communion with God, which is spiritual death; and since the finite creature can never exhaust that wrath, in eternal banishment of soul and body in hell. But when this wrath terminates upon such a being as the Lord Jesus, who is the God-man, it separates between the soul and body, and cuts him off from all communion with the Father in the hour when, as a sacrifice, he passes under his judicial displeasure,–but it does not banish him forever from the divine favor. By virtue of the hypostatic union, all the dignity and glory and resources of the divine nature were carried over to the work which was wrought in the human; and a person so mysteriously constituted, who shall say that he could not bear the wrath of God in all the fullness in which it was originally expressed in the penalty? We recoil, indeed, from the profaneness which undertakes to weigh in the scales of human judgment, or to measure in the scant proportions of human thought, the awful sufferings of our blessed Lord; and it is for this reason that we reject the presumptuous dogma of our opponents, that He did not bear the penalty of the law. God forbid that we should attempt to lift the veil from those transcendent sufferings which once caused the rocks to rend, and broke the slumbers even of the dead! It is enough for us to know that He “felt and bore the weight of God’s wrath,” that He did undergo the Father’s judicial displeasure, to satisfy us that He did endure the essence of the penalty originally denounced against the transgressor.

How, then, does the committee propose to protect the Church against these equivocations?–by testifying that “His (Christ’s) sufferings were borne as the penalty of that guilt, and were a vicarious, yet true, satisfaction therefor to the justice of God." But as we have seen, these parties have no hesitation in affirming these sufferings to be vicarious; alas! too much so, since Christ was not only a substitute personally for his people, but his sufferings were also substituted in the place of the penalty. They have no hesitation in affirming them to be a satisfaction, and even a true satisfaction, to divine justice; for they "had the same effect and a like value in the moral government of God, as the penalty of the law.” How, then, shall they be tied up from all evasion? We answer, most certainly not by placing in their lips the very ambiguity they desire in the clause, “His sufferings were borne as the penalty.” We have read and admired the dialectic skill of Dr. Dabney in his defense of this favorite little particle; but must say after all, if the New School men wish a formula precisely suited to their equivocations on this point, it is kindly furnished to their hands in this significantly ambiguous sentence. [302]

The second great question upon the doctrine of atonement relates to its intention and design: for whom was it made? Here the issue between us and the New School is open and clear. They maintain that the atonement was designed, and of course did make a true satisfaction for the sins of all men. This is so distinctly avowed, that quotations from their writings are almost needless. But that the reader may have directly before his eyes, the position assumed by members of the United Synod, the body so soon to be incorporated with ourselves, we make a last extract from their representative writer, already so profusely cited. Dr. Boyd says:

Among the ministers of the United Synod, there are few, if any, who do not believe that the sacrifice of the Savior was intended by God as a means by which every child of Adam might be saved.” Again; “We hold that in the covenant made between the Father and the Son, the Son covenants to lay down His life in behalf of the whole family of man; so that every obstacle to salvation, arising from the character and government of God, is actually removed, and was intended to be removed, that thus every one of Adam’s race might be saved.

If anyone will point out the difference between this and the view of Arminians, that Christ died, not actually to secure salvation to any, but to render salvation possible to all, we will do homage to his critical discernment. And then we will propose another riddle for solution: How, upon his acknowledged principle that Christ is a substitute for men, and renders satisfaction to divine justice by vicarious, penal sufferings, if He lays down His life in behalf of the whole family of man, Dr. Boyd can be saved from drifting into open and confessed Universalism? The following dreadful alternative is his only refuge:

Whilst we believe and teach that the atonement of Christ had a general reference to mankind at large, we at the same time hold that in the covenant between the Father and the Son, special reference was had to those who shall finally be saved. In other words, the Father covenants to give to the Son, ‘as a reward for the travail of his soul,’ a part of those for whom He dies; that this His death may not be vain as respects the actual salvation of souls.

Our very flesh creeps as we transcribe these dreadful words, which do not fall short of positive blasphemy. Think of it, reader; Christ receiving as His reward a part only of the souls for whom He dies! the stupendous scheme of grace barely saved from disastrous failure! Christ’s death confessed to be inefficacious, and failing of its design with reference to a part of those for whom He died! and a just and holy God twice exacting the penalty, which, though satisfied by the surety, still takes vengeance upon the principal! Is this, or anything like this, the doctrine of our standards? Is it not plainly denied, and the definiteness of the atonement affirmed, in all those passages which speak of Christ as "purchasing reconciliation," and as "certainly and effectually applying and communicating redemption to all those for whom he hath ‘purchased it"–and as “fully discharging the debt, by his obedience and death, of all those that are justified,” and "making a proper and real and full satisfaction to His Father’s justice in their behalf?” Is there no distinction here as to the parties whom the atonement was made? Did He lay down His life for the whole family of man, when redemption is declared to be effectually applied to all those for whom it was purchasedin ? If so, how are we to avoid the conclusion that the whole family of man will be saved? 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 sinsshow us the place where either the Bible or Confession says so.” Is it not woven into the whole texture of both? Is it not taught in the whole doctrine of substitution, and of full satisfaction to divine justice by vicarious sufferings? “I lay down my life for the sheep,” says the Bible: “neither are any other redeemed by Christ but the elect only,” says the Confession of Faith.

We turn then to the committee’s report to hear its voice upon this important point; and lo! there is no voice, but on the contrary, a most painful and ominous silence–a silence, too, which is unquestionably intentional; for was it not the committee’s object to bring the two bodies together, and here is the very spot at which differences might emerge. But would that there had been only silence! The paper, not content with silence when it should have spoken, speaks at last when silence would have been wisdom: “and is to be freely and sincerely offered to every creature, inasmuch as it leaves no other obstacle to the pardon of all men under the Gospel, save the enmity and unbelief of those who voluntarily reject it.” Doubtless there is a construction of this broad and bold declaration upon which the committee can subscribe it salva fide, and which we have not the time here to explore; but taken in connexion with the entire silence upon the question whether the atonement be in its intention definite or indefinite, there can be no doubt of the interpretation that will be put upon it as favoring the general atonement theory. Last of all, we have the limitation placed, just where the New School have always placed it, in the decree of election restricting only the application. Thus the order is completely reversed in which the purposes of God in reference to human salvation come to be considered: God looking upon the fallen sons of Adam; determining to provide and offer them a Savior; then electing those to whom that salvation shall be effectually applied. We will not pause to discuss the correctness of this arrangement, but content ourselves with saying that it is not the order recognized. in our standards. Thus the Confession, ch. 3, sec. 6, says: “As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so has he, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore they who are elected being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ,” &c. This redemption being among the means by which the purpose of election is carried out, the latter must be in logical order before the former. Putting these three things together, this section of the committee’s report by its very form and structure carries the Assembly over, and, so far as this. utterance of the General Assembly can do it, the whole church over to the assertion of an indefinite atonement. If it should be said, the Old School body has always tolerated a diversity of opinion upon the extent of the atonement, we answer, that is altogether a different affair from the Assembly affirming a general atonement, and Construing it as the doctrine of the church, contrary, as we believe, both to the spirit and letter of our existing symbols.

We have now completed our review of this important document. Some minor points might well be considered, rather as matters of inquiry than of objection. For example, whether the union of two distinct bodies, coming together by treaty, will affect the historical succession of. the Assembly, or jeopard its legal privileges and rights? Whether the Assembly has the constitutional power to pass finally upon the paper of the committee, without sending it down’ for ratification to the Presbyteries? And whether finally it be expedient to decide a question so materially affecting the fortunes of the church, at a time when the public mind is too distracted to give it due attention, and when from the circumstances of the country no inconsiderable portion win be shut out from a representation on the floor of the Assembly? But the discussion of point like these we leave to others. We have confined our strictures to the doctrinal basis submitted in the report; and can truthfully declare that never did we undertake a task more reluctantly, and more entirely from a sense of duty to God and the church. It will be observed, too, that we have not assailed the orthodoxy of the report, nor of, those by whom it has been framed. Its authors are men who stand high in, the confidence and esteem of the whole church; and those of them whom it has been our privilege personally to know, enjoy no small measure of our love. But this very esteem, which they so deservedly enjoy, renders their paper only so much the more dangerous to a confiding church, predisposed to take much upon trust from parties whom she has delighted to honor. We do not impugn the doctrinal purity of anyone of them, when we assert the ambiguities of the report to be such as to render it as mischievous a document as could engage the consideration of our highest court. We believe that; if adopted by the Assembly it win become the nest of a thousand heresies to vex the repose of the church–the source of strifes and controversies. which will outlast the generation which framed and accepts it, and leading to possible separations in the future as painful as those which are now attempted to be healed. Under this conviction we have, been constrained to lift the voice of warning–“equo ne credite, Teucri!”4 If the United Synod is really at one with us upon the great doctrines of’ grace, we will go as far as any in overcoming technical difficulties, and will by God’s grace seek to bury all past feuds. And if they are with, us in faith and order, let it be ascertained by a square and unreserved adoption of our acknowledged standards, in their obvious and literal import. All the attempts, by conventions and conferences, to construct platforms of union, only prejudice and retard the movement. Let us have no more of this nibbling at the Confession of Faith, and of this paring down its statements to the very minimum of orthodoxy. Let us have no more declarations of adherence to these sacred instruments, with an appendix of reservations and explanations like a codicil annulling a will. A plain, straightforward, honest subscription to the Confession and other symbols, will place the parties on ground which both understand, and there will be union, when alone union can be found, through the truth. We pray God that our next Assembly may preeminently be guided by the wisdom which comes from above, which is first pure, then peaceable.

B. M. Palmer, “The proposed Plan of Union Between the General Assembly in the Confederate States of America and the United Synod of the South,” Southern Presbyterian Review 16 (1863): 304.296-307. [Some reformatting; some spelling modernized; italics original; footnotes mine; and underlining mine.]

[Credit to Michael Lynch for the find.]


1[The text here is hard to read. The letters “instin” are clearly delineated, but the remaining letter or letters are not.]

2[The original has “set night” which may be an original typographical error in place of “set right.”]

3[Porter’s reply immediately follows Dabney’s essay in same article in the Southern Presbyterian. Palmer’s reply was published in the Southern Presbyterian Review.]

4[Equo ne credite, Teucri. Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes: Do not trust the horse, Trojans! Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks, even bringing gifts. See for explanation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trojan_Horse.]

This entry was posted on Friday, January 18th, 2013 at 9:13 am and is filed under The Distinction Between Equivalency and Identity. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a reply

Name (*)
Mail (will not be published) (*)