Broad Churchism

Robert Lewis Dabney

Excerpts from “Broad Churchism” (1871) and “Fraternal Relations,” (1877) in Robert L. Dabney’s Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, volume two.

It has been hitherto both the characteristic and the boast of our branch of the Reformed Church that it was a strict advocate of doctrinal correctness. Our Confession is one of the longest and most detailed, as it is the most orthodox and judicious, among the symbols of Protestantism. It has been the fixed principle of Presbyterianism in all its better days, that its teachers must subscribe its honored standards in the strict sense of the system of doctrine which they embody. . . . No herald of Christ does his duty who keeps back any known divine truth. Its suppression may ruin some soul, and must mar, to some degree, the sanctification of all whom he guides.

A church, whose teachers are not heartily agreed in doctrine, can only have peace within itself at the cost of a Sadducean indifference to truth. . . . Indeed, the ends designed by this so-called comprehension can only be gained by indifferentism. The theory has an obvious tendency to disparage the importance of truth. . . . So benumbing is the spirit of indifferency begotten by this comprehension, that its tendency is to extinguish all true life in the church which practices it. . . . Peace is preserved at the expense of life, and the motley body dies in the stupor of its own indifference. The latter seems to have been the issue of the alliance of 1691, between the Presbyterians of England and a part of the Independents. In that “plan of union,” it was covenanted that the diversities in the testimonies of the two should be suppressed for the sake of outward unity. The bargain was kept; and the result was, that, despite the presence of a Watts and a Doddridge, English Presbyterianism was at the end of the eighteenth century virtually dead, asphyxiated by this dishonest peace, into Socinianism.

In such a communion the orthodox Protestant is borne down by a practical consciousness that he cannot assail his own brethren and equals. They would raise against him the cry that he is disturbing the peace of the church. The temptation is thus powerful to suppress all reference to disputed dogmas and usages, and the testimony of the whole body becomes merely negative. . . . As no fortress is stronger than its weakest bastion, so the doctrinal weight of a denomination never goes for more with the outside world than that of the lowest doctrine which that communion teaches. A church may have a decided Calvinistic creed and many Calvinistic ministers; but I appeal to the sense of every intelligent hearer, if she tolerates Arminianism, does she ever, as a body, make a Calvinistic impression upon Christendom?

The most ominous feature of that church is a general one; the fearful neutralizing and solvent power which its ecclesiastical radicalism has over the conservative men in it. They go in seemingly orthodox, Old School, staunch: they proclaim as they enter, that they are going in to combat for orthodoxy. But somehow, after a little, their orthodoxy is practically silenced, and their influence for truth somehow neutralized.

Should it be that our little Zion will remain the last advocate of faithful subscription and a strict adherence to doctrinal purity in this land, and possibly in the Protestant world, then how solemn yet illustrious is the mission to which Christ calls us! In strict fidelity to that mission will be our very existence as a church. Forfeit that, and the world will judge, may we not say that Christ himself will conclude, that the ground of our useful existence as a denomination is gone.