R.L. Dabney and the Decline in Biblical Preaching
Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-98), who is a very helpful writer, wrote,
All the leading Reformers, whether in Germany, Switzerland, England, or Scotland, were constant preachers, and their sermons were prevalently expository…We may assume with safety, that the instrumentality to which the spiritual power of that great revolution was mainly due, was the restoration of scriptural preaching. . .
That was really the key to the Reformation. And then Dabney says something that I think is pretty interesting. I think you can relate to this. He said,
a perversion of the pulpit is surely followed by spiritual apostasy in the Church.
Apostasy doesn’t come first, Dabney said. The perversion comes first then the apostasy follows. And he said,
[It is] instructive to note, that there are three stages through which preaching has repeatedly passed with the same results. The first is that in which scriptural truth is faithfully presented in scriptural garb—that is to say, not only are all the doctrines asserted which truly belong to the revealed system of redemption, but they are presented in that dress and connection in which the Holy Spirit has presented them, without seeking any other from human science. This state of the pulpit marks the golden age of the Church.
What does he mean by this? He means this: that biblical doctrine is preached in biblical dress. That is to say the truth is preached from the text. This is the golden age of the church. Second, he writes, is the transition stage,
In this the doctrines taught are still those of the Scriptures, but their relations are moulded into conformity with the prevalent human dialectics.
That is to say the truth is still preached. The gospel is still preached. But no longer in biblical dress. It’s now put in cultural dress
“People don’t want to hear the Bible. People don’t want to hear exposition of Scripture. You can’t just drag people through verse by verse stuff. You’ve got to come up with cultural ways to communicate these truths. We believe these truths. We believe the gospel. We are evangelical. But we’re not going to bore people with Bible verses. So we take those great truths and we put them in cultural dress that people can relate to.”
Dabney said that’s the transition.
And God’s truth is now, he writes,
shorn of a part of its power over the soul.
Let me tell you something simple. God intended that sound doctrine be taught the way He revealed it and dressed it in Scripture. There isn’t a better way to do that or He would have used it. And if you think there is, mercy on you. You’ve got a god complex.
The third stage, writes Dabney, is then the stage in which,
not only are the methods and explanations conformed to the philosophy of the day, but the doctrines themselves contradict the truth of the Word.
And he writes,
Again and again have the clergy traveled this descending scale, and always with the same disastrous result. May we ever be content to exhibit Bible doctrine in its own Bible dress!
That’s from his wonderful book called Evangelical Eloquence…
I mean you understand that. Don’t kid yourself that because you’re speaking Bible doctrine that somehow you’re faithful to your calling. If it’s not in Bible dress, you’re not.
You say, “But they don’t live in agrarian culture. They don’t understand soils and seed.”
Then explain it. How hard is it.
So the Bible forms our whole content of preaching, and God sets forth all its truth in such contexts, proportions, and relations as He knows best suit the soul of man under the work of the Holy Spirit. You know I’ve said this through the years, I choose to illustrate using the Bible. To illustrate one passage using other passages from the Bible, because I just think the Bible carries with it Divine authority. I know it does. So if I have to choose between a human illustration and a biblical illustration, that’s easy. It is the sword of the spirit. It is the mind of Christ, and so again we say: Preach the Word.