Friday, May 11, 2018

R.L. Dabney on Using Fiction to Defend Truth

The following paragraphs come from a book review written by R.L. Dabney. The book in question was entitled “Theodosia Ernest,” - the protagonsist's name. The book was written by a Baptist minister, who by use of a fictional story, attempted to defend the doctrine of believer's baptism and refute the Presbyterian doctrine of infant baptism. Dabney rightly takes issue with the author's innumerable misrepresentations of Presbyterian doctrine, practice, and polity. But, in this particular section, he raises the question of the legitimacy of using fiction as a method for presenting and defending theological truth. To be sure, no leading Reformed theologian that I can think of raises this question.

“The folly and unfairness of such a mode of inculcating or defending what is supposed to be religious truth, can scarcely be too strongly represented. In the first place, a moment's consideration should have taught the author, that his selecting such a vehicle for his discussion was really a confession of weakness and defeat. Having failed to overthrow the sturdy Presbyterian champions in the fields of true and legitimate discussion, he is compelled to manufacture fictitious adversaries, in the pretended persons of Pastor Johnson, Dr. McKought, and elder Jones,who should be stupid and foolish enough to give this doughty Don Quixote a chance to claim the victory — If he wished to try conclusions with a veritable Presbyterian champion, why did he not select a bonafide and live controversialist, in the person of some N. L. Rice, or Wm. L. McCalla? Ah; it was easier to gain a seeming victory over a man of straw! And this is not all: Conscious, as it seems,of the intrinsic weakness of his argument,the author must needs throw around it the factitious and illegitimate interest of a love-story. He did not believe, it seems, that his principles were important and interesting enough, to make Christian people read an honest and straightforward discussion of them for its own sake: he must needs sugar the nauseous dose, to make it go down. And then, one of his foremost champions forsooth, is a young, pretty and ingenuous girl, who is painted as attractively as the author's bungling hand knew how; in order to gain the unfair advantage of the feelings of readers for youth, beauty and sex. Sophistries from the mouth of a bearded man would be handled as they deserved; but when they drop from the pretty mouth of a pretty woman, gallantry forbids our testing them too narrowly! So that the author, afraid to meet men, and as a man, skulks behind the petticoats of his heroine.

“And indeed: what is the intrinsic absurdity of sending Christian people to hunt for truth (and that sacred truth), in a work of fiction? It is an insult to the understandings of readers; and a disgrace to the denomination which is judged to need such a mode of defense. No seeming triumph gained over an imaginary antagonist can prove anything; for, as the same author constructed both his adversary's argument and his own, of course he would make the victory fall on his side. Æsop tells us, in one of his fables, how the man and the lion were once, during a truce in their warfare, amicably walking out together to take the air. They passed a picture where a lion was represented as bound, and crouching under the cudgel of a man. The man says to his lion friend: 'You see there the superiority of our race to yours.' 'Nay,' quoth the lion, 'it is because a man was the painter. If a lion had held the brush, the parties would have been in a rather different position.' Let the reader make the application.

“It is said indeed, that Immersionists justify the circulation of the work by saving, that though there is a fictitious plot to make the book readable, all is fair, because the arguments put into the mouths of the Presbyterian characters are the standard arguments which we use when defending ourselves, and that they are fairly stated. But we beg leave to dispute both facts. According to all fair forensic rules, our mere word, repudiating those arguments as fair and full statements of our side, entitles us to arrest a debate conducted on such a plan. When plaintiff and defendant come into court, each party has a sovereign discretion in selecting his own advocate. If the defendant says that the counsel who has volunteered in his cause is not the man of his choice; and that, instead of representing him fairly, he is betraying him, this is enough. It is only necessary for the defendant to say that he considers this volunteer advocate as unfaithful; it is not necessary for him to prove him such. He is entitled to make his own selection of a defender. So, we Presbyterians now and hereby notify Messrs. Graves, Marks & Co., and Messrs. Sheldon, Blakeman & Co., and all Immersionist preachers, colporteurs, members and proselyters, in these United States and the British Provinces, and wherever the far famed Theodosia may be running, that we do not consider, and never have considered the fair water-nymph (who was a full blooded Immersionist before she began the investigation) nor the Presbyterian elder, Uncle Jones, (who was evidently fishy, i. e. indulging partial tendencies to go under the water, from the beginning,) nor poor, old parson Johnson, (who confesses he had never examined the subject much,) as suitable advocates of our cause; that we hereby repudiate them as such; and that we now lay our formal 'injunction' on the progress of the discussion in such feeble and treacherous hands. Now, will our Immersionist neighbors arrest the debate; will they suspend the circulation of the ex parte and repudiated discussion, until the justice of our assertion can be tested; as they are forensically bound to do, in all fairness and honesty? We shall see. But if they are very anxious to prosecute this great cause of Immersionism versus Presbyterianism, at once; let them take the arguments of some real, actual Presbyterians, such as Dr. John H. Rice's Irenicum, Dr. John M. Mason's Treatise on the Church of God, or Dr. N. L. Rice's Debate with Campbell; print the whole of the Presbyterian argument in Presbyterian works, [and not a few disjointed scraps, falsely and treacherously torn from them] along with the best refutations they can get; and lay these two pleas before the great jury of the Religious Public. This, if fairly done, might be fair.

“The real motive and design of this advocacy of pretended truth by fiction, is this: It was hoped that the love-tale, the pictorial illustrations, the influence of sex and youth in the heroines favor, would make a multitude of ignorant people swallow the book, with its whole dose of misrepresentations, false issues, and unfounded assertions; who would never have taste, patience, or capacity, to read any such reply as Presbyterians could condescend to write. These readers would gulph down the low novel, but they would be very secure from the danger of reading a manly, straight-forward discussion of its pretended arguments and statements, unseasoned with fiction or demagogueism. The whole enterprise is a calculation on the gullibility of mankind; and it must be confessed, a calculation which was certain of realization to a large degree. But then it is also true, that the very element which ensures this partial success to the book, is the element also of its unfairness. It is successful because it is so unfair. So, in crimes of blacker character, the very treachery of the assault is oftentimes the thing which makes resistance ineffectual. When an honorable enemy meets us fairly by daylight, and face to face, we have a chance of successful self-defense, according to that measure of prowess which God has given us. But if our adversary is wicked enough to turn assassin, and waylay our path, we are very free to confess that we are in his power; except so far as a good Providence interposes, the strength and skill of a Hercules will not avail.

“Let it be distinctly understood then, that we neither hope nor expect to be attentively and dispassionately read by the persons for whom the shrewd managers of Theodosia Earnest have set their trap. People who are foolish enough to go to a work of fiction to learn sacred truth, are not likely to attend to a scholarly and solid discussion.” - R.L. Dabney, Fiction, No Defense of Truth


  1. Hey Andy have any material dealing directly with the particular baptist view of the covenants?

    1. While I do not have anything directly addressing the Baptist view of the covenant, there is much that would relate to the subject in the 25 part series I wrote and published on infant baptism between 7/29/13 and 10/21/13.


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