The following is a condensed version of a longer essay I wrote for one of my classes at Reformation Bible College. The original, of course, contained footnotes but for this formatting, I am simply putting all the cited works at the bottom of the page or when necessary in brackets. Because I have condensed this version, you will find the sources list shorter than what is in my actual essay.
Dabney: A Short Biography
Robert Lewis Dabney (April 5, 1820- January 3, 1898), is a fascinating and controversial figure in the history of American Presbyterianism. From his rigid adherence to the Westminster Confession to his total and enthusiastic support of the Confederacy, Dabney has both detractors and admirers. Contemporaries describe him as being more like a biblical prophet than a theology professor, compared variously during his life to Elijah, John the Apostle, John Calvin and John Knox. His preaching style has been described as prophet-like, not smooth and polished but more like “the Prophet Elijah” with an impression of “Didactic power.” Dabney retained a strong love for the South and Virginia in particular throughout his life, a love that is reflected in his ideology and practice. His fierce Southern nationalism and disdain for “Yankees” are central aspects of his worldview. When he died (January 3rd, 1898) he was buried in Virginia, wearing a Confederate uniform.
Dabney greatly admired Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, seeing him as the ideal Christian warrior. Jackson was a devout Presbyterian who was said to “live in the New Testament but fought in the Old.” A military genius, Jackson lead his troops to victory at the First Battle of Manassas and throughout the Shenandoah Valley campaign before being shot by his own men at the Battle of Chancellorsville. In the darkness and confusion, the North Carolina regiment believed he was the enemy. During his recovery, the general developed pneumonia and died on May 10, 1863, at 3:15 PM. Dabney delivered his memorial sermon in 1863, “True Courage”, where he lays out his understanding of how faith produces courage, using the life and practices of the recently departed Jackson as examples of this ethic.
Types of Courage
At its most basic level, “courage is the opposite of fear” writes Dabney. At least in the common perception. This popular definition has truth and merit, but for Dabney, such a simplistic description is sorely lacking because it misunderstands the relationship of these two as emotions. To understand courage then, we need a proper view of fear. In light of this connection, Dabney makes a distinction between fear as an emotion and fear as an action: “Fear may be described either as a feeling and appreciation of existing danger, or an undue yielding to that feeling.” The presence of fear does not demand the absence of courage. In fact, for Dabney true courage implies “the existence of fear” and “a feeling of danger”, for courage “is but the overcoming of that feeling by a worthier motive.” This relationship between leads him to consider three types of courage and they each respond to the emotion of fear. While they may intertwine and each possess some measure of rightness, they are nonetheless three different categories and flow from fundamentally different sources.
The first of these is what Dabney calls “animal courage.” This form of courage, says Dabney, “is but the ferment of animal passions and blind sympathies, combined with an irrational thoughtlessness.” Animal courage is the raw, natural passion we associate with creatures such as the lion (“the lion-hearted”), essentially a pagan ethic. But this courage is based on ignorance. For Dabney continues, “the man is courageous only because he refuses to reflect” and “bold because he is blind.” Animal courage may at first glance appear the most genuine, but the source is flawed. Once the danger is actually comprehended, there is no other foundation to support this courage. Hence, animal courage is not true courage
“The Spirit of Personal Honor”
The second type of courage that Dabney lists is what he calls the “spirit of personal honor.” This form of courage rests on human pride and sense of duty. Unlike animal courage, there is “a consciousness of risk, but it is manfully controlled by the sentiment of pride, the keener fear of reproach, and the desire for applause.” But the motive is “personal and selfish…therefore the sentiment does not rise to the level of virtue.” This form of courage is self-centered and self-glorifying. A man is courageous because he fears the societal shaming he will endure should he not be courageous. Ironically, it is fear that drives him to bravery. But this fear is unstable and subject to change. And, as Dabney says, the motive does not demand the name of virtue.
Moral Courage of the God-Fearing Man
True courage then is the moral courage of him “who fears God, and, for that reason, fears nothing else.” In this form of bravery, there is both “an intelligent apprehension of danger” and “the natural instinct of self-love desiring to preserve its own well-being”. However, these emotions are “curbed and governed by the sense of duty, and desire for the approbation of God.” Unlike animal courage, fear is acknowledged and experienced. Unlike self-glorifying courage, the foundation is not the approval of man but the approval of God. “This alone is true courage,” continues Dabney, “ [and] true virtue; for it is rational, and its motive is moral and unselfish.”
Dabney acknowledges that both animal courage and honor-driven bravery exhibit traits of true courage and may be “mixed in many breasts. However, neither is complete and ultimately derive their unstable foundations from ignorance, arrogance, and idolatry. Thus concludes Dabney, “he is the bravest man, who is the best Christian. It is he who truly fears God, who is entitled to fear nothing else.
Marks of True Courage
So then, true courage flows from a right fear of God. But how can we recognize this courage and seek to cultivate it in ourselves? Dabney continues his sermon by detailing the three essential marks of true courage. All three characteristics rest on our fear of and faith in God. He also remembers the exhibitions of these traits in the life of Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, but for the sake of flow I will simply highlight the marks themselves and skip over the mini-biographical sketches of Jackson except where his presentation of Jackson’s character contributes to his overall thesis.
Conduct Governed by the Fear of God
The man whose life is guided by a fear of God exhibits bravery because “the powers of his soul are in harmony.” He is not unnerved by internal conflict between conscience and “evil desire”, for they are one and the same. Of course, we are sinners and we do not perfectly follow the commands of God, yet if our desire is to obey the Lord and both our conscience and desires are united in the single goal of honoring our Creator, then we have the courage of conviction. Dabney, pointing to the example of his friend Jackson, says that “every power of his soul was brought to move in sweet accord under the guidance of an enlightened and honest conscience” so “how could such a soul fail to be courageous for the right?”
I can think of other examples, Biblical and historical, that demonstrate the relationship between conviction and courage. In fact, it is a Sunday school cliche to see men of the Bible such as Noah, Caleb, Joshua, Daniel or Paul as templates of standing for truth and godliness in the face of opposition but they rightly deserve that commendation. The apostle Peter, when confronted by the Jewish leaders declared, “We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29, ESV).” Athanasius fought a lonely battle against the heresy of Arianism for the majority of his life. Martin Luther’s bold refusal to recant includes an appeal to his conscience. William Tyndale gave his life to bring the Word of God to English speaking people. All of these examples demonstrate for us that Christian courage begins with a firm conviction to follow the word of God, come what may.
Trusts in and Accepts the Providential Will of God
The second mark of true courage is absolute trust in the sovereignty and providence of God. Given that Dabney’s sermon is delivered in a memorial for Gen. Thomas Jackson, the best summation of this trust is found in the general’s own words spoken to Capt. J.D. Imboden in the aftermath of the First Battle of Manassas:
Captain, my religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me. Captain, that is the way all men should live, and then all men would be equally brave. [John Selby, “Stonewall Jackson as Military Commander” (New York: Barnes & Noble Publishing, 1968), 25-26. ]
This faith and trust in the will of God is not a fatalistic acquiescence, but rather a recognition of God’s providence. Dabney cites Luke 12:6-7, where Jesus tells his disciples, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God…fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
The Christian has full trust in God’s sovereignty. Dabney beautifully situates this trust in the context of the war which ravaged his day, declaring that God’s control extends even to the trajectory of a single bullet in the chaos of battle:
Even when the thousand missiles of death, invisible to mortal sight, and sent forth aimlessly by those who launched them, shoot in inexplicable confusion over the battlefield, His eye gives them each one aim and a purpose, according to the plan of his wisdom.
Even though we may not know the special will of God for us and our endeavors, we rest assured that His plan is “wise, and right, and good.” The time and the place are in his hands and this assurance gives us boldness.
Fears God More Than Man
The third and final mark of true Christian courage resembles in many aspects the first. But there are distinctions. “Fear of God” in this context is less about obedience and conscience and more about having a proper perspective of the eternal and immortal. The believer has no need to fear man because he is “united by faith to Christ, adopted into the favour of God, and an heir of the inheritance in the skies which is as secure as the throne of God.” Scripture constantly points beyond the now to what lies ahead. While we do not discount the importance of the present world, our hope is in the world to come. The Christian does not fear death because we serve the One who conquered death. Again speaking to the darkness of his day, Dabney encourages his listeners with the reminder that should the believer’s body “be smitten into the grave” he knows that “the resurrection day will repair all the ravages of the sword, and restore the poor tenement to his occupancy, ‘fashioned like unto Christ glorious body.'”
Jesus himself assures us that we need not fear what man can do to us, for he can only harm the body (Matthew 10:28). The Christian from whose soul the stain of sin has been washed in the Redeemer’s blood is the “invulnerable man.” This is not denying his natural desires to avoid bodily pain and death but these emotions are counteracted by the faith he possesses. “The clearer the faith of the Christian,” says Dabney, “the more complete is this victory over the natural fears”, for his faith gives his soul a “substantial, inward sense of heavenly life” that more satisfying and real than the carnal. Dabney again holds up Jackson as an example: “His soul, I believe, dwelt habitually in the full assurance that God was his God and portion forever.” This relationship between our faith in the life to come and courage is at the heart of Dabney’s theology of courage. It is not a courage which comes from us, but from God and assurance in his promises.
These three marks all relate to the same principle, that our relationship to God determines our attitude toward life, which together forms the foundation for courage. The first is ethical, the second theological and the last eschatological. We can summarize all three points by saying that if we seek to obey God’s commands, trust His providence and believe His promises we have the true, biblical foundation for courage.
Even though generally we are not threatened with physical danger in our day and age, we still need to stand for truth. Dabney’s threefold template is beneficial in that regard. We live in an era when the concept of heroism is unpopular, and this old Southern Presbyterian provides a helpful antidote to our apathy for courage. Scripture is full of heroes but they all reflect the true Hero, Christ, who came to Earth to secure the salvation of his people. And, as Dabney himself points out:
Jesus Christ is the Divine Pattern and Fountain of heroism. Earth’s true heroes are they who derive their courage from him.