Dabney’s Possibilism

Steven Wedgeworth over at The Calvinist International has posted a fascinating passage from Robert Dabney criticizing certain quantificational approaches to the atonement. This is all to the good, but the fly in the ointment comes with this regrettable statement by Dabney: “And God, the Creditor, has an optional discretion to decline the proffer [of Christ’s satisfaction], if He chooses (before He is bound by His own covenant), or to accept it. Hence, the extent to which, and the terms on which Christ’s vicarious actions shall actually satisfy the law, depend simply on the stipulations made between Father and Son, in the covenant of redemption…” This is just bizarre, and the effects are, I submit, exactly opposite to what Dabney intends: in his effort to affirm God’s sovereignty and freedom in salvation, he ends up denying both. This is because Dabney, in typical voluntarist fashion, misconstrues God’s freedom in terms of a supreme power and liberty to conjoin otherwise unrelated possibilities, without asking the prior question of how these realities were made to be possibilities in the first place. Thus, on Dabney’s possibilism, Christ becoming incarnate, suffering, and dying on the cross is one distinct possibility, mankind’s salvation is another distinct possibility, and there is no intrinsic connection between the two (this is why one could happen without the other), only a divine contract from before time that the one event should be followed by the other.  The theological and soteriological meaning of Christ’s sacrifice, accordingly, is something outside or extrinsic to the sacrifice itself, being reduced to a mere overlay of divine will. As for Christ’s sacrifice itself, thus gutted of any inherent theological depth and revelation, its possibility is absolutized, immanentized, and hence secularized: it has no meaning except that which God chooses to give it, and by Dabney’s own admission, God could have chosen to give it none (making God not only a secularist, but even something of a nihilist).

Dabney’s lapse into theological possibilism is even more curious in light of his own rejection of precisely this kind of reasoning in his excellent discussion of the absurdities of the lapsarian debate. As he writes in his criticism of the “illogicality” of the supralapsarian position in particular,

The view from which it starts, that the ultimate end must be first in design, and then the intermediate means, is of force only with reference to a finite mind. God’s decree has no succession; and to Him no successive order of parts; because it is a contemporaneous unit, comprehended altogether, by one infinite intuition. In this thing, the statements of both parties are untrue to God’s thought. The true statement of the matter is, that in this co-etaneous, unit plan, one part of the plan is devised by God with reference to a state of facts which He intended to result from another part of the plan; but all parts equally present, and all equally primary to His mind. As to the decree to create man, to permit his fall, to elect some to life; neither part preceded any other part with God.

To apply this same, impeccable reasoning to his earlier quote, there is no such thing as, or even the possibility of, Christ sacrificing himself apart from such a sacrifice also being efficacious for man’s salvation. This is not because God, although the Creditor, is somehow “forced” to accept the terms under which debts to him must be repaid, but because in the truly sovereign, creative determination of God, the possibility that is Christ’s sacrifice and the possibility that is man’s salvation have no meaning (at least so far as our “finite minds” are able to ascertain) except in relation to each other. Their possibility is a compossibility. In Dabney’s words, the two are “parts” of a single “plan,” a plan that is not posterior to, constructed out of, and hence made possible by its parts, but is concurrent with them, giving them their very identity as parts and as possibilities.


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