Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Dabney on the Three Stages of Preaching

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on August 23, 2013 at 4:00 pm
evangelical eloquence
R. L. Dabney (1820-1898) was a staunch Presbyterian minister who boldly preached the doctrines of grace.  As a young minister, Dabney served Tinkling Springs Presbyterian Church in Fishersville, Virginia.  As a mature minister he taught theology at Union Seminary when it used to be located in Farmville.  Among other things, Dabney wrote a series of lectures on preaching which was printed under the title Evangelical Eloquence (reprinted by Banner of Truth).
In the opening lecture Dabney offers a historical survey of preaching, noting “there are three stages through which preaching has repeatedly passed with the same results” (p. 27).
The first stage is when “scriptural truth is faithfully presented in scriptural garb—that is to say, not only are all 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 human science.”  He refers to this stage as “the golden age.”
The second stage is “the transition stage.”  In this stage “the doctrines taught are still those of the Scriptures, but their relations are molded into conformity with the prevalent human dialectics.” In other words, Biblical truths are still taught, but preachers attempt to make the message more relevant by conveying them in contemporary thought forms and ideas.
Finally, in the third stage, “not only are the methods and explanations conformed to the philosophy of the day, but the doctrines themselves contradict the truth of the Word” (p. 28).
Dabney traces this pattern from the preaching of the apostles in the primitive church (stage one), to the “scholasticism” of those who later allegorized the Scriptures (stage two), to the dark ages (stage three).
Then he notes how the cycle was repeated from the Reformation (stage one), to the revivalism of the Great Awakening (stage two), to the age of Rationalism (stage three).
Dabney’s three stages reminded me of the old adage that the first generation discovers the gospel, the second assumes it, and the third compromises it.
He closes by calling his hearers not to wrap “the body of God’s truth” in “the drapery of human philosophy,” urging:  “May we ever be content to exhibit Bible doctrine in its own Bible dress!” (p. 29).
Sounds like some wise counsel.  May we strive to remain “stage one” in our preaching.
Jeffrey T. Riddle, Pastor
Christ Reformed Baptist Church
Charlottesville, Virginia
  1. The Great Awakening was a stage of compromise ???

    Please explain

  2. […] Dabney on the Three Stages of Preaching » by Jeff Riddle via Reformed Baptist Fellowship […]

  3. Dale,

    The language of “revivalism of the Great Awakening” is my own summary and not Dabney’s exact wording. Dabney’s actual words were, interestingly enough, aimed in a D. G. Hart-esque kind of way directly at the esteemed Jonathan Edwards. Dabney writes:

    “When the Protestant churches of this country were founded, the ministry had not lost the Reformation impulse, and belonged to the first stage. The generation, unwittingly introduced by the great and good Jonathan Edwards, marks the second; during which the doctrines of grace were not openly impugned, but they were successively stretched into the schemes of metaphysics–the ‘exercise scheme,’ the “light scheme,’ the “benevolence scheme’–which fascinated a people of narrow and partial culture and self-confident temper” (p. 28).


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