Dagg’s Difficulty

Some historical and theological information about John L. Dagg:

“John L. Dagg (1794-1884). The first major SBC theologian. His Manual of Theology was the standard textbook of theology in all SBC seminaries.” (Curt Daniel, The History and Theology of Calvinism, p. 128)

John Leadley Dagg (1794–1884) born in Loudoun County, Virginia, lived to be over 90 years old. He died in June of 1884, as one of the most respected men in American Baptist life and remains one of the most profound thinkers produced by his denomination. Dagg overcame extraordinary problems – a limited education, near-blindness, and being crippled – to become a great pastor in Philadelphia and elsewhere and then an educator both in Alabama and as president at Mercer University in Georgia. He was a convinced Calvinist of an evangelical kind who wrote a winsome English prose.

As an educator and theologian, Dagg is best known for his work in Georgia between 1844 and 1870. From 1844 to 1856 he was on the faculty of Mercer University, then located in Penfield, as professor of theology and later president of the college.

His greatest contribution to Baptist life came after his retirement in 1856. He prepared A Manual of Theology (1857), the first systematic theology by a Baptist in America, A Treatise on Church Order (1858), The Elements of Moral Science (1859), and The Evidences of Christianity (1869). His reputation as a theologian and ethicist rests on these four works. The first two are still in print.” (Theopedia)

Here are some quotes from John L. Dagg’s Manual of Theology on the subject of God’s providence over sin (underlining mine–CD):

“Providence has been explained to be the care which God exercises over the world. Though this care is watchful and kind, sin has entered, bringing innumerable evils in its train, and is now mingling in the whole current of human enjoyment, and spreading havoc and death, where peace, order, life, and happiness, would have reigned undisturbed. How all this comes to pass, under the government of a God, infinitely wise, powerful, and good, is a question of great difficulty. The observations which follow, will not clear away the darkness in which the subject is involved; but they may suffice to assist our faith, and guard our hearts from unworthy thoughts of the deity.”(Dagg)

Dagg acknowledges a “great difficulty” reconciling the goodness of God with the entrance of sin into the created world. This bold blasphemy is not sanctified by false piety, nor a furrowed brow.  Dagg adds his darkness to a subject that shines brightly on its own in Scripture. Romans 9 and Ephesians 3:11 together teach that God actively caused sin to enter for His own glory and for the demonstration of His attributes.

“1. The fact of God’s providence over sin, is incontrovertible, whatever difficulties attend its explanation.” (Dagg)

The “difficulty” is found NOT in Scripture, but between the ears of one Mr. Dagg.

“If there were anything from which he would stand aloof, it would be sin, the abominable thing which he hates; but nothing so clearly shows his providence to be universal as the abundant proof which is furnished, that it extends over sin. Indeed, if it kept at a distance from everything sinful, it would abandon all human affairs, which are thoroughly mixed with sin. The Scriptures speak, in very clear and strong terms, of God’s control over sinful agents. He brought the Chaldeans against Jerusalem,[22] and stirred up the Medes against Babylon.[23] These were nations composed of wicked men, and could not have been moved by the providence of God, if wicked agents were not under his control. Wicked men are called the rod, the staff, the ax, the saw, in his hand;[24] and are therefore moved by him as these instruments are, by the hand of him who uses them. The Scriptures descend with still greater particularity to the very acts of wicked agents in which their wickedness is exhibited, and attributes these to God. So Shimei’s cursing of David[25] and Absalom’s lying with his father’s wives;[26] wicked as these acts were, are, in the words of inspiration, ascribed to the God of holiness. Why is this, if it be not designed to teach us that the providence of God extends over sinful actions. So strong are some of the representations contained in the holy word, that, like the ascribing of repentance to God, they need to be explained by the general tenor of the sacred teachings.” (Dagg)

God’s “repentance” is interpreted in light of the “general tenor of the sacred teachings,” says Dagg. Correct. God’s swinging of axes and rods are also interpreted in light of the “general tenor of the sacred teachings,” says Dagg. And what of the general tenor in properly interpreting Isaiah 10:5-15, Mr. Dagg?  Since you acknowledged that Scripture contains some representations that are “so strong,” would you say that the general tenor of the Sacred Volume is that axes swing themselves and that rods lift themselves (Isaiah 10:5-15)?

“He blinds the eyes,[27] and hardens the hearts[28] of sinful men; and sends them strong delusions,[29] that they should believe a lie, and be damned; and raised up[30] Pharaoh , and hardened his heart,[31] that he might show his power in him. Such language was certainly designed to make a strong impression on our minds, that God exercises a perfect control over every sinful agent in all his acts; and it is not more clearly revealed, that God hates the wicked acts of wicked men, than that he controls and directs them to the accomplishment of his purpose. All this we are bound to believe, whatever mystery may attend it; and what we know concerning any subject, is not the less true, or the less firmly to be believed, because there are other things involved in it which we know not.” (Dagg)

So strong was this impression on Dagg’s mind that he felt compelled to voluntarily take up his stylus and engrave an image more conformable to his carnal taste — more like unto corruptible man (cf. Romans 1:23)

“2. What we know not concerning God’s providence over sin, respects him rather than ourselves; and we may, therefore, safely leave it for him to interpret. How to govern a world of sinful agents, is a problem which it is not necessary for us to solve, as the task has not been assigned us. Had God imposed the duty on us, he would doubtless have taught us how to perform it. But he has reserved it to himself; and he giveth no account of his matters. Instead, therefore, of being surprised that there are things in God’s government which are inscrutable to us, we should have reason for surprise if it were otherwise.” (Dagg)

But the hypocrite Dagg HAS found it necessary to impose his own seditious standard on God when he admits of the “difficult question” that seeks to reconcile God’s goodness with the existence of sin.

“Earthly governments have their secrets, and these may especially relate to the management of the hostile. We must, without taking offence, permit the Sovereign Ruler of all to have his secrets, and to make known his ways only so far as he pleases. We are often, in appearance at least, exceedingly anxious to relieve the character of God from foul aspersions; but we may safely leave him to vindicate himself.” (Dagg)

Who is “exceedingly anxious to relieve the character of God from foul aspersions”?  Dagg, it is you.  Dagg imposes his own standard of justice and righteousness upon God, and then seeks to protect God from this false and mutinous standard that he set up.

“We shall do well to look to it, that our very officiousness does not betray an unwillingness to repose entire confidence in the wisdom and goodness of his ways, when they are past our comprehension. Let the very darkness in which he leaves them be improved by us to the trial and strengthening of our faith.” (Dagg)

This officiousness proceeds plentifully from one potsherd who is unwilling to repose and bow down before the Sovereign Redeemer and Controller of the universe.

“3. The distinction between God’s permission of sin, and his being the efficient cause of it, is one which we appear authorized to use to free our thoughts from embarrassment when we contemplate this subject.” (Dagg)

By this figment you appear authorized to free your thoughts from embarrassment, eh? What of your embarrassing reverie of rods by themselves are lifting, and axes by themselves are swinging?

“More than mere permission is implied in many of the expressions found in Scripture, that refer to the influence by which the current of sinful propensities directed into this channel rather than that.” (Dagg)

More than the “mere permission” of the “otiose spectator,” as some have called it. So Dagg’s idolatrous belief is that Scripture teaches an “efficacious permission,” rather than an idle, or “otiose permission.”

“But the notion that God is the efficient agent in producing the sinful propensity, we are unable to reconcile with our ideas of his character; and it does not appear to be taught in the sacred volume.” (Dagg)

Try thoughtfully and carefully reading Isaiah 10:5-15 and Psalm 105:25 for starters. Then ask yourself whether or not people like-minded with Dagg are simply idolaters who have become what they worship.

“God is a sun, and moral darkness arises from the absence, rather than from the presence of his beams. We dare not doubt that, had it been his pleasure, he might have poured forth such a flood of holy influence from himself as would have effectually preserved the human race from all possibility of defilement; and, that he did not do so, is his permission of sin.” (Dagg)

God is also a powerful consuming fire of holy love, wrath, and justice. Paul explains in Romans 9 how God has chosen to demonstrate His wonderful attributes in vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and vessels of mercy prepared for glory.

“But every one readily conceives of this as very different from a positive efficiency in the production of moral evil. It is a good maxim, to consider all our good as coming from God, and give him the praise of it; and all our evil as our own, and give ourselves the blame of it. In like manner, when we see sin in others, and know that God is overruling it for good, we can blame them for the evil, and praise God for the good which he educes from it.” (Dagg)

What does Dagg mean by a “positive efficiency”? Was it by a positive efficiency that God TURNED the heart of the Egyptians to HATE His people (Psalm 105:25)? If so, then would Dagg (or others like him) object that God cannot find fault with the Egyptians since they could not resist His will (cf. Romans 9:19)?

“4. We should restrain our philosophy within due bounds, and not give ourselves up to its deductions when they would disturb our faith. We have already shown that philosophy is compelled to rely on inductions which are incomplete, and that her inferences have not equal authority with the declarations of God.” (John L. Dagg, Manual of Theology)

I have provided Scripture of some of the declarations of God to be contrasted and compared with the unrestrained philosophical presumptions of John L. Dagg.  Let God be true, and Dagg a liar.

[22] Hab. i. 6.
[23] Isaiah xiii. 17; Jer. li. 11.
[24] Isaiah x. 5–15.
[25] 2 Sam. xvi. 11.
[26] 2 Sam. xii. 12.
[27] John xii. 40.
[28] Rom. ix. 18.
[29] 2 Thess. ii. 11.
[30] Ex. ix. 16.
[31] Ex. vii. 13.