Dagg, J. L. Manual of Theology. South Carolina: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1857. Reprint, Harrisonburg, Va.: Gano Books, 1990.

Dagg’s Theological Method

Essential to understanding Dagg’s theological method is acknowledging the role he believes theology has in religion. Theology is not a trivial matter, a subject to be relegated to the classroom or society. Theological studies are to develop and nurture affection for God. So Dagg opens his monograph, “The study of religious truth ought to be undertaken and prosecuted from a sense of duty, and with a view to the improvement of the heart” (13). It is this facet that makes Dagg’s work so unlike any other of the modern era. This is not theology for it’s own sake. Dagg’s is a work that investigates theological truth for the soul’s sake. He says, “To learn things pertaining to God, merely for the sake of amusement, or secular advantage, or to gratify the mere love of knowledge, is to treat the Most High with contempt.”

Man was made for religion, and therefore theological understanding, for Dagg, is in many ways the reason of man’s existence, even in the hereafter. “The human mind is fitted for continued progress in knowledge; and, therefore, for a state of immortality,” he says (16). Later he elaborates on this axiom: “As we make progress in the knowledge of God, we advance from glory to glory, in the likeness of God; and this progress will be interminable, through all our immortal existence” (361). He admonishes his reader, “As immortal beings, let us strive to make ourselves acquainted with the doctrine on which our everlasting happiness depends. And let us be careful that we do not merely receive it coldly into our understandings, but that its renewing power is ever operative in our hearts” (18).

For Dagg, there is a strong and unbreakable tie between theology and affection for God. Theology stirs up affection for God; true affection for God is the prerequisite of theological investigations. Both the Scriptures and natural religion teach a “religion of love” (45). “Love for God will render it a pleasing task to examine the proofs of his existence, and to study those glorious attributes which render him the worthy object of supreme affection” (49). He explains that love is essential to religion, and that “these are affections which do not play on the surface but move the soul from its lowest depths” (138). Moreover, his work explaining theology is in vain if it does not result in “strong feeling” (138; cf. 243). Indeed, “no love to God” is a mark of the carnal and unregenerate heart (278).

Dagg ties love inseparably to faith, and the believer will delight in the truth of God by necessity. Merely intellectual faith, or faith “without love” will not be fruitful and is dead (177). Although he is clear that faith justifies, or is the “justifying grace,” it does not do so “on its own merit.” He explains that faith is cooperative with other factors such as repentance and love, “and especially love, which is the fulfilling of the law” (266). Faith does not produce love: “the affections and the faith mutually influence each other, and if either be wrong, the other cannot be perfect right” (280). Love is essential for perseverance.

He compares love with gratitude, the former being an internal response from seeing God’s character, the latter being the response to his benefits (244). He writes, “That our gratitude to God may be proportional to the blessing received, we should count his mercies over, and survey their magnitude. Unmeasurable! unspeakable! passing knowledge!–yet we should labor to know them; and as we make progress in this spiritual knowledge, our gratitude should swell and fill the enlarged capacity of the mind” (245). Similarly, he says concerning depravity, “Vain it will be, to receive the doctrine of human depravity into our creed, if it is not received into our hearts. A thorough conviction of our total depravity is necessary to humble us before God, and drive us to the fountain opened for sin and uncleanness” (157).

How does this work itself out for Dagg? To reiterate the point made earlier, “religious affection” (Dagg uses this specific term but once, when he says, “It is equally true that faith lies at the foundation of every religious affection and of every religious duty” [176]) must be the result of any theological inquiry. If not, the theological inquiry is made in vain–it should not even be made, he argues. “If heretofore we have treated [the study of God’s truth] as we do the truths of other science, we should preserve in this course no longer, lest the profane use of the sacred things become habitual, and provoke God to deny us his illuminating grace” (138). Love is so foundational for Dagg, that he submits his work to this end, and in so doing ends up writing a work that could never be published as a major theological tome today. Indeed, this work is so bent after nurturing the believer in his affection for God that it could be considered by some “devotional.” Dagg is not writing for scholars, but for the church. In his preface, he confirms that the laity, “the novice of religion,” is his primary audience (iii). He rarely (if ever) mentions any prominent theologian by name–not Calvin, Luther, or Gill. He does not interact with any of them specifically. On occasion he will respond to certain objections made by particular doctrines, but this is by and large not the case, and it is done (to the recollection of this reviewer) without specific reference to the individual promoting the view. He foreshadows this too in the preface, where he mentions that he sought to avoid controversy, dealing only with perplexing questions to “sincere inquirers” (iv). He goes on, “Any one who may desire to see a history of religious opinions, will not find it in this work” (v), finding value instead on pointing men to the Scripture “without respect to human authority” (v). He says,

He [the reader] may learn, from the help of what I am proffering him, what my views are, but I will here give him the caution, once for all, not to adopt any opinion which I may advance, farther than it is well sustained by the word of God. Had I wished him to fix his faith on human authority, I should have adduced quotations from writers of celebrity in support of my opinions; but I have chosen not to do so (v).

As seen in the paragraph just cited, Dagg is exclusively biblical in this work. He makes no appeal to theological “heavyweights.” His work is characterized by many appeals to Scripture. He does not elaborate on many questions; nearly all of his treatments are brief. He argues that both our own and other men’s moral and religious feelings as well as the course of Nature are valid sources of religious knowledge (19-21), but they are “unable to bring men to holiness and happiness” (21). The Bible serves as the only perfect source of theology (21) and the final appeal in all matters (iv). In theological studies, men are fond of obscurity in order to avoid truth, but he is content to remind often the reader “that there are subjects which extend far beyond the limits of his vision” (v).

Related to the question of Dagg’s theological method is his approach to extra-biblical theological terms. He notes the objection made by some to the terms “Trinity” and “person” when talking about the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. He says we are “free” to use such words, and their use is justified largely because “there is no single word in the Bible, which can be substituted for it” (251). He chafes at “contending” for these names, since they are human, as long as the “divine” doctrine behind them is affirmed (251). Yet “a scrupulosity, which should refuse to use any word not found in the Bible, would be unwise, and lead to no good result” (252). He later says that “we may . . . defend the use of the term person, provided we remember that it is a human expedient to avoid circumlocution” (252-53). One wonders if Dagg is contradicting himself a bit here. Moreover, do not these kinds of words, though extra-Biblical, protect us from those who would give the very words of Scripture a meaning they do not intend?

Who knows what this book would have looked like if Dagg would have had a different audience in mind. The moral overtones in his avoidance of “human authority,” his connection of religious affections with theological investigations, and his warnings against theological inquiry for the sake of curiosity make one wonder how much value he saw in a “scholarly theology.” Yet it is clearly evident that he was very familiar with other theological writers and their opinions. He makes no mistakes in his discussion of the Trinity. His development of “Particular Baptist” views on election, the atonement, the sovereignty of God, and other related matters shows that he had spent ample time studying several different theological works. Other questions to consider coming out of the preceding discussion include the need for theological works such as Dagg’s, the way piety should be incorporated to formal theological works, and whether Dagg was unduly optimistic of his ability “to lead the mind of the reader directly to the sources of religious knowledge, and incite him to investigate them for himself, without respect to human authority” (v).

A Summary of Dagg’s Theology

Dagg’s theological views can be described as Calvinist (see chapter 7). “Depravity exists,” he says, “at the very fountain from which all human action flows” (152). It is total. He argues for a “particular redemption”; the statements of Scripture that call Christ the Saviour of the world (and such) “represent the facts as they would be, on the supposition that all men did their duty” (325). The death of Christ provides “all needed grace for the obedient, but also, for all the elect, the grace necessary to render them obedient” (325). He denies that Christ’s death made any “universal provision” whatsoever (327). Christ only endured the amount of suffering necessary to expiate the particular sins he bore on the cross (329). Addressing free agency he says, “We may say that a man understands or wills, or that his mind understanding or wills; but to say that his understanding understands, or his will wills, is bad philosophy” (122). Dagg seems to reject the idea of reprobation, proposing that reprobation is merely God’s condemnation of unbelievers (314-15). He believes that Christ will not lose any true believers, and that they will persevere to the end, but he adds that the warning passages, particularly Hebrews 6, should be understood as “designed for real Christians” (297), and taken as real warnings against apostasy. “The warnings against apostasy, and the exhortations to perseverance, were not addressed to false professors, as such” (298). The doctrine of perseverance does not instill carnality, but cultivates simple faith in Christ for salvation.

Interestingly, Dagg touches on the matter of manuscript errors and the “preservation” of the Scriptures. He says, “Although the Scriptures were originally penned under the unerring guidance of the Holy Spirit, it does not follow, that a continued miracle has been wrought to preserve them from all error in transcribing. . . . Although the various readings found in the existing manuscripts, are numerous, we are able, in every case, to determine the correct reading, so far as is necessary for the establishment of our faith, or the direction of our practice in every important particular” (24). He builds on this principle when addressing translations, that they are sufficiently the Word of God for those who do not have the originals. When he considers the question of the origin of the Bible, he asks if it were from heaven or men, and if from men, if the Bible came from good men or bad men. He answers the latter question first in a manner typical to his pious approach to theology:

If bad men had been the authors of the Bible, they would have made it to their liking. If made to please them, it would please other men of like character. But it is not a book in which bad men delight. They hate it. Its precepts are too holy; its doctrines too pure; its denunciations against all manner of iniquity too terrible. It is not at all written according to the taste of such men (27).

He is not terribly concerned to answer every perceived “imperfection” in the Bible (comparing them to mere passing clouds obscuring the sun) and does not spend a great deal of time developing an apologetic. “Of such atheism,” he writes of the skeptic, “ the only effectual cure is a new heart.” A Christian may have some doubts, but the remedy is prayerful studying of “God’s word and works” (54).

Dagg believes that the fall was historical. “The narrative of the Fall, as given in the book of Genesis, is to be considered, not as a mythical representation, but as proper history” (144). He defines a “covenant” as an “immutable ordinance,” a “sure and stable promise,” a “precept,” and “a mutual agreement” (144-45). He believes that Adam’s descendants have a moral, natural, and federal union with the forerunner of their race (165). He argues against creationism as the origin of the soul in man, distilling the question to how God providentially sustains creation. He says,

If the preservation of all things is strictly a perpetual creation, the distinction is wholly annihilated; for the soul is, at the first moment of its being, and at every subsequent moment throughout its whole existence, an immediate creation. But if this view be not admitted, it is still true that preservation is as dependent on the efficacious will of God, as creation. God willed that the soul of Adam should propagate a son, and that this son should, like the father, have both a soul and a body. The progeny came into being according to the will of God. This work differs from the former, in that it is not singular, but conforms to what we call a law of nature; but nature’s laws have no efficacy in themselves; and when we attribute the work to the efficacious will of God, it is a mere question of classification, whether we refer it to creation or Providence (156).

Seemingly against Gill, he argues against “eternal justification.” He notes that it is not a secret purpose of God, but a revelation from him, as God thereby declares the sinner righteous. “Otherwise, it [justification] would not be the opposite of condemnation” (274). Only his purpose to justify and glorify is eternal. “It is clearly the doctrine of Scripture, that, on believing in Christ, men pass from a state of condemnation into a state of justification” (274). Adoption is not the same as justification (274ff).

Dagg is apparently amillennial. Christ’s second coming takes place on the day of judgment. He still believed that several prophecies were yet to be fulfilled: “the calling of the Gentiles, the conversion of the Jews, and the millennial state of the Church” (354). The “first resurrection” is a resurrection of the martyrs’ souls, similar to the way that in John the Baptist “Elijah reappeared” (354). All will be resurrected at Christ’s return, and judged on earth (355).

In heaven, men will spend eternity growing in their knowledge of God (360-61). Hell is a figure, but this should provide men no comfort or optimism as to the nature of its punishment.

[They] are terrific descriptions; but they are not exaggerations. They are figures; but they come short of the reality. When God punishes, he punishes as a God. Who knoweth the power of thine anger? What omnipotent wrath can accomplish, all language fails to describe, and all finite minds are unable to conceive (369).

He believes that Jesus’ decent into “hell” in Ps. 16:10 refers to Jesus’ going to the “the place of departed spirits” (206). He places a great deal of emphasis on repentance as a means of obtaining salvation (138ff; 262ff). He believes that souls are immortal, but argues so by way of analogy from the indestructibility of atoms (341). He says that baptism is a figure, and should never be confounded with the “reality” it points to (265-64). In another place he says that “no man can consistently receive Christian baptism, without receiving the doctrine of the Trinity” (248).

The Structure of the Manual

The structure of Dagg’s Manual of Theology follows a pattern unique to most other systematic theologies. His preface briefly delineates his goals and purposes for the work. He begins by giving the obligation for religious study. As earlier noted, the purpose for the study of theology for Dagg was to nurture one’s love for God, and this theme is developed in this little prolegomena. The Bible is subsequently discussed as the primary source of theological knowledge, and well illustrates what will be Dagg’s main source in the Manual.

Each of the following “books” begin with the duty related to the theological inquiry pertaining to that book. He concludes each book with a conclusion, pressing the matter in a “devotional” way to the Christian (the word “devotional” here probably does not give a fair or accurate sense of what Dagg is trying to do, but I use it for lack of a better term). For example, consider the a part of the conclusion to the second book on the “Doctrine Concerning God”:

The love of God, which is increased by a true knowledge of him, is not a mere feeling of gratitude for blessings received. Many persons talk of God’s goodness, and profess to love him, who have no pleasure in contemplating his holiness and justice, and to whom these are unwelcome attributes. When such persons stand before him in the last judgment, there is reason to fear that they will find him to be a different God from that which they loved and praised on earth. Love to the true God is love to the God of holiness and justice, the God in whom every moral perfection is united; and if our love is of this kind, we shall delight to survey the glories of the divine character, and, apart from all views of the benefits received from him, shall be enamored of his essential loveliness.The love to God which increases by a true knowledge of him, is pervaded with a deep-felt reverence for his character. The familiar levity with which he is sometimes approached and addressed, by no means comports with the awful exhibitions of himself which he has made in his works and in his word. They who, while they profess to love him, have no solemn sense of his infinite grandeur and holiness, have yet to learn the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom. The true knowledge of God will rectify this evil in the heart (92).

Following God’s attributes, Dagg discusses the “Will and Works of God,” which includes his sovereign will, creation, and providence. The fourth book discusses man’s fall and depravity, followed by his christology, including the person, states, and offices of a Christ. A brief treatment of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit follows, which leads to the seventh book on “divine grace.” This book begins with the Trinity, and includes treatments of the covenant of grace, the blessings of grace (justification, adoption, sanctification, etc.), and the sovereignty of grace (election, particular redemption, and effectual calling). The eighth and final book is a discussion of the “future world.”
Not many of Dagg’s subjects receive lengthy treatments. Some of those closest to Calvinism do since he attempts to reply to objections in those sections. At a mere 379 pages, his theology does not take a long time to read. Dagg’s devotional focus in this volume is in some ways both his greatest strength and weakness. He is quite effective as a writer at stirring one’s religious affections toward God. It is not only in his whole approach, but in his rhetorical skill as an author. For example, he says at the conclusion of his treatment of the Bible,

What a precious gift is the Bible! Who will not prize it? Who will not bind it to his heart? We stand on the narrow isthmus of life, between two oceans, the boundless past and the boundless future. The records of eternity past are beyond our reach, but the Ancient of Days has opened them, and has revealed to us in the Bible whatever it is necessary that we should know. . . . The only wise God has condescended to speak to us in the Bible, and to teach us how to order our steps in life’s short way, so as to insure life eternal. The future world is just before us. For myself, I realize that I am standing on the shore of the boundless ocean, with but an inch of crumbling sand remaining. I hear the shrieks of the dying infidel at my side, to whose view all is covered with impenetrable darkness. He, too, has come to the brink, and would gladly refuse to proceed, but he cannot. Perplexed, terrified, shuddering, he plunges in and sinks, he knows not whither. How precious, at this trying moment, is the Book of God! How cheering this Light from heaven! Before it I see the shades retiring. The Bible lifts its torch–nay, not a feeble torch, such as reason may raise, to shine on the darkness and render it visible; the Bible sheds the light of the noonday sun on the vast prospect before me, and enables me, tranquil and joyful, to launch into eternity with the full assurance of hope. Mortals, hastening to the retributions of eternity, be wise; receive the revelation from heaven presented to you in the Bible; attend diligently to its instructions, and reverence its authority, as the word of the final Judge before whom you will soon appear (41-42).

Summary and Conclusion

Of course, passages such as this one should not be really considered a “weakness” for Dagg. But in some ways his approach means that the desired end of a systematic theology is not accomplished. One wonders if systematic theology is an “either/or” between cultivating religious affections and scholarly interaction with other believers or even apostates (assuming Dagg believed it was an “either/or”). Some of the situations and questions contemporary theologians face, I realize, would not have been present at the time of Dagg. Nevertheless, is such interaction a worthwhile pursuit for the church’s theologians and pastors? In many ways evangelical theology has become exactly what Dagg denounced as “vain.” How can we learn from Dagg in this area? At the same time, the danger in taking Dagg’s approach is that some questions are left unanswered.
I liked Dagg. I can say without apology that what he wanted to accomplish worked in my own soul. I will turn to him again in researching theological problems, and now desire to purchase others of his works.