Doctrine According to Godliness
As Francis Scott Key stood captive on a British ship watching the “rockets red glare” and receiving inspiration for the Star Spangled Banner, John Dagg lay beneath those “bombs bursting in air” in what he called, “a fearful night.”1 It was a scary night indeed in Baltimore, September 13, 1814, and although “the dawns early light” of the 14th would result in “the stars and stripes still floating in the breeze,”2 John Dagg and his fellow soldiers had no idea the story would go that way. Dagg tried to sleep underneath the “roar of cannon and bombs,”3 but was awaked three times to prepare for a battle that never came. In the heat of a battle like this one, two things become abundantly clear: first, there is such a thing as good and evil; second, life in this world is very temporary. Dagg would later become a theologian and these two truths served as pillars for his study of religion: man is both moral and immortal. To put it in the words of Dagg himself, “That men are immortal and under a moral government, by which their future state will be made happy or miserable, according to their conduct in the present life, are fundamental truths of religion.”4
If human beings are moral and immortal then any study of the divine must have ramifications on their life. First, if they are moral then they study God as their judge. Any discoveries made of this moral judge’s character or judgments ought to greatly affect their behavior. Second, if human beings are immortal, then their study of God and response to Him holds eternal consequences. Dagg’s vision of theology shows us that doctrine and life are inseparable and the former informs the later. Dagg’s Manual of Theology was written on the premise that the spiritual life is shaped by theology because the very nature of divine truth necessitates a moral response from human beings. Certain aspects of Dagg’s doctrine will be analyzed with a view to their impact on spiritual life.
First, theology is done by means of revelation. In order to learn truths about God and the ways of God one depends on revelation. Dagg pointed out, “We need information respecting that unseen world and the right method of preparing for it, and no other knowledge can be so important to us as this. Can it be that we have no means of acquiring it?”5 One’s own conscience and the conscience of others serve as revelation, though they are scarred by the fall. In addition, the natural course of this world speaks to us of the divine. Yet these three sources do not compare to the final source: the Word of God. Yet for our purposes what is critical to see is that each of these sources of revelation are sources of God’s revelation. God is the One who has written His law on the heart of humanity.6 He is the One who has created this world, ordered its events, and breathed out His holy Scriptures. Therefore, since the divine moral governor of the world has communicated to moral beings, those moral beings have an obligation, a duty, to attend to that revelation. Thus the very nature of revelation requires a spiritual life of study or heeding of the Word of God.
Second, theology at its core is the study of God Himself. The central information that God reveals in His word is information about Himself. Yet humans are not instructed merely to know facts about God without being affected in the heart. None can engage in the study of the divine with the detachment characteristic of some biographical study. In such a case the nature of the historical figure does not require that the study be done in love. On the other hand, the nature of God insists that the one who seeks to know Him does so in love. Dagg makes it clear that love is not only a result of knowing God but must be the manner of heart while the study of theology is being executed.
It is not necessary that we should enter into a formal demonstration that God exists, or a formal investigation of his attributes, before we begin the duty of loving him. We already know enough of him for this; and to postpone the performance of the duty until we have completed our investigations, is to commence them with unsanctified hearts, and in rebellion against God.7
Dagg continues to show the attributes of God, which consist not only of natural attributes such as omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence; but consists also of moral excellencies like goodness, truth, justice, holiness and wisdom. Since these moral attributes of God are so beautiful, one cannot truly know God in His holiness without a change of moral perception. The nature of God, therefore, insists upon the study of theology being done in love. To the extent that it is done so, it will be profitable; but to the extent it is not, it will fail.
If, from what we already know of God, we admire and love him, we shall desire to know more of him, and shall prosecute the study with profit and delight; but, if we have already shut him out of our hearts, all our intellectual investigations respecting him may be expected to leave us in spiritual blindness.8
Third, theology is not merely the study of God’s attributes but includes the study of God’s will and works. Whereas the study of God Himself requires love, the study of God’s will and works motivates joy and delight in the spiritual life. The reason for this is that God’s work in creating and sustaining the world is a manifestation of His own holy character. Thus the nature of God as existing necessitates love, but the nature of God manifested results in delight. Dagg clarifies,
In the existence and attributes of God a sufficient foundation is laid for the claim of supreme love to him; but, for the active exercise of the holy affection, God must be viewed not merely as existing, but as acting. To produce delight in him, his perfections must be manifested.9
Therefore, what God commands to be done in this world and what God actually does in this world are both manifestations of His holy goodness to be looked upon with joy. God’s work in creation and providence testify to His glory, when His work is seen He must not only be acknowledged, but treasured.
Fourth, theology includes the doctrine of mankind in relation to God. The Scriptures make clear that God created man good yet man fell into sin by breaking God’s command. Human sin is not merely a failure to reach our own potential or a wronging of our neighbor, but an offense against holy God. If this aspect of the nature of human sinfulness is not properly seen then the correct response of the spiritual life will not occur: “In order to sincere repentance toward God, it is indispensable that we should understand that we have sinned against him. Men do not usually compare their actions with his righteous law, but with the actions of other men.”10 Dagg shows that humanity has fallen into sin resulting in a state of depravity, condemnation and helplessness. This accurate knowledge informs our practice of repentance. Since mankind is depraved, condemned and helpless then repentance is not a hearty try to do better or a pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. Rather,
Genuine repentance is a deep-felt and abiding sense of sin, a condemnation of ourselves before God on account of it, a turning away from it with abhorrence and loathing, and a fixed purpose of soul never again to commit it, or be at peace with it. This sense of sin drives the soul to Christ.11
Here again it proves true that one cannot engage in theology detached from spiritual life. One cannot faithfully study the sinfulness of humanity without the proper result of repentance.
Fifth, the study of theology does not leave mankind hopeless in sin but instructs that a Savior has come named Jesus Christ. Dagg speaks to both the person and work of Christ. Christ, in His person, is both human and divine. He has always existed in glory with His Father, yet He was made flesh, for He “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.”12 Christ then was resurrected and ascended in exaltation into heaven to sit on His glorious throne. Christ then stands as the mediator between sinful man and holy God as a prophet, priest and king. Such an extraordinary revelation as this requires a spiritual response in the life of moral humans, for,
We have contemplated the divinity of Jesus Christ, not merely in these transient outbursts which occurred while he was on earth, but in the full demonstration which has been given since he ascended to heaven, and the impression on our hearts ought to be strong and abiding.13
Since a study of Christ reveals Him as the salvific mediator between God and man then the appropriate response in one’s spiritual life is faith.
Sixth, theology speaks not only to the nature of God the Father, which necessitates love; or God the Son, which necessitates faith; but also the nature of God the Spirit, which necessitates a spiritual life of dependence. Dependence is the appropriate response to a theology of the Spirit for the Spirit is revealed as “the sanctifier and comforter of God’s people.”14 Dagg emphasizes that the Holy Spirit is a person distinct from both the Father and the Son. He also shows that the Spirit is a divine person along with the Father and the Son. When both the work and personhood of the Spirit are rightly understood, one cannot help but respond in dependence upon this blessed comforter, for “No believer, who has any just sense of his dependence on the Holy Spirit, for the divine life which he enjoys, and all its included blessings, can be indifferent towards the Agent by whom all this good is bestowed.”15
Seventh, the very nature of saving grace prompts a spiritual life of humble gratitude. Dagg goes to great lengths to show that grace is undeserved favor from God to man. He speaks of the covenant of grace, the blessings of grace, and the sovereignty of grace in an effort to illustrate the unworthiness of man to receive such kindness from God. The previous theological revelation of mankind’s sinfulness and depravity serves to show the immensity of God’s grace, “That salvation is entirely of divine grace, may be argued from the condition in which the Gospel finds mankind. We are justly condemned, totally depraved, and, in ourselves, perfectly helpless.”16 Also, once grace is rightly understood then other aspects of theology, such as faith, can be more fully comprehended, “Faith renounces all reliance on our own works, all expectation of favor on their account; and asks and receives every blessing as the gift of divine grace through Jesus Christ.”17 Thus leading to the appropriate response, “When salvation is so received, all boasting is effectually excluded.”18 Dagg expounds the true grace of God by highlighting justification, adoption, regeneration, sanctification, perseverance, and perfection. He explores the full riches of God’s grace by instructing on election, particular redemption, and effectual calling. Such a thoroughly Calvinistic understanding of God’s grace promotes a response of humble gratitude for it knocks out the pillars of pride men stand upon:
The doctrine of grace is the remedy for self-righteousness. It is a remedy which the unholy heart greatly dislikes, but if once received, it proves an effectual antidote to the evil. It slays all self-dependence, and lays the guilty sinner prostrate at the feet of mercy.19
Eighth, no theology is complete without the study of the future world, which by its very essence mandates a spiritual life of preparation. Dagg states it plainly,
Every man knows that the time of his continuance on earth is short and uncertain and while fully assured that he must leave this world, and that the time of his departure is just at hand, to make no inquiry concerning the world to which he is going, or to disregard authentic information concerning it, and the means of obtaining happiness there, is folly in the extreme.20
Dagg teaches that a full doctrine of the future world includes the immortality of the soul, resurrection, the last judgment, heaven, and hell. In light of the moral judgment that is coming to all, the eternal torment of hell, and the eternal pleasure of heaven; the spiritual life of those who study such a doctrine ought to be transformed by the study. This study does not produce people who are so heavenly minded they are no earthly good. Rather, “the motives to holiness, and to diligence in the pursuit of it, are drawn so abundantly from the future world, a knowledge of that world is of great importance to all men.”21 This final aspect of theology serves as a magnificent seal to the argument sustained throughout: theology by its very essence shapes the spiritual life. Dagg, full of experiential religion, even presses his reader at the end to apply the theology presented throughout,
Reader, what are your prospects in the future world? Have you received the love of the truth, that you may be saved? Does the truth as it is in Jesus enter your heart, with sanctifying power? Are you daily striving, by a holy life, to adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things.
In conclusion, Dagg argues that the spiritual impact of theology is apparent from the nature of the study itself, as well as the nature of those doing the study. Theology cannot be done apart from the spiritual practice of the heart and no spirituality can be faithfully exercised apart from a robust theology. Theology in all of its various aspects informs and shapes the spiritual life. The nature of revelation requires a spiritual life of diligent study. The nature of God Himself requires such a pursuit be done in love. God’s will and works move the heart to delight in the glory of God manifested. Human sinfulness cannot be examined apart from a heart of repentance. The nature of the person and work of Christ demands a spiritual life of faith while the Holy Spirit leads one to a life of dependence. The sovereign grace of God when truly understood will result in humble gratitude, and the study of the future world mandates a spiritual life of preparation.
1 J.L. Dagg, A Manual of Theology (reprint. Harrisonburg, V 1 A: Sprinkle Pub., 2009), 16.
4 Ibid., 17.
5 Ibid., 18.
6 Ibid., 19.
7 Ibid., 43.
8 Ibid, 44.
9 Ibid., 96.
10 Ibid., 140.
11 Ibid., 139.
12 Philippians 2:6-7 (ESV).
13 Dagg, A Manual of Theology, 231.
14 Ibid., 241.
15 Ibid., 235.
16 Ibid., 259.
19 Ibid., 337.
20 Ibid., 340.
22 Ibid., 379.