John Dagg on Evil Surmising

As I have written elsewhere, we are living through a famine of sound moral reasoning in the evangelical world today. The multiple failures at this point reveal an unbiblical separation between theology and ethics. The idea that one can live rightly while believing wrongly is foolish, and while right belief does not guarantee right living at every point, theology does provide the basis for judging the rightness or wrongness of actions.  That is, when a person acts contrary to what he believes his theology provides a corrective if it is allowed to function in that way on the practical level. But when one’s theology is faulty then ethical failure tends to be an outworking of that wrong belief. Rather than provide a needed corrective to bad living, bad theology confirms it.

For example, if one holds to an antinomian view of grace in salvation, then living immorally is fortified by cavalier platitudes like “once saved, always saved” and “since where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, let’s continue in sin so that grace may abound.” Yet, if grace is rightly understood as working a change in the believer so that he pursues a life of holiness, then immoral attitudes and actions can be corrected by the sound theology of that understanding.

In many ways our evangelical forebears understood this relationship far better than we do today. As such, they can help provide some help to us sharpen our moral reasoning. One such helpful teacher from our Baptist heritage is John Dagg. He was the first Baptist theologian in the southern United States to write a systematic theology. Along with that he produced A Treatise on Church Order which he considered to be the Second Part of his Manual of Theology.

A lesser known volume that Dagg wrote is his Elements of Moral Science. The book is a rich resource in thinking and acting Christianly. Though some of the specifics may be dated, the principles Dagg teaches are timeless. One such principle is the wickedness of evil surmising. He addresses this issue in chapter 8, section 8 of his book, which is found on pages 195-197 of the 1860 edition. While we do not hear much about this topic in our day, Dagg demonstrates that sincere Christians should work hard to avoid falling into this pattern of immoral judgment.


Evil Surmising

Reputation is the opinion of the community; and since I am one of the community, my opinion concerning my neighbor, is a part of his reputation. If I think less of him than I ought, I so far do wrong to his reputation. Hence we do wrong to others, when we judge them too unfavorably; and the wrong is not confined to them, but rebounds on ourselves. The habit of judging unfavorably, hardens the heart against the social affections and sympathies, on which our happy intercourse with others greatly depends. It is directly opposed to the charity which “thinketh no evil;”1 and tends inevitably to cut us off from the sympathies and affections of others, and the approbation of heaven. “Judge not, that ye be not judged; for with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”2

Love to our neighbor will incline us to admit his sincerity, and attribute to him no other motives than those from which he professes to act. We resent the wrong, if others ascribe to us motives which we disclaim; and we ought, therefore, to avoid such judgment of others. Some men earn a reputation for insincerity, to which they are justly entitled, and there is no necessity that we should be blind to their true character; but there is no merit in being the first to suspect the evil designs of others. Some persons pride themselves on their deep insight into human character; and when some unlovely feature, before unsuspected, has been disclosed, they are ready to exclaim, I told you so; but they do not inform us how many times they have suspected evil which never existed. They are perhaps deceived as often as the less suspicious; but if they are not, it is better to be deceived sometimes, than to cultivate in ourselves the habit of thinking evil; to keep the mind in perpetual disquiet, with the apprehension of suffering wrong from all who approach us; and to banish all confidence from the intercourse of human society. To deal with honest men as if they were rogues, is a maxim which savors of the wisdom from beneath, rather than of that which cometh from above. The peace and happiness of human society depend much on the cultivation of love and mutual confidence; and it is better that men should be surprised and shocked by occasional abuse of confidence, than that they should be perpetually prepared for it by sleepless suspicion.

Much of the strife which disturbs society, originates in evil surmising. An injurious suspicion once entertained, cannot be concealed without great difficulty. If not expressed in words, it produces a cautiousness in action, by which the other party is led to suspect and resent its existence. Mutual suspicion being engendered, a fire is kindled within, which refuses to be smothered. If you would avoid strife and rage, check the very beginnings of evil surmising.

Since the most virtuous have imperfections, it is unjust, because of one failure, to judge the whole character corrupt. Peter denied his Master; but he notwithstanding loved and honored him, and suffered martyrdom in his cause. We ought not to judge a man destitute of any particular virtue, because he fails to exercise it in some one instance; and if it should be proved that he is totally destitute of a particular virtue, we ought not thence to conclude, that he is destitute of all virtue. Even the truly pious may have a sin that does easily beset them;1 and those who have not renounced all for Christ, may, like the young ruler whom Jesus loved,2 possess traits of character worthy to be loved and admired.

We should be careful not to suffer our estimate of others to be determined by their regard for us. “Sinners love those that love them;”3 but righteous judgment is not founded on considerations so selfish. If a man. has treated me unkindly, it does not follow that he is a bad man. Unkindness to me is not worse than unkindness to any other person; and if we strike from our list of friends all who have ever treated any one amiss, we shall have few names remaining. If we detect with keen perception, and decry with bold vociferation, the faults of our enemies or opponents, while we are blind to the faults of our friends, and those of our party; we do not judge according to righteousness. We should school ourselves to estimate every man, not by his bearing toward us, but by his true character.[1]

1 1 Cor. 13:5.

2 Matt. 7:1, 2.

1 Heb. 12:1.

2 Mark 10:21.

3 Luke 6:32.