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Robert William Dale, His Theology, And His Theory Of The Atonement


ONE day a visitor to the English city of Birmingham sought out the Carr's Lane Congregational Church. He walked to and fro in front of the building looking up at it. And as he walked he thought, "It is here that so great a preacher proclaims the ever lasting gospel." The visitor was Andrew M. Fairbairn, the future principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, and the preacher who had so stirred his admiration by a volume of printed sermons was Dr. Robert William Dale. More than this young Congregational scholar looked upon Carr's Lane and its pastor with enthusiasm. He was Birmingham's greatest preacher, one of its most potent civic forces, and a man whose influence reached far over England.

In December, 1829, Dale was born. His father was a manufacturer of hat trimmings. The home was more than serious enough, but under its austerity there was a deep and warm affection. It was the great desire of the mother that her son "Bobby" should be a minister, and for this she was "willing to make any sacrifice." Dale was sent to private schools, not always fortunately chosen, but even as a boy he showed more fondness for books than for play. At four-teen he was deeply engaged with Butler's Analogy, and before he was sixteen he had a written philosophical discussion with a Scotch metaphysician.

At fourteen he became an assistant school-master. Religious struggles began about this time. He tells how he read James's "Anxious Enquirer" on his knees, and in keen distress about his personal salvation. His own words must tell of his conversion. "At last how, I cannot tell all came clear : I ceased thinking of myself and of my faith, and thought only of Christ : then I wondered that I should have been perplexed for even a single hour."

At the age of fifteen Dale was received into the church and soon began preaching. Even then the qualities of his preaching caused hearers to feel that the ministry should be his life work. Difficulties were removed and at the age of eighteen Dale found himself in Spring Hill College, Birmingham. In the school Henry Rogers, a contributor to the Spectator in its greatest days, deeply influenced Dale. From him the young student learned to care profoundly for real literary qualities of style. He was a diligent student and his scholastic career was one of unusual distinction. At this time George Dawson, the brilliant Birmingham preacher who vigorously expressed his social ideals, exercised what was to be a lasting influence over Dale, who caught his civic passion without imbibing his less desirable ideas. By this time John Angel James, for fifty years pastor of the important Carr's Lane Congregational Church, had his eye upon the able young student. The degree of M. A. having been received from London University, Dale found himself first the assistant, then the copastor of Dr. James at Carr's Lane. Upon the death of Dr. James in 1859 Dale was made sole pastor of the Church, which position he held for thirty-five years. We will not attempt to follow the life of multifarious activity which now opened upon him, but will content ourselves with speaking briefly of some of its aspects.

Dale was first of all a preacher. His sermons from the first moved in stately fashion at a lofty height. He wrote and read them because he was unwilling to trust his exhaustless fertility of speech. His sermons were not always within the comprehension of all of his audience, but a poor woman who confessed that she never understood them said that she was so helped by his prayers that she always came to church. And he preached sermons. There was no self-conscious garnishing of style, and no seeking for a reputation for profundity. The depth of his thought was the natural outcome of a mighty mental inquiry applied to great problems; the high level of his style was a real expression of the man. He was a preacher of courage. When he had been at Carr's Lane for years he was able to say, "I have never feared, and I have never flattered you." The truths of the faith mastered him, and he forged them into sermons poured forth at white heat; practical Christian ethics claimed him, and a passion for righteousness penetrating every department of life glowed at Carr's Lane, then out over England; the glories of the inner life of the Christian shone upon his soul, and then transfigured his pulpit.

In the early days he had been told that Carr's Lane people would not stand doctrinal preaching. He replied that they would have to stand it. "I think God could hardly confer upon this country a greater blessing," he declared, "than in reawakening that intense interest in religious doctrine which characterized the heroic men who be-longed to the times of the commonwealth." So he kept Carr's Lane's great congregations hanging eagerly upon his words as he spoke of the great doctrines, and even preached to them his theory of the atonement. And not only Carr's Lane but England listened.

All the while Dale was becoming a great municipal power. He had imbibed the ideals of men like Dawson and threw himself heartily into every plan for the betterment of the city. In counting the influences that have made Birmingham "the best governed city in the world" Dale's contribution will be found to be a very important one. From municipal affairs to politics is a short step, and Dale grew to be a great political power. A quotation from a speech by Joseph Chamberlain made after his final election to Parliament will illustrate this. "I have seen a statement," said Mr. Chamberlain, "that I go to Parliament as the representative of Mr. Dale. Well, if that be so, there is not a member of the House of Commons who will have a better, nobler, or wiser constituency." There is not space to tell how, inspired by a vision of the reign of Christ in the affairs of men, he threw himself into politics and became a great Liberal leader. In city and in nation his influence was a pressure always toward the reign of right and righteousness in public affairs.

Then Dale was a great educator. Interested in different kinds of schools, studying their problems and taking part in their control, he became a national educational figure. He was the deciding factor in the removing of Spring Hill College to Oxford; and Mansfield College is to-day the great monument of his educational influence.

Recognition after recognition came to him. Chairman of the Congregational Union, LL.D. from Glasgow, member of Royal Commission on elementary education, chairman of International Council of Congregational Churches such are a few honors which come quickly to mind. In Australia he spoke in city after city, returning to a great welcome in Birmingham typified by the large printed greeting, "We love you and we tell you so." In America he gave the Yale lectures on preaching, noble utterances voicing intellectual and spiritual ideals every preacher might well make his own. He wrote sermons, pamphlets, and books, achieving a style Sir William Robertson Nicoll has called "one of the most perfect in the whole range of English Literature." Dean Alford reviewed a volume of his sermons with enthusiasm. Westcott wrote with warm appreciation of his work on Ephesians, and Cardinal Newman paid tribute to his book on the atonement.

Even this is not all. This busy, active, versatile man found time in lonely meditation to become in a notable sense a great mystic. His journey to Palestine with its hours of quiet musing left its mark upon his life. Then great personal bereavement came. And the terrible disruption of the Liberal party caused his retirement from political life. He became ill and had period after period of enforced idleness and suffering. And out of this sorrow and disappointment he went, not to an embittered and cynical old age, but to a sunset glory of communion with God.

Now his sermons came to glow with the light of this hidden communion. He made the discovery in his own words that "Christ is alive," and every Sunday morning his people were asked to sing an Easter hymn. He wrote sermons and books enriched with a spiritual depth and power, unknown be-fore even in his fertile ministry.

Then, in 1895, the end came. Birmingham and England joined to do him honor.

No such concourse had been seen for many years as his funeral procession. "Above on the sandstone cliff in which the cemetery is quarried, on the long platform of the rail-way station, and on the station roof itself men and women stood in serried lines, and from beyond the walls came the murmur of unseen thousands outside." In Westminster Abbey and in Saint Paul's Cathedral, as well as all over the country, voices were lifted in eager tribute. It had been a life of amazing energy and versatility and a life of great achievement. But best of all it had been the life of a man of God.


In approaching Dale's theology we must remind ourselves of some of the outstanding features of the theological situation in which he found himself. He was an heir of the Puritan movement and two great things came down to him from it. First there was an almost overwhelming sense of God. The Puritan, to paraphrase some one's words, feared God so much that he feared nothing else. And the movement gave to its sons a sense of the height and majesty of God. Puritanism had seen Isaiah's vision of the holy God, and never forgot the awful glory of the experience. Then Puritanism believed in God reigning. It had been almost a theocracy in the days of the commonwealth. And in the blood of its sons there throbbed an eagerness for the Christian conquest of national life. To an heir of Cromwell theology could never be simply an affair of the cloister.

But the eighteenth century had spread the palsying blight of deism over England. Deism was the theory of the absent God and the self-sufficient man. One good thing had come from deism a sense that man and man's powers must be taken account of. For at this point the Calvinistic Puritan was weakest. He was so dazzled by his vision of God that he could not see man. It was great to have this vision of God, but man must be taken account of. And Calvinism had hard and rigid things to say about man and God's relation to him. Its theory of the atonement had been constructed with bars of steel fastened by iron bolts. It was strong, but it was cruel. In alleviation of this, theories of public justice which sought to explain the atonement as a feature of God's judicial dealing with men were introduced.

In this atmosphere of mitigated Calvinism Dale received his own theological training. The out-and-out reaction from Calvinism which preferred no God, to the God of the Calvinist, cannot be said to have influenced Dale. He felt that Christianity must be rational, but had not a particle of the rationalist in him. But he was more than a son of the Puritan movement he was a son of the great revival. Wesley had created a living church, and helped to give new life to the existing churches. A real Christian experience makes a new man of your theologian, and Dale had a real Christian experience. The root of everything in his theology is that he had found forgiveness, peace, and life in the salvation of Christ. This will help to account for the small effect the tractarian movement had upon him. The tractarian movement was a great seeking for religious authority, and a finding of it in the church. A living experience of the power of Christ set Dale free from the dangers of this quest.

The broad church movement had real points of contact with him. Its passion for Christianity dominant in life was his own. Its rejoicing sense of all Christ was touched his sympathy. But to Dale Christianity must have a deeper root than it gave. He could rest only in a theology which found its center in a mighty expiation.

Coming now to Dale's own theology. He never wrote it out in a complete system; it must be gleaned from his various utterances. He had brought his powerful mind to bear upon problem after problem. And his thinking moved in the direction of a system.

Let us begin with the great question of authority. He dealt with it in an epoch-making book, The Living Christ and the Four Gospels. The portrait of Christ is by its own power morally convincing, he tells us. And when a man submits himself to the gospel message and accepts the Saviour he comes to know for himself, for salvation is the revelation of the living Christ in his own life. This experience of his is confirmed by the similar experiences of sixty generations of Christians all over the world. Here is a great Gibraltar. The church is sure because it knows. Its experience vindicates the authority of Christ. How much this message meant as it traveled over England and America in the days of a brilliant and destructive criticism it would be hard adequately to say. It was one of Dale's noblest messages to the church.

Coming to Dale's conception of God, we find that even his theism felt the warmth of his experience. A man was to be a theist not simply with his head. He was to experience his theism. Dale's whole theology was colored by the sweeping majesty of his conception of God. It gathered together the noblest things of Puritanism, and fused them in a personal experience of awe in the presence of the Most High.

Dale's speculations regarding the Trinity reveal a certain philosophical inaptitude. He speaks of the Father as though he were the transcendent one, the Holy Spirit the immanent one, and the Son the personal revealer. But he is clear in his assertion that "There are not three Gods, but in the life and being of the One God there are three centers of consciousness, volition, and activity."

In dealing with man we come upon Dale's belief that man's very life roots in a higher life, that apart from this higher life, he has no life of his own. Sin is not only the rejection of moral and spiritual well-being. It is the rejection of the root of life itself. So Dale came ultimately to believe in the annihilation of the finally perverse. The important thing at this point is to see what an organic part of his thought this view was. Its inadequacy had its roots deep in his thought. His method of dealing with freedom and sin, and man's relation to the race, reveals a noble man in the difficulties of intellectual problems which he tried ineffectually to solve. He had an overwhelming sense of sin, nobly Christian in its whole quality. But the tragedy of moral evil was sin to him. He made the terrible mistake of concluding that man was a sharer in the responsibility for sins to which he had no relation of personal choice. The failure here is seen throughout his discussion. He tried to preserve man's freedom and to be just to his personal life. But he never really succeeded and he never knew that he failed, There was enough Calvinism in his blood to give him content with inadequate views. But deeper than this he was sure that he could trust the race to the God who had cared enough for it to give it Calvary.

His conception of redemption we will soon consider in detail. The church was the body of men and women who possessed the new life in Christ. It could not be rightly a state church, for that included those who did not have the life in Christ. The seat of church government and authority was those who enjoyed this life. The sacraments were not a magical rite, but the Lord's Supper was more than a memorial. It was a spiritual opportunity. Here the Christian could receive spiritually the life of his Lord. Sanctification was the life in Christ victoriously possessing the Christian. Immortality this victorious life in its endless progression. The doom of the wicked, the absence of all life, even existence, because they utterly turned from the offered life in Christ.

Dale's theology was Christian doctrine construed from the standpoint of a personal experience of the life in Christ. Its strength was in this triumphant emphasis on Christian experience, its weakness a failure to understand that personal intention is the crucial thing in human life, and a tendency to add to the ethical personal relation of the Christian with his Lord a metaphysical relation which can hardly be cleared of the charge of pantheism, and of which we shall see more in his theory of the atonement.


Dale was trained, as we have seen, in a school where the tendency was to explain our Lord's work from the standpoint of public justice. The depth of his own religious experience and its relation to a pro-found sense of sin would ultimately have demanded a personal reconsideration of the whole problem. But the theological movement toward the moral view of our Lord's work, which became more and more influential, was in sharp contrast to his own deepest religious intuitions, and in the light of this fact his personal grapple with the great problem was made.

Bushnell's Vicarious Sacrifice, with its fine religious feeling, its passion for all noble things, and its fascination of style, was seizing upon men's minds, as a vital and appealing treatment of the problem. Would the whole world go to the moral view? A strong voice needed to speak if this was to be pre-vented. Then Dale spoke. In the Congregational Union lecture, delivered in 1875, Dale made his great utterance. He was confronted by two possible views of the work of our Lord. Was it an expiation, or was it a transcendent act to win men from sin? Was the great problem to turn men from sin, or was there a deeper problem? Was it necessary that something be done to satisfy the righteous God before sin could be remitted? Of course in any view our Lord's death was a moral power. Dale did not dispute this. The question was, Is it simply and only a moral power, or is it essentially expiation, then a moral power also?

The first task to which he set himself was to prove that the New Testament conception is that the death of Christ was an objective atonement. He distinguished sharply between the fact and any theory of it. He was a great deal more interested in the fact of an objective atonement than its rationale. That fact was crucial.

In six lectures he conducted a masterly argument. The history of our Lord's life, his words, the apostolic consciousness, all were shown to involve an objective atonement. It was no massing of proof-texts. He showed how the fact of an objective atonement was a part of the movement of the apostles' thought, how it was essential to the effectiveness of arguments they used, and how at every point what they say fits in with it, and that they absolutely fail to say the things it would have been natural even imperative for them to say had they held the moral view. Christ and his apostles held, whatever we may hold, that his death was an expiation making possible the forgiveness of sin.

Following his exceedingly vigorous and able exposition of New Testament consciousness, Dale takes a survey of the history of the interpretation by the theologians of the church of our Lord's death. He shows how Christian consciousness always clung to the idea of an objective work by our Lord. Sometimes the explanations theologians gave were absurd. There was plenty of inadequacy here. But through it all Christian consciousness clung to the idea of an objective work. And the theologians simply did the best they could to provide a rationale for it. Here, then, was a great standing ground. The New Testament and Christian consciousness united in a demand for the expiatory view of Christ's death. So much was firm whether a theory could be found for it or not.

Now Dale approaches his constructive work. Can light be thrown on this fact that our Lord's death is the ground on which our sins are forgiven? He believes it is possible, first, by considering Christ's relation to the Eternal Law of Righteousness ; second, by considering his relation to the human race.

The ultimate source of moral distinction Dale conceives as the Eternal Law of Righteousness. This is not the result of the will of God, nor does it find its source in the nature of God. But neither is it superior to God. It comes to life in him. His very moral sovereignty consists in his perpetual assertion of his oneness with it. He is the moral law alive. Punishment is conceived, not as a means of improving the sinner, nor as a means of preventing others from wrong-doing, nor as the expression of wrath be-cause of personal injury to God. It is deserved suffering because of the breaking of the law. The law of righteousness necessarily demands the eternal expression of the fact that sin deserves to be punished. And if God is to preserve his oneness with the Eternal Law of Righteousness, he must for-ever declare by deed that fact.

Can sin, then, be forgiven? There was a conception which regarded penalty as self-acting. Page after page is devoted to the eloquent overthrow of this view. It simply does not correspond to the facts of life. But let us look more deeply at penalty. Now, we find that its very greatest power comes from the fact that it is a personal thing. The God who is one with the Eternal Law of Righteousness is back of it. It is not simply the work of a mechanical law. It is the deed of a God who is Righteousness alive. Now, if God ever forgives sin, he must find some way of asserting this principle that sin deserves to be punished, of revealing his oneness with the Eternal Law of Righteousness which shall be as effective as the punishment of the shiner. Here we come to the crisis in the discussion. Christ himself God, Judge of men whose prerogative is the punishment of the sinner, endures the punishment instead of inflicting it, and so the problem is solved. God's love for the sinner gives his punishment of the sinner a great added moral significance. His love for the Son makes the deed on Calvary, when the Father withdrew his companionship from the Son and left him in the very loneliness of a condemned sinner, an act of divine self-sacrifice beyond any-thing of which we could have conceived. This is the grandest moment in the moral history of God. So Christ asserts God's oneness with the Eternal Law of Righteousness. So he makes possible the forgiveness of sin.

But had Christ any relation to the race which will give body and stability to this interpretation? Dale replies that he had, for Christ in Dale's conception is basally connected with the race's life. He is its root and its ideal realization. So that what he does is in a unique sense a race deed. When Christ endures on Calvary the penalty of sin, it is in a recognition within the race of the terrible penal desert of sin, and makes possible on the part of men the same acknowledgment. They now make this verdict on the justice of sin's receiving such punishment their own, through the power of Christ, the race representative.

Now, before sin entered the world Christ was actually and ideally the race representative before the Father. But sin broke right across this relation. When the Saviour was incarnated and bore sin's penalty, he secured to the race, in spite of sin, and by that very act made possible, the restoration of all the glorious possibilities of that relation as originally held. But, more than this, the death of Christ, through his basal connection with the race, is the death of sin. Those who accept him find in his death the slaying of their own sinfulness. Calvary thus completely conquers sin and assures the victory of righteousness.

To sum up : Christ's death is an objective atonement for sin: 1. Because his submission to the penal demands of law he being the race basis is an expression of ours and carries ours with it. 2. His death renders possible the very relation between the race and Christ which sin had broken, with all its infinite promise. 3. The death of Christ involves the destruction of sin in those who accept the Saviour. 4. The death of Christ expresses God's oneness with the Eternal Law of Righteousness as perfectly as it would be expressed by the punishment of the sinner.

Here, then, the problem is solved. The Eternal Law of Righteousness has received final expression as one with God. The race has been given the supreme opportunity in spite of sin to be a race in Christ and so secure all life and all blessedness. So much in exposition of Dr. Dale's theory.

Now, for our own question: Can we accept it as a satisfactory account of the work of our Lord? Some grave difficulties emerge at once.

1. Dr. Dale's conception of the Eternal Law of Righteousness, despite all his protestations, is a dethronement of God. Dale tried to evade the difficulty very bravely, but after all was said he left God the subject of a Higher than He. We must find the source of the moral law in God him-self. When Dale said that the source of the law could not be in God's nature he was thinking of the impossibility of its being a mere attribute of God. The source of moral distinction is deeper than a mere attribute. It is at the basis of the very nature of God as a totality. But this basal thing is a richer thing than Dale's Eternal Law of Righteousness. Beginning with moral distinction, it includes all moral harmony, and so becomes the Holiness of God. Here is the ultimate basis of morality. You cannot get back of the nature of God. There is nothing beyond that. The demand for an atonement comes not from God's allegiance to an eternal law of righteousness, which we cannot find ultimately rooted in his own nature. It comes from the Holiness which is God's own nature. The totality of God's nature demands Calvary.

2. The conception of Christ as the race basis demands scrutiny. Dale uses it some-what uneasily and with less than his accustomed clarity. But it is evident that he means more than can be harmonized with genuine personal relations. He means more than that Christ's whole attitude toward sin may be made personal in the Christian's life through the power of God. He means more than that it sets free divine energies which enter the life as we accept the Saviour. And the thing he means is a sort of metaphysical oneness which goes a long way toward spelling pantheism. Here we strike a root of failure in Dale's thinking. A sharp notion of the integrity of personality is quite lacking. His notion of sin, his notion of redemption, his notion of the life in Christ are vitiated because he did not think of sin as a thing with personal intention necessarily behind it, of redemption as a process which at every step must have regard to the demands of man as a personal being and the life in Christ as a relation always consistent with the integrity of personality. The incarnation was necessary because God could be satisfied only with a deed achieved in the human race, and only such a deed could be redemptively appropriated by man. No metaphysical relation of Christ to the race can make his deed the race's possession except as it is personally appropriated. The flaw in Dale's thinking at this point is that it gives us a feature of redemption which conflicts with the integrity of the personal, ethical life.

In conclusion, a few words of appreciation of Dale's work on the atonement :

1. It shows us a man trying to get a theory which will adequately express his Christian experience. This must always be the mood of the theologian. It gives Dale's work an atmosphere full of the Christian quality. We sympathize with what he is after, even when we do not think he has found it.

2. He is trying to be true to the New Testament. He listens eagerly, not merely to its words, but to its heart-beats. He wants to find what was the deep New Testament feeling about redemption, what was its consciousness, and he wants to be true to it. Here he is a guide to all Christian thinkers.

3. The distinction he makes between fact and theory is very important. Of course Professor Denney is right in contending that it must be more than a blank fact. But there is a difference between saying that Christ assumed our responsibilities, and wrought our redemption, and having a worked-out theory of our Lord's work. The fact, with this content, does not constitute a theory. And Dale was right about this fact being absolutely important. Typical Christian experience has over and over again rested on this fact, when no articulated theory could be given. If the church is to keep typical Christian experience, this fact must be kept before men's minds, whether an adequate theory can be given or not.

4. The two great notes which Dale struck Christ's relation to the Ultimate Moral Demand, and Christ's relation to the Human Race must never be lost sight of. They will have to be treated more adequately, but treated they must be.

5. Few books could be better fitted to give a man the right temper, the right ambition, and the real Christian emphasis in personal grapple with the great problem, than this volume by Dale. And it will be a personal inspiration to every man who rightly reads it.

( Originally Published 1915 )

The Quest For Wonder:
The Quest For Wonder

The Preacher As A Student Of Philosophy

Bergson, As Seen From A Preacher's Study

The Religion Of A Scientific Man

The New Orthodoxy

Bushnell And 'the Vicarious Sacrifice'

Robert William Dale, His Theology, And His Theory Of The Atonement

The Theology Of Ritschl

The Eschatology Of The Book Of Revelation

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