Yesterday’s Giants – part 2

JOHN NELSON DARBY (1800-1882)

J. N. Darby is not as well known today as he should be. He was a movement leader, a missionary, a scholar, Bible translator, apologist, and, unofficially, “the father of Dispensationalism.” The respected preacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once publicly referred to him as “the great Darby.” He was born in London on the cusp of the 19th Century, a time of spiritual decline in England after the revivals of the previous half- century. Educated at the private Westminster School and then Trinity College, Dublin, where he was the recipient of the gold medal in classics, he spent the next few years practicing law. Around 1824 he abandoned that career and went into the Church of England, spending two years doing pioneer work in southern Ireland.

Increasingly, Darby began to find himself disagreeing with the Anglican Church and became convinced that Christianity had bedecked itself with unbiblical customs. Together with other likeminded individuals he started “breaking bread” and Bible study, first in Dublin, and then in Plymouth in southwest England. From these “assemblies” came a movement known as the Plymouth Brethren. With a simplified view of the Church and emphasis upon the imminent appearing of Christ for the saints at the pretribulational rapture, the movement spread rapidly, owing in no small way to the missionary endeavors of Darby, especially in Switzerland, France and Germany.

Darby was no “sheep-stealer,” but was very effective as an evangelist and discipler. He also made successful trips to New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.  As “the father of Dispensationalism,” as he is sometimes called, he gave definite form to the teaching (which predated him) that God had dealt differently with man in biblical history (e.g. giving the Law to Israel, the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Church – Jn. 1:14), teachings which relied upon a plain sense, literal (though not literalistic) interpretation of Bible prophecy. Perhaps his best known work is his five volume Synopsis of the Books of the Bible, though his Collected Works, totaling thirty-four volumes, should not be overlooked. He also produced accurate translations of the Bible in English, French, and German.

It is a shame that Darby is not more highly thought of in evangelical circles, even though few would rubber stamp all his views.  One reason for this is his association with the Brethren, who have always tended to keep themselves to themselves.  Another reason is the present state of evangelicalism; wrapped up as it is in new fangled interpretations of the biblical motifs and typology.

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9 comments

  1. Dear Brother Paul,

    Enjoyed the article, JND is one of my heroes I have to admit and much maligned. One of the reasons is a straw man attack on Dispensationalism, Darby was a schismatic therefore Dispensationalism must be wrong. One of the best books I read last year documents this and defending Darby’s character is “For Zion’s sake: Christian Zionism and Role of John Nelson Darby [studies in Evangelical History and thought] by Dr.Paul Wilkinson and published by Paternoster.

    Keep up the good work

    Affectionately

    Mike Attwood

    1. Nice to hear from you Mike,

      I wondered where you’d got to! I have read Wilkinson’s book. He’s a fellow Northerner. What’s particularly good about the book is the way it shows how anti-Israel interpreters are willing to compromise their ethics to keep their agendas.

      God bless you brother,

      Paul

  2. I believe just as the comment above that Darby is ignored or worse primarily because of people’s own theological bias towards dispensationalism. Mention the word Darby at most of US theologically Reformed congregations, mainstream evangelical churches going with the tide of being relevant, or much of the UK conservative evangelicalism (which I personally find fascinating and steadfast on some areas, but horribly wrong on others) the reception would not have been worse than the word liberal.

    The man’s appraisal can’t be separated from the Christendom’s view of dispensationalism at any given time. About 15 years ago he would have been acknowledged as a Christian teacher that formally foprmulated dispensationalism, “but many would disagree with what he taugfht”, 6 or 7 years ago at the height of spread of preterism Darby would be treated as a fullblown heretic who had brought us the whole Israel nation and Middle East peace problem, and nowadays (esp in the UK or UK-influenced conservative evangelcial circles) where idealist/historicalist amillennialism is accepted his name is considered syonomous for “putting Israel above Christ” but otherwise ignored. I believe this could mean either God may be preparing soil for most believing Christians being caught unaware when Christ returns, or God willing dispensationalism returns in popularity, Darby’s works will become highly sought after again.

    It is a shame actually, of course I’m writing as a dispensationalist, that Darby has dared challenge a deep-held belief in the church about Israel and the Church, which had been assumed since the time of Irenaeus. What he had done was trying to be consistent in understanding God’s Word.

    PS: I personally believe dispensationalism will definitely return in popularity, this is because a theology’s fashion comes and goes, and if it is of God, God will certain bring it back from extinction. I’m more confident especially now that we have the Driscoll-ite churches and Mark Dever’s own young Reformed circles, not to forget evangelical Anglicans esp Sydney Anglicans, start pushing more Bible reading and individual and group Bible studies (for reference Colin Marshall and Tony Payne has written a bpok called “The Trellis and the Vine” which the central point calls for more discipleship in the church through one-to-one Bible reading and study. Given that Dever, Challies, [Kevin] DeYoung are having gushing reviews of this Australian work, it is only a matter of time before this work’s popularity spreads in the far more creedal/confessional US Reformed scene) . A dispensationalist teacher pointed out to me once that once the ball, that is in depth Book studies on the Bible, starts rolling, dispensationalism will grow like wildfire. Sure, you may be able to use Goldsworthy, Roberts, Gawrisch, Robertson, Beale, Allis, etc to “fend off” answers initially, but sooner or later, conflicts regarding the “interpretation” and what the Word actually says will soon caught up with these books, and people won’t put up with that.

    1. PS, Paul I believe you should review this short work “The Trellis And The Vine” by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. I think that the book cuts across theology and I don’t see any conflicts with a dispensationalist viewpoint, even though both are no dispensationalists (and I’m not sure whether they are even premillennials).

      http://www.matthiasmedia.com.au/the-trellis-and-the-vine

      “In The Trellis and the Vine, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne answer these urgent questions afresh. They dig back into the Bible’s view of Christian ministry, and argue that a major mind-shift is required if we are to fulfill the Great Commission of Christ, and see the vine flourish again.”

      1. Sorry Joel, I missed this comment. I have the book but have not read it (my wife has!). I do not now have time to fit a reading of it into my schedule.

        Your brother,

        Paul

  3. Thanks, Dr. Henebury, for the edifying words about John Nelson Darby. I’m another Bible-believer who greatly appreciates JND. As for why he is largely ignored by contemporary Christianity, the fact that he was a Brethren and a schismatic is certainly a contributing factor. I’ve always thought, however, that his emphasis on what he called the ruin of the Church (i.e., that Christendom is deep into its prophesied apostasy, and that the Bible teaches that this condition is irrevocable in this age) was the primary reason he’s ignored by our modern leaders. Let’s face it, contemporary Christian leaders, even conservative ones, are far more married to the institutional Church than even they think they are.

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