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Volume 13, Issue 5: Eschaton

Darby's Dispensationalism

Jack Van Deventer

John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) changed the Church more dramatically than most people realize. We have today legions of pastors, missionaries, and parachurch ministers who tell willing flocks that the end-times are upon us, our only hope is the secret rapture, and cultural transformation is futile. These well-meaning individuals would like us to believe that such teachings are the obvious conclusion of a simple, literal interpretation of the Bible. Mr. Darby started the Church thinking along these lines.1

Mr. Darby began his career as a lawyer, but quit to become a curate for the Church of England. Shortly thereafter he joined the Plymouth Brethren movement. The Brethren were a group of men who, having become disenchanted with the Established Church and the trappings of denominationalism, established a new denomination designed to conform to New Testament church principles. Because the Brethren movement was a breakaway group, there were few doctrinal constraints or safeguards.
Early on, Darby and other early Plymouth Brethren leaders claimed to teach "rediscovered truths" that had been lost since the time of the apostles. The Brethren claimed their teachings were a departure from the "man-made doctrines" of the church fathers and the Reformers. They warned followers to be wary of the commentaries, creeds, and catechisms that were mere doctrines of men, and believed that they alone were submissive to the Scriptures.
Darby is credited by most as the inventor of the "secret rapture" theory. He taught that Christ would snatch believers out of the world without warning. Similarly, he is also known for popularizing the any-moment or imminent return of Christ. To support these theories Darby interpreted the bulk of the prophetic passages futuristically, in sharp contrast to the prevailing historicism of the day. Although Darby did not invent futurism (which was developed by 16th-century Roman Catholics), he popularized it.
Other members of the Brethren immediately challenged Darby's controversial teachings as unbiblical. Samuel P. Tregelles, a noted biblical scholar, rejected Darby's new scheme as the "height of speculative nonsense." So tenuous was Darby's rapture theory that he had lingering doubts about it as late as 1843, and possibly 1845. Another member of the Plymouth Brethren, B.W. Newton disputed Darby's new doctrine saying they were only possible if one declared certain passages to be "renounced as not properly ours." Historian E.R. Sandeen writes, "[T]his is precisely what Darby was prepared to do. Too traditional to admit that biblical authors might have contradicted each other, and too rationalistic to admit that the prophetic maze defied penetration, Darby attempted a resolution of his exegetical dilemma by distinguishing between Scripture intended for the Church and Scripture intended for Israel... Darby's difficulty was solved by assuming that the Gospels were addressed partly to Jews and partly to Christians."
Darby sought to convince his hearers that his new doctrines stemmed from a literal approach to the Bible, but was forced into ever-increasing exegetical gymnastics to counteract their skeptical reception. Not only did he carve up the Scriptures according to a "for the Church" and "not for the Church" system, he further divided the Scriptures into time periods (dispensations). Hence, Darby is known as the "father of dispensationalism."
As a former lawyer, Darby was a formidable debater. The early history of the Plymouth Brethren church was characterized by infighting, rivalries, and schism. Darby was known as a "dominating force" in these frays. Characterized as a "tyrant" by some historians, Darby was quick to charge opponents with heresy if they disagreed. Once in control, he often excommunicated dissenters. He even excommunicated George Muller when Muller received into fellowship individuals whom Darby had excommunicated.
Given this background, it may seem odd that Darby's doctrines of dispensationalism have gained such widespread acceptance in the modern church. The key to Darby's success was marketing. He did an "end around" the Church and took his teachings to the masses. Simultaneously, he went on the offensive by attacking the traditional church with vigor. The "any moment" rapture was the great attraction that popularized dispensationalism. It was a vehicle for generating interest, enthusiasm, and converts.
In the early days, these new doctrines were popularized through prophecy conferences funded by the wealthy young widow Lady Theodosia Powerscourt. Later, Darby took the show on the road and traveled extensively through Britain, Switzerland, Italy, France, Germany, Holland, Canada, the United States, the British West Indies, New Zealand, and Australia. Between 1862 and 1877 he came to North America seven times promoting his doctrines. After Darby's death, the biggest catalyst for the spread of dispensationalism was when another lawyer, C.I. Scofield, condensed Darby's notes into the Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909. In the context of a study Bible, Darby's doctrines were perceived as credible and gained widespread acceptance.
Through individualism, persistence, and great marketing, dispensationalism is now popularized and embedded into the psyche not only of the modern church but society as well. The Left Behind series is recycled Darbyism, the "height of speculative nonsense" in book form. Fictional stories of fictional theology. But hey, it sells. P.T. Barnum was right. At least for now.

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