My title “The lost honor of John Nelson Darby” was inspired from a British T.V. drama called “The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies.” It was based on a true account. Unlike Darby’s story, that drama had nothing to with Bible prophecy.
Christopher Jefferies was wrongly arrested for the murder of Joanna Yeates. The arrest was based on circumstantial evidence and innuendo. His reputation was vindicated after the real killer was charged, and confessed – sadly, not before a prolonged media witch-hunt.
I don’t have a flair for the dramatic. However, I see a parallel between Darby and Jefferies. The latter was subjected to character assassination by the media. They tied a murder to him because he was perceived to be different (eccentric).
In Darby’s case, he’s charged with borrowing pretribulationism from Margaret MacDonald. Moreover he’s accused of the sin of inventing “spurious dispensationalism,” and infecting C. I. Scofield. As the story goes, the Scofield Study Bible became the scourge which influenced millions of American evangelicals.
Pretribulationism and dispensationalism are often regarded as unbiblical (often heretical). Hence Darby’s character has been maligned by critics as a cheap way to refute these teachings. Jefferies was ultimately able to defend himself. Darby has gone to be with the Lord.
It’s tiresome and almost pointless to repeat the same observations. But I will.
Margaret MacDonald’s vision spoke of the church being tried by Antichrist. Not once did she write that Christians are raptured out before the tribulation. Please send me a record of any statement where she does. Like Edward Irving, she was an historicist who believed the world was in the last three-and-a-half year period before Christ’s return.
Darby formalized dispensationalism. Yet Dr. William Watson (Dispensationalism before Darby) has shown that the seeds of dispensationalism and pretribulationism were planted long before him. Following the Reformation, many theologians began rethinking hermeneutics. This was the fertile ground which led to a plain-sense understanding of prophecy, Israel and the biblical covenants.
It’s also habitually asserted by Darby detractors that he promoted a different mode of salvation for Israel. Whenever I hear this I ask for a citation. To date I haven’t received one. In fact Darby wrote:
Of course, all the efficacious value for Israel then, as for us now, is in the blood of the Lamb. If Israel will have sacrifices, as well as an earthly temple and priesthood, they will be only commemorative signs of the one great offering of Christ.
Aside from these allegations, he’s been accused of being contentious, intemperate and a divider. He surely wasn’t perfect, and shouldn’t be placed on a pedestal. No one ought to be. Paul Wilkinson recounts some of the controversies between Darby, Newton, and Newton’s cousin Tregelles in For Zion’s Sake pp 83-94 etc.
Obviously part of the problem was Darby’s imminent rapture, which Newton and others disagreed with. Newton refused to attend the Powerscourt conference because of it. Before we place the blame entirely on Darby, note the current animosity against pretribulationism and its proponents. Has anything changed?
There were personality conflicts too. While Darby was away, Newton took a more authoritative position in the Plymouth Brethren. Darby subsequently accused him of clericalism. Newton was acquitted. However Newton’s position became untenable when others issued pamphlets charging him with heresy on doctrine relating to Christ’s humanity.
Posttribulationist Robert Cameron wrote that, even though Darby (as others did) hotly contested Newton’s heresy, he still regarded him as “dear brother Newton.” When Newton acknowledged the error, Darby informed the Brethren: “If Mr. N were restored, it would be the joy of my heart.” Note that this was despite ongoing rapture differences.
Wilkinson points out that the fiery Darby was often self-effacing (p 91). He called himself “a poor workman,” and “no wise master-builder,” and confessed to “a lack of courage,” among other things. I wonder how many modern detractors would make such admissions.
Darby’s Brethren had been accused of “exclusivity” by Spurgeon. Iain Murray cites this in his biography of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (V2 pp 556-557). In context, there was an unjustified concern that ML-J had also been heading towards exclusivism. Even so, as Paul Wilkinson shows, critics separated from Darby on the basis of his rapture teaching.
Puritan and Church history are full of examples of ministers contending and separating on issues not necessarily considered important today. Most of them certainly were! In his latter years, Spurgeon courageously stood alone during the “Downgrade Controversy.”
Calvinistic Spurgeon was an outspoken critic of Arminianism. Ironically, John Darby was also a strong advocate for Calvinism. James Fazio observes:
…Darby did not renounce his association with the Church of Ireland. Eve after writing the two polemic tracts mentioned above, he took up the pen in 1831 in an effort to openly defend the historic Reformed position of the church against Arminian heterodoxy. ~ Forged from Reformation (p 92)
Controversies and calls for separation continue today, without Darby. Just check your favorite discernment ministry website. I’m not knocking all Discernment Ministries – only making a point.
In his book The Puritan Hope – A Study in Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy, Iain Murray referred to Darby as a man of “breathtaking dogmatism.” I love Murray and his Banner of Truth team. Their commitment and faithfulness to God’s Word has benefited me greatly.
But! Yes, there’s a But!
The word “dogmatism” is, arguably, an apt one for their amil-postmil eschatology, and their merging of Israel into the church (New Spiritual Israel). One man’s theological dogmatism is another man’s plain-sense approach to God’s revelation in prophecy. I’ll leave it at that.
John Darby was no intellectual slouch either. He entered the ministry after completing law studies, and called to the Irish Bar. He was effective in converting “droves” of Roman Catholics to Protestantism, in what is often called the “Second Reformation” in Ireland. Biographer Marion Field suggests this was because of Darby’s fluency in Gaelic. (Donald Akenson is cautious about the claim)
We ought to acknowledge some of Darby’s lesser-popularized achievements.
Dr. Wilkinson has noted: Darby “Left Behind” some 1,500 churches in Britain and the Continent; also in the West Indies, New Zealand and Australia. His legacy includes Bible translations in English, French, German, and an Italian translation of the New Testament. He also wrote many hymns, spiritual songs, and poems.
John Darby wasn’t perfect. Neither was he the man he’s often demonized as. How many saints would come up smelling like roses following an intense scrutiny of their live? I believe one day he will be vindicated.
Those who’d like a more balanced view of his legacy (with some warts); see Dr. Paul Wilkinson’s For Zion’s Sake – Christian Zionism and the Role of John Nelson Darby.
The new book Forged from Reformation has two chapters devoted to Darby:
1) John Nelson Darby: The Unknown and Well Known Nineteenth Century Irish Reformer
2) Luther meets Darby: The Reformation Legacy of Ecclesiastical Independence
Both books are highly recommended.