Eschatology notes 6-10

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Eschatology Podcast #6

In the previous podcast we looked at the socio-historic context and at one of the two main people that were at the roots of Dispensationalism. This session we look at the second of these, and the one responsible for the development of the ideas.

John Nelson Darby (1800-82)
John Nelson Darby (1800-82)

Although Darby did not acknowledge his sources most scholars point to Irving as a very significant influence on his developing views. Darby was a charismatic figure, a dominant personality, a persuasive speaker and had zealous missionary for his dispensationalist beliefs. He personally founded Plymouth Brethren churches as far away as Germany, Switzerland, France and the United States, and translated the entire Scriptures.

The churches Darby planted with the seeds of a separatist premillennial dispensationalism, in turn sent missionaries to Africa, the West Indies, Australia and New Zealand, so that by the time of his death in 1882, around 1500 Plymouth Brethren churches had already been founded world-wide.

His views also came to influence the Bible and Prophetic Conferences associated with Niagara and other centres in North America from 1875. The shift of interpretation that Darby brought has been noted:

Roy Coad, writing a history of the Brethren Movement, admits that

For the traditional view of the Revelation, another was substituted. (Roy Coad, A History of the Brethren Movement (Exeter, Paternoster, 1968), p. 129.)

James Barr is considerably more forthright and argues that premillennial dispensationalism was,

…individually invented by J. N. Darby… concocted in complete contradiction to all main Christian tradition… (James Barr, Escaping from Fundamentalism (London, SCM, 1984), p. 6.)

It is almost certain (and Coad claims this) that the ‘futurist view’ of the end times, so evident in Darby’s writings can be traced to the work Irving had translated: “The Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty”.

Clarence Bass concludes that with respect to Darby”s views that:

Such a concept is singularly missing from historic Christian theology… Darby is pointedly correct in stating that this came to him as a new truth, since it is not to be found in theological literature prior to his proclamation of it. It is not that exegetes prior to his time did not see a covenant between God and Israel, or a future relation of Israel to the millennial reign, but they always viewed the church as the continuation of God’s single program of redemption begun in Israel. (Clarence Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1986) pp. 26-27.)

It is here that we note an important point is being made:

  • Darby does not see the church as the continuation of God’s single redemptive program, rather the church becomes a parenthesis in the work of God. The purposes of God centred on Israel (past) and will again (future).

Darby began publishing his prophetic speculations in 1831. Both he and Edward Irving began to postulate two stages to Christ”s imminent return. First, there would be an invisible ‘appearing’ when Christians would meet Christ in the air and be removed from the earth, a process which came to be known as ‘the rapture of the saints’. Then with the restraining presence of the Holy Spirit removed from the world, the antichrist would arise and the seven year tribulation would begin. His rule would finally be crushed only by the public ‘appearing’ of Jesus Christ.

Darby had an increasing influence on other venues including the Powerscourt Conferences in Dublin held in the 1830”s (he was originally an ordained Anglican priest in Dublin), in New York in 1868, London in 1873, Chicago in 1875, and then culminating in the Bible Conference Movement and the Niagara Conferences of 1883 to 1897. Regular topics covered included speculations on the Second Coming.

Regarding the rapture, Darby admitted as much that his doctrine of the rapture was an innovation, the result of ‘express revelation’, indeed he seemed quite pleased with the reaction to it.

Although his influence on Brethrenism in Britain waned, Darby’s influence in North America increased and he made seven journeys there over a twenty year period. It has been estimated that he spent 40% of his time in the United States during those 20 years, and had considerable influence on leaders such as James H. Brookes, Dwight L. Moody, William Blackstone and C. I. Scofield, as well as on emerging evangelical Bible Schools and Prophecy Conferences.

George Marsden, in his history of the rise of fundamentalism between 1870 and 1930, says (and note the names he lists):

This new form of premillennial teaching, imported from England, first spread in America through prophecy conferences where the Bible was studied intently. Summer conferences, a newly popular form of vacation in the age of the trains, were particularly effective. Most importantly, Dwight L. Moody had sympathies with the broad outlines of dispensationalism and had as his closest lieutenants dispensationalist leaders such as Reuben A. Torrey (1856-1928), James M. Gray (1851-1925), C. I. Scofield (1843-1921), William J. Erdman (1833-1923), A.C. Dixon (1854-1925), and A. J. Gordon (1836-1895). These men were activist evangelists who promoted a host of Bible conferences and other missionary and evangelistic efforts. They also gave the dispensationalist movement institutional permanence by assuming leadership of the new Bible institutes such as the Moody Bible Institute (1886), the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (1907), and the Philadelphia College of the Bible (1914). The network of related institutes that soon sprang up became the nucleus for much of the important fundamentalist movement of the twentieth century. Dispensationalist leaders, in fact, actively organised this antimodernist effort. Notably, they oversaw the publication between 1910-1915 of the widely distributed twelve-volume paperback series, The Fundamentals. (George M. Marsden. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans), 1991. p. 40.)

If it had not been for the connection with these influential leaders in North America, Dispensationalism might well have simply become a minor perspective on eschatology. And it is probably the Scofield Bible that became the singularly most powerful tool in enabling a Dispensational interpretation of Scripture to take root.

It is to the Scofield and the Scofield Bible that we turn in the next podcast, so until then…
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