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Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Legacy of John Nelson Darby

 There are very few people in modern theological circles as maligned or denigrated as John Nelson Darby. A descendant of revered British Admiral Horatio Nelson (hero of the Napoleonic Wars), Darby was raised and was ordained in the Church of Ireland (essentially the Anglican Church in Ireland). When he discovered the wonders and joys of the biblical charge to rightly divide the Word of Truth for himself, he left his ordination behind and took to an in-depth and literal study of scripture. His legacy is what are called Plymouth Brethren assemblies throughout the world, a literal interpretation of scripture, and the truths of dispensationalism. 

Full disclosure, despite not being a Darbyite, I named my youngest daughter "London Darby" in honor of his literalism. I disagree on his understanding of the Rapture, the Lord's Supper, Water baptism, etc., but I admire his leaving his position in the Anglican Church to pursue a literal understanding of the Bible. As with Luther, we can (and should) admire the light he brought to scripture for the times in which he lived. I am not the judge of another man's servant. Darby will stand on his own before his Lord. Being of one mind with him on the finished work of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, I can call him a brother while respectfully departing from him on certain points.

The one doctrine mostly associated with his name (namely the Rapture or "catching away" of believers before the start of the Tribulation) is where we find much of the slander against the man. Videos, web pages, booklets, etc. are filled with vitriol against the man. I do not hold to his interpretation of the relevant passages in 1 Thessalonians 4 and in 1 Corinthians 15, yet I do not find his attempt at a literal interpretation to be abhorrent. [Note: I interpret these passages literally as well, just through a different understanding of the ages and hopes and timing.]

Unfortunately, far too many of the attacks on his doctrine are not based on a purely scriptural argument, but upon a bit of urban legend in regard to the supposed influence of one Margaret MacDonald and her supposed "visions."

On its face it is a ridiculous charge as Darby was a cessationist. His general view would be that supposed visions are demonic or false. McDonald's "vision" was a partial-rapture. He hardly would have adopted her visions as truth. There is much evidence that Darby's understanding of 1 Thess 4:17 was formed before anyone had heard of Margaret MacDonald. 

JND was part of the movement to rescue scripture from the allegorical interpretations common in Augustinian and Catholic-influenced theology. It was his literalism that led him to see 1 Thess 4 as a literal "catching away" before a literal Tribulation in literal Israel. That's all.

"Origen was the first to lay down, in connection with the allegorical method of the Jewish Platonist, Philo, a formal theory of interpretation, which he carried out in a long series of exegetical works remarkable for industry and ingenuity, but meager in solid results. he considered the Bible a living organism, consisting of 3 elements that answer to the body, soul and spirit of man, after the Platonic psychology. Accordingly, he attributes to the Scriptures a threefold sense: ( 1 ) a somatic [body], literal, or historic sense, furnished immediately by the meaning of the words, but only serving as a veil for a higher idea: ( 2 ) a psyche [soul] or moral sense, animating the first and servingfor general edification; ( 3 ) a pneumatic [spirit] or mystic and ideal sense, for those who stand on the high ground of philosophical knowledge. In the application of this theory, he shows the same tendency as Plato, to spiritualize away the letter of Scripture... and instead of simply bringing out the sense of the Bible, he puts into it all sorts of foreign ideas and irrlevant fancies" 
(Staff, Philip, Anti-Nicene Christianity: Ad 100-325, Vol. 2 of A History of the Christian Church, Cedar Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1958)

h/t Sojourner414 at RaptureForums.com


Even though I come to certain different conclusions in my interpretation of the epistles than does JN Darby, I admire the man for his conviction to interpret scripture literally. To that end, I have great respect for my Plymouth Brethren brothers and sisters. And I'll have to say that the PB have been excellent on typology in the Old Testament.

For my views on the "Rapture" passage, I refer you to the following for consideration. As I'll say again, I wouldn't mind being wrong on this one!


[JND was] a saint more true to Christ’s name and word I never knew or heard of...
A great man naturally, and as diligent a student as if he were not highly original, he was a really good man, which is much better. So, for good reason, I believed before I saw him; so taking all in all I found him, in peace and in war; and so, in the face of passing circumstances, I am assured he was to the end. Do I go too far if I add, may we be his imitators, even as he also was of Christ?

Excerpt: John Nelson Darby As I Knew Him by William Kelly