Archive for the 'Dispensationalism' Category

The Yahrzeit of John Nelson Darby


John Nelson DarbyUpcoming Shabbat, the 10th of Iyyar, is the (131st) Yahrzeit of John Nelson Darby, the founder of the movement of the Plymouth Brethren, who died on April 29th, 1882. Darby was an Irish clergyman who became the intellectual father of what is known as theological Dispensationalism.

Although as Torah submissive Messianics we cannot accept all aspects of dispensationalist theology — at least not in its “classical” form, which demands the seperation of “Law” and “Grace” and of “Israel” and the “Church” — yet we have to consider that Dispensationalism was in many ways an important preparatory step for the development of Messianic Jewish theology, and that some dispensational distinctions are theologically expedient, and even necessary. [1]

Darby was born on the 18th of November, 1800 (1st of Kislev 5561). He was educated to become a lawyer, but after a conscious conversion to Christianity during his studies, he chose ordination and became a deacon in 1825, and a priest in 1826, of the Established Church of Ireland. Already soon after entering the priesthood his views began to depart from the accepted cadres of traditional Christianity. Darby particularly rejected any interweaving of Church and State, and he started questioning the hierarchical and political structure of the Established Church.

Darby was to become very disappointed in the Established Church. He had been successful in preaching the Gospel to Roman Catholics, and converted many of them to the Church of Ireland. But he ran into a conflict with his superior, Archbisshop William Magee, who demanded that converts to the Established Church had to take an additional oath of allegiance to the king, George IV, to be accepted. Darby protested by a letter to the Archbishop, and eventually resigned. [2] He became convinced that the Christianity of the Established Church was a serious deviation from the teachings of the Apostles. [2] His own view of the Church gradually moved into the direction of a wholly spiritual community, governed by the Holy Spirit, and detached from all earthly power structures. He taught that established Christianity was worldly, entrenched in politics and potentially apostate, and that true believers were called to separate themselves from it and simply gather as brothers and sisters in the Lord. [3] He soon discovered that there were others with a similar vision and he joined them. One of the first of their communities was formed in Plymouth (1832). Hence the name “Plymouth Brethren”. [4]

If this had been all, Darby would probably have been no more than a typical spiritual preacher who, as so many, tried to return to a pure and undiluted form of Christianity, based exclusively on the instructions of the NT. But his spiritual concerns about the Church led him to deeper theological reflections on the biblical differences between the Christian Church and the nation of Israel.

Darby sharply distinguished the Church as the mystical Body of Christ from the nation of Israel. He saw the principles of unity of the Assembly of Israel and the Assembly of Messiah as being hugely different, and indeed incompatible. The principle of Israel’s unity was its national election, the defining characteristics and limits whereof were given and explained in the Law. The Church’s principle of unity was personal saving faith in Jesus Christ.

According to Darby there is thus a distinction always to be upheld between Israel as a nation on the one hand, and the Body or Assembly of Messiah on the other. The two are never formally the same collection. From its inception, in the second chapter of Acts, the Assembly of Messiah was a distinct body within Israel (cf. Acts 2:13). It was the body of the believers, and the outward ritual sign by which they were distinguished was water immersion (Baptism) in Jesus’ name.

This essential distinction between the Church and Israel is the hermeneutical key for understanding Darby’s theology of Dispensationalism. From this distinction Darby draw the conclusion that traditional Replacement Theology was a serious failure. For Replacement Theology not only claims that the Christian Church is the legitimate successor of Israel, it also claims that the Church is the inheritor of Israel’s election and of the blessings connected to it. It says that the Christian Church is now the chosen people of G-d, the “true Israel” and that the unfulfilled biblical prophecies concerning Israel are to be fulfilled in the history and eschatological future of the Church.

Darby rejected this usurpation of Israel’s position by the Christian Church because his understanding of the essential differences between the two elections. In his view the one is a national election to a special place and function in the temporal life in this world; the other is a supranational election of individuals to the eternal life of the World to Come.

Messianics shouldn’t deduce from this that Darby denied that the Body of Messiah comprizes the believing remnant of Israel. Darby didn’t deny this obvious truth. The important point which he emphasized, however, is that once the Jewish believers were organized by the spiritual principles flowing from the resurrected Messiah, they had entered a framework which differed vastly from the framework of the Jewish nation and its Law.

Darby’s point was that in biblical history before Yeshua there existed no distinct body of believers. There was no distinct Assembly of which one could become a member and that was (supposed to be) composed exclusively of believers and thus was based on faith principles. No such thing existed before. In the situation before Messiah those in Israel who had a true saving faith and those who had not were not separated from each other or relegated to different communities. They lived together in one national community, within the context of the Sinai Covenant.

The Sinai Covenant doesn’t separate believers from unbelievers but only Israelites from non-Israelites. It is characterized by legal distinctions and demands, dealing with people groups on the basis of their natural descent and with respect to obedience and transgression. Although the Torah certainly encourages and demands faith and love (cf. Dt. 6:4), it doesn’t effectuate faith and love, nor does it deal with spiritual distinctions. It cannot make a distinction between the true faithful and the others as long as both comply with its legal demands.

Before Messiah believers from the Gentiles had not a community context at all, but were scattered individuals in a sea of apostate and idolatrous nations.

To Darby, the new thing introduced by the First Coming of Messiah is the formation of a congregation of those belonging to him, which congregation one enters by an explicit (confession of) faith accompanied by water immersion in Messiah’s name. That’s why this congregation is called Messiah’s Assembly or Body. This Body is always entered by a decision of faith and thus by free will. Nobody enters this Body by natural birth (as natural Israelites), by a legal conversion procedure (as proselytes), or by the use of force (as in the case of the forced conversion of Idumea under Jochanan Hyrcanus).

This Body or Assembly of Messiah, or the congregation of the faithful, is in Darby’s eyes not simply the collection of all true believers from all times. Only between the great events of the Resurrection and Second Coming this Assembly takes on public and outward existence and has an institutional life of its own, signified and manifested by a profession of faith, by water immersion (Baptism) in the name of Messiah, and by the celebration of the Sacrifice of Messiah in what is called the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. The Supper expresses the unity of the Assembly in the most excellent way, namely as being the Body of Messiah (Christ) (cf. I Cor. 10:16-17). The unity of the Assembly is both signified and effectuated by the sharing of the bread and cup of the Supper. For that reason according to Darby the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is the very heartbeat of the life of the Assembly. This celebration gives it its own and proper mode of communal worship. The Lord’s Supper is also of central importance for maintaining the internal discipline of the Assembly. Blatant sinners are to be excommunicated.

It is not difficult to see how Darby’s idea of a fundamental distinction between Israel and the Christian Church led him to reject the traditional interpretations of much biblical prophecy. He concluded that the prophecies which had the nation of Israel as their subject-matter had still to be applied to that nation. To apply them to the Christian Church was simply out of the question if the Church weren’t Israel. [5]

The consequences of this train of thought were revolutionary. The sharp distinction made by Darby between national Israel and the Christian Church made it possible to return to a literal interpretation of the prophecies. This led him to accept a literal restoration of Israel in a future Kingdom Age under the rule of the returned Messiah. The Plymouth Brethren, following Darby’s teachings, thus became the first Christian community which, as a community, fully believed in the future national restoration of the Jewish people. To them this was not something additional to the Christian faith, it was intimately connected to its very core. Darby’s theology of the spiritual nature of the Christian election and of the Church as strictly a faith-based community facilitated their appreciation of the different nature of the national election of the Jews.

If the Jewish nation were to be restored and a literal millennial Kingdom Age under the rule of Jesus Christ had to be accepted, then, Darby taught, the nature of this Kingdom had to be in accordance with the national nature of the election of Israel. The future Kingdom of Messiah and his present mystical Body had thus to be accepted as distinct and separate realities.

According to Darby, when the Kingdom will be set up, the dispensing of the household rules of G-d (i.e. the dispensation) will change, just as these rules changed — in the opposite direction — when the Jewish dispensation temporarily ceased after the national rejection of Messiah and gave way to the Christian Church.

The Kingdom cannot be called the Body of Messiah, since those who will be living in the Kingdom Age don’t formally enter it by an act of faith, followed by a public confession and by Baptism in Messiah’s name. In most cases those living in the Kingdom will enter the Kingdom by natural birth, by being born during the Millennium, wthin the realm of Messiah. Therefore they’ll have no choice but to obey the Reign of Messiah. So they don’t belong to this Kingdom by an act of faith.

For that reason there will no longer exist a distinct body which can be called the congregation of the faithful in the Kingdom Age. The ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper will cease. That the Supper will cease is clear from what is said in I Cor. 11:26. If Baptism were continued during the Kingdom, this would imply a forced Baptism, without spiritual value. For who would have any real choice of rejecting it? Such a rejection would equalize a blatant and public rejection of the reigning King, an offense of laesio majestatis against Messiah, which would result in the death penalty. Those living in the Kingdom Age will collectively be presumed to be faithful and loyal subjects of Messiah — until of course the goods prove to be unequal to sample. In that case punishment will follow.

Since Darby felt unable to reconcile the different divine elections of Israel and the Christian Church in one dispensation, i.e. in one set of divine household rules, he had to make sure that these dispensations only accidently ran simultaneously. The apparent problem he faced here was how the principle of grace which in his theory ruled the Christian dispensation was to be combined with the principle of Law which he viewed as the ruling principle of the Jewish dispensation.

This problem could be overcome with relative ease for the historical period of the emergent Christian Church. The continuation of the Jewish dispensation and the coming of the Kingdom were dependent on the national acceptance of the mission of Messiah. When Messiah and his Apostles were rejected, the coming of the Kingdom was post-poned to a later time (the Second Coming). The Jewish dispensation and the fulfilment of the prophecies connected to it were interrupted. Now the specific nature of the Body of Messiah, which was already formed on the Pentecost day mentioned in the second chapter of Acts, could be fully displayed, freed from the limits of the legal framework that in Darby’s eyes were foreign to it.

It was more difficult to cope with a similar problem at the other end of the history of the Christian Church. The Kingdom Age is preceded by the final ‘week’ or final seven years of Daniel’s prophecy, in the second half of which the Great Tribulation occurs. These seven years are a time of crisis leading up to the Second Coming and the establishment of the Kingdom. Darby says this time will be characterized by the complete apostasy of the Christian Church and her destruction through the hand of the infidel nations. While the Church has already gone through long periods of decline after the apostolic era and has corrupted herself by her aligning with the worldly powers and by allowing her to be infiltrated by unbelievers, yet her final definitive apostasy from the truth of the Gospel is to take place in the future, in the time leading up to the appearance of the Antichrist and the Great Tribulation.

At that time a Jewish remnant will emerge and become the official bearer of the witness of Jesus Christ. Darby affirmed that these Jewish believers in Messiah will be in covenant with G-d and will live according to the commandments of the Law. He denied, however, their membership of the Body of Messiah. He saw this group as forerunners of the Kingdom Age, leading Israel to its public recognition of Jesus Christ, at the Second Coming.

To assign to this role to a future Jewish remnant, Darby had to admit that at that time the Jewish dispensation, which stopped when Israel rejected its Messiah and his Apostles, would be running again. The Church-dispensation was to be viewed as a parenthesis, which filled the gap between the rejection and restoration of Israel.

In order to ensure that this Jewish remnant remained part of the Jewish nation which would inherit the Kingdom, and did not by their faith in Jesus Christ face the obligation to join the Christian Church, Darby had the Church — or better the born again believers in it — removed from the scene before the Great Tribulation by what he called the Rapture of the Saints. He taught that the Second Coming was to happen in two phases: a secret appearance of Jesus Christ, before the Tribulation, by which the faithful of the Christian Church would receive immortality and be translated to heaven, and a public appearance of Jesus Christ on earth, after the Tribulation, in glory and majesty, to judge Israel and the nations.

Darby’s thought must have been that the fulfilment of the biblical prophecies was impossible during the Church dispensation. As I said, in his perspective the Body of Messiah emerged only after the rejection of Israel. The re-election of Israel thus demanded its disappearance. If the Christian Church were to remain on earth until the Second Coming, its unity would be gone, since it would be split up into two disparate groups: A group of Law-free Gentiles and a Jewish remnant living under the Law. And there would be no sufficient reason why the timeline of biblical prophecy, more specifically the continuity of the year-weeks of Daniel’s prophecy, would be broken if it were not for Israel’s rejection.

An additional argument in favour of the Rapture was that the continuing existence of the Church until the Second Coming would create theological difficulties for the position that the Jewish remnant would enter the Kingdom in their mortal bodies. It goes without saying that this position was essential for any theological theory favouring a national restoration of Israel. If all believers belonged to the Body, and all members of the Body were to receive resurrection life at the Second Coming, then there would be no-one left to fill the earthly Kingdom in a mortal body, because the only ones still in their mortal bodies would all be unbelievers.

Although this doctrine of a secret Rapture of the Saints was a serious mistake — in the Scriptures the Second Coming is a single and undivided event — it followed naturally from Darby’s combined premises of the necessities of a sharp distinction between Israel and the Church, and the literal reading of the biblical prophecies.

Darby’s Dispensationalism and his doctrine of the Rapture can be interpreted as a first attempt to deal with the nagging questions of the relevance of the Torah and the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Messiah, from a perspective not bound to Replacement Theology. In nuce, we already see here the unfolding of the whole field of our present discussions on “One Law” and “Bilateral Ecclesiology”. Despite the fact that his solutions to these questions were not altogether tenable, Darby’s efforts have led to a greater Christian awareness of the literal fulfilment of the biblical prophecies and the literal future restoration of the nation of Israel.

Darby travelled a lot in Britain, the European continent, and the United States, to found Brethren communities and to spread his vision that the faithful should separate themselves from the traditional churches, which he considered to be ripening to apostasy, and gather simply as Christians on the basis of the unity of the mystical Body. His successes were limited, and oftentimes the Plymouth Brethren were considered oddballs and extremists.

Darby’s influence in the United States was historically enormous, however. He visited the US more than once on his missionary travels, but considered himself quite unsuccessfull. Ironically, ultimately he got vastly influential because the Americans didn’t in big numbers accept his admonition that true Christians should separate themselves from the traditional churches and join the Brethren community. His American followers to a large degree preferred the option of being a faithful minority within the traditional framework as a better way in witnessing for the truth. And although Darby deplored this attachment of American Christians to their churches, his Dispensationalism and his interpretation of the biblical prophecies gained wider acceptance exactly because the Americans who absorbed his teachings remained in their churches. Dispensationalism thus developed into an interdenominational theology, and Darby’s teachings on the future restoration of Israel were gradually accepted in more mainstream evangelical churches because they were no longer connected to “Darbyism” or the “sect” of the Plymouth Brethren. Their acceptance contributed to the Jewish- and Israel-friendly atmosphere of large sections of American Christianity.

Darby and the Dispensationalism of the Plymouth Brethren represent an important transitional historical stage between traditional Replacement Theology and the development of a messianic Jewish theological perspective. Darby was a great and creative theologian, in many respects unknowingly a precursor of Messianic Judaism, whose explorations remain largely relevant up to this day. In some matters he erred greatly, as in his Secret Rapture doctrine. In other matters he grasped the truth with stumbling, as in his ecclesiology and Dispensationalism. In yet other things he was simply right, as in his uncompromising affirmation that the nation of Israel will gloriously be restored and is destined to become the head of all the nations in the Kingdom of Messiah.

Since we are recommended to remember them “who have spoken unto you the word of G-d” and to follow their faith, “considering the end of their conversation” (Hebr. 13:7), I think it proper for Messianics, especially those of a Plymouth Brethren background, to honour the Yahrzeit of John Nelson Darby.


[1] Especially the distinctions involved in the Kingdom Offer to Israel, by the ministries of the forerunner, John the Baptist, Messiah and his Apostles. There are various dispensational hypothesis as to when the Kingdom Offer expired. In our opinion the Kingdom is offered to Israel until the end of the Acts of the Apostles. It expired in Acts 28:28.

[2] The letter is included in Darby’s Collected Writings and entitled: Considerations Addressed to the Archbishop of Dublin and the Clergy who Signed the Petition to the House of Commons for Protection (Dublin 1827)

[3] View for example his articles: “Considerations on the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ” (Dublin 1828), and: “Separation from Evil God’s Principle of Unity”.

[4] In a letter of April 13th, 1832, Darby wrote: “Plymouth, I assure you, has altered the face of Christianity to me, from finding brethren, and they acting together.” [Cf. Darby, Letters Vol. III, Appendix, p. 230 — Heijkoop Edition 1971.] For the early history of the Plymouth Brethren, view: Peter L. Embley, The Origins and Early Development of the Plymouth Brethren, St. Paul’s College — Cheltenham 1966.

[5] This view is expressed in Darby’s article: “The Hopes of the Church of God in Connection with the Destiny of the Jews and the Nations as Revealed in Prophecy” (Eleven Lectures delivered in Geneva, 1840)


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