The Origins of J. N. Darby’s Dispensational, Essay 2, Overcoming Dispensational Fundamentalism

Those who have written about John Nelson Darby and his new and novel Dispensational Theology System, have presented us with an amazing and fascinating account.  

Darby was an Anglican Priest in Ireland who was disillusioned with the Anglican Church.  He had a special problem when those he won to Jesus, while a young priest, were required to pledge loyalty to the English King as a condition of their acceptance into the Church.  Darby wanted to see a zealous church of true believers, hence his quest.  He left the Anglican Church and founded the Plymouth Brethren.  He eventually led his followers into the views that became the Closed Brethren as opposed to the Open Brethren.  The distinctions are not important to this essay. 

As Darby reevaluated his theology and the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church (a great statement in my view), he came to disagreements on key issues, both in biblical theology and ecclesiology.  The central theme was to distinguish between law and grace in a new way.  Darby attributed the deadness of the Anglican churches to confusing law and grace.  In Darby’s view, this confusion led to many being part of the churches as a point of legal righteousness to be accepted before God.  Darby developed a view of radical grace.  In this view, the only requirement for salvation is embracing the grace of God in the sacrifice and resurrection of Yeshua for salvation.  One believes and receives salvation by grace and is saved.  No repentance is required since that would be a good work.  Salvation is by grace and not works defined in a new and unusual way. This led to a new bifurcation between salvation and dedication.  Salvation was so radical a free gift that no change and no dedication were required.  One could continue to live in sin and still be saved, otherwise, salvation would not be by grace.  I was brought up with this separation. After salvation at our camp, in the last 3 days of the week, we were exhorted to dedicate our lives.  We were told that gratitude should lead us to this. We would live a better and fuller life. Many of us did so dedicate our lives.  This was a break from the Reformation view that God’s grace led to transformation, that grace and dedication came together. How would this produce a new zealous Church?  Once people understood that being in church was not required, the Church would be constituted of the volunteer dedicated and the others would leave.  It did not work out that way, for carnal Christians populate Dispensational Churches as much as any others. 

This separation led Darby to search out and find new distinctions.  Since law and grace were so opposed, Darby saw the Mosaic Covenant material as a works righteousness covenant whereby the people of Israel were bound to fail.  The Law pertained to Israel, not to the Church.  The life of Yeshua/Jesus Himself was a perfect life lived under the Law. The Sermon on the Mount itself was not incumbent on believers.  It was the Law raised to its highest and impossible level.  It was itself part of the Dispensation of Law.  Now under grace, the dedicated believer was to follow the teaching of the Epistles since only after Pentecost was the teaching fitting to the New Covenant of Grace presented.   However, we could not expect such a high level of attainment since the two nature battle described in Romans 7 would always be our condition. Luther had his ambivalence to the Law but classical Lutheranism was somewhat more balanced and did not go as far as Darby.  The negativity to the Law and to law is striking in Darbyite theologians. 

Since Israel had to do with the Law and the Church had to do with Grace, the two were to be kept separate.  All human beings were part of one of three categories, Jews, Gentiles or Christians, a third race.  Israel is an earthly people with the Law and earthly salvation to be attained in the Millennium.  The Church was a heavenly people with heavenly salvation. 

This also led Darby to claim that the Gospel of the Kingdom was not the same as the Gospel of Grace.  The Gospel of the Kingdom was the message of Jesus for Israel.  It was the offer of the literal Millennial Kingdom to Israel.  When Israel rejected Jesus, the Kingdom was postponed.  Now the Church preaches the Gospel of the Grace of God which is a different Gospel. (This is not the view of non-Darbyites which see only one Gospel)

Darby then sees distinct periods or dispensations, pre-fall, the post-fall to the flood and the pre-Abrahamic, the Mosaic Dispensation of Law, the New Covenant Dispensation of Grace, the tribulation period, and the Millennium.  All are very exactly defined. The Millennium is a Law dispensation. 

One more crucial teaching was foundational to the system.  It was the pre-tribulation rapture of the saints. Darby saw this as a key. If the Church is taken off the earth before the tribulation, then the Gospel of the Kingdom can then be offered to Israel by the Jewish tribulation believers.  The pre-tribulation rapture keeps Israel and the Church distinct.  It was a key answer for separation.  Israel is on the shelf so to speak until the tribulation.  Yes, she in part returns to the Land of Israel and fulfills prophecy but this is preparation.  Israel as a real instrument of God takes place during the tribulation.  This is why Messianic Jews were not seen as significant in Israel’s ultimate destiny. 

How did Darby ever come up with the pre-tribulation rapture?  Some say it was from an Irvingite prophetess from 1830.  There is some evidence, but it is not strong.  Did he see it in vague statements from Church Fathers?  Or was it a eureka moment of insight?  Despite the effort of Dispensationalists, this was a new doctrine and not something we can find established anywhere in Church history for 1800 years before Darby.  Almost no scholars not indoctrinated in Dispensational Schools can find it. No text in context teachers it.  The texts are stretched so as to find this doctrine. Yet, this doctrine swept North America in the early 20th century.  Why?  

Dispensationalism produced one amazing writer, C. I. Schofield, whose annotated Bible was amazingly well presented and persuasive.  In the 19th Century, another view of the last days swept the American Church, Post Millennial optimism.  This was also a break from the consensus of Church history.  It taught that the Church would conquer and civilize the world without the return of Jesus until after the Millennium.   Jonathan Blanchard, the founder of Wheaton, and the great revivalist Charles Finney saw the progress of Christianity whereby it would take over the world.  They saw progress everywhere.  World War I killed the optimism and Dispensationalism perfectly fit the pessimism of the time.  Only a faithful few would remain for the rapture.  Trying to reform society was bogus.  We need to get people into the lifeboat, so the social gospel and the social implications of the Gospel were rejected.  The unity of the Church was affirmed by the early Church Fathers, passionately defended by Augustine and then the hope of the Reformation for one true Reformed Church.  John 17:21 unity was the ideal.  The Reformers tried for unity and failed.  But for Dispensationalism, unity could be dangerous and lead to the apostate anti-Christ church. Already they saw the mainline denominations embracing Darwin and the higher criticism of the Bible.  Opting out of culture formation was the orientation since dealing with the larger culture was waste of time and energy. 

It would be 30 years after World War I, after World War II, that a push back against this system in Evangelicalism would begin.  Calvinist Evangelicals (Reformed, Presbyterian) never bought into any of it, but they were much smaller than the Dispensational Fundamentalists and Dispensationalists.   We will expand on this in future essays.