J. N. Darby And The Irish Origins Of Dispensationalism -- By: Mark Sweetnam And Crawford Gribben

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 52:3 (Sep 2009)
Article: J. N. Darby And The Irish Origins Of Dispensationalism
Author: Mark Sweetnam And Crawford Gribben

J. N. Darby And The Irish Origins Of Dispensationalism

Mark Sweetnam And Crawford Gribben*

* Mark Sweetnam and Crawford Gribben are both associated with Trinity College, College Green, Dublin 2, Ireland.

John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) is a figure of towering significance in the history of the Christian church.1 Though his name is not widely known, and the details of his life are unfamiliar to many, even to many of those whom he influenced the most, he has been one of the most important shapers of evangelical thought throughout the last two hundred years. During his life, his influence and ideas spread by means of his prolific and indefatigable writing of commentaries, pamphlets, and letters, and through his wide-ranging travels, covering large parts of Europe and North America. But those ideas and their influence were destined to endure well beyond Darby’s lifetime, and their impact would be felt in parts of the globe that Darby himself never visited. The principal legacy of this aristocratic Irish lawyer-turned-priest-turned-peripatetic evangelist has been the theology known as dispensationalism, and it is in this connection that his influence is most widely recognized. But there was a great deal more to Darby’s thought than his innovative take on prophetic teaching. His ecclesiology was highly distinctive and, though its influence never extended as widely as that of dispensationalism, it was felt directly in the “open” and “exclusive” branches of the Brethren, and indirectly throughout a broad spectrum of primitivist evangelical groups. But Darby’s originality did not stop there. His teachings

on soteriology, justification, and anthropology were, likewise, distinctly idiosyncratic.

Despite of the scale of Darby’s legacy and the complexity and originality of his thought, he has been poorly served by modern scholarship. It is telling, for example, that no scholarly intellectual biography of Darby exists. And, in spite of the fairly romantic details of his life and the imposing figure that he cuts, the number of popular-level biographical treatments is very small.2 Because of his foundational importance to the movement, studies of the history of the “Open Brethren” or “Plymouth Brethren” have, of necessity, discussed Darby’s importance but, because of their wider agenda, have focused on a small number of episodes in his life.3 The unavoidable selectiveness of this treatment has tended to distort the total picture, focusing attention upon some of Darby’s less attractive attributes ...

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