Dispensationalism Article 3
The Most Influential Theologian
of the 20th Century
That You Have Never Heard Of
I recently viewed a disappointing conversation between Jack Hibbs, Pastor of Calvary Chapel Chino Hills and Dr. Paul Wilkinson from Prophetic Witness Ministry International. They were discussing dispensationalism and fulfillment theology in the church today. I wasn’t disappointed by their dispensationalism, I am very familiar with Jack hibbs, so there was no surprise there. I was disappointed and a little outraged, however, to hear Hibbs elevate his dispensational Zionism to a primary deal breaker issue, labeling anyone who disagreed with Zionism as a ‘blasphemer.’
I don’t know if it would surprise Hibbs or Wilkinson, but it might surprise you to learn that the list of ‘blasphemers’ is actually pretty long (if Hibbs is right). It would include people like William Carey, Hudson Taylor, C.S Lewis, Charles Spurgeon, John and Charles Wesley, George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, Matthew Henry, John Calvin, Martin Luther and every single Christian believer who lived prior to the 1830’s (including the Apostles John and Paul who both taught that the Israel and the church are one). Why the 1830’s you ask? Well, it is true that Zionism (in some form) existed before the 1830’s but dispensationalism, with its ‘secret pre–tribulational rapture’ and its distinction between Israel and the church, did not.
Of course, no dispensationalist or any other protestant evangelical theologian worth their salt is going to concede that they have taken a stand solely on something a theologian invented 180 plus years ago, which is why you have likely heard very little if anything about John Nelson Darby- the most influential theologian that you’ve never heard of- even if you hold to a secret pre-trib rapture. Dispensationalist’s insist that their theology is purely biblical and in line with sola scriptura. Any that acknowledge Darby acknowledge him as one who discovered dispensational theology from the scripture.
I wanted to introduce you to Mr. Darby myself but I figured, why re-invent the wheel when Jerry Johnson has already made a much better introduction and put it on youtube? Therefore I want to begin by directing you to the video below which is a 20 minute synopsis of J. N. Darby’s life and his ‘contribution’ to dispensational theology. However, there are a few things the video does not cover so please continue reading here after the video. If the embedded video does not appear please re-load the page. if it still doesn’t show follow this link to youtube
Once, after describing an A-millennial view of theology, I was light heartedly accused of expounding an eschatology that sounded ‘Mormon.’ In fact the dispensational view of theology has far more in common with Mormonism than any of my views. Why is it that it took 1800 years for the church to discover such a fundamental and important truth in the scripture? As noted in the video, Darby and others of the Plymouth brethren held the view that the pure New Testament church had disintegrated by the end of the second century and had been lost until the 19th century when people like Joseph smith, Charles Taze Russell and John Nelson Darby each claimed to be the one who had recovered the true church for the latter days; each held himself to be a ‘latter day saint’ (though only one claimed to be Mormon).
Darby wanted to super highlight a radical distinction between the law and grace in the life of believers because he was frustrated by the ritualism and legalism he saw in the organized church. It was this presupposition that he imposed on the scriptures as he began to section them up in to various ‘dispensations’ where in God dealt with man differently based on the revelation available to him. Each dispensation constituted a different mean’s of salvation. For instance, we in the church dispensation, are saved by grace through faith, where as the Jews were saved by their participation in temple rituals and the keeping of the law. Thus he maintained that the Old Testament nation of Israel was distinct from the church as it existed in a separate dispensation.
Up to and through the period of the protestant reformation (in the 1500’s) the dominant understanding of the church was more in line with covenant theology and Christians generally held an A-millennial view and the historicist view of eschatology. A futurist view of the last days had been put forward in 1590 by a Roman Catholic Spanish Jesuit named Francisco Ribera to counter protestant reformers like Martin Luther who insisted that the Pope was the Anti Christ and the Roman church the great harlot. This view in some varied form did exist in the 19th century as did another view called dual covenant theology. Dual covenant theology was a heresy taught at least by the mid 18th century by a Jewish rabbi and mystic named Yacov Emden. This view taught that the gospel was only ever intended by Jesus and Paul to be applied to gentiles while the law should continue to be applied to Jews. I don’t know if Darby drew from this view as a source but there are certainly elements of it in his doctrine. These and some other doctrines did exist around the time Darby formulated his teachings but it has been well documented that a comprehensive dispensationalism and particularly the pre tribulation rapture view did not exist before Darby- which you saw in the video, Darby admitted.
By 1833 Darby had fully formed his views of a secret rapture which he claimed to have drawn from II Thessalonians 2:1-2. Some have accused Darby of receiving his “new wine” from a self proclaimed prophetess named Margret MacDonald, but as he actually condemned her visions and her congregation as being demonic, it seem counter intuitive to me that he would turn around and embrace their teachings. Further more it doesn’t seem to me that Margret MacDonald ever taught a secret pre-trib rapture (though, I haven’t read much of what she wrote). I am inclined to give Darby the benefit of the doubt that he arrived at his position because of his own faulty reasoning rather than an apparently esoteric extra biblical revelation.
Darby’s views were not warmly welcomed by many people. As stated in the video, his own friends in the Plymouth brethren rejected his teaching because it just didn’t line up with the whole council of God’s word, as did CH Spurgeon. So how on earth did this teaching called dispensationalism become so prominent? Well, Americans, as it turns out, are suckers for a good marketing strategy. Darby brought this view across the pond to the states where he received much more acceptance. Even though he did not like D.L. Moody, Darby’s doctrine owes him its popularity along with another man named C.I. Schofield who published the first study bible which presented the doctrines of Darby along side the scriptures.
This happened around the time of the so called ‘third great awakening’ and a number of idealists who wanted to “modernize’ the bible by ‘de-mythologizing’ it, invalidating anything miraculous or spiritual while championing the ‘social’ gospel which taught that the bible was really just concerned with making us better people who love each other. As the battle lines were drawn between the social gospel and the true biblical gospel, Darby’s followers were found among the faithful and the teaching was dispensed through bible conferences, revival meetings and eventually, as various schools and seminaries were established, conservative evangelicalism was infiltrated by this aberrant tradition which was fed to pastors and then congregations.
Finally in the mid to late 1960’s Chuck Smith made a decisive (and wise) movement away from Pentecostalism and the Four Square church as he and others with him pursued a slightly more conservative view of sola scriptura. This birthed the Calvary Chapel movement which became very popular and widespread in the US. Their message coupled with popular music and media reinforced the dispensational tradition in modern evangelicalism. This was in concert with various other denominations and popular teachers (like Chuck Swindoll and J. Vernon McGee) who expounded on the rapture and the distinction between the church and Israel. So that currently, the dispensational system of theology is dominant.
To be fair, the dispensationalism of Chuck Smith and Chuck Swindol is decidedly different than the dispensationalism of John Nelson Darby and C.I Scofield. For instance the idea that people in the Old Testament were saved by the law would be regarded as repugnant heresy in a Calvary Chapel; which is as it should be. After all Paul clear denounces the idea that anyone was ever saved by keeping the law in his epistles. Dispensationalism has evolved and mutated over the years and has become as multifaceted and diverse as the various groups that hold the view, which is not damming, but does suggest that the doctrine may carry a significant level of ambiguity and pliability.
Never the less, every dispensationalist agrees with Darby on certain issues. These are as follows: a hyper univocal interpretation of scripture (Darby’s hermeneutic, which claims to be ‘literal’), a progression of divine revelation tied to each dispensation, at least 3 dispensations (usually the Patriarchs age, Israel age and the Church age), the absolute distinction between Israel and the Church and an imminent secret rapture which will end the church age and restart the Israel age. It is my sincere hope to expose some of the more serious errors of dispensationalism in future posts.