At some point I had been working on something like a J. N. Darby Top Ten: a list of my ten favourite articles by J. N. Darby. I never wrote down #1. But I'd like to retry that concept in the form of a reading list.
JND was a strange and interesting character. He was doubtless brilliant, but it's not really a staggering intellect that you first notice when you pick up his books. (I suppose the first thing you notice is his tortuous English. The man wrote prose that makes you reel.) What I find overwhelming about Darby was his firm conviction that Scripture is sufficient for every question. You can tell it was the driving conviction of his life: every question is answered with Scripture... frequently with direct quotes that aren't cited. You get to know your Bible when you read Darby.
I've said before that Darby's brilliance lay in his refusal to develop formal theologies. He was willing to weigh in on any given question, but he appears to have refrained from trying to develop an over-arching theology to tie them together. This is really very stunning. I've more and more been endeavouring to follow in those footsteps: to answer every question from Scripture without allowing myself to use my own reason to fill in the "gaps". It's terribly difficult.
And at his heart, JND appears to have genuinely loved Christ. Not a shallow sort of sentimentality, but a driving, burning, passionate love. The sort of love you really ought to see in someone who devotes his life to the Book. I can't help but get the feeling when I read his articles, that he's trying to introduce me to someone he knew, not just someone from a book.
Reading Darby is humbling.
One note of caution and context: Darby was frequently writing on specific topics in reply to other papers. So many of his articles reference papers by others long forgotten. It can be a little disconcerting to read Darby because of this. Sometimes this actually gets in the way: one of my favourite articles by Darby is Superstition is not Faith; or, The True Character of Romanism. I think it might be his most important paper, but in it his attacks Roman Catholicism really narrow his message. It's not that he's incorrect, it's that his comments on Catholicism in this paper are true of so many Christians in other groups as well...
At any rate, several people have asked me what I recommend from JND's numerous articles and books. The short answer is, read Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 12. But that's not too helpful. So in case anyone else ever asks, here is a recommended reading list:
- God's Grace and Man's Need.
This is probably the best place to start. If you want to read Darby, you need to start with his "evangelic" papers. This is one of the best from Evangelic 1 of Collected Writings of J. N. Darby.
A lot of silly things have been said about J. N. D. But in the end, the thing he understood so clearly is God's grace. If you want to read some powerful musings on the God of Grace, you need to read this rather short article.
- The Prodigal with the Father.
Another of Darby's "evangelic" papers. This one is well worth re-reading several times, not because it is a great opus on doctrine, but because it lays the foundation for almost everything the man taught and believed. A whole lot of questions are answered in this article. It's worth reading and re-reading several times.
- Scripture: the place it has in this day
This paper had a profound effect on me. (One outcome was that I really cut back on reading Darby.) It's a passionate argument on the necessity for the believer to be in direct responsibility to God. It points out the evils of erecting theologies and doctrines between one's conscience and the Scriptures.
This paper was a real milestone for me, and really helped push me down the path I've been trying to walk of thinking in Scripture, of testing everything in its light.
- Two Warnings and an Example.
Although listed with his "evangelic" papers, this one is really much more. This is absolutely necessary if you want to get a hold of Darby's writings on Christian Living.
This article studies the three principal characters in Gethsemane: Jesus Christ, Peter, and Judas Iscariot. JND draws a warning from the account each of the latter in contrast with the actions of the first.
- Law, from Collected Writings, Vol. 10.
You haven't read Darby if you haven't read Vol. 10. The volume is almost entirely a collection of articles discussing the relationship of the Law of Moses to the Christian. It is well reasoned, we researched, and well presented.
Darby's answer is, Christians are not to keep the Law, not even the Ten Commandments. Does that entice you? Do you want to read it now?
- Propitiation and Substitution.
JND weighs in on the question of Limited Atonement. I'm still surprised every time I read this.
- Omniscience - God's Searchings
You need to read this. That's all I'm going to say. Read it now. Click the link above and read it.
- Cleansing by Water: and what it is to walk in the light
For my money, Darby's best work is his writing on the grace of God. Closely tied up with that are his writings on what we would call "Christian Living". He wrote reams of paper on the subject, and I think it's almost all excellent. One of my favourite papers on the subject is this one. I've read and re-read this paper many times. It's probably the paper with the most underlining and highlighting in all my books by JND.
This paper is one of the places where Darby insists that "walking in the light" in 1 John 1 refers to where we walk, not how we walk
God is light, and walking in the light is walking in the true knowledge of God; the new man is "renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him." Light came into the world in Christ. He who follows Him has the light of life. And note here, what is spoken of is "walking in the light as God is in the light." It is not according to the light, but in it.
- The Melchisedec Priesthood of Christ.
Darby's writings really shine in their Christ-centeredness. This paper is considered "prophetic", but like all Darby's writings, it's not exactly on topic... at any rate, I've enjoyed this one many times. I highly recommend it.
But we have a yet better portion, not blessings, great as they are, secured in His resurrection, but to be raised together with Him, and to sit with Him in heavenly places. "He hath blessed us in heavenly places"; and the very purpose of that epistle to the Ephesians is to shew that, made sons with Him, we are to be with Him in heavenly places, the body of Him, the Head to the Church over all things. We have not merely the fruits, but the working towards ourselves of that exceeding great power, which was wrought in Him, when "God raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places." (See Eph. 1: 19; Eph. 2: 7.) But we look at this only in government now in connection with the throne of Melchisedec.
- "The Hopes of the Church of God"
JND is primarily known for his eschatological views. That's actually unfortunate, as Chuck has pointed out, because his eschatology was just one small part of a greater whole. Be that as it may, he is generally thought of as a major influence on American evangelical eschatology in the 19th and 20th centuries.
So we ought to include some eschatological papers...
This is a series of 11 lectures delivered in Geneva in 1840. This was an important historical event, as it was where he first really clearly laid out his views on Ruin; in "Progress of Evil on the Earth", the fifth lecture. If you don't read any of the rest of these addresses, you need to read "Progress of Evil on the Earth".
- The Church and its Glory
- The Second Coming of Christ
- First Resurrection; or, Resurrection of the Just
- Progress of Evil on the Earth
- The Two Characters of Evil: Ecclesiastical Apostasy, and Civil Apostasy
- Judgment of the Nations, which become the inheritance of Christ and of the Church
- Israel's First Entry into the Land was the Result of Promise
- Israel's Failure and Dispersion; Promises of Restoration
- Same subject as the preceding and Manner of its Accomplishment
- Summing Up, and Conclusion
- Finally a little heavier reading: On Sealing with the Holy Ghost
This was a fairly controversial paper in its day. I think it's worth reading. I've always been humbled by this one.
There are many, many papers by JND I could recommend. And sadly, I've gotten to the point in reading JND that I've been going back and re-reading some of my favourites, before I finished reading them all the first time.
Not all his papers are excellent: some aren't so good, some are of dubious profit. But I've utterly enjoyed reading Darby, and I have to admit it's had quite an effect on me.
So if you try reading some of these, let me know what you think.