Wednesday, March 3, 2010


I went through a lot of old posts and deleted a whole whack of them. They were of limited value, and seemed more or less irrelevant now.

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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?

  6. Propitiation and Substitution.

    JND weighs in on the question of Limited Atonement. I'm still surprised every time I read this.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. "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".

    1. Introduction

    2. The Church and its Glory

    3. The Second Coming of Christ

    4. First Resurrection; or, Resurrection of the Just

    5. Progress of Evil on the Earth

    6. The Two Characters of Evil: Ecclesiastical Apostasy, and Civil Apostasy

    7. Judgment of the Nations, which become the inheritance of Christ and of the Church

    8. Israel's First Entry into the Land was the Result of Promise

    9. Israel's Failure and Dispersion; Promises of Restoration

    10. Same subject as the preceding and Manner of its Accomplishment

    11. Summing Up, and Conclusion

  11. 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.


Anonymous said...

One thing to keep in mind when comparing Darbyism to Catholicism is that the Catholic Church thinks of salvation fundamentally in terms of participation, communion and family: The Mass is a participation in the heavenly liturgy (Rev 4 and 5), wherein the Lamb of God is standing as though it had been slain (i.e., present as a living sacrifice), the sacraments are a participation in the life of Christ, the communion of saints, including indulgences and the like, is a participation in the family of God, wherein the members bear one another up in prayers and by good deeds.

Darby's thought, on the other hand, is characterized by opposition and subjectivism: Israel is opposed to the Body of Messiah, the Mass is opposed to Calvary, the Communion of Saints is opposed to the individual's relation to God, Holy Tradition and the Magisterium are opposed to Sacred Scripture (which is subjected to private interpretation), the sacraments are opposed to faith, the honor shown to Mary, or anyone else in God's family, is opposed to the supreme honor due to God alone.

In short, Darby not only comes to different conclusions than the Catholic Church, he is operating within an entirely different paradigm, and this must be recognized before we can honestly evaluate his religion in relation to the Catholic religion.

Often, mere personal predilection and/or prejudice (whether consciously-held or not) is the determining factor in preferring one paradigm over another; family/participation or individualist/opposition. But this does not preclude honest evaluation, so long as we are willing to think about these basic differences, to be honest about our own dispositions, and to evaluate ourselves.

Darby's bit on "Romanism" is not particularly reflective, and unless his disciples are willing to dig deeper, they will fail to understand the Catholic Faith, which is the religion of your fathers (for those of European descent), and has deeply determined your own devotion to Christ, positively, through the Catholic patrimony that you have not (yet) repudiated, and negatively via continuing opposition to the that Faith.

clumsy ox said...

Andrew, interesting comments, and i'll be mulling those over.

I haven't forgotten our conversation at St. Mike's. I think there is more than one paradigm shift between Darbyism and Catholicism, but I know we're in agreement on that.

I spent some time deciding whether to post that one link. As I [tried to say], it's a very important paper, but his singling Roman Catholicism really blunts the edge that it should have. Frankly, I've seen as much "superstition" in the circles that laud Darby as anywhere else. The very ones most likely to actually listen to him have been let off the hook in a sense.

I think that's termed a "tactical error".

The Lord Jesus seemed constantly to warn His disciples against error, rather than attacking those who held it. I'm afraid JND spent too much time sharpening his sword against "others" and not enough time discipling those of his own house, so to speak. That tendency is still far too common in those particular circles. It's quite common to hear all sorts of condemnations of what's "out there" while turning a blind eye to the very same things are going on "in here".

Anonymous said...

That was a good, and lengthy, conversation. The way I like it.

It should be pointed out, in relation to my last comment, that I do appreciate the "fellowship" that one finds at a Brethren assembly, as well as other Protestant gatherings, including the fellowship with one another expressed in sharing the memorial bread and wine.

My concern is not so much with the singling out of Catholicism, or the peculiarities of Darbyism, as with the different paradigms that largely determine the different ways of understanding our salvation in Christ. In this respect, Darby is not only not unique, he is quintessentially Protestant:

Now the only true faith is believing God, believing God Himself. This is the real return of the soul to God. Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness; he had no church to accredit what God had said. He believed, because God had Himself said the thing. It was believing God. He who does not, until the church adds its authority, does not believe God at all. There is no true faith at all where a man believes because the church has accredited anything. I have refused or failed to believe when God has spoken, when there was only His authority.

Now believing when there is only God's authority, is believing God: nothing else is.

To require the church's testimony to accredit God's, is dishonouring Him and disbelieving Him. The Romanist, as such, has no true faith at all, for he does not believe God on his own authority, but on the church's. As the word is sometimes read by them, or heard, God may give individuals among them faith, in spite of the infidel doctrine of their church.

Remember that true faith is, faith in what God has said, because God has said it. If you require the church's sanction of it, you have not faith in God. You do not bow to His word, unless it is sanctioned by some one else. Credulity as to superstitions taught by men is not faith in God. Faith in God believes in His word without any other authority than His word itself.

Note the opposition he assumes to exist between the Bible and the Church. This opposition doesn't make sense to Catholics, because we suppose that both the written word and the mystical Body of Christ are intrinsically related to Christ, the incarnate Word of God. The Church participates in the Word in an utterly unique way, as his mystical Body. Therefore, we cannot properly receive the written word, which testifies to Christ, apart from the testimony of that institution which is the Body of Christ.

A more general response to this bit from Darby would be to ask the following question:

Is the life that is in Christ Jesus, which is the life of God the Father and communicated to us by the Holy Spirit and in his Son, to be considered as (1) a fundamentally covenantal / familial thing, incorporation into the Body of Christ, or (2) as a fundamentally individualistic thing--myself alone with God and whatever writings, out of all the writings, cause a burning in my bosom?

In the Catholic paradigm, true doctrine, the right identification and interpretation of the word of God, is fundamentally the Church's doctrine. In the Protestant approach, true doctrine is fundamentally the individual's own best interpretation of whatever books he chooses to accept as the word of God.

The sovereign individual might choose to consult the Church (that is, when he does not follow Luther's example and just start up a new church and then consult that, i.e., consult himself) but ultimate interpretive authority he reserves to himself alone (which is why the Protestant believes that it is always possible to just start up a new church).


Anonymous said...

The Catholic, on the other hand, conditioned as he is (for better or worse) by his basic outlook (salvation as familial participation in Christ), identifies and interprets the word of God according to the teaching of the Church, and believes that to contradict the Church is to contradict Christ, and to leave the Church is to leave Christ, since the Church is the Body and Bride of Christ, who is neither divided nor a polygamist.

This kind of adherence to the Church sounds bizarre to Protestants, but it feels natural to Catholics, because the Catholic is operating under an entirely different set of basic assumptions than is the Protestant. The Protestant looks at Darby's paper and says, of course, that's just common sense. The Catholic looks at the same paper and sees the equivalent of a teenager thumbing his nose at his mother.

Darby discusses the Mass in particular, and indeed one of the most important of the many questions dividing Catholics and Protestants is how Christian fellowship, the Eucharist above all, relates to the work of Christ for our salvation.

Catholics see the Christian family, the Church, as being included in that work, especially in her celebration of the sacraments, which are understood as our covenantal participation in redemption. This is especially the case when we receive the Eucharist, which is objectively the very substance of our redemption, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Protestants on the other hand tend to drive a wedge between Christ and the mystical Body of Christ with respect to salvation, such that "Christ alone" equals "Christ to the exclusion the Body of Christ," and Christ to the exclusion of the Eucharist, which is not the Body and Blood of Christ, and is only related to Calvary in some abstracted sense.

It seems to me that Darby's discussion of the Catholic Mass, and his exegesis of certain bits of the Letter to the Hebrews, presupposes the paradigm of opposition / individualism. The objective Redemption is a thing of the past, accessible to individual minds alone, by way of memory alone, occasioned by the symbols of bread and wine and the reading of bits of the Bible.

I do not claim to understand Darby very much in particular, but the paper you link to perfectly exemplifies a general outlook that I once understood most thoroughly, having once shared it. Neither do I claim to understand all the particulars of the Catholic Faith very much, although I do hold that Faith, and have a sense of its general bearings, which are very different from those of the Protestant, and help to explain the differences in particulars, especially the hotly contended items that seem to cause all the trouble, though they are just symptomatic.

One of the things I try to keep hold of is the ability to imagine being Protestant, just because it is already so difficult to imagine, and because I don't think one can really communicate with someone else if you can't sympathize with the other. So I enjoyed reading the bits of Darby, even where he is just sailing into the Church, as an exercise in imagination and (hopefully) recovered understanding.

Rodger said...

"Superstition is not Faith" is a tremendous read. Darby's comments nearly bring tears to one's eyes when you read so simply and clearly put, the realities of scriptural Christian position, contrasted with the intervening constructions of man's own devising.
True Christian position has been almost entirely obscured in our day, so that there is no interest even, just a desire to be justified from one's sins and to get on "successfully" in the world.
"How long are ye slack to go to possess the land, which the Lord God of your fathers hath given you?" (Joshua 18:3)