Saturday, September 17, 2011

Johnny D

Every once in a while I get an email from someone who's stumbled across my blog. Some of these emails have turned into virtual friendships, which I greatly value. Some of them merely turn into conversations, and a couple have become somewhat combative. You can't win them all.

A lot of people seem to find my blog because of authors I quote, which I didn't necessarily expect. I get quite a few hits from people who heard about Darby, Stoney, et al. in Miles Stanford's writing; but I get a lot of email from people in and around "brethren" too. One way or another, John Nelson Darby comes up quite a bit in email conversations that are spawned from this blog.

I've been accused of being a Darbyist (which is somewhat true): I'd like to be a little ego-centric today and give some of the back-story.

I grew up in what I'd call an "open brethren" home; my Dad was a staunch Gospel Chapel man: seven-age Dispensationalist, hard-core pre-Trib, thoroughly anti-clerical, dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist. I think very highly of my Dad, I did then and I do now. We lived in a town that wasn't the most ecclesiastically diverse: with no "brethren" meeting in town, we went to the Baptist church every Sunday and then were debriefed at home about what we'd heard. I myself became a member of the Baptist church when I was baptized; I find that concept appalling now, but it's where I was at the time.

A number of events that don't really matter for this discussion culminated in my parents' decision to start meeting with the Gospel Chapel in the next town over. That was when I was 16, and I think of that as my first introduction to "brethrenism" as more than a peculiarity of our family.

I've mentioned before that I listen to a lot of the MP3 sermons on Voices for Christ. There's a lot of dreck on that site, but there's a lot of valuable ministry too... At any rate, what first drew me there was that I met some of those people in my parents' house. I had some memories of them sitting at the dinner table or addressing a living-room full of Christians. I was really curious to hear what they had to say, from a more grown-up (dare I say more mature?) perspective.

When I finished high school, I went off to Victoria, BC for University. I had no real plans about church: that's just a thing you figure out when you get there, right? So I went at least a month just church-hopping. I eventually met a guy named Matt at an IVCF meeting who was at Victoria Gospel Chapel. I went to meeting with him the first time and then quickly claimed that as "home" in Victoria. I really miss VGC: from what I can tell, they finally completely folded, sold the building, and dissolved. If anyone knows differently, I'd love to hear from you. I learned a lot at VGC: they were kind, gracious, and patient with the young, arrogant, and foolish guy I was.

It was then that I first encountered "open brethren" as more than the isolated phenomena I had grown up with: it wasn't just a weird persuasion of my parents, nor just this weird and isolated "church" in a small town in BC. I was part of a gathering that had relationships with other gatherings: I was in a place that had conferences and weeks-of-meetings. I was listening to ministry by various godly men and giants who would travel in those circles. It was exciting.

But that's also where I first encountered the dark underbelly of the beast: that's where I first encountered "brethrenism," and all the sectarianism that goes with it. I don't mean VGC was leavened or anything like that; but we were part of the circuits for the traveling preachers, we were a significant gathering, we were on the map. That's where I first heard brethrenisms like, "The Man who died was God, but God didn't die." That's where I first met someone concerned with a home Bible study being announced after the Lord's Supper, because unless it's under the authority of the elders in the assembly, it shouldn't be announced there.

It was at Victoria Gospel Chapel that I first heard of "exclusive brethren" and John Nelson Darby.

The "open brethren" have some funny ideas about JND: they seem to think he was some sort of wild cult leader who set out as a young man to shipwreck as many people's faith as possible with an obscure and deathly strict brand of legalism he dreamed up one night. But at the same time, they grudgingly respect him. The typical mention of JND in "open" circles starts out something like this: "For all his faults, Darby..." For a young man who was trying his hardest, steeped in law and legalism and doing his best to be made perfect in flesh, there was an obvious attraction to this Darby fellow.

My first encounter with Darby was my first little Darby Translation I bought in 1992. There's a story there, but no time to tell it. At any rate, I started reading my little DBY out of curiosity, but curiosity quickly turned to love. To someone who was ultra-analytical (I was a Physics major, after all), this is the ultimate translation. It's obtuse and wooden, but it is painstakingly exact. If you were to take a NASB and if in every place the NASB has a margin note that says "Literally..." you were to put in the literal text, you'd end up with something pretty close to the Darby. But ultimately what got my attention with my little Darby was the number of places the translator notes say something to the effect that "I don't think this is the best translation of this word, but I can't find a better one." I figure anyone who's honest enough to say he's not satisfied with a word, or to say he can't make out quite what a passage says is someone to listen to when he's certain about something.

Then I got a copy of Max Weremchuck's biography, John Nelson Darby. I'm no big fan of biographies, but that particular book is excellent. It does a great job of presenting an amazing man, warts and all, without hero worship on the one hand or a metaphoric pummeling on the other.

When I moved to the States, I found to my dismay that the "open brethren" assemblies where I fellowshipped were not at all like I had come to expect. I remember at one meeting, one fellow saying something like "I'm not too impressed with Darby, but he wrote some nice hymns". I think it was right then and there I decided I would read everything Darby wrote.

Since then, I've not read everything he wrote, but I've managed to read through the first 26 volumes of Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, as well as some other sundries. My reading schedule is not very constant or very linear: I tend to read voraciously for a few weeks, then utterly neglect reading for quite some time. It comes in waves. And I've read a lot more than Darby over the last 14 or 15 years since I picked up Volume 1.

I knew when I set out to read all Darby's books, that I'd end up becoming quite a Darbyist. I understood that I was essentially signing up for a brainwashing. I figured I'd spend a few years more or less imbibing this one guy's views, then I could spend a few more where that might wear off a bit. Of course I didn't expect it to take me this long to read them all. I guess I'm averaging about two volumes a year so far. But what really gets me about Darby, why I keep going back to his books, is that he writes like he knows God. When he writes about the Lord, he writes like he's talking about a friend, not a subject from a book.

More than anyone else I've ever encountered, Darby has a clear grasp of God's grace. I've read Darby, Bellett, Kelly, Stoney, Dennett, Raven, Mackintosh, Coates, Turpin, and a whole host of others; none of them seem to really grasp the grace of God like Darby does. This is perhaps the best outcome of my reading of the man: not that I'm some kind of expert on Scripture (or even an expert on Darby), but that I've gotten a glimpse of God's heart. Darby writes about the God who loves sinners, and it comes out in everything he says.

I've also been deeply impressed with his hermeneutic. I've tried to use my time with his books as a sort of lesson on how to read my Bible. For every single question Darby addressed, he always looked for answers in Scripture. Collected Writings, Volume 10 is almost entirely dedicated to the question of the Law, and it's striking how he approaches the issue. It's all about Scripture. There is no issue where he doesn't quote chapter and verse, and explain how it fits into the whole counsel of God.

The "whole counsel of God" is really a good summation too. He manages to avoid tunnel vision in a way I've never seen before. There's no question of limiting his views to a few topics, or avoiding what might make him squirm. He seems as comfortable in the minor prophets as in the epistles or the psalms. And every verse leads him back to Christ.

Finally, Darby was able to study the whole counsel of God without ever developing a theology of it. I find this frustrating with so many authors, even when I think they're right. It seems everyone wants to first build a theology, then argue from it, rather than from Scripture. Darby is an exception: it's all about Scripture to him. I want to be like that.

So that's why I read Darby, and why I keep picking up his books, rather than someone else's. Sure, his English is tortuous and difficult. As Epimenos said, Darby and James Joyce basically wrote the same way. And as someone else once told me, it takes about a whole volume to figure out his dialect. But in the end, there are very few times I've picked up a book and thought it better than Darby's writings on the same subject.


Gwen said...

I've actually been poking around the Darby translation lately; I haven't got one, but I sometimes use it on You're right; it's wooden, awkward and unbeautiful, but I've found a few verses that make me go, "Ah, I see." It won't ever be my daily version, that's for sure, but definitely worth referencing.

Shan said...

I'm exploring translations at the moment too. I've never been particularly interested in the ins and outs...I am just a simple KJV girl, and long may he reign.

What I'm finding is that my main attraction to the KJV is, in fact, the beauty of the language, rather than the purity of the translation. I'm probably never going to be a person who gets too pokered up about translation exactitude, but I'm beginning to wonder if it's time for me to consider another version. I wish there was one which used the KJV language, but corrected the errors of translation (politically motivated or otherwise) in the KJV.

Maybe the secret is to have a KJV, a Darby, an NASB, a NIV, all sitting together on the shelf.

Any input (not too didactic or esoteric - I'm just a beginner) gratefully received.

My word verification is "unsightl" which is a little unsettl...