Friends: I’m looking forward to Emmaus Bible College’s “Iron Sharpens Iron” conference May 27-29. I have been assigned two workshops. One will be my plea for us to become friends of lost people like Jesus was.
The other workshop will be on the scintillating topic of John Nelson Darby’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Darby was a 19th-century leader of the Plymouth Brethren movement and wrote over 50 volumes of biblical studies and theology.
In full disclosure, these posts — and my presentation at ISI — are based on one of the greatest works of North American non-fiction, my doctoral dissertation of 1985 (“The Pneumatology of John Nelson Darby [1800-1882]”)! Only a few scholars have read it. And my mother-in-law. A saint. Really.
In this first part I want to orient you a bit to Darby and his importance to fundamental Christianity. Darby, a bachelor for life, was an Anglo-Irish Bible teacher, one of the influential figures among the original Plymouth Brethren and the founder of the Exclusive Brethren. He is considered to be the father of modern Dispensationalism.
Darby preached in three languages, delivered thousands of sermons, translated the Bible into several languages, and wrote theological essays enough to fill fifty-two 400-page volumes. Darby is generally considered the formative and normative theological spokesman of the Plymouth Brethren.
Even though he was a clergyman for a while, he left the pastorate in search of a “simple worship based on Scriptural principles.”
Reading Darby is no small task. Darby freely acknowledged the lack of clarity in his writings, once admitting in a letter to a friend, “I am using your mind as a piece of blank paper, on which I jot down my thoughts, and it is quite possible there are better ones [sic], but you see what a letter for a man who has no time.”
He wrote to his friend William Kelly, the editor of his Collected Writings: “You write to be understood, I only think on paper.” His apparent impulsiveness in writing is partially explained by his comment that “as sometimes anything resting on the mind corrodes there, I write at once as to what seems to me the truth.”
His Disdain for Theology . . . and Theologians
He challenges his readers to search the Word of God and insists that such a search will reveal that “theology and theologians are worth nothing at all.” His perspective is that men and women need “to cultivate a healthy spirit, which does not search after questions, but piety. . . . Thorns never nourish us.”
One scholar has well said, “In spite of the fact that Darby never failed to speak disparagingly of theology as a science and would doubtless have issued a vehement demurrer if any one had ever called him a theologian, he was, nevertheless, a theologian in the best sense of the term.”
We will be looking at a number of key issues in Darby’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit in subsequent posts. But I believe it is worthwhile, in our next post, to provide the full transcript of one of Darby’s most hard-hitting tracts, “The Notion of a Clergyman: Dispensationally the Sin Against the Holy Ghost.”