Darby In the Words of a Critic

Against the common vicious attack of Darby, a critic in his research finds so much to appreciate in him.

Darby In the Words of a Critic

In 1960, Dr. Clarence Bass, professor of Systematic Theology at Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, wrote his Backgrounds to Dispensationalism
Its Historical Genesis and Ecclesiastical Implications, a heavily researched but critical appraisal of the early Dispensational movement especially its origin in John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), the father of modern Dispensationalism. While Bass is charitable, he is quite critical of Darby's hermeneutic, theology, and leadership among the Plymouth Brethren. However, he is irenic and gives an accurate picture of Darby, the man. It is quite an honour for Darby that even a critic finds so much to appreciate in him. The long excerpt is worth posting as Darby is often vilified by many who sadly have not done any primary source research, but are simply recycling empty rhetoric they have heard or read in some Reformed polemic.

Bass says that Darby was:

Simple in taste, benevolent in disposition, kind in temperament, considerate in his awareness of others, humble in spirit, sympathetic in nature… The single motivation of Darby’s entire life was his love for Christ. If any principle is sufficient to explain the multiple facets of his personality, most probably it is this love. Because of it he has been called “a saint of the highest and purest stamp.” At the same time, this love for Christ caused him to strike relentlessly against any, even close friends whom he thought to be subverting the truth of Christ’s gospel.

In an age of rampant materialism, the simplicity and frugality of his life rivaled that of the early saints. After renouncing a promising career in law, he sacrificed the delights of marriage and children in order to pursue his chosen work without distraction. He had little concern for his own person... He preferred being with the poor, for he was essentially humble in spirit. This characteristic endeared him to the folk of humble status and was perhaps one of the secrets of his success with the poor Romanists of Ireland and the peasants of France and Switzerland.

It is not surprising that such self-abandonment should result in a life of humble service. Trained as a scholar among the intellectuals, he found peace in laboring among the poor and ignorant. His unchallenged consistency, sincerity, and unwearied service to the faith commanded the reverence and admiration of those who recognized in him a spiritual guide.

Incidents illustrating his singularly benevolent nature are numerous. While addressing a meeting he would roll up his coat as a pillow for a sleeping child whose uncomfortable attitude he had noticed. On one of his numerous voyages, he paced the deck all night with a restless child in his arms so that the tired mother could get some rest. Though possessing little wealth, he was known to assist immigrants in their passage, provide clothing for underprivileged children, or assume responsibility for purchase of medicine for certain destitute families. On occasion he labored at the menial task of his friends who were ill, to prevent them from losing their employment. While visiting in various cities in Britain, the continent, and America, he preferred to stay with the poor, instead of the rich…

Nor was this place of supremacy confined to his relation with the poor, for he was held in high regard by men of scholarly attainment. On a visit to Oxford University… ‘His insight into character, and tenderness pervading his austerity, so opened young men’s hearts that day after day there was no end of secret closeting with him.’

The motivating power of Darby’s love for Christ is most clearly demonstrated in his activity as a religious leader… He professed to require a New Testament precedent for every act or doctrine and never ceased to apply the Scriptures to himself… Darby’s leadership was neither the product of morbid spirituality nor of mere religious emotionalism, but the result of a clear apprehension of the object for which he had been apprehended by Christ. He was ever mindful of the spiritual needs of his followers and his thoughts, both in speech and writing, constantly soared to the spiritual solutions for all things. Though he was active in religious controversy, his mind was constantly upon Christ and the truth of His church…

Darby began writing for the public at the age of twenty-eight and from then until his death at the advanced age of eighty-two, there followed in quick succession treatises covering the widest fields of religious inquiry. His published works number over forty volumes of six hundred pages each covering ecclesiastical, doctrinal, prophetical, critical, evangelistic, apologetic, practical, expository, and devotional subjects as well as several volumes of poetry and hymns. Resplendent with his knowledge and use of Scripture, they are filled with repeated use of phrases such as “according to the Word of God,” “as found in the Word,” and “from the Holy Writ.” With simple faith in the Scriptures as the inspired Word from whence came all guidance and instruction, he had a single approach, abstaining from the abstract philosophical argument, he simply opened the Bible and absorbed its message with little regard for extraneous study. One of his chief contributions to the theological literature of Brethrenism is his “Translation of the Holy Scripture” “an entirely free and independent rendering of the whole original text using all known helps.”

While he wrote indefatigably, he was indifferent to literary distinction. He was primarily concerned with the glory of Christ, not self-aggrandizement. He valued simplicity of thought and understanding above style; consequently many of his sentences are complex and involved, with paragraph contained within paragraph, in an attempt to explain and guard against misunderstanding… This abstruseness of style is not due to lack of scholarship on Darby’s part. He was well versed in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, and German. His writings reveal an extensive knowledge of philosophy, history (particularly ecclesiastical), and the sciences. He has been called the Tertullian of the nineteenth century and the Goliath of Dissent. His style was certainly not due to lack of discipline as a student, since he devoted his whole life to studious activities. ‘… he was habitually a hard worker, from early morn devoted to his own reading the Word and prayer… indeed whole days were frequently devoted to Scripture reading wherever he moved, at home or abroad.’