John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) is considered the father of modern Dispensationalism. Although Dispensationalism preceded Darby, Darby is credited with bringing dispensational ideas to the laity and common man. Through his association with Plymouth Brethren congregations, Darby popularized the dispensational approach to reading the Scriptures forward as an unfolding Revelation.
THE FORWARD READING HERMENEUTIC OF DARBY
Beginning with the content of Genesis, Darby read the Bible forward, noting the historical progress of events and subsequent revelations from God to man. He read the book from the beginning to end as an unfolding revelation. Darby wrote down the theological implications, as he understood them.
The distinction between Israel and the church was one implication derived from the ‘forward reading’ hermeneutic of Darby. He also identified dispensational periods with corresponding responsibilities given to man. The distinctive end-time eschatology of Darby recognized an earthly rule of Christ over Israel and the world in the millennial kingdom.
The writings of John Darby helped Dispensationalism to spread beyond Plymouth Brethren congregations. Darby’s “Synopsis of the Books of the Bible” is an example of his unique ‘forward reading’ hermeneutic. Darby wrote on each chapter of the Bible moving forward from Genesis through the Old Testament and then into the Four Gospels and the Acts as a continuing story. He read the epistles as the principle revelation to the Church as a new entity, separate and distinct from Israel.
THE BACKWARD READING HERMENEUTIC REFORMATION CARRYOVER
Previous generations of theologians had read the epistles backward into the Four Gospels and the Old Testament. This ‘backward’ hermeneutic of the Reformers was a carryover from the days before the Reformation, when the Church believed itself to be the ‘new Israel of God’ on earth. The Reformed Church still employs the backward hermeneutic to justify its ‘replacement theology’ that teaches the Church in the world today replaced Israel in the covenantal promises of God. This backward reading hermeneutic is an artificial theological hermeneutic created to justify theological ideas.
THE INVENTION THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
One explanation for the rise of Dispensationalism and the ‘forward reading’ hermeneutic of Darby Dispensationalism is the invention of the Gutenberg printing press (1436 AD). Book technology streamlined research capabilities. Instead of pulling individual manuscripts from a pile, the 66 volumes of holy writ were placed into one volume, giving easier access to the whole story of the Bible.
The printing press allowed for mass production of the Bible at low cost. The English translation of the Bible brought it to the general population in England and other English speaking countries. Before this, theology had been the domain of the clergy. Clergy spoon-fed the laity theological ideas passed on from previous generations.
With the new book technology of the printing press and the translation of the Bible into English, the Bible became an open Book accessible to all, the laity and the clergy. The printing press made information more accessible to the masses and with the access to information the opportunity for more people to read the Bible.