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Dispensationalism Before Darby?


Dispensationalism Before Darby: Seventeenth-Century and Eighteenth-Century English Apocalypticism. By William C. Watson. Lampion Press, 2020. 349pp. $24.95.


Because my earliest years as a Christian were spent in dispensationalist churches, and my first years in seminary were spent at a dispensationalist school, I have maintained an ongoing interest in the dispensationalist interpretation of Scripture for decades. I also have a broader interest in the history of eschatology, so I was intrigued when I ran across the book Dispensationalism Before Darby by William C. Watson. Dr. Watson served as a professor of history at Colorado Christian University until his death in 2020. He received his M.Div. from the Talbot School of Theology and his Ph.D. from the University of California in Riverside.


Watson’s stated objective is to demonstrate that “the ideas of dispensationalism and Christian Zionism (known at the time as Restorationism) existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, long before John Nelson Darby who is considered the father of modern dispensationalism and Theodore Herzl (the father of modern Zionism) articulated them” (p. 2). In order to demonstrate the truth of his thesis, Watson has combed through hundreds of primary sources from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He has done an immense amount of spadework.


Reviewing this book is difficult because while it contains a treasure trove of invaluable primary sources, the presentation of those sources is hindered due to a handful of significant problems. The first problem is, in my opinion, primarily the fault of the publisher. It does not appear that this book was given to a proofreader before it was sent to the press. It is filled with typographical and editorial errors that could have been easily corrected. Lest anyone think I am being nitpicky about a few misspelled words, I am not (There are probably some in this blog post). I am referring to errors that Dr. Watson cannot have been happy about when he received his print copy in the mail.


For example, when a book manuscript is in the editing process, publishers will often return it to the author with comments from outside readers and the editor inserted into the text. The author is asked to respond to these and make any necessary additions, subtractions, or changes. It is the responsibility of the publisher and editor to remove those editorial comments and questions before sending the book to the press. That did not happen with Dr. Watson’s book. On more than one occasion, editorial comments are left in footnotes and in the body of the text (e.g. p. 6 footnote 13, p. 59, p. 79, p. 113, p. 157).


Other typographical errors render the text unreadable. For example, on page 16, a block quote taken from the work of Thomas Draxe, ends as follows: “he dwith them dhee d hee d hee d heed or, hee d againe into fauor.” Watson does say that he has kept the original spelling from these old works, so “againe” is an old spelling of “again,” and “fauor” is “favor.” But what sense is the reader of this book supposed to make of “dhee d hee d hee d heed or, hee d”? It’s apparently an error resulting from copying and pasting, but whatever it is, someone should have caught it before printing it. This is simply sloppy and unprofessional publishing.


A second, and much more significant, problem is the result of a decision the author himself made, a decision he explains on the first pages of his book. I will quote this section in full because it is this decision that most seriously undermines the usefulness of the book:


One American scholar [Reiner Smolinski] has insisted that the “traditional criterion of classifying millennialism … is virtually meaningless for the emerging systems prior to 1800.” And Crawford Gribben, a current leading scholar on apocalypticism, warns that modern categories of premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism “should not be retrospectively projected onto older material.” However, that is exactly what I intend to do. These terms may have been of later origin, but the ideas (or at least their precedents) existed centuries earlier in a nascent form. With such an understanding, it is appropriate and useful to use the modern terms when classifying and discussing the earlier ideas” (p. 2, emphasis mine).


This decision to anachronistically impose modern categories on seventeenth and eighteenth century works turns what could have been a very helpful work into a very confusing work.


The problem is that Watson is looking for the existence of dispensationalism before John Nelson Darby, who was born in 1800. In order for this search to have any hope of success, the searcher has to know what he or she is looking for. Are we looking for dispensationalism as a fully developed system? Are we looking for constituent elements of the dispensationalist system? Are we looking for something else? Note again what Watson says in the quote above: "These terms may have been of later origin, but the ideas (or at least their precedents) existed centuries earlier in a nascent form." What does he mean by "ideas"? Does he mean the idea of dispensationalism as a fully developed system? Or does he mean the ideas that are parts of the larger dispensational system? Because the author does not clearly answer that question, the results of the historical search are confused.


Critics of modern dispensationalism have often pointed to Darby as the person who originated dispensationalism as a developed system. They will argue, therefore, that dispensationalism arose in the middle of the nineteenth century. Proponents of modern dispensationalism will often object, arguing that many elements of dispensationalism can be found in earlier centuries. There is a lot of confusion caused by the fact that in some cases we are talking about a developed system comprised of many elements and in other cases we are talking about the individual elements themselves. Both the critics and the proponents of dispensationalism have contributed to the confusion.


If I might use an illustration, dispensationalism is like a unique house built of many parts. Some of the same parts are found in other houses, but only in the dispensationalist house are they put together in this particular way. When we look back at the history of the church, we see different “houses” – different theological systems. Some of those houses contain the same kinds of parts that are found in the dispensationalist house – the same kind of door perhaps, or the same color bricks, but it’s not the dispensationalist house. The architects who built the dispensationalist house took parts that existed in the early church, added parts that were made especially for this new house, and put them all together in a uniquely new house. Watson is looking for the existence of dispensationalism before John Nelson Darby, but what does that mean? Are we looking for examples of the dispensationalist house before Darby? Or are we looking for constituent parts that would later be used to build the dispensationalist house? Because Watson is not entirely clear about what he is looking for, what he finds is not clear either.


Because of his choice to read older works through the lens of modern categories, Watson will often find evidence in earlier centuries of a brick that is used in the modern dispensationalist house and then conclude that this is evidence of the early existence of the whole dispensationalist house. For example, chapter 6 is titled “The Concept of Dispensations in the Seventeenth Century.” In this chapter Watson looks for the use of the word “dispensation” in the centuries prior to Darby, and he also looks for Christians prior to Darby who discerned different eras throughout redemptive history. It is no surprise to anyone who has read the primary sources of church history that he finds numerous examples. But all he has found is a brick that is used in the construction of many theological houses. This brick is not unique to the dispensationalist house. The mere use of the word “dispensation” no more makes one a dispensationalist than the use of the word “covenant” makes one a covenant theologian or the use of the word “church” makes one a Roman Catholic. And the fact that theologians throughout church history have discerned different eras in redemptive history merely tells us that almost every Christian theological house uses this idea. It is not distinctive or unique to dispensationalism and therefore is not useful in the task of finding "Dispensationalism Before Darby."


Because Watson chose to retrospectively project modern categories onto older material, the book is filled with category confusion where evidence of one thing is assumed to be evidence of something else. Watson spends a lot of time, for example, looking at the history of millennialism and the history of philosemitism. Modern dispensationalism includes certain versions of each of those in its developed system. But the existence of one or another or even both together in earlier centuries is not evidence of the existence of the dispensationalist “house.” It is often not even evidence of the existence of identical bricks. It is evidence of the existence of similar bricks that were used in the construction of a number of different houses. Modern readers have to understand that most millennial views in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would be unrecognizable to them. They wouldn’t know what to call these views precisely because what Smolinski and Gribben said is true. Millennial views were in an almost constant state of flux and development throughout these centuries, and their categories were different because they were asking different questions. We need to understand these seventeenth and eighteenth century authors on their terms.


In spite of these problems, there is still much value in the work Watson has done. He has brought to the attention of readers an enormous number of seventeenth and eighteenth century authors, many of whom have probably not been read for centuries. He has in this way provided researchers with a lot of raw material for further study. It is as if someone had discovered a new archaeological site and dug up a huge number of ancient artifacts. That by itself is invaluable work, even if methodological flaws caused the original archaeologist to incorrectly categorize the nature and function of many of the artifacts. The artifacts are still there. They simply need to be interpreted and categorized accurately.


What is clear from all the recent work on the history of eschatology and millennialism is that John Nelson Darby did not create the dispensational system out of whole cloth by himself in the nineteenth century. Certain elements of that system pre-dated Darby. Prior to Darby, those elements existed in various non-dispensationalist theological systems. The division of history into eras pre-dated Darby in non-dispensationalist systems. Premillennialism pre-dated Darby in non-dispensationalist systems. Philosemitism pre-dated Darby in non-dispensationalist systems. There were tributaries that fed into the larger stream that became dispensationalism. In the nineteenth century, Darby and others took these already existing ideas, added a few of their own, and put them together in an altogether new way. They built a unique new house.




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