The Time Lords versus John Nelson Darby

A timeline stretched across the front of the classroom, presenting a quick glance at the world and all that was fit to know. The subject was “World History,” and the year was some point in my early teens. The “World” in those days was a standard recitation of the canon of the West – Sumeria and Babylon – Egypt – Greece and Rome – the Fall of Rome and the Dark Ages – Middle Ages – Renaissance, Enlightenment, a lot of wars, and the present. We did not cover China, India, or Japan. There were no arguments or controversies – just names, dates and facts, causes. It was a course in memorization. But above it all reigned the timeline. 

The timeline offered a visual icon of history. History comes from somewhere and is going somewhere. We study it so that we can know how we got here, and possibly, to have some wisdom in our decisions of where we are to go. Like arithmetic, such study is useful. It has limits that we do well to know. Those very limits become very manifest when they are wrenched from the classroom of children and placed in the world of theology.

Such a misplacement occurred in between 1827 and 1832 when the one-time Anglican clergyman, John Nelson Darby, turned his thoughts to a new notion of Bible interpretation during a period of recovery from an illness. The result is what is known today as Dispensationalism, a belief that different passages of the Bible apply to different periods of time. Some are addressed to ancient Israel, some to the Church, etc. Darby’s elaborate system was immortalized in the writings of the American, Cyrus Scofield. This would be quite obscure were it not the beginning of modern evangelical teaching on the End Times, the Rapture, etc.

Most evangelicals are unaware of Dispensationalism. But many of its ideas have been popularized. Thus many modern Christians think that Biblical teaching on the “End,” is a predictive teaching about how history will come to an end and Christ return to earth. It is deeply ignorant of true eschatology and the wealth of true theology.

With this I turn to the Time Lords. My son (now 25) had no timeline stretched across his classroom. His imagination has been shaped as much by Time Lords as by timelines. He is a science-fiction fan. But he is also scientifically minded. He is perhaps less interested in the fantasies some writers create than the true scientific imagination with which others generate their work. His science fiction is thus rooted in what we know and what we may rightly imagine. He is a great fan of Dr. Who (a Time Lord).

Our discussions of history occasionally become “unstuck.” Instead of “what happened,” the question becomes, “what if this happened, or had happened, etc.” The possibility of time travel fascinates him. My fascination with time travel is largely limited to several investments that now interest me.

My son’s imagination, however, is more fertile ground for theology than the prosaic musings of John Nelson Darby (and modern evangelicals). When I tell my son that the Divine Liturgy is both the service in which we are, the Last Supper and the Meal at the End of the World, his response is genuine interest rather than dismay. As Christ would say, his mind is “not far from the Kingdom.”

This is the true and proper character of Christian teaching on the “Last Things” (eschatology). The “Last Things” are the end of things, not so much because of their chronological order but because they are the fulfillment and consummation of those things of which they are the end. Such last things need not be last in chronology. Christ is both the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last. He is also the Second Adam and the Last Adam. He is the First Man and the Last Man. The Christian teaching is that everything that exists has a Last Thing. That Last Thing is its end, its goal, its telos. Man’s telos is the image and likeness of God. His end was revealed in His beginning. That end was not the state from which he fell, wandering in history having lost his purpose. Man enters history with a purpose, a goal, an end. His end is to be conformed to the image and likeness of Christ.

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18).

But this work of beholding the Image must be understood as a work of beholding the Last Thing. It is an exercise that relativizes time. We are both now, then, and will be.  This is not a mental exercise. For the Christian gospel testifies that these things are realities and not mental images. The true End of man became flesh and dwelt among us. Christ does not remind us of the man who will be – He is that man.

The Christian life (in its proper Orthodox form) is filled with such simultaneous realities. The Church is Apostolic promise and Messianic fulfillment. It is the spotless bride of Christ and the rock against which the gates of hell do not prevail. But it is also the earthen vessel in which is hidden the glory of God. It is also all of creation, that which came into existence when through the Logos, the Father first spoke and said, “Let there be light!” It is all of these things, at one and the same time. 

Our failure to know this distorts the whole of our Church life. The sacraments and all else are easily reduced to mere holy “things” instead of the fullness of the Kingdom breaking in and dwelling within our present life. Everything that comes within the presence of the sacrament is itself transformed by its encounter with this Last Meal (this First Meal, this Lord’s Supper, this Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, this Bloodless Sacrifice).

Strangely, such jarring simultaneity has become less jarring (in a fashion) when Quantum Physics now speaks regularly of a particle being in two-places at once (indeed, a recent experiment has achieved this with material larger than the sub-atomic level). Apparently the occasional Protestant canard denying the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, based on their notion that an object cannot be in two places at once, now seems to be bad science as it was always bad theology. Protestants will find such notions firmly grounding them on a young, flat earth with a grossly misread Bible for comfort.

The fathers (St. Basil for example) were quite clear that time was but a created thing, coming into existence only with space and matter. They moved easily around the false borders created by those who imagined time as a fixed, immutable reality. Creation is always mutable.

There is much within the Christian faith that modern man doubts. Sometimes what he encounters is the invention of another  modern man (such as Darby) and fails precisely because it embraces the banality of the modern world. Science has entered something of a Post-Modern world, at least a period in which those who lack imagination will lack education, for that which actually is exceeds those things dreamt by modernist philosophies.

True Christian theology, that taught by the Fathers, will easily join conversation with the Time Lords, for it is a conversation that was given to us long ago by the Lord of Time. To Whom be glory!