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!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



, , ,



25 responses to “The Time Lords versus John Nelson Darby”

  1. PJ Avatar

    What might have been
    And what has been
    Point to one end, which is always present.

    –T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

  2. SteveL Avatar

    Thank you, father.

  3. […] Dec 17th 11:11 amclick to expand…The Time Lords versus John Nelson Darby, Dec 17th 5:24 pmclick to expand…The Trustworthiness Of Beards […]

  4. Kevin (Basil) Fritts Avatar

    Fr John Behr, dean at St Vladimir’s Seminary and professor of patristics, encourages students to think in these terms that seem to us more like “science fiction” rather than the linear terms of science and historicism.

    The fifth series (season) of the revived Dr Who ended with an episode entitled “The Big Bang” (originally aired 26 Jun 2010). A key moment is when the Doctor realizes that the TARDIS, the Doctor’s time machine and spaceship, which has been exploding, is “exploding at every moment in history” (watching the episode will give this some context).

    The mystery of the crucified Christ, the mystery of the cross, is the whole of creation coming into being at every moment, because of the creative activity of the cross — the cross which is, not coincidentally, originally an astronomical symbol representing the convergence of the horizontal and vertical planes, the heavens and the earth, and is fulfilled in the convergence of God and man in Christ crucified.

    Your reference to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (becoming “unstuck in time”) is also illuminating.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Kevin (Basil),
    Thank you. Yes – good theology (which is what Fr. John teaches) recognizes the centrality of eschatology – in some ways – when rightly understood – all Christian theology (because it is the teaching of the Kingdom of God) is eschatology. I am increasingly convinced that there isn’t anything else.

  6. Karen Avatar

    Thank you, Father! Love this.

    Another “Dr. Who” fan, as a school girl in N. Ireland (and later jr. high in England), I grew up addicted to the 15-minute episodes of alternated terror and zany-ness in the old original “Dr. Who” that aired every day after school in the late ’60s. In grade school, I sometimes was so terrified (the dreaded daleks!), that I watched from behind the couch, where I could dive down and hide if it got too intense. I was thrilled when they resurrected the series and admit to still occasionally taking in a late night airing on our local PBS station. (My husband doesn’t get it!)

  7. Rhonda Avatar

    I too am a sci-fi fan & love the Dr. Who series. I also love science (in its true sense) & find many of the thoughts coming out of Quantum Physics fascinating precisely because they upend our conceptions of time such as an effect can now precede in time its cause. Quantum Physics thus shows that time is an illusion as we understand it. One of my favorite prayers by the priest during the Liturgy is:

    Remembering, therefore, this command of the Savior, and all that came to pass for our sake, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and the second, glorious coming,

  8. dinoship Avatar

    We are both now, then, and will be

    Even the “lightest amount” of God’s grace teaches the heart this very thing…

    Elder Sophrony used to even say that in Christ, in His ‘great’ Grace, man beholds his timelessness to such a degree that as well as perceiving his having ‘no end’, he even feels like he has no beginning “in the One Who has no beginning”.
    God graciously and lovingly imparts a taste of His mode of existence -beyond all space and time- to the human person. We are in fact created for that very thing…

    We are both now, then, and will be

    is closely connected to the hypostatic universality of the person who comes in contact with the Divine Logos. We see here the tight connection between Love and true freedom.

  9. Micah Avatar

    Wonderfully put Rhonda. Thank you. There are liturgical contexts in Orthodoxy where the second coming in spoken of in the past tense.

  10. […] Timelines, Timelords, and liturgy. […]

  11. Perry Robinson Avatar


    A friendly suggestion. Aquinas for example (not to mention some Caroline divines) deny that the body of Christ is present as a body is in a place. It’s really Christ’s body, but it is present by something other mode than a local mode of presence.

    Another way to think about it is to turn it around. Rather than the body being present in many places, the many places are made present to the one body.

  12. Grant Avatar

    Two worlds collided in this blog entry for me: the Orthodox Christianity which I have recently been drawn to through this little ‘commenting community’, and the world of Doctor Who, which I have been entranced by since 1963 when it first appeared. Seeing the Tardis at the top of the blog page was surreal!

    Have you thought of the strangely Christian elements in the TV programme? The regenerating, ageless hero, able to appear anywhere in time and space, immortal, with a vessel which is larger inside than out, like an icon…?

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes. I find such elements good for the mind and heart.

  14. John deGrassie Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I always appreciate the quiet and thoughtful insight which characterizes all you posts. This is especially true on the posts about the modern understanding time — a concept that I find difficult to extirpate from my view of the world; it’s just so ingrained.

    I never knew Dispensationalism was so recent. I’ve heard “dispensation” in Orthodox hymns, what is the Orthodox understanding of this term?

    Also, I like searching things on Google’s Ngram Viewer. I did a quick search on dispensationalism. Any thoughts why around ~1930’s it really starts to show up in books?

    Thank you again for your thoughtful posts.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    John deGrassie,
    In Orthodox hymnody, the word “dispensation” is an attempt to translate the Greek “economia.” “Economia” literally means the “household management.” It refers to the actions God carries out to accomplish our salvation – all of His acts. Thus we could speak of the “economy of our salvation,” and would mean the whole work of God to bring about our reconciliation with Him. It recognizes that this is His purpose – and that He manages (economia) things in such a way as to make our salvation possible.

    Sometimes the word “economy” is used by some to mean a certain “flexibility” in things versus “strictness.” In truth, there is and always is only “economy,” because there is no “strictness” by which we may be saved. Every thing of our salvation is an accommodation on the part of God towards us – it is all the work of His mercy. If He should judge, who would stand?

    But in the Resurrectional Troparion (Tone 1) we sing:

    “Glory to Thy dispensation O Thou who lovest mankind!”

    What we mean is, “Glory to Thee, for you have worked all things wondrously well to bring about our salvation!”

    In short, it has nothing in common with the word “dispensationalism” or “dispensations” of time in the manner of Darby or Scofield. What they teach is heresy, not to put too fine a point on it.

  16. Dn Stephen Hayes Avatar

    I once had a discussion on baptism with a Pentecostal minister, and he spoke of several different baptisms — water baptism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, baptism in suffering, baptism in fire and a few more that I can’t remember. But what struck me forcefully was that he regarded each one of these “baptisms” as a discrete experience, where one could identify a date and time on which one had that baptism.

    And I then realised that the difference in our theology was primarily one of the understanding of time. For him time was primarily chronos, a chronological sequence of events, whereas in my understanding it was kairos, a significant moment that alters the meaning of all other moments. In our baptism we are made heirs to all the things he spoke about — the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, suffering and more — but our one baptism shapes and gives meaning to all these different experiences, no matter when they occur.

  17. Michael Belote Avatar

    Father Stephen–I am a big fan of this blog, and often quote it. (I hope you will forgive me for my Protestantism…no one is perfect, after all!) I think you couldn’t have said it better than when you said, “My son’s [science fiction] imagination, however, is more fertile ground for theology than the prosaic musings of John Nelson Darby (and modern evangelicals).”

    I recently published a book for EXACTLY this reason. (In fact, Doctor Who was even the main motivation and makes up a whole chapter of the book!) As a science fiction geek coming into Christianity, I have often found much more profound theology through the lens of science fiction and imagination than through a seminary textbook.

    Thanks for this and for your consistent wisdom, which is always a blessing.

  18. Gavin Campbell Avatar
    Gavin Campbell

    There’s a Doctor Who serial from 1978 called “The Ribos Operation”, starring Tom Baker as the Doctor and debutting Mary Tamm as the Time Lady Romana, in which real Orthodox icons are used as props.

    At any rate, I’ve often found the Doctor to be a Christic figure. That’s because he dies and then gets regenerated into a new form. Sometime he lets his body die in order to save someone else, sometimes just to save the universe. So, in “Planet of the Spiders” (1974) and “Logopolis” (1981), the Doctor dies to save the universe, but gets regenerated. While in “The Caves of Androzani” (1984), “The Parting of the Ways” (2005) and “The End of Time” (2010), he dies for the sake of just one person.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    Good theology certainly makes use of imagination, if only to see beyond the obvious. The question, “What if?” can be quite useful.

  20. Karen Avatar

    Gavin, I believe that the echoes of Christ in many of the story lines of “Dr. Who” is the reason I’ve always been attracted to the series as well.

  21. mushroom Avatar

    Our failure to know this distorts the whole of our Church life.

    I grew up in Protestantism and when I taught I used the Dispensational approach to eschatology. I began to doubt it myself but continued the teaching because that’s what my friends believed and that was the “official” position of the churches I attended. Eventually I realized exactly what you say, the Dispensational error distorts the whole of our Church life. I am still a Protestant, and I try not to argue eschatology because people get so upset, but I try to make it clear what I think of Dispensationalism.

  22. John deGrassie Avatar

    Thank you for the clarification Fr. Stephen.

  23. Justin Kolodziej Avatar
    Justin Kolodziej

    So, time in the Church is “like a big ball of timey-wimey…stuff” just like the Doctor said?

    Sorry, no episode reference, I watched a few episodes a bit ago and that’s the quote that stuck!

  24. James Avatar

    Matter exists as nothing more than a field of probabilities until it is observed. One could theorize that when the universe exploded into existence all matter existed everywhere until it was first observed, collapsing all of space and time into a single timeline. I could also theorize Jesus’s birth was the first being coming into existence and as such the past came into existence on that day. Though I am probably wrong I will have to wait and find out.- James Freeman

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast