As I explained (Life: 1950s), the mood of the 1950s both with the Suez Crisis and the nuclear ballance of terror was apocalyptic.

The era of Ban the Bomb marches was well captured in the movie On the Beach, starring Gregory Peck, which told the story of a submarine fleeing to Australia before a spreading, radio-active mushroom cloud had destroyed all life in other continents and was to complete the destruction of the world. (See)
The residents of Australia after a global nuclear war must come to terms with the fact that all life will be destroyed in a matter of months.
In this context, living in Dalston, London E.8 in slum conditions, it was very easy to enter into a despairing vision of this world and, with a religious faith unformed by theological education, to yearn for the second coming. So John Nelson Darby's 19th century exegesis of St. Paul's letter to the Thessalonians seemed attractive. I read avidly such tracts of 'JND' on 'Will the Church Pass Through the Tribulation?' answered negatively: the Rapture would take place first, in which the true believers, a group very small in number, would be snatched away: Israel would pass through the Tribulation of Mark 13 and the parallel Synoptic Apocalypses: true believers would ascend into the air to be with Christ forever.
And so, in Saturday escapes to Enfield and Bible studies in what seemed a palatial suburban semi with heating and a bathroom, we gathered in Reg Smith's house and read prophecies of Scripture, Daniel, Revelation etc as mysterious prophecies to be unravelled that in fact described contemporary events in the Near East. It is a fundamentalist exegetical game that still goes on with George W Bush's supporters in the USA. Part of the study of academic theology and the historico-critical method that I was to learn at Cambridge subsequent to my 'A' level studies was to disabuse me of such exegetical fantasies (see Cambridge Life). I was also to learn that the imagery of the Last Things expressed a mystery that could not be described and imagined like the narrative of a movie about the end of the material world: eschatology is in part realized, and past, present, and future, in the mystery of faith, merge into a timeless moment, whether at the end of our individual life or that of the final end of this order of time and space. (See Cambridge: Divinity)
Such an apocalyptic imagination, that considers that this age has certain features that indicate that it is the last, was to be shattered by my 'A' level, classical and religious studies that were to give me a historical perspective: the course of history was like this, with crises whose participants could always believe that their age too was the last.
But there was another feature of the Plymouth Brethren experience that was more positive. With Fred Hayes at my Baptist Sunday School, and in my visits to Foyle's bookshop in Charing Cross Road that were a great feature of Saturday my mornings in the 1950s, I had imbibed Higher Criticism of the Old Testament. One book that I had read with satisfaction was Alice Parmelee's Teach Yourself series book, a Guidebook to the Bible where I had learned about the sources of the Pentateuch, J, E, D, P etc. This had been the experience of my 12-14 years. But now Brian Peek had returned and set up a fundamentalist Bible Class and taken us on Saturdays to Reg at Enfield. My new reading was to be Plymouth Brethren exegesis of the Old Testament, which opened up a quite different vista.

C.A. Coates (1862-1945)coates

C.H. MackIntosh (1820-1896)macintosh

William Kelly (1821-1906)kelly

J.N. Darby (1800-1882)darby

These writers were involved in various ways with the split between Darby and George Muller in 1848 on the issue of the independence of the church 'gathered to the Name' of Jesus as opposed to the name of a denomination. Darby believed in a connexionalist view and so fostered a division between 'Open' and 'Exclusive" Brethren of which he was the leader. My own experience of the Open Brethren was that they accepted the teaching of these writers regardless of the position they had assumed in the controversy (For some historical notes, see) But MackIntosh, in his Notes on the Pentateuch, had enthused me in my teens with his allegorical and typological approach to the Old Testament, shared with the other three above. Leviticus with its instructions on animal sacrifices became a mystical forshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ. I believed that these men with such an exegesis had uncovered the true meaning of the Old Testament rather than the liberal, historico-critico account that I had previously imbibed from my Foyle's purchases. They deployed the method highly immaginatively, laced with a rich vein of learning: Kelly's books, thanks to his wife, contained footnotes with quotations, not simply in Latin and Greek but in a number of modern languages. Darby had translated the Bible and the English Text of the New Testament deployed an elaborate textual apparatus such as was to be developed in Nestle Aland's contemporary critical Greek edition: using ms and patristic citation to establish the original text was important to Darby and his admirers.

At the age of sixteen I was thoroughly entranced by such exegesis: clearly the Holy Spirit had especially entlightened these godly men as part of the recovery of a New Testament Church in the light of the imminent eschaton. Of course with a theological and patristic education at Cambridge I was to learn that the typological approach was the inheritance of the Catholic Church principally from the Alexandrine Fathers, Clement and Origen. This had been the exegetical method by means of which Ambrose had converted the sceptical Augustine. It had been the method by means of which Justin Martyr had appropriated the Old Testament from Judaism, as the Dialogue with Trypho indicates. Coates, I recall insisted on what Origen had affirmed some eighteen hundred years before, that there was a literal, typological and spiritual dimension to Scripture as divine revelation. It is the principle that the Catholic Church has never lost and affirms in John Paul IIs catechism. Indeed my1950s illusion is also shattered by consideration of the fact that before the rise of Higher Criticism in the mid 19th century, the allegorical method of exegesis was upheld by Protestantism too, as Pusey's 1828 tract against Higher Criticism following his visit to Germany: Darby was not really at variance with his Christian contemporaries in this respect as Coates would be in the 20th century. Current Catholic scholarship is founded on a historico-critical approach to Scripture, but acknowledges that this does not exhaust its meaning, any more than a symphony can be reduced to a musiocologist analysis of its production.

The Brethren have no 'man made' ministry but were unaffected by the charismatic revivals of the 1960s: the gifts of miracle working and speaking with tongues ended apparently with the deaths of the last apostles. Following the tradition of the Pastoral Epistles, a group of Elders 'oversee' the operation of the 'Assembly' gathering for the 'breaking of bread' on a Sunday. But any male member of the Assembly can stand up and expound the Scriptures: there is no exclusive ministry in sacris, or at least in theory. There should be no liturgy with words that only an ordained ministry can say, but there is. The allegorization of the Pentateuch, with the Tabernacle and animal sacrifices, are well represented with a number of texts that get to be used invariably each Sunday and repeated, such as Leviticus 4:1-5:13; 6:24-30; Hebrews, 9-10; Isaiah 53; Proverbs 8; John 1; 1 Corinthians 11:23, less often the institution of the Eucharist (Mark 14 and associated passages). Indeed, perhaps here we see a replication formally of the process in the early church in which set liturgies arose from originally looser forms, as in the Didache where prophets celebrated the Eucharist in whatever form the Spirit lead them, or a bishop in the Hippolytan Apostolic Tradition was given a liturgical text for guidance but in which he could produced his own variations.

Both Darby (Exclusive) and Norris Groves (Open) had believed that in the face of the imminent Eschaton, like in part the second century Montanists before them, were 'called out' from a corrupt 'Christendom' under divine judgement to be the people of God 'gathered to the Name' of Christ and not of any denomination. This is I suppose part of what Catholics mean when they affirm their membership of the Catholic Church, spread throughout the world, on every shore in every land, and not representing any local or particularly truncated form of Christianity. But Darby could not agree that the local church or assembly could be self-sufficient, and thus he set up a structure of assemblies mutually recognising each other as the church gathered to the Name in any locality against a doctrinal and disciplinary background. As such his theology was deeply Pauline, and the unity of the Body of Christ and the organic character of its membership is witnessed in the continuation of the baptism of children, so called 'household baptism.' But in so doing, I cannot help but think that there was a Cyprianic background to his version of a Pauline theology.If one looks at Brethren ecclesiological proof texts, one finds them very much as Cyprian selected them in the third century. For Cyprian the unity of the Catholic Church depended upon being in communion with a priest who was in communion with a bishop who was in the apostolic succession and in communion with all other bishops in the world. There was no such ministerial sacramental bond and no such succession for Darby. But Cyprian's texts against schism were also his. The rending by Ahijah of his cloak into twelve pieces to show the rending of the unity of the tweve tribes (1 Kings 11:29-36; Cyprian De Unitate 7(179-189)), the erection of a rival altar on the other side of Jordan in opposition to the one altar and one sanctuary (Joshua 22:9-12) etc prefigured in Darby's writings as in Cyprian's as texts on church unity. 'Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!' (Ps. 13(2)3:1; Cyprian Ep. 751.2(15-16) was one such text as was 'Wherefore come out from the midst of them, and be separated, saith the Lord, and touch not what is unclean, and I will receive you; (Is. 52:11; 2 Cor. 6:17 (Darby)); Cyprian, De Lapsis, 10 (189-200).

Cyprian's use of such texts was of course to the Church throughout the world and the ages under an episcopal hierarchy in communion with one another and, despite frictions, with the bishop of Rome. When he spoke of the contaminating uncleanness of the world outside the Church thus made visible in this hierarchical structure he was refering to the decrees of Decius (249) and Valerian (258) that involved participation in pagan sacrifices and Christians thus denying their faith. The schismatics that he faced in the case of the Novatians were puritans outside the visible church who denied a penitential system that in compasion offered Christ's absolution to the truly penitent or those with Felicissimus with no sense of sin. Cyprian did not face a society that had born the impress of 1900 years of Christian civilisation that meant that it could not be totally evil: human society is capable of goodness: grace completes nature but does not destroy it. The 'Christendom' that he denounced as evil and lost consisted of his fellow Christians, who, though like him, outside the boundaries of the visible Church possessed, as the last Ecumenical Council affirmed, 'elements of sanctification and truth' that made them the brothers and sisters of we who are in full communion with the Catholic Church. The names of Cyprian and Ambrose, Clement and Justin show that the very texts and theologies that they had claim to have rediscovered were fragments of what they had taken from the Catholic Church of the world and of the ages.


In the way that, sadly, such Christian movements tend to continue to break into further schisms, Darby was to clash with Frederick Raven (who was nevertheless to succeed him on his death in 1882), over the development of a Christology that the Son was not eternal.
In the late second and early third century the same reflections on Scripture and Tradition had led to an unsatisfactory consensus between Hippolytus of Rome and bishop Pontianus leading to a nascent view of the Trinity. In order to refute the notion that his group were ditheists or tritheists, Hippolytus had claimed that the Logos had not been fully personal before the incarnation. Only after the incarnation did the logos asarkos (the logos without flesh) become huios teleios (perfect son).
This was continued in the fourth century by Marcellus of Ancyra and his followers: there were no distinct persons in the Trinity.




Mackintosh remained friends and in communion with Raven, and the central focus of the Exclusive Brethren connexion that Darby had established. But Kelly was to break with him and his group, with Park Street Room in Islington becoming the Exclusive Brethren center. In fact he was excommunicated because he objected to their verdict in a disciplinary case.






Thus cut off from the Catholic Church, they were destined to relive the controversies of the third and fourth centuries, with Marcellus of Ancyra and his second century predecessor, Hippolytus of Rome and author of the Contra Noetum without the considered conclusion of the community of faith in dialogue that had resolved the issue so long ago.