Presbyterians of the Past

B. B. Warfield, Thomas Witherow, and Presbyterian Polity

B. B. Warfield

In 1889, Thomas Witherow, a Presbyterian minister in Ireland, published, The Form of the Christian Temple: Being a Treatise on the Constitution of the New Testament Church, to promote and defend Presbyterianism as the divinely ordained polity (jure divino) taught in the New Testament. Witherow’s preface expressed his purpose.

The main design of the following treatise is to bring distinctly under the eye of the inquirer those passages of the Holy Scriptures, which are supposed to bear directly or indirectly on the subject of Church Polity; to find out the principles or facts which these passages underlie; and to combine such facts and principles, with the view of ascertaining whether they do, or do not, contain the outlines of a form of Church government.

In the review of Witherow’s book by B. B. Warfield that follows this introduction there are a few things to notice. Warfield readily defended Bishop of Durham Joseph B. Lightfoot (1828-1889) who evaluated the early Greek epistles of Ignatius to be authentic while Witherow questioned them. Warfield maintained great interest in patristics and New Testament studies after leaving Western Seminary even though his work at Princeton was in polemic theology. He said Lightfoot was “the greatest Patristic scholar of the England of our generation,” and in his later years, said Warfield, Lightfoot defended the apostolicity of presbyterianism (TP&RR, 1891, 2:8, 692). Warfield wrote very little about church polity, so his comments in this review are helpful. In the case of graduated levels of church courts (sessions, presbyteries, synods, and assemblies) he thought it was inappropriate to appeal to the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:2-35).

Let us confess that the New Testament gives us no example of other than congregational presbyteries; and rest our higher courts on the legitimate application in their formation of the same principle of association which was divinely enacted in the congregational government.

Warfield agreed with Witherow’s comment on page 187.

Association, whether of Churches or of rulers, is a Scriptural principle. The association of elders in the government of a local Church—that is, the congregational presbytery, is a divine institution; the association of the rulers of different congregations for managing matters in common—that is, the district presbytery, is simply a matter of agreement and consent, but is the outcome of a principle that has received divine sanction again and again.

With authority from the lower to the higher judicatory, congregation to presbytery and then to the assembly, does this make Witherow and Warfield grassroots Presbyterians?

Barry Waugh


Thomas Witherow

The Form of the Christian Temple: Being a Treatise on the Constitution of the New Testament Church. By Thomas Witherow, D.D., LL.D., Professor of Church History in Magee College, Londonderry. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark; New York: Scribner & Welford, 1889. Pp. xii., 468. 8vo.

We welcome this valuable treatise the more heartily that we fear there is a tendency among us to undervalue the study of Church polity. It may serve to remind us, in the wise words of its author (p. vii.), “that Church polity is an important portion of Christianity.” “Its main principles,” he justly continues, “are divinely revealed; its design is to conserve and to perpetuate truth, as well as to secure decency and order in worship, in instruction, and in administration; while it is often on the side of Church government, and generally under cover of indistinct and uncertain notions regarding it, that minute changes have crept into the Church which have in the course of centuries blossomed out into serious error.” Led by so just a conception of its importance, he has made a careful study of the constitution of the New Testament Church, the conclusion of which may be expressed in these words (although they are not put forward as such): “Presbyterianism has the true bishop, the true episcopal ordination, the true Apostolic Succession, the true commission, and the true ministry” (p. 386).

The volume is divided into two very different parts. The first half is a stringently inductive examination of the New Testament passages bearing on the organization of the Church, with the intention and effect of discovering exactly what the form of the New Testament Church was. Here the controversial element is relegated to the background, although a hint of it may obtrude itself in an occasional bit of dry humor (pp. 119, 167, 168, 196) or in an occasional intrusion into the inductive process of minor items of a more modern flavor. How easy it is to introduce into our speech, regarding the institutions of the first century, traits and forms of statement drawn from our present habits or training, Dr. Witherow illustrates by a quotation from the Tracts for the Times (p. 111, note). How hard it is wholly to avoid it, he illustrates by an occasional slip of his own. Examples are the repeated assertion (e.g., p. 18) that Paul was not appointed apostle until after the death of James of Zebedee; the statement that lay prophets were allowed only “occasionally” to address the Church (p. 34); the assumption that Timothy’s work in Ephesus was “exceptional” (pp. 38, 40). These are, however, rare motes on the surface of a generally successful stream of pure induction.

In the second half of the book the controversial element comes prominently forward, although everywhere kept within due bounds by Dr. Witherow’s unfailing exegetical insight and sober historical sense. Here we have not so much a historical study of the origin of the human additions to the temple, as a polemic examination of the asserted divine sanction for the chief ecclesiastical growths of later times—the priesthood, penance, prelacy, apostolical succession, and the papacy. In the multitude of details which are here brought forward, it is not to be expected that all the opinions expressed will meet universal acceptance—especially when they concern points of confessed difficulty. We are most seriously at odds with the author in his denial of the genuineness of the short Greek Ignatian Epistles, which we consider as unnecessary to his general position as it is unreasonable in the present state of the evidence. Nor can we accord with his criticism of Bishop Lightfoot’s view of the position of James (who we do not believe to have been an apostle) at Jerusalem [369-70, Epistle to Polycarp, ch. 6]. Dr. Witherow is especially to be congratulated on his correct perception of the Presbyterian drift of the more recent Prelatic arguments. He does not fall into the trap which some others have not escaped, of seeking some extreme position from which these arguments may still be refuted. The fact is that Dr. Lightfoot, for example, in the essay incorporated in his Commentary on Philippians, has defended the apostolicity of Presbyterianism; the threefold ministry, the apostolic sanction of which he has set himself, in that famous essay, to render probable, is distinctly the threefold ministry of the Presbyterian and as distinctly not that of the Episcopal Churches. To refute his position would be to refute Presbyterianism; and we are glad to believe it to be irrefutable.

That there is a divinely appointed polity for the Church, Dr. Witherow has no doubt; and no one can doubt it who has given his attention to the Scriptural deliverances in this sphere. “The opinion of all theologians who have not carefully studied the subject,” he says pointedly, ‘‘is that no system of Church polity is contained in the New Testament; that if so, it cannot be determined with precision; or if it can be so determined, it is not obligatory on the Church of after times, and, of course, is practically useless. This opinion, it will be seen, we dispute in all its parts” (p. 2). It really admits of no question that God has instituted the ministry (1 Cor. xii. 28, Eph. iv. 11), and this carries with it some elements of a Church polity; or that the apostles asserted God’s right to order His own Church so as best to secure the great purpose for which He established it (1 Tim. iii. 15), and, acting of course on Christ’s authority, appointed deacons (Acts vi.) and elders (Acts xiv. 23) in the churches which they founded, determined their qualifications (1 Tim. iii. 1 sq, Titus i. 5 sq.), and defined their duties (1 Peter v. 1 sq.). In nothing is the soundness of Dr. Witherow’s judgment more apparent, however, than in the accuracy with which he draws the line between what in the organization of the Church may be asserted to have direct, divine sanction, and what has been left to a more or less human development. In general we may say that the organization of the individual Church was imposed upon it by the apostles; while in all that belongs to the association of the churches, we are left to a further application of the principles of government which underlie the directly divine institutions. To use Dr. Witherow’s well-chosen words: “Association, whether of Churches or of rulers, is a Scriptural principle. The association of elders in the government of a local Church—that is, the congregational presbytery, is a divine institution; the association of the rulers of different congregations for managing matters in common—that is, the district presbytery, is simply a matter of agreement and consent, but is the outcome of a principle that has received divine sanction again and again” (p. 187). “When the Christian Church is organized,” he says, in another place (p. 106), the name of presbytery “is applied to the Christian elders of a Church in their associated capacity. That it is not in 1 Tim. iv. 14, the associated elders of different congregations, is known because there is not in the New Testament any clear example of such association in ordinary cases.” The reference of the last phrase, “in ordinary cases,” is not obvious. Certainly when Dr. Witherow comes to treat formally of the “council” of Acts xv. he has far too clear a historical sense to see in it an extraordinary instance of such an association. “There is not a line in the chapter,” he justly writes, “leading us to believe that any were present except the deputies from Antioch along with the apostles, elders, and brethren of Jerusalem…. To say that it was a representative body, in the literal sense, is to view the transaction from the standpoint of later times” (p. 192). If we are to apply to that “council” language derived from our present usage, we should term it a meeting of the Church Session of Jerusalem. This is not to belittle it. It was of epoch-making importance, both at the time, in separating the Church from Judaism and committing the whole Church to a universalistic policy; and for all time as a charter of freedom from the Mosaic law. Dr. Witherow most admirably says in words which it would do us good to ponder: “When told by sceptics that we are bound by the Bible to pay tithes, to execute the idolater and blasphemer, to put the Sabbath-breaker and witch to death, our answer is that the apostolic decree sets us entirely free from these and all other peculiarities of the old Jewish economy. They are not named among the exceptions, and therefore are of no binding force upon Gentile believers” (p. 193). Whatever we may think of the binding character of the ‘‘decree” then issued, this use of the deliberations and conclusion is assuredly legitimate. Nor does this view of the nature of that “council” destroy its normal character as a model Church court. “It is,” rather, in Dr. Witherow’s words, “the true model of all subsequent synods” (p 196). We are bound to confess, indeed, our inability to follow him in his method of validating it as the model of associated Presbyteries and Synods—viz., by speaking of it as an “assembly of Church rulers outside the local Church” (p. 198), as “an external tribunal of Church rulers, publicly deliberating in Jerusalem upon a question affecting, in the first instance, the Church of Antioch” (p. 197). This is artificial. It amounts to little more than setting up an undistributed middle—“external tribunal”—as the tertium comparationis between this “council” and our Presbyteries—and an undistributed middle, let us add, which is not a fair designation of either the one or the other. Let us confess that the New Testament gives us no example of other than congregational presbyteries; and rest our higher courts on the legitimate application in their formation of the same principle of association which was divinely enacted in the congregational government.

Among the various puzzling questions that concern the organization of the local churches, Dr. Witherow threads his safe way with his usual judiciousness and sound exegetical tact. The nature of the eldership as an undifferentiated ruling-teaching office, the nature of the diaconate as essentially an office of service rather than of “ministry” in its higher sense, the nature of the local presbytery and its functions, the ground and mode of association of the Churches (one of the best chapters), are all judiciously investigated. The only criticism of any moment which we could bring against the findings of this whole half of the volume, would be that the nature of the work of the apostles and the relation to them of their travelling companions do not seem to be exactly realized. Paul was not only a divinely appointed and divinely inspired missionary, he was a travelling missionary-society, and his companions were his helpers in this work. He sent them forth clothed with his powers and as agents to do his work; wherever they went they stood in loco apostoli and acted as his extended hand. Their commission inhered not in any local organization, not even in the Church at large, but in the apostle; and their center of authority was wherever he was. So he left Timothy in Ephesus to act for him there; and withdrew him from Ephesus when he had other need for him, replacing him with Tychicus (2 Tim. iv. 12). In like manner he left Titus in Crete and replaced him when he thought well with Artemas (Titus iii. 12). In this connection, 2 Tim. iv. 9 sq. is a very instructive passage. Paul desires Timothy to come to him. Not because the Church of Ephesus had no further need for him; he carefully provides for a successor to him there (v. 12). Not because he is himself lonely; he is surrounded by Roman friends (v. 21). But because, as he states, the most of his helpers are away —some by desertion, some on commission, and Luke alone of them all is with him (v. 10 sq.). He needs more help in the work than Luke can render, and so he calls Timothy, and with him Mark; and he adds the reason, “For he is profitable to me for ministering.” This gives us a great outlook upon Paul’s labors as the care of all the churches rested upon him. Even while he was in prison, Luke was inadequate for the labors of his office; he required at least two secretaries.

Benjamin B. Warfield.

[As from, The Presbyterian Review, vol. 10, No. 38, April 1889, 330-333]

Header image from mgaiani Pixabay is a country church in Ireland.

 

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