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

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

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. 

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

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.

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