Dane K. Jöhannsson
Lead Pastor, Agros Church
In Review: “The Five Points Of Presbyterianism: The Distinctives of Presbyterian Church Government” by Thomas Dwight Witherspoon
Log College Press is a publishing house dedicated to collecting and reprinting the writings of and about the 18th-19thAmerican Presbyterians. I have done a previous review of one of their publications, which you can find here. Because of their dedication to reprinting the works of early American Presbyterians, the title I will be reviewing is perhaps one of their most significant: “The Five Points Of Presbyterianism” by Thomas Dwight Witherspoon.
First, I’d like to mention the binding itself. It is a small pamphlet-style volume (coming in at only 22 pages), printed on nice, opaque, cream colored paper and bound as one signature stapled to the cover. The cover is a slightly thicker card-stock and seems generally durable. I have found no problems with bleed through on the pages when highlighting or writing with a pen. This booklet, though humble in appearance, is actually quite nice.
Secondly, by way of introduction and background to this review, I am the lead pastor of Agros Church; a confessionally reformed Baptist church, which holds to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. Being a reformed Baptist, I obviously differ with Presbyterianism on a few areas, primarily in church government and the mode/subjects of baptism. I have great respect for my Presbyterian brothers and sisters and have found the study of American Presbyterians in particular to be of great value to my faith and ministry. However, I have yet to find a convincing or challenging argument in defense of Presbyterian church government; that is, until now.
This reprint is, in my opinion, one of the most significant works in defense of Presbyterian church government. I found the content to be clear, well-written and well-argued. Prior to the main content of the book we find a helpful introduction written by Log College Press owner and founder, Caleb Cangelosi, who is an associate pastor at Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church. Cangelosi writes in the introduction: “Even among members of the Presbyterian churches, these five distinctives of the Presbyterian form of church government are relatively unknown … We publish this booklet in the confidence that all Presbyterian church members (especially officers and officer candidates), as well as those outside Presbyterianism, will benefit from Witherspoon’s overview of these vital topics.” (pg.3) In my case, pastor Cangelosi was correct! I found this booklet to be exceptionally helpful in understanding Presbyterian church government.
Thomas Witherspoon (1836-1898) first gave the contents of this booklet as an address during the centennial celebration of Presbyterianism in Kentucky. He opened his address acknowledging that, “Every denomination of Christians has certain distinctive principles, which serve to differentiate it from other branches of the visible Church, and which constitute its raison d’être– the ground more or less substantial of its separate organic existence.” (pg.5) Well aware that his denomination is not fluid nor unhistorical, Witherspoon goes on to ask:
“The question arises with especial emphasis under circumstances like these: What are the peculiar principles of the denomination whose centennial is celebrated with so much enthusiasm today? Is there anything in these principles that justifies such sacrifices and toils as were made by noble men whose biographies have been read? Is there anything in the distinctive doctrines and polity of this Church to render its settlement in Kentucky a hundred years ago, and its perpetuation and development through a century of conflict and struggle, a matter worthy of such joyous, grateful commemoration as we give today? Is there anything in these creeds and symbols, venerable with years, which we have received from our forefathers, which makes them an inheritance meet to be transmitted in their integrity and purity, with increasing veneration, to our children and to our children’s children forever?” (pgs.5,6)
The way Witherspoon answers these questions is by laying out five distinctives of the Presbyterian form of government which he argues make it most beautiful, unique and biblical. For Witherspoon, the five distinctives of Presbyterianism are: Church power in the people, representative rule, one office of rule, joint rule, and subordinate church courts.
Beginning with the power of the Church in the people, he says:
“The first fundamental principle of Presbyterianism is that Church power is vested not in officers of any grade or rank, but in the whole corporate body of believers … ours is a government in which Christ rules through the voice of his people, his whole redeemed people, and not through any privileged class, any spiritual nobility, or aristocracy of grace.” (pg.7)
For the second distinctive, that of representative rule, Witherspoon writes:
“this power, though vested in the people, is not administered by them immediately, but through a body of officers chosen by them, and commissioned as their representatives to bear rule in Christ’s name … The only power, therefore, immediately exercises by the people is this most important and fundamental power, that of vocation. They choose those who shall administer the government over them.” (pgs.7,8)
He puts the third distinctive this way: “the whole administration of government in the Church has been committed to a single order of officers, all of whom, though having in some respects different functions to perform, are of co-ordinate and equal authority in the Church.” (pg.8) In this section, Witherspoon recognizes that the Church has two orders of officers, elders and deacons. He also affirms that it is only the office of elder that rules and the office of deacon is purely executive. However, Witherspoon argues that within the one office of elder there are two classes: ruling elders, whose office is “simply to rule” (pg.9), and teaching elders, who in addition to exercising rule, also “recognize a divine voice summoning them also to the work of preaching the Gospel”. (pg.9) Though these classes differ in duty, Witherspoon states that they do not differ in authority. “The minister in our church courts has no more authority than the ruling elder”. (pg.9)
The fourth distinctive is in joint rule: “Presbyters rule not singly but jointly in regular-constituted assemblies or courts.” (pg.9) Witherspoon lies special emphasis on this distinctive, stating that “in it the admirable genius of our system especially appears.” (pg.9) In this distinctive he states that a Presbyter may perform, when commissioned, administrative functions, “yet all legislative and judicial functions are to be administered by assemblies or courts alone. And no one of these assemblies is competent to the transactions of any business unless representatives of both classes Presbyters, ministers and ruling elders, are present.” (pg.10) This is most important, since then, “[t]here is no possibility of any one man power, for all authority must come with the sanction of church order.” (pg.10)
The fifth and last distinctive is:
“these church courts are so subordinated to one another that a question of government or disciplines may be carried by appeal or complaint or review from a lower to higher court, representing a larger number of congregations, until every part of the church is, through this due subordination, brought immediately under the supervision and control of the whole.” (pg.10)
Witherspoon goes on to give a helpful summation of the whole system of Presbyterian church government:
“power vested in the great body of Christ’s people; administered through officers chosen by the people and commissioned of Christ; administered by a single order of officers equal in authority and rank; administered not severally but jointly, in duly organized assemblies or courts, and in assemblies or courts so subordinated to each other as to bind the whole mass together in a unity of mutual oversight, government, and control.” (pg.11)
I found the second part of the book (pages 12-22) to be the most challenging to my own position and most helpful in understanding Presbyterian argumentation for their form of church government. The section is entitled, “The Beauty of Presbyterianism” and is made up of five points of excellence in Witherspoon’s estimation. I appreciated Witherspoon’s irenic form of argumentation particularly demonstrated in this part of the booklet. As an example I quote the following sentence: “For this system [of church government] we claim, without seeking to disparage that of any other representative body of Christians, the following points of excellence.” (pg.12)
The five points of excellence Witherspoon puts forward for Presbyterian church government are as follows: its exact Scripturalness; its vindication of the unity of the visible church under all dispensations; its superiority as a basis for the organic unity of the whole visible church in the world; the flexibility by which this system adjusts itself to all stages and conditions in the life of the church; and the historic associations that cluster about it. The second point, unity in the visible church under all dispensations, was not only the longest but, for me, the most convincing and well argued. It was this point that caused me to grab my copy of the 1689 to re-read through chapter 26. Though I remain a subscriber to the 1689, Witherspoon’s argumentation in this section did cause me to reexamine why I believe what I believe, and that is worth reading through his discourse in and of itself.
In conclusion, this short address on Presbyterian church government should not to be overlooked, and thanks to Log College Press it is available once again in an attractive and affordable copy (as well as electronic editions). I highly recommend this volume for all reformed believers regardless of denomination and especially to all officers within those denominations, that they might truly and correctly understand the Presbyterian form of Church government and thus be able to interact with this position fairly and knowledgeably.
You can purchase this volume from Log College Press directly:
From Reformation Heritage Books:
And on Amazon:
I received a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
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