Book Review: I Will Build My Church
Jonathan Gibson has gifted the church a wonderful book titled, I will build My Church: Selected Writings on Church Polity, Baptism, and the Sabbath, published by Westminster Seminary Press (2021). I say that Gibson has gifted the church, but he is the editor and not the author. Who is the author? In the foreword, Sinclair Ferguson reminds us that the author was a man little known to church history. His name is Thomas Witherow. Gibson has brought the three best known works of Witherow into one volume. Here we find a work on church polity (The Apostolic Church), baptism (Scriptural Baptism) and the Lord’s Day (The Sabbath). He introduces all three with a brief but informative biography, which leans heavily on Witherow’s autobiography.
A Prince of Irish Presbyterianism: The Life & Work of Thomas Witherow
The brief biography of Witherow is about 66 pages in length and every one of them is interesting. Packed into these pages we find Witherow’s work as a pastor and the transition to his work as a professor. However, ironies abound in this little account. For example, Witherow loved to preach but found the expectation of pastoral visitation tiresome. He once said, “My people were not satisfied expect I paid three hundred and fifty visits in the year and preached twice every Sabbath.” He even said, “There is nothing in regard to which the Presbyterian people seem to me so thoughtless and unreasonable as in the matter of pastoral visitation.” However, it was a man by the name of Henry Cooke, Witherow’s pastor while in his theological studies, who convinced him of Presbyterianism. Yet, later when Witherow was seeking to become a professor at Magee College, Henry Cooke participated in some political maneuvering that would aid his son-in-law, Josiah L Porter, in landing the post instead of Witherow. However, much later in life Witherow would be asked to deliver a lecture named after Cooke! He gladly offered it.
It is also remarkable to read about the sad providences that characterized Witherow’s life. Witherow’s grandfather died the day he preached his first sermon. What is more, Witherow preached the day he lost his five-year-old son, Hugh, named after his father. Grief was only compounded when Thomas and his wife Catherine experienced yet another death of a son. He too was named Hugh after his brother and grandfather. However, the biography contains many other interesting elements. Witherow did transition to the life of a professor, he witnessed the Ulster Revival of 1859 and he even served on the local committee that oversaw food rations during the Great Famine of 1845-49. The biography is only one of the book’s delights.
The Apostolic Church
The second section of the book is titled the Presbyterian Distinctives of Thomas Witherow, which is made up of a collection of three short books from his pen. The first is The Apostolic Church, which was published in 1855 though the imprint says 1856. The book is simple and straightforward. However, its simplicity should not lull the reader into thinking that it is not worth his time. This book is a witty polemic which had, according to W. T. Latimer, a contemporary professor in Belfast, “the effect of rendering members of our church better Christians and more consistent Presbyterians.”
The strength of The Apostolic Church, as is true of his other works, is its exegetical foundation with strong systematic theological conclusions. For Witherow, Presbyterianism could not be relegated to the unimportant collection of so-called unessential doctrines and so ignored. Presbyterianism, he believed, must be understood and proclaimed from the church’s pulpits or else this Bible doctrine will be by “birth and habit” only and not conviction.
For anyone looking for a brief but powerful treatment on Presbyterian principles, look no further. Witherow unfolds six principles that encapsulate and articulate the doctrine of Presbyterian ecclesiology. This is an excellent treatment on the subject because it is rooted in the Scriptures and developed with systematic precision.
This book, like his others was written out of the Church’s need. Rev. Alexander Carson, a contemporary of Witherow, had written a large work advocating baptistic theology. Robert Wilson, professor of biblical criticism and interpretation at the Assembly’s College in Belfast, had previously refuted Carson’s work (53). However, Witherow set out to give the people in the pew something they could read and understood on the subject. So, Witherow covered two basic areas: first, the mode and second the subjects of baptism.
Some of Witherow’s argumentation will not appeal to the reader who is caught up on the most recent scholarship. However, taking that into consideration, Witherow’s intent is enough motivation for any reader. His desire was to write something that he could hand to his congregation, and he obviously succeeded. There are several strengths in this book. One of them is found in the refutation of the Anabaptist. His fourth argument is a logical and Biblical argument that will set a Baptist on his heels. Or in his “Additional Considerations”, Witherow argues that the Sabbath Day and the baptism of children run theologically parallel, and so to refute the one may well refute the other! This is an argument well worth reading and considering.
However, perhaps the most helpful part of this book, dare I say the most entertaining, is the section called “The Parable of the City Park.” This is a fantastic little story meant to drive home the Biblical teaching of infant baptism, and it does the job. This little story is well worth the read. Soon after reading it I read it to my family. In fact, this is a good example of how ministers might well communicate complex truths using simple methods without fear of distorting the truth. In this sense, Witherow is like an early Sproul!
This is a book that is both informative and convicting. This is a very short primer on the Sabbath and excellent for teaching about the distinction between the moral and ceremonial aspects of the Sabbath, the perpetuity of the Sabbath and the Christian adaptions of the day. However, the most powerful aspect of this book is how prophetic it is. Witherow asks, what will be the result if we turn the Sabbath into a day of amusement? His answer, “[without] pretending to be a seer, you may safely venture to predict that as a day of amusement it will not last two generations.”
Witherow then unfolds for his generation what is still future but what is now our reality. He starts by asking what harm there could be in allowing some the joy of worldly entertainment and some the pleasure of earning money on the Sabbath. He answers, “[when] the giddy are gone off to their sports, the thrifty industrious part of the community will begin to open their shops…their neighbors who go off every Sabbath morning by the excursion train in search of pleasure will soon begin to find that the pleasure is beginning to cost too much….The immediate result will be that the pleasure trips on Sunday will come to a speedy end. To hold his own in the race of life, a man must of necessity open his shop every day that his neighbor opens his” (245). Witherow then asks, “[where] then will be the poor man’s Sabbath? I answer it will be gone, and gone – never to come back. It is easy to run down the hill, but it is not so easy to run up.”
I highly recommend I will Build My Church. For ministers, it is a great way to think about how to communicate complex truths in simple but not simplistic ways. It is great for family reading on the Lord’s Day. And frankly, the topics make it a book that every Presbyterian ought to read with joy and Witherow makes the reading easy – and a joy.
Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.