James Henley Thornwell on Evangelists

In this week’s article, I am quoting several pages from James Henley Thornwell’s fourth volume of his collected works that deals with ecclesiastical matters. I am a Thornwellian in my ecclesiastical positions and Vanguard Presbytery was self-consciously begun as a Thornwellian denomination with respect to church government. We developed our Book of Church Order to reflect those positions that Thornwell championed so well. Those positions of Thornwell and others are in agreement with the New Side-Old School distinctives of Vanguard Presbytery.

The quote from Thornwell below was in his review of a sermon that had been preached by Dr. Robert Breckinridge, one of Thornwell’s closest friends. Thornwell augmented the positions of Breckinridge by writing a few words about the office of evangelist. Every person, whether they think they are for or against evangelists, needs to read Thornwell’s article. I suppose that no position taken by Vanguard has been more debated and discussed and castigated unfairly than the office of evangelist. Now, I want to say something that will come as a surprise to many of those who disagree with our position. Here it is: I have never met an evangelical Christian anywhere in the world, who could self-consistently disagree with the continuation of the office of evangelists. And, yes, I am aware of John Owen’s brief words about the cessation of the office of evangelist. But let me say this: If Owen had lived in backwoods America in the 1600’s rather than in Great Britain where churches abounded, he would not have written that the office of evangelist had ceased. Plus, Owen was pretty much alone in that view. John Bunyan certainly disagreed in Pilgrim’s Progress where he named the person who preached to Christian as the Evangelist. If Owen had lived in America, he would have been writing about the need for someone to go out and take the gospel to the world. That someone would have been an evangelist. I think that is why the American Presbyterian churches from the very beginning got it right by including evangelists in all of their books of polity. In fact, most every American Presbyterian denomination still has sections that define the office and work of evangelists today.

Now, if you have ever been a part of starting a new church, you believe in the office of evangelist in your heart of hearts. If you have ever served on a missionary board or given to world missions, you believe in the office of evangelist. If you have ever taken a mission trip, you believe in the office of evangelist. As Thornwell shows below, the evangelist goes out to the world and proclaims the gospel in order to build up a church. The pastor cares for the flock that already exists. So, if a person who opposes the office of evangelist is going to be consistent, he is required to disagree with the need for evangelism; he must not serve on or give to missions; he must not take mission trips; he must not pray for the fulfillment of the Great Commission; and, he must not serve on the board of any church or organization that does any of those things. In other words, he cannot be an evangelical because evangelicals are evangelistic. And those Christians who are evangelistic believe in the office of the evangelist, in their heart of hearts, whether they realize it or not. So, here are Thornwell’s words on the office of the evangelist:      

“The text is taken from Ephesians iv. 8: “When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men,” and the Christian Pastor is accordingly treated as one of the ascension gifts of the Redeemer. The nature of Dr. Breckinridge’s design precluded him from bestowing any labor in establishing the distinction, received by nearly all Protestants, and expressly asserted in our ecclesiastical Standards, between the extraordinary and the ordinary offices constituted by Christ in His Church; or in showing precisely which are permanent and which are not; or in pointing out the precise nature and boundaries of such as are perpetual.” We have long felt the want of some brief, clear and learned discussion of these points, and we know of no greater service which, in these days of ecclesiastical extravagance, one could render to the Church than to furnish such a treatise. Many valuable hints are suggested in the First Book of Warburton’s Doctrine of Grace; and if the passages which he adduces and the general course of reasoning which he adopts be not conclusive, there is no text of Scripture, so far as we know, which directly teaches that any of the offices instituted by Christ were temporary and occasional, nor is there any method by which this can be satisfactorily demonstrated. The principle upon which our Standards themselves seem to justify their doctrine is, that when the gifts which are essential to the office are withdrawn, the office itself is revoked. Miraculous gifts are indispensable to Prophets and Apostles, and, they having ceased, Prophets and Apostles have ceased with them. But the question here arises, What is the scriptural evidence that these miraculous gifts should cease? The Papists contend that they are still to be found in the Church; and though we may safely join issue with them as to the fact, how shall we show from the Word of God that it was never intended to perpetuate them? How shall we prove from the Scriptures that the present withdrawal of these gifts is not in anger, not a rebuke to the Church’s unfaithfulness and want of prayer, but an integral part of the present dispensation of the Gospel? We may say that the end of all these extraordinary offices has been accomplished, and that they have consequently become useless. From the accomplishment of the end to the cessation of the means, the argument may be admitted to be sound; but where is the scriptural proof of what was the end in the present case? How do we know what precise purpose God intended to effect? It may be that this purpose is now adequately met in the written Rule of Faith with which we are furnished, but it is certainly easier to make the statement than to prove it from the Scriptures. If our limits allowed, we would gladly enter upon this subject here, but must content ourselves with a general reference to the Second Book of the Doctrine of Grace.[1] It deserves to be remarked that, according to the American Standards all extraordinary offices are not necessarily temporary. The Evangelist is an extraordinary officer, and yet it to be continued in the world as long as there are frontier and destitute settlements in which churches are to be planted and the Gospel established. 

“The peculiarity is essential to the perfection of the Presbyterian system, and makes it what, it strikes us, no other system of church-government is, an adequate institute for gathering churches as well as governing those which are already gathered. Episcopacy, whether Diocesan or Parochial, supposes a Church already formed; Congregationalism implies the previous existence of the Brethren; Pastors have relation to a fixed charge; and the Evangelist is the only officer who is set apart for the express purpose of making aggressive attacks on the world. He goes where there cannot be Bishops and Pastors: he prepares the way for these messengers of Christ by making ready a people called of the Lord. It is this feature in our system which makes ours so pre-eminently a missionary Church.” (The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, Banner of Truth Trust, 1974, 16-18). 

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL


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[1] We are not to be understood as endorsing Warburton’s doctrine in regard to the operations of the Spirit in the calling and sanctification of men. We have an absolute horror of his low and groveling view on everything connected with the essence of the Gospel. But his argument in favor of the cessation of the miraculous gifts is very able and ingenious. 

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