This Winter, Westminster Magazine had the chance to sit down with Dr. Jonathan Gibson and reflect on his first five years at Westminster and his recent publications. The following interview has been lightly edited and compressed for clarity and concision.
Westminster Magazine (WM): You recently crossed the five-year mark of teaching at Westminster. What feels different to you at this point? What’s changed at the seminary culturally or even institutionally in those five years?
Jonathan Gibson (JG): Well, I think the infrastructure of Westminster has really improved in the last five years. The lecture rooms are better equipped. . . certainly from a technological point of view there’s been some great advancements.
I think at the seminary overall, I would say I’ve seen an increased focus on training people for pastoral ministry. More guys are coming in wanting to be pastors and more are leaving feeling called to the pastoral ministry. I think that’s really down to Dr. Oliphint when he was Dean, and Dr. Kent Hughes—they really helped rebuild the PT department and did a lot of ground work. And then the appointment of Drs. Currie, Poirier, and Edwards has really helped us solidify and strengthen that.
WM: Is there a conscious effort to make other programs, apart from pastoral theology, more pastorally oriented? How does that work out for you in the Old Testament department?
JG: I can’t speak for other classes, but for the Old Testament department—myself, Iain, Stephen—we’ve all been pastors at different points, and came with experiences of ministry in different settings, e.g., the mission field. And I know each of us teaches very much from that perspective. . . we’re always trying to show how the text leads to certain pastoral applications, asking “How would you preach from this text?”
WM: What are you excited to see happen at the seminary over the next five years? What would you like to accomplish?
JG: Staying focused on the main thing. Keeping the main thing the main thing. And that is training men for ministry and training women for ministry in appropriate female contexts. But staying focused on the main thing, not trying to become too big or broad, but basically staying narrow and focused on what Westminster was founded as. And that is to train people to be faithful ministers of the gospel, not just in America, but across the world.
The other thing I would say that’s really encouraged me in the last five years is that I think there’s been a renewed interest and focus on orthopraxy as much as orthodoxy. We’ve been known as a seminary for fighting battles that have to do with doctrine and the truth of the Scriptures, which were all good and necessary. But there are also battles to fight on personal piety and godliness, integrity and faithfulness in ministry and marriage. And I think those are just as important. In 1 Timothy 4:16, Paul says to Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” And I’ve certainly seen that become a greater focus among faculty and the student body and in our classes in my time here.
WM: Do you see that as a larger area of focus now in the Presbyterian church? Has that been neglected perhaps, in Reformed churches and seminaries?
JG: I think so, yes. In evangelical and Reformed seminaries and churches I think there has been a disconnect between orthopraxy and orthodoxy at times. Charles Spurgeon famously said during the Downgrade Controversy that doctrine was the coal to fuel the fires of Christian piety. . . But I would also put it the other way around as well—the coals of Christian piety are needed to stoke the fires of orthodoxy. If you read the Pastoral Epistles, that relationship between godliness and doctrine is a two-way relationship. People deviate from the truth because they have a seared conscience or are living an ungodly life. They don’t always start with false doctrine and get led into ungodliness. That is, of course, possible; but they also start with ungodliness and get led into false doctrine.
WM: How do we emphasize orthopraxy at a seminary where the focus can easily become simply equipping a pastor or theologian with knowledge, and not necessarily with character? How do you build that into curriculum?
JG: Well, we’ve got three C’s that we’re focusing on: Convictions, Competence, and Character. Mentoring groups are one of the new initiatives that we’re implementing, where faculty will spend an hour a week with a group of ten to twelve students. As a faculty, we’re aiming to address issues of character in this weekly slot. For example, I did six weeks on godliness in the Pastoral Epistles in my mentoring group, where we made our way through different aspects of Paul’s focus of encouraging Timothy to be godly.
WM: On top of teaching, mentoring, your family, you’ve also published a few books in the last six months: Be Thou My Vision (Crossway), the first two installments in your Acrostic series with Timothy Brindle (New Growth Press),and I Will Build My Church, which our Westminster Seminary Press released in January. How did you manage to get that much work done in such a short period?
JG: Well, it was really due to a six-month sabbatical kindly granted by the seminary administration and board. The key thing I found most conducive for my productivity was switching off my email for six months. I redirected all my Westminster emails into another folder rather than my inbox. I could have looked at the folder if I wanted, but I chose not to. So that meant every day when I went to work on my computer, I wasn’t distracted by emails that required my urgent attention or took up my mental space unnecessarily. I was able in a very real way to apply the time-honored principle of “not sacrificing the important on the altar of the urgent.” And so, by God’s grace, it was a very productive time.
WM: Be Thou My Vision seems like it’s really found an audience in Reformed circles and beyond. There’s been a trend of retrieval of liturgy in the American church in recent years, maybe even accelerated by your earlier collection, Reformation Worship. How did this interest in liturgy originally develop for you?
JG: Yeah, liturgy is presently cool again, but my own journey happened a little differently, in two ways. In God’s providence, professional and personal experiences led me into it. In 2015, I was commissioned by my Presbytery to put together some liturgical resources for ministers. That bit of research led to me gathering together a bunch of liturgies from the Reformation era, which then formed the basis for Reformation Worship, which I edited with my friend Mark Earngey. And then the other providence was personal. In 2016, our daughter Leila died at full-term in the womb, and as Jackie and I wrestled through the deep pain of her death we very quickly became interested in [heavenly worship]. . . So Hebrews 12:22–24 became very meaningful for us, that we “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” It was that phrase, “the spirits of the righteous made perfect”, that really stood out for us. It gave new significance to what it meant to gather for worship on the Lord’s Day.
Be Thou My Vision then came about during the COVID-19 lockdowns. During that time, I became a bit bored and disillusioned with my devotional life, and so I thought about how I could I enrich it. My liturgy for my quiet time was: pray, read, pray. That is, I’d pray a quick prayer for God to speak to me, read my Bible, and then pray some praises to God. But really, I was mainly rattling off petitions. And so I thought, is there some better way to do this? My son goes to school at a Reformed Episcopal church, and they do Mattins and Evensong. And I started to appreciate what he experiences everyday and then thought, well, why not use those kind of elements in my daily quiet time? And so that’s what led to Be Thou My Vision.
WM: So maybe that’s an interesting point to ask you about I Will Build My Church, because that is a book that is very much concerned with the distinctions between Presbyterians and Anglicans and Baptists, etc. What was it about Witherow that motivated you to bring these works back into print and to write the biography that’s in the book as well?
JG: . . .Well, if you read Witherow, then you’ll see why—he’s so clear, so cogent, so coherent, and so persuasive. Witherow has dropped off the Presbyterian map in many ways in the last century, but hopefully this book will put him back on the map. I’m hoping people will see what a seminal scholar and pastor he was. When he died, one of the local newspapers said, “a prince has fallen in Presbyterian Ireland.” Hence the title I gave to the biography that I’ve written about him: A Prince of Irish Presbyterianism.
WM: There might be some dyed in the wool Presbyterians who are reading this, thinking “this would be a great present for my Reformed Baptist friend.” But is there a reason for Presbyterians, even Presbyterians who’ve been through a Presbyterian seminary, to pick this up?
JG: Yes. In his last chapter of The Apostolic Church Withrow laments—and this is in the mid-nineteenth century—that the policies and principles of Presbyterian governance had not been taught in the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. The pulpit, he says, had been silent on these matters, and the church was none the better for it. . . To draw an analogy: it’s not unlike the gospel—every generation needs to reaffirm the gospel. If we don’t, then it can easily become assumed. And once you go from believing the gospel to assuming the gospel, you’re only one generation away from denying the gospel. And I think that’s what happens in Presbyterian circles: the principles of Presbyterian polity, the covenant basis for baptism of children, and the Sabbath as the Lord’s Day, a day set apart for worship—they all just become assumed. And once you move from really practicing and believing such distinctives to just assuming them, then you’re really only a generation away from denying them. And so maybe in recent decades, a generation of people have been raised in Presbyterianism that have just assumed the principles of Presbyterianism, without actually being taught them.
WM: You weren’t born into the Presbyterian church yourself. How did your own journey into the Presbyterian church affect your faith?
JG: Yes, I was raised in churches of different denominations: Anglican, congregational, Christian Brethren, Baptist, but the shift toward Presbyterianism really started when I was at Moore Theological College in Sydney. I had to do a lot of reading in church history. . .and as I did so, I started to have a greater respect for folk in church history who baptized babies, and I realized that I couldn’t really have these simplistic responses that they just didn’t take the Reformation far enough. . . And then over time, as I taught Bible overviews in different settings, I just kept seeing covenantal continuity everywhere, and I saw the movement of the Bible storyline from one of exclusion to inclusion. The way I like to say it is, “The paradigm overwhelmed me.” Also, a comment by a close friend, Paul Levy, was also very significant. Paul had moved from being a Baptist to being a Presbyterian, and one day he said to me: “If you’re a Baptist, then as you move from the Old Testament to the New Testament, you really do go from the greater to the lesser with how God related to children. But if you’re a Presbyterian, you go from lesser to greater.” When I became a Presbyterian, I felt like I arrived home theologically. Of course, I will always be grateful for the experiences I had in other Christian denominations, but becoming Presbyterian was when I felt like my Bible clicked into place for the first time. . . I [started to] read my Bible from left to right, instead of from right to left.
WM: The inclusion of Witherow’s lecture The Sabbath is unique. When you think about recent popular books about the importance of observing the Sabbath.. . very few titles come to mind! In general, it seems like a safe generalization that the Sabbath isn’t a priority for most of the American church today. Should that change?
JG: Well, Witherow’s main argument in his lecture on the Sabbath is really an argument for the perpetuity of the Sabbath. He argues that while the Sabbath came to its fulfillment in Christ, there is a new sign to signify the Sabbath rest that Christ brings and which also still points to the Sabbath rest yet to come. So, for Witherow, the Sabbath did not cease to exist with the coming of Christ. It just took on a new form: the Lord’s Day. The sign moved from the last day of the week to the first day of the week to demonstrate the new world order that Christ inaugurated in his first coming and which he will consummate in his second coming. In his lecture, Witherow is sensitive to redemptive history: he says the focus in the Old Testament is more on rest than worship. And the focus in the New Testament shifts to worship more than rest. You do both on the day, but his point is it takes on a new focus and form in the New. For Witherow, we need to let the most Mosaic form of the Sabbath fall away and have the Christian form of the Lord’s Day take its place. But his overall argument is that the principle of the Sabbath remains in perpetuity between both dispensations of the old and new covenants.
So that’s his central argument in his book, the perpetuity of the Sabbath. Hebrews 4 tells us that there yet remains a Sabbath for the people of God. If that is true, then there yet remains a sign of the Sabbath for the people of God. The sign of the Sabbath only becomes obsolete when the reality of the Sabbath has fully dawned.
WM: What do you think is missing for folk in the pews when we have a deficient view of the Sabbath?
JG: If we don’t observe the Lord’s Day, then I think it shows we are too earthly minded; we’ve become too focused on the things of this world and not on the things of the world to come. Of course, there are emotional and physical benefits from resting one day a week. Even secular societies know this: they don’t work seven days a week. They have a day off or two days off at the weekend. So there are benefits from resting one day a week, but the real focus of the Sabbath and Lord’s Day is worship—the worship of the triune God. If we don’t have that focus in our lives, then it reveals that we’re too busy worshiping the things of the earth and not the God who dwells in the heavens.
The Sabbath day is a day to remind us that we’re pilgrims on this earth, and we’re on our way to the heavenly city. And when we worship on the Lord’s Day by faith, we join in the heavenly worship of those above: the angels and archangels, the martyrs and saints who have gone before us. They worship by sight and we by faith, but it’s the same worship service. On the Lord’s Day, the church militant on earth joins the church triumphant in heaven, and together we worship our triune God.
Witherow captures this well when he says that the Sabbath “is a shadow and an earnest of the everlasting rest, which the servants of God, through the obedience and sufferings of the Lord Jesus, count upon enjoying in the presence of the angels.” So you can see how he’s really showing us how the Sabbath points us from this world to another world. And it’s a sign, a shadow of a greater reality, of the life of the world to come.
Witherow in his time was also concerned about shops opening and amusements opening on the Sabbath because he feared it would make the day just an ordinary day of the week, instead of functioning as a sign of a future heaven and heavenly rest. If we get rid of the Lord’s Day, then I think he’s right, we lose something as a society and a culture if we make Sundays just another day where you can do everything we normally do. It is, first and foremost, a day set apart for the worship of God, and that was what Witherow was aiming to preserve in his day.
WM: The theme of this issue of Westminster Magazine is “Endure in Grace.” We’re drawing on 1 Peter and asking what the Christian’s responsibilities are in an unfriendly world. As we’re talking about church governance and Sabbath observance, one response could be, is it really time to focus on what separates the church? Isn’t it right to put our differences aside and put the unity of the church first?
JG: In regard to the unity of the church, we need to keep Christ central as the only Head of his church. And so all those united to him are fellow Christians with us, no matter their denominational affiliation. The Westminster Confession of Faith is very ecumenical at this point: it says that all those who profess the truth of Christianity are Christians and members of his church along with their children (WCF 25.2). So I think that should be our starting point. As Presbyterians, we want to exhibit a catholic-spirited unity to Christians from all denominations. We have lots to learn from those outside our fold. Hopefully I’ve shown that in my two books Reformation Worship and Be Thou My Vision.
However, once we confess ourselves to be Christians in unity with other Christians, then we will have to work out what kind of church government structure we are willing to submit to, and how we are prepared to receive the sacrament of baptism for ourselves and our children, and how we are going to spend the first day of every week. All Christians will have to decide what they think on these matters and therefore what kind of a church they are willing to attend.
Related to this, I would point people to the first chapter of Witherow’s The Apostolic Church, where [Witherow] engages the idea that, in writing about polity, he’s talking about something peripheral and unimportant. Well, Witherow says, if we’re going to be consistent on this line of reasoning, then we’d have to say that the vast majority of Scripture is taken up with unimportant matters; the salvation passages do not comprise the vast majority of some books of Scripture. But Witherow makes the point that just because something’s not essential to salvation doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. On page 87, he uses a great analogy in shipbuilding to make his point: “In ship building, the screws and bolts that gird the ship together are insignificant, as compared with the beams of oak and masts of pine, but they contribute their full share to the safety of the vessel and the security of the passenger. So in the Christian system, every fact, great or small, that God has been pleased to insert in the Bible, is, by its very position, invested with importance, answers its end, and, though perhaps justly considered as non-essential to salvation, does not deserve to be accounted as worthless.”
So, yes, some of these issues are not essential to salvation, but they are not unimportant either—otherwise why would our good God have included them in his holy book? One way I like to think of it is like this: polity, baptism, and the Sabbath are not salvation issues for the church, but they are health issues for the church. How
a church thinks about these kind of issues will reveal how healthy a church is in its life and discipleship of its members. Witherow thinks Presbyterianism is the best (albeit imperfect) expression of these important priniciples for the life of the church. I’ll end with this somewhat provocative statement by him:
“There is such a thing as being a Presbyterian without being a Christian, and it is possible to be a Christian without being a Presbyterian. Depend upon it, it is best to be both.”