Presbyterianism, Reformed

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PRESBYTERIANISM, REFORMED . The word presbyterian refers both to a particular form of church government and, more generally, to churches that are governed by presbyters (elders or priests) but have many other characteristics. The word reformed defines a theological perspective. The two words usually but not always belong together. Most Reformed churches are presbyterian, but they may also be congregational and occasionally episcopal in governance.

Historical Origins of Presbyterianism

Presbyterians are catholic in their affirmation of the triune God and of the creeds of the ancient catholic church: the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian definition. They are Protestant in the sense of Martin Luther's treatises of 1520. Their Reformed roots are in the Reformation at Zurich, under the leadership of Ulrich Zwingli (14841531) and Heinrich Bullinger (15041575); at Strasbourg, under Martin Bucer (14911551); and at Geneva, with the work of John Calvin (15091564).

Reformed theology at the time of the Reformation

Reformed theology was a type of Protestantismas distinct from Lutheranism, Anglicanism, and the theology of the radical Reformationthat originated in Switzerland, the upper Rhineland, and France. Most of the early Reformed theologians had a background in Christian humanism. They were more energetic and radical in their reform of medieval Catholicism than were the Lutherans. The Lutherans' practice was guided by the principle that everything in church life contrary to the word of God should be eliminated. The Reformed church insisted upon positive scriptural warrant for all church practice.

Reformed theology was characterized by its emphasis upon the doctrine of God, who was conceived not so much as beauty or truth but as energy, activity, power, intentionality, and moral purpose. Reformed theologians believed that all of life and history is rooted in the decrees or purposes of God. They emphasized the lordship of God in history and in the salvation of the Christian as emphasized in the doctrine of predestination. They shared the Lutheran doctrine that no one ever merits salvation and that salvation is always grace, always forgiveness. Yet they understood the Christian life as obedience to the law of God and as the embodiment of the purposes of God. As far as the relation of Christian faith to society was concerned, they neither withdrew from society nor identified Christian faith with culture. They were converters of culture and transformers of history, at least in intention.

A central theme of Reformed theology was the glory of God. The salvation of souls and concern for one's own condition was subordinate to giving God the praise, acknowledging his grace, and fulfilling his purpose in personal life and history. The Reformed churches were also characterized by an emphasis on the life of the mind as proper service of God. John Calvin, the most influential of Reformed theologians, was not a speculative thinker. While rejecting curiosity as destructive of faith, Calvin insisted that Christians should know what they believed; the way a person thinks determines action. Calvin also placed high value upon verbal expressions of faith. The sermon became the focus of Reformed worship. Through its example of disciplined, logical thinking, the sermon became a factor in influencing culture in Reformed communities.

The major theological works that shaped Reformed theology in Presbyterian churches were Calvin's The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), Institutio Theologiae Elencticae (1688) of Francis Turretin, and Systematic Theology (18711873) of Charles Hodge. The most influential creeds have been the Scots Confession of 1560 and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

Reformed liturgy

In liturgy the Reformed churches placed a premium upon intelligibility and edification. As with life generally, Calvin insisted that worship should be simple, free from theatrical trifles. The sacraments were limited to the Lord's Supper and baptism, which were believed to have been instituted by Jesus Christ. Within the Reformed tradition some emphasized a preaching service, intending only an occasional celebration of the Lord's Supper. Others believed that the normative service united preaching and the Lord's Supper. Among the more prominent documents of the liturgical tradition are Huldrych Zwingli's Liturgy of the Word, Guillaume Farel's The Order Observed in Preaching, Calvin's The Form of Church Prayers, John Knox's The Form of Prayers, The Westminster Directory of Worship, the Book of Common Order (Church of Scotland), and the Book of Common Worship (Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.).

Presbyterian polity

The word presbyterian a graded system of representative ecclesiastical bodieshas its primary reference not to theology or liturgy but to church government. The prominence of the word in the names of churches has two sources. First, the Reformed churches all believed that the way a church is ordered is important. This was especially the case with Calvin, who devoted long sections of the Institutes as well as a major part of his active life to questions of church governance and order. He believed that order is determined by theology and, in its turn, shapes life. Second, English-speaking Presbyterians were involved in lengthy and at times bitter struggles over the order of the church, sometimes with those who shared their theology. This was true in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Church of England, which included in its membership Congregationalists and Presbyterians as well as Episcopalians and in which many Episcopalians were also Reformed in theology. The Congregationalists and Presbyterians formed dissenting churches in England. Presbyterians in Britain and Northern Ireland never forgot these controversies, especially the attempts to impose episcopacy by governmental authority in Scotland and Ulster. The word presbyterian first began to be used in Scotland in the first half of the seventeenth century. Since then it has been the designation of English-speaking, Reformed Christians who maintain a presbyterian polity. Reformed churches on the European continent with presbyterian polities are called Reformed after their theology.

Presbyterianism is not a fixed pattern of church life but a developing pattern that has both continuity and diversity. Many features of the system vary from time to time and from place to place. In the United States, for example, Presbyterianism developed from the congregation to the presbytery, to the synod, to the General Assembly. In Scotland, Presbyterianism grew out of a gradually evolving notion of how the church should be governed, out of conflict with episcopacy, and from the General Assembly down to the congregation.

Presbyterians find the roots of their polity in the reforming activity of Calvin. With the reform of doctrine, the city council in Geneva had also driven out the bishop and the whole clerical establishment. This gave the reformers greater freedom in shaping the order of the church than in places where so much of the traditional structure remained intact. Calvin gave special attention to the organized life of the church partly because of his personal inclinations as a trained lawyer and also out of the theological conviction that proper order was necessary for both the piety and the purity of the church.

In his doctrine of the church, Calvin's primary emphasis was on the action of the Holy Spirit, who created the church through word and sacrament. Jesus Christ is the only head of the church, and under him all are equal. In addition, Calvin struggled all his life for a church that was independent of state control. He held to the notion of a Christian society with a magistrate whose work in the civil order is a vocation from God, but ideally Calvin wanted church and state to work together under God yet in independence of each other organizationally. Calvin placed great emphasis on the minister, who interprets and applies the word of God. On occasion Calvin refers to the preacher as the mouth of God. The importance of the minister in leading worship, in preaching, in teaching, and in pastoral care is one of function not of status. Calvin insisted that the government of the church should be in the hands of a consistory (council) composed of ministers and elders chosen from the congregation. (In Geneva the choice was limited to members of the city council.) He was opposed on theological grounds to government by individuals who were neither good nor wise enough for such responsibility, and he was likewise opposed to rule by the masses, who were not sufficiently qualified to govern. In both church and state, Calvin advocated government by an aristocracy, in the Aristotelian sense of the qualified, tempered by democracy. In representative government the will of God was more likely to be done. With few exceptions (Hungary, for example), Reformed churches that looked to Geneva for leadership were governed by a council.

Calvin also worked for a disciplined church. Discipline was the primary responsibility of the consistory. Calvin located the exercise of discipline at admission to the Lord's Table. The consistory examined communicants on knowledge based on catechetical instruction and on manner of life. Another of Calvin's achievements was the restoration of the office of deacon as exercising the church's ministry of compassion to the sick and needy.

Calvin developed a polity only for Geneva and the surrounding countryside; hence, in his own work he left the full development of church structure open-ended. Some have argued that Calvin's polity is compatible with episcopacy, but the most that can be established is that Calvin did not oppose existing administrative and judicial episcopal structures.

Although some Calvinists became Congregationalists, Calvin's successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, was an ardent Presbyterian. Beza guided the Reformed church in France as it worked out the first presbyterian church government on a national scale, with local, district, provincial, and national assemblies composed of ministers and elders. Presbyterianism also became the form of church government in the Netherlands and other Reformed churches on the continent. It received its great emphasis, however, in Scotland, where the controversy about the structure of the church, whether it should be congregational, presbyterian, or episcopal, was vigorously contested and received an importance not given to questions of polity elsewhere.

There are four basic principles of presbyterian polity. The first is the authority of scripture. Some Presbyterians, such as Thomas Cartwright in Puritan England and James Henley Thornwell in American Presbyterianism, contended that presbyterianism was the biblical form of church government. Most Presbyterians have argued that presbyterianism is agreeable to scripture. Traditionally, Presbyterians have wanted to test government as well as doctrine by scripture. They have always subordinated church government to the gospel and have never made the form of government a test of the reality of the church.

The other three principles of presbyterian polity relate to form of governance and relations among clergy and between clergy and laity. Presbyterians have emphasized the unity of the church governed by a graded series of church courts. These assemblies are composed of ministers and elders elected by the people. The word church applies both to the local congregation and to the whole body of believers. There is no local congregation without its participation in the whole body of believers, and no church without local congregations. It is in the governance of the church through assemblies that presbyterianism most clearly differs from episcopacy and congregationalism. A third principle is the parity of ministers, who have the same and equal authority under the one head of the church, Jesus Christ. Finally, the fourth principle is the right of the people to call their pastors and to elect those who govern them. Sometimes this right has been limited by circumstance to approval or consent, but the demand to exercise the right of the people has continually reasserted itself.

Among the primary documents of Presbyterian polity are book four of the Institutes; Ecclesiastical Ordinances of Geneva ; the First Book of Discipline and the Second Book of Discipline of the Church of Scotland; the Book of Discipline of the Elizabethan Presbyterians. Also primary are the Westminster Assembly's Form of Presbyterian Government and The Form of Government of American Presbyterian churches.

The Presbyterian Churches

The Church of Scotland continues the tradition in which English-speaking Presbyterianism was first established. The Congregational church in England and Wales and the Presbyterian Church of England became the United Reformed Church in 1972. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United Reformed Church, the Church of Scotland, and the Presbyterian churches of Ireland and Wales had approximately 1.5 million members.

The Presbyterian churches in the United States have their origin in emigration from Scotland and Northern Ireland. Puritan influences were also strong. The Presbyterian Church at Hempstead and later Jamaica, Long Island, was composed largely of Puritans and is probably the oldest continuing Presbyterian Church in the United States, dating from 1644. The first presbytery was organized under the leadership of Francis Makemie, who had come from Ulster, at Philadelphia in 1706. The organization of a synod followed in 1717, and the adoption of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms as theological standards occurred in 1729. The General Assembly held its first meeting in 1789. American Presbyterians have divided on three occasions. The Old SideNew Side division (17411768) had to do with the accommodation of the church to the American frontier; the New SchoolOld School division (18371864 and 1869) was concerned with doctrinal and ecclesiastical issues; the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States (later the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.) split in 1861 and reunited in 1983. The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. had a uniting membership of approximately 2.5 million in 2004.

The Cumberland Presbyterian Church originated in a split from the main body of Presbyterians during the revivals in the first decades of the nineteenth century. A major portion of the Cumberland Church reunited with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1903. The Second Cumberland Church, with a predominantly black membership and numbers of 15,500 in 1993, exists independently but in close cooperation with the main body of Cumberland Presbyterians.

The Associate and the Reformed Presbyterians, who originated in secessions from the Church of Scotland, continued their existence in the immigration to the United States. The major body of Associate and Reformed Presbyterians, having become the United Presbyterian Church (1858), merged with the mainstream of Presbyterians in 1958, becoming the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, located largely in the South, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America continue the traditions of the Scottish secession Presbyterians.

Other Presbyterian churches originated out of the controversies generated by the conservative and liberal theologies of the twentieth century. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a withdrawal from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1936, the Bible Presbyterian Church, a split from the Orthodox in 1938, and the Presbyterian Church of America, organized in 1973 in a pullout from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., have their origins in these controversies.

Presbyterianism came to Canada chiefly through emigration from Scotland and represented all the divisions of Presbyterianism there. In 1875 they united in one church. The majority combined in 1925 with Congregationalists and Methodists to form the United Church of Canada. The Presbyterian Church in Canada had a membership of 129,684 in 2004.

Presbyterian churches in Australia and New Zealand were also established by Scottish immigrants. In the 1961 census, 9.3 percent of Australians declared themselves to be Presbyterian, and in the 1996 census, this percentage dropped to 3.8. In 1977 the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregational churches formed the Uniting Church in Australia (300,000 members in 2001, with 1.3 million claiming an association). The (continuing) Presbyterian Church of Australia in 1996 had 675,534 members. Scottish immigration and the Church of Scotland's support of immigrants are the basis of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand (54,000 members in 1999).

Presbyterian churches have been established throughout the world by the missionary movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Strong Presbyterian churches exist especially in Korea and also in Brazil, Mexico, and Africa. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches, which is now organized on the basis of theology rather than polity, reported a worldwide membership of 75 million in 2003. This includes younger churches in Africa, South America, and Asia with Reformed theologies but not necessarily presbyterian polities.

See Also

Beza, Theodore; Calvin, John; Church, article on Church Polity; Farel, Guillaume; Humanism; Knox, John; Zwingli, Huldrych.


Bolam, C. Gordon, et al. The English Presbyterians: From Elizabethan Puritanism to Modern Unitarianism. London, 1968.

Henderson, George D. Presbyterianism. Aberdeen, Scotland, 1955. A comprehensive introduction to the origin and development of presbyterian polity.

Leith, John H. Introduction to the Reformed Tradition: A Way of Being the Christian Community. Rev. ed. Atlanta, 1981. Chapters on the ethos, theology, polity, worship, and the cultural expression of the Reformed community.

Loetscher, Lefferts A. A Brief History of the Presbyterians. 4th ed. Philadelphia, 1984. Brief but reliable.

McNeil, John Thomas. The History and Character of Calvinism. New York, 1954. Comprehensive, reliable, judicious. The work of a distinguished historian who cherished the tradition.

New Sources

Hart, D. G., and Mark A. Noll, eds. Dictionary of the Presbyterian and Reformed Tradition in America. Downers Grove, Ill., 1999.

John H. Leith (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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