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Presbyterianism: Carrying the Torch of “Reformed” Ecclesiology and Theology

Last month when we examined Anglicanism, we noted that the denomination’s uniqueness originated in the way its founders sought to unite the best of Protestantism and Catholicism. They sought, in other words, a middle way between “Geneva” and “Rome.” This month we turn our attention to a group that sought to identify itself only with Geneva’s “Reformed” church: Presbyterianism.

What is Presbyterianism?

Presbyterianism is a group of denominations that gets its name from their unique ecclesiastical polity (or authority-structure). The term presbyter is the Greek word for “elder,” and to Presbyterians, it is a group of elders from a congregation who have spiritual oversight in that congregation. Elders are elected by a congregation, and comprise both ordained clergy and laymen. Elders from a given congregation are collectively called a “session.”

Periodically, sessions from a given region convene to address issues that arise in their local churches in gatherings called “presbyteries.” Presbyteries have significant authority over the congregations in their region, for they are the only body in Presbyterianism that can ordain ministers.

Above these local presbyteries are two other office-levels: “synods,” which are groups of presbyteries from a larger geographic region, and the “general assembly,” which is like a super-presbytery over the synods of an entire nation. Synods and General Assemblies operate as appeals courts for problematic issues that arise at the congregational level and also handle issues related to doctrine and heresy.

Presbyterian polity was designed to do two things:

  1. It sought to counter the excessive concentrations of power that accrued among bishops by spreading out spiritual authority to a group (sessions, synods, and the general assembly are all groups of individuals).
  2. It sought to keep individual congregations, which had some degree of autonomy, accountable to an authoritative body that is external to the local congregation.

Denominations in this tradition with the term “Presbyterian” in their name—like the “Presbyterian Church of America” (PCA)—trace their historical roots back to the British Isles (England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland). Many denominations with the word “Reformed” in their name also follow Presbyterian polity, but they have historical roots in continental Europe, like “Reformed Church in America,” the “Christian Reformed Church” (both Dutch origins) and the “German Reformed Church.” Theologically, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have looked fondly on “Calvinism,” which to them means not only the Calvinist doctrines related to salvation (predestination, limited atonement, etc.) but also their unique mix of views related to other issues, such as

  • their understanding of the purity of biblical worship (no religious art in the sanctuary; also, many Presbyterian churches have avoided the use of instruments in worship)
  • their understanding of the sacraments (They practice infant baptism, and many have a “spiritual presence” view of the Lord’s Supper.)
  • as well as their understanding of ecclesiastical polity (i.e., Presbyterianism)

These positions can be found in their historical confessions. English-speaking Presbyterians generally adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), while churches in this tradition with Continental European roots will adhere to the Heidelberg Confession (1563), the Belgic Confession (1566), and the Canons of Dordt (1619). Though Presbyterians highly regard their confessional heritage, they have an even higher regard for the authority of Scripture. In the late 1800s, American Presbyterians, such as B.B. Warfield and A. A. Hodge, became well-known for being zealous defenders of biblical inerrancy and published intricate, academic works defending Scripture from the rise of theological liberalism.

Basic Facts:

  1. Presbyter = Greek for “elder.” For Presbyterians, it is a group of elders who have spiritual oversight of a specific congregation.
  2. Ecclesiastical levels in Presbyterianism (used in many denominations):
      a. Session – the group of elders from a congregation
      b. Presbytery – the set of sessions from a regional area
      c. Synod – the group of Presbyteries from a large region
      d. General Assembly – a super-presbytery over a nation
  3. Churches with Presbyterian polity usually have either “Presbyterian” or “Reformed” in their denominational name
      a. “Presbyterian” if they have British origins (i.e. the Presbyterian Church in America [PCA])
      b. “Reformed” if they have origins from continental Europe (i.e. the Christian Reformed Church [CRC]; the German Reformed Church).
  4. Presbyterians are paedobaptists (that is, they baptize infants), and conservative Presbyterians are predominantly Calvinist in their doctrine of salvation.
  5. Presbyterian Confessions:
      a. “Presbyterian” denominations (which have British origins) adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith.
      b. “Reformed” denominations (which have origins from continental Europe) often adhere to the Heidelberg Confession (1563), the Belgic Confession (1566), and/or the Canons of Dordt (1619).

A Brief History of Presbyterian Churches

Presbyterianism finds its origins in the Swiss Reformation of the 1500s, where leaders like John Calvin sought to restructure the church around the four-fold offices he found in Scripture: elder, pastor, teacher, and deacon. John Knox, who studied with Calvin in Geneva, took these insights and developed them further in Scotland, where he helped establish Presbyterianism there in the 1560s. Presbyterianism got a significant boost in England during the English Civil War (1640s) when the Puritan victors, many of whom were Presbyterian, succeeded in refashioning the Church of England after a Presbyterian model. Part of this work entailed crafting a new confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646). While this Presbyterian experiment in the English Church was short-lived (it only lasted a decade), the Westminster Confession became the central confession among English-speaking Presbyterians for centuries to come.

Presbyterianism moved to America in the late 1600s as a steady stream of English, Scottish, and Scots-Irish immigrants came to the colonies, bringing with them their faith. In the 1730s and 40s Presbyterians played a prominent role in the First Great Awakening. Major revivalists—such as Gilbert Tennent, Jonathan Dickinson, and Samuel Davies—were all Presbyterian. Theodore Frelinghuysen, whose revivals in central New Jersey are often identified as the beginning of the First Great Awakening, was from the Dutch Reformed Church.

In the 1800s, Presbyterians were known for their solid defense of orthodox Protestantism, their high regard for Scripture, and their commitment to Calvinist theology. Princeton Theological Seminary, founded in 1812, was a bastion of Presbyterian conservatism for over a century. Some of American Protestantism’s most well-known theologians, such as Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield, taught there. By 1900, as liberal views of Scripture were on the rise, great controversies arose among the Presbyterians. In time the “modernist” liberals gained control of major Presbyterian denominations and its institutions (including Princeton Seminary). This precipitated an exodus of conservative Presbyterians who left the mainline to form newer institutions committed to biblical inerrancy, such as Westminster Theological Seminary (founded in 1929), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (founded in 1936), and other groupings of conservative Presbyterians that eventually merged in the 1970s and 80s to form the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

Did you Know?

The Westminster Confession of Faith was so popular among English-speaking Calvinists in the 1600s that other denominations took it and adapted it for their own use?

  • Congregationalists took it, added a chapter and made other minor revisions, and called it the Savoy Declaration (1658)
  • Baptists took the Savoy Declaration, updated the section on baptism along with a few other emendations, and called it The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.

Presbyterianism Today

Today there are numerous types of Presbyterians scattered across a number of denominations in America:

  1. There are staunchly conservative Presbyterians who are deeply committed to the Westminster Confession, especially its ecclesiological particularities, and generally look on the broader evangelical movement with a fair amount of suspicion. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) is perhaps the best example of this type.
  2. There are conservative Presbyterians who prize their ecclesiastical and theological heritage, yet are not averse to seeing themselves as part of the broader evangelical movement. The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) represent this stance.
  3. There are liberal Presbyterians who embraced liberal theology at the turn of the 20th century. The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) falls in this category and is the largest Presbyterian denomination in America. Recent controversies in the PCUSA have centered on its increasing affirmation of homosexuality. Since 2011, the denomination has allowed openly gay men and women to be both members as well as ordained leaders in their churches.

Currently, the total number of Presbyterian and Reformed church members in the United States hovers around 4 million. Yet Presbyterianism is not merely an American phenomenon. It has spread beyond Europe and North America through missionary endeavors. Today, there are sizable Presbyterian movements in India, Africa, South America, and especially South Korea, which has close to 10 million Presbyterians.

Prominent America Presbyterians

  • Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764) – major revivalist of the First Great Awakening, known as the “Son of Thunder.”
  • Charles Hodge (1792-1878) – well-known theologian of Princeton Seminary, author of the popular 3-volume Systematic Theology.
  • B.B. Warfield (1851-1920) – another well-known Princeton theologian; staunch defender of biblical inerrancy.
  • Billy Sunday (1862-1935) – well-known evangelist of the turn of the 20th century.
  • Ruth Bell Graham (1920-2007) – wife of evangelist Billy Graham, was raised a Presbyterian as the daughter of medical missionaries.
  • D. James Kennedy (1930-2007) – founding pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church (PCA) and creator of the Evangelism Explosion method of evangelism.
  • R. C. Sproul (b. 1939) – pastor, teacher, author, and founder of Ligonier Ministries.

Read other articles from this series on American Denominations and Other Religious Movements.


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Robert Caldwell

Robert Caldwell

Assistant Professor of Church History at Southwestern Seminary Currently writing Theology of the American Revivalists: The Theology of the Great Awakenings from Edwards to Finney. IVP Academic, forthcoming 2014.

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