© 1994 by Rev. Robin Ross firstname.lastname@example.org
Being a Christian and a Presbyterian in Canada Today
TOPIC #1: PRESBYTERIAN DISTINCTIVES
The term Presbyterian refers to a distinctive pattern of Church government developed by John Calvin and other Reformers during the 16th Century Protestant Reformation. Calvin believed that this model was based upon the Bible, but not that it was the only acceptable form. Calvin saw the Church as a community or body in which Christ only is Head, and all members are equal under Him. The priesthood of all believers means that the ministry is given to the entire church. All who hold office do so by election of the people.
Churches following Calvin's model are usually called Reformed, but churches of English-speaking origin have generally been called "Presbyterian", since the Westminster Assembly of 1647 popularized the Presbyterial form of church government. Since the Reformation, the various Reformed and Presbyterian churches have made many adaptations of the basic structure, but have not departed from the essentials. "Presbyter" is the New Testament Greek term for "elder". Presbyterian congregations are governed by groups, called sessions (or consistories), composed of the minister and lay elders. The sessions send representatives to church councils, called presbyteries (or classes), which oversee the congregations of the district. The presbyteries are represented in regional synods and assemblies. A system of representative government operates at all levels, with lay elders participating equally with ministers. All the ministers have equal rank.
The Presbyterian and Reformed tradition has always believed in the principle of sola scriptura (Scripture only), stating that the Bible is the final authority and only infallible guide for matters of faith and morals. The churches have expressed their understanding of Biblical truth in a series of statements, of which the two best-loved and most influential are the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647). The earlier catechism is most widely used in Europe, and the later one is more popular in English-speaking countries.
John Calvin was the most influential theologian in the developing years of the Reformed tradition. Scholars debate whether Calvin's thought can be summed up under any single theme, since he was more a commentator on the Bible than a systematic theologian. The sovereignty of God is a central theme, being the conviction that God is the actual present ruler over all creation. This belief is basic to the Reformed tradition. Predestination is another important theme, though widely misunderstood, and no longer a characteristic theme of Reformed preaching or teaching. Predestination is the belief that God determines the eternal destiny of mankind, illustrated by Jesus' words in John 15:16, "You did not choose Me, but I chose you..."
In worship, the Reformed churches have always stressed preaching, along with the Biblical sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. The Reformed churches have produced many great preachers. Congregational worship was once characterized by the singing of psalms set to meter, in accordance with the "Scripture only" principle. In the last 100-200 years, hymns have gradually replaced psalms. The liturgies (formal rituals for worship services) of the Reformation in the 1500's were largely abandoned in favour of free prayer in the 1600's, though there has been a partial return to set forms of worship in Reformed Churches.
The Reformed tradition has always been the most international of the main Protestant bodies. Unlike Anglicanism and Lutheranism, Reformed churches often had to organize without government support, sometimes under persecution. Many of their leaders began as exiles or refugees, and they gathered at Geneva, Switzerland. From Geneva, Reformed ideas and leaders spread throughout Europe, into France, England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Hungary, and then from those countries to North America and the world.
1. We are Protestant. The term originally referred to a group of German princes and cities that presented a defense of freedom of conscience against an edict intended to suppress the Lutheran movement in 1529. In a sense, they were "protesting", but the Latin roots of the word (pro-testare) show that they were "testifying for" or bearing witness to what they regarded as New Testament Christianity. The term now describes the members and adherents of Christian Churches deriving from the Reformation, who believe in justification by faith, the priesthood of all believers, and the sole authority of the Bible. The Reformation came about because these beliefs, which we take as standard, were not believed by the Church then.
2. We are Catholic. This word means universal, world-wide, or comprehensive. When we say, in the Apostle's Creed, "I believe in the Holy Catholic Church", we are speaking of the Church of Jesus Christ as it is found around the world, and throughout all ages. When one is baptized in our church, one is first and foremost baptized into the church catholic, the universal body of Christ, and only secondarily into the Presbyterian Church. A minister is ordained primarily into the ministry of the church catholic, and only resultantly into the Presbyterian ministry.
3. We are Reformed, that is reformed according to the Biblical Gospel. Presbyterians became a separate branch of the Christian Church during the 16th century Reformation, which produced four main denominations: Lutheran, Reformed (Presbyterian), Anglican, and Anabaptist. Our leaders in the Reformation were John Calvin, and John Knox. A favourite motto of Presbyterian and Reformed churches is "semper reformanda" (ever being reformed). Our denomination is one of about 100 that belong to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. About half of the member churches are "younger" churches formed in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
4. We are Evangelical. The term comes from a Greek word "euangelion" (gospel, or good news). We are evangelical in a general sense, in that, in common with all Christians, we believe in the good news of Christ's victory over sin and death in His resurrection. In a more specific sense, "evangelical" refers to doctrine that emphasizes (1) salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, (2) the authority of Scripture, and (3) the importance of preaching, as contrasted with ritual. The word "evangelical" also implies a warm, personal, trusting relationship with Christ, as opposed to believing about Jesus. We believe not with our heads alone, but also with our hearts. With the intellect we discover what God wants of us; with the heart, we say "yes" to God. One cannot inherit that kind of faith; one must trust and obey for oneself.
5. We are Ecumenical (promoting worldwide Christian co-operation). Because we believe we are but part of the universal Church of Christ, we do not believe we are the only church, or that "all others will go to hell". Believing that the Christian Church goes beyond denominational and geographic boundaries has enabled Presbyterians to co-operate extensively with Christians of other denominations. Our denomination is a member of the Canadian Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches.
6. We are a Confessional Church, in that we believe in "confessing our faith" or declaring our adherence to various formal statements of our beliefs, e.g. The Apostles' Creed, The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), and the Declaration of Faith concerning Church and Nation (1954). The last two of these are designated as our "subordinate standards"; that is, secondary to the Bible.