What Presbyterians Believe
Helping readers understand the distinctive beliefs and practices of Presbyterians has been an important part of the mission of Presbyterians Today (and its predecessor,Presbyterian Survey). This ongoing series of articles on “What Presbyterians Believe” explores the Biblical and theological foundations of our faith. The authors have given permission for these articles to be reproduced.
What do Presbyterians believe about … ?
Infant Baptism (2006 version)
Infant Baptism (1985 version)
Church and State
Ecclesia Reformata …
End of life issues
The End of the World
Faith and Patriotism
How Presbyterians Make Decisions
The Holy Spirit
Life After Death
Lord of the Conscience
Priesthood of Believers
The Resurrection of Jesus
Trinity (Reclaiming the)
How to Speak Presbyterian
It has been estimated that 58 percent of the members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) did not grow up in the denomination. For readers in that category, here is a short rundown of the lingo you are likely to hear in a Presbyterian church that you may not have heard in another church. [Read article ]
What in the church is the reformed tradition?
Presbyterians regularly encounter a puzzling term used to characterize their church: the Reformed tradition. It may seem odd, in a time when many church members move easily from one denomination to another, to stress the particularity of one ecclesial tradition. Is Presbyterian emphasis on the Reformed tradition an anxious response to widespread confusion about purpose? Are Presbyterians desperately grasping the term Reformed in an attempt to carve out a distinctive presence on the Protestant landscape? In any case, why should Reformed be reserved for Presbyterians? Are not all Protestants Reformed, heirs of the sixteenth-century Reformation?
Mixed motives may lie behind the current use of Reformed tradition, but the expression is not new. Reformed has been used for centuries to designate one of the four major streams of the Protestant Reformation: Lutheran, Anabaptist, Anglican, and Reformed. In this narrower sense, Reformed churches are those bodies that grew out of the Reformation in Switzerland, following the spiritual and intellectual lead of Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich and John Calvin in Geneva. The Reformed family of churches and their shared tradition are not named after their founder (as in Lutheran), or a distinguishing practice (as in Baptist), or the location of their establishment (as in Anglican). But why are these churches and the tradition they embody called Reformed?
From the outset, the churches that followed the lead of Zwingli, and especially Calvin, were characterized by the conviction that each church is called to confess the faith in its particular time and place. As the Swiss influence spread, leading to the establishment of churches in France, the Netherlands, Hungary, Scotland, Poland, Italy and beyond, new churches generated confessions of faith as expressions of their freedom and obligation to proclaim the gospel in their own contexts. Thus, in the sixteenth century alone, Reformed churches produced over sixty confessions of faith. In the twentieth century, more than 35 churches adopted new confessions. This great variety of Reformed confessions is not simply an accident of history and geography, however.
The Reformed tradition has always been acutely aware of the dangers of idolatry, including the idolatry of creeds and confessions. Thus, Reformed churches rarely identify one particular historic confession as the authoritative expression of Christian faith for all times and places. The Reformed stance toward confessions can be seen in the statement of Zurich’s Bullinger at the signing of the First Helvetic Confession in 1536:
We wish in no way to prescribe for all churches through these articles a single rule of faith. For we acknowledge no other rule of faith than Holy Scripture…. We grant to everyone the freedom to use his own expressions which are suitable for his church and will make use of this freedom ourselves, at the same time defending the true sense of this Confession against distortions.
Although there have been times when a Reformed church has embraced a single historic confession — often the Westminster Confession of Faith — Westminster itself attests that “all synods and councils…may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith and practice, but to be used as a help in both.”
Distrust of a single confession, coupled with freedom to express the one gospel in diverse ways, focused in the particular needs of churches in different contexts, leads to the continuing Reformed practice of confession making. Churches belonging to the Reformed family have always been inclined to state their deepest convictions in every generation. All of this is stated succinctly in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Confession of 1967. The preface begins with the conviction that “The church confesses its faith when it bears a present witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ.” The need for present witness is a necessary feature of the church’s life, for “in every age, the church has expressed its witness in words and deeds as the need of the time required…. No one type of confession is exclusively valid, no one statement is irreformable.”
Present witness does not mean discarding previous witness, however. The Presbyterian Church’s The Book of Confessions contains eleven creeds, catechisms and confessions from the early church, the Reformation era and the twentieth century. In all of these confessions, “the church declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes and what it resolves to do” (Book of Order, G-2.0100). Affirming the convictions of those who have lived and died the faith before us is one form of the church’s present witness.
Churches in the Reformed tradition are churches that are “reformed and always to be reformed (ecclesia reformata semper reformanda) according to the word of God.” Reformed churches know that God has reformed the church and that God will continue to reform the church. Reform of the church is not mere change, however, and certainly not “modernization.” Reform of the church comes from the leading of God’s word, made present in the power of the Spirit.
Ideas! for Church Leaders
FEASTING ON THE WORD: LECTIONARY CURRICULUM
Mission Year Book
Daily Bread Devotional
Small Group Resources
For help in studying God’s word check out these web sites:
Search for Passages / Words in The Bible
New Testament Resources
Historical Study of Christian Scripture
Lectionary / Sermon Aids
Common Faith / Common Mission
The four sessions in this leader guide are designed to give older youth and adults an opportunity to become familiar or reacquainted with the two books that make up the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which are The Book of Confessions and the Book of Order. These documents are both historical and very current, since they help us to define who we are called to be as Presbyterians and how we function together as this part of God’s church. The sessions are meant to give a hands-on introduction to our polity, or government, providing the foundations of how we govern ourselves as Presbyterians and how we relate to the world.