What Is a Presbyterian?

The question, “What is a Presbyterian?” is raised often enough that some kind of answer needs to be available. Usually we Presbyterians answer the question in either historical or polity terms. We say that a Presbyterian is a spiritual and intellectual follower of John Calvin. Or, we say that a Presbyterian is one who uses a certain kind of church government. While both are true, neither seems very satisfactory to someone who is genuinely interested in knowing what makes a Presbyterian different from some other brand of Christian. Both answers also show that we are uncertain about the real contributions that Presbyterians make and have made to the life of the church.

Some Basics

First of all, it should be said that Presbyterians are Trinitarian, Protestant Christians. We believe in the Word made Flesh in Christ, in the authority of the Bible, in salvation by God’s grace through our faith in Christ as our Savior. We share with other Christians the theology expressed in the Apostles’ Creed. The Protestant affirmation that “God alone is Lord of the conscience” is part of our faith. There are a large number of other beliefs that we share with other Christians. Our uniqueness does not lie here.

Our primary source of spiritual authority is the bible. Our pastors are required to learn Greek and Hebrew, which are the languages in which the Bible was originally written. Some churches give equal authority to tradition, clergy, creedal statements, or religious feeling which is personal. Presbyterians believe that nothing else shares the authority of the Scriptures.

Some Points of Distinction and Difference

Presbyterians have made some unique contributions to the whole of Christianity. These include the following:

1. An affirmation of the Life of the Mind

Religion is a spiritual matter that begins in personal experience. For some Christians, this means that one should not cognitively question the nature of the experience or the way the experience is expressed. Presbyterians disagree, affirming that God created the mind. We believe that Christians have the right and obligation to use their minds in the search for spiritual truth and meaning.

From John Calvin forward, many of the greatest Christian thinkers have been Presbyterian and/or part of the Reformed tradition. These include the early American theologian, Jonathan Edwards, and the 20th Century giant, Karl Barth, who was probably the greatest theologian of our time. (Barth was a pastor in the Swiss Reformed Church.)

The affirmation of the life of the mind explains why Presbyterians spend so much time writing creeds, statements of faith (called confessions), and the theological works. This affirmation of intellect affects how we view faith. Presbyterians affirm that faith is a way of feeling—but we affirm clearly and consistently that faith is also a way of knowing.

Presbyterians recognize, however, that no one statement of faith will ever encompass the whole of the Christian experience. This is one reason why we are often found looking for new formulations of words and ideas. We are interested in expressing what we know and believe in our own time and in our own words.

2. Democrat in Search of Structure

Presbyterians are democrats with a small “d.” From the time of Calvin, we have affirmed the worth of all persons and sought to involve more than just the clergy in the life of the church.

This has included the secular realm as well. Calvin has been called the father of the American Revolution. Presbyterians were active and instrumental in that revolution because of their affirmation of the rights and worth of all persons. Presbyterians were also involved in the overthrow of the English monarchy in the 1600’s for the same reasons.

We also affirm and value structure. Though we have no bishops, we are a highly structured denomination. We have a constitution to which our church structures must conform. We are created as a series of “courts” (we actually use that word), which are responsible for the orderly life of the whole church from congregations to General Assemblies.

In all these structures, whatever authority is granted to courts, commission, or individuals is elective and can be revoked.

3. Emphasizing the Whole Church

Our church structure and our theology point to the importance of the whole church. In our view, no individuals or congregations are free to do as they want. We believe that Christians and congregations are responsible to each other. We are connected to each other by faith. Presbyterians consider themselves a “connectional” church for this reason. There are times when, in the best interests of the whole church, individuals, congregations, or even larger bodies—presbyteries or synods—are required to do what they do not want. Remedies, if persons disagree with the larger church, are provided for in the constitution.

Presbyterians believe that the Holy Spirit speaks to individuals, and that the Spirit speaks as well to the whole church. We believe that the Spirit also speaks through the actions of the church.

The concern for the whole church explains why Presbyterians are vitally concerned for the reunion of all denominations, and why we are active sometimes in the ecumenical movement. We view denominational divisions as a scandal in the body of Christ. Presbyterians have been active in the creation of the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches and the Consultation on Church Union.

4. A Pessimist About Human Nature

Life in the Presbyterian community is one of shared authority. This is because we are suspicious of any one person or body having too much authority. This, in turn, grows out of our pessimism about human nature. Human beings are fallible and fallen. We have yet to meet anyone, except Jesus Christ, who lives our human nature in its perfection. We like people, but we also know what they are capable of doing, given the opportunity.

We do not share the view that humankind is evolving toward perfection, nor the notion that any individual is making significant progress in that direction. We do not see our life in the church as the attempt to become perfect. The accusation that the church is full of hypocrites is usually made by cynics. But Presbyterians inside the church will agree at least insofar as to say the church is full of sinners.

This pessimism extends to human structures (including the church). We believe that there is no perfect form of government, economic system, or social program. Each of these depends on human beings. As such, they are vulnerable to the failings of human beings.

5. An Enthusiast About the World

 Because we are pessimists about human nature, it may be surprising to some that Presbyterians are so active in human affairs. While believing that humankind is not perfectible, Presbyterians also believe that our society can and should be improved. Consequently, we are involved actively in the political, social, and economic life of the secular world.

This social activism may be traced, again, back to Calvin and his vision of Geneva. He organized “elders” for the city whose primary purpose was to monitor and govern the moral life of the community. Although that particular experiment had mixed results, Presbyterians have continued with the vision of a world that can be better than it is.

This vision explains the participation of Presbyterians in the American Revolution and other political/social upheavals. It explains why Presbyterians today continue to march, boycott, lobby, and petition for changes which, in our view, will make the world more moral and humane. We do not believe that such changes will make the world more perfect—only more just and more a mirror image of the Kingdom of God as revealed in the Scriptures.


In Summary

Anyone reading the above will recognize that it cannot be easily summarized. But it does describe some of the broad parameters of what may be called the Presbyterian form of Christianity. There is much that has been omitted, but what has been said is, at least, a start. If it prompts further investigation or a renewed commitment, it will have accomplished its purpose.