Reformation Neighbors: Lutherans and Presbyterians Younger than Martin Luther but overlapping Luther’s lifespan, John Calvin was a theologian and a pastor from France who was instrumental in implementing the Reformation in Geneva, Switzerland. It is from Calvin and his theology that our Presbyterian neighbors trace their theological descent. The origins of the church that is called “Presbyterian” come from a man named John Knox, who studied with Calvin in Geneva, then brought back what he had learned to reform the church in Scotland.
The word “Presbyterian” comes from the Greek word “presbyter,” which simply means “elder”. This is a way of describing the governance of the Presbyterian Church, which is done by groups of people known as elders. Whereas the governance of the Lutheran church takes the form of a balance between congregations, pastors, bishops, synods, and the Churchwide Assembly, everything in the Presbyterian church is decided by groups of elders, so that no one person is found to hold too much power. In the Presbyterian Church, a pastor is often called a “teaching elder”.
While Lutherans look to confessions found in the Book of Concord (e.g., the Augsburg Confession, Luther’s Small & Large Catechisms, etc.) to help them interpret the Christian faith, Presbyterians look to John Calvin’s Institutes, the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of 1647. These documents detail the forms of Presbyterian Church government, the theology of John Calvin, and the absence of prescribed forms of worship. In recent years, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has added other documents of confession to their Book of Confessions, a summary of which can be found in their Book of Order.
The first Presbyterians immigrated to the colonies in America in the 1600s, and the first presbyteries (that is, groups of Presbyterian churches) were founded in the 1630s. Presbyterians were active and influential during the American Revolution and in writing both state and national constitutions. One of the doctrines of Presbyterianism, inherited from John Calvin, is that humanity is totally depraved. This influenced them as they participated in writing constitutions for both state and national governments, as they advocated for checks and balances between the different branches of government, as well as separation of powers.
One thing that makes Presbyterianism unique among the churches of the Reformation is their emphasis on the sovereignty of God. From this emphasis flow many of their other teachings, including predestination, “covenant life marked by a disciplined concern for order in the church according to the Word of God; a faithful stewardship that shuns ostentation and seeks proper use of the gifts of God’s creation; and the recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God” (Book of Order, F-2.05, The Confessions as Statements of Faith of the Reformed Tradition).
In worship, Presbyterians have great freedom of form, and there will be diversity in worship from one Presbyterian Church to another. The one thing that is important, however, is preaching the Word: Scripture must be read at every service, and there must be preaching on the Word at every service. Sacraments are considered secondary to the Word, so Holy Communion does not occur every Sunday. Whereas Martin Luther taught that in the Sacrament, the true body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ are present “in and under the bread and wine,” Calvin and other Reformers taught that Christ is present “spiritually, but not materially”.
In a conference that Philip Melanchthon and others called to try and reconcile Luther and his followers with the Swiss reformers, the two groups were able to agree on 14 of the 15 points under discussion. The fifteenth point was the theology of Holy Communion, and neither side would compromise their position. Thus, what could have been a united Protestant church did not happen, and both traditions remained separate from one another.
Like Lutherans, there are many branches of Presbyterianism across the United States. The denomination that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has full communion status with is the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (PCUSA). The document detailing that full communion agreement is “A Formula of Agreement”, 1997, and can be found at http://www.elca.org/en/Faith/Ecumenical-and-Inter-Religious-Relations/Full-Communion. This agreement is an outgrowth of the joint Reformation heritage of the Lutherans and the Presbyterians. If there is a Presbyterian church in your neighborhood, worship with them on a Sunday morning and experience the tradition of another branch on the Reformation tree.
The information in this newsbrief is taken from http://www.history.pcusa.org/history-online/presbyterian-history/history-church, the Presbyterian Book of Order, and personal e-mail correspondence between Rev. Tonya Eza, Hope Lutheran, Powell, WY, and Rev. Holly Haines of the PCUSA.