Presbyterianism

Presbyterian churches are found in Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. The designation “Presbyterian” draws attention to leadership by ministers and elders, and is generally associated with theological seriousness, liturgical restraint, a proclivity for education, and a high ethical commitment.

 Church government by the sharing of ecclesiastical power between ministers and elders was derived initially from Calvin’s ecclesiastical ordinances of 1541. The involvement of church elders in ecclesiastical discipline became part of his struggle in Geneva to make the moral and religious correction of citizens a responsibility of the church rather than the state. The characteristic Presbyterian system of a series of church courts from the local session (in Scotland) or consistory (France), to regional presbytery (Scotland) or classis (France), and national synods or general assemblies, developed over time. International councils were envisaged from the late 16th century and in the Westminster documents of 1647 but were not realised until the inaugural meeting of the World Presbyterian Alliance in Edinburgh in July 1877.

 As Christians in the Reformed tradition, Presbyterians are linked to the Swiss reformers, particularly Zwingli and Calvin, and also to Roman Catholicism as the faith they saw themselves as rejecting. Presbyterians also defined themselves over against Anglicans, Lutherans, and Anabaptists. Believing that it was dangerous and unnecessary to worship God in ways not prescribed by Scripture, they demanded consistency with biblical command and precedent. Awareness of the problems in this only came later.

 Reformed theology is marked by a priority of the Bible over the Church and the priority of the preached Word of God over the sacraments, and is also found in Congregational, Baptist, and evangelical Anglican churches, particularly in Britain. Presbyterian polity may also be found in some Pentecostal denominations and among Mormons. In the 20th century, ecumenical involvement and theological scholarship has brought a better appreciation of Catholic and Anabaptist traditions. This was reflected in a greater willingness to appropriate common liturgical texts and the post-Vatican II Catholic lectionary as well as to learn from Mennonite concerns about the influence of Western culture on Christian understanding. Traditional antipathies are more likely to persist where Catholics and Presbyterians are in political and economic conflict, or the clarity and energy of 16th century polemics empowers those marginalised by the wider tradition.

 Presbyterianism has been notable for the development of a culture marked by a strong sense of the sovereignty of God and by a desire for rational order in their understanding of God and of his will for church, people and society. The tensions inherent in situations where some suffer and others are blessed have helped fuel theological reflection on providence and predestination, and an appreciation of the grace of God underlying all human experience.

 To a remarkable degree it has proved possible to translate Presbyterian theology into a recognisable set of Christian values and a common structural framework for the church, combined with a particular vision of the nature of God, a commitment to biblical literacy and biblical theology, a sense of the boundaries of acceptable worship, and a wide view of the political and social scope of Christian ethics.

 This vision of a Christian faith stripped of unbiblical superstitions leading to an ordered Christian theology and an ordered Christian society has been enduring, though the outcomes have been diverse. The vision was to be realized by an educated ministry and a socially significant eldership sharing authority in church courts free of government interference. At home in the worlds of business, politics and science, if frequently more middle-class than upper or lower in ethos and membership, Presbyterians saw education and collegial responsibility as the safest route to theological orthodoxy and certainty, godly social control and amelioration, and the transmission of the faith across generations and cultures. It seems no accident that like John Calvin who was all three, numbers of Presbyterians are teachers, philosophers and lawyers.

 Presbyterianism as a system of church polity became a key ingredient in enabling the Reformed theological vision to be embodied not only in churches of that tradition, but to be influential in whole societies, particularly Scotland, Holland, and the United States of America. New Zealand in the 20th century has been described as a “virtual Scotland.” Some research has also explored how responsible experience in the administration of the affairs of the church equipped elders for success in business. In Asia, Presbyterianism and rule by elders has connected with the values of Confucianism.

 Like the Reformed tradition as a whole, Presbyterians have been committed to a vision of a Christian society, and have developed systems of Christian education and discipline for nurturing personal and social life-styles which are distinctively Christian. The results can be far reaching. The story of the Reformation in Scotland can be read as a clash of civilisations. By the end of the 16th century in Presbyterian communities it was not just the worship and theology which had changed, but the way of life marked by the moral control of the elders.

 It is not necessary to accept the details or totality of Max Weber’s 1905 thesis published in English in 1930 as The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, to see some connection between Calvinism and the growth of capitalism, particularly among Puritan and Presbyterian communities. Calvinists like other Christians remain critics and advocates of capitalism, and as some have noted, also its victims and beneficiaries, but perhaps the key point is Weber’s argument that religious values have social and economic outcomes. Despite criticism, it remains in contention that Presbyterians are part of a theological tradition that is significantly related to the dominant economic model of our age.

 The importance of Adam Smith to capitalist theory is linked to his being part of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment, strongly supported by the leadership of the Church of Scotland of the day. The leading Scottish Evangelical Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) wrote and taught political economy, used economic theory to advocate theories of church extension and poor relief, and sought to influence social policy. His system of parish visitation by elders and deacons developed as part of his “St John’s Experiment” in 1819 became part of the history of social welfare case-work in Britain. Until after the Disruption of 1843, the Church of Scotland controlled education and poor relief, and its teaching long supported sabbatarianism.

 From 1707 to 2000 the Scottish General Assembly meeting in Edinburgh each year functioned as the sole national forum in which issues of the day could be debated, giving a particular significance to the social vision of ministers and elders (since 2000 the Scottish Parliament provides another forum). It might be noted that major 19th century social initiatives like parish savings banks and model housing were more the vision of enthusiastic individuals than the church as a whole, yet it was the church and its teachings which gave ministers and people the ideas and the constituency which made their realisation possible. The Church and Nation debates in the reunited Church of Scotland after 1929 were highlights of serious analysis of Christian social responsibility.

 In 1945 the professor of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, John Baillie wrote What is civilisation and the following year a committee under his chairmanship reported on God’s will for church and nation. Despite the rise of secularisation, these debates and the business of the Church are still considered to be of interest to the Scottish media and are widely reported. Recently the development of “public theology” teaching positions in Edinburgh, Princeton and the University of Otago in New Zealand, reflects a characteristic Presbyterian concern which has drawn strong interest from Reformed scholars sensing a way by which it may be possible to earn the privilege of participation in some of the serious social and ethical issues of our time from a Christian perspective. If the aim is no longer to declare to the wider community what it ought to think and do, it is not unimportant that it realises that its strategic contribution should now be to have a voice in the ethical conversations of the day.

 In the 21st century the idea, if not necessarily the reality, of a Presbyterian prime minister in Britain, conjures a vision of moral seriousness in the media which some find bemusing and others reassuring. Whether its claims to be able to contribute to the whole of life in society are credible or not, Presbyterianism is still perceived and experienced as a way of life as well as a complex of beliefs and a system of organisation. However unfair, that from the viewpoint of Catholic Europe, the United States appears Calvinist in culture (and that is what is wrong with it) is an oblique compliment to its influence. In the late 19th century the Dutch Calvinist theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper succeed in gaining power through a Catholic and Protestant Christian political party which strove to introduce an ethical policy not only with the Netherlands itself, but particularly in the Netherlands East Indies.

 Of course the Presbyterian project has not been without difficulties. Rationality can comprise faith as well as clarify it. Serious presbyterianism has lead to unitarianism as well as a renewed trinitarianism. The mysteries of faith and religious experience seldom admit of tidy theologising, education does not necessarily lead to faith, and there are spiritual needs for which the tradition has often proved inadequate.

 Although Presbyterian and Reformed remain almost interchangeable descriptors for churches in the same ecclesiastical tradition, churches named Presbyterian are often associated with mission or migration from Britain and the Commonwealth or from the United States and Canada. Reformed churches are also strong in America, but tend to be found in or originate from continental Europe - particularly Holland, but also Switzerland, France, Germany and Hungary. Presbyterian churches are significant in South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, Ghana, Malawi, South Africa and Brazil. In Canada, Australia, Sri Lanka, India and the Philippines, Presbyterians have formed unions with other Protestants, sometimes including Anglicans and Baptists. The Presbyterian Church of England has joined with Congregationalists in England (and more recently Scotland) to create the United Reformed Church.

 Most of the characteristics of Presbyterian churches, including their Calvinist instincts, theological culture, and commitment to the “Christian good” of society are common to the Reformed tradition generally, although Reformed churches are likely to be more conservative theologically and liturgically. Presbyterian churches have been more open to the influence of revivalism and the ecumenical and charismatic movements. Despite historical points of difference, Pietist, Puritan and Evangelical movements in Anglican, Lutheran and Baptist traditions draw on and contribute to the Reformed and Presbyterian heritage. More recently the Charismatic movement has linked Presbyterians with parallel Anglican, Catholic and Pentecostal movements, although a Reformed theology of the Holy Spirit is distinctive.

 Despite their reluctance to give authority to courts higher than the local congregation Congregational churches are also related to the Presbyterian Reformed tradition. Church union often brings the traditions together, if usually on Presbyterian terms. In England both Presbyterians and Congregationalists were non-conformist dissenters, and there is still a sense of being outside the establishment. Congregationalists, like English Baptists, relate theologically to adapted versions of the Westminster Confession – still the dominant confession of Presbyterian churches.

 The London Missionary Society, founded in 1795, was supported by Congregationalists and English and Scottish Presbyterians, but became a Congregationalist mission for much of its history. Since 1977 as the Council for World Mission, it has developed as a sharing instrument among global partners relating to both Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches around the world. The change to a partnership model of mission seeks to recognise the validity of all cultures in the sight of God.

 Presbyterians with a Scottish background tend to be more comfortable with relating to governments and about taking responsibility for the spiritual well-being of the entire population of their territorial parishes whatever people’s religion or lack of it. Congregationalists form gathered churches who seek to draw the community in provided they meet standards of faith, conversion and discipline. Nevertheless the similarities in actual congregational life, theological instincts, and cultural impact are considerable. In Victorian Britain the “non-conformist conscience” was a political influence, and the legacy of its social idealism can be seen in the Liberal and Labour parties in Britain today.

 Influence on the political systems of post-revolution America is also not difficult to trace, including through Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence, and presidents Jefferson and Wilson who were both Presbyterian elders. The misleading element of democracy in Presbyterian systems reinforces the political parallels evident in the natural tendency of church courts to empower those who understand politics and who adopt its techniques of power broking, character denigration, and populist decision making. The essential democratic value of respect for minority views can be rare when a majority believes itself to be expressing the mind of God. A set of alternative values needs to be strongly in place to resist temptations which should not be seen as of the essence of Presbyterianism despite its long history of polemic in the service of self-definition.

 Although leadership by elected moderators charged with the orderly facilitation of the voice of the people and the will of God has potential for the widespread ownership of decisions reflected on practically, legally and spiritually, the ideal is not always realised. Courts have their own temptations. Recognition of the power of sin is not the same as taming it and where a Church takes control of military and political power, as in Zwingli’s Zurich and the Scottish Covenants of the 17th century, or believes its theological self-understanding gives it a general competence in all things, the political and spiritual results can be catastrophic.

Not surprisingly Reformed Christians have often mirrored issues of sin and salvation, church and state, and even grace and works, which they thought they had left behind. Sometimes this has led to a better appreciation of other parts of the Christian family.

John Roxborogh (c) (edited 10 July 2015)

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