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Presbyterian Cross

Presbyterianism is part of the Reformed churches family of denominations of Christian Protestantism based on the teachings of John Calvin which traces its institutional roots to the Scottish Reformation, especially as led by John Knox. There are many separate institutional entities that subscribe to Presbyterianism, in different nations around the world. Besides national distinctions, Presbyterians also have divided from one another for doctrinal reasons, especially in the wake of the Enlightenment.

History of Presbyterianism

These denominations derive their name from the Greek word presbuteros (πρεσβύτερος), which literally means "elder." Presbyterian government is common to the Protestant churches that were most closely modelled after the Reformation in Switzerland. In England, Scotland and Ireland, the Reformed churches that adopted a presbyterian instead of episcopalian government, became known naturally enough, as the Presbyterian Church.

In Scotland, John Knox (1505-1572), who had studied under Calvin in Geneva, returned to Scotland and led the Parliament of Scotland to embrace the Reformation in 1560. The first Presbyterian church, the Church of Scotland, was founded as a result. In England, Presbyterianism was established in secret in 1572, toward the end of the reign of Elizabeth I of England. In 1647, by an act of the Long Parliament under the control of Puritans, Presbyterianism was established for the Church of England. The re-establishment of the monarchy in 1660 brought the re-establishment of episcopalian government in England (and in Scotland for a short time); but the Presbyterian church continued in non-conformity, outside of the established church. In Ireland, Presbyterianism was established by Scottish immigrants and missionaries to Ulster. The Presbytery of Ulster was formed separately from the established church, in 1642. All three, very diverse branches of Presbyterianism, as well as independents, and some Dutch, German, and French Reformed denominations, combined in America to form what would eventually become the Presbyterian Church USA (1705). The Presbyterian church in England and Wales is the Methodist church, established in 1736.


Although the theology of Presbyterianism is characterized by diversity today, Calvin's theology serves as a central source. His most important and influential work is Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), which he revised throughout his life. The last edition (1559) has been the most widely used.

Like the German religious reformer Martin Luther, Calvin emphasized the two central doctrines of the Protestant Reformation: the authority of Scripture and justification by grace through faith. Also, like Luther, Calvin reduced the number of Christian sacraments to two—baptism of both infants and adults, and the Lord's Supper. Calvin differed from Luther and other Protestant reformers in his understanding of the nature of the Lord's Supper, church government, and the role of the law in Christian life. His theology is characterized by its reliance on the Bible as interpreted through the aid of the Holy Spirit and by his stress on the sovereignty of God and the inability of people to achieve salvation through their own works.

Related References

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