Having spoken last time about Anglicans and Episcopalians, we now continue our discussion about the different Christian denominations with the Presbyterians. Today, there are about four million Presbyterians throughout the U.S., with the majority concentrated on the East Coast and Mid-Atlantic states. The word “presbyter” refers to church leaders or elders. The Presbyterian Church takes its name from its governance of church communities by elected elders, rather than bishops.
While called Presbyterian in the U.S., in Europe it is commonly referred to as the Reformed Church. Members of the Reformed Church can be found mostly in Switzerland, Scotland, Holland, and France. The Presbyterian or Reformed Churches originate around 1533 with a French lawyer by the name of John Calvin. Calvin’s theology was based on the absolute sovereignty of God, the helplessness of man, and strict predestination (i.e., that God has already determined who goes to heaven and who goes to hell). Other denominations, such as Baptists and Congregationalists, have origins in Calvinism as well, but each (including Presbyterianism) have a theology that has varied or developed from John Calvin’s original thought.
As we know, it was Martin Luther who revolted against the Catholic Church in Germany. Meanwhile, an ex-priest by the name of Ulrich Zwingli, who was influenced initially by Luther’s writings, did the same in Switzerland. Zwingli denied the value of fasting and priestly celibacy. Being denied by his bishop release from his promise of celibacy, he married a widow with whom he had been living and they had a child together. Zwingli separated from Luther over the belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which Luther still maintained, thereby bringing about the division between Lutheran and Reformed Protestantism. Luther believed in the Real Presence, but he did not maintain the Catholic teaching on transubstantiation (i.e., that the actual substance of the bread and wine changes to the Body and Blood of Jesus). Zwingli thought the Lord’s Supper was merely a memorial service. He removed all art and music from his churches, and in Zurich, developed a form of government run by the church.
John Calvin came to Geneva and established a theocratic government there as well. So harsh was his government, the citizens rebelled and ousted Calvin after only two years. Some years later, he returned to Geneva with a revised Presbyterian system of representative church government. What Calvin developed in Geneva served as a model for other Protestants throughout Europe. John Knox brought Calvin’s ideas back to Scotland and established what we know of today as Presbyterianism.
Catholics and Presbyterians differ in many beliefs, the first of which would be on the Eucharist and baptism. Presbyterians do not believe that baptism is necessary for salvation. They also do have the same hierarchical structure consisting of bishops as the Catholic Church does. Most Presbyterians today reject Calvin’s original doctrine of strict predestination. Presbyterians would also hold differing beliefs on homosexuality, abortion, and other such social issues. Together, we hold in common the fundamental beliefs of Jesus Christ being our Lord and Savior, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and belief in the Bible as the Word of God. As always, it is important that we pray for one another and continue to work toward greater unity by sharing our Catholic faith and striving for greater understanding of our similarities and differences.