Are Calvinists and Presbyterians the Same? Get the Facts


The terms Calvinist and Presbyterian are used to describe churches, belief systems, and the people associated with them. Many people know that these terms relate to a certain tradition in Protestant Christianity, but they aren’t sure about the relationship between them.

The terms Calvinist and Presbyterian have overlapping meanings, yet there are differences between them. A Calvinist is someone who subscribes to the teaching of John Calvin. A Presbyterian is someone who attends a church in the Presbyterian tradition, which is named after a form of government that is elder-led.

What are the exact differences between the terms? Are all Presbyterians Calvinists? Are all Calvinists Presbyterian? What is John Calvin’s relationship to the Presbyterian tradition? Keep reading to learn more.

Berea Presbyterian Church
Berea Presbyterian Church

Calvinist vs Presbyterian: What’s the difference?

Some people use the terms “Calvinist” and “Presbyterian” interchangeably. Broadly speaking, using the terms synonymously isn’t necessarily incorrect, but context is important. (Also see Presbyterian vs Roman Catholic: What’s the Difference?)

The literal meaning of the terms aren’t exactly the same, though their subject matter is very closely related. Context and the intent of the speaker is important to understanding how someone is using each term.

  • For example, when someone uses the term “Calvinist” to describe a person, they may mean that individual is devoted to the teaching of the French Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) in their entirety or they may mean that the person believes in the doctrines described in the acronym T.U.L.I.P., which is a traditional way to summarize Calvin’s teaching (see below). T.U.L.I.P. doesn’t, however, reflect all of Calvin’s teaching, leaving out doctrine like the Church.
  • For another example, when someone uses the term “Presbyterian” they may be broadly referring to a branch of Protestant Christianity or they be specifically referring to a form of church government. (Also see Presbyterian vs Protestant: What’s the Difference?)

The table below contains a list of terms, including their broad and general use.

TermMeaning
CalvinismThe biblical and theological teaching of 16th-century Reformer John Calvin. The term sometimes refers to his theological belief system as a whole — i.e. not just predestination or T.U.L.I.P. for example — but the entirety of Covenant Theology. Still, some people use the term only in reference to T.U.L.I.P. (See more on the acronym below.)
CalvinistOne who subscribes to the teaching of John Calvin. Sometimes the term is used to describe someone who adopts all of Calvin’s teaching, e.g. including Covenant Theology. Other times it’s used to describe someone who subscribes to T.U.L.I.P., but not other teachings of Calvin, e.g. Presbyterian church government. An example of the latter would be a Reformed Baptist.
PresbyterFrom the Greek presbyteros meaning “elder.”
PresbyteryA group of local Presbyterian churches.
Presbyterian (1)A form of church government in which elders govern local church bodies. “Presbyteries” are comprised of clergy and lay elders. The position finds biblical support in verses like Acts 14:23, 15:4; 1 Tim. 4:14; Jas. 5:14.* The term “presbyterial” is also used to describe this form of church government.
Presbyterian (2)Someone that identifies with, or something that belongs to, the Presbyterian tradition. For example, a church member can be called “Presbyterian” and so can a hymn or a building.
PresbyterianismThe tradition of Presbyterian government, and the theological system associated with it.
Reformed theologyThe theological belief system rooted in the teaching of John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) and Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575). It’s distinct from Lutheranism as well as later theological developments in Arminian and Baptist doctrinal systems.
  • Acts 14:23, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (ESV)
  • Acts 15:4, “When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them.” (ESV)
  • 1 Timothy 4:14, “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you.” (ESV)
  • James 5:14, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” (ESV)
Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church
Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church, Toronto Canada

Are all Presbyterians Calvinists? Are all Calvinists Presbyterian?

Presbyterians are Calvinists. Members of Presbyterians churches have professed their belief in the theological tenets that Calvin articulated. It’s possible for a person to attend a Presbyterian church and not be a Calvinist, yet membership requires professing doctrinal agreement of primary matters of the Christian faith as well as secondary matters that are important to the Presbyterian tradition. There is freedom on third order matters.

  • Examples of primary matters: the Trinity; the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the sinfulness of all human beings, the atonement of Jesus Christ, the physical resurrection of Christ, the Second Coming of Christ
  • Example of a secondary matter: the Presbyterian form of church government; church government is a secondary matter in Protestant theology because it’s a matter that doesn’t relate to salvation, however it’s an important distinctive in the Presbyterian tradition
  • Example of a third order matter: A Presbyterian may read the King James Version of the Bible, the New American Standard, the English Standard Version, or something else; neither their salvation of church membership is based on what Bible translation they read (Also see Are Presbyterians Liberal?)

All Calvinists aren’t Presbyterian. When the term “Calvinism” is used to describe Calvin’s teaching on God, sin, and salvation, then a person can adopt those beliefs while attending a non-Presbyterian church. It’s less likely to find a self-described Calvinist in a church that’s a part of an Arminian theological tradition, like Methodist or Assemblies of God.

It’s more likely to find a self-described Calvinist in Protestant churches that believe that members have the freedom to subscribe to either Calvinist or Arminian theology. (Also see Presbyterian vs Methodist: What’s the Difference?)

The Baptist tradition is an example of this, which is why there are so-called “Reformed Baptists” who are Calvinists, as well as “Free Will Baptists” who are Arminian.

“Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, there a church of God exists, even if it swarms with many faults.”

John Calvin

Does T.U.L.I.P. define Calvinism?

Part of the debate over terms relates to how Calvinism is defined. Is a Calvinist someone who adopts Calvin’s teachings in their entirety or is a Calvinist someone who adopts the Reformer’s views on doctrines such as God, sin, and salvation? Many people – Calvinists and non-Calvinists – summarize Calvin’s teaching on God, sin, and salvation with the acronym T.U.L.I.P. The acronym stands for:

  • T is for Total Depravity
  • U is for Unconditional Election
  • L is for Limited Atonement
  • I is for Irresistible Grace
  • P is for Perseverance

Some believe that this acronym defines Calvinism, which makes it possible for a “Calvinist” to be a member of a Presbyterian, Baptist, or even a non-denominational church. Others believe that T.U.L.I.P. doesn’t summarize Calvin’s teachings (after all, Calvin didn’t create the acronym), in part because it leaves out central aspects of Covenant Theology like the Church’s relationship to Israel. (Also see Presbyterian vs Baptist; What’s the Difference?)

What the offices of the church according to Calvin?

Calvin believed that there are four offices in the church. He wrote,

“There are four orders of office instituted by our Lord for the government of his church. First, pastors; then doctors; next elders; and fourth deacons. Hence if we will have a church well-ordered and maintained we ought to observe this form of government.” [3]

emphasis added

A “doctor” of the church is a formal instructor in Bible and theology, perhaps the equivalent to a seminary professor. Pastors, elders, and deacons are offices found in other Protestant forms of church government. (Also see Presbyterian vs Anglican: What’s the Difference?)

Calvin, however made a distinction between two different kinds of church elders. One kind of elder preached and taught the church. The other kind helped provide oversight of the congregation.

“We may learn from this, that there were at that time two kinds of elders; for all were not ordained to teach. The words plainly mean, that there are some who ‘ruled well’ and honorably, but who did not hold the office of teacher.

And, indeed, there were chosen from among the people men of worth and good character, who, united with the pastors in a common council and authority, administered the discipline of the Church, and were a kind of censors for the correction of morals.” [4]

Calvin’s comments on 1 Timothy 5:17, emphasis added

1 Timothy 5:17 reads, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” (ESV)

Calvin’s comments in this passage and elsewhere provide the foundation for selecting clergy as well as non-clergy to provide oversight of local Presbyterian churches. (Also see How Do Presbyterian Worship?)

“The church the gathering of God’s children, where they can be helped and fed like babies and then, guided by her motherly care, grow up to manhood in maturity of faith.”

John Calvin

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
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[4] Source

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