Presbyterian vs Puritan: What’s the Difference?

The terms Presbyterian and Puritan sound similar. Many people are aware that these name have something to do with Protestant Christianity, but they aren’t sure about their exact meaning. What is the difference between these groups of people? What’s their relationship to each another?

Presbyterianism is a Christian denomination rooted in the theological teachings of French Reformer John Calvin. The Puritans, some of whom attended Presbyterian churches, were English Protestants that played a role in early American history after they failed to reform the Church of England.

What beliefs made the Puritans similar to Presbyterians theologically? What exactly is Covenant Theology? What kind of churches did Puritans attend if not Presbyterian? Keep reading to learn more.

A modern depiction of a young Puritan girl holding sugar cane

What did the Puritans believe?

The Puritans held to Reformed theology, which in broad use is synonymous with Calvinism. Calvin (1509-1564) articulated Reformed doctrines in his well-known work The Institutes of the Christian Religion. (Also see Presbyterians vs Roman Catholicism: What’s the Difference?)

Theologian and early Church father Augustine of Hippo (354-430), influenced Calvin and therefore the Puritans, on many doctrines. Swiss pastor and theologian Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) also influenced Reformed theology and Puritan thinking. (Also see Presbyterian vs Reformed: What’s the Difference?)

What is Covenant Theology?

The term “Covenant Theology” is often used to describe the belief system of Reformed Theology. This doctrine is comprised of three Bible-based covenants.

What is a covenant? A simple definition of the English word “covenant” is that it’s an agreement. A biblical covenant refers to an agreement God has made with people. Examples of biblical covenants include the Adamic Covenant, the Mosiac Covenant, the David Covenant, and the New Covenant. (The Mosaic Covenant is also referred to as “the Old Covenant.”) Michael Lawrence writes,

“Covenants are not merely contracts or promises. Rather, covenants are relationships under authority, with both obligations and rewards. The terms and benefits of the relationship are spelled out, and so are the consequences if the relationship is broken.

But what is perhaps most significant about biblical covenants is that when God enters into a covenant, He must condescend to initiate it, He sets the terms, He provides the benefits, and He executes the judgment when the covenant is broken.”

Biblical Theology by Michael Lawrence, p 31., emphasis added [1]

What does a covenant consist of? Certain elements provide the framework for all covenants.

  • First, God is the unilateral initiator of them.
  • Second, God and people are the relational parties participating in the agreement.
  • Third, God commits to certain outcomes if people are faithful and obedient.
  • Fourth, signs, symbols, and oaths may act as important markers when God establishes an agreement with people (e.g. circumcision).

“Visionary and practical, idealistic and realistic too, goal-oriented and methodical, they were great believers, great hopers, great doers, and great sufferers.”

Why We Need the Puritans by J.I Packer, pg. 22

What covenants are central to Reformed theology?

There are different ways to organize and articulate the covenants found in the Bible. One way is to describe them using the name of the person God enacted the covenant with, e.g. the Mosaic Covenant (i.e. the Covenant of Moses). Reformed theology sometimes refers to covenants in this way.

However, it also understands the covenants in these three categories: the Covenant of Works, the Covenant of Grace, and the Covenant of Redemption. (Also see Do Presbyterians Believe in the Trinity?)

What is the Covenant of Redemption? The Covenant of Redemption refers to the death of Jesus Christ as an atonement for sin and his subsequent resurrection from the dead as a firstfruits (1 Cor. 15:20) of all who trust him for salvation. All three members of the Trinity are involved in this covenant: The Father planned it, the Son executed it, and the Holy Spirit applies it.

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

1 Corinthians 15:20 (ESV)

What is the Covenant of Works? The Covenant of Works refers to God’s instruction to Adam and Eve to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If they obeyed God, they would live forever. If they disobeyed, they would die forever.

Adam and Eve failed to obeyed God when they rebelled and ate from the tree. In response, God unilaterally initiated another covenant, which would extend grace to them, saving them from eternal death. (Also see Presbyterian vs Anglican: What’s the Difference?)

What is the Covenant of Grace? The Covenant of Grace refers to God’s merciful and gracious plan to save sinners from eternal punishment through Christ. After people chose sin, God enacted a plan to save them, which was rooted in love and grace. People couldn’t save themselves through good works, even religious ones. In order for people to be saved from sin, God had to initiate their rescue and he did by sending Christ to die for them (John 3:16).

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

John 3:16 (ESV)

God’s Covenant of Grace is connected to the Adamic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, David, and New Covenants because God’s good and unearned favor toward sinners is found in each one. Though God is dealing with different people in each one, He extends grace, which people appropriate with faith, as evidenced through obedience in each one. (Also see How Do Presbyterians Worship?)

Purtian man

Puritan and Presbyterian beliefs

The Puritans and the Presbyterian tradition both hold to Covenant Theology. The Puritans also subscribed to the tenets of Calvinism, commonly summarized in the acronym T.U.L.I.P. Calvin didn’t create the acronym. His followers did. While it doesn’t encompass all of Calvin’s biblical and theological teaching, it can be used as a starting point for understanding his convictions on God, sin, and salvation.

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

Like Presbyterians Puritans believed these doctrines. (Also see PCUSA vs PCA: What’s the Difference?)

The Westminster Confession of Faith

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646-1647) articulated the doctrines of Reformed Theology and provided people with a much more in-depth theological description of biblical teaching.

Written in a question-and-answer format, the confession (i.e. a statement of beliefs) addressed 196 topics on doctrines like the Bible, the Trinity, creation, sin, the covenants, the person and work of Christ, the Church, baptism and the Lord’s Supper and the Second Coming of Christ. (See the full article Do Presbyterians Believe in the Trinity?)

The Puritans and church government

Presbyterianism isn’t only the name of a Christian denomination, but it also describes a form of church government. In the Presbyterian organization, elders represent the church.

Calvin taught that there are elders who preach and teach and others elders who help rule over the church. Elders in a local church comprise a session. Elders in the same geographical location form a presbytery. Groups of presbyteries form a synod. (Also see Why Don’t Presbyterian Churches Have Altars?)

Did some Puritans start and attend non-Presbyterian churches? Yes. While many Puritans were members of Presbyterian churches, not all were. Some became part of Congregational churches in which authority resided in the local body, not in a regional presbytery or synod.

Congregational churches didn’t align with the Presbyterian form of church government in all matters, however the structure still enabled them to fully embrace Covenant Theology.

Many historians teach that Puritanism gave rise to Congregationalism. A theme of the Puritans’ protest against the Church of England was the illicit concentration of power in the elite hierarchy of the church and Congregationalism addressed this problem by giving power to the membership, not the clergy. (Also see Can Presbyterians Take Catholic Communion?)

“The Puritans were strong in the area of knowing God by heart experience but they sought to test everything by Scripture.”

Who Are the Puritans? BY Erroll Hulse, p. 142

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