Wondering if Presbyterians are Calvinists? Learn the Facts


Presbyterianism has been one of the most prominent branches of Protestant Christianity for 500 years. Calvinism has been one of the most influential theological beliefs systems in the last 500 years. These facts have led people to wonder what the relationship between Presbyterianism and Calvinism is.

Presbyterians are historically Calvinists in their theology. Some churches within the tradition have embraced doctrinal and social liberalism in recent decades, leading them away from their heritage. Presbyterians haven’t always agreed on every detail of Calvinism and its application for today.

Why is Presbyterianism and Calvinism so intricately related? Do any Presbyterian churches have non-Calvinist beliefs? Do any non-Presbyterian churches have Calvinist beliefs? Keep reading to learn more.

Presbyterian church sanctuary
“So we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” Romans 12:5 (ESV)

The relationship between Presbyterianism and Calvinism

John Calvin (1509-1564) was leader of the Protestant Reformation in France, though his influence eventually extended into all of Europe, North America, and beyond. His most well-known theological teaching is found in his classic work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. He also wrote Bible commentaries on almost every book of the Old and New Testament. Calvin’s sermons and lectures also impacted Protestant Christianity.

Presbyterianism: The name “Presbyterian” describes a form of church government. People sometimes use the term broadly today to describe a theological system or an individual member of a church in the tradition, yet the definition of the word refers to ecclesiastical governance.

The foundational conviction of Presbyterian church governance is that elders are to be representatives of the church who serve in a ranked structure. Presbyterian governance is often contrasted with congregationalism and episcopalianism. Presbyterian regional governance is generally organized as:

  • A group of elders in a certain geographical area form a presbytery
  • A group of presbyteries form a synod
  • A group of synods form a General Assembly
TermMeaning
Calvinismrefers to the theological teaching of French Reformer John Calvin, commonly expressed with the acronym T.U.L.I.P.*
Presbyterianismrefers to a form of church government that centers on local and regional elders
Reformedsometimes refers broadly to the theology of the Protestant Reformation; other times its used as a synonym for Calvinism; still other times it’s used to describe the doctrines of T.U.L.I.P. as well as classic Reformed beliefs such as Covenant Theology

Though Calvin didn’t create the acronym T.U.L.I.P., people often use it to summarize his theology. The letters stand for:

  • Total Depravity
  • Unconditional Election
  • Limited Atonement
  • Irresistible Grace
  • Perseverance of the Saints

Calvin argued for the Presbyterian form of church governance

Calvin believed that the Bible teaches Presbyterian church governance. He reasoned that the structure best enabled the Church to carry out its ministry with Jesus Christ as its head. Many Reformers also believed that Presbyterian governance is modeled in the New Testament, which aligned with the movement’s emphasis of re-establishing the Bible as the Church’s sole authority, in contrast to the theology of Catholicism.

Calvin writes a lot about Presbyterian governance in The Institutes. He is clearly persuaded that this structure is biblically based:

Now we must speak of the order by which the Lord willed his church to be governed. He alone should rule and reign in the church as well as have authority or preeminence in it, and this authority should be exercised and administered by his Word alone.”

Institutes, iii. 1 (emphasis added)

Calvin believed that other forms of church governance had the potential to do more harm than good. Alternative forms of oversight would likely diminish the centrality of the Bible, blunt the ministry of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and render pastoral care less effective. In summary, Presbyterian governance, to Calvin, maximized the Church’s purpose:

“This human ministry which God uses to govern the church is the chief sinew by which believers are held together in one body. Whoever, therefore, either is trying to abolish this order of which we speak and this kind of government, or discounts it as not necessary, is striving for the undoing or rather the ruin and destruction of the church.”

Institutes, iii. 2

Not all forms of church governance that are employed today were in operation in Calvin’s time. Some speculate that perhaps Calvin wouldn’t have so strongly rejected some modern forms of governance. After all, in historical context, Calvin was arguing against the governance model found in Catholicism.

However, based on his teaching in The Institutes, it seems that Calvin didn’t need to have an awareness of all forms of governance because he believed that the Bible taught Presbyterian governance and that settled the matter.

Many Reformed thinkers today wouldn’t go so far as to say that non-Presbyterian models of governance are “unbiblical” even while holding to Presbyterian governance themselves.

“There is nothing in which order should be more diligently observed than in establishing government.”

John Calvin
Presbyterian Church in Indiana USA
“And [Christ] is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” Colossians 1:18 (ESV)

What offices comprised church governance for Calvin?

Calvin identified three offices in the church:

We have stated that Scripture sets before us three kinds of ministers. Similarly, whatever ministers the ancient church had, it divided into three orders. For from the order of presbyters,

(1) part were chosen pastors and teachers;

(2) the remaining part were charged with the censure and correction of morals;

(3) the care of the poor and the distribution of alms were committed to the deacons (iv. 1).

Institutes, iv. 1 (emphasis added)

Calvin believed that the New Testament uses the word bishop, presbyter, pastor, and minister interchangeably. (Institutes, iii. 8).

Did John Knox establish the Presbyterian denomination?

John Knox (1513-1572) a Protestant Reformer in Scotland, played an important role in the establishment of the Presbyterian tradition. Many church historians credit Knox with building on the foundation that Calvin laid regarding Presbyterian governance.

Can a church be Presbyterian but not be Calvinist?

It’s possible for a church to have Presbyterian governance without fully embracing Calvinist theology. Calvin’s teaching on church governance will have (perhaps indirectly) influenced it, even if the leadership and membership reject certain doctrines that are historically common to Calvinism.

Some would argue that modern liberal denominations like the PCUSA are Presbyterian in structure, but they have rejected their historical roots to the extent that they can no longer be considered Calvinist in theology.

Can a church be Calvinist without being Presbyterian?

It’s not uncommon for a church to have non-Presbyterian governance while embracing Calvinist theology. Some would argue that such churches aren’t fully “Reformed” because they often don’t hold to certain Reformed doctrines related to biblical covenants and congregational worship, for example. Yet these churches can be referred to as “Calvinist” because they follow his teaching in matters of sin, atonement, and salvation.

Reformed Baptist churches have non-Presbyterian governance, yet embrace Calvinist theology. For reasons cited above, some Reformed thinkers may believe that “Calvinist Baptist” is a more accurate description. Nevertheless, they are commonly called “Reformed Baptist.”

Many non-denominational churches also have Calvinist theology.

There are also churches that are considered “Calvinist Methodist” such as the Presbyterian Church of Wales. In the early 19th century, members of this tradition rejected Arminian teaching and embraced Calvinism. The tradition was the product of the Welsh Methodist revival.

“[Church governance] should be exercised and administered by his Word alone.”

John Calvin

References:
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Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel has been in Christian ministry for 25 years. He has been an Associate Pastor and a Senior Pastor. Currently in higher education, Daniel has taught more than 25 different undergraduate courses in Bible and theology-related topics.

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