The Presbyterian and Lutheran traditions have been two of the most influential branches of Protestant Christianity for over 500 years. The denominations, churches, and people in these two prominent traditions have many similarities, yet they have differences, too.
German Reformer Martin Luther founded Lutheranism and French Reformer John Calvin founded Presbyterianism. The traditions agree on doctrines like the Trinity, the inspiration of Scripture, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They disagree on doctrines like predestination and the Lord’s Supper.
Lutherans and Presbyterians have more in common than not relative to Roman Catholicism and other Protestant traditions like Baptist, Methodist, and Assemblies of God. See the comparison charts below to learn more about these highly respected Protestant movements.
Also see Presbyterian vs Pentecostal: What’s the Difference? to learn more.
Presbyterianism and Lutheranism: Overview
Presbyterianism and Lutheranism have similar origins in Europe. Luther and Calvin shared the conviction that the abuses evident in the Catholic church were unbiblical and must be reformed. (Also see Presbyterian vs Catholic: What’s the Difference?)
They were both teachers, writers, and deeply passionate about Scripture and the person and work of Jesus Christ. Luther and Calvin also acquired followers that helped shape the traditions they started. (Also see What Bible Translation Do Presbyterian Read?)
In the 21st century, Presbyterianism and Lutheranism have many similarities. Segments of people within each tradition have wrestled with maintaining their historic convictions and adopting new ideas that are favored in society. Denominations and churches have divided over what should change and what should remain the same.
|Lutheran tradition||Presbyterian tradition|
|Origin||Martin Luther (1483-1546), 16th century Germany||John Calvin (1509-1564), 16th century France|
|Meaning of the name||The term “Lutheranism” is based on the last name of Martin Luther||The term “Presbyterian” is derived from the Greek word presbyteros, meaning “elder.” In New Testament context, the word refers to a form of church government that is elder led.|
|Early influencer||Philip Melanchthon 1497-1560), 16th century Germany||John Knox (1514-1572), 16th century Scotland|
|Significant writing outside the Bible||Luther’s shorter and large catechism, the Book on Concord, the Augsburg Confession||The Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647|
|Organization||Churches exist in “synods,” i.e. conferences or districts; some denominations have bishops, some don’t; congregations typically vote on pastors||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.|
|What are the largest denominations in the tradition today?||Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA); Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS)|
see charts below
|The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA); the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA)|
see charts below
|Theological and social worldview||It depends on the synod; the LCMS is conservative; the ELCA is moderate to liberal depending on the congregation|
see charts below
|It depends on the denomination; the PCUSA welcomes liberal and progressive theological positions and social causes; the PCA maintains conservative positions on theological and social matters|
see charts below
Presbyterianism vs Lutheranism: Theological Comparison
As Protestant Christians, Presbyterianism and Lutheranism have similar beliefs about the core teachings of the Bible. Their areas of disagreement may not concern primary matters, but they are nevertheless important to each tradition. Presbyterianism has always recognized Lutheranism as Christians and vice versa. Their differences are significant enough, however, that members choose to worship in different churches.
|Lutheran tradition||Presbyterian tradition|
|View of the Bible||Conservative synods affirm the authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of Scripture; moderate-liberal synods view the Bible as a helpful guide to belief and practice, but an imperfect one at best.||Presbyterians believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Many conservatives accept and defend the terms “inerrancy” (i.e. Scripture has no errors) and “infallibility” (i.e. Scripture can’t lead astray in belief or practice). Moderate-liberal denominations read and teach Scripture selectively.|
|View of God||Lutherans believe in the Trinity; there is one God who exists in three persons. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully divine.||Presbyterians believe in the Trinity; there is one God who exists in three persons. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully divine.|
|View of Christ||Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. He is God in human flesh. He is 100% God and 100% man. Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died as an atonement for sin, and physically resurrection on the third day.||Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. He is God in human flesh. He is 100% God and 100% man. Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died as an atonement for sin, and physically resurrection on the third day.|
|View of salvation||Neither Calvinist or Arminian, but “Lutheran”; conservatives believe in election, but don’t define it the same way as Calvinists||Jesus Christ is the only way to be saved. As Calvinists, Presbyterians believe in predestination, holding that God has selected some, but not others, to salvation.|
|View of the Holy Spirit||The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. He is fully divine. The Spirit applies the salvation that the Father planned and that the Son earned for sinners. He bestows spiritual gifts on believers that they are to use for the edification of the Church. Lutherans are historically cessationist.||The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. He is fully divine. The Spirit applies the salvation that the Father planned and that the Son earned for sinners. He bestows spiritual gifts on believers that they are to use for the edification of the Church. Presbyterians are historically cessationist.|
|View of the Ordinances||There are two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper or communion; they don’t automatically convey grace||There are two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper or communion; they don’t automatically convey grace|
|View of the Lord’s Supper||The real body and blood of Christ are believed to be “in, with, and under” the bread and cup; this view is often called “consubstantiation”||Presbyterians believe Christ is spiritually present in the bread and cup. The elements aren’t merely symbols or reminders.|
|View of the Baptism||Pastors baptize infants who receive the gift of regeneration of the Holy Spirit; faith is necessary for grace to be conveyed (unlike Catholicism)||Presbyterians practice infant baptism (and adult baptism) by means of sprinkling. Baptism signifies inclusion into the Covenant community.|
|View of the end times||Lutheranism is amillennial, meaning it interprets the 1,000-year period described in Revelation 20:1-6 figuratively and defines it as the time between Christ’s first and second coming (i.e. the Church Age)||Presbyterianism is also amillennial.|
Predestination in Lutheranism and Presbyterianism
The Lutheran concept of predestination doesn’t comfortably fit the Presbyterian (i.e. Calvinist, Reformed) or Arminian understanding of the doctrine. Lutheranism doesn’t believe in predestination the same way Presbyterian Christians or Arminian Christians do. Lutheranism represents a third way of understanding predestination.
|Lutheranism||God unconditionally elects people to salvation. Election isn’t based on God’s foresight of who would choose Him. Lutheranism doesn’t believe in reprobation (i.e double predestination); meaning, God doesn’t choose not to save certain people.|
|Calvinism||God unconditionally elects people to salvation and passes over others. Election isn’t based on God’s foresight of who would choose Him. Calvinism believes reprobation; meaning, God chooses not to save certain people.*|
Because Lutheranism’s beliefs about predestination represent a third way, some people see it as the rope in a tug-of-war between Calvinism and Arminianism.
Depending on what aspect of predestination is assessed, some argue the Lutheran view leans Reformed, while others hold it leans Arminian. Many Lutherans would argue that their view doesn’t lean toward either; it stands alone.
Presbyterian and Lutheran denominations
|Presbyterian Church (USA)||1.7 million|
|Presbyterian Church in America||370,000|
|Evangelical Presbyterian Church||150,000|
Also see Presbyterian Church USA vs Presbyterian Church in America: What’s the Difference?
|Evangelical Lutheran Church in America||4.2 million|
|Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod||2.2 million|
|Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod||385,000|
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