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What is Presbyterianism?

Steven F. Miller

At the root of Presbyterianism is a view of the Word of God that controls its every expression. Presbyterianism unfolds from this central idea as a flower from a bud; it emanates as ripples from the splash of a stone tossed into a pond. This germ of Presbyterianism is the idea that God is active in his church by the Spirit of Christ through the written Word. It is by the Spirit that Christ gave his Word to the church and directs his church today. This final Word serves as the constitution of the church.

It would be hard to overemphasize the significance of this element in Presbyterianism. This active notion of the Spirit of God working by and with the Word shapes our Reformed piety, worship, government, doctrine and discipline. That is how we understand what is happening in salvation:

  1. In our effectual calling, “All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit ...” (Westminster Confession of Faith [WCF], chap. 10, par. 1).
  2. In our justification, “God did, from all eternity, decree to justify the elect, ... nevertheless they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ to them” (WCF 11.4). Faith receives Christ “as he is offered to us in the gospel” (Shorter Catechism, Q. 86).
  3. In our sanctification, “They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them” (WCF 13.1).

Presbyterian Piety

It is this understanding of the Spirit working by and with the Word that has produced a proper appreciation of doctrine in Presbyterianism. Consequently, piety depends upon the understanding and reception of the system of truth taught in the Scriptures. Of the churches arising from the Reformation, the Presbyterian church has produced the fullest and most precise doctrinal standards: the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. This appreciation of the role of doctrine in producing life was reflected in the old Form of Government [FG] of the OPC (chap. I, par. 4): “That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness; according to our Savior’s rule, ‘by their fruits ye shall know them.’ And that no opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd, than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are. On the contrary, they are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth, or to embrace it.” This paragraph was part of the introduction drawn up by the Synod of New York and Philadelphia and prefixed to the Form of Government adopted in 1788. It demonstrates the official commitment of the Presbyterian church to the proposition that doctrine and living are not to be seen as contradictory or mutually exclusive but as necessary to each other. The Spirit and the Word produce life. Truth begets practice.

Presbyterian Government

Presbyterian government unfolds from this kernel idea that God is active in his church through his Spirit working by and with the Word. “Christ orders his church by the rule of his Word; the pattern of officers, ordinances, government, and discipline set forth in Scripture is therefore to be observed as the instruction of the Lord.... In those circumstances not specifically ordered by Scripture the church must observe the general rules of the Word. Among the biblical admonitions applicable to all circumstances are those requiring that all things must be done decently, in order, and for edification. A particular form of church government is bound to set forth what Christ requires for the order of his church and to arrange particular circumstances only in the manner, to the degree, and for the purposes that the Lord of the church has appointed in Scripture” (FG I.2). The pattern of church government that we find in Scripture is elders ruling by the Word of God with the guidance of the Spirit. Such an arrangement was not developed out of Scottish ingenuity but is the explicit teaching of the Bible. The rule of elders (or presbyters, from the Greek word presbyteros, meaning “elder”) is not an invention of ours for convenience, but an ordinance of God for his church. Christ rules by his Word and Spirit through elders. Elders, therefore, are to be obeyed as they administer that rule of Christ. “Government by presbyters or elders is a New Testament ordinance” (FG III.2). “Therefore the decisions of church officers when properly rendered and if in accord with the Word of God ‘are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his Word’ (Confession of Faith XXXI.2)” (FG III.5).

Presbyterians do not view their church rulers as possessing an unquestionable authority to regulate doctrine, worship, and life. The courts of the church, as well as private individuals, are subject to one supreme authority. “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (WCF 2.10). The Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture is the supreme judge. Church rulers govern, seeking to determine what the Spirit of God is saying to the Church by debating any matter from the Scriptures. Since they have God’s final Word to the church (cf. Heb. 1:1), elders do not make decisions on the basis of new revelations, but by declaring what the Word of God written says to the particular situation at hand. “All church authority is only ministerial and declarative, for the Holy Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice. No church judicatory may presume to bind the conscience by making laws on the basis of its own authority; all its decisions should be founded upon the Word of God. ‘God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship’ (WCF 20.2).”

Presbyterian Worship

This same principle of the Spirit working by and with the Word lies at the heart of Presbyterian worship. The OPC Directory for the Public Worship of God (III.1) says that “a service of public worship is in its essence a meeting of God and his people.” The central element in meeting with God is listening to him speak to us. How may this be done to our salvation and edification? The Shorter Catechism says:

Q.89. How is the word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.

Preaching is central to Presbyterian worship because by it God speaks to us when we meet with him in public.

Thus, God appoints the preacher. “It is his charge to feed and tend the flock as Christ’s minister and with the other elders to lead them in all the service of Christ. It is his task to conduct the public worship of God; to pray for and with Christ’s flock as the mouth of the people unto God; to feed the flock by the public reading and preaching of the Word of God, according to which he is to teach, convince, reprove, exhort, comfort, and evangelize, expounding and applying the truth of Scripture with ministerial authority, as a diligent workman approved by God” (FG VIII). Ministers of the Word are those who speak to God on behalf of God’s people and to the people on behalf of God. This is why we require a well-trained, educated, and thoroughly examined ministry. Through the minister of the gospel, God, working by his Spirit in applying his Word, speaks.

In all these ways the central principle of God working in his church by the Spirit of Christ in an objective, written Word yields what we have come to call Presbyterianism.

Reprinted from New Horizons, March 1990.

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