What do Christians believe and why? Why are there so many different Christian churches and denominations? Do we all worship and serve the same God? Do we share anything meaningful in common?
Continuing this Sunday, April 24, with the Presbyterian Church, we will explore questions about what Christians believe and why in both Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall worship services, as well as in an eight week study of Adam Hamilton’s book, “Christianity’s Family Tree.” The following is a selection from that book:
Presbyterians and the Reformation
Shortly after Martin Luther led the initial revolt against the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church of his day, other reformers began making similar calls for change, in turn garnering their own followers. The proliferation of this process in centuries to come was one tragic outcome of Luther’s assertion that the Bible is the primary source of faith and practice and that individual Christians can interpret it apart from the church. Christian leaders who disagreed with one another on minor points of doctrine formed their own churches or denominations. The result was a seemingly endless line of disputes and disagreements, often about small matters of theology, that led to the splintering and fracturing of the Christian church into thousands of Protestant denominations and as many as 35,000 independent nondenominational churches in the United States alone.
“Presbyterians love God with their minds. We love the idea that ‘You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.’ We really love God with our minds.”
Most early reformers agreed with Luther’s essential claims, but many felt he had not gone far enough in calling for reform of or separation from Catholic practice. Disagreements arose regarding the nature of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion; the forms of worship; and how much of sixteen-century Catholicism needed to be rejected. If you attend a Lutheran church service today, you will find that the worship is much closer to Catholicism than that of Protestant denominations from the next wave of reformers. John Calvin was among that second wave, and his efforts resulted in the formation of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. (Swiss, Dutch, and some German groups used the name “Reformed,” while Scotch and English groups used the name “Presbyterian.”)
John Calvin, born in 1509, was eight years old when Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the doors of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, signaling the beginning of the Reformation. Calvin studied law in Paris and in his early twenties had a conversion experience. At age twenty-five he left Paris for Basel, Switzerland, where he became an avowed Protestant seeking the reform of the church. A year later, he wrote the first edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion, perhaps the single most important book published during the Reformation, and a book he would continue to revise for the next twenty-five years.
Among the qualities I appreciate about Presbyterians is their emphasis on both Bible study and the intellect. Dr. Rumford says Presbyterians tend to be a bit “cerebral,” loving God enthusiastically with their minds.
“Presbyterians experience God first of all by that touch of grace,” he says: “and many, if they don’t have a moment of conversion, will have a moment of recognition, when they realize ‘I really love the Lord.’ Secondly, Presbyterians love God with their minds. We love the idea that ‘You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.’ We really love God with our minds. And that means we love ideas and theology and meditation and reflection and the creeds of the faith, and we experience God often by encountering God through his Word.”
Among the distinctive beliefs of historic Presbyterians were five theological points known by the acronym TULIP. Although some Presbyterians today take a bit more moderate stance on these ideas, others hold fast to them. These five points of Calvinism are as follows:
T – Total depravity, which means that we human beings are utterly sinful. Like those who are dead, we cannot resurrect or save ourselves. We are so lost and broken by original sin that we cannot even turn toward God.
U – Unconditional election is Calvin’s doctrine of predestination: his belief that God has chosen, from the foundation of the world, some to be saved and others to be damned. Those who are chosen for salvation were picked not on the basis of anything they had done, but solely on the basis of God’s choice. There is nothing about us that merits this election.
L – Limited atonement teaches that Christ’s death brought salvation not for all, but only for the elect: those whom God chose and predestined to receive salvation.
I – Irresistible grace says that if you are among the chosen or elect of God, you cannot refuse God’s salvation; your will has nothing to do with your salvation. You will be unable to resist God’s grace.
P – Perseverance of saints means that the elect cannot lose their salvation. Once you are saved—which, if you are among the elect, will take place—you cannot slip away; you will persevere in your faith until the Day of Judgement. If you do slip away from God, it is likely that you were not really one of the elect.
It is this point of predestination, and several of its corollaries, that has been the major sticking point between Presbyterians and some other Protestant groups over the last three hundred years.