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The Theological Distinctions of Presbyterianism

Updated on October 10, 2014
John Knox
John Knox | Source

The Presbyterian Church is a historic Christian denomination that traces its origins to Scotland. John Knox, who was an avid follower and teacher of the theological teachings of the French reformer John Calvin, was the individual responsible for the creation and organization of the church. Presbyterianism has a long and rich history, and has produced many famous preachers and theologians. Some notable Presbyterians include Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Francis Schaeffer, D. James Kennedy, and R.C. Sproul.

What makes the Presbyterian Church so unique, however, is its distinctive teachings and adherence to a particular style of church government from which its name derives. The name Presbyterian essentially comes from the Greek word “presbyteros”, which means elders. Contrary to most Christian denominations, which usually empower a single individual to lead the Church, Presbyterians ordain a group of individuals to oversee their congregations.

In addition, Presbyterians are known to teach a theological system known as Reformed theology. This doctrinal system is also known as Calvinism. Calvinist teachings are known to derive from the theological writings of John Calvin, which include Calvin’s Commentaries and the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Another significant piece of literature that Presbyterians adhere to is the Westminster Standards. This guide book lists biblical scriptures that correlate with the doctrines of the church, which are the following:


Tulip is an acronym that represents the soteriological views of the church, which are total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. Total depravity implies that individuals are so naturally wicked and spiritually dead that they cannot exercise legitimate moral goodness. Unconditional election implies that there are no specific conditions or standards that are set on the individual in receiving salvation, but that it is purely of God’s grace. Also known as divine election, God elects people apart from their own free will, which is taught to be non-existent by reason of sin.

Limited atonement implies that the atonement of the cross of Jesus of Nazareth was limited to a specific group of people who God himself has chosen from eternity past. Irresistible grace implies that individuals who are being chosen can in no way in themselves reject God’s calling of salvation. Finally, the perseverance of the saints implies that Christians, through the power of the Holy Spirit, will remain steadfast in their spiritual walk until the second coming of Christ.


Predestination is the teaching that God the Father, from eternity past, has chosen the people that will ultimately become elected to salvation. However, contrary to what many believe, John Calvin was not the first theologian to teach the doctrine of predestination. This particular doctrine was actually taught several centuries earlier by Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, Saint Augustine of Hippo, and some of the Post Apostolic Fathers, also known as Patristics.

Divine Sovereignty

Divine sovereignty is the teaching that God has initially foreordained and directs the course of human history from beginning to end, and that he also orchestrates the events in the lives of individuals. Some, but not all, Presbyterians also believe that it was God’s intent for Adam to sin in order to reveal his power, goodness, and glory. However, this is an extremely controversial doctrine that rarely gets spoken about in Presbyterian circles.

Covenant Theology

Covenant theology, or federalism, is a teaching that the all the covenants of the Bible are in actuality a single covenant with different applications or administrations. This system is the antithesis of dispensationalism, which teaches that God has different covenants that are designed to deal with humanity at different times in history. Thus, under the covenant of grace the covenant of law is taught to be obsolete.

Israel and the Church

Reformed thought teaches that Israel and the Church are the same entity and that the Church was spoken of by the Jewish prophets. According to this teaching, the promises made to the nation of Israel were literally fulfilled in the Church. Some theological opponents label this teaching as replacement theology, but such is not the case. Most Reformed churches teach that Jewish Israel will be restored collectively at the consummation of the age.

In Conclusion, these are just some of the major doctrines that the Presbyterian Church adheres to. There are many other distinguishing characteristics, but most of them are minor. Presbyterianism has proven to be a major force in Christianity and has had a monumental impact on Western culture and thought. Presbyterian American presidents include Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Buchanan, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan.

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