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A Brief History of Presbyterianism
With an Emphasis on Old Testament/Early Church Polity and Major Controversies in American Presbyterian History
Note: These are the lecture notes for the first class of an 8-week series that I am teaching at Harvest Community Church, called “What Does it Mean to be Presbyterian?” This is by no means comprehensive, but a quick overview of some of the key historical moments that have led to the development of the Presbyterianism that we experience today. This survey does not include the history of my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA); Lord willing, I will lay out a brief survey of that history in a future lecture/post.
To understand Presbyterianism, it helps to understand some of the history that shaped it. Presbyterianism seeks to be thoroughly biblical; however, being “biblical” cannot happen in a vacuum. The questions we seek to answer from the Bible are always answered in response to objections, aberrations, and innovations posed from within the church or by the wider culture. Knowing the history of Presbyterianism helps to explain why we take certain things more seriously than someone might imagine.
Origins of Presbyterian Church Government
The word “Presbyterian” comes from the Greek word πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros), meaning “elder.” Accordingly, Presbyterian church government is elder-ruled church government, as we see clearly taught in the New Testament: “Let the elders [πρεσβύτεροι] who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17).
Nevertheless, the origins of Presbyterian church government stretch further back into history than the New Testament, but began in the Old Testament. We see elders serving the nation of Israel from the time of Moses onward:
“Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying…’” (Ex. 3:16)
Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go and select lambs for yourselves according to your clans, and kill the Passover lamb….” (Ex. 12:21)
And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.” (Ex. 17:5)
“Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship from afar.” (Ex. 24:1)
“And the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands on the head of the bull before the LORD, and the bull shall be killed before the LORD.” (Lev. 4:15)
Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it. (Num. 11:25)
Now Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, “Keep the whole commandment that I command you today.” (Deut. 27:1)
The New Testament (especially the Gospels and Acts) reveals that this system of elder-rule continued through the time of Jesus. Particular congregation of Jewish worshipers met in synagogues, which were governed by Ruling Elders.1 All the elders ruled over the synagogue, so that sometimes these elders are called the “rulers of the synagogue,” while other times one is singled out as the “ruler of the synagogue,” signifying the one who presided over the ecclesiastical business of the synagogue:
Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him, he fell at his feet…. (Mark 5:22)
But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” (Luke 13:14)
After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” (Acts 13:15)
Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. (Acts 18:8)
In the synagogues, the rulers all had equal standing and rank, and the ruler of the synagogue (sometimes called an overseer/bishop or president of the synagogue) was considered the primus inter pares, the “first among equals.” The ruler of the synagogue was distinguished by moderating the elder meetings, and by reading the Scriptures and leading the prayers in the synagogue worship services.2
Also, we can see evidence for a graded court system. While each synagogue had a bench of elders to oversee the local congregation, there was also a regional governing council, called the “Presbytery,” and the high council, called the “Sanhedrin.”3 The word “Presbytery” (i.e., council of elders) appears in three places in the New Testament:
When day came, the assembly of the elders [πρεσβυτέριον; presbyterion] of the people gathered together, both chief priests and scribes…. (Luke 22:66)
“...as the high priest and the whole council of elders [πρεσβυτέριον; presbyterion] can bear me witness….” (Acts 22:5)
Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders [πρεσβυτερίου; presbyteriou] laid their hands on you. (1 Tim. 4:14)
Notice carefully the close connection between the Jewish synagogue polity and the Presbyterian church polity that we still use today. We consider both Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders to be equal, as members of the one biblical office of elder; however, we do make a distinction between those who “rule well” only, and those who “labor in preaching and teaching” in addition to ruling (1 Tim. 5:17), by their leadership in worship, as well as their moderating over the Session of the church. Finally, the Jewish graded court system of Synagogue, Presbytery, and Sanhedrin corresponds to our Presbyterian graded courts system of Session, Presbytery, and General Assembly.
The New Testament Apostles did not make up their church government out of thin air. They carefully carried forward the principles that had been long established for God’s church from early in the Old Testament. Our polity is inherited from the Old Testament, not invented.4
Evidence from the Apostolic Fathers
The earliest surviving Christian documents from the early church outside the New Testament were written by two figures: Clement of Rome (35–99 AD) and Ignatius of Antioch (d. 108 AD). The writings of Clement of Rome urge obedience to the “elders/presbyters”:
“You, therefore, who laid the foundation of the revolt must submit to the presbyters and accept discipline leading to repentance, bending the knees of your heart.” (1 Clement 57:1)5
The writings of Ignatius of Antioch are similar, urging obedience to the “bishop and presbyters”:
“It is essential, therefore, that you continue your current practice and do nothing without the bishop, but be subject also to the council of presbyters as to the apostles of Jesus Christ, our hope, in whom we shall be found, if we so live.” (Ignatius to the Trallians, 2:2)6
From what we have seen about the continuity between the Jewish system and the New Testament church, it is clear what these offices were. On one hand, it was possible to speak of the presbyters as a unified group, just as we speak of the elders or the session. On the other hand, it is also possible to distinguish the bishop (lit., “overseer”) from the other presbyters if we are describing a pastor (Teaching Elder) and the other Ruling Elders. There is no evidence whatsoever that bishop at this time meant what it quickly came to mean in the Roman Catholic Church, as a hierarchical overseer of a group of churches, without pastoring any particular church himself.
(Continental) Reformed Churches vs. (Scottish/Irish) Presbyterian Churches
Reformation in the church always happens gradually and sequentially. No generation can reform everything in need of reformation at once. So, Luther and the first generation of Reformers restored the church’s confidence in the authority of Scripture, and the gospel of justification by faith alone. Calvin and the second generation of Reformers worked through a fuller vision for Christianity and church life, especially in the midst of the unique situation in Geneva. While the continental Reformed churches have many similarities with Presbyterian polity, most of their foundational documents were formed in an early period of the Reformation.
It was the Scottish Reformation that pioneered the enduring biblical vision of fully Presbyterian church polity. Under the leadership of John Knox, the Church of Scotland drew up the First Book of Discipline, published in 1560. Then after John Knox’s death in 1572, the Church of Scotland published the Second Book of Discipline in 1578, which had abiding significance and influence. Finally, the Westminster Assembly published an important guide for church government in 1645, called The Form of Presbyterial Church Government. In each of these books, the overriding goal was to draw out and apply biblical principles to guide the life of the church. Some of these Scottish Presbyterians migrated to the United States, forming two streams of Scottish Presbyterian traditions: the Covenanters (such as the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America), and the Seceders (such as the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church).7
The majority of the church fathers for the broadest stream of American Presbyterianism (including denominations like the Presbyterian Church in the USA, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and the Presbyterian Church in America) came from Ulster Presbyterians from Northern Ireland.8 The American Presbyterian Church began in 1706, with the founding of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, especially through the leadership of Francis Makemie (the “father of American Presbyterianism”).9 The first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA took place in 1789, with four synods: New York and New Jersey (four presbyteries), Philadelphia (five presbyteries) Virginia (four presbyteries), and the Carolinas (three presbyteries).10
Old Side / New Side Controversy
One of the earliest controversies in the American Presbyterian Church has come to be known as the Old Side / New Side Controversy. This controversy grew out of issues surrounding the First Great Awakening. Three main issues emerged from this controversy. The first had to do with a disagreement with confessional fidelity vs. piety. Although these two issues are not necessarily at odds with one another, Old Side ministers sought to keep the church free from doctrinal error by insisting upon “strict subscription” to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. New Side ministers, on the other hand, sought to emphasize a warmer kind of piety, and they argued for evaluating ministerial candidates on the basis of “religious experience.”11
The second was related, and had to do with the methods of ministerial training. This controversy centered around a theological seminary called the Log College, which was founded in 1727 by William Tennent Sr. While Old Side ministers favored a more traditional (and more doctrinally rigorous) training at more established schools back in Scotland, New Side ministers set up the Log College as an attempt to establish a school for theological training in the new world. While this was not a problem per se, Hart and Muether explain that “the school was also the creation of the Tennent family and nurtured an introspective and enthusiastic piety among its students that could lead to…excesses of religious experience….From the perspective of strict subscriptionists, Log College was also clearly on the wrong side of debates about ministerial qualifications.”12
The third issue had to do with itinerant preaching ministries during the First Great Awakening. At the center of the First Great Awakening in America was a man named George Whitefield. Whitefield was an Anglican, evangelical preacher who traveled through both England and the United States, preaching in the open air and in any churches who would welcome him. He was a man of extraordinary preaching gifts, and a number of people professed conversion to Christianity under his preaching in the early 18th century. New Side ministers were eager to invite Whitefield into their pulpits, while Old Side ministers believed that churches should hear from their own pastors, not from unaccountable itinerant preachers.13
To this day, Presbyterians still wrestle with questions about confessional subscription, ministerial training, and formal vs. informal ministry methods. On one side are those who advocate for purity of doctrine and the simple use of the biblical means of grace, while on the other side are those who advocate for religious experience and innovative methods for reaching the lost.
Old School / New School Controversy
About one hundred years later, the Second Great Awakening led to another controversy in the Presbyterian Church. The origins of this controversy stem from 1801, when the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists adopted “The Plan of Union,” which sought to join forces between the two denominations for the more rapid expansion of evangelism and church planting efforts as America moved west. This required a significant downplaying of the confessional distinctives of Presbyterians, especially through the approval of Charles Finney as Presbyterian minister in 1824.14
Once again, the “old” in this controversy favored a more traditional, confessional Presbyterian approach to ministry, while the “new” were open to innovations—and Finney introduced a number of New School innovations. Finney attempted to boil evangelistic revivals down to a science of psychological, emotional, and spiritual manipulation, using techniques such as altar calls and the anxious bench.15 His theological innovations were more significant, since Finney denied the doctrine of original sin.16 This doctrine was an important Finney’s practice, since he wrote that “a revival is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle in any sense. It is a purely philosophic [i.e., scientific] result of the right use of the constituted means.”17
This denial of original sin extended beyond Finney alone into the Congregational Church of the time, causing significant divisions between the Old School ministers who wanted to protect the biblical doctrines (as summarized in the Westminster Standards) and biblically-regulated methods of worship and ministry, and the New School ministers who wanted to introduce new doctrines and methods for achieving the “results” of ministers like Finney.18
Once again, we see confessional standards and formality of ministry patterns forming the lines of this division. Here, the theological error is more pronounced, with an outright denial of original sin. We should recognize that innovations in worship and in the methods of ministry are not theologically neutral. The Old School ministers who (like the Old Side ministers before them) insisted upon the simple use of the biblical means of grace in worship and evangelism clearly saw the theological and confessional problems with those who innovated new approaches to ministry.
The Modernist Controversy
The Modernist Controversy takes us forward yet another hundred years in American Presbyterian church history. Once again, the Modernist Controversy deals with a question that arises in the wider culture. In this case, it was the theological issues that arose from historical-critical biblical scholarship that split the church apart.
Perhaps the best summary of the Modernist Controversy comes in the so-called “Auburn Affirmation,” published in January, 1924, and signed by 150 pastors and elders in the PCUSA. The affirmation was republished four months later on May 5, 1924, now with nearly 1300 signatures.19 The Auburn affirmation sought to protect liberty (1) concerning the interpretation of the Confession of Faith, and (2) concerning the interpretation of the Scriptures. The letter critiques a decision of the General Assembly of 1923, which had identified certain doctrines as “contrary to the standards of the Presbyterian church.”
Here is the significant paragraph:
Furthermore, this opinion of the General Assembly attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning the inspiration of the Bible, and the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the Continuing Life and Supernatural Power of our Lord Jesus Christ. We hold most earnestly to these great facts and doctrines; we all believe from our hearts that the writers of the Bible were inspired of God; that Jesus Christ was God manifest in the flesh; that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, and through Him we have our redemption; that having died for our sins He rose from the dead and is our everliving Saviour; that in His earthly ministry He wrought many mighty works, and by His vicarious death and unfailing presence He is able to save to the uttermost. Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the deliverance of the General Assembly of 1923 as satisfactory explanations of these facts and doctrines. But we are united in believing that these are not the only theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion, and that all who hold to these facts and doctrines, whatever theories they may employ to explain them, are worthy of all confidence and fellowship.20
The stated goal of this affirmation was not to repudiate the inerrancy of Scripture, nor the virgin birth of Jesus, nor whether he paid for sins by substitutionary atonement, nor that he was bodily resurrected from the dead, nor that he is still alive, reigning at the right hand of the Father, until his bodily return. The point was not to repudiate these doctrines altogether, but simply to allow for other interpretations alongside these “theories” about these biblical doctrines. The effect, however, was the same: the toleration of false teaching is a cancer in the church.
The fallout from this doctrinal declension was great, and it included the separation of a great number of Presbyterians from the PCUSA into a new denomination in 1936, originally called the Presbyterian Church of America, but later renamed to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) in 1939, through the leadership of J. Gresham Machen.21 Similarly, many of the faculty from Princeton Theological Seminary (including Machen) had already left to form Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929.22
In the Modernist Controversy, we see how the spirit of the age can infiltrate the church, twisting her from the faithful proclamation of the gospel. This danger is present in every era, including our own.
This is only a brief history of Presbyterianism, and it leaves out many of the significant issues that lead to the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America (the PCA) in 1973. We will deal with those questions later; however, as we will see, many of these same issues resurface in the Southern Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) which had contributed to the separation of the OPC from the Northern Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). Furthermore, we find the seeds of many of those issues in the Old School/New School and the Old Side/New Side Controversies.
What should we make of these trends over time? What should we learn from, so that we can avoid it? What should we study, as we continue to wrestle with the right balance of these issues today? How should we be diligent to defend and cultivate a healthy PCA today?
Samuel Miller, An Essay on the Warrant, Nature and Duties of the Office of Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church (New York: Jonathan Leavitt, 1831), 36.
Miller, Office of Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church, 39.
The Ministers of Sion College, ed. by David W. Hall, Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici or The Divine Right of Church-Government (Dallas, TX: Naphtali Press, 1995; Originally Published in 1646), 193 (§2–12).
This language of invented vs. inherited comes from my friend Erik Bauer during the class discussion when I presented this material.
Clement of Rome, “1 Clement,” in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, ed. by Michael W. Holmes, trans. by Michael W. Holmes, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 121.
Ignatius of Antioch, “The Letter of Ignatius to the Trallians,” in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 215–16.
D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 8.
Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country, 19.
Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country, 24–32.
Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country, 87.
Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country, 54.
Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country, 55–56.
Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country, 56–57.
Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country, 111.
Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country, 112.
Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country, 113.
From Finney’s Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1846), as quoted in Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country, 113.
Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country, 115–16.
“Text of the Auburn Affirmation,” on the website of the PCA Historical Center. Accessed January 12, 2022. <https://www.pcahistory.org/documents/auburntext.html>
“Text of the Auburn Affirmation,” p. 4.
Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country, 200.
Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country, 196.