By Rev. Neal Neuenschwander
(Revised November, 2004)
Presbyterian Theology is best described by three important adjectives:
(1) CHRISTIAN, (2) ECUMENICAL, and (2) REFORMED.
1. As Christians, we:
(a) Believe in the divinity of Christ.
(b) Respect the authority of Scripture.
(c) Seek to honor Christ with our deeds and with our words.
2. As Ecumenical Christians, we encourage cooperation among all peoples who wish to follow Jesus. The basis of this cooperation is found in the Bible and in the creeds of the ancient church. These “catholic” (i.e., universal) creeds affirm:
(a) The creative work of God.
(b) The incarnation, resurrection, and return of Christ.
(c) The abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.
3. As Reformed Christians, we affirm the primary teachings of the Protestant Reformation. Some of these doctrines are:
(a) The sovereign power of God.
(b) Salvation by grace through faith.
(c) Perseverance of the saints.
(d) Reformation through the Scriptures.
(e) Fidelity to sacred covenants.
(f) The priesthood of all believers.
4. Like many twentieth century Christians, Presbyterians have begun to recognize that there is a diversity of theological opinion within the Bible itself. The most important thing is your relationship with Christ and with His church. Our pastor will be happy to talk with you about the nature of this relationship at First Presbyterian Church.
Basic Christian Beliefs
The Divinity of Jesus Christ
In the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus asks his disciples this question: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples say, “John the Baptist, and others, Elijah, and still others, one of the prophets.” Then, Jesus goes a step further: “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replies, “you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” (Matthew 16:13-16)
Christians are distinguished, first and foremost, by Peter’s belief that Jesus was the divine Son of God. All human beings are God’s creatures, and some human beings, like Mother Theresa and Albert Schweitzer, live very good and holy lives. But Jesus is the only human being who was “eternally begotten” of God, and Jesus is the only human being who ever rose from the dead. The Bible tells us that Jesus was with God the father (and God the Holy Spirit) from the very beginning of time, long before the human race was even created (cf. Colossians 1:15-20 and John 1:1-18). Jesus became a human being in order to demonstrate God’s amazing grace and to proclaim God’s redemptive will.
If you have been away from the Christian church for a while, you may have trouble accepting the divinity of Jesus Christ. If so, we encourage you to keep an open mind. Come to worship, read the Bible, talk to the pastor, or join a small study group to find out what kind of person Jesus was. Most of all, pray that God will show you the truth about Jesus—whatever that truth may be. We believe that the Spirit of God will lead you to faith in Christ if you are truly open to God’s will and God’s word.
The Authority of Scripture
The second letter of Timothy says, “all of Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Bible was never meant to be a science book, nor does it contain an impartial view of history, but the Bible is the foundation of our faith and the lens through which we see God’s hand at work. When used as God intended, this book can set us free.
Unfortunately, some Biblical passages condone practices like slavery, sexism, tribalism, and bigotry, all of which are very troublesome to Christians today. But other Biblical passages imply that God condemns these practices (e.g., Matthew 5:43-45, Micah 6:8, and Galatians 3:28-29). Thus, Christians must interpret their Bibles carefully.
I find is helpful to read the Bible from four distinct perspectives:
1. Context. What was happening among God’s people at the time this text was written? How did this Biblical author feel about these events? What were his overall themes and purposes? How has God used this author to influence the world?
2. Christ. How does the message of this text compare with the witness of Jesus? Since Jesus is the very embodiment of God’s will, we can use his words and deeds to evaluate other passages of Scripture.
3. Love. Both Old and New Testaments tell us that the principle trait of God is love. Sometimes, love is tolerant. Sometimes, love is tough. What facets of God’s love are made more evident in this text?
4. Limits. Almost every page of Scripture contains a blessing, but that blessing may be hard to find. Usually, you can find it through time spent in prayer and in research. Sometimes, you cannot. But that’s OK, because God’s plans for humankind are more complex than we will ever fully understand. When read from this perspective, tough passages can keep us humble, and God loves a humble heart.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not DO the things I tell you?” (Luke 6:46) Millions of unbelievers would like us to answer that question too. The Christian church proclaims that no one can be saved by good works, because no one is good enough to earn eternal life with God. Instead, Christians are saved by grace through faith. But all of us must take Jesus’ question seriously. What has God commanded that I have ignored? And how should I change my life in order to please God?
In one sense, God’s will is clear. It’s stated in the ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and in Jesus’ summary of the law (Mark 12:28-24). Yet in another sense, God’s will is vague (e.g., how does one “keep the Sabbath day holy” in our day and time?) One thing at least is clear: we need to practice what we preach. We need to demonstrate that Christ matters in our daily life.
John Calvin, the sixteenth century founder of our denomination, sought to honor Christ in every facet of his life. He wrote several Biblical commentaries and the most influential book of theology in the Western World. Yet he also wished to reform the whole community—not just the church. Therefore, Calvin endorsed a strong city council in Geneva, and he established the first public school system in human history.
Some of Calvin’s followers became a bit legalistic, and others became a bit moralistic, but all of them sought to please God both in the church and in the world. That’s why Presbyterian missionaries have built schools and medical facilities as well as churches in every country that they have served. And that’s why modern Presbyterians are disproportionately represented in most community service ministries.
In short, Presbyterians seek to honor Christ in word and DEED.
Ecumenical Christian Creeds
These ancient statements of faith summarize the central story of the New Testament:
The Apostles’ Creed
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,
And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
The Nicene Creed
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became truly human. For our sake, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated on the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Distinctive Reformation Doctrines
These concepts help us to understand some of the main things that God has been trying to tell us through the Bible.
The Sovereignty of God
The Sovereignty of God means that God is in control of the world. If you take the Bible seriously, you almost have to accept this belief, but it can easily be misunderstood. Sovereignty does not mean that God causes everything that happens. Sovereignty does mean that God is our Sovereign (i.e., our king). If you really think about it, you will realize that no king has ever had complete control of his kingdom. Even in the very best countries, people are sometimes robbed and people are sometimes killed. Nevertheless, a good and righteous king sees that just laws are enforced, that charity is maintained, and that conspiracies are finally squashed.
If God is the rule of the world, then we don’t have to rule it, and that is really good news! We can’t solve all the world’s problems, but we can pray for God’s help, and we can strive to be faithful to the central teaching of the Bible. The prophet Micah summarized these teachings like this: “He has told you, oh human, what is good, and what does the Lord require? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
Salvation by Grace Through Faith
Justification by grace through faith refers to the way in which God accepts us into God’s family and forgives us for our sins.
“No one,” as they say, “is perfect.” All of us have done some bad things. All of us have sinned. (Romans 3:23) But the good news of the gospel is that God forgives our sin, not because we are wonderful people, and not because we always deserve it, but simply because Christ died for us: “This is love,” John wrote, “not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent his son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (I John 4:10). This unmerited acceptance and unconditional love is usually called “grace.”
How do we receive this grace? Through faith in Jesus Christ. This means believing “that I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who … protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven; not a hair can fall from my head. … He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.” (Heidelberg Catechism, Answer #1).
The apostle Paul summed it up this way: “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is a free gift of God, not the result of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Perseverance of the Saints
What happens to people who make a commitment to Christ, then fall away? Some Christians argue that these people will be eternally damned if they die without renewing their faith. Presbyterians, by contrast, believe “once saved, always saved.” The original protestant reformers called this doctrine “perseverance of the saints,” and they often made three points about this belief.
First, all human beings suffer consequences for their sin: jobs are lost, jail time is served, relationships are destroyed. But our ultimate destiny rests upon God’s grace—not upon us. We need to obey the Lord for our own sake, because God made us and God knows what we must do in order to be content.
Second, if salvation could be lost, how would you ever be sure you were really saved? Have you prayed often enough? Have you always tithed 10% of your income? Have you always shown compassion for the needy? Any concept of salvation which rests upon our faithfulness is built upon the sand.
Third, God is working in the lives of sinners when we cannot see it. Even vicious criminals are often changed by God’s love. Some people die without any evidence of repentance, but God knows them far better than we do. We can only be certain of this: when someone makes a commitment to Christ, then Christ makes a commitment to that person. And Jesus does not renege.
Our most recent confession of faith puts it this way: “we rebel against God … [but] like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still.” (from “A Brief Statement of Faith,” PCUSA, 1992)
Reformation through the Scriptures
Reformation through the Scriptures means that our morality, theology and style of worship is never quite “fixed.” “Reformed and always reforming” was the great slogan of our church founders. But this does not mean that we change our values simply on the basis of cultural fads. John Calvin, our spiritual founder, argued that our morality, theology, and worship should be reformed solely through the teaching of Scripture.
There are several important consequences of this principle. First, our morality is based less on our personal inclinations than on the ten commandments (Exodus Chapter 20) and on Jesus’ great summary of the law (Matthew 22:34-40). Second, we believe that there are just two sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), because these are the only Roman Catholic rituals which were clearly endorsed by Christ. Third, our style of prayer is based upon the Scriptures, particularly upon the book of Psalms and upon the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). Fourth, our style of worship has always centered upon proclamation of the Bible. The purpose of this proclamation is less to entertain or educate than to improve our relationship with God.
Fidelity to Sacred Covenants
In any society, the foundation of social order is a set of legal and moral agreements, of covenants. There are two styles of covenants in the Bible:
Covenants or Equality are established between individuals or groups of comparable power. In Genesis 31, for example, Laban strikes a covenant with Jacob to establish clear boundaries between them. In a similar fashion, the Hebrews tried to strike a covenant with the Edomites to pass through their land unharmed (cf. Numbers 20).
Covenants of Authority are established between individuals or groups who differ in power. The ten commandments, for example, are a covenant of authority between God and Israel. God promises to bless those who obey the covenant “to the thousandth generation” (Exodus 20:6), but those who reject God’s covenant are punished.
Both concepts of covenant are still relevant today. Marriage, for example, is a covenant of equality, whereas parenthood is a covenant of authority. The juice we drink during communion is “the cup of the New Covenant” (I Corinthians 11:25) and every Presbyterian makes a covenant with God and other Christians when joining the church.
The Priesthood of All Believers
For much of its history, the Christian Church was organized in a top-down fashion. The Pope represented Christ, bishops represented the Pope, and the priests represented the bishops. An extremely gifted Pope who walked closely with the Lord could do a lot of good, but a less capable individual who was more concerned with power than piety could do a lot of harm. Thus, the Protestant Reformers decided that this rigid church hierarchy must be collapsed. All Christians should be priests, they argued, because all Christians who live by faith have full access to the Lord.
This belief was so important in the early years of our nation that Reformed Christians in the United States began to call themselves “Presbyterians,” after the Greek work for “priests.” They organized churches in which religious professionals had no more power than other godly people, and this system of church government continues in our denomination even now. Within this system, the pastor’s primary task is to make other people into priests (i.e., faithful disciples) of the Lord.
Recently, many Christians throughout the United States have experienced a renewed desire for “priest-like” intimacy with God. This desire has created many small group ministries, conferences, classes, and retreats for ordinary folks like us. Because of these resources and the Holy Spirit’s work, you don’t have to be a religious “professional” to hear Christ’s voice and follow it.
Our most recent Confession of Faith
The “Brief Statement of Faith” (PCUSA, 1991)
In life and death we belong to God. Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.
We trust in Jesus Christ, fully human, fully God. Jesus proclaimed the reign of God: preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives, teaching by word and deed and blessing the children, healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, and calling all to repent and believe the gospel. Unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition, Jesus was crucified, suffering the depths of human pain and giving his life for the sins of the world. God raised this Jesus from the dead, vindicating his sinless life, breaking the power of sin and evil, delivering us from death to life eternal.
We trust in God, whom Jesus called “Abba,” Father. In sovereign love, God created the world good and makes everyone equally in God’s image, male and female, of every race and people, to live as one community. But we rebel against God; we hide from our creator. Ignoring God’s commandments, we violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care. We deserve God’s condemnation. Yet God acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation. In everlasting love, the God of Abraham and Sarah chose a covenant people to bless all families of the earth. Hearing our cry, God delivered the children of Israel from the house of bondage. Loving us still, God makes us heirs with Christ of the covenant. Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still.
We trust in God the Holy Spirit, everywhere the giver and renewer of life. The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith, sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor, and binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the Church. The same Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture, engages us through the Word proclaimed, claims us in the waters of baptism, feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation, and calls women and men to all ministries of the Church. In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of people long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, "Come, Lord Jesus!"”
With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or death can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
By Rev. Neal Neuenschwander
(Revised November, 2004)