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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

Written by: Ted Vial

The Bible is for Reformed Christians the final authority on moral thought and action.  The Bible states clearly (according to Calvin) what God expects of us, that God will forgive us when we fall short (as we always do), and that God will work in us to live up to expectations.  The debates in the Reformed tradition about moral principles have been debates about interpretation of the Bible.  For a long period in American history there was a fair amount of agreement on moral principles found in the Bible (the obvious exception being whether the Bible allowed or forbade slavery). So, for example, Presbyterians played leadership roles in the temperance movement, prison reform, labor laws, etc. 

This general agreement fell apart in the early decades of the 20th century during the modernism controversies.  Churches split over whether or not the Bible was compatible with Darwinism, and over historical criticism (the claim that the Bible is best understood as written by various authors for specific audiences in specific historical contexts, rather than as an inerrant message for all the ages).  Liberals (modernists who wanted to combine religion with science and historical criticism) tended to read the Bible as having an emphasis on social justice issues.  Conservatives tended to read the Bible as focusing on individual moral behavior and the salvation of souls. 

These differences on how to interpret the Bible have sometimes led to schisms. For example, the Christian Reformed Church as a denomination tends to be more conservative than other Reformed churches in America.  The Presbyterian Church in America split from the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1973 because it felt the mainline denomination had departed from strict biblical principles. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church developed in 1981 in order to focus anew on the centrality of scripture and the historic confessions of faith.

In the last decade there have been several shifts in the conservative/liberal split, and new issues that are difficult to fit into these categories.  Rick Warren, for example, author of The Purpose Driven Life, is a Calvinist who is "conservative" on issues of sexual morality, but "liberal" on issues of climate change and combating AIDS in Africa.

Study Questions:
     1.    How do Reformed theologians understand the relationship between faith and works?
     2.    Why is there a correlation between moral behavior and reassurance of salvation?
     3.    Does salvation automatically come with moral behavior? Explain.
     4.    Why is biblical interpretation critical in the explanation of moral behavior? How have different interpretations led to schisms?


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