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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed


Written by: Ted Vial

Presbyterian and other Reformed churches are one of the main branches of Protestantism (along with Lutheranism and Anglicanism).  Reformed Christianity originated in Switzerland in the 16th century.  In Switzerland the Reformation was initiated by Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) in Zurich, and greatly shaped by John Calvin (1509-1564) in Geneva.

Zwingli was born on January 1, 1484, less than two months after Martin Luther. He began his reform in Switzerland independently of, and roughly at the same time as, Luther began his movement in Germany.  Like Luther, Zwingli was a Roman Catholic priest.  He was called to the Grossmünster, Switzerland's leading cathedral, in January 1, 1519. He immediately announced that he would begin preaching through the Gospel of Matthew "from A to Z" beginning the next day.  This is significant because Zwingli broke with the Catholic lectionary, which prescribed short texts from different books of the Bible tied to the specific date in the liturgical calendar.  In committing to reading a single New Testament text from start to finish Zwingli indicated his commitment to the Bible as the final authority over the Church (rather than vice versa), and his belief that Christianity needed to conform to the model of the Church found in scripture, from which the Roman Catholic Church had departed over the course of the Middle Ages.

In January 1523, the Zurich City Council formally endorsed Zwingli's preaching and his principle of sola scriptura (scripture alone as the primary source of authority).  This meeting is called the First Disputation.  In October 1523 at the Second Disputation the City Council agreed with Zwingli that the Roman Catholic Mass and the use of images in worship were unscriptural.  The City and State of Zurich had declared itself for the Reformation and split with the Roman Catholic Church.

John Calvin (1509-1564) was born in France and trained as a classicist and lawyer.  He is the second generation of Reformation leaders, and the greatest theologian among them.  By the mid-1530s he had decided he agreed with reformers against the Roman Catholic Church; because of hostility against Reformation ideas, he left France.  In Basel, Switzerland in 1536 he wrote the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which was a small catechism (instruction in theology for beginners) and was printed in a form small enough to be carried discreetly in one's pocket.  He was travelling through Geneva, which had just recently abolished the Roman Catholic Mass and declared itself to be a Reformed city, to Strasbourg when William Farel, the leader of the Reform movement in Geneva, discovered he was in town.  Farel went to Calvin's inn and persuaded the author of the Institutes to stay and help with the reform.  Calvin and Farel were expelled from Geneva in 1538, largely because the citizens of Geneva balked at the reforms of personal behavior required by Calvin and Farel.  Calvin returned in 1541 and remained in Geneva until his death in 1564.  Through his theology and through his creation in Geneva of a model Reformed city, his influence has been the strongest one on the Reformed churches worldwide. 


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