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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed

Sacred Texts

Written by: Ted Vial

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest North American Reformed denomination, has collected a set of authoritative creeds and catechisms in The Book of Confessions.  A creed is a formal statement of belief, whereas a catechism is a text intended to instruct beginners and others in the key beliefs of a church.  This book contains two creeds from the early Church that link Presbyterians to the main branches of Trinitarian Christianity: the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds. It also contains important 16th-century statements: The Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Second Helvetic Confession.  It incorporates the 17th-century Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, which were key confessional documents of English/American Presbyterianism for nearly three centuries.  Other important 20th-century statements were added: The Theological Declaration of Barmen (written largely by Karl Barth against Nazism), and the Confession of 1967 (written as part of an effort to unify separate Reformed churches). The Book of Confessions concludes with the Brief Statement of Faith (1991), which was written to mark the historic union of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States, resulting in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The Heidelberg Catechism has been of particular importance for the German Reformed Church.  For the Dutch Reformed Church the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) are particularly important.  This synod was called in the wake of the Arminian controversy.  The synod affirmed Calvinist Orthodoxy in the face of those who argued for human free will.  It is from this synod that the popular acronym TULIP emerges, which accurately describes the beliefs of some Calvinists but was somewhat of a caricature of Calvin's own theology: Total Depravity (of human nature), Unconditional Election (you cannot merit salvation), Limited Atonement (Christ died only for those elected to salvation), Irresistible Grace (you cannot choose whether or not to accept God's offer of saving grace), and Perseverance of the Saints (once elected, you cannot lose your salvation).

Study Questions:
     1.    Why is the Bible crucial for Reformed churches?
     2.    Why did Calvin call scripture “self authenticating”?
     3.    How does the Presbyterian Bible differ from the Catholic Bible?
     4.    What other texts are central to the Presbyterian Church?


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