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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed


Written by: Ted Vial

Not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries did Presbyterian and Reformed Christians begin to soften their stance against symbols.  Southern Presbyterians in Presbyterian Church in the U.S. commissioned a seal for their denomination in 1891.  Though it was widely used, distrust of symbols prevented its formal adoption as the seal of the denomination until 1956.  Northern Presbyterians also created a seal, adopting it at the 1892 General Assembly.  While this willingness to create seals indicates a lessening of iconoclastic distrust, the seals themselves are extremely literalistic.  They basically consist of pictures of the Bible.  Not until 1959 does a Presbyterian denomination in the United States (the Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.]) adopt a seal that depicts a cross.  To depict a cross had seemed to Reformed Christians, since Zwingli's reform of Zurich in the 1520s, to smack of Catholicism and Roman Catholic reliance on imagery.

The official seal of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), adopted in 1985, is at first glance simply a cross.  It is intended to capture some of the important emphases of the Reformed tradition.  The cross is made up of a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, as well as a Bible sitting open on a lectern, indicating the Reformed principle of sola scriptura, and the importance of preaching and learning in the Reformed tradition.  The flames at the base of the cross indicate a triangle, representing the Trinity.  The flames symbolize both the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses, and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost that founded the Church.  Today's Presbyterian churches are increasingly making use of symbols and a high aesthetic that contribute to the liturgical space and rich experience of worship.

Study Questions:
     1.    In what ways could Zwingli’s efforts, despite his theology, classify him as more radical than Luther?
     2.    Describe the symbolism used within Reformed Churches. Why are they typically bare?
     3.    How is color used as a medium of symbolism?
     4.    When did Presbyterian and Reformed churches begin to accept symbols? What was the result?
     5.    Describe the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s seal. What does it symbolize?


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