Sacred Texts

Scripture for Reformed/Presbyterian churches means first and foremost the Bible.  While this is true for most kinds of Christianity, several factors make it particularly crucial for Reformed churches.  First, Reformed theologians were influenced by the medieval nominalists and their belief that, in our fallen state, God was completely unknowable, except insofar as God chose to reveal certain things to humans.  The revealed word of God is contained in scripture; hence the principle is sola scriptura-scripture alone.  Second, there was no human work that could save you, or influence God to save you.  Your only hope for salvation was the free gift of God's grace, sola gratia.  The promise of this grace is given in scripture.  A third key Protestant principle is justification by faith alone, sola fide.  Here, too, God completes the work of salvation without any human effort; the individual receives through faith what God has done.

These principles led Zwingli and Calvin to grant scripture final authority over all others, including the Church and human reason.  Calvin argued that there are no rational arguments to persuade people that the Bible is the source of truth.  The same Spirit present in the Bible is present in the hearts of those who turn to the Bible as truth; in Calvin's phrase, scripture is "self authenticating."  The Reformed churches date, in a sense, to Zwingli's decision to preach straight through the Gospel when he arrived in Zurich, confident that the text itself was the basis of a pure Christian life.

The Reformed Bible is not quite the same as the Catholic Bible.  There were several books that Zwingli and Calvin (as well as Luther) felt did not have canonical authority and had been added in error by the Catholic Church.  These are mostly late texts (considered by Protestants to be "inter-testamental").  They used a list of Hebrew texts that ancient rabbis considered canonical.  Books considered canonical by Catholic but not Lutherans and other Protestants are gathered in the Apocrypha.

There are several other writings, including creeds and catechisms, which do not have the same status as scripture for Reformed and Presbyterian churches, but which they refer to officially to distinguish their understanding of the Bible and of Christianity from other Christian churches, including other Protestant churches.

First and foremost is Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion.  By the final edition it had expanded from a pocket-sized book to a multi-volume work.  This is one of the great works in systematic theology in Christian history.  (A systematic theology takes up all the important doctrines in turn, from creation and the nature of God, through human sin and salvation, to eschatology or the end of history.)  Other reformers wrote occasional theology arguing for or against specific beliefs in specific circumstances.  Calvin, a second-generation reformer, took up the main Protestant beliefs and carefully laid them out and showed how they fit together.

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?

Back to Religion Library