So What’s the Difference?
The Presbyterian Church
By Roland Chia
The Presbyterian Church belongs to the Reformed tradition of Protestantism whose roots can be traced to Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), the first reformer in Zurich, Switzerland. The most influential theologian in the Reformed tradition is without doubt John Calvin (1509-1564), whose biblical commentaries, pamphlets and magisterial Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536, 1st Edn.) provide the theology and polity for the churches identified with this tradition. Calvin’s teachings have been variously interpreted and appropriated by Protestant Christians and groups from the time of the European Reformation in the sixteenth century to the present day. This means that while there is much doctrinal consensus among Calvinists churches within the Reformed tradition, there are also a number of marked differences due to historical, and even geographical reasons.
‘Presbyterian’ refers to the way in which the churches belonging to this tradition are governed. During the Reformation, Presbyterian leaders wanted to recover and restore what they thought to be the original form of church government in the New Testament by emphasising the significant roles of elders and presbyters.
In each church there is a group of elders who form a kind of college or committee that provides leadership. Presbyters or elders therefore form the principal local ministry. This way of conceiving Church leadership can be traced to Calvin who structured four churches in Geneva in accordance to his understanding of the four-fold ministry of the New Testament: the pastor, the doctor (teacher), the deacon and the presbyter (or elder). This served as the basis for the full Presbyterian system that developed in Switzerland, Germany France, the Netherlands and the United States. However, many Presbyterians today realise that although presbyters certainly played an important role in the New Testament, the leadership structures and governance in the early Church were more varied and fluid.
Presbyterianism came to Singapore in 1843 when Rev Benjamin Peach Keasberry, a missionary with the London Missionary Society set up a Malay Chapel in Prinsep Street. Apart from the Armenian Church at Hill Street, the Prinsep Street Chapel is the oldest ecclesiastical building in Singapore. In 1862, with the assistance of Tan See Boo, Rev Keasberry established Glory Church. Rev John Cook was responsible for establishing the Orchard Road Presbyterian Church, and in 1881 he began the process of establishing the Synod of the Presbyterian Church in Singapore-Johor. The first meeting of the Synod was convened in 1901. Thirty years later, Rev Anderson, an educationist laid the foundations for the Presbyterian schools in Singapore. The Presbyterian Church in Singapore, which celebrated its 125th Anniversary in 2006, is a now a vibrant Church with many congregations, schools and community care and service centres throughout the island.
Structurally, Presbyterian churches are autonomous from one another, although bound together by standard doctrinal and confessional documents. In the course of its history, the Reformed churches in Europe have produced several important confessions and catechisms: the Heidelberg Confession (1563), the Helvetic Confession (1536, 1566), the Gallic Confession (1559), and the Belgic Confession (1561). The Westminster Confession of 1646, drawn up by the Westminster Assembly, and the accompanying documents – catechisms, Form of Church Government, and the Directory of Worship – became the standards for all English-speaking Presbyterian Churches. Despite the fact that they had originally relied on the Scots Confession of 1560, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Church of Scotland also adopted the Westminster standards. In its ‘Statement of Faith’ posted on its official website, the Presbyterian Church in Singapore declares that it ‘acknowledges the Apostles’ Creed and the Westminster Confession of Faith as worthily expressing the fundamental and traditional faith commonly held by the Church’.
The Westminster Confession of Faith is a comprehensive document on the doctrines, practices and governance of the Reformed Church. It therefore contains statements on Holy Scripture (I), Religious Worship (XXI) and the organisation of Synods and Councils (XXXI). Doctrinally, the document represents a particular interpretation and systematisation of John Calvin’s theology. The Confession clearly teaches double-predestination by God’s eternal decree: ‘By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death’ (III). From this premise, the Confession developed its doctrine of effectual calling and election, according to which God will call all those whom he has predestined to life. Effectual calling, which, according to the Confession, is God’s ‘free and special grace’, secures the salvation of the sinner. The elect are regenerated, even if they are infants or are incapable to ‘being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word’. Those not elected, however, ‘cannot be saved’ even though ‘they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit’ (X).
The Reformed tradition is marked by its strong emphasis on education. This emphasis can again be traced to Calvin who established a catechetical school that later became the University of Geneva. John Knox established similar institutions in Scotland, and in the Netherlands, the Reformed churches were responsible for the setting up of renowned universities like the University of Leiden. In the United States, Harvard and Yale have roots in the Reformed tradition. Newer institutions like Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Dordt College in Iowa, and the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto also belong to the Reformed tradition. The Reformed tradition has produced a number of eminent theologians like J. H. Bavinck (Netherlands), James Orr (Scotland) and J. Gresham (United States). The emphasis on education in the Presbyterian Church in Singapore is evident in its contributions to public education, and in its commitment to the theological education of its ministers.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of the School of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.