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Catholic Dictionary




Members of various Protestant bodies, following in the tradition of John Calvin (1509-64) and his Scottish disciple John Knox (1513-72). The essential structural feature of historic Presbyterianism was that the Church's government should be in the hands of presbyters. Today, however, many Presbyterians hold that the Church founded by Christ contained episcopal and congregational, as well as presbyterian, elements. A typical Presbyterian church is governed by a hierarchy of authorities, each in the nature of a court: session, presbytery, synod, and general assembly, having clearly defined functions and specific directors.

The substance of Presbyterian belief is contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith, drafted by the Puritan English Parliament in 1643. Its main provisions are the Calvinist predestination belief that the Church founded by Christ was essentially invisible and "consists of the whole number of the elect," a spiritual and not bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and a deference to civil authority that is characteristically Presbyterian. A new confession of the faith, issued by the American Presbyterians in 1967, left the Westminster Confession essentially untouched. Added to the group of now recognized statements of faith, however, was the Theological Declaration of Barmen (1834), published under Karl Barth (1186-1968) during the Nazi regime, to defend the Church's freedom from political oppression.