A Presbyterian Christian Perspective
Tom Buchanan is an Atlanta-based Presbyterian minister and public theologian who is deeply committed to exploring the significance of a progressive Christian perspective in a post-Christian, pluralistic, and technological age. He currently serves as Associate Pastor of Emory Presbyterian Church, near Emory University. In addition, Tom is a co-author of Sacred Space (Community Institute Press, 2011), and lectures widely with erudition, wit, and passion, giving presentations to audiences of many faiths and backgrounds.
Born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama, Tom graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1989 with a B.A. in Anthropology (Magna Cum Laude) and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He went on to Princeton Theological Seminary, earned the Master of Divinity degree, and was ordained to ministry in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1993. He has served churches in New Jersey and Georgia, and has been at Emory since September 2011.
Tom is a member of several denominational, religious, and scholarly organizations, including the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta; the Covenant Network of Presbyterians; the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology & the Christian Faith; the Atlanta Interfaith Leaders Fellowship; the Southern Progressive Alliance for Exploring Religion; and the Westar Institute. He resides in Marietta with his wife Lisa and their amusing cat Boo.
A Presentation by the Rev. J. Thomas Buchanan at the Istanbul Center, Alpharetta August 30, 2013
The subtitle of tonight's presentation is important: it is "A Presbyterian Christian Perspective." It is not "THE Presbyterian Christian Perspective." There is no such thing as a single, monolithic Presbyterian perspective, any more than there is a single Muslim perspective, or a single Jewish perspective. Presbyterians may be found all along the theological, political, and philosophical spectrum. Just as you are not all the same, we Presbyterians are not all the same. We're not even all packed into a single denomination! And even within my particular denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest of the Presbyterian bodies in the United States, we can and do disagree about any number of very important things – about any number of issues and interpretations – as our discussions in our Session meetings all the way up to our floor fights at General Assembly well attest.
But with that said, the Presbyterian tradition – with all its diverse adherents – does represent a describable trajectory within the larger family of Christianity, with a distinctive history and characteristic emphases which mark it out from other traditions with different histories. And this distinctive history and these characteristic emphases have been part of my life all of my life. I was born into a Presbyterian home to Presbyterian parents and have been connected to this tradition all my life. And in a very real way, it's in my blood too – going back hundreds of years in the faith of my Scottish and Scots-Irish ancestors. So, you could say that I do have a certain enthusiasm for this subject.
I also have been given 40 minutes to say everything that needs to be said, so ... here we go.
One of the most natural questions that a newcomer to this tradition might ask is "Where does the name come from? What does 'Presbyterian' mean?" The word is derived from a Greek word used many times in the original Greek text of the New Testament – Presbuteros – from which we get the English word "Presbyter," meaning "Elder." So then, to speak of a Presbyterian Church is to speak of a church that is governed by elected elders, individuals chosen by congregations for their wisdom, leadership, and spiritual maturity. It represents a distinctive approach to church governance. It is government by elected elders, as opposed to, say, popes, or bishops, or singularly charismatic churchmen, or for that matter, government by the direct vote of congregations. It is authority invested neither in a single person, nor in the people directly, but invested rather in elders who are chosen by the people. Think of other Christian traditions of which you may be aware, and you may note that most other Christian churches are organized and governed differently. And if about now you are noticing a peculiar similarity to the way the United States government is organized, then you are noticing something of significance to which I will return in a little while – but hold on to that thought, because you're right on the mark to notice it.
But before going any further with distinctive features of Presbyterianism, I think it's important to say some words about the road that led to it, the key figures and events over time that prepared the ground so to speak, and therefore, I need to start at the beginning – at the time of the rise of Christianity.
The core Christian narrative which first arose out of the Jewish experience in the 1st century of the Common Era – interpreted and understood in varying ways – is that God, the Creator and Lord of all, created all that exists. And God created human beings as the crown of creation, so that – in the wonderful words of one of our classic Reformed catechisms – we might "glorify God and enjoy Him forever." But human sin distorted that purpose and distorted it so well, that without God's saving initiative, all hope for humanity would have been lost. But God, from all eternity, had a plan of salvation – played out in the history of Israel, but that would come to encompass the whole world – which culminated in the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, whose life would embody the message of the Kingdom of God and whose death and resurrection would, in the mystery of God's love, reconcile the sinful world to God. This message, proclaimed by Jesus' original inner circle of disciples – the apostles – was called the gospel, or "good news," for a reason.
The movement began as a small sect within the Jewish community, but soon began welcoming Gentiles into it, especially through the efforts of the Apostle Paul (who was not among Jesus' original inner circle, but came to have an equal if not greater authority). By the end of the first century of the Common Era, the Christian community had broken from Judaism altogether, and was overwhelmingly Gentile in both leadership and adherents.
As time went on, after the deaths of the original apostles and the deaths of those who followed after them, the problem of authority arose. Many different sects within the Christian movement – with very different interpretations of the life and significance of Jesus – had arisen by the second century, prompting questions like "Who speaks for the faith?"... "How can we tell who is passing on the authentic teaching of the apostles and who is passing on their own teachings?"
It was an inevitable problem, a problem that was answered with an idea which would prove to have an immense staying power ... the idea of "Apostolic Succession," first articulated by the 2nd century bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus (ca. 120-200). By this time, it was already the case that the early Christian communities were locally governed by elders and overseen by bishops who exercised churchly authority in a given city or area. Irenaeus held that the authenticity and integrity of the apostolic message could be insured if the ordained bishops of each city or area stand in an authentic line of ordained succession from the apostles. In this way, it was thought, faithfulness to the apostolic teaching could be maintained and the purity of the faith insured.
Now, at least at the beginning, all bishops, as successors of the apostles, were theoretically equal. But some would prove to be, in George Orwell's memorable phrase, "more equal than others." Both for very natural, human reasons and reasons connected to Christianity's increasing identification with political power, bishops of the church in the more important, larger cities would come to claim and wield greater authority than those bishops of smaller, less important cities. The two most powerful, of course, would come to be those of Rome and of Constantinople (back before it became Istanbul!). In time, the bishop of Rome would claim a supreme authority over all bishops of the Church, based upon the following case:
• The Apostle Peter was the leader of the original apostles – "The Prince of the Apostles" – whom Jesus declared was "the Rock" upon which the Church would be built and to whom it is said Jesus gave "the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven" ... All this based upon a traditional interpretation of the account in the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.
• The Apostle Peter was in his final days, before his martyrdom at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero, the Bishop of Rome.
• And therefore, all subsequent bishops of Rome, standing in the Apostolic Succession, are the spiritual heirs of the Apostle Peter, heirs to his office and standing, and hence the rightful leader of all Christendom.
This of course didn't go down well with the bishop of Constantinople, and eventually, for this and other reasons, the churches in the West, under the sway of the bishop (the Pope) of Rome, and the churches of the East, under the sway of the bishop (the Patriarch) of Constantinople, split from one another in 1054 – marked by the spectacle of mutual excommunications! And hence, the first great division in Christian history: the rise of the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe, and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the Near East, Greece, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and very significantly around that same time, in Russia.
In many ways, it went downhill from there. The Roman Church by the medieval period had absorbed countless traditions and practices into the life of the church that had no real foundation in the New Testament or in the teaching of the Apostles. The institution became so fraught with rules and customs that obedience to these rules and customs became ends in themselves and even connected to the accessibility of salvation.
It is a commonplace these days to recognize as well the extreme corruption of the papacy of the period. While there were certainly "good" popes, there were also plenty of thoroughly corrupt, power-mad ones as well. Exploitation of the faith and fears of ordinary people became all-too-common, even to the point where it would seem that salvation and release from purgatory were up for sale for the highest possible prices – to raise money for lavish building projects, including the glorious re-building of St Peter's Basilica.
There is no one reason that this state of affairs was unsustainable. There were several factors in play at the same time:
• From the 13th and 14th centuries, there had been a re-birth of learning in the Western world (largely made possible by exposure to the flourishing advanced Islamic civilizations in the East during the Crusades) ... "The Renaissance" ... A desire to go "back to the sources" of Western civilization in the Greek and Roman classics.
• Growing litany of voices of protest against the corruption of the church ... and in this Renaissance spirit, appealing to the past for authority ... to the Scriptures in their original languages ... and read afresh, without slavish attention to what church authorities told you they said.
• If this wasn't enough, historians also tell us that this period was one of burgeoning nationalist consciousness in Germany and elsewhere, making conflict even more likely.
• And finally, this period saw the introduction of one of the most important inventions in the history of human civilization ... the printing press, by Johannes Gutenberg in about 1450 ... making possible the mass dissemination of revolutionary, potentially world-changing ideas.
By the beginning of the 16th century, the winds of change had begun to blow and the time for those ideas had come. It was in 1517 that Martin Luther, a German monk, nailed 95 theses for debate upon the door of Wittenberg Castle – theses which challenged the authority of the Pope of Rome and the validity of any number of common practices and beliefs that had come to be part of the medieval church. With this simple act, Luther launched a movement that would change the world – a movement known as the Protestant Reformation. At the heart of its "protest" was the belief that the church had devolved into an institution which acted on its own authority and not on God's authority – and that it had forgotten the true message and meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ by making salvation a matter of "works" ... from the impossible task of measuring up to Divine law, all the way down to strict obedience to customs and practices ordered by popes, bishops, and church councils, many of which had no warrant in the scriptures.
The key principles of the Reformation can be expressed in three "Sola" statements ... Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, and Sola Fide:
• Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone (as opposed to the pronouncements of popes, bishops, or church councils). The evaluation of all traditions and church practices in the light of the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, understood to be the "Word of God."
• Sola Gratia – "Grace alone" / Sola Fide – "Faith alone" ... Salvation not by our works but by God's grace and received by faith.
These seemingly simple ideas set Europe on fire, dividing Christendom with a divide that still is significant today.
However, as with any mass movement, there was diversity within it – sometimes rooted in subtle theological differences ... sometimes merely matters of nationality, language, or culture ... often both. Within two decades, four distinct Protestant trajectories had arisen ...
• Lutheran – particularly strong in Germany and Scandinavian countries. Based on the teachings of the first of the two most influential Protestant Reformers, Martin Luther (1483-1546).
• Reformed – originated in France, Switzerland; later would spread and become particularly important in the Netherlands, England, and especially Scotland. Based on the teachings of the other great Protestant Reformer, John Calvin (1509-1564).
• Anglican / The Church of England – originally split with Rome over the Pope's refusal to grant England's King Henry VIII a divorce (!), and hence, not really about doctrine at first, though distinctively Protestant ideas would influence Anglican life and thought later.
• Free Church and Radical Reformation traditions – which sought to make the break with Rome all the more complete. Often persecuted by Catholic and Protestant authorities alike.
So where are the Presbyterians in all this? Presbyterians stand in the Reformed trajectory of the Protestant Reformation, and so look back to John Calvin as the founding genius of their distinctive approach to Christianity. Calvin was a highly influential French theologian and pastor during this time. Born in 1509, he originally trained as a lawyer, but broke from the Roman Catholic Church around 1530 and became active in the burgeoning Protestant movement. After religious tensions provoked a violent uprising against Protestants in France, Calvin fled to Basel, Switzerland, where he published the first of many editions of his seminal work – The Institutes of the Christian Religion – in 1536. He went on eventually to base his work in Geneva, where he served as a pastor and the city's most powerful civic leader
Calvin was a tireless polemic and apologetic writer who generated much controversy. In addition to the Institutes, he wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible, as well as theological treatises and confessional documents, and he regularly preached sermons throughout the week. Calvin was especially influenced by the writings of the Apostle Paul and St. Augustine, which shaped his own particular Protestant voice, stressing the absolute sovereignty of God over all things.
His teachings have left their mark to this day. They spread from Geneva throughout Europe, but took particular root in the Netherlands, in the form of the Dutch Reformed Church; in England, most influentially in the form of the Puritans; and most of all, in Scotland, where under the leadership of Scottish reformer John Knox, the Presbyterian Church became its national church (or as the Scots call it, the "Kirk").
It was primarily through these latter two that Reformed ideas came to this country – the Puritans who settled in New England in the early to mid-1600's and the Scots (coming both from Scotland and Scottish settlements in northern Ireland) who settled largely in the mid-Atlantic states, the South, and the American backcountry in the 1700's.
These of Reformed faith organized themselves in two different ways, and so here we can make one more distinction which yields us the specifically Presbyterian way of being Christian. For the New England Puritans were Congregationalist in their church governance, meaning that their churches were governed by the direct vote of congregational members – a kind of direct democracy. The Scots were Presbyterian in theirs, in that their churches were governed by elders who were chosen by the people – a representative democracy. Hence, it is through the Scots that the specifically Presbyterian tradition in this country is derived – the Presbyterian Church being organized in Philadelphia in 1706 by ministers of Scottish and Scots-Irish background.
And from these beginnings, the Presbyterian way has spread all over the world. There are large numbers of Presbyterians in Latin America – in fact, there are as many Presbyterians in Mexico as there are in this country! Brazil, as well, is home to a large and thriving Presbyterian presence. There are nearly twice as many Presbyterians in the Presbytery of East Africa (based in Kenya) as there are Presbyterians in the United States. But taking the cake is the Presbyterian presence in South Korea, which can claim approximately nine million adherents – almost four times the number in this country. The largest individual Presbyterian church in the world is in Seoul – Myung Sung Presbyterian Church – with ONE MILLION members!
So what are some distinctive emphases of this Presbyterian way of being Christian?
• Sovereignty of God
• Grace and Gratitude
• Intentional Worldliness
• The Life of the Mind
It's probably not too much to say that the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God – though interpreted in varying ways – has traditionally been the sun around which everything else in the Presbyterian theological universe revolves. When we say that God is "sovereign," we mean that all things are under God's rule and control, and that nothing happens without divine direction or permission. God's purposes are all-inclusive and never thwarted; nothing takes God by surprise. The sovereignty of God is not merely that God has the power and right to govern all things, but that God's does so, always and without exception.
It is certainly true that especially in more recent times, this doctrine has been the subject of much re-interpretation in the face of intellectual and moral challenges to it in light of our experience of egregious evil and suffering. But it is also true that deep in the Presbyterian heart is the conviction that somehow – in spite of everything – God really is in control and is working out the Divine purpose in and through all events, even if we have no idea how that could be. We all struggle with reconciling God's goodness and power with our experience of suffering and pain, but we take comfort from that most Presbyterian of all scripture verses, from the Apostle Paul's Epistle to the Romans: "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28, NRSV)
And this deep conviction of God's sovereignty is not just about world events or the events in our lives, but extends to our salvation as well. We have already observed that an important teaching of the Protestant Reformers was that we are not and cannot be saved by the works we do, by our commandment-keeping. Simply put, no one is that good. Due to a deep corruption in our human nature, there is no way that we could save ourselves by measuring up to the perfection of God – we quite literally don't have it in us.
And so running deep in the Presbyterian soul is the conviction that whenever and wherever salvation happens, it is God's doing, God's initiative, God's grace which accomplishes what we could not on our own. As the Apostle Paul put it, in another of his spectacularly Presbyterian moments: "But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast." (Ephesians 2:4-9, NRSV)
And hence, for Presbyterians, the life of faith is not a life in pursuit of salvation, trying to earn one's way into God's love, but rather, a life of gratitude for a salvation already given. It is a life lived in deep awareness of God's ever-present grace. It is that grace which frees us to will and to do God's will and thereby honor God in all of life – in our relationships, in our families, in our work, in our service, in every area of our lives.
Nowhere is this sensibility better illustrated than in the Oscar-winning film "Chariots of Fire." You may know the story. It is based on the true story of two runners preparing for the 1924 Paris Olympics, one of whom is the Scotsman Eric Liddell. Eric Liddell was a deeply committed Presbyterian Christian – born in China to Scottish missionary parents, but left the mission to go back to Scotland, in order to pursue his running in preparation for the games. His devout sister Jennie disapproved, but Eric saw running as a way of glorifying God before returning to China to carry out his ministry. When he accidentally misses a church prayer meeting because of his running, his sister upbraids him and accuses him of no longer caring about God. Eric tells her that though he intends to eventually return to the China mission, he feels divinely gifted to run, and that not to run would be to dishonor the God who gave the gift! In one of my favorite movie lines of all time, he says to his sister, "I believe that God made me for a purpose, for China. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure."
Consistent with this is the characteristic Presbyterian emphasis on an intentional this-worldliness. If God is sovereign in and over all things, and if the whole of our lives is to honor and glorify God, then that also means that our lives in the world are to reflect this purpose. We are to engage our culture and society and seek to bring about their transformation in the light of God's will and purposes. Presbyterian faith strives to take the world as seriously as God does in Jesus Christ ... strives to live as thoroughly in the world as Jesus himself did ... strives to follow him obediently into the world he loves. Some Christian traditions could be accused of being so focused on the hereafter that they seem to communicate that life in this world doesn't matter. But no one would ever accuse Presbyterians of this. Presbyterians have always sought to relate faith and culture, faith and society, and bring glory to God through work in the social and political arenas.
It should not be surprising that Presbyterians were at the forefront of the American Revolution – it being referred to once in the British Parliament as "that Presbyterian rebellion." The idea that God is sovereign is a most revolutionary one – for if God is sovereign, then that must mean that no human ruler or institution is. All are answerable to the One who is truly sovereign. While it would be too much to say that our country's system of government was simply copied from the Presbyterian model of church government, it is fair to say that both reflect a core concern, in the name of God, to resist tyranny – both the tyranny of too much power put into the hands of one fallible human being and the tyranny of the mass mob. Both systems of governance seek to spread power around – given our human frailties – and cultivate a common life of liberty under law, and all under God.
Presbyterians have always emphasized a deep engagement with the world and have always been among the leaders of faith-inspired folk who seek to address the great issues in our common life ... from racial justice to struggles for peace, from the pursuit of equality to acts of resistance against oppression. Efforts at community uplift, social justice, and policy advocacy are central to our tradition's understanding of what we are called to do. And public service, both in and out the sphere of elective politics, is an honorable thing in the Presbyterian tradition.
As is the life of the mind. Even back to the days of Calvin in Geneva and Knox in Edinburgh, this tradition has always emphasized the value of education and the cultivation of intellectual gifts as gifts of God to be celebrated and used. It has had a formidable role in the organization of schools and the development of higher education, especially in America. It has always placed a great emphasis upon the written and spoken word. And hence, the Presbyterian tradition has always insisted upon a well-educated clergy and encourages critical scholarship. It is in many ways a much more cerebral and logical tradition than others which might be considered more expressive or aesthetic. Presbyterians – at least in Europe and America – are not generally noted for emotional displays or the stimulation of the senses. We have sometimes been called the "Frozen Chosen" for a reason!
With these things in mind, I would like now to segue briefly into a few words on Presbyterian worship life. For all that can be said about Presbyterian distinctiveness, worship in most Presbyterian churches is similar to other Christian churches with respect to overall structure and liturgy, prayer, and sacraments (Baptism & Communion). Most Presbyterian churches follow the traditional liturgical year and observe the traditional holidays, holy seasons, such as Advent, Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost. Accordingly, they also make use of the appropriate seasonal liturgical colors and follow a daily, seasonal, and festival lectionary. Presbyterian churches make use of worship books, hymnals, candles, vestments (usually black academic robes and stole), paraments (altar cloths, banners and other decor), and the like. In these respects, our worship is similar to worship in other Christian traditions.
A typical service in the Presbyterian Church (USA) – my particular denomination and by far the largest Presbyterian body in this country – might begin with an organ Prelude and a Call to Worship. This may be followed by unison prayers of confession, thanksgiving, prayers of the people, the Lord's Prayer and seasonal litanies. There will be scripture readings that coincide with the daily, seasonal, or festival lectionary, and a sermon which has been prepared with much care and is usually based upon the previous scripture readings. It could be said that, for many Presbyterians, the sermon is "the point" of the service – or at least central to it. This should not be surprising when one remembers the cerebral dimension of the Presbyterian soul. After the sermon, there is typically an offering taken, which is understood as the congregation's response to hearing the Word of God read and preached, followed by a dedicatory prayer and a sending hymn.
Unlike more sacramental traditions such as the Catholic, Anglican, or Lutheran churches, it is very uncommon for Presbyterian churches to observe the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper (also called the Eucharist or Communion) every Sunday – monthly or bi-monthly would be more typical.
Presbyterian churches make use of the organ, piano, and other musical instruments, though the styles of music used will vary from congregation to congregation – from classical "high church" music, to African-American spirituals, to contemporary praise music. What will generally not vary from church to church, however, is that every detail of the service is planned and laid out in an order of service or bulletin. Logical and cerebral to the end, Presbyterians believe that all things must be done "decently and in order."
As I alluded to earlier, there are in this country several different bodies of Presbyterians – mostly due to any number of doctrinal disagreements and historical circumstances over the past two hundred years. The largest of these bodies is my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) which today has about 1.9 million communing members (perhaps 3 million adherents in all when you include children) and includes more than 10,000 churches and almost 21,000 ordained ministers. Its national office is located in Louisville, Kentucky. And to bring it home, the PC (USA) has a strong presence here in the Atlanta area ... The Presbytery of Greater Atlanta consists of over 100 congregations with over 40,000 members
The last few decades have seen the birth of a few breakaway Presbyterian bodies – forming in response to what they perceive as a disturbing tendency towards greater liberalism in theological and political matters. Some of these include the Presbyterian Church in America (the "PCA"), the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and most recently, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians. The PCA is the largest of these smaller bodies, though it is much smaller than the PC (USA) – having only about 365,000 members. Its national office is actually not too far away – in Lawrenceville.
I am nearing the end of what I have planned to say to you tonight. I have tried to cover a lot of ground to give you a broad, general understanding of the Presbyterian way of being Christian, though I know there are things I haven't talked about that you may be interested in knowing about. Feel free in our question and answer time to ask any questions you would like.
I would like to conclude this presentation tonight by saying a word on Presbyterian participation in interfaith efforts. I am proud to say that Presbyterians have long been among the leaders in such efforts. And I think the reasons that this is so can be understood by remembering some of the Presbyterian distinctives I discussed earlier. Our emphasis upon God's sovereignty in the world makes it natural for us to be able to see God alive and at work among all people, not just Christians, and to take seriously Christ's command to love and to serve others, no matter who they are. And the Presbyterian emphasis on engagement with the world would have us understand interfaith dialogue as so much more than just a good thing to do, but as a matter of discipleship and faithfulness.
Many of the leaders in interfaith here in Atlanta are Presbyterians whose names many of you no doubt recognize: Dr. Ben Campbell Johnson, founder of the Atlanta Interfaith Leaders Fellowship; Jan Swanson, program director for World Pilgrims; the irrepressible Joanna Adams, with Higher Ground; and Fahed Abu Akel, a former Moderator of the PCUSA's General Assembly and head of the Atlanta Ministry with International Students.
And I for one (and Jill for two) desire to follow in their footsteps.
Thank you again for inviting me to speak with you tonight. I look forward to answering your questions.
7:00 - 7:20 pm Reception - coffee/tea & cake
7:20 - 7:25 pm Welcome and introduction
7:25 - 8:05 pm Lecture
8:05 - 8:20 pm Q&A session
8:20 pm Wrap - up
This event is free. Free parking is available in front of the building. Snacks and soft drinks will be served.