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Presbyterianism is a Calvinist Christian denomination originating in the 16th century Swiss and Scottish Reformation movements. Presbyterian theology typically emphasizes the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Scriptures, and the necessity of grace through faith in Christ.
History and theology
From 1562 until 1629 French Calvinists fought for religious freedom from Catholics in the Wars of Religion. Presbyterians adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646, considered to be the "subordinate standard" of doctrine for the Church of Scotland and to be influential with other Presbyterian and Reformed churches as well, and also the Helvetic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. In 1789 the Reformed Church gained state support in France, although this support was withdrawn in 1905 with the beginning of laïcité , or secularism. John Knox led the Calvinistic Reformation in Scotland with the Reformed Church being the national church of Scotland from 1690 to the present.
The Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS), founded in 1725, is today represented by the leftovers from several subsequent merges. Its members are conservative, refusing unwritten traditions, and believe in the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible and in the five "solas." They consider the Bible to be of primary importance, explaining, "For us it is a simple matter of fact that the Bible is God's Word, for this is what the Bible says about itself."
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) was founded in 1936 as a reaction to excessive liberalism in the Presbyterian Church. It emphasizes missionary work and a commitment to the Reformed faith.
The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) was formed in 1972 by a split from the Southern Presbyterian Church in the United States over theological differences. Its members believe in the deification of Jesus, the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible, and "TULIP," or conservative theology.
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), founded in 1981, is strongly missionary and emphasizes scripture, historic confessions, evangelicalism, and freedom in non-essentials. Its members believe the Bible is infallible and the final authority on all religious matters.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or PCUSA, was formed in 1983 by the reuniting of the northern (UPCUSA) and southern (PCUS) branches of the Presbyterian Church. It is currently the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States. This branch voted narrowly against allowing gay marriage in 2012. So narrowly, that some Presbyterian congregations are splitting off because they think the main church is isn't sufficiently homophobic. This will likely contribute to the result of the 2014 vote going for the gay.
Presbyterian theology includes the belief that God's gift of justification (salvation) is by faith through Jesus alone and is not earned by our accomplishments. Presbyterians affirm the sovereignty and authority of God as well as the importance of the Bible in understanding God and in learning about Jesus. They believe that there is a "priesthood of all believers" and that sharing the gospel by undertaking missions is everyone's responsibility. Their worship tends to emphasize Bible readings. The only sacraments they recognize are baptism and communion. They reject Catholic transubstantiation as well as Lutheran consubstantiation, instead treating communion as a memorial.
Many Presbyterian denominations, with the notable exceptions of the PCA, the RCUS, and the church in Australia, do ordain women. The Church of Scotland adopted this tradition in 1968. They hold a tentative view on homosexuality, particularly the PCUSA. There is no ordination of homosexuals, and they do not approve of same-sex marriages.
Presbyterianism is based on a representational form of church government with authority resting in the hands of elected lay leaders, usually presbyters or elders, hence the name. A group of elders and a minister form a session, several sessions make up a presbytery, and several presbyteries comprise a synod. When an entire denomination meets it represents a general assembly.
5 points of Calvinism
Presbyterians are a Calvinist church. In trying to understand their theological worldview (specifically in terms of their approaches to charity, evangelism, and earth stewardship) compared with other protestants, it is worth studying the Five Points of Calvinism.
- Arminians believe that man has free will to accept or reject Christ. Calvinists believe man is by his nature evil and "totally depraved" such that it is only by God's gift of salvation that a man can be saved; he has no choice in the matter.
- Arminians believe that at or around the time of creation God chose those who would be saved by foreseeing that they would have faith and respond to the "call" by their own free will. Calvinists believe that at or around the time of creation God chose who would be saved for his own reasons due to his own choice, not what a man would do, and thus that men respond to the "call" because of god's choice, not theirs. This is part of the key difference between Calvinists and non-Reformed Theology churches regarding free will - as far as free will matters (as to salvation), Arminians believe in it and Calvinists don't. Calvinist doctrine offers no reason to evangelize to strangers because there's no possibility of a person helping another person toward answering the call and gaining faith. In spite of this Presbyterians do evangelize. Yes that is a little confusing, we'll address it in a moment.
- Arminians accept what's called "universal redemption" or "general atonement" - Jesus' crucifixion (the culmination of his atonement) was for all men and those who have faith in him (remember that this is a choice) will receive, but have not yet received, salvation. Calvinists believe in "particular redemption" or "limited atonement" - because God already chose who was elect (i.e. no free will) and therefore saved, Jesus' atonement was limited to those people only (that is, it was limited in terms of its reach but not its power to redeem the elect).
- Due to their acceptance of man's ability to choose faith and receive grace, Arminians treat the "call of the spirit" as resistible. Calvinists, who believe that God chose who would be saved, believe that grace is irresistible. This is also called efficacious call - efficacious in the sense that it works exactly as God intended to confer grace.
- Arminians believe that man can "fall from grace" by choice. That is, salvation is not a permanent state. This and the doctrine of conditional election are the reasons evangelicals genuinely care to help you do what's right to get saved. Calvinists believe in the "perseverance of saints," which is the belief that once saved always saved - all based on salvation being God's choice, not man's. The "saints" stuff comes from Psalms 37:28, where believers are said to be "saints" who will be preserved (no conditions stated).
So, Do They Believe in Free Will or Not?
A peculiarity of all Calvinist sects is their simultaneous belief in predestination and disbelief in fatalism. By the books (or book as it were) all Presbyterians believe that their salvation is both absolute and unchangeable, and yet they also preach about sin and go on missions of charity and relief. As we stated before, even though Presbyterians emphatically don't believe a person's actions or choices dictate their eventual afterlife, they still actively evangelize. This is weird, and mostly justified by some form of the argument: We don't control our fate, but we also don't know it, so we must continue to be good not because that will get us into heaven, but because a person who got into heaven would have been doing good while they were alive. While sound, this line of argument completely ignores the problem with predestination rather than solving it. Another common tactic is to say that while a person's actions don't matter, they act as a vessel of the will of God and God can change things even if we can't.
As always the problem comes up most strikingly when discussing Hell. The Calvinist God decided before humans even existed whether or not you personally would go to hell, making the Presbyterian God's style even less fair and just than the way the Catholic God does things. Calvin himself described this predestined eternal torture as "a just and blameless, but at the same time incomprehensible judgment." We cannot disagree with the latter half of that description.
Overall it's definitely fine though, cause all this rationalization means that they tend to evangelize with their actions rather than words, which means very little door-to-dooring and lots of genuinely good work helping their fellow human beings.
Record on science
Presbyterianism's support of science has been inconsistent.
At a meeting of the Synod of Georgia in 1859 it was announced that the Theological Seminary of South Carolina was to create a new chair titled "The Perkins Professorship of Natural Science" for the purpose of "evinc[ing] the harmony of science with the records of our faith." The Reverend James Woodrow was elected to the position, and on October 22, 1861, he gave an inaugural address in which he identified areas where science and the Bible contradicted each other. He noted that concerning the days of creation the Bible refers to ordinary days while science indicates these were indefinite periods. He further noted that the Bible affirms there was no death before the fall while science indicates death has always existed. He also noted that the Bible claims a universal flood while science indicates at most a partial flood. To account for these contradictions, Woodrow noted that "the diflaculty [sic] would be either with the facts of science or the interpretation of Scripture" but that the fault would not lie with the authority of scripture. Woodrow did not comment on the theory of evolution, as at that point it was too novel to be mentioned.
On September 16, 1864, the board of directors of the Columbia Theological Seminary announced that "in the judgment of this Board, there is nothing in the doctrine of Evolution, as defined and limited by him, which appears inconsistent with perfect soundness in the faith." They further explained that evolution may be taught at the seminary but that the Bible would always be the final authority. However, a minority among the seminary directors launched a protest to this judgment, claiming:
1. Evolution is an unproved hypothesis.
2. Belief in Evolution changes the interpretation of many passages of Scripture from that now received by the church.
3. The view that Adam's body was evolved from lower animals and not formed by a supernatural act of God, is dangerous and hurtful.
4. The theory that the body of Adam was formed by the law of evolution, while Eve's was created by a super natural act of God, is contrary to our standards (Conf. Faith, Ch. Iv. Sect. 2-17), as those standards have been and are interpreted by our church.
On October 22, 1884 the Synod of South Carolina ruled that "the teaching of Evolution in the Theological Seminary, at Columbia, except in a purely expository manner, with no intention of inculcating its truth, is hereby disapproved." On December 10, 1884, Woodrow was asked to resign his chair for teaching "the hypothesis of evolution." On August 16, 1886, Woodrow was charged with and exonerated of "teaching and promulgating opinions and doctrines in conflict with the sacred Scriptures as interpreted in the Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly." At that time it was further claimed that "[h]e was promulgating opinions which are of a dangerous tendency, and which are calculated to unsettle the mind of the church respecting the accuracy and authority of the Holy Scriptures as an infallible rule of faith."
Finally in May of 1888 the General Assembly, meeting in Baltimore, removed Woodrow from his office. The assembly determined, "It is the judgment of this General Assembly that Adam's body was directly fashioned, by Almighty God of the dust of the ground, without any natural animal parentage of any kind." 
Despite this, Presbyterians embraced the eugenics movement as it arrived in the United States. 
A statement prepared at the 1969 PCUS general assembly admitted, "Neither Scripture, our Confession of Faith, nor our Catechisms, teach the Creation of man by the direct and immediate acts of God so as to exclude the possibility of evolution as a scientific theory." It further admitted that "it is not necessary to understand the Genesis account as a scientific description of Creation." It noted, "The Bible is not a book of science." It further noted, "The truth or falsity of the theory of evolution is not the question at issue and certainly not a question which lies within the competence of the Permanent Theological Committee...Unless it is clearly necessary to uphold a basic Biblical doctrine, the Church is not called upon and should carefully refrain from either affirming or denying the theory of evolution." The PCUS statement summarized the denomination's current position, stating, "We conclude that the true relation between the evolutionary theory and the Bible is that of non-contradiction and that the position stated by the General Assemblies of 1886, 1888, 1889 and 1924 was in error and no longer represents the mind of our Church." 
In 1995 Terry Gray was removed as an elder in the OPC after he was charged with teaching evolution in his capacity as a biochemistry professor at Calvin College.  This disfellowship also occurred concurrent with Gray's writing a negative review of Darwin on Trial.
In 2002 the PCA completed a report outlining its position on creation. Their findings included the following:
We believe that the Scriptures, and hence Genesis 1-3, are the inerrant word of God...We believe that history, not myth, is the proper category for describing these chapters; and furthermore that their history is true. In these chapters we find the record of [God's] creation of the heavens and the earth ex nihilo; of the special creation of Adam and Eve as actual human beings, the parents of all humanity (hence they are not the products of evolution from lower forms of life)...We recognize that a naturalistic worldview and true Christian faith are impossible to reconcile, and gladly take our stand with Biblical supernaturalism...When it comes to the [church's] position on scientific explanations, there is again a gradation of loyalty. There are some that are simply outside the pale: polygenetic origin of humanity is one, for example; neo-Darwinism (at least in its full metaphysical implication, as discussed in our longer Definitions Appendix) should also be. There are some scientific positions on which the church must take its stand: for example, monogenetic (and special) origin of mankind. On the other hand, there are scientific positions on which the church can say it has no objection to them: for example, non-geocentric cosmology, DNA as the basis of the genetic code...It is not always easy to tell whether a given theory is in the class of essentials or of the non-objectionables [sic]...Ultimately, the church is not the authoritative source for determining what is or is not scientific truth. Traditionally, this has been left to the scientific community to decide. However, in our generation that scientific community has become progressively more hostile to the truths of special revelation. Thus, the church must be prepared to address the claimed "scientific truths" of the science communities and be prepared to "manage by fact" as the data from the science pours forth. The present day intelligent design movement would appear to be a good example of how the church in the broader evangelical context can be effective in this manner. 
The report also admitted that the PCA was divided over the meaning of "days" as used in Genesis.
In 2004 the general assembly of the OPC was presented with a report from a committee formed to study their views of creation. The assembly determined that it was essential for ministerial candidates to be "able to address and refute the errors of the theory of evolution both exegetically and theologically." The report quoted from an earlier assembly's findings, affirming that their articles of faith denied man developed from lower forms of life, and also quoted from a tract printed by a denominational agency, noting that "the days of creation were 'ordinary days of twenty-four hours.'" The report determined that theistic evolution must be rejected because it denies the creation of the sun after the creation of light and denies the sudden creation of "the kinds (not species)." The report further denied "all macroevolution" but allowed for microevolution. The report concluded that when trying to make scripture consistent with science, "Rather than harmonize at the level of exegesis, we ought to refrain from bringing the scientific questions into the equation until after we have ascertained what the text says." 
Nevertheless, religious groups have criticized the Presbyterian Church for their acceptance of the findings of modern science. In reference to a PCUSA statement, Answers in Genesis noted, "This recent resolution on teaching evolution does not come as a surprise-it is just more evidence of the continuing slide of major denominations that have capitulated to Darwinist/humanistic thinking." 
In reference to science's ability to explain origins, the RCUS concluded, "Natural revelation is inherently inadequate for this task, lacking the clarity, precision and completeness of special revelation. Indeed, natural revelation can be understood correctly only when its interpretation is guided by the Word of God." They lamented that "it was not until Enlightenment philosophy and natural religion entered the church that anyone thought it necessary to 'harmonize' or 'reconcile' the Biblical account of creation with the supposed facts of science...today the church is even more willing to be led by science than it was then." 
- "Presbyterianism." ReligionFacts.
- "Scientific Evidence For Creationism & Against Evolution." Garwood Presbyterian Church. 2008.
- Miller, James B. (Nov. 16, 2009). "Beyond Non-Contradiction: Lessons from the case of James Woodrow." The Presbyterian Outlook.
- Gray, Terry (March 20, 1995). "Calvin College Noon-time Lecture: Can a Christian Be an Evolutionist?."
- Gray, Terry (Jan. 11, 1997). "Can a Christian Be an Evolutionist?...Can an Evolutionist Be a Christian?."
- Gray, Terry M. "The Mistrial of Evolution: A review of Phillip E. Johnson's 'Darwin on Trial'."
- "About the Presbyterian Church in America." 2000.
- "Presbyterian 101: A General Guide to Facts About the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)."
- "About Us." United Church of Christ.
- "Reformed Church in the U.S.."
- "About the EPC." Evangelical Presbyterian Church. 2011.
- "Confession of Faith." Orthodox Presbyterian Church. 2011.
- Gay Marriage At Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly Voted Down
- The Five Points of Calvinism was a written response to the Five articles of Remonstrance which itself became known as the Armininian position.
- What Do Presbyterian's Believe About Predestination (Part 2)
- Calvin, John Institutes of the Christian Religion, pg 746
- Stacy, James (Mar. 10, 1900). "A History of the Presbyterian church in Georgia." Internet Archive.
- "Evolution statement." Presbyterian Church (USA).
- Grossman, Ron (May 20, 2003). "A new fight against heresy." The Bismark Tribune.
- "Report of the Creation Study Committee."
- "Report of the Committee to Study the View of Creation." July 30, 2004.
- "‘No contradiction’ between evolution and Bible-PCUSA." Answers in Genesis. July 13, 2002.
- "The Days of Creation." Reformed Church in the U.S. 1999.