The Presbyterian Church is a Protestant Church, distinguished from many of the other Protestant Churches by its commitment to the theological doctrines of John Calvin (Jean Chauvin, 1509-1564) and by the way in which it is organised and governed. The word 'Presbyterian', either as an adjective or as a noun, may be applied to a member of the Presbyterian Church, and the set of doctrines on which the Presbyterian Church is based is known as Presbyterianism. (The word 'Presbyterian' is pronounced with the stress on the third syllable - pres-bi-TEER-iern, IPA: /ˌprɛz bɪ ˈtɪər ɪ ən/.)
Presbyterianism traces its origins to the Reformation in the sixteenth century and, more particularly, to the activities of John Calvin, whose Institutes of the Christian Religion argued for a notably austere and uncompromising form of Protestantism. Geneva, the city in which Calvin worked, came to be governed in accordance with Calvinist principles, and reformers sympathetic to Calvin came to Geneva from many parts of Europe to learn from him, in some cases returning to their native countries to found Churches based on Calvinist doctrine. In this way Presbyterian Churches came to be established in Holland, France and, most conspicuously, Scotland. John Knox (1514-1572), the Scottish reformer, worked with Calvin in Geneva and on his return to Scotland joined with other reformers to ensure that the Church in Scotland should be a 'Reformed Kirk', i.e., a Church embodying Calvinist principles. Presbyterianism in Scotland was suppressed for long periods during the seventeenth century, and Presbyterians were able to worship freely only with the accession of William III (1650-1702, reigned 1689-1702) and the Act of Toleration (1689). Presbyterianism spread from Scotland to the other constituent countries of the United Kingdom, and there are now Presbyterian Churches virtually throughout the world. In 1972, however, the Presbyterian Church in England and Wales united with the Congregational Church in England and Wales to form the United Reformed Church.
Presbyterianism owes much of its distinctiveness to its origins in Calvinist theology, which has at its foundation a bleak, extremely pessimistic view of human nature and stresses the weakness and sinfulness of all human beings as a result of the sin of the first man, Adam. Thus Presbyterians place an even greater weight than some other Protestant denominations on the Bible, i.e., the word of God, rather than on (human) reason or tradition as the source of truth in matters of faith. Further, Calvin argues that noone is able to find salvation by his or her own efforts - it is only by action on God's part that an individual attains salvation. These beliefs underlie his doctrine of predestination, i.e., the doctrine that salvation is not open to all human beings, but only to the 'elect', i.e., those whom God has chosen to save. (Although this is the doctrine for which Calvin is best known, it is not one which is emphasized by many Presbyterians nowadays, and in fact some no longer accept it.) Calvin's view of human nature also provides the foundation for the stern moral outlook traditionally associated with Presbyterianism: many pleasures which other Protestants would regard as permissible (e.g., theatre-going) have been condemned by Presbyterians as 'sinful' or 'worldly', and the virtues of thrift and hard work have a prominent place in the Presbyterian ethos.
The Presbyterian Church, unlike the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, does not have an episcopal hierarchy, i.e., it does not recognise the authority of bishops, but it is nonetheless united within a distinctive hierarchical structure of 'courts'. Each local church chooses its own clergy (the minister), who is assisted by a number of 'elders', laymen also chosen by the local church (see also elder). The local 'kirk session', which consists of the minister and elders of a local church, is subject to the authority of the 'court of the presbytery', which has jurisdiction over the local churches in a particular area. The 'court of the presbytery' is in turn subject to the authority of the 'court of the synod', which has jurisdiction over a number of presbyteries, and is in its turn subject to the General Assembly, which is the supreme court, with both judicial and legislative functions, and is presided over by the Moderator.
The word 'Presbyterian' comes from the Greek word πρεσβύτερος‚ (presbuteros) which is the comparative form of the adjective πρέσβυς‚ (presbus, old) and means: older man - or 'elder'.