Presbyterian and Reformed History and Confessions

About a decade ago I was asked by the San Joaquin Presbytery to teach a course on Presbyterian and Reformed history and confessions for Presbyterian students at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in a special program to prepare pastoral candidates for ministry and ordination in the Presbyterian (USA) church. It was a unique program blending Biblical studies and interpretation from the core of the seminary faculty, and special ministry and theology courses from Reformed scholars for students in the Presbyterian Church.  As a Presbyterian elder I was very willing to help, and felt honored to be a part of the effort. Here is a successful case of ecumenical cooperation between Mennonites and Presbyterians.  I was priviledged to stand on both sides of the effort as a professor at FPU and a Presbyterian.  Mennonite and Presbyterians have roots in the same movement, time and place during the Reformation. They share in many ways theological and churchly origins as a Biblical people. If we can’t join together in a common effort, who can? The San Joaquin Presbytery has since fractured over the interminable battles over sexuality that have consumed much of the church’s energies, and now involves both mainline and evangelical denominations, so we don’t know if the program has a future. But I still get asked for recommendations for readings in the tradition, and just recently taught the course for two Presbyterian students. So here is my list for anyone who wants to study or just dip into Reformed and Presbyterian traditions.

Websites for the larger current Presbyterian Denominations are:

These sites have current confessional documents, catechisms, statements of “necessary and essential” doctrines, as well as some historical content.

A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO):

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC):

The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA):

The Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA):  Also hosts the Presbyterian Historical Society:

Some introductory texts.

Fortson, Donald. The Presbyterian Story. PLC, 2012.  Emphasizes the Evangelical tradition within American Presbyterianism.

Hart, D. G. Calvinism: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. An episodic history of the world wide spread of Calvinism.

Hart, D. G. and J. R. Meuther Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism. Phillipsburg: P & R, 2007.  Evangelical with contrarian tendencies.

Leith, John. Introduction to the Reformed Tradition. Revised Edition. Atlanta: John Knox, 1981. Covers the tradition world-wide.

Loetscher, Lefferts A. A Brief History of the Presbyterians. With a new chapter by G. L. Hunt. Fourth Edition. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983.  The older, standard introduction.

Longfield, Bradley J. Presbyterians and American Culture, A History. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2013.  Thorough and up-to-date.

McNeill, John T. The History and Character of Calvinism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954.  A older standard.

Smylie, James H. A Brief History of the Presbyterians. Louisville: Geneva, 1996.  Has largely replaced Loetscher, but both are helpful.

Also helpful…

Dictionary of the Presbyterian and Reformed Tradition in America. D.G. Hart, Ed. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1999.  Originally an InterVarsity publication.

Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith. D. McKim, Ed. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992

Some more detailed histories, European and American.

Ahlstrom, Sidney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972. Older now, but still the standard, detailed work. Good to start with on any topic.

Benedict, Philip. Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. The formation of the Reformed tradition through the 17th century. Experts across the theological and historical spectrum have praised it.

Bouwsma, William, J.  John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. Notable for Bouwsma’s thesis that the Reformed and Calvin sought to provide order in a 16th century fraught with anxiety. Bouwsma is a scholar of the Renaissance, rather than religion or theology per se, and offers insights from a very different perspective.

Bremer, Francis. Puritanism, A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.  A good introduction in a good series.

Butler, Jon. Awash  in a Sea of Faith. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Emphasizes the complexity of religious faiths in the colonial cradle of American Presbyterianism.

Charles Hodge Revisited: A Critical Appraisal of His Life and Work. Ed. J. W. Steward and J. Moorhead. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002. A balanced set of assessments of one of enormous influence in 19th century American Presbyterianism, but who “has illegitimately been read out of many narratives of the development of American thought” (63). The Fundamentalist/ Modernist controversy is still with us.

Colonial Presbyterianism: Old Faith in a New Land. S. Donald Fortson III. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2007.  Produced on the 300th anniversary of the founding of the first Presbytery in North America. 

Gordon, Bruce. Calvin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.  There are a number of good (and a number of bad) biographies of Calvin. This is one of the most recent (good ones).

Hall, David D. The Puritans: A Transatlantic History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.  The latest history, encompassing England and the Americas.

Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Holifeld, E. Brooks. Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. Some of the clearest explanation of complex theological movements available.  Engages both doctrinal and philosophical issues and places them well contextually.

A Jonathan Edwards Reader. Ed. J. E. Smith, H. S. Stout, K. P. Minkema. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Lindberg, Carter. The European Reformation. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. A good place to see the different reformations of the 16th century.

Major Themes in the Reformed Tradition. Ed. D. J. McKim. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1998. Essays on many aspects of the Reformed identity in an age of disunity and fragmentation.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation. New York: Penguin, 2005. Current and thoughtful.

McLoughlin, William G. Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.  A unique and ongoing tradition in American Protestantism; explains why and how Evangelical pietism often results in moral and social reform.

Marsden, George.  Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. The first major biographical study to use the almost completed, Yale University publication of The Works of Jonathon Edwards. This project has spawned an Edwards “revival.” Well reviewed from across the ecclesial spectrum. Excellent on theology, spirituality, puritan society.

Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America, 1706-1788. G. S. Klett, Ed. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1876. Fascinating on-the-ground view into the concerns, beliefs and ways of working of the founders of the Presbyterian movement in the English colonies. (When you read this stuff you are a real historian!)

Noll, Mark. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. On the formation of a distinctly modern and American theology in which the Reformed and Presbyterian play a major role.

Noll, Mark.  A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992. Very good. Less detailed and more accessible than Ahlstrom. An Evangelical treatment.

Reformed Theology in America: A History of its Modern Developments. David F. Wells, Ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009. The conservative theological traditions during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Steinmetz, David. Reformers in the Wings. 2nd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.  Good chapters on lesser known early reformed leaders and theologians.

Winship, Michael, Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.

On the Confessional Tradition.

The Book of Confessions. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  Part 1.  Available online at under “resources/publications”.  A necessary and convenient resource—good introductory section on Reformed approaches to confessions.

Barth, Karl.  The Theology of the Reformed Confessions.  Trans. D. L. Guder and J. J. Guder.  Columbia Series in Reformed Theology.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.  [Originally presented in 1923, University of Gottingen.]  This is a work of both historical and theological recovery.  Like much (all?) of Barth’s work it is filled with passion and insight.

Conversations with the Confessions. J. Small, Ed. Geneva Press, 2005.

Dowey, Edward A., jr. A Commentary on the Confession of 1967, And an Introduction to the Book of Confessions.  Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968.

Heron, J.  ed. The Westminster Confession in the Church Today. St Andrews Press, 1982.

Leith, John H. Assembly at Westminster. Rpt; 1980. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2008

Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century. Ed. and Intro. A. C. Cochrane. New Intro. Jack Rogers. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2003).

Rogers, Jack. Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1991. A standard used in many courses; developed in Roger’s course at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Rohls, Jan.  Reformed Confessions: Theology from Zurich to Barmen.  Trans. J Hoffmeyer.  Columbia Series in Reformed Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.  Picks up issues topically.

To Confess the Faith Today. Stotts, Jack L. and Jane Dempsey Douglass, Eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990.  On the more recent PCUSA “Brief Statement of Faith.”

On theologians.

Along with the biographies and studies noted above some hallmark theologians are: John Calvin (16th c.), William Ames (Puritan 17th c.), Jonathan Edwards (18th c.), Charles Hodge (19th c.), Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr (20th c.).  This just scratches the surface—See Leith, Introduction to the Reformed Tradition above which lists the many Reformed and Presbyterian theologians, and Biblical scholars over the centuries.

Some Reformed theologies, some older and more recent. These illustrate some of the breadth of Reformed thinking and approaches:

Billings, J. Todd. Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011.

Leith, John. Basic Christian Doctrine. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993. Combines both  Neo-orthodox, and 16th century emphases.

McGlasson, Paul. God the Redeemer: A Theology of the Gospel. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993. A Biblical approach—the basic Reformed approach, shared by all even when the result is a systematic or dogmatic theology.  McGlasson adopts a “canonical” approach to scripture.

Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.

Packer, J. I. Knowing God. Downers Grove: IVP, 1973.

Placher, William C. Jesus the Savior: The Meaning of Jesus for Christian Faith. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Some special Topics.

Benton Johnson, Dean R. Hoge, and Donald A. Luidens, “Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline,” March 1993, Number 31, First Things: 13-18.  A summary treatment of their sociological study findings in Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Mainline Protestant Baby Boomers. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994. To go with the volumes in “The Presbyterian Presence: The Twentieth Century Experience” series below.

Douglass, Jane Dempsey. Women, Freedom, and Calvin. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985. Works through this issue in the context of Late Medieval and Reformation theology, and teaches how to work with Calvin’s way of entering into biblical interpretation, theological construction, and a continuing theological and social issue.  

Longfield, Bradley. The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists and Moderates. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.  The Modernist-Fundamentalist debate was centered in the Presbyterian Church and resulted in a split at the flagship seminary, Princeton.

The Mainstream Protestant Decline: A Presbyterian Pattern. M. J. Coalter, et al. Eds.  “The Presbyterian Presence: The Twentieth Century Experience,” Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990. There are six volumes in this series.

Marsden, George M. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1991. Part of the Presbyterian heritage.

The Presbyterian Predicament: Six Perspectives. M. J. Coalter, et al. Eds.  “The Presbyterian Presence: The Twentieth Century Experience,” Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990. Another in the series.

Purves, A. and M. Achtemeier. Union in Christ: A Declaration for the Church. Witherspoon Press, 1999. A contemporary reform movement within the Presbyterian (USA) Church.

Reformed Theology: Identity and Ecumenicity. W. M. Alston, jr. M. Welker, Eds. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003. Trends, schools, movements, and tensions current today.

Smith, James K. A. Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010.

Thuesen, Peter J. Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Steve Varvis, Fresno Pacific University, 2021.