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My Beloved Definition of Presbyterianism

orange can useI’m positive you’ve never heard this definition before.

At first glance the word looks like Pedestrian… Aren’t we all?  Lol.  But what is the definition of this Protestant movement within Christianity we call “Presbyterianism”?

Quick background:

The word “presbyter” comes from the Greek word for “elder” that you find in the Bible.  It recalls a model of leadership and shared decision-making in the church.  “Elder” doesn’t refer to age, but a recognized position of leadership.  Eldership is not an end in itself, but a biblical way to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit as a community in a community.

Okay. But what else?

When explaining it to people I sometimes harken to the theological ground zero.  Jesus.  It always has to be about him.  Without Jesus the church is like a plane with no pilot.  Stuck on the ground. Wasted.

More specifically, Presbyterianism has often attached itself to ideas like ‘covenant’ or the ‘centrality of Scripture.’  It has also tried to reflect the dominant characteristic of God in Jesus: Grace.  When we’re at our best we’re the people of Grace.  Some we’re successful, sometimes not.

But what Presbyterianism isn’t is a style of worship.  When you do your homework you see that there’s actually a fair amount of freedom in worship style, and there can even be various emphases across the theological spectrum (the old ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ categories).

But most of that is still somewhat incomplete when trying to capture the ethos of a thing.

I take my definition from my favourite author, Nikos Kazantzakis.  Now, he was no Presbyterian.  But I love his books, and his most famous is probably Zorba the Greek.  In it he is describing a land that he loves, the Cretan countryside.  Here is what he says:

“To my mind, this Cretan countryside resembled good prose, carefully ordered, sober, free from superfluous ornament, powerful and restrained.  It expressed all that was necessary with the greatest economy.  It had no flippancy, nor artifice about it.  It said what it had to say with a manly austerity.  But between the severe lines one could detect an unexpected sensitiveness and tenderness; in the sheltered hollows the lemon and orange trees perfumed the air, and from the vastness of the sea emanated an inexhaustible poetry.”

Now with a tweak here and there here is my beloved definition of Presbyterianism:

“To my mind, this [Prsebyterian] countryside resembled good prose, carefully ordered, sober, free from superfluous ornament, powerful and restrained.  It expressed all that was necessary with the greatest economy.  It had no flippancy, nor artifice about it.  It said what it had to say with a [strong] austerity.  But [and here’s where we really have to pay close attention] between the severe lines one could detect an unexpected sensitiveness and tenderness; in the sheltered hollows the lemon and orange trees perfumed the air, and from the vastness of the sea emanated an inexhaustible poetry.”

Sounds like a psalm.  Sounds like the Word.  Sounds like my beloved definition of presbyterianism.  “…and from the vastness of the sea emanated an inexhaustible poetry…”

Ref: Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek, trans. C. Wildman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952), 32.

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7 Comments »

    • love the definition..the images of lemon and orange trees, perfume, the sea,
      tenderness and sensitivity. Reminds how I find God in writing, poetry, art..tks for expanding my vision.
      PS this is an amazing site. Tks for your insights and time spent.
      C. Boyer

      Like

      • Hi Carolyn, Yes I like how Kazantzakis (and us) bring in fruit, as something which perfumes and adds flavours. Seeing this as a linguistic image has real power and prospect for me. I’m glad you like the site. Thanks for reading!

        Like

  1. Great definition, Matt. Given the Greek literary context, the only thing missing is a few shots of ouzo served up by the Holy Spirit to counteract the pernicious effects of all that austere sobriety. Perhaps the Eastern Orthodox tradition can help us overcome our issues with theological restraint.

    Like

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