How important is the Confession? How important are the Three Forms of Unity? How important is the binding to these Forms?
These are critical questions. Questions which in the history of the church have been more than once on the agenda. Questions which are again on the table.
And the answer to these questions is for the Church of vital importance.
What exactly is confessing?
To ‘confess’ can mean to ‘admit’. A confession of guilt. Guilt before the Lord. The admission of specific sin.
The word ‘confess’ can also be used in the sense of ‘praise’. To confess is to magnify the Lord. It is to recognise that He is God and He alone. That He has all power in heaven and on earth. That there is life only with Him.
We find both meanings in numerous places in the Bible (e.g. Leviticus 5, Leviticus 16, Numbers 5, Psalm 32, 1 John 1; and 1 Kings 8, 2 Chronicles 6, Matthew 10, Philippians 2, etc).
But ‘to confess’ has yet a third important meaning. That is ‘to echo’.
‘Saying the same thing’. In Romans 10: 9 and 10, and in many other places in the New Testament, the original text uses a word that has precisely that meaning. Saying the same thing. Echoing. Saying what the Lord has spoken in His Word.
That is important. If we talk about the Three Forms of Unity, it is precisely this latter aspect of confessing that comes first. In the three Reformed Confessions God’s Word is echoed. In those writings the Biblical doctrine is expressed in different words.
All three Confessions, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort, originated in the struggle to return to God’s Word. To fully maintain God’s Word. In the struggle against the errors and accusations ofthe Roman Church; against the errors of the Anabaptists; against the errors of the Remonstrants. All three Confessions do nothing else but explain and echo what the Bible says. No more, no less.
In the history of the Church it has never been proven that this is not the case. On the contrary!
We must stick to this.
Forms of Unity … Yes, that’s how our Confessions are sometimes referred to. And it’s not for nothing. Becausethe unity of the churches lies precisely in the obedient and faithful echoing of God’sWord. That unity is not based on the fact that we have the same roots, the same liturgies. Or that we all do the same things.
Yes, these things are also important. But most important is that the churches practise the same faith. Believing together, upholding together God’s Word – that is the foundation of the unity of the church-congregations. And that foundation, that faithful amen-saying and echoing of God’s Word, that has been expressed and recorded in our Confessions. Simply echoing the Bible. Without giving that Word a personal twist.
In the days of the Great Reformation, in the midst of the struggle of the church, our forefathers found each other in the common adoption of those three Confessions. First in Emden in 157, at the first synod of theReformed Churches. Synod’s delegates realised that the Lord calls the churches to unity. And, as they clearly observed, that unity of the catholic christian church exists herein that all churches and church members bow unconditionally before God’s Word; that all churches completely accept the true doctrine of the Bible.
That’s what the brothers in Emden were allowed to conclude. The unity of the churches lies in the unity of doctrine. Emden was therefore the place where the Belgic Confession was adopted as the Confession of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, as the foundation of the churches together. And the Heidelberg Catechism was adopted as a textbook for the church.
In 1619 these two Confessions were joined by the Canons of Dort, also known as the Five Articles against the Remonstrants. These Three Forms of Unity are together referred to as the historical foundation of the Church (additional and subjected to the scriptural foundation, the Bible.)
Since the sixteenth century, Reformed churches and office-bearers have been bound to that foundation. For that reason agreement with the Three Forms of Unity has been demanded since that time from ministers, elders and deacons. Not out of ecclesiastical tyranny but because of the calling to hold each other close to that Word of God, to acknowledge that Word as the sole authority over our faith and life.
The brothers of the National Synod in 1618-1619 formulated it very nicely:
… it was decided that all the ministers of the Divine Word, in confirmation of their agreement with the orthodox doctrine, must subscribe to the Confession and Catechism of these Churches, together with the Canons or declarations of this Synod; and in order to prevent in this subscription any corrupt deviation, they shall be asked to endorse this Form which has been read out and approved (Acts of Synod 1618-19, afternoon Session 164).
And then follows the familiar subscription Form, in which ministers declare that they believe that the Confessions agree in everything with God’s Word, and that they will not teach anything to the contrary. And, should they teach anything that is not in accordance with them, that they will go the ecclesiastical way and submit themselves to the discipline of the church.
It is essentially the same Form that is still in use in our churches, in De Gereformeerde Kerken. It’s use was later also adopted for elders and deacons.
Was and is that not harsh? Having to agree with, and uphold the Confession under threat of church discipline? Of suspension? Of the need to give account to the ecclesiastical meetings and to withdraw one’s views, if necessary, with admission of guilt?
It was and is necessary.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Throughout the centuries.
It is necessary to bind each other to the Confession. And, in that way, to the echoing of God’s Word. This necessity has been beautifully expressed in Synod’s Acts: ‘in order to … prevent any corrupt deviation’.
Deviation, which means: error, a private interpretation of the Bible, a deviation from the Biblical doctrine.
It is often said: We do not really need the Confessions. Don’t we have the Bible? It is the supreme authority!
But history has shown that this is not sufficient. The heretic swears by the Bible! The Roman church appeals to it. So does the liberal wing of the PKN [Protestantse Kerk Nederland]. And the Baptists are no different.
This makes it essential to have the Forms of Unity. In them we say what the Bible actually teaches on the basis of the Bible’s own explanation.
People are always looking for many ‘deviations’. That’s because the doctrine of the Bible is often a stumbling block. That’s why churches and office bearers must continue to bind themselves to the Confessions.
That is not harsh. That is not overregulation. It is Christian love. Brotherly love.
It is to help each other as churches to walk on the one way of the LORD.
Unity in the truth.
Yes, this makes the Confessions the historic foundation of the Church in harmony with, and subject to, the authority of God’s own Word.
Historic, not only because they were written by our ancestors but also because they were frequently defended and adhered to during the history of the church. Because in the history of the church that Subscription Form, that binding to the Confession, had to be kept alive.
Office bearers in the church again and again desire more ‘leeway’. Room for teachings that deviate from the Bible. Again and again reformation becomes necessary; and the church is obliged by way of reformation to maintain the binding to the Confessions.
In the days of the Secession (1834) the Subscription Form played an important part. In 1816 the original Form – from the Synod of Dort 1618-1619 – had been radically changed. Ministers were no longer required to express agreement with the Confessions because they correspond with God’s Word, but to the extent that they do.
The binding to the Confessions also played an important role in the days of the Doleantie (1886). In 1883 the Dutch Reformed Church had again adopted a new Subscription Form. It lacked every reference to the Confessions.
Recently, in the wake of its new Church Order, the General Synod of the GKv [Gereformeerde Kerken vrijgemaakt] atEde also considered a new Subscription Form. That new Form has now been adopted. It is now the official line in the GKv.
In the ‘old’ Form – also used by us – professors, ministers, elders and deacons declare that they are wholeheartedly convinced that the Three Forms of Unity in all parts are consistent with God’s Word.
In the new Form they declare that the doctrine of the Bible is being confessed in these Forms.
Submission to the ecclesiastical way and church discipline has now become: ‘bring up in a suitable manner’, and ‘give account’. Something totally different.
For modern theologians who pursue deviations the Confession of the Church is a hindrance. Many Protestant churches still hang on to the Forms of Unity, but they do not uphold them. Like God’s Word that has been declared ‘time bound’, the same is said of the Confessions: they are beautiful, they’re valuable, but they are marked by the time in which they were written. Whatever they may be, they should not provide answers to the questions of our time, it is said, so you should not be bound too tightly to them.
The focus is now strongly placed on the second meaning of ‘confessing’, mentioned at the beginning of this article. This is the aspect of ‘praising’. Praise the Lord together and honour Him. That. it is said, should still be the significance of the Confessions.
In this way many churches made, and are making, many deviations.
Deviations, away from God’s Word.
In order to prevent deviation
We repeat the questions that were asked at the beginning.
How important is the Confession? How important are the three Forms of Unity? How important is the binding to these Forms?
Their importance lies in those beautiful words from 1619: … in order to prevent deviation. To prevent falsification of God’s Word. That is why Reformed churches continue to insist on the binding to the Confessions.
Church history teaches us, time and again, that if that binding is abandoned the church loses the Biblical doctrine.Then it loses the right to be named Church.
For Christ’s church continues to prevent deviation, and obediently and faithfully maintains only the leeway that God Himself gives in His Word.
(This article is a translation of “Om uitvluchten to voorkomen” which appeared in De Bazuin, Vol. 8 No. 23, 11 June 2014.)