Subscription in the Dutch Reformed Tradition
The Reformation was above all a doctrinal reform in the life of the church. Throughout the Middle Ages, calls for reform had primarily been concerned with the moral life of the church. The Reformation certainly resulted in profound moral and spiritual renewal for the church, but the foundation of that renewal was doctrinal.
The doctrinal concern of the Reformation was expressed in the writing of great confessional statements. No period in the history of the church produced such profound and comprehensive statements of faith as did the great Reform of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The reformers intended that confessional statements would faithfully express the religious convictions of the confessors. These confessions united fellow believers and distinguished one religious community from another.
This study focuses on the experience of one religious community, namely the churches of the Dutch Reformed tradition. It examines briefly which confessional statements have functioned in that community and how those statements have been subscribed.
The earliest gathering of Dutch Reformed churches took place in what is usually called the Convent or Synod of Wezel in 1568. This meeting was not a formal synod and no subscription was required of its attenders.1
The first gathering, normally reckoned a national synod, was held in 1571 at the city of Emden in East Friesland. This synod adopted several articles related to subscription. Article 2 stated:
To testify to the unity in doctrine among the Dutch Churches, it seemed good to the brothers to subscribe to the Confession of the Dutch churches (the Belgic Confession). And to testify to the unity and connection of their churches with the churches of the French kingdom similarly, it seemed good to subscribe to the confession of faith of the churches of that kingdom (the French confession of 1559), certainly trusting that the ministers of those churches on their part will testify to this unity by subscribing to the Confession of Faith of the Dutch churches.2
Article 4 declared: "Also Dutch ministers who are absent from this meeting are admonished that they must agree to this same subscription. The same is also established for all others who afterwards are called to the ministry of the Word before they may begin to exercise that ministry."3
Article 5 further specified: The brothers also decided that the form of catechism to be used among the French-speaking churches is the Genevan (Calvin's Genevan Catechism) and among the Germanic-speaking churches is the Heidelberg Catechism. Yet if some churches are using another form of catechism which is agreeable to the Word of God, they are not obligated to change it.4
These articles point to several elements of the life of the Dutch Reformed churches. The first, shown by the fact that they were written in a city outside of the Netherlands, is that the churches were experiencing severe persecution. Organization and discipline were difficult; yet the churches were working to express their unity in doctrine and practice.
Second, the churches desired international connections, especially with their neighbors, the Reformed churches of France. They hoped that French spiritual (and perhaps military) support would encourage and help sustain them in their struggle.
Third, while a variety of confessional documents were being used in the churches, the Belgic Confession was the basic standard. The Heidelberg Catechism was not yet the only official catechism, but it was already widely used.
At all subsequent national synods in the Netherlands, subscription to the confession was required. As H.H. Kuyper wrote, "Already from the first General Synod the decision was made in the Church Order that all preachers must subscribe to the confession as the expression (or form ) of unity..."5 Such commitments were made at the synods of Dort (1574), Dort (1578), Middelburg (1581) and The Hague (1586).6
The Synod of Dort (1574) specified that elders and deacons also should subscribe to the Belgic Confession. It further declared that only one catechism ought to be used for public teaching and that the one catechism should be the Heidelberg.7 The Synod of Dort (1578) added the requirement that professors of theology must also subscribe to the Belgic Confession.8 The Synod of Middelburg (1581) added school masters to the list of subscribers.9
While statements about the requirement of subscription are found in a number of places, the earliest form of subscription extant is from the Classis of Alkmaar in 1608. That form reads:
We the undersigned preachers, under the jurisdiction of the Classis of Alkmaar, declare and witness that the teaching which is in that catechism adopted unanimously by the Reformed (the Heidelberg Catechism) and which is comprehended in the 37 articles of the Dutch Reformed Churches (the Belgic Confession) agrees in everything with the holy Word of God, and consequently with the foundation of the teaching of salvation. We promise to maintain this same teaching, through God's grace; and openly to reject all teachings which are brought against and oppose it; and with all diligence and faithfulness according to our ability to stand against them, as we affirm the same with our signatures.10
This earliest form of subscription expresses a characteristic of the Dutch Reformed tradition, namely that all of the doctrines of the confessional standards are accepted as part of one's subscription. No exceptions are permitted.
The issue of subscription was raised again at the great Synod of Dort, 1618-1619. That synod adopted the Form of Subscription which has been used through the centuries in the Dutch Reformed tradition.
The Form reads: We, the undersigned ministers of the divine Word under the jurisdiction of Classis _______________, declare sincerely and in good conscience before God, by this our subscription, that we from the heart think and believe that all the articles and particular points of doctrine contained in this Confession and Catechism of the Dutch Reformed Church together with the declaration on some points of this doctrine made by the National Synod held at Dordrecht in 1619 agree in everything with the Word of God. We promise therefore diligently to teach and faithfully to defend this very doctrine without publicly or privately, directly or indirectly teaching or writing anything against this doctrine. We also not only reject all errors contrary to this doctrine which are condemned by the synod of Dort, but we also want to refute and oppose them and give every effort that they might be kept away from the Church. And if at some later time it should happen that we foster any different consideration or sentiment against this doctrine, we promise that we will neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend such a view either in preaching or in writing, but we will first reveal this view to the consistory, the classis and the synod so that it may be examined. We are always ready to submit with a willing spirit to the judgment of the consistory, classis or synod, under penalty that if we act in a contrary way, we are by that very fact suspended from our offices. But if the consistory, classis or synod ever on account of serious reasons for suspicion, in order to preserve the unity and sincerity of doctrine, would wish to ask of us that we explain more fully our opinion about some article of this Confession, Catechism or synodical declarations, we promise also always to be ready and willing to respond to such a request, under the same penalty stated above, reserving however to ourselves the right of appeal if we should believe that we have been grieved by the judgment of the consistory, classis or synod, during which appeal we will acquiesce in the judgment and determination of the provincial synod.11
This Form of Subscription has four elements.12
- The first is the statement of complete agreement with the doctrines presented in the confessional standards. These standards are clearly stated as the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1619).
- The second element is a promise to teach and defend these doctrines. The subscribers engage positively to promote these doctrines as part of their ministries.
- The third element is a commitment to oppose actively all doctrines that militate against the teachings of the confessions. This commitment is especially focused on protecting the church from Arminianism.
- Finally the form at considerable length deals with doctrinal doubts or problems that might arise after the initial act of subscription. Subscribers declare that they will report any changes of mind to the appropriate church authority, will not teach such views in any way, and will submit to the jurisdiction of the problem by the church.
Subscribers further expressed willingness to answer questions put to them if in the future the church for good reasons suspects that they have changed their views. This commitment was the most controversial part of the form, acknowledging what came to be known as the right of inquisition (ius inquisitionis).13 SSSome objected to the idea that the assemblies of the church could ask for further explanations of a minister on a point of doctrine covered in the confessional standards of the church. Despite the debate this right was clearly incorporated into the form.
The Synod of Dort also decided that professors, teachers and comforters of the sick should sign the Form of Subscription. Clearly the mind of the synod focused on those with teaching, preaching and pastoral responsibilities as the ones that especially need to sign such a form.
Interestingly a somewhat different decision was made with respect to elders. The synod stated: "Whether and in what way elders of the churches are to subscribe is left to the discretion of their individual classes and synods."14 In practice the elders in the Dutch churches did subscribe to the confessional standards in a variety of ways.
This decision of the synod with respect to elders probably reflects the sharp distinction drawn in the minds of early Reformed thinkers between the work of preachers and teachers on the one hand and ruling elders on the other. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, elders were involved primarily in the supervision of the moral life of the congregation. They certainly were not involved in leading worship or teaching and preaching. They were not seen as having primary responsibility for maintaining the doctrinal integrity of the church. This understanding of the work of elders is expressed in the Belgic Confession, Article 30:
We believe that this true Church must be governed by that spiritual polity which our Lord has taught us in His Word; namely, that there must be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments; also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the Church; that by these means the true religion may be preserved, and the true doctrine everywhere propagated, likewise transgressors punished and restrained by spiritual means; also that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted, according to their necessities.
A careful reading of this article shows that the particular work of the elders is to see that "transgressors" are "punished and restrained by spiritual means."
The Form of Subscription prepared at Dort remained in use in the Dutch Reformed Churches in the Netherlands until 1816. At that time a major reorganization of the church took place as the Napoleonic era came to an end and the kingdom led by the House of Orange was established in the Netherlands for the first time.15 The Form of Subscription was changed so that ministers now promised that they "took in good faith and heartily believed the teaching which conformably to God's holy Word is expressed in the accepted forms of unity of the Dutch Reformed Church."16
This change precipitated a major debate in the church about the meaning of the word "conformably." Did the new form mean that one subscribed to the confessional standards because they conformed to the Word of God, or in so far as they conformed? The orthodox maintained that the form should be read as meaning "because" which would have meant that it maintained a strict subscription. The more liberal party in the church claimed that it meant "in so far as" which gave them room to pick and choose among the elements of the confessional standards.
This controversy was a key element in the Secession (Afscheiding) of 1834.
While many conservatives remained within the Dutch Reformed Church, others departed to establish a pure Reformed church. The new church promptly adopted the Form of Subscription written at the Synod of Dort. The Secession was one of the important influences on the development of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
Doctrinal drift in the Dutch Reformed Church continued. In 1883 the deformation of the Form of Subscription was complete when all that ministers were asked to promise was that they would "promote the interests of the kingdom of God in general and especially those of the State Church."17 This drift had caused a serious reaction among orthodox Calvinists led by Abraham Kuyper. In 1886 another division took place in the Dutch Reformed Church. Those who left were known as "the grieving" and so the movement became known as the Doleantie. This new church also adopted the original Form of Subscription of the Synod of Dort.
The largest churches of the Dutch Reformed tradition in the United States are the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church. The Reformed Church in America used a form of subscription based closely on the Dort form from the time when it first translated its forms into English in the eighteenth century. In the 1970s it adopted a new form called the "declaration for Ministers," which reads:
I, ___________________, in becoming a minister of the Word of God in the Reformed Church in America, within the Classis of_________________, sincerely and gladly declare before God and with you that I believe the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and as expressed in the Standards of the Reformed Church in America.
I accept the Scriptures as the only rule of faith and life. I accept the Standards as historic and faithful witnesses to the Word of God. I promise to walk in the Spirit of Christ, in love and fellowship within the church, seeking the things that make for unity, purity and peace. I will submit myself to the counsel and admonition of the classis, always, ready, with gentleness and reverence, to give an account of my understanding of the Christian faith. I will conduct the work of the church in an orderly way and according the Liturgy and the Book of Church Order...
I pledge my life to preach and teach the good news of salvation in Christ, to build up and equip the church for mission in the world, to free the enslaved, to relieve the oppressed, to comfort the afflicted, and walk humbly with God. I ask God, and you His servants, to help me so to live until that glorious day when, with joy and gratitude, we stand before our great God and King.18
Clearly this declaration has moved far from the form adopted at Dort and reflects the pluralistic character of the Reformed Church in America today.
The Christian Reformed Church has basically maintained the Form of Subscription adopted at Dort. Unlike the practice of the Dutch Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America, the Christian Reformed Church has extended the requirement for subscription beyond the ministers and professors of theology to include elders, deacons and evangelists. As recently as 1987 an overture was received at its synod to revise the form, but that request was rejected.19
In 1976 the Christian Reformed Church did adopt guidelines which specified what the act of subscribing entailed:
Guidelines as to the meaning of subscription to the confessions by means of the Form of Subscription:
- The person signing the Form of Subscription subscribes without reservation to all the doctrines contained in the standards of the church, as being doctrines which are taught in the Word of God.
- The subscriber does not by his subscription declare that these doctrines are all stated in the best possible manner, or that the standards of our church cover all that the Scriptures teach on the matters confessed. Nor does he declare that every teaching of the Scriptures is set forth in our confessions, or that every heresy is rejected and refuted by them.
- A subscriber is only bound by his subscription to those doctrines which are confessed, and is not bound to the references, allusions and remarks that are incidental to the formulation of these doctrines, nor to the theological deductions which some may draw from the doctrines set forth in the confessions. However, no one is free to decide for himself or for the church what is and what is not a doctrine confessed in the standards. In the event that such a question should arise, the decision of the assemblies of the church shall be sought and acquiesced in.20
These guidelines do not revise, but clarify the meaning and use of the Form of Subscription. In 1988 the Christian Reformed Church prepared a more contemporary version of the Form of Subscription which again was not a substantive revision:
We, the undersigned, servants of the divine Word in the Christian Reformed Church in Classis ________________, by means of our signatures declare truthfully and in good conscience before the Lord that we sincerely believe that all the articles and points of doctrine set forth in the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort fully agree with the Word Of God.
We promise therefore to teach these doctrines diligently, to defend them faithfully, and not to contradict them, publicly or privately, directly or indirectly, in our preaching, teaching, or writing.
We pledge moreover not only to reject all errors that conflict with these doctrines, but also to refute them, and to do everything we can to keep the church free from them.
We promise further that if in the future we come to have any difficulty with these doctrines or reach views differing from them, we will not propose, defend, preach, or teach such views, either publicly or privately, until we have first disclosed them to the consistory, classis, or synod for examination.
We are prepared moreover to submit to the judgment of the consistory, classis, or synod, realizing that the consequence of refusal to do so is suspension from office.
We promise in addition that if, to maintain unity and purity in doctrine, the consistory, classis, or synod considers it proper at any time — on sufficient grounds of concern — to require a fuller explanation of our views concerning any article in the three confessions mentioned above, we are always willing and ready to comply with such a request, realizing here also that the consequence or refusal to do so is suspension from office.
Should we consider ourselves wronged, however, by the judgment of the consistory or classis, we reserve for ourselves the right of appeal; but until a decision is made on such an appeal, we will acquiesce in the determination and judgment already made.21
At least according to its subscription requirements the Christian Reformed Church is not a pluralistic church, but a strictly confessional one.
As one surveys this history of the use of the Form of Subscription in the Dutch Reformed tradition, one is struck by the strict character of that subscription in most of its history. Clearly deviation from that subscription has been a sign of doctrinal and spiritual decline. Revitalization in the Dutch Reformed tradition has involved a return to the Form of Subscription adopted by the great Synod of Dort. Sound theology is not the only component of a healthy church, but without sound theology a church cannot be truly healthy. The blessing of the Lord, both in numbers and in spiritual vitality, has been present in the Dutch Reformed tradition as it has treasured, understood, embraced, and taught its great confessional documents.