PreCon 03: The confessions of the church

Why we use confessions

“… do you wholeheartedly believe the doctrine of the Word of God, summarized in the confessions …?”

We believe that the Bible contains God’s special revelation. It is authoritative, necessary, perspicuous, and sufficient to teach us all we need to know about our salvation. Yet the church has also adopted some other documents that are held in high regard. They are called confessions. In these documents, the church of the past summarized its key beliefs. They play an important role in our church life.

Purpose of the confessions

The purpose of the confessions can be summarized in the words: didactic, defensive, and doxological.

  • Didactic (teaching).Because the confessions summarize the main points of the Christian faith, they are useful for teaching. The Apostles’ Creed was historically used for that purpose. New Christian converts would memorize the creed and learn what it means before they were baptized. The Heidelberg Catechism was written specifically for the purpose of teaching the youth, and helping ministers preach the basics in an organized way.
  • Defensive. The confessions also make it easier to recognize false teaching in the church. If you believe things that contradict the confessions, you are probably contradicting the Word of God.
  • Doxological (praise). The confessions summarize who God is and what he has done. We therefore recite or sing the confessions (esp. the shorter ones, the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed) in the worship service to praise God.

The authority of the confessions

But the confessions do not have the same authority as the Bible. We must be careful not to give them this status! They are the work of human beings, who can make mistakes. We believe that the Bible is “inspired”, God-breathed, and therefore perfectly reliable; but that cannot be said about any other text. Art. 7 in the Belgic Confession says it beautifully:

We may not consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with the divine Scriptures; … for all men are of themselves liars, and are lighter than a breath.

It is therefore important for the church to always check the confessions against the Bible. The office bearers in the Reformed church—ministers, elders, and deacons—have all agreed not to teach anything contrary to the confessions. (See the Form of Subscription in the Book of Praise, p. 661.)

Some people say: “Not the creed, but the Christ!” “Our confession is the Bible!” What would you respond?

The six Reformed Confessions

The six confessions adopted by the Reformed church can be divided into two groups. The first three are the creeds (from the Latin word credo, “I believe”). They are older and shorter statements of the Christian doctrine. They are called ecumenical creeds because they are accepted by churches worldwide.

Apostles’ CreedNicene CreedAthanasian Creed
Trinitarian creed with focus on the work of Jesus Christ. Accepted and used in all Western churches.Trinitarian creed with focus on the identity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Accepted in West and East.Detailed statements about the Trinity and the “hypostatic union” (Christ as God and man).
Based on earlier baptismal creeds and the old Roman Creed (~ 400 AD). Final version 800 – 1000 AD.Composed by the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381), to oppose the heresy of the Arians and the Pneumatomachi.Unknown origin. (Not by Athanasius!) Possibly written around 700 AD to correct Arianism in Gaul.

The other three confessions were written much later, shortly after the Reformation. They are also known as the Three Forms of Unity.

The three Reformed confessions are also known as the Three Forms of Unity.

Belgic ConfessionHeidelberg CatechismCanons of Dort
An overview of the main doctrines of Christianity. Based on a confession by John Calvin.A document designed for teaching.A rejection of errors of the so-called Remonstrants or Arminians. Focus on the “doctrines of grace” (TULIP).
Composed in 1561 by Guido de Brès in the southern Netherlands, to show to the government that the Reformed were not rebels. (Originally in French.)Composed in 1563 by a team appointed by Elector Frederick III in the Palatinate (West Germany). (Originally in German.)Written and adopted in 1619 by the international Synod of Dort, held in the Netherlands. (Originally in Dutch and Latin.)

In the Dutch Reformed churches, the Heidelberg Catechism is still widely used for catechism classes. Our churches have agreed that Christian doctrine should be preached on basis of the Heidelberg Catechism, in principle every Sunday (Can. Ref. Church Order art. 52).

Reformed churches that do not originate in the Netherlands may have other confessions. This is especially true for the Presbyterian churches, which come from England. They use the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechism. These documents were written slightly later (1640s) and have a different style than the Three Forms of Unity; but they teach essentially the same doctrine.

Are you familiar with these six documents? What would you use them for?

Your confession

When you make public profession of faith, we will ask you:

Do you wholeheartedly believe the doctrine of the Word of God,
summarized in the confessions and taught here in this Christian church?

By agreeing to this, you promise not to make up your own beliefs based on the Bible. “No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation,” says 2 Peter 1:20. You should not only agree with the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, but also respect the teaching ministry of the church. Only the Bible has ultimate authoritative, but God has given the church the responsibility to defend the truth of the Bible and to teach God’s people.

Memorization work

The Apostles’ Creed (Heidelberg Catechism, q&a 23)

  1. I believe in God the Father almighty,
    Creator of heaven and earth.
  2. I believe in Jesus Christ,
    his only-begotten Son, our Lord;
  3. he was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
    born of the virgin Mary;
  4. suffered under Pontius Pilate,
    was crucified, dead, and buried;
    he descended into hell.
  5. On the third day he arose from the dead;
  6. he ascended into heaven,
    and sits at the right hand
    of God the Father almighty;
  7. from there he will come to judge
    the living and the dead.
  8. I believe in the Holy Spirit;
  9. I believe a holy catholic Christian church,
    the communion of saints;
  10. the forgiveness of sins;
  11. the resurrection of the body;
  12. and the life everlasting.

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