PreCon 03: The confessions of the church

“… 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.

The ecumenical creeds and the Reformed confessions

The three ecumenical creeds are older, shorter statements of Christian doctrine. They are called “ecumenical” 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.

In the Dutch Reformed churches, the Apostles’ Creed is recited or sung in the afternoon worship services. The Apostles’ Creed is also important because the Heidelberg Catechism uses it as its starting point for LD 9-23.

(Originally, the Form for the Public Profession of Faith asked: “Do you wholeheartedly believe the doctrine of the Word of God, summarized in the articles of our faith, …” That was a reference to the Apostles’ Creed. The Canadian Reformed Churches changed this formulation a few decades ago. Currently, there are proposals to change back to the original statement.)

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 if 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.

Relative authority of the confessions

The creeds and confessions are very important in the church. Their use and purpose may be summarized as follows:

  • Didactic: they are used for teaching doctrine in summary.
  • Defensive: they are used to recognize and reject errors in the teachings of people.
  • Doxological: they are used to praise God for what he has done.

The office bearers of Reformed churches—ministers, elders, deacons—have all agreed to the confessions. They promise not to teach anything that goes against them. You can read this promise in the Form of Subscription (see Book of Praise, p. 661).

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 Form of Subscription allows office bearers to disagree with the confessions; if they do, they should bring it to their consistory, and then to the broader assemblies of the church, which will investigate the matter further and make changes if necessary. This has happened: most Reformed churches have deleted a paragraph from Art. 36 of the Belgic Confession because they found it not in agreement with the Scripture.

Discussion

  1. Some people say: “Not the creed, but the Christ!” “Our confession is the Bible!” What would you respond?
  2. Sometimes we says: the Bible has absolute authority; the confessions have relative authority. What do we mean by that?
  3. When you make profession of faith, do you promise always to agree with every detail of the confessions of the church?
  4. The original questions for profession of faith asked specifically if you believe the Word of God as summarized in the articles of our faith, that is, the Apostles’ Creed. Why would that creed be especially important?
  5. How do you / can you use the creeds in your Christian life?

Homework

Memorize: The Nicene Creed (Book of Praise, p. 494).

Read: Solas, TULIP, and other summaries.

Journal: Choose one of the Reformed creeds or confessions. Find some additional information about its history and purpose. (A good starting point is the introductory text in your church book, but make sure to look up a different source as well.) Say a few things about the importance and use of this creed or confession for your Christian life and learning. Total: about 300 words.

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