A New Formula of Subscription

Apostasy in the Church always must contend sooner or later with the Confessions. Apostasy is possible, of course, only when the Confessions are forgotten and unknown documents, filed away in church archives; and corrupters of the truth are tolerated in the Church only when the Confessions have ceased to be the living confession of the members of the Church. But sooner or later the problem of these Confessions must be faced. Though they may be forgotten for the most part, they still stand as silent sentinels of the truth which retain their power to prick the consciences of those who have once sworn to abide by them. Ministers, quite obviously, along with other officebearers are the ones who have the greatest problems because they are the ones who must make a written vow to uphold the Creeds. When this vow is required of them, they may make it with tongue in cheek or as an empty, formal gesture; but the fact remains that the vow has been made. And, unless the whole of church life is reduced to hypocritical game-playing, that vow comes back to haunt them. 

In the Reformed Churches, such a vow is made by signing the Formula of Subscription. In years gone by this was considered a very solemn and important promise to which an officebearer bound himself. Today, to those who no longer wish to bind themselves to the Confessions, the Formula of Subscription has become an intolerable evil. And so efforts are made to alter it. 

One such effort is being made at present in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken). Because of its importance, we quote a news item appearing in the RES News Exchange in its entirety.


The General Synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands decided recently at its meeting in Lunteren to reformulate the “form of subscription” (ordination vows) for the office bearers of the church. This decision was taken during the second week of October on the basis of a report submitted by a study committee appointed by the previous Synod. It has been felt for a number of years that the present form now in effect is too strict and needs to be changed. 

That the report was not written by men who think lightly of the Reformed heritage, but was rather drafted by an unmistakably ‘Reformed hand’ appears from the following excerpts from the report.

“A commitment to the Confession is essential for the Reformed Churches. The Synod is thoroughly convinced that the unity of our church life can not be preserved in the long run if we do not heartily agree on this starting point. To say it in other words: faithfulness to the Confession has always been an essential unifying factor in the Reformed Churches. This resulted in another pattern of church life than for instance the hierarchical-Episcopal pattern of the Roman Catholic Church, or the more historical-sociologically determined alliance of the Netherlands Reformed Church. The people of the Reformed Churches want to be unified in an essential way . . . they want to be united in the essential matter in their confession in the world of Christ who was delivered for our sins and was raised for our justification.

Romans 4:25

This reformational starting point may neither be taken away by an ecclesiastical hierarchy nor may it be undermined by a far reaching toleration. In their resistance at these ‘points the Reformed Churches derived their existence (sic), their place—one could say their identity—in the churches as a whole (Catholica). 

“Here is also the ‘strategic position’ of the form of subscription. The commitment to the ecclesiastical confession which is herein expressed intended first of all to underscore the commitment to the Scriptures. 

“It is no wonder therefore that the mutual spiritual trust in our churches is determined by the carefulness with which action is taken in these matters. For here the ‘accord of the church communion’ is at stake.” 

The committee expressed its objections to the current form of subscription as follows. “In summary then we are of the opinion that the present form of subscription—taken literally with its heavy-as-lead stipulations—had a rigidifymg effect through its lack of nuances, upon the spiritual development of our churches. Every ‘movement’ threatened either to be suppressed or to lead necessarily to a new system. It looks as if all office bearers in all branches of service must think alike in all minor points of the entire confession. That in practice it has actually usually gone so well in our churches—except for a few dark periods in recent church history—was possible because of a somewhat broader interpretation of the very stringent letter, for instance: We promise further that if we later should have objections against any teaching or any minor part thereof or entertain diverging sentiments, we will neither express this openly nor in secret. . . ‘

“However, one would do injustice to this classic Reformed pattern of commitment by accusing it of the thirst for a dictatorially imposed spiritual uniformity. The real incursion out of which they came to this form of subscription was of another kind, namely the conviction that to be a member of the church means to be incorporated in the Body of Christ and this meant the end of individualism.” 

Two members of the Synod submitted a substitute motion in which any reference to complete agreement with the confessional standards is eliminated. They proposed that office bearers be asked to “declare that they recognize Jesus Christ our crucified and resurrected Lord and Saviour as He is proclaimed in the witness of the Holy Scriptures, the only norm, source and content of preaching and life, to follow Em faithfully, and to persevere humbly in the unity of faith with the catholic church.” After a lively discussion the decision was taken in agreement with the proposals of the Study Committee. 

The Synod decided that the new Form of Subscription should contain i.a., the following elements:

1) The recognition of the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God, the authoritative revelation of the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ and as such the only rule and guide for faith and life; 

2) The promise to hold faithfully to the teaching of the church in unity of faith with the three catholic symbols and the three forms of unity; 

3) The readiness on the one hand, if one considers any part of the church confession to be in conflict with God’s Word, to bear witness hereof under the constraint of brotherly love, at the ecclesiastical gatherings, and on the other hand to submit to the judgment of the church when it would find in a clear and acceptable way that any significant point of doctrine, the obedience to Scripture and the unity of faith and confession would be attacked or contradicted. 

The Synod submitted a number of suggestions to the committee which will draft the new ordination vows according to the following guide lines: 

1) there should be a greater degree of qualification in the censure of pastors and professors of theology; 2) there must be a more active involvement of the Classes (regional group of churches) in the confessional supervision of office bearers; 3) they should study the relationship between juridical discipline in doctrine and judicial discipline. Prof. N.H. Ridderbos explained judicial discipline as an ecclesiastical declaration in which a certain idea is condemned without involving any direct ecclesiastical consequences. 

The committee will submit a draft of the revised ordination vows to the General

Synod at a later session.

We do not have a lot of space left to comment on this. But a few remarks ought to be made. 

The RES News Exchange speaks of the fact that the report was drafted by “an unmistakably ‘Reformed hand’.” We fail to see this. It is true that commitment to the Confession is spoken of as an essential unifying factor in the Reformed Churches. But the point which needs clarification is the question of what is meant by “commitment” to the confessions. The committee gives reason to conclude that this must be interpreted in a very broad way. This becomes especially plain in their objections against the present form of subscription. One gets the idea that they mean little more than a general agreement with the general thrust of the confessions as a whole, and not specific agreement with specific doctrines. This is substantiated by the recent doctrinal departures in the Reformed Churches which have been tolerated. 

The objections which the committee has against the present form of subscription are really summed up in one criticism: that the form prevents any “spiritual development of our churches.” And the committee presses home the point that there has been some spiritual development only because the rigid restrictions of the form have been loosely defined. Apart from the fact that a very strange expression is used in this objection (one would almost expect “theological development” instead of “Spiritual development”), the point the committee makes here is simply not true. Since the time of the Synod of Dordt, when this form was first put into use, the most flourishing periods of development of the truth of Scripture have been those times when the officebearers of the Church bound themselves in all their life to the confessions of the Church. It is only in recent years, when doctrines of the confessions have been openly repudiated, when ignorance of the confessions is at an all-time high, that doctrinal development has deteriorated into rampant heresy. And we are afraid that the committee means the latter by “spiritual development.” 

There is good reason for this, of course. And the one reason is that the Confessions contain the truth of Scripture. One who is not afraid to be bound by the Scriptures will not be alarmed at being bound by the Confessions. But one who is of a mind to depart from the Scriptures will find the Confessions an intolerable strait-jacket. 

While the new Form of Subscription is not yet drawn up, the guidelines given the committee by Synod are sufficiently broad that we predict that the new form which is ultimately adopted will do away with any real binding power of the Confessions. This has, in reality, already happened in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. To draw up a form which expresses this will be a recognition of the reality.