We love our house. Our house is the collection of confessions in which we live. Confessions or creeds are the church’s officially adopted statements of faith summarizing the essential teachings of Scripture. Our confessions are our statements concerning what God says about Himself and His works. Our collection consists of the Ecumenical Creeds: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Creed of Chalcedon; as well as the Three Forms of Unity: the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism and Canons of Dordt.
As a house affords protection from outside danger, so in our life as a church our confessions keep us safe from doctrinal errors. As a house provides a place for warm fellowship, so our confessions are the inviting theological home in which we enjoy rich communion with God and our spiritual family. And even as a custom-designed house with so many personal touches can identify the inhabitants and tell you something about them, so our creeds identify us before the whole world and tell others exactly who we are.
Some churches claim the confessions as their home but they do not want to live under their roof and within their walls. For the sincere Reformed Christian, there is no place like home in the creeds. Commemorating 500 years of Reformation history causes our hearts to expand with gratitude for our house, because the great Reformation that commenced in 1517 was the primary period in history in which our house was built.
The building of our house
On the timeline of 2,000 years of New Testament history, the periods of time devoted to the construction of our house constitute two relatively small slivers. There was a flurry of activity in the fourth and fifth centuries as the Ecumenical creeds portion of our house was built. Then, after a quiet millennium on the construction site, the Three Forms of Unity were erected during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The Ecumenical creeds are the deep footings and thick foundational walls of our house—the basement, or perhaps what Jesus calls “this rock” (). This rock foundation is essentially the simple but deep and all-encompassing confession JESUS CHRIST IS LORD ( ; ; ). This is the church’s first and principal confession, and it will be mankind’s last ( ) to the glory of God the Father. The main contribution of the Ecumenical creeds was to begin unpacking the glorious theology contained in the words, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
First, the Ecumenical creeds had to express with precise terminology the full deity of Jesus (who is “Jehovah salvation”). Then the church had to determine how it would say that Jesus is both God and man. Moreover, if Jesus on earth is God and the Father in heaven is God, then do we have multiple Gods? The Ecumenical creeds spelled out the biblical truth that in the person of our Savior are perfectly united two distinct natures—the human nature and the divine nature. And because Jesus is God (and later in the history of doctrine, agreement was reached on the deity of the Holy Spirit), a Trinitarian confession of one God existing as three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, was adopted. The identity of our Savior Jesus and our triune God is the supremely important foundation for our confessional house.
After a thousand-plus dark years on the job site a lovely home was erected upon that foundation, allowing the church institute to upgrade from suitable basement living to more pleasant main-floor home life. Under God’s direction, a couple of significant factors ignited a creedal construction boom in the sixteenth century. On the one hand, the Holy Spirit used all of the doctrinal ignorance and deviation, worship abuses, and open immorality in the church to awaken the godly to holy horror and energize a never-before-seen Reformation in which the true doctrine of Scripture was restored to prominence in carefully articulated, written statements. On the other hand, the political and ecclesiastical spheres overlapped, so that the civil magistrate had a vested interest in theology for the unification and stability of his kingdom. I do not foresee a U.S. President convening a special meeting of Congress to pen and adopt a creedal statement on double predestination or the presence of Christ in Holy Communion for the unification of Americans in biblical truth, but that is the way it was as the time of the Reformation. Creeds were deemed urgent for healing the fractures caused by theological squabbles after the Reformation began. Out of this era not only came scores of confessional statements—many of which are unused today—but particularly the Three Forms of Unity as our confessional house.
A well-built house
The Reformation gave us an amazingly well built house. The Reformation did not merely give us an attractive front façade (justification by faith alone or creation), a load-bearing interior wall (original sin or the necessity of divine satisfaction), roof trusses and a roof over us (Scripture or double predestination), a cozy fireplace (providence or prayer), a spacious utilitarian kitchen (the means of grace or good works), or a private bedroom (assurance of our election or hope for the second coming). The Reformation era gave us a complete house of all the essential doctrines of Scripture.
Evidence of the indispensable work of the Spirit of truth is the fact that our house sits perfectly on the basement foundation that had been laid a millennium prior. The house of the Three Forms of Unity not only sits squarely on the foundation of the Ecumenical creeds, but, to employ another figure, it is the massive oak arising out of the acorn “Jesus Christ is Lord” and the little sapling of the Ecumenical creeds. Jesus Christ is the revelation of God. Therefore, if we take the confession “Jesus Christ is Lord” and open up each one of those words and the whole statement in the light of Scripture, we not only arrive at the narrower theology of the Ecumenical creeds, but the broader and more comprehensive theology of our Reformed creeds.
For example, “Jesus” means “Jehovah salvation” or “He shall save his people from their sins,” (). To understand that one word “Jesus” we must ask the Bible: What is sin? What is the origin of sin? Who is a sinner? What is salvation? Who is Jesus? How does Jesus save? Whom does Jesus save? Why does Jesus save? Unto what does Jesus save? Work it all out according to Scripture and you end up with the truth concerning Jesus summarized by the Canons of Dordt with its five heads of doctrine. The same can be said of “Christ,” that is, “God’s anointed Prophet, Priest, and King” and “Lord.” Some professing Christians denounce creeds in opposition to the confession “Jesus Christ is Lord,” but creeds only take that simple confession and reveal the comprehensive theology contained in it. What a massive, structurally sound, tidy, spacious, comfortable, and even luxurious house is our confessional house, covering all the doctrines from theology to eschatology!
Remodels or additions?
Since the Synod of Dordt in 1618-1619, at which the Canons were written and adopted, and at which the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession (with its inclusion of the Ecumenical creeds) were adopted as the official statements of the Reformed faith, the house has stood fast. Are we due for a remodel or an addition today?
Although no creedal construction actually occurred, those opposed to the doctrine of the unconditional covenant established with the elect alone charged the Protestant Reformed Churches synod of 1951 with “extra-confessional binding” in putting on an ugly and unnecessary addition to the Reformed house with the adoption of the “Declaration of Principles.” However, not only is the “Declaration” not a fourth creed, it does not even pretend to be one, as it consists mostly of quotations from the Three Forms demonstrating what the covenant doctrine of our house actually is.
In the last few years two proposed changes to the house have received attention in the Reformed community. First, the Christian Reformed Church has been discussing the merits of a huge addition—a fourth Reformed confession on racial unity and justice called the Belhar Confession. Just this summer the addition was rejected.1 Second, an overture to Synod 2016 of the Canadian Reformed Churches recommended adding statements to Article 14 of the Belgic Confession (BC) to make more explicit the Reformed faith’s intolerance of theistic evolution. With the next Synod not meeting until 2019, this project appears temporarily stalled because Synod 2016 ruled that Classis erred in forwarding the overture to Synod in the manner that it did.2
We may remodel or add on to our house. The creeds are not on par with Scripture, which, if a church should alter, she will be plagued by God ().
There have been changes made to our house since it was built, though most of them were made early on and were minor cosmetic touch-ups with only a few more significant structural repairs.3
Admittedly, our confessions were written in and reflect a particular historical context, and they do not say everything they possibly could say on every fine point of doctrine. Nevertheless, this house as built continues to prove it is lovely for fellowship with God and each other and capable of withstanding any attack. If the church’s concern is racism, then preach Heidelberg Catechism (HC) LD 21 on the holy catholic church. If the concern is theistic evolution then teach BC, Articles 3-7 on Scripture and BC, Article 14 and HC, LD 3 on man’s creation, while also demonstrating from the gospel summarized in the confessions that tampering with the Adam of the creeds is tampering with Christ, the very foundation and strength of the whole house. The present need is not structural repair of the house or additions, but guards at the door ready to keep out the racist or evolutionist who are on the outside, and ready to discipline the racist or evolutionist within by putting him out.
In praise of our well-built house
Thanks be to the God of the Reformation for what has been from every point of view a magnificent home for generations of believers. God dwells in this house. So do we.
I hope you love your house. Let it not be a vacation cottage you visit every Sunday morning for a Catechism sermon. Live in it! Walk through all the rooms…with your children! Appreciate the structural soundness and striking beauty of the house when your pastor preaches from the Catechism. When was the last time you read through the Canons? Remember Head 5? Read it tonight and you will say, “Why don’t I spend more time in this room!” Read through the Belgic Confession as part of your family worship. Let your soul say, and teach your children to say, “Bless the Lord O my soul, and forget not all His benefits—benefits like the Reformation and our confessional house!”
1 The Belhar originated in South Africa during the Apartheid era and addresses individual, racial and social segregation by calling for unity, reconciliation and justice. Synod 2017 of the CRC decided against a fourth confession and approved a recommendation to “place the Belhar Confession in the newly defined category of contemporary testimony. Adherence to the Belhar Confession shall not be included in the Covenant for Officebearers.” (Article 71 of the 2017 Acts of Synod, 707, https://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/2017_acts.pdf, accessed September 11, 2017).
2 The proposal for changing BC, Art. 14 can be found here: https://creationwithoutcompromise.com/belgic-confession-article-14-proposal-materials. The synod’s treatment can be found in Art. 94 of the 2016 CanRC Acts, accessed here: http://www.canrc.org/?assembly=247.
3 For example, the Belgic Confession, the most comprehensive of our confessions, has seen a few changes since it was written in 1561. In addition to the well-known footnote of Article 36, the body of the text has undergone a few minor changes. For some examples, an interested reader could consult: Nicolaas H. Gootjes, The Belgic Confession, Its History and Sources (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic 2007), 117-159. One example can be found in Article 15 on original sin and is the italicized phrase added in 1566 at the Synod of Antwerp, “Nor is it by any means done away by baptism, since sin always issues forth from this woeful source, as water from a fountain.”