“The ministers of the Word of God and likewise the professors of theology (which also behooves the other professors and school teachers) shall subscribe to the Three Formulas of Unity, namely, the Belgic Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordrecht, 1618-19, and the ministers of the Word who refuse to do so shall de facto be suspended from their office by the consistory or classis until they shall have given a full statement, and if they obstinately persist in refusing, they shall be deposed from their office.” —Article 53, D.K.O.
Decision Pertaining To This Article
“The form for subscription for ministers, etc., shall be transcribed in the minute books of both consistory and classis (Adopted by the Synod of 1944, Arts. 66, 67.)”
“Likewise the elders and deacons shall subscribe to the aforesaid formulas of unity.” —Article 54, D.K.O.
“We . . . . do hereby, sincerely and in good conscience p before the Lord, declare by this, our subscription:
“a. That we heartily believe and are persuaded that all, the articles and points of doctrine, contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Protestant Reformed Churches, do fully agree with the Word of God . . . . . .
“b. That we promise diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine . . . .
“c. That we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine . . . but that we are disposed to refute and contradict these, and to exert ourselves in keeping the Church free from such errors.
“d. That if hereafter any difficulties or different sentiments respecting the aforesaid doctrines should arise in our minds, we promise that we will neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend the same, either by preaching or writing, until we have first revealed such sentiments to the consistory, classis and synod.
“e. That if the consistory, classis or synod should deem it proper to require of us a further explanation of our sentiments respecting any particular article of the Confession, etc., we do hereby promise to be always willing and ready to comply with such requisition . . . .
“f. That we reserve to ourselves the right of an appeal whenever we shall believe ourselves aggrieved by the sentence of the consistory, classis or synod, and until a decision is made upon such an appeal, we will acquiesce in the determination and judgment already passed.”
The above is in brief the substance of the vow that is made before God and His church by the officebearers when they affix their signature to the Formula of Subscription. To sign this Formula is more than a mere formality. It is a very serious business and must be done in deepest sincerity with the fear of God. It would be shocking indeed to reveal from the minute books of our various consistories the names of those who have once pledged themselves to this vow and, without protest or submission of their grievances to the consistory, classis and synod, have forsaken the church and embraced the very errors they once promised to reject and oppose the truth they promised to defend. However, God is riot-mocked and to Him an account must be given in which He shall judge arighteous judgment.
“When thou vowest a vow to God, defer not to pay it; for He bath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed” (Ecclesiastes 5:4).
Sometimes the signing of the Formula of Subscription is done in jest. Those called upon to sign it are accosted with remarks such as, “Be sure you read the fine print. Do you know what you’re signing? Be careful, you sign your life away. This is going to cost you money.” We understand, of course, that such jesting is sin. This is no joking matter. The fact is that this vow made unto God in the sincerity of our hearts may very well cost us our life. The defense of the truth over against all errors that militate against it may indeed involve us in a battle that has far reaching consequences with respect to the loss or retention of our earthly position and goods. Seriously and without any jest it may well be asked, “Do you know what you are signing and are you conscious of the implications of the vow which you make before God?” This act of signing the declaration of agreement involves every officebearer in the church in a most serious responsibility. Never may it be done lightly.
Signing the Formula of Subscription was not always mandatory in Reformed Churches. The need for some definite declaration of agreement among the officebearers was felt by certain Classes when various errors began to show themselves and especially when the monstrous evils of Arminianism began to appear. At first it was decided that the ministers and professors should sign their names to the Catechism and Confession as a token of agreement with the same. In 1608, however, Classis Alkmaar judged that this was not adequate and. drew up a declaration of full agreement with the Catechism and Confession and a promise that the subscriber would maintain the doctrines therein contained and that he openly would reject all doctrines opposed to them. Other Classes and even Particular Synods soon began to follow this same practice and in 1618-19 the well-known Synod of Dordt wrote the Form as if has come down to us almost unchanged. This Synod, as might be expected, required agreement also with the Canons, the doctrinal pronouncements composed against the Five Articles of the Arminians.
Article 53 of our present Church Order specifies that ministers of the Word of God and professors of theology are required to sign this Formula. Parenthetically it adds that “it also behooves the other professors and school teachers to do so.” Article 54 declares that, “Likewise the elders and deacons shall subscribe to the aforesaid formulas of unity.” In the Christian Reformed proposed revision of the Church Order this is all, combined in one article. It appears as Article 52 and reads as follows:
“In order that agreement with the weeds of the Church may be signified, the forms of Subscription shall be signed by the parties and on the occasions here stipulated: the elders and deacons at the first meeting of the consistory after their installation; all delegates to classis upon the occasion of their first delegation to a given classis; the ministers upon meeting with their consistories for the first time; the professors of theology and all other teachers in educational institutions controlled by the Church, upon assuming their office. All who refuse to do so shall by that very fact be suspended from their office.”
We note that this revision speaks of “forms” in the plural instead of a singular formula of subscription. This means that there are separate forms for ministers, professors, elders, deacons and instructors in educational institutions to sign. They do not all sign the same one. In our churches we do not have this plurality of forms but this may be a very good thing. For example, our formula of subscription begins with the words, “We, the undersigned Professors of the Protestant Reformed Churches, ministers of the Gospel, elders and deacons . . . .” This, of course, excludes school teachers and if we desire to maintain the parenthetical provision of Article 53 of our Church Order, we should either insert “school teachers” in the present form or adopt a new form for their use. But this is not too serious yet because our educational institutions are not church-controlled and, therefore, the matter of requiring a declaration of agreement from our teachers belongs with the school boards rather than with consistories, classes or synod.
It should be noted, too, that our present form states, “We promise therefore diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same, by our public preaching or writing.” Since elders and deacons are required to sign this formula, the last part of this quotation would seem to naturally imply that they also can, may or do preach. Since this is not the case, it would be well to have a separate form, based on the existing form but with slight alterations, for elders and deacons alone.
Then, too, it would be well to have a formula of agreement to be signed by the students of theology at such time as they are given license tom exhort in the churches. As it is now they are requested to sign the present form only after they have become candidates and accepted a call in the churches and have passed their final examination admitting them into the ministry: Even this is a bit irregular. The candidate, who is not yet ordained in office, is required to sign a Formula that presupposes throughout that those who sign it are office bearers. Now this may perhaps be done on the assumption that the candidate will very shortly be ordained in office but, if as a student and candidate, he were requested to sign a separate declaration of agreement with the Confessions, his signing the existing Formula of Subscription could wait until he is installed in office. This would eliminate the above mentioned irregularity.
The Reformed Churches of Holland have three different forms of subscription. The first of these forms is for Ministers of the Gospel; the second for Professors of Theology; the third for Rectors and Schoolmasters. The Holland churches do not have a general form for Elders and Deacons, although Article 54 of the present Dutch Church Order requires that these office bearers subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity just as our Church Order does. This matter is left to the Classes in Holland. The Classes can use the Forms adopted for Ministers of the Gospel with some minor adaptations, or they may draw up a special form of subscription as has also been done by some Classes in the past.
We feel that in our churches there is room for some limited revisions and minor alterations in our established custom and, yet, we must be careful in introducing any changes because there are also grave dangers in, meddling with forms of such long standing. We must be mindful of the Dutch saying, “Alle verandering is geene verbetering.” Translated? “All change is not improvement.” We will demonstrate this, D.V., the next time.