THE FORMULA OF SUBSCRIPTION UNDER ATTACK
The one chief barrier to doctrinal apostasy in the churches is the presence of the confessions. Especially the churches which trace their spiritual parentage back to the fathers of the Reformation find protection from heresy in the confessions which were formulated in the post-Reformation period. Ministers, theological professors, and officebearers intent on introducing into the church heresy always have the problem of the confessions with which to contend, for the truth is clearly defined in them.
This is the more true since all officebearers (especially in the Reformed Churches, but true in others as well) must promise that they will uphold and defend these confessions which their churches have adopted. Some are only asked to make this promise verbally before they are admitted into the ministry of the Word; in the Reformed Churches ministers (and all officebearers) are asked to sign the “Formula of Subscription.” In this Formula officebearers “sincerely and in good conscience before the Lord declare” that the confessions “do fully agree with the Word of God.” They further “promise . . . diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same” in public preaching or writing. And they promise that, should they have any objections to the confessions, “they 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, that the same may be there examined, being ready always cheerfully to submit to the judgment of the consistory, classis and synod, under the penalty in case of refusal to be, by that very fact, suspended from office.”
This strong, language, binding the minister tightly to faithful adherence to the creeds, is a necessary safeguard against heresy.
It has however, become common today to ignore this strong language and deliberately to flout it. Many sign the “Formula of Subscription” with a smirk on their faces and with all kinds of reservations in their hearts—which they do not openly express. This is horribly dishonest before God and before the church. But it is, nevertheless often done.
Obviously, a situation of this nature cannot go on. So, if one is really intent on getting heresy in the church one chooses sooner or later to get rid of the creeds. And to get rid of the creeds, the first step is clearly to get rid of the “Formula of Subscription.”
Such attempts are being made.
One such attempt is to be found in a recent article in the Reformed Journal written by Fred Baker, a layman in the Christian Reformed Church. At the risk of doing injustice to his rather lengthy and well-written article, we shall refer only to parts of it. He begins by discussing the need for the church to engage in “self-criticism.” This, he says, is what Luther did in 1517 when he nailed the theses on the chapel door in Wittenburg. He wants to hear these same hammer blows which sounded in that city within the walls of the Church.
The secret of the Reformation was, and is, self-criticism, not other criticism. This is the moral of my whole story.
From this he goes on to argue that self-criticism is possible and necessary because we are still imperfect people in an imperfect church. This, of course, no one will deny. But then he goes on to apply this particularly to the confessions. He insists that he is not picking an argument with the creeds:
I must pause to pay homage to our creeds and traditions. I am not attacking them as I seek to put them into perspective. I like them. I enjoy them. I have benefited from them. I would even fight for them. Just as I am with my own five children, I find myself almost always on their side. But I know they cannot possibly be perfect, even though I would like to think so.
But the reservations which he has about the creeds become an argument against the use of the “Formula of Subscription.” Particularly he objects to the statement in the Formula which elicits from all who sign it a declaration That they “sincerely and in good conscience before the Lord . . . heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine” in the confessions “do fully agree with the Word of God.” And I presume, from reading his article, that he would want to underscore the word “fully.”
In objecting to this, the author raises two questions: “Does the Church have the right to require agreement with this declaration?” and, “Has it been good for the Church to do so?”
His answer to both questions is “No.”
The reason for saying “no” to the first question is primarily because it seems to him that this places the creeds on a par with the. Scriptures, raises them above criticism and makes them infallible. But, he insists, this is not true. The creeds have errors in them. And they have errors in them because they were written by imperfect men with imperfect understanding of the truth.
When we emphasize that even the best works of man are not perfect, we cannot say even that it is “improbable” that the creeds do “fully agree,” with the Word of God. We are forced to say (are we not?) that it is impossible that they do. Is it really wrong for me to repeat it? Nothing less than the Word of God itself could possibly “fully agree” with the Word of God.
He then proceeds to show that the creeds are indeed mistaken on some points and that, consequently, the “Formula of Subscription” does not have the right to make us declare that the creeds fully agree with the Word of God. The examples he chooses are interesting. The Heidelberg Catechism obviously does not agree with the Word of God fully because it does not speak of missions nor does it emphasize the importance of the stewardship of time and money. The Belgic Confession falls under the same charge because it speaks of the fact that the books of Chronicles are “commonly called Paralipomenon”—which, he insists, they are not called very commonly, although they are called this sometimes. He finds the Canons of Dordt so “wordy and obscure” in some parts that he cannot understand how many men “could in good conscience declare that they even understood them, much less declare before God that these lines fully agree with His Word.”
And so the result of all this is that he chooses to urge the church to dispense with the “Formula of Subscription” altogether. It is better, he insists, that the church ask her officebearers whether they will accept the Scriptures as the infallible rule of faith and practice; and that officebearers be asked to promise only that they accept the creeds of the church for what they are, the best we have been able to devise to make sure the Word of God is faithfully applied. This removes effectively all the binding power of the creeds.
In answer to the second question: “Has it been good for the church to do so?”, i.e., insist on this binding declaration of faithfulness to the creeds, the author writes:
In effect, this seems to screen out from office the very men the Church needs, men who are restless to test their beliefs against the Word of God. To the potential Martin Luthers it seems to say, We do not want you unless you are complacent with weakness as well as strength. We want you in the Church only, it seems to say, if you are so set in your ways that you believe, in good conscience before God, that further reform is virtually impossible.
Hence, the church would be far better off if the binding character of the creeds were dispensed with.
Several points ought to be made.
In the first place, the “Formula of Subscription” does not demand that an officebearer commit himself to the belief that the confessions exhaust the truth of Scripture. There is no one who ever claimed that all the truths of God’s Word were included in the confessions. Even the authors of the creeds did not insist on this. While together they do include all the major doctrines of God’s Word, there are some which are not included. This is obvious. To find then a lack of a particular truth such as that of stewardship is not to lodge a legitimate complaint against the creeds.
In the second place, no one ever claimed the creeds to be infallible. They are not. They have, never been maintained to be. This is not their intended purpose. Their authority is not that of Scripture. It is a derived authority which places them below Scripture and makes them authoritative only inasmuch as they agree with Scripture.
In the third place, the creeds themselves do not block theological investigation nor hamper continued study of the truth. Indeed, they do quite the opposite. They are invaluable instruments to incite the church to further investigation of the truth. Only, they mark clearly the channels in which this investigation must proceed. And they do this because they define truths already uncovered by the church upon which any further development must be based. And if any one finds himself in disagreement with the creeds, the “Formula of Subscription” itself provides the way to express that disagreement. The Formula itself makes perfectly clear that the church admits that there is possibility of error in these man-made confessions.
In the fourth place, the purpose of the creeds is to put into writing what the church confesses to be the truth of the Word of God. This purpose cannot be obscured by pointing out that the Heidelberg Catechism does not include some statement about stewardship; that the Belgic Confession calls the books of Chronicles, “Paralipomenon;” that the Canons are wordy and obscure in some places. The Spirit of Truth which Christ, promised to the church has worked mightily in the church. The fruit of this work is the confessions. In them the church possesses a remarkable heritage of the truth entrusted to her care by the church of yesteryear. She loses this truth at her peril. She must retain it to retain her name as the church of Jesus Christ.
And finally, the binding character of the confessions must be maintained at all costs. This binding character of the confessions is guaranteed in the “Formula of Subscription.” There are those in the Reformed churches in general and in the Christian Reformed Church in particular who want freedom within the church to dispute the truth of the confessions. This is not so strange, for already there are many indications of the fact that the confessions are openly denied and the truths in them publicly repudiated and the errors condemned by them boldly taught. And no one lifts a voice to remind these men of their solemn promise which they made before God.
The result is that heresy rushes in as a mighty stream that soon overwhelms the church.
We do well, in this day of apostasy and confessional decline to be reminded of the importance of our creeds. And we do well to remember that the “Formula of Subscription” was drawn up just so that the heresies which run rampant in today’s church might be kept. Where the creeds are despised and the Formula ignored, there the life of the church is short.
LETTER FROM MOSCOW
A letter came into my possession which was addressed by The Union of Evangelical Christians Baptist, Post Office Box 520, Moscow, USSR. Although it was addressed to our churches in general, it was written with Christmas in mind and requires no specific action on the part of our Synod. I quote here the letter in full.
To all the Christians of the world.
Dear Brothers, Sisters, and Friends who share our faith in Jesus Christ.
The Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists sends you its warmest greetings for Christmas, the Christians’ dearest and most joyful feast, and for the coming New Year of 1966.
The birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem means the advent of God on earth, into our human family. But Christ came on earth not only as a bright visitor, but also as a Ruler and His will must therefore be done by all His followers, by all the Christians of the world.
The first commandment of our Lord Jesus Christ was that of love. But the love to which Christ summons us must be active. Christ Himself gave us an example of active love by healing the sick when He saw them, by giving bread to the hungry who surrounded Him, by saving the life of those who were in danger of death. Even now we hear His voice saying: “I have given you this example that you may do the same as I did unto you,”
Dear Brothers and Sisters, we are all glad that Christians do many things for love, to fulfill the will of our Saviour. We rejoice at the Christians’ care for the sick, at their efforts to ease the sufferings of sick people. We rejoice at the Christians’ care for the hungry, manifested in the great campaign of Christian churches under the slogan: “Bread for the world”. But there is today a place on the globe to which Christians do not yet devote sufficient attention. A place where men perish daily in the flames of war which threaten to spread over all mankind. This place is Vietnam.
At the time when all the Christians of the world will glorify the Saviour who came to it and contemplate in spirit the images of bright angels flying over the fields of Bethlehem, the black angel of death will hover over Vietnam, killing children, youths and maidens, old men and women. What discord! What disharmony!
Dear Brothers and Sisters, when we rejoice at Christmas over the birth of our Saviour and Teacher Christ, let us also weep with those who weep in Vietnam, let us devoutly pray for peace for the people of Vietnam, for the end of war in Vietnam.
We wish you all a merry Christmas and we pray that the New Year of 1966 may be a year without any wars in the world.
With kindest regards and brotherly love on behalf of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists:
Yakov Zhidkov, President
Alexander Karev, General Secretary