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Previous article in this series: January 1, 2010, p. 148.

The Formula (or Form) of Subscription (FOS) is a form that Reformed churches require all their officebearers to sign. These churches do so because they love the Reformed faith, and thus determine to adhere to the adopted confessions—to Reformed confessions. The heart of the form is this promise: We not only believe what the confessions teach, we will uphold and defend them.

The FOS was formulated by churches in the Netherlands—churches in the thick of the battle for the truth of the Reformation. The history of the form indicates the importance and even the need for it in any church that will be Reformed—both then and now. It demonstrates that signing the confessions truly is a long-standing Reformed practice. In addition, history reveals why the church drew up a form, and required officebearers to sign it.

The Reformation came to the Netherlands from Germany very soon after Luther’s posting of the ninety-five theses in 1517. In fact, the Reformation’s first martyrs in Europe were from the Netherlands (in 1525). When Calvinism was introduced to France and the Netherlands, it was adopted very quickly, and most of the churches of the Reformation in these two countries became Reformed rather than Lutheran, in doctrine and in practice.

If one wonders how long these Reformed churches have been requiring their officebearers to sign the confession, the answer is that these faithful Reformed churches practiced subscription all through their history. The French Reformed Churches required ministers to sign their French Reformed Confession already in 1559. These churches were directly influenced by their fellow Frenchman in Geneva, John Calvin. The Walloon churches (French Reformed churches in the Netherlands) followed suit. They held a synod in April of 1563, and required the delegates to sign the French Confession of Faith (a creed very similar to the Belgic Confession.)

The Synod of Wezel meeting in 1568 did not yet require subscription, but “resolved that every one who had been lawfully called to the ministry should be asked at his examination whether he agreed in everything with the doctrine that was publicly taught in the churches and is contained in the Netherlands’ Confession of Faith and in the Heidelberg Catechism.”

The earliest broader gathering Churches required ministers to sign their French Reformed Confession already in 1559. These churches were directly influenced by their fellow Frenchman in Geneva, John Calvin. The Walloon churches (French Reformed churches in the Netherlands) followed suit. They held a synod in April of 1563, and required the delegates to sign the French Confession of Faith (a creed very similar to the Belgic Confession.)

The Synod of Wezel meeting in 1568 did not yet require subscription, but “resolved that every one who had been lawfully called to the ministry should be asked at his examination whether he agreed in everything with the doctrine that was publicly taught in the churches and is contained in the Netherlands’ Confession of Faith and in the Heidelberg Catechism.”

The earliest broader gathering of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, due to persecution by the Roman Catholics, actually met just outside the Netherlands in the city of Emden in October 4, 1571. They decided the following:

In order to demonstrate the unity in doctrine among the Netherlands churches, the brethren thought it well to subscribe to the confession of faith of the Netherlands churches; likewise to subscribe to the confessions of the churches in France, in order thereby to attest their agreement and unity with these French churches….

Notice this! Their concern was unity in doctrine. And the concrete demonstration of this unity was that the delegates signed the confessions of both the French and the Netherlands churches. The gathering did something else, namely, they exhorted all ministers not present to concur in the subscription of both these confessions. Clearly they saw the importance of the churches standing together in persecution, and they were convinced that standing together demanded agreement in doctrine.

In 1574, a provincial synod meeting in Dordrecht decided that all ministers must sign the Confession and, notice, the Articles of the fledgling church order.

Another provincial synod meeting in Dordrecht four years later decided that all ministers and professors of theology must sign the Confession. To this was added, “it would be good that the same be done by elders.”

The General Synod of Mid Middelberg, meeting in 1581, passed the following motion: “Ministers of the Word, Elders and Deacons, also Professors of Theology (which is also fitting for other Professors) and Schoolmasters shall subscribe to the Confession of Faith of the Netherlands Churches.”

Clearly the churches were concerned that all the churches maintain the doctrines of the Reformed faith in unity. Gradually this led to the adoption of forms designed for this purpose.

The Form of Subscription Developed

Classis Walcheren, meeting in 1574, drafted what is, apparently, the earliest FOS. It contains the essence of the FOS later adopted by the great Synod of Dordt some forty-five years later. In 1574 the form adopted was this:

We the undersigned Ministers of the Word of God…do hereby believe and confess that the Confession of Faith of the Christian churches of the Netherlands, lying under Spanish rule, contained in the 37 articles [the Belgic Confession, RJD]…conforms in all parts to the Word of God. And we promise to orient our doctrine and worship to it, in our teaching, consolation, and admonition, and to oppose what conflicts with it, according to our abilities.

Classis of Alkmaar in 1608 adopted a form, more detailed in its requirements. The classis required the ministers of the classis to sign the following:

We the undersigned preachers, under the jurisdiction of the Classis of Alkmaar, declare and witness that the teaching which is in that catechism adopted unanimously by the Reformed [the Heidelberg Catechism, RJD] and which is comprehended in the 37 articles of the Dutch Reformed Churches [the Belgic Confession, RJD] agrees in everything with the Holy Word of God, and consequently with the foundation of the teaching of salvation. We promise to maintain this same teaching, through God’s grace; and openly to reject all teachings which are brought against and oppose it; and with all diligence and faithfulness according to our ability to stand against them, as we affirm the same with our signatures.

The Great Synod of Dordt, 1618-’19

That, in brief, is the history of subscription leading up to the Synod of Dordt, which synod adopted the FOS that would be used by Reformed churches for centuries, and is still used by the Protestant Reformed Churches today. The history behind this synod gives indication of why the delegates crafted a lengthier and more explicit form than those adopted to that point.

The Synod of Dordt was called to deal with the Remonstrants—the followers of Arminius. For a few decades a controversy raged in the Netherlands over the doctrines of grace. The Remonstrants taught an election conditioned on faith and good works, a resistible grace of God, and a universal atonement. They also denied total depravity and the preservation of the saints.

These errors strike at the very heart of the Reformed faith. The controversy therefore touched the Reformed confessions, because the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession condemned the errors of the Remonstrants. Many a faithful consistory and classis had tried to prevent the spread of this evil cancer by requiring officebearers, particularly ministers, to subscribe to these creeds. Many with Remonstrant leanings had signed their agreement with the confessions. But subsequent events indicated that they had done so dishonestly.

Hence the Synod of Dordt passed the following telling motion:

It is decided that a standard form for subscription of the Confession, Catechism and synodical decisions¹ be drafted by means of which all ministers clearly certify their agreement with the accepted doctrine and by which the evasions of some who try to deceive the churches are prevented.

A committee of the synod then went to work drafting forms per this decision. Eventually the synod adopted a form for ministers of the word, another form for Professors of Theology, many of whom were not ministers, and a third form for schoolmasters.² The synod left it up to the individual classes to decide whether or not all the elders and deacons ought also to subscribe.

Over time, the subscription form for ministers was adjusted to include seminary professors as well as elders and deacons, and that form was used in the Reformed Church in America. It was also adopted by the Christian Reformed Churches shortly after they organized, and is still used by the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Why a Form of Subscription?

The history above recorded indicates the reasons why the Reformed churches wisely adopted the forms they did. The first reason, as the churches explicitly stated, was to express unity. It is no insignificant matter to manifest the unity of the church as confessed weekly (“I believe an holy, catholic church”). The Reformed churches understood well that the unity of the church is a unity in the truth. The reason for that is that the church’s true unity is Jesus Christ. The church is His body (I Cor. 12). Jesus made plain the connection between Himself and the truth with the bold proclamation, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Jesus, being the revelation of God, is the truth of God. He is the Word (John 1:1). Since the truth is the unity of the church, the God-ordained officebearers must be unified in the truth if the church is to be unified. Believers likewise must be unified in the truth. That unity will be manifest in their common confession.

The second function of the FOS is that it serves to keep the churches doctrinally pure. It does so positively by insisting that officebearers maintain the Reformed faith. And then, negatively, it purposes to guard the truth against error. Errors do not change essentially over the years. Satan, that great Deceiver, dresses the lie in slightly different garb from one age and location to another, but the lie remains the same. Thus the form, if honestly maintained, helps protect the church against heterodoxy as well today as when it was drawn up in the early sixteen hundreds.

To that end, in its very infancy, the Reformed churches in the Netherlands required that ministers sign the creeds. But since unscrupulous heretical ministers were willing to sign the creeds, Dordt saw the need for a form that would express exactly what is meant by such a signature.

We turn next time to the specific promises that officebearers make when they sign the Form of Subscription.