Previous article in this series: January 15, 2010, p. 172.
In the new dispensation, the truth that God has entrusted to the church is constantly under attack. God has graciously given the Reformed church confessions for a solid wall of defense against Satan’s attempts to introduce heresy into the church. The Reformed church has learned from history how evil men, though claiming to be Reformed, have yet tried to bring in damnable heresies. The Formula of Subscription (FOS) was adopted as a means to preserve the truth of the confessions. Any church that intends to be Reformed must maintain the FOS.
What does the Formula of Subscription require?
The form begins:
We…do hereby sincerely and in good conscience before the Lord declare by this, our subscription, that we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed churches, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19, do fully agree with the Word of God.
The FOS requires adherence to specific confessions, namely, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordrecht. (Included by implication are the three ancient confessions, the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Chalcedonian, for these form the foundation of the Reformed confessions. Indeed the Reformed confessions affirm their teaching.) The FOS’s approval of the confessions is broad and emphatic—all articles and points of doctrine…do fully agree with the Word of God.
Take note that subscription expresses agreement with all articles and points of doctrine. Why does the form put it that way? The FOS does not require approval of every word and every detail in the confessions. What sorts of disagreements with the confessions might be allowed? Several kinds, beginning with points of information. For example, the Belgic Confession maintains that Paul is the human writer of Hebrews (Art. 4). That is not a point of doctrine, and there may be differences on that. Second, differences are allowed on the exegesis of a particular passage of Scripture. The Belgic Confession (Art. 37) seems to maintain that the final judgment will consist in this: God revealing the sins of each person to that person alone. That may be correct and it may not be. Another debatable teaching of the Belgic Confession is that Judas Iscariot partook of the Lord’s Supper (Art. 35). Personally, I do not believe that he did.
Such differences with the confessions may be tolerated in a Reformed church. However, those who sign the FOS may not dismiss whole articles, nor may they disagree with any doctrine. That is the crucial point. Officebearers promise that they heartily believe and are persuaded of these articles and points of doctrine.
Teach and Defend…
That is not all. They also promise to teach and defend all these articles and doctrines. The FOS continues: “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.”
Teaching them is obvious. The confessions summarize the Reformed faith and every officebearer should want the believers to know the Reformed truths. But the officebearer promises also to defend the Reformed faith against attack. He is on guard against attacks within and without, and can demonstrate that the confessions are faithful to the Bible.
Rejecting all Heresy…
We declare, moreover, that we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine, and particularly those that were condemned by the above mentioned synod, but that we are disposed to refute and contradict these, and to exert ourselves in keeping the church free from such errors.
The form’s language is explicit. Every man who signs it declares that he rejects all heresies that militate against this doctrine, especially Arminianism. Then he promises something more, namely, that he is personally disposed to refute and contradict these errors. All officebearers are obligated to refute heresy. They do not have the option quietly to sit in agreement with the Reformed faith, or even to nod in agreement with another man’s solid defense of the Reformed faith. They must refute and contradict all heresies. If your minister does not contradict heresy in his preaching, he is unfaithful to his vow. And so are the elders unfaithful to theirs.
The Protestant Reformed Churches are serious about this requirement. Synodical examinations of seminary students stretch out nearly three days. At the end of the examination, the delegates and visitors have no doubt that the candidates for the ministry know the Reformed faith. They have also heard repeated affirmations that the men believe these truths. And these men have demonstrated that they are able to defend the Reformed truths against past and current attacks.
Besides that, every classical exam has an examination entitled “Controversy.” Often the pastor-elect is grilled on a particular historical controversy involving a doctrinal error, say on 1924 (common grace) or 1953 (the conditional covenant). At my classical exam, I was asked whether I was personally disposed to engage in polemics. The examiner was really rephrasing the promise of the FOS, “we are disposed to refute and contradict….” Later, I signed the form that promised the same.
The Protestant Reformed Churches demonstrate their seriousness about ministers being thus disposed. How much this is stressed with elders and deacons probably varies from congregation to congregation. Nonetheless, it is a requirement laid upon all who sign the form, and appropriate attention ought to be called to this aspect.
A Promise to be Honest…
“And if hereafter any difficulties or different sentiments respecting the aforesaid doctrines should arise in our minds, we promise….” The last part of the form is a rather lengthy discussion of what is required of officebearers who might later begin to entertain doubts about a doctrine of the confessions. They promise not to contradict the confessions or to teach their new views publicly or privately. In the context of the Arminian controversy, this section is especially pointed. For years Prof. Jacob Arminius privately taught students, in his home, doctrines that were contrary to the Reformed confessions. The FOS forbids that explicitly. Not only that, but if a church body has a question about a particular officebearer’s position on a confessional matter, they may inquire into it, and the officebearer commits himself to full cooperation.
Such openness serves the good of the church. The FOS presents the orderly and honest way to deal with the matter. Can a man yet lie? Can he differ with the confessions and secretly teach error, even though he has signed the FOS? Of course, unscrupulous men can, they have, and they will again. But the form makes it so explicit that there is no doubt to what doctrine and behavior a subscriber is bound.
And the form has teeth. Those who do teach contrary to the confessions, who break their word to be faithful, who refuse even to submit to the judgment of the ecclesiastical bodies, give the churches solid grounds to remove them from office. (“…under the penalty in case of refusal to be, by that very fact, suspended from our office.”)
What could be wrong with that? An honest, Reformed man wonders why anyone would object to such a form. But in fact objections are raised against strict subscription to such a form.
One objection to the FOS is that it lifts the confessions to a position higher than they ought to have. It is argued that the FOS raises confessions above criticism and makes them to be infallible. We all know, say the objectors, that they were written by fallible men, and necessarily they can have mistakes. They were written by men who themselves had an imperfect understanding of the truth. Besides, one cannot honestly say that the Heidelberg Catechism does “fully agree with” the Word of God because the Heidelberg Catechism does not speak of many things contained in the Bible, such as missions, and good stewardship of time and money. Therefore, they conclude, one cannot affirm that these confessions “do fully agree” with the Word of God.
It is not hard to see that this argument is faulty. In the first place, the FOS is not saying that the confessions exhaustthe truth of Scripture. Certainly it is correct that not all the truths set forth in the Bible are found in the confessions. Secondly, the FOS does not even imply that creeds are infallible. They are open to correction, as the form states. The authority of the confessions is not that of the Bible. Rather the confessions derive their authority from the Bible. That is to say, they are authoritative only as far as they agree with Scripture.