Every year in Protestant Reformed Churches across North America (usually this time of year), when elders and deacons are installed, a particularly solemn event occurs. A document is read and signed by any man who has not served as an officebearer in that congregation. Most often this is done in a public worship service (and churches are encouraged to do it publicly—the event deserves this emphasis). The officebearers are signing a document by which they affirm that they fully agree with all the doctrines and articles of the Reformed confessions, and that they promise to teach and defend them faithfully. They sign the Form (Formula) of Subscription. Other Reformed churches around the world follow this same practice. Why?
Churches that insist that their officebearers sign this form understand that two things in particular characterize a Reformed church. The first is the adoption of and adherence to Reformed confessions. A Reformed church is a confessional church. The second essential element of a Reformed church is good order, starting with Reformed (i.e., biblical) church government.
Both are the legacy of John Calvin. When Calvin came to Geneva, he wrote two documents that he knew were essential for reform in that heavily Roman Catholic city, only recently having opted for the Reformation. The first document was a confession of faith. Anyone who desired to be a member of the Reformed church in Geneva would eventually be required to express agreement with it. The other was his Ecclesiastical Ordinances, which was a church order.
This same pattern was followed in the Netherlands. There the Reformation grew and developed in the most adverse circumstances. The bloodiest persecution in all of Europe oppressed the Reformed saints in the Lowlands. This created untold suffering and hardship, as hundreds of thousands lost property, were imprisoned, tortured, and martyred. The church assemblies sometimes had to cross the border into Germany in order to meet in relative safety. This history records two noteworthy facts that bear on the character of the Reformed church. The first is that, in the context of such bitter persecution, these Reformed churches produced the Belgic Confession and a Reformed church order. Second, in those early ecclesiastical gatherings, the assemblies often required their officebearers to sign the confession(s), and often, to sign the church order.
Do you see the significance? What the churches did was purposeful, for on the one hand they knew that the church must have good order. This good order is required, according to the apostle Paul, because “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” (I Cor. 14:33). In addition, good order serves a second, more important goal, namely, that the church must be faithful to the truth of Jesus Christ.
Those two elements in a Reformed church come together in the Form (or Formula) of Subscription. This is a form that officebearers in Reformed churches are required to sign (hence, “subscription”). The heart of the form is this promise: We believe what the confessions teach and we will uphold them.
The Form of Subscription (FOS) has a long history in Reformed churches that trace their origin to the Netherlands.
This history has not always been positive. The FOS has been attacked, revised, and eliminated at various times in different Reformed churches, as we will see. Currently the Christian Reformed Church is studying the matter of revision of the FOS. In 2008, a study committee presented to synod a radical revision of the FOS that would have emptied the document of any power or worth. That synod, after declining to adopt the proposal, expanded the study committee and instructed it to come with a revised proposal to the synod of 2011.
A church relaxes the strict requirements of the FOS when the truth is no longer loved and revered in her midst. Such a church is already apostatizing. History demonstrates that weakening of the FOS ultimately results in a vitiation of Reformed truth. In short, such a church ceases to be Reformed.
To be or not to be Reformed—that is the issue. The importance of the FOS cannot be overstated. Every Reformed church must insist on a strict subscription to the confessions, or she will lose all that she has.
In order to understand the importance of upholding the FOS, we intend to explore three aspects of the issue. First, we must understand the important place of confessions in a Reformed church. Second, the history and requirements of the FOS must be clearly set forth. And then, we must face such practical considerations as the following: Who must sign the FOS? What exactly does a man promise when he signs it? And why is it necessary to have and maintain the Form of Subscription?
What are confessions? A confession is a statement by a church (or group of churches) containing a declaration of what a church believes to be the truth of the word of God. The very word ‘confession’ is instructive. It means to speak with, or to say the same thing as. Thus, by means of a confession, church members speak together; they confess the same truth. More importantly, they speak the same thing that God speaks in His word.
Properly understood, it follows that a church that adopts a confession speaks the same thing as 1) the church of all ages and 2) the church of Christ all over the world. A confession ought not be merely an expression of unity among a few believers in a given moment of time and in a certain place.
Confessions are also rightly called creeds. The term creed comes from the Latin word for I believe. This emphasizes the subjective element of confessions, namely, the act of believing. It reminds us that the truth of the Bible is not merely interesting information; it is rather a matter of faith and personal conviction. And faith is, according to the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 7), the spiritual bond that unites us to Christ, so that we know and are sure of our salvation.
Not everyone wants confessions. Some may insist that the Bible is enough. However, the church has learned that it is not enough simply to say: “We believe the Bible.” Conflicts over doctrine have demonstrated this.
The first major doctrinal conflict that troubled the church (after the death of the apostles) was the Arian controversy over the question: “Is Jesus very God?” The Arians insisted that the Bible taught that Jesus was like God. Jesus was, they insisted, the greatest of all creatures. But He was the Son, and not the same essence as the Father.
The church tried answering the Arians with various Bible verses to show that Jesus is very God. At first they used only the words, the terminology of the Bible, such as “Jesus is the Son of God.” The Arians said, “We agree with that.” Finally, the church had to draw up a creed stating that Jesus is very God, of one essence with the Father. The point is, the church could not separate the true church from the heretical simply by saying: “We believe the Bible.”
Today the same is true with many conflicts, as for example, “Whom does God love?” The Arminians say “All men” and point to John 3:16: “For God so loved the world….” The Re formed insist that God loves only the elect, citing Romans 9:13: “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” Simply quoting Bible verses will not settle the question.
This essential need for confessions is due to the very nature of the Bible. The Bible is not an encyclopedia of theology, so that one can look up various doctrines, such as the atonement, or creation, and find definitions of these truths. Rather, the Bible is a book of history and prophecy. It contains laws, epistles (letters), and even poetry and songs.
The truth of God is all there in the Bible. The Bible is God’s word, and God’s word is truth. But the specific teachings on a doctrine, like creation, are found throughout the whole of Scripture (Genesis 1-3; Exodus and Deuteronomy [the ten commandments]; Job; Psalms; Romans; Revelation—to mention a few places). This is one reason why Jesus, before He died, promised to send His Spirit, called the Spirit of Truth. Jesus promised that His Spirit would guide the church into the truth (John 16:13, 14). (See also John 14:17, 26; John 15:26.)
Thus it happens that, in a time of conflict over what the Bible teaches, the church studies the Bible, rejects the lie, and sets forth the truth more clearly. The result is a confession.
Confessions are not only necessary for the defense of the truth, they are also extremely helpful for the believers. If you want to know what the Bible teaches about God’s work of creation or about election or the resurrection, go to the confessions—they summarize what the Bible teaches.
The value of the confessions
Much could be written about the great value of confessions. We list but five points.
First, by means of a creed the church—united—expresses her faith. She thus manifests the reality that the church is one body, with one Lord, and one faith.
Second, the confessions are excellent teaching tools for instructing the next generation in the Reformed faith.
Third, the confessions tie the church of today with the church of the past—the church of God is truly one.
Fourth, confessions lay the foundation for subsequent development of doctrine.
Finally, as Presbyterian theologian Samuel Miller puts it: “The adoption and publication of a creed is a tribute to truth and candor, which every Christian church owes to other churches, and to the world around her” (Doctrinal Integrity, p. 14). Simply put: Confessions tell those without what this church believes!
The confessions, therefore, have great value for the church, provided the church maintains these confessions in faith and practice. That is the purpose of the FOS.
Next time, the Lord willing, we turn to the content of the FOS and the instructive history behind it.