It is well, before we discuss in detail the contents of our Canons, to devote a few words to the subject of the position of the Canons as a creed, and especially as the third of our Three Forms of Unity.
The subject of creeds in general is an important one, and a right understanding thereof is essential to the understanding and appreciation of any given creed, of course. And it may be added, without much fear of contradiction, that the age in which we live is not marked by an appreciation of and loyalty to the creeds of the church. This is due undoubtedly to the fact that our age his little or no understanding and love of distinct and clearly defined doctrine. Sad to say, even those churches which call themselves Reformed are by no means innocent on this count. However this may be, it is well that we be able to give account of just what a creed is, and of exactly what we have when we have as one of our creeds, our official standards, that Canons of Dordrecht. Do we, in this creed, in any creed, acknowledge a second authority, beside the authority of holy Scripture? Do we become guilty, when we adopt and maintain a creed, of causing schism and sinful division in the church of Christ? Or, on the other hand, is a creed something which may be acknowledged or ignored at will, as though it is of no real authority in the church? Is a creed, perhaps, something for the clergy alone, rather than for the laity? Are the official standards of the church so many dead letters, divorced, as far as the reality of life is concerned, from the faith, the assurance, and the conversation of the church and the individual believer? Are creeds the. cause of what is often referred to as dead orthodoxy in the church? And must we, in the light of all this, abandon our creeds, or at least broaden them, and forsake the narrow doctrinal trails along which they lead us? What is really our calling with respect to these matters?
It is evident, therefore, that much might be written on this subject. We shall confine ourselves, however, to drawing a few fundamental lines in this regard, and briefly pointing out the value of creeds. And for the rest, we refer the reader to more extensive discussions of this subject.1
As a comprehensive definition of standards, or creeds, the following will suffice: A standard, or creed, is an official ecclesiastical statement of what a church believes to be the truth of Holy Scriptures, or the true doctrine concerning salvation. The terms standard, creed, and confession are synonyms, each depicting the same thing from a slightly different aspect. The name standard looks at a creed from the viewpoint of the fact that it serves as a banner, or ensign, identifying and distinguishing the church which formulated and adopted a given creed for both friend and foe. The term creed is derived from the Latin credere, “to believe”. It therefore views a church’s official statement of the truth as at the same time an object of faith, as a statement of the truth of holy Scripture not merely in a cold, dogmatic, purely intellectual sense, but as an statement of that truth as it lives in the hearts of the people of God. And when we employ the term confession, we do not refer to something new, but to that same declaration of the truth and object of the faith of the church as it is openly professed in word and walk by the church and by the individual believer. From this it will be evident at once that the formation and maintenance of creeds is, also from a practical viewpoint, an important matter. It will also be clear that creeds, rightly understood and maintained, do not lead to dead orthodoxy, nor engender an evil brand of intellectualism or “brain theology”. The very contrary is true. If only we remember for ourselves, and thus cause the opponents of our creeds and the opponents of all creeds to realize, that our standards are not something to be relegated to the dust-covered archives of the church or to the appendix of our books of praise, perhaps, but that they are indeed our creeds, that which we believe with the heart, and our confessions, that which we profess with the mouth,—and let me add that the living church and the earnest believer certainly does remember this,—then there is no danger whatsoever of dead orthodoxy and doctrinal indifference, with their consequent rationalism and apostasy. And let the church, therefore, be warned to take its confessions seriously and with deadly earnestness, as though it were a matter of life or death, to maintain and defend its creeds, appreciate them, and thereunto strive to understand and to know them! Especially with regard to the Canons may Reformed people take this warning to heart. For I fear greatly that though there is none of our standards which is so peculiarly Reformed, so specifically our own, yet there is none of our creeds which is so little appreciated, so weakly maintained, so very little studied, so steadfastly ignored, and so flagrantly contradicted and trampled underfoot by those who still presume to call themselves Reformed.
The use and benefit of having creeds lies chiefly in the fact that they serve as a means whereby the church, by the grace of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, may keep itself strong and pure and well equipped to fight the good fight of faith unto which it is called. Because our creeds serve to define and delineate what we believe to be the truth of the Word of God, they serve as a basis of unity and a bond of union for a given group of churches. There can be no real unity, except upon the basis of the truth. Any union on any other basis is false, and will never survive. But our confessions, instead of causing strife and schism, engender a genuine unity. By our confessions we say, as it were: “This is the truth. This we believe. And with any who believe as we do, and who will rally to the maintenance and defense of this truth, we are agreed, we are one; with such we will actually unite and have communion and fellowship. And together, in obedience to our calling to shine as lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, we will then declare this truth abroad to all the world, and in distinction from the world and from others who claim to have the truth.” Moreover, our creeds serve the purpose of preserving the transmitting the truth from generation to generation. That truth, as, under the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit, it has been elicited from Scriptures, formulated, and systematized, and that too, over against every form of the lie, which also appeals to Scripture, though falsely,—that truth need not be and may not be discovered anew by each generation. It need not be, because God establishes and calls His church in the line of continued generations, so that each generation grows up and becomes heir to the heritage of the preceding one. And it may not be, because to do so would not only be a waste of effort but also a flagrant denial of the operation of the Holy Spirit in the church of the past. And for the transmission of this heritage of the truth our confessions serve as a means. Two further benefits of creeds may be mentioned in connection with the immediately preceding. In the first place, our creeds serve as a strong bulwark against the repeated assault of the enemy, both from within and from without, as he comes with the lie as his weapon to destroy the church. With its creeds the church, profiting from the experience of the church in the past (for the lie is not new, though it often comes in a new garb, and many of our creeds have become necessary and have been occasioned exactly by the appearance of the lie), is well-equipped to cope with these onslaughts of those who would lead the church to exchange the truth as it is in Jesus for the lie of the devil. Our Canons, as a defense against the Arminian error, are a clear example of this. And in the second place, the various creeds serve as a ready vehicle for the instruction of the church, and especially of the youth of the church. Certainly, if the church is to preserve its heritage, its children and young people must be taught to know and to understand the truth. And what sounder means can be found to instruct the covenant youth in the truth of the Word of God thoroughly and systematically, and to equip them to cope with the multitudinous winds of doctrine of our day, than our confessions. Let us therefore appreciate the heritage preserved for us in our confessions, and give good heed to the voice of our fathers. For in that voice of our fathers is easily detected the voice of the Lord our God Himself, as by the Spirit of Christ and through the Holy Scriptures, He speaks to us.
From all this it will be evident that in our creeds we do not at all acknowledge an authority next to that of Holy Scripture, but that in them we exactly acknowledge the authority of the only rule of faith and practice, the infallible Word of God. For this reason we do not acknowledge any standard which cannot meet the test of Scripture. For this same reason we stand ready at all times to subject our confessions unconditionally to the final authority of Scripture. And for this reason, in the defense of our standards, we go armed with the Word of God.
Well, therefore, with respect to our creeds may we apply the words of the psalmist: “Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generation following. For this God is our God for ever and ever: he will be our guide even unto death.”
1 Cf., e.g., H. Hoeksema, “The Triple Knowledge,: 1, 9, ff.; and Schaff, “Creeds of Christendom”.