Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.
The ministers of the Word of God and likewise the professors of theology (which also behooves the other professors and school teachers) shall subscribe to the three formulas of unity, namely, the Belgic Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordrecht, 1618-’19, and the ministers of the Word who refuse to do so shall de facto be suspended from their office by the consistory or classis until they shall have given a full statement, and if they obstinately persist in refusing, they shall be deposed from their office.
Church Order, Article 53
Likewise the elders and deacons shall subscribe to the aforesaid formulas of unity.
The practice of requiring officebearers to express their agreement with the Reformed confessions dates back to the earliest days of the Reformed faith in the Netherlands.
The minutes of the first synod of the Dutch churches, the Synod of Emden, 1571, contain the following notice: “In order to prove the concord among the Dutch churches concerning the confession, the brethren decided it to be proper to subscribe to the Confession of Faith of the Dutch churches (i.e., the Belgic Confession of Faith).”
In this early period, subscription to the confessions was accomplished by signing one’s name to the Belgic Confession, and later the Heidelberg Catechism. But as early as 1608 one of the classes, the Classis of Alkmaar, judged that merely signing one’s name was insufficient. The difficulty was that there were those who had placed their signatures over the forms of unity, who later began to contradict the confessions in their teaching and writing. When confronted with the fact that they had expressed their agreement with the confessions by affixing their signatures, they responded that at the time they had signed they had been in agreement, but since then they had come to see matters differently. In order to prevent this situation, the Classis of Alkmaar drew up a formula of subscription. Very soon other classes and particular synods followed the lead of Alkmaar.
Our “Formula of Subscription” comes down to us from the Synod of Dordt, 1618-’19. In response to numerous appeals, the Synod adopted the following: “It is decided that a standard form for subscription of the Confession, Catechism, and synodical decisions (i.e., the Canons of Dordt) 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.” The “Formula of Subscription” drafted by the Synod of Dordt is substantially that in use in the Protestant Reformed Churches today.
The purpose of subscription is not to elevate the confessions of the church to the level of Holy Scripture. It is not the case that in the Reformed churches the confessions are of equal authority to the Bible. The confessions themselves appeal to the standard of the Word of God as the ultimate and only authority in the church of Jesus Christ. That the “Formula of Subscription” does not place the confessions on a par with Scripture is plain from the fact that the “Formula of Subscription” itself leaves room for revision of the confessions should anything in the confessions be demonstrated to be in conflict with the Bible.
Nevertheless, it is the conviction of the Reformed churches, and of the Protestant Reformed Churches in particular, that the “Three Forms of Unity” (the Belgic Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt) constitute a faithful summary of the fundamental doctrines of the Word of God. They give expression to what it means to be Reformed. With a view to the preservation of doctrinal purity in the churches, subscription to these confessions is demanded of the officebearers who serve in these churches. Such a public declaration of agreement serves to ensure the confidence of the members of the church ‘in the orthodoxy of her officebearers.
The “Formula of Subscription” also serves to promote the unity of the churches. That is why in Articles 53 and 54 of the Church Order the confessions are referred to as the “formulas of unity.” The unity of the church, in the local congregation, in the church federation at both the classical and synodical level, as well as the unity of the church catholic is in view in the “Formula of Subscription.” For the basis of the unity of the church is doctrine—one doctrine. Unity is strictly in the sphere of the truth. In the interests of that doctrinal unity, subscription to the confessions is demanded of officebearers.
At least six things are promised by the officebearer who signs the “Formula of Subscription.”
First, it is promised that one is in full agreement with the Reformed confessions: “… 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.” No room is left for entertaining doubts, signing the “Formula” tongue-in-cheek, or with mental reservations. Signing the “Formula of Subscription” is an expression of wholehearted agreement with the confessions.
Second, the promise is made to teach and defend the confessions: “We promise therefore diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine . . . .” Signing the “Formula” is by no means mere passive assent. But it is the pledge actively to promote the great truths set forth in the confessions in one’s labors as an officebearer in Christ’s church.
Third, the promise is made to reject and refute all who oppose the truths expressed in the confessions: “We declare, moreover, that we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine . . . but that we are disposed to refute and contradict these, and to exert ourselves in keeping the church free from such errors.” Defense of the truth is always antithetical. It is not enough—it seems there are always those in the church who suppose that it is—to be positive. It is not enough to set forth what we believe. But it is also necessary to be negative, to reject error. The churches demand this of the officebearers; but, more importantly, God demands this.
Fourth, the promise is made to report any doubts or difficulties that should arise in order that the church may pass judgment: “And if hereafter any difficulties or different sentiments respecting the aforesaid doctrines should arise in our minds we promise that we 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 . . . .” The creeds are not infallible. It is possible that an officebearer comes to disagree with a certain point in one of the confessions. This does not give him the liberty publicly to express this disagreement. Not at all! But he must inform the churches and submit the matter to the judgment of the assemblies. Ordinarily this would be done by means of a gravamen.
Fifth, by signing the “Formula” an officebearer agrees to submit to an examination should this be judged necessary: “And further, if at any time the consistory, classis, or synod, upon sufficient grounds of suspicion and to preserve the uniformity and purity of doctrine, may deem it proper to require of us a further explanation of our sentiments respecting any particular article of the Confession of Faith, the Catechism, or the explanation of the National Synod, we do hereby promise always to be willing and ready to comply with such requisition….”
And finally, it is promised that should it be necessary for an officebearer to make appeal against the judgment of a minor assembly to a major assembly, during the process of appeal he will acquiesce to the judgment that has been made: I, . . . reserving for ourselves, however, the right of an appeal, whenever we shall believe ourselves aggrieved by the sentence of the consistory, the classis, or the synod, and until a decision is made upon such an appeal, we will acquiesce in the determination and judgment already passed.”
All officebearers in the Reformed churches must sign the “Formula of Subscription.”*
All elders, deacons, and ministers must sign the “Formula of Subscription” in the local congregation in which they are called. The “Formula” is to be transcribed into the minute book of the consistory with all the signatures of the officebearers who have signed it in that congregation. Signing of the “Formula” may take place in the consistory room, witnessed then by one’s fellow officebearers, at the first consistory meeting after installation. In recent years many of our churches have gone to the practice of signing the “Formula” publicly at the time of installation, so that the congregation as a whole can be witness. This practice has much to commend itself.
All delegates to classis must also sign the “Formula of Subscription” in the minute book of the Classis. In the case of candidates, this is to take place immediately after their successful completion of their classical examination: “In case of a favorable outcome the applicant shall sign the formula of subscription” (Church Order, Article 4, Decision C., 2., b.).
At the synodical level the “Formula of Subscription” is not signed, but the delegates arise in assent to the reading of the “Public Declaration of Agreement with the Forms of Unity.”
Refusal to sign the “Formula of Subscription,” either at the consistorial or classical level, results in de factosuspension from office: “… (those) who refuse to do so shall de facto be suspended from their office by the consistory or classis until they shall have given a full statement, and if they obstinately persist in refusing, they shall be deposed from their office.”
Any minister, elder, or deacon who refuses to sign the “Formula” in the consistory is automatically suspended from office. This does not mean that a decision of the consistory to this effect is unnecessary. A decision to suspend must be taken, but the ground is refusal to sign the “Formula of Subscription.”
At the classical level, any delegate, whether minister or elder, who refuses to sign the “Formula” is automatically suspended from office. Again, this does not mean that a decision of the consistory in which the officebearer holds his office is unnecessary. But the decision to suspend must be grounded in the refusal to sign the “Formula.” In this case the delegate is not seated, is accorded no official capacity at the classical meeting and the classis informs his consistory of his refusal to sign the “Formula of Subscription.”
Article 53 is not to be interpreted as giving to a classis the right to suspend and depose officebearers. This is not the case. Suspension and deposition of officebearers, according to Articles 79 and 80 of theChurch Order, are quite different from de factosuspension for refusal to sign the “Formula of Subscription.” Refusal to sign the “Formula” is in a class by itself. So serious is this matter that it calls forde facto suspension from office.
May God continue to give to the Protestant Reformed Churches officebearers who are committed to the great truths expressed in our Reformed confessions. May He give us men of courage who will defend these truths and refute the errors of our day and of the past that have militated against them. May the signing of the “Formula of Subscription” be more than a mere formality in our churches, but the solemn declaration of men who are resolved, if need be, to lay down their lives for the sake of the Reformed faith.
* The mention in Article 54 of the signing of the “Formula of Subscription” by “the other professors and school teachers” reflects the state-church relationship that existed at the time our Church Order was drawn up. Although this arrangement no longer applies, the presence of this phrase in our Church Order does serve the purpose of affirming that the Reformed confessions are at the basis of the Reformed Christian school and that agreement with the confessions is necessary on the part of all who teach.