In their commentary on the Church Order, Monsma and Van Dellen sound a warning against certain serious dangers in revising or changing established forms of the churches, such as our Formula of Subscription which every office bearer is required to sign. They also give an illustration in which they show what may be the result of such changes. On page 226 of their book we find the following quotation:
“In times of laxity and doctrinal indifference or in days when under-currents of error seem to be present, the churches should be very careful not to revise their Form of Subscription to their own hurt. A classic example of the need of vigilance on this score is the change which was introduced into the Form of Subscription by the churches of Holland in 1816. A slight change was introduced into the old form of subscription drafted by the great Synod of Dordt (1618-19). According to the old form prospective ministers by signing declared that they believed that the Three Forms of Unity agreed altogether with the Word of God. (Our Form reads: we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in the Confessions . . . do fully agree with the Word of God. —G.v.d.B.) According to the new reading of 1816, these prospective ministers declared that they accepted the doctrines contained in the Three Forms of Unity, which agreed with the holy Word of God. The phrase in question was made to read: ‘. . . de leer, welke overeenkomstig Gods heilig Woord in de aangenomen Formulieren van Eenigheid is vervat, ter goeder trouw aan te nemen en hartelijk te gelooven.’
“This sounds good enough but it left a loop-hole. The question soon arose whether the ‘overeenkomstig‘ had the significance of omdat (quia) ‘because,’ or voor zoover (quatenus) ‘in as far.’ Those who wanted to be loyal to the Word of God and the Reformed faith held that the latter interpretation was possible and also intended by the leaders of the revision group. Some denied this charge vigorously. But in 1835 one of the leaders admitted that the change had been sponsored and made so that a candidate could sign the Form of Subscription even if he did not fully agree with the Standards of the Churches. He who signs this document in Holland today merely declares that he will be loyal to the Three Forms of Unity in as far as these agree with the Word of God. The result is that even Unitarians and Communists can become Ministers of the Hervormde Kerk in the Netherlands. The Gereformeerde Kerken van Nederland, the purified and reorganized Reformed Churches of Holland, as might be expected, immediately readopted the unequivocal Form of Subscription of Dordt, 1618-19. Heretics cannot consistently sign this Form.”
Someone might object that this is “word-quibbling.” The same objector, however, will also have to admit that the careless use of or intentional misuse of a single word can open the way for heretics of every hue to spoil the church through vicious prevarication of the truth. This all reminds us of the theologian who insisted that the simple statement, “The Bible is the Word of God,” must be altered to read, “The Word of God is in the Bible.” At first glance the difference in the two statements appears to be negligible. Both contain the same words. The only difference is that the order of the subject and the predicate nominative is reversed and the latter statement has the addition of the word “in.” Close analysis, however, shows that one can subscribe to the latter statement and literally reject ninety-nine percent of the Bible’s content as being anything but the Word of God. Any heretic could readily subscribe to it but the former statement is exact and can only mean that the complete and entire Scripture is of Divine origin.
Any change, therefore, in our forms of subscription must certainly be free from any dubiousness so that those who are asked to sign them understand clearly the pledge which they make before God.
In his “Church Right,” the Rev. G.M. Ophoff raises an interesting question in connection with the matter of signing the Formula of Subscription. He suggests the possibility that the signing of this form, with its promises and declarations, is incompatible with the exercise of the individual’s freedom of conscience. Consider that what the subscriber promises is that he will do as the Formula requires under a severe penalty, namely, immediate suspension from office, in case he violates this pledge. This is interesting because it so often happens that those who become disloyal to the established faith and so violate their subscription promise do not readily acknowledge their guilt in violating their oath but rather seek to justify their error with the pious cry that they may not violate their conscience. Their implied argument is that it is a higher duty to obey their conscience than to keep the pledge of signing the Formula of Subscription. Apart from the fact that this whole argument is based on a faulty conception of conscience, we may say that it is as ridiculous as it is false. It is not the conscience that the heretic seeks to obey but the carnal mind and will that refuses to subject themselves to the Word of God. When one treads this path he inadvertently encounters a severe conflict with his previously made promise to abide by the doctrines of Scripture as set forth in the Confessions of the church.
Is there not, however, the possibility of and room for serious differences arising in one’s mind concerning some of the doctrines to which one has previously committed himself by signing the Form of Subscription? If this be granted, does not the promise to teach and faithfully defend these doctrines ask too much? Would it not be far better not to ever have made such a promise than; having made it, to find oneself in a position where this promise cannot be kept because of certain disagreements which have arisen? Isn’t it better to simply request that office bearers maintain and defend certain doctrines inasfar as they are able to do so in good conscience before God?
Rev. Ophoff says, “This really means that what the subscriber promises is that he will preach and defend the doctrine contained in the creeds involved, and refrain from militating against this doctrine by preaching and writing only as long as he can do so with a good conscience before God, but that, if this is no longer possible he will cease to preach and defend the said doctrine and agree that by that very act he is suspended from his office, has suspended himself from office. Mark you well, the Classis or Consistory does not depose that office bearer but they simply declare what he through his act of refusal has done. He has deposed himself. And by subscribing to the Formula, the minister agreed that this act of refusal should have this significance.”
This is undoubtedly true. An office bearer who does not agree with the Confessions of a given church should not remain in office in that church. Moreover, such an individual, if his convictions mean anything at all, will not desire to remain in that church even as a member. He certainly may not remain in office in the church and openly militate against the confessions of the church in order to destroy her as some have attempted to do in our churches.
We agree, therefore, with this quotation of Rev. Ophoff when it is applied, as it should be, to one who has made himself guilty of breach of promise. However, we feel that something else should be added here. When a person who has signed the Formula of Subscription later finds himself in disagreement with the doctrines he promised to defend, he is certainly confronted with a difficult problem. He must either defend what he himself does not believe to be true (a moral impossibility) or he must violate his promise (a serious evil). By doing the latter, he, by that very act, deposes himself from office. However, this is not the only recourse. The Formula of Subscription itself points .him to and provides for him the only proper and orderly course to follow. He must, of course, present his grievances to his consistory, classis and synod. He must submit to the judgment rendered in each case and if, after the final verdict is rendered in his case, he is unable to acquiesce, he must be suspended and deposed from his office. Within a certain denomination the office bearer is bound to uphold the confessions of that church but he is at liberty to leave that denomination if he is unable to do so in good conscience before God.
From this it should be evident that the demand of the church that her officebearers sign a formula of agreement is both just and necessary. To deny this is to destroy the very possibility of the existence of the denomination. The Church Order Commentary states that, “Doctrinal unity forms the foundation for denomination unity.” To hold that nothing or mere generalities in regard to doctrine is binding and to allow all sorts of divergent views within the church is to invite chaos. Did we not almost realize that doctrinal chaos in our churches when some attempted to teach and preach the anti-confessional doctrine of the general conditional promise of salvation? If this had been condoned—and we may humbly thank God that it was not—what would prevent others from teaching and preaching the well-meant offer of salvation to all? This, in turn, could be followed by the introduction of the errors of the Baptists, various shades of Dispensationalism, as well as all kinds of denials of the cardinal truths of Scripture expressed in our Three Forms of Unity and if there was no binding agreement, nothing could be done about it.
It might be argued that these extremes are so obviously contrary to the Reformed Confessions that no one would attempt to introduce them into a church that stands on the basis of those confessions. This argument does not hold, however, because in the first place the heresy of a general conditional promise of salvation or the well-known Three Points of ’24 are just as obviously anti-confessional and, in the second place, men have attempted with measures of success to introduce more than one of these rank errors in churches that hold the Reformed Confessions but have disregarded the binding character of the truth expressed in them.
Hence, to maintain her doctrinal purity and so preserve true denominational unity the Formula of Subscription must be elevated to its proper place in the church and the church must insist that each and every office bearer solemnly promise to faithfully maintain the truth expressed in the Confessions.