Today these Three Forms of Unity and the Formula of Subscription are the object of a subtle and persistent attack.
You realize that throughout the years there have been arguments brought against the Reformed churches because of these confessions. There always has been an attack upon our confessions from the outside, from churches that rally under the time-worn slogan, “No creed but Christ.” These have been designated as “fundamentalist,” “evangelical,” or even today as “neo-evangelical.” You are undoubtedly familiar with their “arguments” against any confession or creed. They like to assume a pious stance and declare that they have the Bible and surely that infallible Word of God is quite adequate for the church! They would even undermine all confessions as products of men, and therefore insinuate that they are in competition with the Bible, which can only detract from the Bible. With long arguments they warn the church that holds to confessions that she is falling into the inevitable abyss of dead orthodoxy. If a church is going to express her faith in a man-written confession, she will assume that now she has arrived at the summit of truth, and bragging of her creedal position will forthwith neglect the study of the Word of God and fall into fatal slumber. Besides these things the evangelicals bemoan any confession as a sure obstacle to effective mission work. In the sphere of Protestantism there are enough squabbles over the Bible and what the Bible teaches without introducing more fuel for the fire in the form of human confessions. Confessions can only excite greater differences among Christians and thus impede effective evangelism. So we have heard plenty of arguments against confessions for years and years.
But, this isn’t what we have in mind when we say that our Reformed confessions are under attack today. Surely this attack is still in force, but today there is a unique element in the form of this attack, and that is that there is also an attack upon the Three Forms of Unity from within, from those who have historically stood together for three and four centuries under the same banner. That is what is happening today. There is an increasing number of Reformed professors, ministers, elders, deacons, and church members that are clamoring for a rethinking on the matter of the Three Forms of Unity and the Formula of Subscription. Their goal is obviously to get rid of them.
This attack involves three definite stages.
The first stage may simply be described as ignoring the Reformed confessions. As some of you know, this has been going on already for decades. There have been those in the Reformed church world who have neglected to preach on the Heidelberg Catechism each Lord’s Day, and this is spreading. For years the Netherlands Confession and the Canons of Dordt have been shelved and ignored. Office bearers and members of the church did not even study them and through ignoring them, office bearers and members of the church have become ignorant! I submit this is an attack upon the confessions. This is not mere negligence, this is a blatant assault upon that which the Spirit has given to the churches and which office bearers have vowed to teach. The motive for such ignoring can only be to rid the church of that which is considered of little value.
The second stage is more volatile; it reveals itself as more bold and its aggressiveness becomes more apparent. In this stage arguments can be heard why the confessions should no longer be considered of value, arguments for the discarding of the Formula of Subscription. This is happening all around us in the Reformed church world. Brothers who have the same Reformed heritage as we have are now clamoring for a wholesale removal of the binding force of the Reformed confessions. Those of you who read the Standard Bearer regularly surely are aware of this fact. It’s interesting, yet sad, that what formerly were arguments from the fundamentalistic circles are now being sounded within Reformed circles. We hear the cry that the Bible is sufficient, we don’t need human statements alongside the Bible. We take note that learned men brashly brand those Three Forms of Unity as archaic and out of date. Even missionaries to foreign countries, e.g. Japan, claim that the Reformed confessions are of no use, in fact hindrances, because they are provincial, they are Dutch, and how can a Japanese be expected to subscribe or understand a Dutch confession.
The cry of opposition is becoming louder and louder each year. Today men are teaching and preaching views that are directly in conflict with our Reformed Confessions. The hardening process has already taken hold.
The third stage follows this open confession and conflict. As soon as the church and members are aroused to doubt, the final stage is that of writing a new confession. The devil is sly enough to know that men cannot set aside their historic position or openly refute it. This delicate situation is nicely eliminated when someone suggests that an updated confession be written. We see this in the Presbyterian church with their “Confession of ‘67.” With this stage the old is cast aside and promptly forgotten. The lie is openly introduced. At this point the change has become complete, the truth is forsaken and the lie exonerated and taught. So men are beginning to clamor for a new confession in the Reformed churches also. We stand at this point in our history as Reformed churches.
Undoubtedly you are concerned with the provoking question, why has this happened and why is it happening today? Why are believers who have their same roots in the Calvinistic Reformation as we have forsaking their traditional Reformed view and casting these confessions to the wind?
I submit that there are basically two reasons.
The first is this: a subtle and deadly error has begun to creep into the Reformed church world. This error is an improper view of Scripture. Our confessions are based upon the Bible. They have no authority except the authority of the Word of God itself. Today men are persistently picking away at the foundation upon which our Three Forms of Unity are built. This erroneous view of Scripture causes the whole structure of our Reformed confessions to collapse. If you destroy the foundation, the building that is built upon that foundation crumbles with it. This is happening today in the Reformed churches.
This attack upon Scripture is brought about by the influence of two German theologians, Barth and Brunner. I cannot go into detail here; it’s not the purpose of this lecture, except to see its relationship to the total attack upon the confessions. According to this German school of thought, there is no objective revelation in creation, nor any objective revelation in the Bible. All revelation of God is in Christ. This was true when Christ was personally upon earth, this is true when one enters into the “crisis” of the encounter with Christ under the preaching of the gospel. The Bible is not the Word of God, rather it is the testimony of certain men to the word of God. Consequently the Bible contains personal opinions as they were understood by the authors in their generations. In the written word men expressed their reaction to the revelation of God. This includes many myths and stories. What the Christian church must do today is demythologize the Bible; we have to apply it to the life’s situation in which we find ourselves. The Bible is not without errors; it has to be explained in light of all knowledge, especially as the body of truth has accumulated throughout the world’s history. With this view of Scripture the church must change her doctrinal position from time to time. Tradition doesn’t mean a snap, one’s position is the keyword. (This by the way is Prof. Dekker’s language in a recent article in the Banner.) The church has to be relevant to her generation. She has to reinterpret her position from time to time. The truth of creation must be replaced with “theistic evolution.” Adam was not a historical person, rather the center of a mythical saga. Miracles are cast aside one at a time and with eager tentacles the liar himself reaches ultimately for the central miracle, to suffocate belief in the virgin birth. With this attitude toward Scripture and doctrine, the confessions are nothing more than baggage that hinders the “church” in her development. This is the basic reason for a removal of and clamor against the Three Forms of Unity and the Formula of Subscription. One may be able to twist the Bible around and make it say whatever you want it to say, but one cannot do that with the bold and uncompromising language of the Reformed Confessions. Hence they must be discarded.
There is a second cause for the present day discarding of the confessions and it is closely related to the first. With this view of Scripture one is inevitably committed to the modern ecumenical movement. The craze to be so called relevant is motivated by the spirit of false ecumenism. I cannot warn you enough that the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches is motivated by a-false ecumenism, namely that of modernism and antichrist. Why should Reformed scholars drive themselves so intently on finding ways to discard traditional Reformed views? The reason is obvious, they are an offense to the modern church. The clamor is heard already, if we are going to survive in our day and really witness effectively, we have to get into these organizations so that we can have opportunity to speak and influence them in a good direction. One of the subtle motivations for all this modernism within the sphere of the Reformed churches is just this thirst for recognition. We have to be big, we have to get in the inner circle. We mustn’t have such out of date notions as creation, limited atonement, election and all the traditional Reformed views; no, these are an offense to antichrist. We have to be universal in our outlook. There are good points to all the religions of the world. God is a benevolent Father over all men and so we must love each other as brothers. This is antichristian. Let the Reformed churches brand these movements for what they are and take the only positive Scriptural position, and that is to stand upon the infallible Word of God and confess these truths as expounded in our Reformed confessions. Synthesis will not preserve the church, it will destroy it. We must take an antithetical position over against the world, including the false church.
There is an urgency to maintain the Three Forms of Unity and the Formula of Subscription.
In clear and uncompromising language we must maintain the correct attitude toward the Bible. The Bible is the Word of God. Even as our Reformed fathers championed the Word and based all the doctrines of the church upon that Word, so we must remain Biblical in all our theology. What is of man is sin; only that which is of God is true and must be maintained.
Because our Reformed confessions are based upon that Word of God, they are correct in all that they teach. They are relevant to our day. What nonsense to imagine that the God of revelation who is also the God of inspiration would produce in the midst of the church a book, a record that is full of errors. Is the Spirit a liar? Is He a deceiver? God forbid. Because our Reformed confessions are based upon the Bible, they are the truth.
Let’s maintain them. Let every office bearer in the Reformed churches that has subscribed to the formula of Subscription do exactly as he has vowed before God. We need this today as in no other generation. The lie is more subtle now, for the devil crouches at the door as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Antichrist is at hand posing as an angel of light, but being a devil at heart. The line of demarcation is no longer drawn by certain denominations; the call comes to the faithful of all churches that love the truth of the Word of God to join hands against the evil influence that lies within. For this reason we must hold high the banner of the Reformed confessions! We must hold it higher and with less fear than ever before. It will mean persecution; the higher we hold it, the more it will come. Yet, true ecumenism can be accomplished only as the faithful gather beneath that banner. In the face of confusion and doubts, lying, and deceit, let the church hold high the clear statement of what she believes to be the truth of the Word of God. Let all who love the Word of God stand in one confession, making great the name of our God, the God who has preserved His church throughout the generations.
Doing this we can be sure that God’s purpose will be accomplished. We often fear that our young people will become deceived and winnowed away from the faith. God is faithful; never forget that. Let us use our Reformed confessions, teach them, defend them, expose error, and thus God will use them to instill the faith of the church of all ages in the hearts and minds of our youth. They too will confess with us Jesus who is the same yesterday today and forever.
The same Spirit that has so dwelt in the church to produce these confessions and preserved them through all the ages will surely cause them to be effective unto the end. There is no doubt but that there will be faith upon the earth when our Lord Jesus Christ will return. There will be those that confess the truth of God’s Word as it is embodied in our Reformed Confessions.
Our God is faithful.