The Importance of Maintaining the Three Forms of Unity

The church and the world are spiritually antithetical. They are spiritual opposites. The calling of the church is to live in the midst of the world. Her calling is not physical or spiritual isolation, but rather that of witness. She must be in the world, but not of the world. In the process of fulfilling her calling, it often happens that the church is influenced by this evil world. This I believe is the plague which bests the church today. This is the root cause of the problems which we face. 

We?re living in the “‘instant generation.” Young people have adopted their own description; they call it the “Go-go generation.” We adults are too sophisticated to admit that we are affected by the spirit of youth: yet the inevitable has happened. We eat our instant oatmeal for breakfast, we. guzzle down our instant soup for lunch, we stash away our instant potatoes for dinner, and in between we sip our instant coffee and tea. Barely have our womenfolk learned to prepare one type of food and another is on the market. Canned foods are practically obsolete. It appears as if our freezers will soon give way to cupboards full of dehydrated foods. We are forever hurrying up and finding something new. 

This “spirit” has seeped into the fiber of the church. The result is that what calls itself church is now busy producing what I want to call “instant theology.” Today, any man with a bachelor or doctor’s degree can sit in his ivory tower of theoretical thought and spin a few theories, compose them in presentable form, rush into print and make a hit under the pretense of “theology.” The history of dogma and the particular position which the church has taken in centuries past mean nothing in today’s world. We’re living in our day and what the church had to say in the past cannot by any stretch of the imagination be relevant today. Only a mind thoroughly conditioned by our twentieth century can produce a “theology” significant to the modern mind. This I call “instant theology.” And the peculiar point is that barely has the ink dried before the very same person has another book ready to print with the very opposite or different ideas. In the quest to be new and up-to-date, modern “theology” has lost her foundation. 

This “spirit” has begun to make its impact upon the Reformed church world. There now arises within the sphere of the churches which have their common roots in the Reformation of Luther and especially of Calvin an attitude of historical indifference. Reformed tradition means nothing to them; they are thoroughly imbued with “instant theology.” They are cut loose from the moorings of the Reformed faith and set adrift, being cast about by every wind of doctrine. 

This fact becomes most evident by the attitude of many Reformed ministers, professors, and lay members toward our Reformed confessions. One gets the impression that there are many within the sphere of the Reformed churches that are ashamed of their confessions. They openly begin to criticize them, they teach views that are blatantly contrary to them, and even begin to cry aloud for a nullification of the Formula of Subscription. 

I’m glad that the League of Protestant Reformed Men’s Societies is aware of this situation. Evidently you have been alert enough to sense this tendency, and you believe that something is wrong, and therefore you desire to be instructed in the importance of maintaining our Three Forms of Unity and the Formula of Subscription. Since this is the subject you asked me to speak upon, I’ll divide the material into three aspects: First, the significance of the Three Forms of Unity and the Formula of Subscription. Secondly, the attack that is made upon them. And finally, the urgency to resist this attack and maintain them. 

The way you have formulated the subject indicates to me that you understand that the Forms of Unity and the Formula of Subscription have value. You do not question this, you assume this in, the subject you have chosen. You say it is important that we maintain them. This importance is subject of course to their value. We believe that the importance of maintaining the Three Forms of Unity rests exactly in their great value. This we must see from the very outset. 

The Three Forms of Unity are made up of three confessions. The oldest of the three is the Netherlands or Belgic Confession. This confession was written by Guido de Bres in 1561. Tke faithful children of God who had followed in the footsteps of the reformers were undergoing the convulsive strains of persecution at this time. They were dying for the faith once delivered unto the saints. DeBres wrote this confession as a formulation of the faith, enabling the children of the Reformation to know the truth and maintain it even unto death. The second of the Three Forms is known as the Heidelberg Catechism. Two men were commissioned to write this catechism as a basis for instructing the members of the churches in the Netherlands. Zacharius Ursinus and Casper Olevianus presented the finished catechism to the Synod of Heidelberg in 1563, and it was subsequently adopted as the official textbook of instruction. The third of the Three Forms is the Canons of Dordt. This confession was composed and adopted by the great Synod of Dordt in 1618-1619 as an answer to the five points of the Remonstrance or the Arminians. 

These three confessions are called the Three Forms of Unity because they were adopted as the expression of the faith that united the Reformed churches. They are three in number. Taken together they perfectly compliment each other. The Netherlands Confession is a dogmatical summary of the truth, The Heidelberg Catechism is arranged according to the significance of the doctrines of the Word of God for our daily life, and the Canons of Dordt is a formulation of the heart of the gospel over against the insipient error of Arminianism that had threatened the church in the past and continues to do even unto the present. 

Added to the Three Forms of Unity is the Formula of Subscription. Prior to the early 1600’s the church simply insisted that professors and ministers sign their names to the confessions themselves. However, already in 1608 the Classis of Alkmaar entertained a proposal to formulate a positive statement of agreement which should be signed by office-bearers. The Synod of Dordt likewise followed this direction and drew up what is now called the Formula of Subscription, which demands that all professors, ministers, elders and deacons agree with the Three Forms of Unity. This Formula places office bearers in the church before the duty to maintain the Three Forms of Unity. 

The Three Forms of Unity are of great value to the Reformed Churches for four reasons. 

First, they are a brief, systematic formulation of the truth of the Word of God. Let me emphasize this; they are not extra-Biblical. There is nothing in the Reformed Confessions that is new, that one cannot find in the pages of the Bible. Rather, they are a systematic arrangement of the truths which are taught in the Bible. Their basis and value rests upon the Word of God itself. 

Secondly, they are an expression of Reformedthought. The Reformation movement had begun under Luther and reached its forte in Calvin. This movement spread over Europe and especially to the Netherlands. The Synod of Dordt which adopted these Three Forms of Unity may be considered a Reformed international Synod. The children of the Calvinistic Reformation may find their faith articulated in these three confessions. This means that they are Reformed over against Roman Catholicism, over against other branches of Protestantism, and over against every cult and sect that may arise in the world. These Three Forms of Unity express what the Reformed Christian believes to be the truth of the Word of God. 

Thirdly, these three confessions were formulated during the golden age of the Reformed churches. That’s of value, tremendous value. God had providentially delivered the faithful church from apostate Rome. In the process of reformation, the spiritual senses of the believers were sharpened. The battle over the truth had waged long and hard. The calumniators had assailed the truth by presenting every argument, but the faithful reformers had answered by slashing with the Sword of the Spirit undauntedly. This golden age was marked by two things. The one thing is that Scripture had a proper place in the mind of the reformers. For centuries it was lying on the shelf collecting dust; now at long last they could pour over its contents, drink of its fountain, and be thoroughly imbued with its message. One cannot help detecting this in the writings of Calvin, which influenced the writing of the Reformed Confessions. The other is that being Biblical, their thoughts were faithful to the Word of God and their theology was God-centered. They pondered the great truths in the glorious light of the pre-eminence of God. God is the center of truth and this had to be maintained at all cost. This I consider to be the distinct aspect of the golden age of Reformed thought that are manifest in the confessions. 

Finally, the Holy Spirit so directed the things in the church that these Three Forms of Unity have been preserved and handed to us to be used by us. The Reformed church of the twentieth century did not have to discover these confessions; they were handed to us. They are part of our heritage. When we recognize this we clearly understand that their value rests in making use of them. They don’t serve the cause of the church lying idly on a shelf. What better means of instruction have we than by pondering the Word of God and studying the Word with the assist of the Three Forms of Unity. By preaching on the Heidelberg Catechism, by studying the Netherlands Confession in the catechism class, by discussing the Canons of Dordt in society we put to use this Reformed heritage. Through this instruction the truth is preserved from generation to generation. Only in this way can there be proper development in the truth; we begin where our forefathers left off. Holding high the banner of our Reformed confessions we testify to the whole world that this is what we believe to be the truth of the Word of God, and all who see this banner may know the truth and either reject it or walk with us. 

The Reformed Confessions have great value to us. 

It stands to reason that the Formula of Subscription is valuable to the extent that the-Three Forms of Unity themselves are of value. Our Reformed fore-fathers recognized, the significant place which office-bearers have in the church. The pulpit may be a tremendous influence for good or for evil. The same holds true for the seminary; professors have a powerful influence on the entire history of the church, they instruct future ministers, and that instruction may be either for good or evil. Elders and deacons have significant influence in the local congregations. Consequently, it was in the good interest of the church that the Synod of Dordt adopted a Formula of Subscription which had to be signed by all office-bearers. With their signature they promise four things. First, that they agree with the confessions and believe that they properly express the truth of the Word of God. Secondly, that they will teach and defend these confessions. Notice, office bearers agree to make use of the Three Forms of Unity and not let them lie idly on the shelf. Still more, they even promise to defend them if anyone should attack them. Thirdly, they promise to refute the errors that are enumerated in the Reformed confessions and if anyone should teach the errors that are condemned in them; they as office bearers will expose them as being un-reformed and contrary to Scripture. Finally, office bearers by signing the Formula of Subscription promise that they will be faithful to their promise and if any doubt arises in their mind, before publicly contradicting the Reformed confessions, they will request an examination by the Classis or Synod. 

By signing the Formula of Subscription, office bearers promise to maintain the Three Forms of Unity. This, too, is of great value.

(Editor’s Note: This special article is the text of an address to the spring meeting of the Men’s League: it is being published in two installments, the second of which will appear in the July issue.)