To Be or Not to Be Reformed: Maintaining the Formula of Subscription (4)

Previous article in this series: February 1, 2010, p. 196.

The Reformed confessions are the substance of the Reformed faith, which is to say, the truth of the Bible. Every officebearer in a Reformed church must believe these truths. By signing the Formula of Subscription (FOS), the man confesses that he is wholly convicted of these truths. The FOS also binds a man to uphold and defend them.

What could be wrong with that? An honest, Reformed man wonders why anyone would object to such a form. But in fact objections are raised against strict subscription to such a form. One such objection was addressed in the last issue, namely, that such a form elevates the confessions higher than they ought to be.

The more significant argument, one consistently raised against maintaining the FOS, is that it is too restrictive. It is soon evident that some of the objectors chafe under this FOS. That is cause for great concern.

It is alleged that the FOS silences the officebearer. It does not allow discussion of doctrines on the cutting edge of theology for fear of deposition. The form’s critics point to Luther, that he dared to post the ninety-five theses, though the theses were contrary to the accepted dogmas of the church. Hence, they maintain, there will be no reformation when it is needed, and no development of doctrine. That argument is false. How could the confessions be too restrictive? If the confessions do accurately teach what Scripture teaches, then the officebearer is simply bound by the Bible. Surely no believer objects to that!

In fact, the confessions do not hamper theological discussion. They should do the opposite, namely, encourage further discussion and pursuit of the truth. In harmony with that, confessions do set the boundaries, and channel the discussion in right paths. The church delights in discussions of the Bible and of doctrine, but the church is not a debating society where every position imaginable may be proposed and debated. On the contrary, the church is the pillar and ground of the truth.

Rightly understood, the confessions form the basis of future development of doctrine. For the truth is one. Doctrine established and elucidated in the past becomes the foundation for further development. But such development must be building up, reaching higher, giving better knowledge of God. It is not building out and off the foundation of the confessions. Building off the foundation results in deformation.

We must not overlook the fact that the confessions are the work of the Spirit of Christ, guiding the church into the truth (John 16:13). Through controversy, forcing the church to search Scripture, and to reject the lie, the Spirit guides the church. The church arrives at the point where she writes down her confession of what she believes to be the truth of the word of God.

These confessions are not infallible. Accordingly, the church allows for careful changing of her confessions. But the confessions are highly regarded because Christ promised His church that His Spirit would work this way, guiding the church into the truth.

Yet there remain members of churches in the Reformed camp who object to the use of a FOS. Is the FOS necessary? History says: Emphatically yes!

The Struggle to Maintain

After the great Synod of Dordrecht (1618-19), the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands declined spiritually. Liberalism abounded and false doctrine was tolerated. Napoleon added the Netherlands to his empire for a time and displaced the House of Orange. When William I returned from his refuge in England in the early eighteen hundreds, he pressed upon the Reformed Church the English model of a church under the authority of the crown. The ecclesiastical assemblies became boards, with members appointed by the king or his officials. These were dark days for the Reformed.

In 1816, the Reformed Church’s synodical board changed the FOS that Dordt had approved in 1619. The new FOS became ambiguous in two respects. The Form stated: “…We in good faith accept and sincerely believe the doctrine which, according to God’s Holy Word, is contained in the accepted forms of unity of the Netherlands Reformed Church….”

Notice, first, that it did not specify the three confessions, but only “the accepted forms of unity of the Netherlands Reformed Church.” This would allow particular synods or classes to identify “the accepted form of unity.” In fact, it gives leeway to leave out one or more of the confessions, something that was done in a few instances.

Second, the expression, “We…accept…the doctrine which, according to God’s Holy Word, is contained in the accepted forms of unity,” is open to interpretation. It could mean one of two things. On the one hand, the officebearer could mean that he accepted the doctrines in the confessions because they were in harmony with the word of God. That is the meaning that Dordt’s form demanded. On the other hand, it could mean that he accepted the doctrines that were in harmony with the word of God. Such a promise makes the FOS of no account. And, notice, the individual officebearer himself was the judge.

This change in the FOS cut the Reformed church loose from her doctrinal anchor. She was soon blown about by every wind of false doctrine. The spiritual decline of the church accelerated.

This led to two reformations. The first was the Secession of 1834, led by such men as H. De Cock, S. Van Velzen, A. Van Raalte, and H. Scholte. These reformers, committed to the truth set forth in the confessions, saw what the imprecise language of the FOS had allowed. Therefore, almost immediately after the Secession churches came together, they returned to the FOS approved by Dordt.

The second reform movement was the Doleantie, led by Abraham Kuyper, in 1886. The churches of the Doleantie were equally intent on maintaining the Reformed truths, and determined to root out false doctrine. Accordingly, they likewise returned to the Dordt-adopted FOS.

These two groups soon united in the GKN (Gereformeerde Kerken Nederlands, formed in 1892). The GKN remained the strongest Reformed church in the Netherlands for some time. But in the 1970s they revised their FOS at the crucial point. It read, “We promise, in the unity of the true faith, to remain faithful to the confession of the church which the fathers have expressed in the three general creeds and in the three Forms of Unity.” The vague language meant the end of genuine adherence to the confessions.

Over the years the Reformed Church (Hereformde Kerk, virtually the state church) continued to downgrade the FOS, until in the 1950s they reduced the promise to this extent: The signers promised to do their work “in communion with the confession of the fathers.” That is obviously a meaningless and empty promise.

Such blatant disregard for the confessions resulted in the loss of everything Reformed. Both of these apostate churches joined with a third (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Kingdom of the Netherlands) forming the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (2004). The doctrinal and moral corruption is evident from the fact that the PKN cannot hold the line even against the vile sin of homosexuality. (It is officially tolerated in their church order.)

A similar decline occurred in the American branches of the Reformed churches. The Reformed Church of America organized in the 1790s. It adopted a Church Order that included subscription to the form adopted by Dordt. That did not last. In the 1970s the promise in the FOS was downgraded to: “I accept the Standards as historic and faithful witness to the Word of God.” Clearly, that does not bind anyone to maintain or defend the Reformed confessions. The RCA’s departure from Reformed faith and practice is evident to all. Today, a main topic in the denomination is toleration for homosexuality.

Over the last fifty years, the Christian Reformed Church has carried on much discussion on the FOS. Reading only the official decisions, one might conclude that they have held the line. CRC synods have refused to grant requests for significant revision of the FOS. They admonished men to sign the form honestly. A modernization of the language in the 1980s did not change the essential promises. So reads the official records.

But the periodicals and synodical reports tell a different story. CRC officebearers wrote in the 1970s of signing the FOS with mental reservations, or, with tongue in cheek. In addition, officebearers publicly contradicted the confessions without bringing a gravamen. In the Banner (1970s), a Christian Reformed minister pointed out that ordained ministers had been openly teaching theistic evolution, questioning the infallibility of Scripture, teaching that God loves all men redemptively, and denying reprobation. That is, as he rightly maintained, a violation of the promise made by signing the FOS.

In the last decade CRC men spoke openly of problems with signing the FOS. The editor of the Banner, Bob DeMoor, wrote concerning those who have reservations about signing the FOS. “The traditional response to new officebearers voicing such hesitation has been, ‘Just shaddap, swallow hard, and sign.'”

Rev. Gordon Pols of West End CRC in Edmonton was quoted in the Banner a few years ago (2005): “I can still remember, in my classical examination, being asked if I could sign the Form of Subscription…. I said, ‘Well, yes, but I have some difficulty with the Canons.’ The response was, ‘Well, we all do.’ And then we moved on.”

More evidence that the FOS is ignored is found in a disturbing committee report to the CRC synod in 2005. This committee related that a number of congregations no longer required their officebearers to sign the FOS. A synodically appointed committee came to the synod of 2008 with a total revision of the FOS, called a Covenant of Ordination. It eliminated the binding nature of the confessions, and would allow an officebearer to sign and interpret the new form as he will. Objections were raised, and Synod 2008 returned the matter to another committee for revision. Yet it should be obvious that it does not really matter, because the confessions have been ignored for years by those that violated their vows by teaching contrary to the confessions. The sad reality is, the CRC lost the battle for the confessions years ago.

This brief review of history brings out two preliminary conclusions.

First, the binding nature of the confessions must be maintained if a Reformed church will maintain its doctrinal purity, its unity, and its integrity.

Second, if the FOS is to be of any value, the church must be willing to exercise Christian discipline for departure from the confessions.

Next time, D.V., the liturgical forms and the Church Order—are these binding on the officebearers who sign the FOS? And what are the implications for the members of the church who, not being officebearers, do not sign the FOS?