Volume 2: Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries

The purpose of the Heidelblog is to help the Reformed churches, Reformed Christians, and those interested in the Reformed faith to “recover the Reformed confession.” Of course, the first and most important resource in doing that is to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” God’s holy, inerrant, inspired, infallible Word. Sola scriptura! That Word, however, has been interpreted and confessed by the Reformed churches. These documents then become subsidiary standards. They have ecclesiastical sanction and authority. They are distinct from and superior to personal theologies, even the well-regarded and time-honored dogmatics that help to constitute our tradition.

Given the history, nature, and trajectory of American religion since the early 18th century it is not surprising that most evangelical Christians seem largely unaware of the great Protestant confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries. Nevertheless, the widespread ignorance of these resources is a cause of considerable grief and harm to believers and to congregations. It is a little more surprising then to see the degree to which the confessions of the Reformed churches are ignored by Reformed Christians and congregations.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There have been 4-5 collections of Reformed confessions in Latin, German, French, and Dutch (among other languages) but there has never been a comprehensive English-language collection of the Reformed confessions until now. Volume two of this series has just been published by Reformation Heritage Books. As you can see from the cover, this volume covers the period that includes the Forty-Two Anglican Articles to the Second Helvetic Confession. There are 68 documents in this volume covering 15 years. As I keep saying, the Reformed churches are confessing churches.

Not all of these documents are ecclesiastical (e.g., the Genevan Students’ Confession) but they are all instructive. There are documents here from all across the Reformed world of the 16th century: The British Isles, Poland, Italy, Switzerland, France, Prussia, Belgium (the Netherlands), the Palatinate, Hungary, and Emden to name only some places.

Churches, schools, pastors, seminary students, elders, and anyone who wants to be Reformed, who wants to know what the Reformed churches actually confess should get these volumes.

These are handsome, well-bound volumes. Volume 2 is quite substantial at 909 pages.

As with any such volume there will always be quibbles. In my review of volume 1 (published in Modern Reformation magazine) I questioned the extensive inclusion of Waldensian confessional documents. The later Waldensian documents (Cameron is probably right about this) show considerable maturity over the much more generic and vague earlier documents. I also criticized the stated plan to include Keach’s (Baptist) catechism on the grounds (as demonstrated) that it is unwarranted to include a Baptist catechism in a collection of Reformed catechisms when all the Reformed churches confess infant baptism and repudiate the rejection thereof.* The only other concern one might have is the use of the 1976 CRCNA translation of the Belgic Confession. Over the years, as I’ve taught the Three-Forms (the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort) course at WSC I’ve I’ve noticed some flaws in that translation. The reader may want compare that translation with older translations.

These (mostly) minor issues aside these are most valuable volumes and they are available through The Bookstore at Westminster Seminary California for $36.46. Please remember that it helps the HB when you go to The Bookstore at WSC through the HB.

* A correspondent wrote to MR to complain about my criticism. I responded thus:

I am grateful to Mr Balson for raising this important question. I wrote book to address it, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (2008). Evidently the earliest Baptists did not think it necessary to call themselves “Reformed.” They called themselves “General” or “Particular” Baptists. In the Reformation, the Reformed Churches confessed infant baptism as essential to the Reformed faith. In 1530 Huldrych Zwingli did so to the Diet of Augsburg as did the Tetrapolitan Confession (ch. 18; 1530). The First Confession of Basel (Art. 12; 1534), First Helvetic Confession (Art. 22; 1536), Calvin’s catechisms (1537, 1538, 1545), The Geneva Confession (Art. 15; 1536/1537), and the French Confession (Art. 35; 1559), all confessed the moral necessity of infant baptism. In the Belgic Confession (Art. 34; 1561) the Dutch Reformed Churches confess, “We detest the error of the Anabaptists” specifically the practice of re-baptizing believers and denying infant baptism. The Second Helvetic Confession (1561/1566; ch. 20) specifically condemned the denial of paedobaptism. The Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 74; 1563) insisted on infant baptism. The Westminster Confession 28.5 (1647) arguably calls the “neglect” or condemnation of infant baptism “a great sin.” In the light of this evidence it is hard to see how insisting on it is anything but consistent with confession of the Reformed Churches in which one finds not only a soteriology but also an ecclesiology and doctrine of the sacraments.

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13 comments

  1. Dr. Clark,

    “They are distinct from and superior to personal theologies, even the well-regarded and time-honored dogmatics that help to constitute our tradition”

    -I have come across a distinction made between Systematic Theology and Reformed Dogmatics. Have you heard of this and is this distinction sort of picking up on the idea that you stated in the above quote?

      • By “experimental” you mean off on your own doing these things up in a secluded environment like a scientist in his lab? Cut off from the rest?

  2. Like the inclusion of the Anglican 42 Articles. Those repudiated the anabaptist error. Have to agree with you that a baptist confession doesn’t belong in a collection of Reformed confessions. Can’t say they are Reformed, can’t even say they are Calvinist. How do you categorize?

  3. There are 68 documents in this volume covering 15 years. As I keep saying, the Reformed churches are confessing churches.

    So what happened? Were the Three Forms and Westminster Artifacts just too good to improve on anymore? I can’t imagine how a modern confessional convention would be more likely to yield an improvement rather than just mess things up.

    • Rube,

      A couple of things but the most important is that Modernity happened. With the rise of the Enlightenment assault on the faith we entered a defensive rather than confessional posture.

      There is no perfect confessional document. There are many reasons and issues on which the confessional, believing Reformed churches should continue to confess the faith.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Would the formulation of new Reformed confessions as you propose lead to new Reformed denominations, or would they ideally strengthen existing ones?

    • Very interesting question. My intent would be the latter. Would the outcome be the former? I don’t know. All our denominations and federations need reformation. I doubt that we need another denomination.

  5. The reason why I ask is it seems that during the age when the Reformed confessions were written, you note in RRC that these were often regional iterations of basically the same Reformed doctrines. I am assuming that these Reformed assembles were smaller, and thus more able to retain the distinctives of their particular confessions. As I have read your blog and other blogs, it has occurred to me that some of our N. American Reformed denominations are so geographically spread out that the General Assemblies have a harder time reaching relative unanimity on what being confessional actually means for individual presbyteries as well as the GA’s (I am thinking of PCA specifically). Maybe if our denominations were smaller, our Reformed distinctives could be more easily retained. Just thinking out loud here – maybe this would mean a larger NAPARC, and smaller, stronger denominations. I could be way off though.

    • I think there is really only one Reformed faith with a variety of local expressions. I’m quite confident that, were they alive today, our confession-writing fathers would be puzzled at the relative silence of the Reformed churches in the face of so many obvious challenges to Christian doctrine.

  6. How many of the Reformed Confessions confess the duty of the civil magistrate to uphold both tables of the law; to support and maintain the true church; to punish those who promote heresy, idolatry, etc.? If that is the “consensus” of the magisterial Reformed Confessions, is not the contrary position, adopted by the American churches, unconfessional and un-Reformed (as much as Anabaptism)?

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