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The Reformation was above all a doctrinal reform in the life of the church. Throughout the Middle Ages, calls for reform had primarily been concerned with the moral life of the church. The Reformation certainly resulted in profound moral and spiritual renewal for the church, but the foundation of that renewal was doctrinal.

The doctrinal concern of the Reformation was expressed in the writing of great confessional statements. No period in the history of the church produced such profound and comprehensive statements of faith as did the great Reform of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The reformers intended that confessional statements would faithfully express the religious convictions of the confessors. These confessions united fellow believers and distinguished one religious community from another.

This study focuses on the experience of one religious community, namely the churches of the Dutch Reformed tradition. It examines briefly which confessional statements have functioned in that community and how those statements have been subscribed.

The earliest gathering of Dutch Reformed churches took place in what is usually called the Convent or Synod of Wezel in 1568. This meeting was not a formal synod and no subscription was required of its attenders.

The first gathering, normally reckoned a national synod, was held in 1571 at the city of Emden in East Friesland. This synod adopted several articles related to subscription. Article 2 stated:

To testify to the unity in doctrine among the Dutch Churches, it seemed good to the brothers to subscribe to the Confession of the Dutch churches [the Belgic Confession]. And to testify to the unity and connection of their churches with the churches of the French kingdom similarly, it seemed good to subscribe to the confession of faith of the churches of that kingdom [the French confession of 1559], certainly trusting that ministers of those church on their part will testify to this unity by subscribing to the Confession of Faith of the Dutch churches.

Article 4 declared: “Also Dutch ministers who are absent from this meeting are admonished that they must agree to this same subscription. The same is also established for all others who afterwards are called to the ministry of the Word before they may begin to exercise that ministry.”

Article 5 further specified:

The brothers also decided that the form of catechism to be used among the French-speaking churches is the Genevan [Calvin’s Genevan Catechism] and among the Germanic-speaking churches is the Heidelberg Catechism. Yet if some churches are using another form of catechism which is agreeable to the Word of God, they are not obligated to change it.

These articles point to several elements of the life of the Dutch Reformed churches. The first, shown by the fact that they were written in a city outside of the Netherlands, is that the churches were experiencing severe persecution. Organization and discipline were difficult; yet the churches were working to express their unity in doctrine and practice. Second, the churches desired international connections, especially with their neighbors, the Reformed churches of France. They hoped that French spiritual (and perhaps military) support would encourage and help sustain them in their struggle. Third, while a variety of confessional documents were being used in the churches, the Belgic Confession was the basic standard. The Heidelberg Catechism was not yet the only official catechism, but it was already widely used.

At all subsequent national synods in the Netherlands, subscription to the confession was required. As H.H. Kuyper wrote, “Already from the first General Synod the decision was made in the Church Order that all preachers must subscribe to the confession as the expression [or form] of unity…” Such commitments were made at the synods of Dort (1574), Dort (1578), Middelburg (1581) and The Hague (1586). Read more»

W. Robert Godfrey | “Subscription in the Dutch Reformed Tradition” | 1998


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