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Robert P. Swierenga, "The Form of Subscription in Dutch Reformed History"

"The Vibrancy of Confessionalism," Returning Church Meeting, First Byron Center CRC, 17 April 2008


1. Introduction

    a. FOS akin to U.S. Oath of Office for President, Justices, Congressmen, etc.

    b. Creeds akin to U.S. Constitution: "original intent" or "living document"?

2. Creeds and Confessions in the Protestant Reformation

    a. Doctrinal reform viewed as vital

    b. Greatest era of confessions and catechisms in church history

            Augsburg Confession 1531 (Luther and Melanchthon)

            Helvetic Confession: First 1530, Second 1566 (Zwingli)

            French Confession 1559 (Calvin)

            Belgic Confession 1561 (De Bres)

            German Catechism 1529 (Luther)

            Genevan Catechism 1537 (Calvin)

            Heidelberg Catechism 1563 (Olevianus and Ursinus)

            Profession of the Tridentine Faith 1564 (Council of Trent)

Canons of Dort 1619 (Synod of Dordrecht)

          Three stages (Peter Lillback):

            (1) Confessional conception: confessional, apologetic, fraternal, pedagogic

            (2) Confessional consolidation: uniformity, orthodoxy, qualifying, defining

            (3) Confessional confrontation: polemical, restrictive, coercive (anti-Arminian)

3. FOS in French, Dutch, and German Reformed churches

    a. Some Reformers opposed FOS as too Roman Catholic, but then they came to see

         the need for it.

    b. Convent of Wesel 1568--required a minister to declare orally if he completely agrees

         with the doctrine" contained in the French Confession, Belgic Confession, and

         Heidelberg Catechism.

     c. Synod of Emden (Ost Friesland) 1571--first synod of Dutch Reformed churches to

        require ministers to attest to the French and Belgic confessions.

     d. Synod of Dordrecht 1574 required elders and deacons to attest to the Confessions.

         Other provincial synods only gradually followed suite.

     e. Classis of Walcheren 1574 drafted earliest FOS

We the undersigned Ministers of the Word of God, … do hereby believe and confess that the written Confession of Faith of the Christian churches of the Netherlands, lying under Spanish rule, contained in the 37 articles [Belgic Confession]… conforms in all parts to the Word of God. And we promise to orient our doctrine and worship to it, in our teaching, consolation, and admonition, and to oppose what conflicts with it, according to our abilities.

     f. "Strict" or "Loose" subscription  (Arminius argued for Loose subscription)

     g. Synod of Dort 1618-19 adopts FOS that becomes standard in Dutch Ref. churches

         (1) four parts: declaration of agreement, promise to teach and defend, to reject

              errors, and to report doubts and be subject to examination (so-called

              "silencing" aspect).

          (2) optional for elders to sign, but many classes and synods so required

4. Nederlands Hervormde Kerk

    a. doctrinal declension during the 1700s

    b. Napoleonic conquest and disestablishment of the NHK 1795-1813

    c. State Church reestablished by King Willem I and his officials 1814

    d. National Synod of 1816 wrote a new FOS with "fuzzy" wording: "…that we in good

        faith accept and believe the doctrine that according to God's Holy Word is contained

        in the accepted forms of unity..."

            (1) The forms of unity (creeds) were not specified, and this allowed the

            Synod of Friesland, for example, not to accept the Canons of Dort.

(2) What did the phrase "according to God's Holy Word" mean? Are the creeds normed by Scripture or not? Was it a quia-subscription (because the creeds contained God's Word), or a quatenus-subscription (in so far as the creeds contain the God's Word)? Synod deliberately refused to clarify this. A quatenus confession is no real confession, but an evasion that leaves it to a person's subjective judgment.

    e. New FOS allowed the HKN to become "honeycombed with rationalism" in the

       seminaries, pulpit, consistory rooms, and pews.

    f. 1883 HKN abolished the FOS. Aspiring clerics simply agreed "to promote the

       interests of the Kingdom of God in general and especially those in the State Church."

5. Doleantie 1886 (Lt. dolere: to mourn, to declare one's sorrow)

    a. Abraham Kuyper saw the 1883 decision as a watershed event and determined to lead

        a second reformation in the State Church.

    b. Kuyper and Doleantie churches adopted the historic Dort FOS.

    c. Some 200 congregations (100,000-200,000 members) left State Church

    d. After 6 years of tedious discussion and compromise, the Doleantie and Afscheiding

        (1834) churches merged in 1892 into Gereformeerde Kerk Nederland (GKN).

    e. In 1910, GKN numbered 10% of Dutch population, HKN 44% (from 55% in 1810)

    f. In 1960, GKN numbered 9%, HKN 28%. Big decline in both churches had begun.

    g. In 2008, PKN (new combined denomination of HKN , GKN, and Lutherans had

      only 2 million members, 10% of total population, and is declining sharply every year.

6. RCA used Dort FOS since 1620s, and CRC adopted Dort FOS in 1857

     a. RCA rewrote (emasculated) the FOS  ca. 1980. "I accept the Standards as historic and faithful witnesses to the Word of God."

     b. CRC now proposes to do the same.

7. Conclusion--the Dort FOS does not ensure orthodoxy, but it is impossible to maintain orthodoxy without it.


W. Robert Godfrey, "Subscription in the Dutch Reformed Tradition," 67-75, in David W.

  Hall, ed., The Practice of Confessional Subscription (University Press of America, 1995).

Donald Sinnema, "The Origin of the Form of Subscription in the Dutch Reformed

 Tradition," Calvin Theological Journal (July 2007): 256-282.

Peter A. Lillback, "Confessional Subscription among the Sixteenth Century Reformers,"

 33-66, in Hall, Practice of Confessional Subscription.

Morton H. Smith, "The Case for Full Subscription," 185-205, in Hall, Practice of

 Confessional Subscription.

Martin Monsma, The New Revised Church Order Commentary: A Brief Explanation of

 the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church (Zondervan, 1967), 38-42 "Signing the Form of Subscription."

Gerrit J. tenZythoff, Sources of Secession: The Netherlands Reformed Church on the Eve

 of the Dutch Immigration to the Midwest (Eerdmans, 1987).

Robert P. Swierenga and Elton J. Bruins, Family Quarrels in the Dutch Reformed

 Churches in the Nineteenth Century (Eerdmans, 1997).

P.Y. De Jong and Nelson D. Kloosterman, The Reformation of 1834: Essays in

 Commemoration of the Act of Secession and Return (Mid-America Reformed Seminary,


Frank Vanden Berg, Abraham Kuyper: A Biography (Eerdmans 1960, Paideia Press,


Hendrik Bouma, Secession, Doleantie, and Union: 1834-1892, trans., Theodore Plantinga

 (Inheritance Publications, 1995).

Louis Praamsma, "The Character of the Church's Creeds" (part 1, continuing), The

 Outlook, 58 (Apr. 2008): 27-31.

Johan D. Tangelder, "Confessing Church in Confusing Times" (parts 1-7)

 Christian Renewal, Nov. 21, 2007; Feb. 13, Mar. 5, Mar. 26, Apr. 9, 30, May 14, 2008.