The Articles of the Christian Faith - Dr. N.H. Gootjes

Taken with permission from Clarion Vol. 48, No. 5 (1999)

The expression "articles of the Christian faith" is well-known among us. These words occur in three places in the official documents of the church: in the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord's Day 7, QA 22), in the Form for Baptism (the second question, where the phrase has been changed in our Book of Praise to "the confessions") and in the Form for Public Profession of Faith (the first question). What does this expression mean? Br. R. Dykstra has recently brought up this issue in Reformed Polemics, (November 1998). He follows the conclusion of J. Munneke published in Diakonia (June 1989):

The phrase following "taught here in this Christian Church," however, makes it clear that our fathers intended the articles of the Christian faith to mean the three forms of unity for they are taught here in the Christian Church. Evidence for this is to be found in the form for public profession used in the church at Batavia (1621) where the confessor promises "to acknowledge all the doctrines of God's Word and the Christian reformed religion briefly explained in the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism.(1)

This statement of Munneke is surprising. As said, the expression "articles of the Christian faith" occur three times in our official church papers. Of these, the Form for Public Profession of Faith does not help much for the original meaning. This form was made in this Century,(2) and the expression is undoubtedly dependent on the Catechism and the Form for Baptism. Both of these were made in the early 1560s. Then why does Munneke prove this with a quote from sixty years later and in a different country altogether? The church of Batavia was not even located in the Netherlands; it was in Indonesia.

There is another problem with Munneke's statement that the expression "articles of the Christian faith" refers to the Three Forms of Unity. Both the Heidelberg Catechism and our Form for Baptism have their origin in Germany, in the Palatinate in 1563. By this time, the Belgic Confession existed only in a French version among the churches in Belgium. It is unlikely that the theologians of the Palatinate would know about this confession, let alone recognize it. Even more problematic is the Canons of Dort, which was made at the Synod of Dort in 1619. How could the brothers in the Palatinate refer to a confession which would be made more than 50 years later?

To find out what the expression "articles of the Christian faith" means we have to look at the people close to the Heidelberg Catechism.

Ursinus and 0levianus

The Catechism itself gives the first indication of the meaning of this expression. Lord's Day 7, Q22, asks: What, then, must a Christian believe? The answer is: All that is promised us in the gospel, which the articles of our catholic and undoubted Christian faith teach us in a summary. This is followed by the question: What are these articles? Then the Apostles' Creed is quoted. The Catechism gives the clear impression that the expression "articles of the Christian faith" refers to the Apostles' Creed. Can that be confirmed from the authors?

We are in the fortunate situation that Ursinus gave an explanation of the Heidelberg Catechism. Since he is the main contributor to the Catechism we will begin with him. Before discussing QA 23 he says: "Further, the sum of the gospel are the articles of faith, with which we will deal immediately." This is followed by quoting the whole of the Apostles' Creed. Even clearer is what he says after quoting the Apostles' Creed: "The Articles of the Christian faith are called in Latin, taken from the Greek, Symbol of the Apostles, that is mark of the apostles." And the first question he is going to discuss is: "What is the Symbol of the Apostles, and why are the articles of the faith called thus." For Ursinus, the meaning of the expression "articles of the Christian faith" is clear. It means the statements of the Apostles' Creed.

What about Olevianus, who was heavily involved in the making of the Heidelberg Catechism? Olevianus wrote an explanation of the Apostles' Creed. He opens the book with the sentence: "The kingdom of Christ, offered to us in the articles of the faith, is now, in this life, experienced by the believers." This seems to imply that the articles of the faith are identical with the Apostles' Creed. A few pages later he says so explicitly: "The articles of the faith or the Apostles' Creed."

The other early source for the express ion "articles of the Christian faith" is the Form for Baptism. C. Trimp writes about the second question:

This question contains an explicit reference to the doctrine of the church, which is a very old element in the administration of baptism. In Calvin's Geneva, the Apostles' Creed was read at this point as summary of the doctrine of the church and as early-Christian baptismal symbol. Something similar used to take place in the Palatinate.(3)

It can now be established that the expression "articles of the Christian faith" indicates the Apostles' Creed.

That leaves us with the question how Munneke's misunderstanding could arise that the articles of the Christian faith mean the Three Forms of Unity. The article translated in Diakonia did not include the statement from 1621 that was the basis for his opinion. It can be found in the Dutch original. (4) Here we find the document that formed the basis for establishing the Reformed church in Java, Indonesia, in 1621. At the end of this statement it says:

In opinion, conviction and faith, in everything in agreement with the doctrine of God's holy Word and the Christian religion. Briefly summarized in the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism.

To this was added later: "Recently, in the year 1619 at the Synod of Dort further explained and; confirmed."

This statement does not speak of "articles of the Christian faith." The interpretation of this as "Three Forms of Unity" rests on a misunderstanding.

As churches, we have adopted the Three Forms of Unity. We are confessional churches just as the Reformed Church in Java of 1621. The expression "articles of the Christian faith," however, does not refer to the Three Forms of Unity. It refers to the Apostles' Creed.

Footnotes

(1) J. Munneke, "The Church and the Confession," Diakonia, June, 1989, 85.

(2) C. Trimp, Formulieren en Gebeden (Kampen: Van der Berg, 1978) 43.

(3) C. Trimp, Formulieren en gebeden, 39.

(4) J. Munneke, Het historisch fundament der kerk (Goes: Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, 1972) 26f.


 

Taken with permission from Clarion Year End Issue (1999)

Once More Articles and Confessions


Clarion 1999 Year End Pg. 590

During the past year, some discussion took place on the issue whether the Form for Baptism refers to the confessions. Rev. P.K.A. De Boer entered the debate in an article in Reformed Polemics, vol. 5, no. 16 (April 16, 1999). He stated as his position that the confessions are referred to in the expression "taught here in this Christian church," and backed this up with references to further literature. I responded in two ways. In Clarion (vol. 48, no. 17, Aug. 20, 1999) I gave an interpretation of this expression. And before I wrote that article, I had written a briefer article for Reformed Polemics, in which I showed that the quotations used in support of the position taken by Rev. De Boer did not refer to the confessions. My article was finalized by the end of May and sent to Reformed Polemics in June. To date, no response was received and my article was not published. In order not to stretch out the discussion beyond this year, it seemed good to publish this brief article now in Clarion.

 

I would like to briefly react to the responses to my article on the expression "articles of the Christian faith," published in the February 20 issue of Reformed Polemics. I hope to deal more at length with the second question of the Form for Baptism and the history behind it in a later article in Clarion. Here, I only want to pursue the discussion as it was published in Reformed Polemics.

It can be noted gratefully that the discussion has been helpful. It is again generally acknowledged that the old expression "articles of the Christian faith" used in the Catechism and in the original Form for Baptism, refers to the Apostles' Creed. That is important as a point of departure. Parents were always asked to express agreement with the doctrine summarized in the Apostles' Creed. When the expression "articles of the Christian faith" was changed into "the confessions," it meant a much more comprehensive promise.

Rev. P.K.A. de Boer defends this change on the basis of the words following the expression "articles of the Christian faith." He presents the original question in its entirety: "Do you acknowledge the doctrine which is contained in the Old and the New Testament, and in the articles of the Christian faith, and which is taught here in this Christian Church to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation?" According to him, the sentence "which are taught here in this Christian church" refers to how the Apostles' Creed was upheld by the adopted confessions. In other words, this expression refers to the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort. Rev. De Boer adds a statement by Synod 1986: "'...as taught here in this Christian Church' means one gives allegiance to all the confessions of the church."

When one takes a closer look at this interpretation, an uneasy feeling comes up. This is a smooth explanation, but is justice done to the original expression? There are two elements that cause this uneasy feeling. In the first place, why did the Form for Baptism not say this in a more straightforward way? If this was the meaning, why did the Form not simply speak of "the doctrine summarized in the articles of the Christian faith (= the Apostles' Creed) and in the confessions (= Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism and Canons of Dort)?" What was the reason for making a separate sentence ". . . as taught here in this Christian Church?"

The second problem is why the Form for Baptism suddenly speaks about "taught." Rev. De Boer explains this as "which is expanded upon and maintained . . ." But that is not what the Form says. It speaks of the doctrine of Scripture as taught here in this Christian Church. The word "taught" has no function in Rev. De Boer's explanation. The original expression is more complicated than it looks at first glance.

Rev. De Boer supports his explanation that the Form for Baptism means the confessions with a quotation from the explanation of this Form by Dr. B. Wielenga. He changes the expression slightly in his translation, and this change affects the meaning. He says of the Reformed church of London (England) in the 16th Century, that "it was determined that only parents who held to the Reformed Confessions of the church of which they were members could have their children baptized." Wielenga, however, does not use the plural form "Reformed Confessions." Rather, he speaks of the "Reformed confession" in the singular.(5) This may seem to be merely a minor difference, but it determines the meaning of the word "confession." This meaning becomes clear when Wielenga on the same page speaks of "Roman Catholic or Lutheran confession." The Roman Catholics do not even have confessions in our sense of the word. Wielenga, obviously, is not referring to any specific confessional document, but in general to the doctrinal conviction of the Reformed, the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics. The beginning of the quote from Wielenga proves this beyond dispute: ". . . it has been indisputably proven that with the words, this doctrine the whole reformed teaching (!, N.H.G.) is meant."

This brings us back to the second problem we raised. Why does this question in the Form for Baptism suddenly speak of the doctrine as "taught" in this Christian church? The word must refer to the preaching and catechetical instruction of the church. The parents who presented their child for baptism had to declare that the preaching and teaching in this church is the true and complete doctrine of salvation. This teaching obviously had to be in agreement with the confessions, the Three Forms of Unity. But the parents declared no more than that they accepted the Reformed teaching and preaching. They had to submit to that, without resisting it. They also had to promise to train their children in it. This has important consequences for the education in the faith. It also led to a struggle concerning the expression "which is taught in this Christian church." I cannot deal with that in this brief response, I hope to discuss it in the forthcoming Clarion article.

We may conclude that the Reformed confessions were not directly mentioned in the second question of the Form for baptism. The confessions function in the background. They determine the preaching and the teaching in the Reformed churches. The parents, however, had to state that the doctrine

-contained in Scripture
- and in the Apostles' Creed
-and taught in this Christian church

is the true and complete doctrine of salvation. To ask more would certainly have been overburdening parents of the 16th Century.

Footnotes

(5) B. Wielenga, Ons doopsformulier (2. ed.; Kampen: Kok, 1920) p. 255. The same translation mistake occurs in the quote from Dr. H. Bouwman, Gereformeerd kerkrecht (Kampen: Kok, 1934) vol. 2, p. 302.

 

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