THE UNITY of the Reformed Church in the U.S. (RCUS) consists to a large extent in its faithful adherence to a common faith and doctrine. The denomination affirms the great creeds of the early church—the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds—which define historic Christianity. It also subscribes to key doctrinal statements of the Protestant Reformation—the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and the Canons of Dort (1618–19), which together are called the Three Forms of Unity.
The Bible exhorts us to promote the unity of the church through common beliefs: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph. 4:1–6). It also calls us to have a unity of heart and mind; “Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind” (Phil. 2:1–3).
Faith is a personal act that has as its content a body of objective truths which we confess in unity with other Christians. The New Testament speaks of “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3; cf. Acts 6:7, 14:22; Gal. 1:23). Biblical faith is intelligible and can be theologically articulated in creed, catechism, and confession.
Creeds of the Early Church
The word “creed” (Latin, credo) means “I believe,” and reflects the biblical emphasis on salvation by faith. The early creeds grew out of the rudimentary forms of confession we find in the New Testament, for example, in 1 Tim 3:14–16:
God was manifested in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.
Paul exhorted the young pastor Timothy to “hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed to you, keep by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us” (2 Tim. 1:13–14). Pastors especially are to embrace, guard, and protect the apostolic standard of doctrine as a valuable treasure committed to their care.
The early church understood these matters and began to articulate the content of its beliefs in contrast to the multiple heresies it faced. Building on the Trinitarian baptismal formula in Matt. 28:19, it stated the essential doctrines of the faith.
A creed came to be understood as a concise, ecclesiastically authorized statement of the fundamental points of Christian doctrine. The Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds have often been called “ecumenical,” meaning general or universal, because they have been accepted by all true, historic Christian churches.
The Heidelberg Catechism
“Catechism” is a biblical term (katacheo). Used at least seven times in the New Testament, it refers to instruction in the faith. Although the question-and-answer form of a catechism is not found in the Bible, the general injunction to train converts and covenant children is given to the church (Matt. 28:19–20).
The Church throughout the ages has taken this responsibility seriously. In preparing converts or children to make a public profession of faith, the Heidelberg Catechism has provided written questions on the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. Frederick the III stated this as his reason for commissioning the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism:
And accordingly … we have secured the preparation of a summary course of instruction or catechism of our Christian Religion, according to the word of God … in order that the youth in churches and schools may be piously instructed in such Christian doctrine, and be thoroughly trained therein, but also that the Pastors and Schoolmasters themselves may be provided with a fixed form and model, by which to regulate the instruction of youth, and not, at their option, adopt daily changes, or introduce erroneous doctrine. (Preface to the Heidelberg Catechism, 1563)
Our commitment to the Heidelberg Catechism enables us to provide clear training for the youth of the Church, giving a balanced and succinct treatment of what a Christian is to believe and how he is to live.
Confessions of the Reformation
A confession is similar to a creed. It is also biblical term (homologia), and means that we “say the same thing” or affirm a statement that has previously been made. The pattern of confession is provided by Christ Himself, who witnessed a good confession before Pilate that He was the Christ and the King (1 Tim. 6:13, Mk. 15:13, Jn. 18:36–37). The first great confession in the New Testament was made by Peter in answer to Christ’s question, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” Peter’s affirmation focused on the Person of Jesus Christ: He is the Messiah and the Son of the living God (cf. 1 Jn. 4:15, 2 Jn. 7).
It is our duty not only to believe as a personal act before God, but to verbally confess this before men (Matt. 10:32, Lk. 12:8, Rom. 10:9). A confession of faith means to declare publicly before many witnesses that an individual or a congregation pledges allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord. Always more than mental assent, it is a covenant commitment to follow Him. In it, a person is willing to state what he believes, even if it means suffering persecution (Matt. 10:32–39, Jn. 9:22, 12:42).
The Reformed Church in the U.S. embraces two confessional documents from the period of the Reformation. The first, the Belgic Confession, covers in some detail the whole range of biblical doctrine. Written in a lively style, it captures the main points of Reformed theology.
The second, the Canons of Dort, focuses on the true way to understand the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and for the glory of God alone. It helps us understand that there is nothing in us, or that can be done by us, to save ourselves. We are wholly dependent on God’s sovereign grace to impart faith and preserve us in it.
Necessity of Creeds and Confessions
Some question whether a creed, confession, or catechism is necessary. Is it not sufficient, they say, to just believe the Bible and have “no creed but Christ”? Although this seems laudable, Christ exhorts us, “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32–33, Lk. 12:8–9). Paul elaborates further when he connects faith and confession: “that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9–10). The Scriptures give us both the warrant and even the duty to confess our faith publicly before men.
Some say that they have no creed or confession. But whenever they state what they understand the Bible to teach, they are in fact making a confession. Many immature Christians are deceived by such rhetoric and are “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting” (Eph. 4:14).
As our culture embraces post-modern views we see the wholesale rejection of truth itself. There are those who hide under the cover of ambiguity, while either continually modifying their opinions, or secretly embracing heretical opinions. Their real objection to confessions is an unwillingness to submit to any ecclesiastical authority. They will not commit themselves to a theological tradition which maintains historic biblical orthodoxy.
The RCUS is glad to publish what it believes. It views its confessional documents not as outmoded forms of archaic theology nor interesting museum pieces. It does not see the need for continual revision of its confessions or the need to add a “contemporary testimony” in the form of a prose-poem. In the historic, orthodox creeds and Reformed confessions it finds continuity with the true church of the past and a true unity among its churches today.
Ultimate and Subordinate Standards
The RCUS does not, however, make its confessional statements equal to, or elevated above, Scripture. Our Constitution says,
The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, which are called canonical, being recognized as genuine and inspired, are received as the true and proper Word of God, infallible and inerrant, and the ultimate rule and measure of the whole Christian faith and doctrine. (Constitution, Art. 176)
Mere human writings can never be our ultimate and final standard, even those with higher authority due to the fact that they were decided in the councils of the church. The Belgic Confession itself states this:
Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all. (Belgic Confession, Art. 7)
This is an integral part of our confession—to define the nature of biblical authority and to distinguish it from confessional statements. Our creeds, confessions, and catechism are to be understood as subordinate standards. And yet they have real authority in the church because they are based upon and embody biblical truth.
The Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession of Faith, and the Canons of Dort are received as authoritative expressions of the truths taught in the Holy Scriptures, and are acknowledged to be the subordinate standards of doctrine in the Reformed Church in the United States. (Constitution, Art. 177)
Interpretation of the Bible
The Three Forms of Unity explain the way in which we interpret the Scriptures (Constitution, Art. 177). Biblical interpretation is the right of the Church, meeting at properly called councils (Acts 16:6 ff). A merely private effort to create one’s own confession does not have the seal of the Church upon it. Authoritative doctrinal formulations are made in the context of the church’s struggle with heresy, when it clarifies critical theological issues and affirms what the Bible truly teaches.
Because of this, the RCUS does not start anew, as if it were the first to seriously study the Bible or articulate its faith. It therefore takes its stand with historic Christian orthodoxy and the Reformed confessions in the one, true faith. We unite ourselves to the true Church in ages past, to that line of biblical orthodoxy which we believe is most faithful to Scripture. We affirm that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
Confessional Subscription and Teaching
Our Constitution, which incorporates the Reformed Standards of Unity, provides guidance for what should be taught in the church. Our doctrinal standards are a living confession in the life of the church. Each RCUS congregation is bound to confess these as the expression of its being of the same mind with the rest of the church (Constitution, Art. 7).
When men are licensed to the gospel ministry or installed as teachers of theology, they are to subscribe to the Three Forms by signing their name to the following:
“I hereby testify that I honestly and truly accept the doctrine of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession of Faith, and the Canons of Dort as in accordance with the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, and promise faithfully to preach and defend the same.” (Constitution, Art. 22)
In fact, to manifest the unity of the faith we also believe that members should be taught to confess our Three Forms as the faithful interpretation of Scripture (Constitution, Art. 4). It is especially incumbent upon the pastors and elders of the congregations to see that the youth of the church are properly instructed in the basic teachings of the Christian faith (Constitution, Art. 182). Therefore,
Every pastor shall carefully prepare the youth in his pastoral charge for communicant membership in the Church by diligently instructing them in the doctrines and duties of the Christian religion. The period of instruction shall, if possible, be so extended that the pupils memorize and are able to recite the entire Heidelberg Catechism before confirmation. The course of instruction shall include catechetical explanation and memorization, Bible history, Bible readings and memorizations, and the study of the books and contents of the Bible, the Belgic Confession of Faith, the Canons of Dort, church history, also the singing and memorization of Psalms, hymns, and Scripture songs. (Constitution, Art. 192)
We, therefore, commend to you these doctrinal standards of the Reformed Church in the U.S. for your careful, prayerful study and believe that you will find them to be a full and faithful summary of what Scripture teaches.
“… till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
Note on the Text
In this edition of the Three Forms of Unity, some additions and revisions have been made, which are more a matter of form than of substance. The revision was undertaken under the direction of the 264th Synod of the Reformed Church in the U.S. (2010) through its Publications and Promotions Committee.
In agreement with the Belgic Confession (Art. 9), we have included three important creeds from the early Church: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. The text of the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort was originally taken from the Psalter Hymnal, Doctrinal Standards and Liturgy of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids, 1959). Certain modifications were made by various Synods of the RCUS to reflect its commitment to biblical consistency.
The CRC text used both the Revised Standard (RSV) and Authorized (KJV) versions of the Bible for scripture references. In this edition, all Bible quotations and allusions have been conformed to The New King James Version (Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1982). The Bible is referenced in three ways: (a) direct quotations, (b) allusions, and (c) quote fragments. All direct quotations in the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort are set in italics, whereas Scriptural allusions are set in regular type, followed by the reference note. These have been incorporated in light of proper English grammar and syntax.