Introduction to the Creeds and Confessions

The practice of writing and confessing creeds (from the Latin credo, “I believe”) is as old as the Lord’s church herself. Thus, we find in both the Old (Deut. 6:4) and New Testaments (Matt. 16:16; 1 Cor. 15:3–4; Eph. 4:4–6; 1 Tim. 3:16) of the Holy Scriptures summary statements of the faith of God’s covenant people.

The following ancient Christian creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, Athanasian) and the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort) contain the doctrinal standards, or publicly confessed faith, of the United Reformed Churches in North America. These forms are not peculiar to us. The creeds unite us to the ancient Christian church, and the Three Forms of Unity unite us to the broader Reformed tradition of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

As Christian churches, our foundational text is the Bible, the inspired and infallible Word of God. The basic beliefs of the Bible—that there is only one God, who exists eternally as a Trinity, and that Jesus Christ our Savior is both God and man—were expressed by the early Christian church in the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds. The Belgic Confession says that “we willingly receive” these three creeds (art. 9), since they are ecumenical (general, universal) and have been accepted by a large portion of the churches of Christendom.

As Reformed churches, we belong to those churches of the Protestant Reformation that acknowledge Jesus Christ as Head of his church. He rules and governs his church by his Word and his Spirit, not by the dictates of men. Therefore, the authority of the creeds and confessions, to which all our office-bearers subscribe as fully agreeing with the Word of God, is always subordinate to the authority of his inspired and infallible Word, the Bible. It was in that context that our forefathers wrote the following Reformed confessions, also known as the Three Forms of Unity: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. The ministers, elders, and deacons of each congregation sign the Form of Subscription as a promise to preserve and to propagate the faith contained in these doctrinal standards to the utmost of their abilities. With minor variations, this form has been used since the Reformation.

Ecumenical Creeds

The Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed date from the early centuries of the Christian church. Creeds, also called “symbols of faith,” are concise and authorized statements of the essential tenets of the faith. The believing community employs these creeds for testimony, instruction, and worship—including setting forth normative expressions of Christian truth and serving as the standard for theological inquiry. Although many kinds of creeds exist, the ecumenical creeds have the broadest recognition within the Christian church. They are called “ecumenical” because they have been approved and accepted by a large portion of the churches of Christendom.

The Apostles’ Creed

The Apostles’ Creed is so called, not because it was produced by the apostles themselves, but because it contains a concise summary of their teachings. Its chief tenets can be traced to specific New Testament texts, such as Matthew 1:18; 16:16; 28:19; Luke 1:35; 23:43; 1 Corinthians 15:3–5; 15:20. As has been well said, it sets forth biblical doctrine “in sublime simplicity, in unsurpassable brevity, in the most beautiful order, and with liturgical solemnity.” This creed originated as a baptismal confession, probably in the second century, and developed into its present form by the sixth or seventh century, being the culmination of several centuries of reflection. The creed is Trinitarian in structure and accents God’s operations for our salvation. More than any other creed of Christendom, it may justly be called an ecumenical symbol of faith.

The Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed, more precisely called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, is a statement of the orthodox faith of the early Christian church in opposition to certain heresies, especially Arianism. These heresies, which disturbed the church during the fourth century, concerned the doctrine of the Trinity and the person of Christ. Both the Greek (Eastern) and the Latin (Western) church held this creed in honor, though with one important difference. The Western church insisted on the inclusion of the phrase “and the Son” (known as the filioque clause) in the article on the procession of the Holy Spirit, though this phrase has always been repudiated by the Eastern church. In its present form, this creed goes back originally to the Council of Nicaea (325), with additions by the Council of Constantinople (381). It was accepted in its present form at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, but the filioque clause was not added until 589. Nonetheless, the creed is in substance an accurate and majestic formulation of the Nicene faith. It consists of three sections—one for each person of the Trinity—and concludes with four statements affirming the universal tenets of the Christian gospel. In combatting the Arian error, the creed makes it clear that the Son is equal in status with the Father, since the Son is of the same substance as the Father. Indeed, the Nicene Creed remains a standard of Trinitarian orthodoxy.

The Athanasian Creed

The Athanasian Creed is named after Athanasius (293–373), the champion of orthodoxy against Arian attacks on the doctrine of the Trinity. Although Athanasius did not write this creed, the name persists because it was commonly ascribed to him until the seventeenth century. It is also called the Quicunque vult, derived from the opening words in the Latin original.

The general consensus among scholars is that this creed was produced during the fifth or sixth century. Originally it seems to have been used, not as a creed or confession, but as a tool of instruction and test of orthodoxy for clergy. It is first quoted in the canons of the Fourth Synod of Toledo (633), and apparently gained creedal status at the Synod of Autun (ca. 670). By the thirteenth century, it was regarded in the West as one of the three principal creeds of the church, along with the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

The Athanasian Creed’s liturgical function is limited because of its length, but it continues to define a markedly Western understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity and presents positively the Christology of Chalcedon. It was formulated in response to the post-Nicene controversies regarding the person of Jesus Christ, specifically concerning the incarnation and the relationship between Christ’s divine and human natures. It addresses Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, and perhaps also Eutychianism, which were condemned at the councils of Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451), respectively. Apart from the opening and closing sentences, this creed consists of two parts, each consisting of a series of declarations. The first part sets forth the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity (3–28), and the second treats chiefly the doctrines of the incarnation and the two natures of Christ (29–41). As for the doctrine of the Trinity, this creed accents the Augustinian teaching on the Trinity, with the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son (filioque) and an accent on the divine unity. The Godhead is altogether one—one divine substance or essence—yet each person in it has a particular property by virtue of which he differs and is distinct from the other two. Those properties are that the Father is not generated (or begotten), that the Son is generated (or begotten), and that the Holy Spirit proceeds (or is sent). As for the doctrine of Christ, this creed teaches the full deity and the full humanity of Christ; the unity and oneness of his person is also affirmed, contrary to Nestorianism. His humanity is constituted with a rational soul and a human body. Seemingly addressing Eutychianism as well as Apollinarianism, this creed denies any confusion of natures in Jesus Christ and affirms that the Son of God assumed a full human nature. Next follow statements about Christ’s death and resurrection and the general resurrection and last judgment. The creed’s introduction and conclusion assert that the corruption or denial of the teaching of this creed is inconsistent with salvation.

The Belgic Confession

The Belgic Confession of Faith is the oldest of the Three Forms of Unity. In the sixteenth century, when the confession was first composed, “Belgic” designated the entirety of the Netherlands, both north and south, which today is divided into distinct countries: the Netherlands and Belgium. The confession’s chief author was Guido de Brès, a preacher of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands. During the sixteenth century, the churches in this country were exposed to terrible persecution by the Roman Catholic government. To protest against this cruel oppression, and to prove to the persecutors that the adherents of the Reformed faith were not rebels, as they were accused, but rather were law-abiding citizens who professed the true Christian doctrine according to the Holy Scriptures, de Brès prepared this confession in 1561. The following year a copy was sent to King Philip II, together with an address in which the petitioners declared that they were ready to obey the government in all lawful things, but that they would “offer their backs to the stripes, their tongues to knives, their mouths to gags, and their whole bodies to the fire,” rather than deny the truth expressed in this confession. Nearly every copy of de Brès’s confession was destroyed by official order (only two copies still exist). In 1567, Guido de Brès suffered the kind of martyr’s death he had described.

Although the immediate purpose of securing freedom from persecution was not attained, and many thousands sealed their faith with their lives, de Brès’s work endured. The political situation soon changed in the Netherlands, leading to the ascendency of the Reformed faith there, and the Belgic Confession became a doctrinal standard of the Dutch churches. In 1566, the text of this confession was revised and adopted at the local synod held at Antwerp, followed by Wessel (1568), Emden (1571), Dort (1574), and Middleburg (1581). Revisions to the text were made again at the Synod of Dort (1618–1619), and the revised text was adopted as one of the doctrinal standards to which all office-bearers in the Dutch Reformed churches were required to subscribe.

In its composition, the author availed himself to some extent of a confession of the Reformed churches in France, written chiefly by John Calvin, published two years earlier. The work of de Brès, however, is not a mere revision of Calvin’s work, but an independent composition.

The confession’s frequent use of Scripture is indicated with quotation marks in the text. The Scripture references in the footnotes, however, were not a part of the officially approved text of the confession as revised at the Synod of Dort. They are included here to assist the reader. Synod 2016 of the URCNA also revised Article 4 to modernize the names of the books of the Bible and to reflect the uncertain authorship of the letter to the Hebrews.

The English translation of the Belgic Confession found below is based upon the official French text approved by the Synod of Dort.

The Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) is among the most cherished catechisms ever written, and is perhaps best known for its first question and answer: “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”

It was composed in Heidelberg at the request of Elector Frederick III, who ruled the Palatinate, an influential German province, from 1559 to 1576. The Palatinate was one of the few pockets of Calvinistic faith among the Lutheran and Roman Catholic territories of Germany at that time. Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus are traditionally considered coauthors of the new catechism. Ursinus (1534–83), a student of both Calvin and Melanchthon, and a professor of theology at the University of Heidelberg, is often credited with providing the initial drafts of the catechism by means of his Summa Theologicae (323 questions) and in the condensed version of the Summa, his Catechesis Minor (108 questions). As for Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), he had been a student of Calvin and Beza and served as the pastor of the Holy Spirit Church at Heidelberg. Although he probably played a less prominent role than earlier scholarship has suggested, he certainly participated in the deliberations about the final form of the catechism.

It is worth noting what Elector Frederick III himself reported in his preface to the catechism, dated January 19, 1563. There readers are informed that the Elector secured the preparation of the catechism “with the advice and cooperation of our entire theological faculty in this place, and of all superintendents and distinguished servants of the church.” Therefore, a committee of theologians, appointed by Frederick III, was responsible for the official text of the catechism, drawing on resources that proved useful.

The Heidelberg Catechism was approved by a Palatinate synod in Heidelberg in January 1563 and printed with the above-mentioned preface by the Elector in February. Second and third German editions, each with small additions, as well as a Latin translation, were published the same year in Heidelberg. Soon the catechism was divided into fifty-two sections, so that on successive Lord’s Days a portion of it could be expounded from the pulpit, getting through the catechism in one year.

The Synod of Dort in 1618–19 approved the Heidelberg Catechism, and it soon became the most ecumenical of the Reformed catechisms and confessions. Indeed, it was the most widely used and most warmly praised catechism of the Reformation period.

The Heidelberg Catechism, after two introductory questions and answers, is divided into three parts: (1) human misery (Q&As 3–11); (2) divine deliverance, including an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, as well as justification, good works, and the means of grace (Q&As 12–85); and (3) Christian gratitude, which expounds the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer as chief constituents of the Christian life (Q&As 86–129).

The English translation presented here (a thorough revision of the version that appeared in the 1976 Psalter Hymnal) follows the third German edition of the catechism. This is the German edition that was included in the Palatinate Church Order of November 15, 1563, and is the “received text” used throughout the world.

The Canons of Dort

The “Decision of the Synod of Dort on the Five Main Points of Doctrine in Dispute in the Netherlands” is popularly known as the Canons of Dort. It consists of statements of doctrine adopted by the great Synod of Dort, which met in the city of Dordrecht in 1618–19. Although this was a national synod of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, it had an international character, since it included twenty-six delegates from eight foreign countries.

The Synod of Dort was held in order to settle a serious controversy in the Dutch churches occasioned by the rise of Arminianism. Jacob Arminius, a theology professor at Leiden University, questioned the teaching of Calvin and his followers on a number of important points. After Arminius’s death, his followers presented their views on five of these points in the Remonstrance, or “protest,” of 1610. In this document and in later, more explicit writings, the Arminians taught election based on foreseen faith, universal atonement, partial depravity, resistible grace, and the possibility of a lapse from grace. In the Canons, the Synod of Dort rejected these views and set forth the Reformed doctrine on these points. In terms of strict accuracy, the Canons fit uncomfortably under the slogans: unconditional election, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. These abbreviated phrases fail to capture the breadth of the Canons’ teachings.

The five “heads” (topics) in the Canons, divided into four parts, treat (1) “Divine Election and Reprobation,” (2) “Christ’s Death and Human Redemption through It,” (3–4) “Human Corruption, Conversion to God, and the Way It Occurs,” and (5) “The Perseverance of the Saints.”

The first topic, in treating unconditional election, begins with the fallen condition of human beings, who are under the penalty of death as sin’s curse. However, God, according to his loving-kindness, saves all who believe in Christ through the preaching of the gospel. Although man has only himself to blame for his sin, salvation is the free gift of God. As a gift, salvation is grounded in God’s gracious election of sinners, which is according to his good pleasure. Being unchangeable and eternal, divine election provides assurance to believers as they experience its fruits in their lives, namely faith in Christ, sorrow over sin, and thirst for righteousness. The Canons briefly touch on the decree of reprobation as a divine passing over, a nonelection, so that God leaves such persons “in the common misery into which, by their own fault, they have plunged themselves.” Divine nonaction, then, leaves them in their unbelief, and divine action condemns them eternally for their sin. Moreover, this topic aims to console godly parents whose children die at a tender age, such that, in view of the covenant of grace, they “ought not to doubt the election and salvation” of such children.

The Canons, in the second topic, accent the efficacious character of Christ’s sacrifice as a full and perfect satisfaction for sin, “of infinite value and worth,” “sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.” This sufficiency undergirds the Canons’ teaching that the gospel must be preached to all people. Since sinners cannot satisfy for their own sins for salvation, “God in his boundless mercy has given us as a guarantee, his only begotten Son, who was made to be sin and a curse for us, in our place, on the cross, in order that he might give satisfaction for us.” The fault that some people remain in their unbelief resides in them. Grace is grounded in Christ from eternity, and Christ’s death is efficacious for the elect alone. According to his eternal love, the elect are gathered together as God’s church, “founded on Christ’s blood.”

The next topic, heads three and four together, takes up a subject touched on earlier, namely human corruption. Man has fallen from his original state, and now suffers “blindness, terrible darkness, futility, and distortion of judgment in his mind; perversity, defiance, and hardness in his heart and will; and finally impurity in all his emotions.” This corruption has spread to all of Adam’s progeny. As such, all people are “born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin”; without the gift of rebirth and renewal, they are neither willing nor able to fellowship with God or reform their brokenness. They cannot even dispose themselves to such reform. God, however, effects healing through the gospel, by the operation of the Holy Spirit. As such, the call of the gospel calls “seriously” all who hear it. The blame and responsibility for failing to heed this call resides with sinners. Conversion, on the other hand, is a divine work, wherein God effectually calls the elect to faith and repentance, and that by means of the “effective operation of the … regenerating Spirit.” Thus, we should pray for the lost, since God is wholly able to bring the dead to life.

The last topic examines the perseverance of the saints. Believers are set free from “the reign and slavery of sin,” but they are not yet entirely free, in this life, from “the flesh” and “from the body of sin.” Although believers still struggle with sin, God does not abandon them, so that they must fend for themselves. Rather, God continues to strengthen and preserve believers in faith, even when they experience periods of straying from his will and fall into monstrous sins. God never forsakes his elect. He never allows them to permanently forfeit grace. He always brings them back to repentance and faith, so that they live according to the gospel. Meanwhile, assurance of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life is also a matter of faith—grounded in God’s promises and strengthened by the believer’s walk of obedience. Such assurance is an incentive to godliness.

The Canons have a special character because they were originally a judicial decision on the doctrinal points in dispute during the Arminian controversy. The original preface called them a “judgment, in which both the true view, agreeing with God’s Word, concerning the aforesaid five points of doctrine is explained, and the false view, disagreeing with God’s Word, is rejected.” The Canons also have a limited character in that they do not cover the whole range of doctrine, but focus on the five points of doctrine in dispute.

Each of the main points consists of a positive and a negative part, the former being an exposition of the Reformed doctrine on the subject, and the latter being a repudiation of the corresponding errors. In the text presented here, each of the errors being rejected is shaded in gray.

The translation of the Canons presented here is based on the only extant Latin manuscript among those signed at the Synod of Dort. The biblical quotations are translations from the original Latin, and so do not always correspond to current versions. Though not in the original text, subheadings have been added to the positive articles and to the conclusion in order to facilitate study of the Canons.