“The Forms of Unity”

The Forms of Unity

In our Reformed churches we have four forms of unity, namely, the Heidelberg Catechism, The Canons of Dort,  Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession of Faith.  We understand these confessions to be a summary of what is taught in God’s Word and can be used to explain important doctrines of Scripture.

Unlike Scripture which cannot be challenged, the forms of unity can be.  If someone feels that the forms of unity express something that is contrary to Scripture, then they can bring what is called a ‘gravamen’ to the courts of the church. This would then begin with the local church and elders discussing the ‘gravamen’ and if no resolution is agreed upon, it can then go to the Classis of the churches in the State, and then if necessary to the Synod which meets once every three years.

Brief History of each Confession:

The Heidelberg Catechism:

The Heidelberg Catechism was composed in Heidelberg at the request of Elector Frederick III, who ruled the Palatinate, an influential German province, from 1559 to 1576.  An old tradition credits Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus with being co-authors of the new catechism.

The Catechism was approved by a synod in Heidelberg in January 1563. The catechism was divided into fifty-two sections so that one Lord’s Day could be explained in preaching each Sunday of the year.  Biblical passages quoted in the catechism are taken from the New International Version, 1984.

The Belgic Confession:

The oldest of the doctrinal standards of the Reformed Churches of Australia.  The confession’s chief author was Guido de Brès, a preacher of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, who died a martyr to the faith in the year 1567. During the sixteenth century the churches in this country were exposed to the most 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 was laid to their charge, but law-abiding citizens who professed the true Christian doctrine according to the Holy Scriptures, de Brès prepared this confession in the year 1561.

In 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 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.

In 1566 the text of this confession was revised at a Synod held at Antwerp. In the Netherlands it was at once gladly received by the churches, and it was adopted by national synods held during the last three decades of the sixteenth century.  The text, not the contents, was revised again at the Synod of Dort in 1618 /1619 and adopted as one of the doctrinal standards to which all office bearers in the Reformed churches were required to subscribe.

The Canons of Dort

This confession, sometimes referred to as the Doctrines of Grace, was written to primarily reject the teachings of Professor Jacob Arminius.  Professor Jacob Arminius died in 1609, but a year later his followers, who became known as Arminians drew up five articles of faith based on his views, in the form of a protest or Remonstrance.

The Synod was eventually convened on November 1618 in the city of Dordrecht, Holland, and met for more than six months.  By the 23rd of April, 1619, the Synod had completed its discussions, rejecting the five articles put forward by the followers of Arminius, and formulating its own understanding of Scripture’s teaching, based largely on the findings of John Calvin, one of the great Reformers.

This then became known as the “Canons of Dort,” containing five chapters that are often referred to as the “Five points of Calvinism.”  To aid in teaching these truths of Scripture as summarized in the Canons of Dort, the acronym “T.U.L.I.P.” was developed.   The acronym stands for the following:

T = Total Depravity
​U = Unconditional Election
L = Limited Atonement
I = Irresistible Grace​​
P = Perseverance of the Saints​

Interestingly, the acronym “T.U.L.I.P.” although reference to a very common Dutch flower, is an “Americanism” and even today, some of more elderly Dutch folk do not understand what the acronym “T.U.L.I.P.” actually means.

Here is a very brief understanding of the Arminian views and Synods reply:

a) Arminius taught that people could choose to be saved (also known as a Pelagius view cf semi-Pelagius view)

The Synod disagreed.  It concluded that as far as our salvation goes, man is unable to contribute to his salvation because sin has so distorted his understanding of God, that even our very best is tainted with sin.  Hence all our good deeds are as filthy rags to God when it comes to our salvation.  Further, if we could contribute towards our own salvation, we would be robbing God of His glory and taking away from the work of Christ on our behalf.

b) Arminius taught that people are elected to salvation because of foreseen faith.

The Synod disagreed. If this were true then it would allow man to take credit for his salvation and hence it would no longer be based on faith alone, by grace alone, but faith and works or grace and our choices and works and would rob God of His glory.

c) Arminius taught that Christ died for all people everywhere (universalism), but only believers are saved.

The Synod disagreed.  We must not say that Jesus died for all people, even those who end up in hell.  If that were the case then Christ’s atoning work is unable to save some and that could not be.  So we must say that Christ’s death is sufficient to pay for the sins of the whole world, but limited to those who have been chosen by God before the foundations of the world to be saved.

d)  Arminius taught that God’s grace can be resisted –

The Synod disagreed.  God, because of his electing love for those He has chosen, is able to overcome that resistance through the power of his word and Spirit working mightily together, and so change a man’s heart and mind that they become willing to embrace Jesus as Saviour.

e) Arminius taught that saved people can fall from God’s grace and be lost eternally.

The Synod disagreed. God’s holds us securely in his eternal hands and will complete the good work he has begun in us.  Indeed, there is not anything in all creation that can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus. God so preserves us that we can and will persevere even under the severest of trials.

The Westminster Confession of Faith

The Westminster Confession of Faith was the work of the Assembly of Divines which was called together by Parliament and met in London, at Westminster Abbey, during the years 1643-1648.  It was this Assembly which also produced the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.  The Confession and the Catechisms are used by many churches as their doctrinal standards, subordinate to the Word of God.

The Westminster Confession has been accepted by the Reformed Churches of Australia in 1957 as a fourth Confessional Standard, with the understanding that on those points where the Westminster Confession goes further than the Belgic Confession the office bearers and members of the churches will be bound to the latter only.