We believe that the Bible is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). It was composed by a variety of human authors with different gifts and cultural backgrounds who were, “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21), and spoke the word of God into their world. In God’s care these writings were preserved in the Bible, and by the power of the Holy Spirit they still speak to us today.
All that mankind must believe in order to be saved is sufficiently taught within the Bible. God not only reveals Himself to us, but also gives to us the truth about the history of the world, the purpose of humanity, and the problem of our sin (and sinful nature). Above all, He reveals his grace in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Since the Bible is God’s word to us, it is the foundation for all that we believe and confess. But what exactly does the Bible teach? This has been the question of the church throughout history. For this reason, at various times, Christians have confessed their faith by writing summaries of the central teachings of the Bible. The Reformed church holds to a number of these documents (Creeds and Confessions), which we believe faithfully express biblical truths and attest to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit given to the church in history. They hold us accountable to the Bible, and provide us with a method of learning and confessing its basic teachings.
Our creeds and confessions can be placed into two main categories: the Ecumenical Creeds and the Three Forms of Unity.
The following creeds are called ecumenical, that is, general or universal, because they have been approved and accepted by nearly all Christian churches.
The Apostles’ Creed is based on the creed used in Rome around A.D. 400, which in turn goes back another two hundred years. It is called the Apostles’ Creed, not because it was written by the apostles themselves, but because it contains a brief summary of their teachings. It sets forth their doctrine (beliefs), as has been said, “in sublime simplicity, in unsurpassable brevity, in beautiful order, and with liturgical solemnity.”
The Nicene Creed, also called the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed, is a statement of the orthodox faith of the early Christian church in opposition to certain heresies, especially Arianism. These heresies concerned the doctrine of the Trinity and of the person of Christ and were refuted at the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325).
This creed is named after Athanasius (A.D. 293-373), the champion of orthodoxy over against Arian attacks on the doctrine of the Trinity. Although Athanasius did not write this creed and it is improperly called after him, the name persists because until the seventeenth century it was commonly ascribed to him. The creed itself appears for the first time in the first half of the sixth century, but the author is unknown.
The Three Forms of Unity
As a Reformed Church, we hold to Reformed doctrine. These teachings flow out of the debates of the Great Reformation of the 16th century and have been summarized with Scripture proofs in the confessions written in that era.
During the sixteenth century the churches in the Southern Netherlands, now Belgium, were exposed to terrible persecution by the Roman Catholic government. To protest against this cruel oppression, a preacher of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands named, Guido de Brès, prepared the Belgic Confession in the year 1561 to prove that they were law abiding Christians and not rebels. 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 fire,” rather than deny the truth expressed in this confession. Although the immediate purpose of securing freedom from persecution was not achieved, and de Brès himself fell in 1567 as one of the many thousands who sealed their faith with their lives, his work has endured and will continue to endure for ages. Its excellence as one the best statements of Reformed doctrine has been broadly recognized.
The Heidelberg Catechism, the second of our doctrinal standards, was written in Heidelberg, Germany at the request of Elector Frederick III. This devout Christian prince commissioned Zacharias Ursinus, twenty-eight years of age and professor of theology at the Heidelberg University, and Caspar Olevianus, twenty-six years old and Frederick’s court preacher, to prepare a catechism, a teaching tool composed of questions and answers, for instructing the youth and for guiding pastors and teachers. Their work, the Heidelberg Catechism, was published in 1563.
The Catechism was soon divided into fifty-two sections, so that a section of the Catechism could be explained to the churches each Sunday of the year. In the Netherlands this Heidelberg Catechism became broadly and favourably known almost as soon as it came off the press. The broader church assemblies of the sixteenth century adopted it as one of the doctrinal standards of the Reformed churches, requiring office-bearers to subscribe to it and ministers to explain it to the churches. The Heidelberg Catechism has been translated into many languages and is one of the most influential and most accepted of the several catechisms of the Reformation times.
The Canons of Dort
A large assembly of Reformed churches in the Netherlands (the Reformed Synod of Dort, 1618-1619) met to discuss the rise and spread of new beliefs called Arminianism. Arminius was a theological professor who, with his followers, had departed from the Reformed faith in their teachings concerning five important points. They taught: conditional election on the ground of foreseen faith, universal atonement, partial depravity, resistible grace, and the possibility of a lapse from grace. These departing views were rejected by the Synod and the orthodox views were embodied in the Canons of Dort (a canon is a principle or decision), also known as the Five Articles Against the Remonstrants. The Synod set forth the Reformed beliefs (doctrine) on these points, namely: (1) unconditional election, (2) particular atonement, (3) total depravity, (4) invincible grace, and (5) the perseverance of the saints.