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Confessional Standards

Our Secondary Standards: the Three Forms of Unity

When asked, "What does the Bible teach?" or "How do you interpret it?" we respond with a unified voice by referring to the historic creeds and confessions of the Reformed church which summarize the message of Scripture.

Our statement of faith includes the Apostle's Creed as well as the historic confession of the churches of the Reformation. We affirm and teach that system of doctrine which is set forth in the Three Forms of Unity: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. These three doctrinal statements, born of the Protestant Reformation, define what it means to be reformed. The Consitution of our denomination states,

ARTICLE 176. 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.

ARTICLE 177. 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.

(RCUS Constitution, Part IV. Doctrine and Worship, Section 1, Doctrine)

1. The Heidelberg Catechism

The Catechism or Instruction in the Christian faith received its name from the place of its origin, Heidelberg, the capital of the German Electorate of the Palatinate. That the Reformed Protestant faith might be taught and maintained in his domain, the godly elector Frederick III commissioned Zacharias Ursinus, professor at the Heidelberg University, and Caspar Olevianus, court preacher, to prepare a manual for instructing the youth and guiding pastors and teachers in the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. Prepared with the advice and cooperation of the entire theological faculty, the result was a new Catechism. It was heartily approved by the Elector himself and the Synodical gathering of prominent Reformed preachers and theologians at Heidelberg, Germany.

The plan of the Catechism, following the outline of Paul's letter to the Romans, is an eminently practical condensation of evangelical doctrine. The answer to question one is the Gospel in a nutshell: salvation in Christ is our only comfort in life and death.

The Great Synod of Dort (1618-1619) declared that the Heidelberg Catechism was in all respects in harmony with the Word of God and required office-bearers to subscribe to it. It was called "an admirably composed compendium of the orthodox Christian doctrine, wisely adapted to the comprehension of tender youths, and also to the more elaborate instruction of adults." The Synod issued directives that it was to be used by parents in teaching their children, by instructors in the schools, and by pastors on each Lord's Day afternoon.

It has been deservedly the most widely used and influential catechism of the Reformation period. The Reformed Churches of Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, Transylvania, and Poland adopted it. Among the thirty languages into which the catechism has been translated include Dutch, English, French, Polish, Hungarian, Greek, Lithuanian, Hebrew, Italian, Bohemian, Javanese, Arabic, Singalese, Hebrew, and Malay. In North America it was adopted as a standard of the Reformed Church in the United States from the very beginning of its history.

2. The Belgic Confession

This doctrinal standard of the Reformed Churches in the U.S. is named for its origin in the Southern Lowlands (Netherlands), now known as Belgium. Its chief author was Guido de Bres. Born at Mons in 1523, de Bres was converted to the evangelical faith through the diligent reading of the Bible. Under Philip II of Spain, an ally of the Romish Church, the believers in the Lowlands were sorely persecuted as revolutionaries. This Confession was written primarily as a testimony to the king to prove that the Reformed believers were law-abiding citizens who professed only those doctrines which were in harmony with Holy Scripture. First composed in 1559, a copy was sent to Philip II in which it was declared that these believers were ready to obey the government in all lawful things, although 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 of God's Word."

The document was published in French in 1561. Its content is dependent to a great extent on the confession of the Reformed Churches in France, written chiefly by John Calvin and published two years earlier. The work of de Bres, however, was not a mere revision of that work, for it gives a more expanded treatment of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Church, and the Sacraments. Though the confession failed to stem the tide of persecution, it was instrumental in helping thousands understand the Reformed faith. Guido de Bres was eventually captured, and sealed his confession with martyr's blood in 1567. His work has endured as an expression of the faith of a people suffering for Christ's sake and will continue to serve as a means of instruction in the Reformed faith.

The Belgic Confession was adopted by the Reformed Church in the Netherlands at the Synod of Antwerp in 1566. After careful revision of the text, the great Synod of Dort in 1618-19 adopted this confession as one of the doctrinal standards of the Reformed churches, to which all office-bearers (ministers, elders, deacons, professors of theology, and schoolmasters) of the churches were required to subscribe. Its excellence as one of the best statements of Reformed doctrine has been generally recognized by all Reformed churches.

3. The Canons of Dordt

The Decision of the Synod of Dort on the Five Main Points of Doctrine in Dispute 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, Netherlands, in 1618-19. The Synod met in order to settle a serious controversy in the churches initiated by the rise of Arminianism. Jacob Arminius, a theological professor at Leiden University, questioned the teaching of Calvin and the Reformed churches on a number of important points and had advocated a revision of the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. After Arminius's death, his followers presented their views on five theological points in the "Remonstrance" of 1610, which taught election based on foreseen faith, universal atonement, partial depravity, resistible grace, and the possibility of a lapse from grace.

Convened by the States-General of the Netherlands on November 13, 1618 as a national synod of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, it was in fact an international counsel including twenty-seven representatives of foreign churches. With delegates from England, the Palatinate, Hesse, Switzerland, and Bremen, the Synod represented a consensus of all the Reformed Churches of that day. John Bogerman, pastor at Leuuwarden, presided. There were 154 sessions, the last of which was held on May 9, 1619. When the Canons were completed, the delegates affirmed them by their signatures.

In the Canons the Synod set forth the Reformed doctrine on key points of the Gospel--unconditional election, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of saints. Because the Canons are an answer to the Five Points of the Remonstrance, they set forth only certain aspects of the truth rather than the whole body of the truth, as do our other confessions. This also explains the fact that the Canons are divided into five chapters, hence they have been called the "five points of Calvinism."

Each of the Canons consists of a positive and a negative part, the former being an exposition of the Reformed doctrine on the subject, and the latter a repudiation of the corresponding Arminian errors. Although in form there are only four Heads of Doctrine, we speak properly of five points, because points 3 and 4 were combined into one. After each Head of Doctrine there is a Rejection of Errors refuting specific teachings of the Arminians.

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