We subscribe to the historic Christian Creeds and the confessions of the Reformation: the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort, commonly called the Three Forms of Unity, as our subordinate standards. They are a faithful, systematic expression and summary of the truths of God’s Holy Word.
The authority of Scripture is a key issue for the Christian church in this and every age. Those who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are called to show the reality of their discipleship by humbly and faithfully obeying God’s written Word. To stray from Scripture in faith or conduct is disloyalty to our Master. Recognition of the total truth and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture is essential to a full grasp and adequate confession of its authority.
The following Statement affirms this inerrancy of Scripture afresh, making clear our understanding of it and warning against its denial. We are persuaded that to deny it is to set aside the witness of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit and to refuse that submission to the claims of God’s own Word which marks true Christian faith. We see it as our timely duty to make this affirmation in the face of current lapses from the truth of inerrancy among our fellow Christians and misunderstandings of this doctrine in the world at large.
The Decision of the Synod of Dort on the “Five Main Points of Doctrine in Dispute” is popularly known as the Canons of Dort. This Great Synod met in the city of Dordrecht in the Netherlands during the years 1618–19 to settle a serious controversy in the Dutch churches initiated by the rise of Arminianism. Jacob Arminius, a theological professor at Leiden University, questioned the teaching of the Reformed churches on a number of important points and advocated a revision of the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. After Arminius’s death, his followers presented their views on five of these points in the Remonstrance of 1610. The Arminians taught election based on foreseen faith, universal atonement, partial depravity, resistible grace, and the possibility of a lapse from grace.
This doctrinal standard of the Reformed Church in the U.S. is called the Belgic Confession because it originated in the Southern Netherlands (Lowlands), now known as Belgium. Its chief author, Guido de Brès, born at Mons in 1523, was converted to the evangelical faith through the diligent reading of the Bible. Under Philip II of Spain, an ally of the Romish Church, believers in the Lowlands were sorely persecuted as revolutionaries. This Confession was written to prove that the Reformed believers were law-abiding citizens who professed only those doctrines which were in harmony with Holy Scripture.
The document was prepared in French by de Brès in 1561 and printed by 1566. Its composition is built 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 Brès, however, is not a mere revision of that work, but an independent composition. It gives a more expanded treatment on the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Church, and the Sacraments. In his labors, de Brès was aided by Adrien de Savaria, Herman Modet, and G. Wingen. The work was revised by Francis Junius (1575–1602), a student of Calvin and pastor at Antwerp.
A copy was sent to the Spanish king in which it was bravely 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.”
Though the confession failed to stem the tide of persecution, it was instrumental in helping thousands understand the Reformed faith. Guido de Brès was eventually captured and he sealed his confession with martyr’s blood in 1567. His work has endured as an expression of the faith of a people enduring 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 and by the Reformed Church at Emden in 1571. 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.
The text used here is derived from the Psalter Hymnal of the Christian Reformed Church (1959). The Bible references are taken from the New King James Version.
Modern English Version
This catechism, or instruction in the Christian faith, received its name from the place of its origin, Heidelberg, Germany, the capital of the Electorate of the Palatinate. That the Reformed 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, heartily approved by the Elector himself, and sanctioned by the Synodical gathering of prominent Reformed preachers and theologians, it was first published in Heidelberg with a preface dated January 19, 1563.
The Great Synod of Dort (1618–1619) declared that the Heidelberg Catechism was in all respects in harmony with the Word of God and it 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 for it 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 are Dutch, English, French, Polish, Hungarian, Greek, Lithuanian, Hebrew, Italian, Bohemian, Javanese, Arabic, Singalese, 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.
In 1820 the first English version of the Catechism appeared in the United States. In 1863 a new English translation was made, called the Tercentenary Version. The Reformed Church in the U.S. further revised this edition in 1950. Additional Bible references (marked with an asterisk *) were then added. Subsequently, a modern English revision was made which has been identified as “Edition 1979” on the title page. First made by a special committee of the Eureka Classis, it was not printed until directed by the 1986 Synod. In 2011 the Scripture references and allusions were updated to the New King James Version of the Bible along with some minor textual changes and corrections.
It is our sincere prayer that this edition may turn the attention of readers and students with renewed interest to the immeasurable blessings of that “only comfort in life and in death.”