In his book The Belgic Confession: Its History and Sources, N. H. Gootjes notes the existence of a handwritten copy of the Belgic Confession dating to 1580 (see pages 117-118). This edition is based on the 1566 revision made at the Synod of Antwerp. This manuscript has now been digitized and is available online from the University of Leiden. Unfortunately, I don’t know if I can provide a direct link. To find it, you’ll have to go here and then search for “geloofsbelijdenis.” That will take you to the search results. Click on the picture for the third item. That should take you to the viewer where you can examine the document. My thanks to Albert Gootjes for drawing my attention to this fascinating item.
One of the most interesting things about this copy of the Belgic Confession is that it was used for subscription in the Walloon churches in the Netherlands. Starting right after article 37, there are a number of pages filled with signatures of Reformed ministers, including some notable figures from our Reformed church history. Here’s the first page:
Jean Taffin signed his name here — he was a notable early Reformed minister, author of a book that has been translated into English, The Marks of God’s Children. Following this, there are several pages of signatures up until 1667. Then there’s a gap and then another group of signatures under what appears to be a type of Subscription Form. One of the first names there is Johannes Polyander, one of the delegates to the Synod of Dort 1618-19 and also one of the authors of the Leiden Synopsis. Here’s the image of that page:
Another interesting feature about these signatures is that some of them are on behalf of churches or synods. Last of all, if you survey the names you might come across a David Stuart. That doesn’t sound Dutch or Walloon, does it? Who was David Stuart and how did he come to serve as a pastor in the Netherlands? Perhaps someone reading this knows, but I don’t, at least not yet.
This is a remarkable document, not only for being an early exemplar of the Belgic Confession, but also for what it might tell us about the history of subscription to the Belgic Confession. The signatures begin in 1580 and run till 1667, a period of 87 years. It definitely bears a closer look!
Francis Pieper wrote this about confessional subscription in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) of his day:
This same truth — that the Lutheran Church does not set up in its Symbols a second norm alongside of Scripture — is evidenced by its insistence on the quia form of subscription. It binds its teachers to the doctrine contained in the Confessions not because it is the doctrine of the Confessions, but because it is the doctrine of Scripture. (Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 1, 354)
You’ll recall that quia is the Latin word for “because.” We subscribe the Confessions because they are biblical, not insofar as (quatenus) they are biblical.
From this beautiful volume entitled Concordia: the Lutheran Confessions, we find that the LCMS still apparently holds to this position:
Needless to say, confessional subscription in the nature of the case is binding and unconditional. A subscription with qualifications or reservations is a contradiction in terms and dishonest. (Concordia, xxix)
Now what strikes me is the sheer volume of the Lutheran confessional writings. Concordia is a big book! Lutheran pastors subscribe a lot more content than Reformed pastors do.
I raise that because sometimes it’s said (and I’ve said it too) that Presbyterians have to take a different approach to subscription of their confessions because they’re much more bulky and detailed. You can’t expect a Presbyterian to hold to every single detail of the Westminster Standards. So, we find things like “good faith” and “system” subscription. I find it interesting that Concordia is probably ten times bigger than the Westminster Standards and yet the LCMS apparently holds to full, quia subscription.
“Reflection on confessional subscription often makes use of BC art. 7. At times the article is used to undermine having confessions (cf. 18.104.22.168). However, the scope of this article does not cover what it is then implied to cover. The point in the article is that human documents will never equal the authority of divine Scripture and God’s truth. The article does not state that, within the confines of divine Scripture and God’s truth, human documents are to be rejected as binding.”
By This Our Subscription, R.C. Janssen, 398.
Some good insights here:
“In Dutch Reformed circles, relinquishing the sola Scriptura of the Great Reformation was one of the key reasons why the confessions came to be under attack during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The course of history has made clear that those who challenge the position of the confession may well be seeking an escape from the assertions of Holy and Divine Scriptures itself [sic]. In short, a vague notion of divine revelation has as a direct consequence the weakening of the authority of ecclesiastical confessional documents.”
R.C. Janssen, “By This Our Subscription,” 279.
One of the notable things about “By This Our Subscription” is the primary source material, much of which I believe is appearing in English for the first time. Some of it is shocking. For example, here is the Form of Subscription adopted by the Nederlansche Hervormde Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church) in 1883:
We, the undersigned, admitted by the provincial board of …, (or by the Committee for the Walloon Churches) to the ministry of the Gospel in the Nederlansche Hervormde Kerk, herewith promise, that we, in agreement with our calling, shall labour therein with diligence and faithfulness, and will in as far as we are able further the interests of God’s Kingdom and in agreement herewith those of the Nederlansche Hervormde Kerk in keeping with her ordinances. (151)
There is no reference at all to the Three Forms of Unity. This is a big part of why the Doleantie (1886) took place.