In the 1860s, several different views of confessions were found amongst people claiming to be Reformed in the Netherlands:
Modernists considered confessions to be articulations of reality based on scientific endeavours that could be overthrown at any moment.
Apologists considered confessions articulations of reality based on historically reliable sources.
Calvinists considered confessions articulations of reality based on divine, infallible revelation.
Ethicals considered confessions articulations of experience based on the work of the one Spirit.
Evangelicals (Groningers) considered confessions articulations of personal experience that could vary drastically from individual to individual.
From “By This Our Subscription,” R.C. Janssen, 139.
I’m reading Karlo Janssen’s dissertation, “By This Our Subscription.” Part of it is historically oriented and in one section he deals with the 18th century and confessional subscription. There’s some interesting stuff here. He writes,
In the churches too, there was concern about subscription. However, to what extent there was acquaintance with the confessions is a legitimate question. For example, on April 5, 1746, Classis Appingedam decided to request PS Groningen to publish the Canons of Dort as appendages to the Bible and Form-books so that people might become more acquainted with them, since Dutch editions of the Canons were especially hard to come by. PS Groningen unanimously approved the request and by June of the same year a separate publication of the Canons appeared. (39-40)
In a footnote to the above, Janssen says, “This publication is the third Dutch edition of the Canons to appear after the initial publications of 1629” (that should be 1619). Imagine: only three editions between 1619 and 1746!
Today the Three Forms of Unity are readily accessible, even to people who are members in the most nominal of Reformed churches. With the advent of cyberspace, they have never been more accessible. But in the 18th century, things were much different. I remember reading about a certain minister in the Netherlands around the time of the Secession (Afscheiding) of 1834 who said that he would rather hang himself than read the Canons of Dort. In that time, shortly before the Secession, many became ministers without ever having read or studied the Canons or any of the other Reformed confessions. That’s one way to know that your church is in decline.