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Reformed Confessions: The French Confession of Faith (1559)

John R. Muether

The early years of Protestantism in France have been described as a “Reformation on the run,” as the Reformed cause in that country often experienced intense persecution. During a point of relative calm, the first National Synod of the Reformed Churches in France convened in Paris in 1559. The assembly adopted the “Confession of Faith Made by Common Agreement by the French Who Desire to Live according to the Purity of the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” While the direct hand of sixty-year-old John Calvin in the composition of this confession has been much debated, no doubt he was a strong influence. For a dozen years two versions of the confession were in use, until the seventh national synod in La Rochelle (1571) adopted the longer (40 article) version as the true Confession of Faith of the Reformed Churches of France.

The basic organization of the confession (also called the Gallican Confession) follows a pattern similar to others in this period of Reformed confessionalization, but still there are some unique features to this creed. The Confession “names names,” as for example, in article 14 where it condemns the “diabolical conceits of [Michael] Servetus,” the notorious anti-trinitarian heretic executed in Geneva six years earlier. The ancient creeds (Apostles,’ Nicene, and Athanasian) are explicitly affirmed as faithful to the Word of God (article 5).

Another distinguishing feature is a reference to natural theology in article 2: God reveals himself first in his works of creation and providence and then in his Word, a theme developed further in the Belgic and Westminster Confessions. The French Confession is also replete with proof-texts: footnotes contain citations to over three hundred Scripture texts. While some articles were responses to the Council of Trent (meeting during this time), the confession honors Calvin’s principle that Roman Catholic baptism remains valid (see excerpt below).

Several articles speak to the discipline that promotes the “sacred and inviolable” order of the church. It must be governed by ministers, elders, and deacons who are duly elected and who serve the only head of the church, Jesus Christ, with the same authority and equal power, so that “no church shall claim any authority or dominion over any other” (article 30).

The confession begins and ends on an apologetic tone. A preface, addressed to King Francis II, includes a plea for an end of the oppression of the Huguenots. The last two articles focus on the honor and reverence due to civil magistrates. Even if “they are unbelievers, they are commissioned to exercise a legitimate and holy authority.” Thus, “we detest those who reject the higher powers . . . and subvert the course of justice” (article 40). Huguenots make loyal subjects.

Ministers, elders, and deacons were all to subscribe to the confession, and subsequent synods began with the reading and ratifying of the confession. Largely superseded by later confessions written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the French Confession of 1559 still serves as a doctrinal standard for some Reformed churches in France today.

An Excerpt from Article 28

[W]e condemn the papal assemblies, as the pure Word of God is banished from them, their sacraments are corrupted, or falsified, or destroyed, and all superstitions and idolatries are in them. We hold, then, that all who take part in these acts, and commune in that Church, separate and cut themselves off from the body of Christ. Nevertheless, as some trace of the Church is left in the papacy, and the virtue and substance of baptism remain, as the efficacy of the baptism does not depend on the person who administers it, we confess that those baptized in it do not need a second baptism. But, on account of its corruptions, we cannot present children to be baptized in it without incurring pollution.

The Sequence of Confessions

Sixty-Seven Articles of Ulrich Zwingli (1523)
Tetrapolitan Confession (1530)
First Helvetic Confession (1536)
French Confession of Faith (1559)
Scots Confession (1560)
Belgic Confession of Faith (1561)
Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
Second Helvetic Confession (1566)
Canons of the Synod of Dordt (1619)
Westminster Confession & Catechisms (1643)

John R. Muether serves as a ruling elder at Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Oviedo, Florida, dean of libraries at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, and historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, March 2017.

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