On the Differences Between the Continental (Dutch) and Presbyterian (Scottish) Reformed Traditions

The nomenclature among the Reformed tradition is often confusing. “Presbyterian” refers to a sub-tradition of the broader Reformed tradition and a church polity (structure). “Reformed” refers to the broad theological tradition as well as the Continental Reformed churches, most often the Dutch Reformed. This post clarifies the use of these terms and explains the differences between the two primary branches of the Reformed tradition– the Presbyterians, primarily from Scotland, and the (Continental) Reformed, primarily from the Netherlands.

Reformed is a theological term used to refer to a Christian tradition from the magisterial reformation (the primary set of Protestants) that believes in Calvinist soteriology, Covenant theology, and Confessional doctrine. This makes them stand apart from Lutherans and Arminians, who were both confessional but rejected Calvinist soteriology. (Arminians retained a modified Covenant theology; Lutherans do not have a particularly comparable Biblical hermeneutic, instead having unique Law-Gospel hermeneutic and Two Kingdom theology). Some of the biggest names of the early Reformed tradition were Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, John Knox, and Theodore Beza. While different Reformed authors had differing viewpoints on many parts of theology, they remained united in the aforementioned principles.

The term “presbyterian” (lower case) refers to a type of church structure in which the pastors (called presbyters, from the Greek for “elder”) have a council that makes decisions for the church body, without any bishops. Deacons also work as church servants and lay-elders also assist. Presbyterian (upper case) refers to a sub-tradition of the broader Reformed tradition. Dutch Reformed refers to a sub-tradition of the broader Reformed tradition, not specifically those of Dutch heritage.

While the Lutherans agreed on the Book of Concord (or at least the Augsburg Confession and Luther’s Catechisms) as their set of beliefs and the Arminians the 1621 Arminian Confession, the Reformed developed a number of confessions; however, only two survived to this day in common use– the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards. Both are traditional Reformed confessions and both hold to a presbyterian church polity (as opposed to episcopal, congregational, or connexional).

Other Reformed confessions, such as those of the Congregationalists or Particular Baptists, see much less use today, the former seeing almost no use at all, and both are congregational in polity rather than presbyterian, meaning congregations have a loose association with each other rather than a set governing council of pastors that makes formal doctrinal decisions, with disciplinary power. Some Reformed churches, such as the Reformed church in Hungary, kept the episcopal system during the reformation. Others, such as the French Reformed (known as Huguenots) were very close to the Dutch and Presbyterians, maintaining a Reformed confession of faith and a presbyterian polity, but the Huguenots are so few in number today that they are not a significant part of conversation.

The Three Forms of Unity are the confessions of the Dutch Reformed tradition (RCA, CRCNA, URCNA, etc) and include the Belgic Confession, Canons of Dordt, and Heidelberg Catechism. The Westminster Standards are a set of eight documents, though three are primary– the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Smaller Catechisms– and these are the confessions of the Presbyterian tradition (PCUSA, PCA, OPC, etc).

Theologically, these two sets of confessions don’t have any substantial disagreement, and on any point of disagreement, there are generally ways to reconcile the two. Differences come down to preferred terminology and presentation. The Westminster Standards are, however, significantly longer, giving more detail on some theology and far more detail on some matters of church governance, but these details are generally not in disagreement with the Dutch Reformed positions.

Here are the differences in theology in the confessions (which may or may not be considered reconcilable, depending on interpretation):

The Three Forms says that all dying infants are saved (Canons of Dordt 1.17), whereas Westminster only gives this assurance for elect infants (WCF 10.3).

The Three Forms says full assurance and firm confidence are part of the definition of faith (Heidelberg 21), whereas Westminster denies infallible assurance as part of the definition of faith (WCF 18.3).

The Three Forms has very moderate rules for the Sabbath, mostly just pertaining to attending church and being extra careful to abstain from sin (Heidelberg 103), whereas Westminster forbids even secular work (WLC 117).

The Three Forms sees the tenth commandment as a summary of the other nine (Heidelberg 113), where as Westminster sees it as narrowly referring to coveting (WLC 147).

The Three Forms emphasizes prayer requests relating to our body and soul (Heidelberg 118), whereas Westminster emphasizes prayers related to God’s Glory and advancement of the Gospel (WLC 184).

The Three Forms include the Apostles’ Creed (Heidelberg 23), whereas Westminster only included it as an appendix to the Shorter Catechism.

The Three Forms (in particular the Canons of Dordt 7 and 10) lends itself better to infralapsarianism, where as Westminster is ambiguous, though it uses infralapsarian language at times. Supralapsarianism is the doctrine that the logical order of God’s decrees is as follows: God decreed election for some men, God decreed creation of man, and God decreed that man would be allowed to fall. Infralapsarianism has a different logical order: God decreed creation of man, God decreed that man would be allowed to fall, and God decreed election for some men. It can be argued that both confessions allow for either view, but the presentation in the Canons of Dordt seems more clearly to lean toward Infralapsarianism.

The Three Forms denies that the Word has any positive effect on the reprobate (Canons of Dordt 3, 4, B.4), where as Westminster teaches that the Spirit can work through the Word in some manner in the reprobate (WCF 10.4).

The Westminster Confession tend more toward looking at things from God’s perspective, which is more speculative, whereas the Belgic Confession tends more toward looking at things from man’s perspective, which is more concrete. Consider the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Compare this to the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism: “What is thy only comfort in life and death? That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” The former emphasizes God’s abstract quality of glory. The latter emphasizes the concrete reality of man encountering God enfleshed. This difference in emphasis is persistent throughout both confessions and perhaps later developments too.

Another difference is coverage of topics. The Westminster Standards covers the following doctrines that are not covered in the Three Forms of Unity: The Covenant of Works, the invisible/visible church distinction, Christian liberty, marriage/divorce, elements of worship, the pope as the antichrist, threatenings and promises in the Ten Commandments, rules for a right understanding of the Ten Commandments, removal of Christian holidays, and burial of the dead. The Three Forms of Unity has one topic that is not discussed in the Westminster Standards: direct reference to historical heresies.

A nice comparison of the catechisms was done by W. Robert Godfrey. I’ve reproduced his table:

Topic/CatechismHeidelbergWSCWLC
Person & work of Christ24%10.3%13.8%
Law18.6%46%30%
Prayer10.9%9.3%9.6%
Sacraments13.2%6.5%8.7%
Holy Spirit (explicit)23.3%9.3%18.4%
Church (explicit)4.7%.9%13.2%
A Comparison of Topic Breakdown of the Heidelberg, Westminster Shorter, and Westminster Larger Catechisms

While both are presbyterian, the Dutch Reformed (according to the Church Order given at the Synod of Dordt) have a fourfold office of minister, doctor (professor), elder, and deacons, whereas Presbyterians (According to the Form of Church Government) have a twofold office of elder and deacon, but the office of elder comes in the varieties of teaching elder (pastor) and ruling elder (lay-elder). The Presbyterians also see pastors as belonging more to the presbytery (this is the assembly of pastors) as a whole than the local congregation while the Dutch see pastors as belonging more to the local congregation since their equivalent of the presbytery, the classis, is only temporary and not a standing institution.

The primary differences, however, between the Dutch Reformed and the Presbyterian traditions come down to other developments, not explicitly in their confessions. The Presbyterians are more influenced by the Puritans than the Dutch, and the Dutch are more influenced by Neo-Calvinists. This is too big to unpack here and may be the most significant difference, but this should provide good guidance for those wanting to learn more. The linked Wikipedia articles provide good summaries.

There are also slight differences historically in their liturgies. While both the Dutch and Presbyterians long held to the Regulative Principle of Worship (the principle that only what the Bible commands for worship is permissible), the Dutch approved of using Biblical Canticles (such as the Nunc Dimittis or Moses’ Odes) while Presbyterians strictly used the 150 Psalms. Another notable differences is the presence of a declaration of pardon in some Dutch services, similar to a public absolution seen in Lutheranism; the pastor will declare the congregation to be forgiven of sins. This practice is rare in Presbyterianism. Historically, the Dutch also maintained a second sermon on Sunday after the main service; this second sermon was focused on catechesis.

This is the extent of the differences between the Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian traditions. Most other differences come down to particular church bodies or theological minutiae. Both traditions draw on many of the same authors and ideas and mutually use theologians from both traditions from their founding to this day. The differences should not be underplayed as if they do not exist at all, but for the great majority of circumstances, the differences mean little for laymen.

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