THE CONSENSUS FORMULA
The Helvetic Consensus Formula (Formula Consensus Helvetica) is the last doctrinal Confession of the Reformed Church of Switzerland, and closes the period of Calvinistic creeds. It has been called a ‘symbolical after-birth.’ It was composed in 1675, one hundred and eleven years after Calvin’s death, by Professor John Henry Heidegger, of Zurich (1633-1698),1 at the request and with the co-operation of the Rev. Lucas Gernler, of Basle (d. 1675), and Professor Francis Turretin, of Geneva (1623-1687).2 It never extended its authority beyond Switzerland, but it is nevertheless a document of considerable importance and interest in the history of Protestant theology. It is a defense of the scholastic Calvinism of the Synod of Dort against the theology of Saumur (Salmurium), especially against the universalism of Amyraldus. Hence it may be called a formula anti-Salmuriensis, or anti-Amyraldensis.
THE SYNOD OF DORT AND THE THEOLOGY OF SAUMUR
The Twenty-third National Synod of the Reformed Church in France, held at Alais, Oct. 1, 1620, adopted the Canons of Dort (1619), as being in full harmony with the Word of God and the French Confession of 1559, and bound all ministers and elders by a solemn oath to defend them to the last breath. The Twenty-fourth National Synod at Charenton, September, 1623, reaffirmed this adoption.3 But in the theological academy at Saumur, founded by the celebrated statesman Du Plessis Mornay (1604), there arose a more liberal school, headed by three contemporary professors–Josué de la Pace (Placeus, 1596-1655), Louis Cappel (Capellus, 1585-1658), and Moyse Amyraut (Moses Amyraldus, 1596-1664)–which, without sympathizing with Arminianism, departed from the rigid orthodoxy then prevailing in the Lutheran and Reformed Churches on three points–the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures, the particular predestination, and the imputation of Adam’s sin.
Saumur acquired under these leaders great celebrity, and attracted many students from Switzerland. It became for the Reformed Church of France what Helmstädt, under the lead of Calixtus, was for the Lutheran Church in Germany; and the Helvetic Consensus Formula of Heidegger may be compared to the ‘Consensus repetitus‘ of Calovius (1664), which was intended to be a still more rigorous symbolical protest against Syncretism, although it failed to receive any public recognition.4
The further development of the Saumur theology was arrested by the political oppression which culminated in the cruel revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV. (1685), and aimed at the utter annihilation of the Reformed Church in France. But its ideas have silently made progress, and were independently revived in more recent times. . . .
THE CONSENSUS FORMULA
Several years after the leaders of the Saumur theology had passed from the stage of history it was thought desirable by some of the prominent divines of Switzerland to protect their Churches against possible danger from the new doctrines of Saumur, which were imported through writings and students, and met with considerable sympathy, especially in Geneva. It was feared–and not without reason–that, however innocent in themselves, they might lead, by legitimate logical development, to an ultimate abandonment of the system of Calvinism.
Hence the new Formula of orthodoxy which forms the subject of this section, was agreed upon by the ecclesiastical and civil authorities of Zurich, Basle, and Geneva, and adopted in other Reformed cantons as a binding rule of public teaching for ministers and professors. Its authority was confined to Switzerland, and even there it could not maintain itself longer than about half a century. French ministers, who fled to Lausanne after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, refused to sign it; the great Elector Frederick William of Brandenburg (1686), and afterwards the Kings of Prussia and England, and the Corpus Evangelicorum at Ratisbon (1722), urged the Reformed cantons, in the interest of peace and union, to abandon the Formula. It gradually lost its hold upon the Swiss churches, and was allowed to die and be buried without mourners. Nevertheless the theology which it represents continues to be advocated by a respectable school of strict Calvinists in Europe, and especially in America.
The Helvetic Consensus Formula was not so much intended to be a new confession of faith, as an explanatory appendix to the former Confessions (resembling in this respect the Saxon Visitation Articles, which were an appendix to the Lutheran Formula of Concord, to guard the churches of Saxony against the dangers of crypto-Calvinism). The document does not breathe the fresh and bracing air of faith and religious experience which characterize the Confessions of the Reformation period. It is the product of scholasticism, which formularized the faith of Calvin into a stiff doctrinal system, and anxiously surrounded it with high walls to keep out the light of freedom and progress. Nevertheless it is more liberal than is generally represented and than might be expected from the bigotry and polemical violence of the seventeenth century. Heidegger was personally mild and modest; he spoke the truth in love, and resisted the pressure of extremists in Switzerland and Holland, who suspected even him of unsoundness, and desired a formal condemnation of the schools not only of Saumur but also of Cocceius and Cartesius. Instead of this, he speaks in the preface of the Formula, respectfully and kindly, of the Saumur theologians, and calls them venerable brethren in Christ, who built on the same foundation of faith, and whose peculiar doctrines are not condemned as heresies, but simply disapproved.5
Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919), 1: 478-479, 485-486. [Some reformatting; footnote values modernized; footnote contents original; and underlining mine.]
1Author of Concilii Tridentini Anatome historico-theologica; Enchiridion Biblicum; Historia sacra patriarcharum; and Histoire du Papisme.
2Author of the Institutio theologicæ elenchthicæ (1679–85), which still keeps its place among the best systems of Calvinistic theology. New edition, Edinburgh and New York, 1847, in four volumes. His son, John Alphonsus (1671–1737), Professor of Church History in Geneva, was inclined to Arminianism, and advocated toleration. See Schweizer, Centraldogmen, Vol. II. pp. 784 sqq.
3Aymon Tous les Synodes nationaux des églises réformées de France. A 1a Haye, 1710, Vol. II. pp. 183, 298; Schweizer, 1.c. pp. 229 sqq.
4 See p. 851, and Schweizer’s comparison of the two documents, Vol. II. pp. 532 sqq.
5‘Salvum enim utrinque per Dei gratiam stat fundamentum fidei. . . . Salva unitas corporis mystici et Sprititus. . . . Salvum denique apud nos semper tenerrimæ caritatis vinculum,’ etc. The original draft of the Formula was even milder and much shorter. Schweizer has, in a purely historical interest, vindicated the memory of Heidegger and the comparatively moderate character of the Consensus Formula. See his extracts from the MS. of Heidegger’s Report, in Niedner’s Zeitschrift, above quoted, and his art. Heidegger, in Herzog’s Real. Encykl.