The first example of this trend in Protestantism is found during Luther’s early Reformation. Having struggled for justification by faith alone from 1517 to 1519, and having been declared an outlaw and heretic at the Diet of Worms (1521), Luther worked immediately to write down the basics of his message in a set of confessional documents. Two were for the church and one was for the public defense of Luther’s message.
In the first two cases, Luther wrote the Large and Small Catechisms in 1529, the first for training adult disciples and clergy and the second for children or new converts. He also wrote an Exhortation to Confession that same year to justify the need for confession. Though the church rests on Scripture alone, Luther argued, the need for corporate confession is essential.
These early catechisms also signal one of the defining characteristics of confessions: they are tools for discipleship, essential to the life of the church.
The third confession was the famous Augsburg Confession (1530), drawn up by Luther and Philip Melanchthon, not in a spirit of corporate confession for the church, but in order for it to be laid before Emperor Charles V and the princes of Europe. It was an apologetic of the Lutheran message, combative at times in its tone, or at least in its implications. It clarifies what Lutherans actually believed over against the charges leveled against them by German Catholics.
The Lutheran catechisms and confessions, then, form a microcosm of the ways confessions were used in the Reformation era: one for church life, the other for public disputation against spurious claims about Protestant orthodoxy; one for every believer in the church, the other for its leaders to clarify what they hold to be orthodox teaching.
REFORMED CONFESSIONS PROLIFERATE
The Reformed tradition was equally committed to the cause of confessionalization. Depending on how wide a net we cast, there were roughly forty to fifty Reformed (or Reformed-influenced) confessions written between 1520 and 1650—by far the most of any Protestant tradition. In 1523, almost immediately as the Reformed tradition began, Huldrych Zwingli drew up the Sixty-Seven Articles in order to provide an articulation of the points at stake in Zurich. This was followed by the Ten Theses of Berne (1528), the First Confession of Basel (1534), and several others as cities began to adopt the Reformed perspective. Others would follow in other countries, with the French Confession of Faith (1559) and the Scots Confession (1560).
The reason for so many Reformed confessions comes as a result of their context. The Reformed faith was always led by a band of brothers (despite the modern impression that John Calvin alone created Reformed orthodoxy). But the Reformed tradition was born in several cities and countries almost at once. From 1520 onward, city after city embraced the Reformation, often piecemeal, and quite a few even before reform came to Geneva. Therefore, there was no singular voice like Luther’s to shape the foundational documents of Reformed confessions.
As a result, church after church, community after community spent a sizable portion of their energy codifying a confession for their local churches. This is why most Reformed confessions identify with the city of their origin: this was the confession for this city, this church, not for all Reformed churches to embrace as one.
Still, as historians and theologians point out, there is a harmonization of these Reformed confessions that unites their diverse voices into a singular Reformed voice. Their differences are not so great that we cannot see their unity on issues of salvation, worship, and practice. Today, many churches recognize a basic harmony of what is called the Three Forms of Unity—the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and the Heidelberg Catechism—a unity not of authorship but of witness to Reformed principles.
This is not to say that all Reformed confessions are identical. As the Reformed faith spread from the Swiss cantons to Germany, France, the Netherlands, and then to England and Scotland, there were noticeable differences of emphasis or application. These confessional identities formed the initial steps that would give rise to the diversity of Reformed denominations and communities as we know it today.