Mennonite Articles of Faith by Cornelis Ris (1766)

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Background Context

Cornelis Ris (1717-18 April 1790) lived at Hoorn, Dutch province of North Holland. He was a Zonist Mennonite preacher, and descended from the influential Ris family of Hoorn. On 12 March 1746, Cornelis was installed as one of the ministers of the Hoorn Frisian congregation. In the 17th century Hoorn had an unusual number of Mennonite branches; in 1747 the Frisians and the Waterlanders, then the only remaining congregations, merged. Ris served at Hoorn until his death. His colleague Jacob Spis delivered his funeral sermon.

An address to the Hoorn congregation said, "There was namely besides the Waterlander congregation, which had adopted the Confession of Hans de Ries, also a Frisian congregation, which gave considerable approval to another (confession), signed at Dordrecht on 27 September 1632, by a number of ministers: when these two congregations united in 1747, the third article of the agreement stipulated the following: The confessions of faith now adhered to by the two congregations will not be changed now; nor will the ministers and members be required to give a more specific declaration than that given when they were installed in office or admitted into the congregation; but when the two congregations are united, an attempt will be made to unify the two confessions wherein they may differ: And if an admission of members is planned, as has hitherto been customary, to proceed with such moderation that too much will not be demanded of such as are weak of understanding and tender spirits are spared" (Foreword of the German edition of the Confession of Cornelis Ris, Hamburg, 1776).

Thus it became a special concern to Cornelis Ris to gather into a single confession and merge the confessions of faith that seemed definitive in the Algemeene Belydenissen (1665) of the Zonists; viz., the Concept of Cologne, 1591; Outerman's Confession, 1626; Olijftacxken, 1627; Confession of Jan Cents, 1630; Dordrecht Confession, 1632. Besides consideration for the two congregations at Hoorn, he was moved by the desire to check the rapid decline of the congregations of his time by steering them toward the old foundation of the recognized confessions (whereas van der Zijpp has shown that the congregations that were more faithful to the confessions were declining even more rapidly than the more liberal ones). In 1759 the church council of the Hoorn congregation decided to present Ris' proposal to the Zonist Sociëteit. This body approached the problem with hesitation. Nevertheless Cornelis Ris was able to present a concrete sketch in 1762 and to publish it in 1766. His caution in this matter is shown by the title of the fourth article; at first it read, "How this one God is further to be distinguished in the Holy Scriptures"; the later version says more plainly, "Of the Holy Trinity." Not until 1773 did the Sociëteit formally approve the confession. But in spite of this approval it found no enthusiastic reception by the Zonists, the Lamists, or the Old Flemish. Concerning the previous history and the difficulties in having this confession approved Ris wrote Kort Berigt van't voorgevallene over de Geloofsleere (Hoorn, 1776).

The Confession of Cornelis Ris was given the significant title De Geloofsleere der waare Mennoniten of Doopsgezinden. Nevertheless Cornelis Ris, like the orthodox wing of the Dutch Mennonites in general at that time, also sought contact with Calvinism, the established faith; his confession, which expressly attaches itself to the Mennonite tradition, has a certain Calvinistic inclination (the doctrine of election in article IX was later moderated or left open by insertions). His 36 articles deal with all the major points of theology.

This confession, like the Dordrecht Confession, had only temporary significance in the Netherlands, but attained a true and wide significance outside its home. For the Confession of Cornelis Ris its relations to the Hamburg-Altona congregation and to America were important.

Besides the Hoorn congregation, the only other congregations to support it were Westzaan in North Holland and Almelo in Overijssel, where Pieter Beets, a nephew and collaborator of Cornelis Ris, was the pastor. He took a position in favor of the confession in a "Brief Report."

The bridge to the Hamburg-Altona congregation was built by members of the Beets family, some of whom lived there and others in Hoorn. Jan Beets (1708-88), of Hoorn, a follower of Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf and a successful revival preacher, was a faithful adherent of Cornelis Ris. His cousin Gerrit Beets (1707-76), elder of the Hamburg-Altona congregation, fought all his life, like Ris, "that the ancient pillars should not be removed." Pieter Beets (1727-76), a nephew of Jan Beets and of Cornelis Ris, who had also been "awakened" in the early 1750's, was called from Almelo to Hamburg-Altona, recommended by his uncle Cornelis Ris, and began his service there in 1771. He was succeeded not long after by Jan Ris (1756-84), a son of Cornelis Ris, whom Pieter Beets had instructed in Hamburg-Altona, and who became a ministerial candidate in 1775, a minister in Hamburg-Altona in 1777, and an elder in 1779.

In Hamburg the Confession of Cornelis Ris was translated into German and published in 1776. The Foreword explains that it was intended for Mennonites of Dutch extraction who were now using German in their services, and for the congregations in Southwest Germany and Alsace and their "colonies" in America; it expresses the hope that the Protestants would graciously accept this work. The translator reproduced some 12 pages of the original author's 52-page introduction and added some pages of his own, making a German introduction of about half the length of the Dutch. For 1791 B. C. Roosen reported in his history of the Hamburg-Altona congregation (II, p. 55), "when the preachers of our congregation in 1791 suggested in the church council that competent preachers be sought from the outside, they added the wish that only orthodox ones adhering to the confessions of Hans de Ries and Lubbert Gerrits, Gerrit Roosen, or Cornelis Ris be invited for a visit." The same history records that on May 29, 1803, it was unanimously decided to adopt the Confession by Cornelis Ris, and that for many years each newly chosen preacher and deacon signed a copy of this confession.

In the early 19th century, when Prussia organized its Rhine Province (see Rhineland) and sought information about its Mennonites, the Dordrecht Confession was presented as that of the stricter branch (Amish), and the Cornelis Ris confession as that of the more lenient branch.

The Confession of Cornelis Ris acquired new effectiveness in the 19th and 20th centuries through the work of Carl Justus van der Smissen (1811-90), who was the minister in the Friedrichstadt Mennonite congregation 1837-68, and was then called to America to serve as a teacher in the Wadsworth Mennonite School at Wadsworth, Ohio. He revised the German translation of this confession "in order that it may not be lost to our congregations." His revision, without the Scriptural proof texts, was published as a manuscript in 1850.

In America Carl Heinrich Anton van der Smissen (1851-1950), a son of the above, a Mennonite pastor in Summerfield, Illinois, published the Cornelis Ris Confession in 1895 as an appendix to a short history of the Mennonites. This edition contained some new proof texts added by his father and Berend Roosen. This confession seemed more liberal, in America as well as in Europe, than the Dordrecht Confession, and was published by the General Conference Mennonite Church in English in 1902 and 1904, and 1904 (with title of 1895 edition) and 1906 in German, as its recognized confession.

The slighted revised English text is attached.

Text of the Confession

Preface to English edition

The distinctive literature of the Mennonite church, limited though it is, includes a number of efforts at a complete statement of doctrines to be held and taught in the church. These were issued at different times and under various circumstances; sometimes perhaps in an apologetic spirit, intended as a defense either before civil and ecclesiastical authorities or against those holding divergent views; but mostly with the laudable desire, not always achieved, of bringing about a closer union where differences of opinion and disputed questions of faith disturbed the harmony and threatened disruption.

The work that is here given in an English translation, owes its origin in the first place to the desire for a reunion, on an enduring basis, of once separated factions in a local Mennonite community. It was afterward developed into its present dimensions in order to widen its scope of usefulness in the same line.

Though the hope of the author for ultimate adoption of these Articles by Mennonites in general as the authoritative confession of faith of the church was not realized, and while neither they nor any other similar articles ever written and adopted in any portion of the Mennonite church carry with them the same weight of ecclesiastical authority as do the confessions of faith in some other churches, yet such a reverent and withal masterly effort in the way of a systematic statement of the essential teachings of the Bible is worthy of a careful study and will prove very helpful in the imparting of doctrinal instruction in the church.

Originating in the Netherlands, these articles were written in the language of that country. In order to make the work accessible to the Mennonites in Germany and in America the late Carl J. van der Smissen made a German translation in 1849. A similar motive prompted the present translation into English. There is a great need in this country of more literature of this kind being offered to the constantly increasing English reading portion among our church members, to our children, and to many others to whom a better knowledge of the teaching of our church will be no harm. The General Conference recognized the need, and at its triennial meeting in 1902 authorized this publication.

It may be well to say a word in reference to the translation. It is made, not from the original Dutch, but from the German version of van der Smissen. The difficulty of transmitting the exact shade of thought at every point is greatly increased, by such a circuitous route. There has been no attempt at literalness in the translation but rather to give the thought in idiomatic English; and wherever the language in the German was taken from the Bible, the corresponding verses or parts of verses from the English Bible were incorporated in the translation. In doing this the Revised Version was mostly used, this version generally agreeing more nearly with the German of Luther than the King James version.

Some of the proof texts indicated in the German were found in the English to lack application and were therefore omitted. In a few instances others were substituted.

With these explanations we commend these Articles of Faith in their English dress to all to whom they are thus made accessible. We prize this work, with others of a similar character, for what they bring to us of the thought and teaching of the forefathers in our church, being moved with gratitude to God for the grace given them in such a deeply spiritual apprehension of revealed truth. We recognize in these works a blessed heritage come to us out of the past when men's faith was tried as in a crucible. As a guide in our own study and teaching we value them, not as an ultimate or conclusive statement of doctrines, but as an introduction simply to the devout study of the Scriptures, the inspired Word of God, which is the one conclusive and all-sufficient rule of faith and practice, the fountain-head of revealed truth to be believed and taught.

I. Of the Knowledge of God from Nature

We believe that there necessarily must be and actually is a supremely perfect Being, exalted above all other beings; a Being possessing in Himself infinite wisdom, power and glory, by whom all things were made and are continually sustained and governed; -- this we believe not only because of the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, but because we may also clearly gather it from the things created.

Leaving our own being out of consideration, we see the heavens (Psalms 19:1; 8:3), the earth (Psalms 24:1; Job 26:7), the seas (Psalms 89:9; Jeremiah 5:22) and all that in them is (Job 12:7-9; Psalms 107:23, 24; Psalms 104) proclaim that such a greatness (Psalms 104:24) and glory (Psalms 8:9; 19:5; 104:1-3), skill and mastery (Psalms 104; 139:1-18), fixed order (Psalms 148:6; Isaiah 40:26; Jeremiah 31:35, 36), innumerable benefits (Acts 14:17; Psalms 119:64) and much besides, must of necessity have an author who Himself is infinitely great, glorious, wise, powerful and good, just as the perfectness of a work of art gives evidence of the ability and insight of the artist.

Considering ourselves also, we find that this is no less verified when we thoughtfully observe the ingenious mechanism of our body (Job 10:11, 12), the marvelous qualities and capabilities of the soul, as well as the union and reciprocal relation of both, all of which points to a supreme author or creator and teaches us our exalted duties toward the same. Malachai 1:6; Acts 17:27. In this we are also especially confirmed by the consciousness of peace or fear, accordingly as we obey or disobey the voice of the law as it is written in our hearts. Romans 2:15.

All this, together with the concurring testimony of all thinking people in all ages, leads us to the conclusion that the thought that all things are eternal and self-existent or have been brought into existence by chance, and work independent of the control of a higher being, is so irrational that only presumptuous fools (Psalms 14:1; Isaiah 29:15, 16) or the stubbornly hardened (Jeremiah 5:1-5) can entertain it, and that they do violence to their better convictions in order that, continuing in such unbelief, they may sin the more unhindered.

II. Of the Holy Scriptures

Although, as has been said, we conceive from the things that are created that there must be a God who in His own being possesses infinite perfections, nevertheless, without a further revelation concerning the nature of His being, His perfection, His ways and His works, His holy will, and (since we have sinned) especially concerning the way and means of being reconciled with God, we would be much in the dark, as has been generally true of all the heathen.

Therefore we conceive it an incalculable boon that God has spoken at sundry times and in divers manners in times past to the fathers and prophets and in the fullness of time through His only begotten Son, as also through His holy apostles (Hebrews 1:1, 2), and that in His gracious pleasure He has had as much of it recorded as is necessary for us as a rule of faith and conduct. Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:15-17.

Under the term Holy Scriptures we include all those books known as regular or canonical, from the Pentateuch to Revelation. These Scriptures we call holy, because they are inspired by God and written by holy men of God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. 2 Peter 1:21. We accept them, therefore, not as the word of man, but of God; as the only infallible and sufficient rule of faith and conduct to which we owe supreme reverence and obedience.

There are many and weighty arguments upon which this our faith rests. Of these we give the following: (a) The teaching contained in these holy books transcends the laws or the light of nature, but in no wise contradicts them. (b) The contents thereof are altogether worthy of God and invite reverence for Him. (c) All that is contained therein serves to the attainment of holy ends; as the glory of God, the good of one's neighbor, and one's own happiness. (d) The holy writers were persons of distinguished piety and uprightness, who neither evidenced credulity nor sought their own glory, justification or temporal advantage in this work, much less could they obtain such; but their sole object was the glory of God and the salvation and peace of their fellowman. (a) By means of supernatural miracles, fulfillment of prophecies, and many other things, God convinced them, and us through them, of their divine mission. Moreover, everyone who yields himself in honest obedience and submission to the Word of God, finds peace of heart and obtains for himself the assurance of the truth.

III. Of God's Being and Perfections

In accordance with these Holy Scriptures and as taught by them we believe there is an only God (Deuteronomy 6:4; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6), a Being wholly perfect (Matthew 5:48), a Spirit (John 4:24), self-existent (Psalms 90:2), unchangeable (James 1:17; Psalms 102:28), omnipresent (Jeremiah 23:23, 24; Psalms 139:7-10), all-sufficient (Acts 17:25), and altogether perfect in His attributes, viz., holy (1 Peter 1:16; Leviticus 11: 44), righteous (Psalms 11:7), omnipotent (Genesis 17:1), omniscient (Psalms 139:1-18) all-wise (Isaiah 40:28; Psalms 104:24), merciful (James 5:11), gracious, long-suffering, of great goodness and truth (Exodus 34:6; Psalms 145:8, in a word, God is love (1 John 4:16), the source of life (Psalms 36:16; Jeremiah 2:13), and author of all good (James 1:17; Psalms 102:28), the creator and preserver of all things, visible and invisible (Colossians 1:16, 17), worthy to be reverenced, loved and glorified by all His creatures.

IV. Of the Holy Trinity

This one God (Deuteronomy 6:4) is more definitely revealed in Holy Scripture (John 1:18) and distinguished as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (John 14:16, 17; Isaiah 48:16; Matthew 3:16, 17; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6), yet with the added declaration that these three are one.

The Father is presented to us as the author (John 5:26; 17:5, 6) and source of all things (1 Corinthians 8:6), of whom, in an inscrutable manner, the Son is begotten (Psalms 2:78) from eternity (John 1:1, 2), before all creatures. Colossians 1:15,16.

The Son is the Father's eternal word and wisdom (John 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:24; Colossians 2:3), through whom all things are (Colossians 1:15, 16), the effulgence of the Father's glory and the very image of his being. Hebrews 1:2, 3.

The Holy Spirit belongs, as a divine entity, to the essence of God. He is as well the Spirit of the Father (Matthew 10:20) as of the Son (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:9), and proceeds from the Father and from the Son (John 15:26) as the mighty worker of all divine and spiritual things. Philippians 1:19.

We profess that these three are not divided or separated from one another, but united and one (John 10:30) in essence as well as in will and operation, since the same names, attributes and works are predicated of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, so, too, the same divine regard, as the Saviour so explicitly commands to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19), and as also every believer has need of the grace, love and communion of these three (2 Corinthians 13: 14), for which reasons equal honor and equal service are due them (see of the Son - Luke 24:52; John 5:23; 14:23, 24; Philippians 2:10, 11; Revelation 5:12. Of the Holy Spirit Ephesians 4:30; 1 Corinthians 3:16).

V. Of the Creation and All Things and of Man in Particular

We believe that this eternal God -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- is the omnipotent Creator of heaven and earth, who in the beginning (Genesis 1:1), in six days (Exodus 20:11), made the heavens with all their host (Nehemiah 9:6), the stars, the holy angels and celestial spirits, as also the earth and the seas with all that is found in and on the same, and lastly, on the sixth day, man who is the masterpiece of all God's works upon earth. Genesis 1:26, 27. Man's body is indeed made of the earth (Genesis 2:7, 3:19), but his spirit is by the breath, or a direct powerful working, of the Almighty (Job 33:4) and is therefore immaterial and immortal. Matthew 10:28.

Man being thus, especially after the spirit, of such exalted and divine origin (Acts 17:28) he is created likewise unto a noble end, viz., to know God, to love Him, and to glorify Him (Romans 1:19-21), which is the essence of all true godliness. John 17:3; Jeremiah 9:23, 24.

Further, God gave Adam a wife for his help (Genesis 2:18), built of one of his ribs (Genesis 2:22) that there should be between them the closest union and the most intimate love. Genesis 2:23, 24. Out of her all mankind have sprung. Acts 17:26.

VI. Of God as Preserver and Ruler

VII. Of the Condition of Man Before the Fall

VIII. Of the Fall of Man and Its Consequences

IX. Of the Election of Grace or Election and Rejection

X. Of Man's Restoration

XI. Of Man's Freedom and Ability After the Fall

XII. Of the Person of the Redeemer and His Appearing in the Flesh

XIII. Of the Work of Redemption in General

XIV. Of Christ's Office as Prophet

XV. Of Christ as High Priest

XVI. Of Christ as King

XVII. Of the Universal Offer of Grace and the Call of God Unto Faith

XVIII. Of Faith by Which We Partake of the Grace of God in Christ

XIX. Of Conversion and the New Birth

XX. Of Justification and Faith

XXI. Of Good Works, or the Piety of True Believers

XXII. Of Perseverance in Holiness

XXIII. Of the Church of Christ

XXIV. Of the Ministry of the Church

XXV. Of Water Baptism

XXVI. Of the Holy Supper

XXVII. Of Brotherly Care and Church Discipline

XXVIII. Of the Office of Temporal Government

XXIX Of Revenge and War

XXX. Of Oaths

XXXI. Of Marriage

XXXII. Of Death

XXXIII. Of the Resurrection of the Dead

XXXIV. Of the Final Judgment

XXXV. Of Eternal Life

XXXVI. Of Eternal Punishment


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