Waterlander Confession of Faith (1577)

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Commentary on the Confession

Commentary by Cornelius J. Dyck

The following confession of faith is probably the oldest in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. There had been numerous statements of faith before 1577; the articles of Schleitheim in 1527, the Rechenschaft of Pilgram Marpeck in 1532, the Rechenschaft of Peter Riedemann in 1545, and others. However, the last two were primarily personal statements and, more significantly, none of the three was a complete theological formulation. The early Dutch Mennonites likewise produced a host of statements on specific doctrines, the Incarnation, the written and unwritten Word of God, baptism, the ban. The confession of 1577, however, is significant not only because of its content, but because it was meant to be a statement for the church, and was drawn up, most likely at the request of the ministers' conference of that year, by five leading ministers.

This does not imply that a binding status was given to it. The Waterlanders would have been the first to reject this suggestion. They had arisen as a movement in large measure in protest against the rigor of church discipline among the Mennonites, particularly after the Wismar Articles had been drafted, in 1554, by Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, Leenaert Bouwens and others.1 The church was to be a community of love and freedom. Their moderation had, in fact, earned them the epithet drekwagen (garbage wagon) from Leenaert Bouwens. They seldom banned anyone, but there are numerous records of ministers "counseling" a brother to withdraw from the communion service until he had brought his life in order and found peace. Thus the confession was not written to enforce conformity. Rather, it was to unify the church within through discussion and consensus and to be an instrument in bringing about understanding with other groups, particularly the Flemish and the Frisians, who were more critical of the Waterlanders than the High German group. Thus, like most of the confessions of Christendom, the confession of 1577 was prepared for a specific purpose and occasion. That it did not become an enduring symbol in the manner of other Protestant Reformation creeds must be attributed to Anabaptist-Mennonite reluctance regarding confessions rather than to the quality of the confession itself.

The Waterlanders believed, with their leader Hans de Ries, who helped to write the confession of 1577, that no statements of faith should be made binding upon others, since they are the words of men, not the Word of God. Their function lay in clarifying issues, in facilitating understanding, and thus promoting unity. At one point, in apparent despair over continuing disunity, de Ries wrote, "In order to find unity, would it not be better if we forgot all about confessions or statements and held ourselves simply to the Word of God?"2 In defending him later, several of his friends set forth the position which has been true of most Anabaptist-Mennonites, but most intensely true of Dutch Anabaptism.3 They wrote:

"We agree that the Holy Scriptures are the confession of the Christian Church in the sense that they contain all that is necessary for the understanding and knowledge of the believer concerning his salvation. Why then, you may ask, do we need a confession? Not, we answer, to give support to our opinions in the manner of the Scriptures, but to testify to the unity of our teaching with each other and ministers of old, against those who accuse us of teaching falsely and not in keeping with the tradition of the church. We do not put our confessional statements upon the same level as the canonical books of the Holy Scriptures. Our confessions are a short summary of that which we believe to find in the Word of God in distinction from others who also find their answers in the Scriptures. We always subordinate our confessions to the Scriptures, knowing that the confessions must themselves be proven from the Word of God".4

The confession of 1577 reflects this spirit. It represents a significant commentary upon the theology of the Waterlanders, their understanding of the nature of the church, their concern for unity, their concept of Christ's overcoming original sin and delivering man from the effects of the Fall. The date is 22 September 1577, the place Alkmaar. While it seems certain that five men drafted it, only one signature, "Jacob Jans S.," appears on the manuscript. The document testifying to the presence of the other four men has been lost. Of it S. Blaupot ten Cate wrote in 1847:

"I have before me a document "Discussions, which our brothers Jacob Janssoon (Schedemaker), Simon Michelssoon and Simon Jacobssoon had with Hans de Rys and Albert Verspeck, as follows, in Alcmaer, the 22 September, 1577," the result of which was that they drew up a confession of faith in order to instruct the congregations."5

In 1904, however, E. M. ten Cate wrote that no trace of the document had been found.6 My own contacts have been unable to discover a trace of it. My assumption that all five actually did participate in drafting it is based upon the usual reliability of S. Blaupot ten Cate. Also, the preamble contains the words "we the undersigned," clearly meaning more than one person. Furthermore, the confession bears a remarkable resemblance to the one written a year later by Hans de Ries while in prison at Middelburg, testifying to his presence at Alkmaar and his involvement in the preparation of the confession. The known movements of de Ries at this time make it probable that he was in Alkmaar in the fall of 1577.

A word may be in order about the five men. Hans de Ries and Albert Verspeck had just fled before the fires of persecution in Antwerp, their native city. Both had been ministerial candidates in the Reformed Church but had broken with that group a year earlier, primarily because of two reasons: the lack of church discipline, and the Reformed custom of going armed to the church services. Correspondence between the Reformed classis of Antwerp and that of London shows that the former were loath to lose these men but were finally compelled to do so.7 Though de Ries was only twenty-four years of age in 1577, he was soon to play a leading role among the Dutch Mennonites, continuing until his death in 1638. Jacob Jansz, living in De Ryp, had left Emden in 1557, having been excommunicated for refusing to sanction the ban against Swaantje Rutgers, who had been banned because she continued to live with her husband after he had been banned. This tolerance on the part of Jansz earned him the name Scheedemaker (Schismatic), a title he carried for the rest of his life. The fourth man, Simon Michielszoon, was also an elder in the Waterland congregation at De Ryp. It was he who had baptized Hans de Ries. Little is known of the fifth man, Simon Jacobszoon, except that he was a Waterlander minister and present at the 1577 conference.

I prepared the translation from the original manuscript (Archief I, #471) with comparative references to the Dutch edition published by E. M. ten Cate in 1904.8 Since the manuscript paragraphs are not numbered, it has seemed best to give a number and title to each article. The numbering is the same as that of ten Cate, except that his Article Twelve has been included under Article Eleven, where it logically seems to belong. Thus there are twenty-four articles. No comparative analysis with other confessional statements has been attempted with the translation. In preparing this translation I have thought it best to let the confession speak for itself. For this reason also, it was my objective to render as nearly literal a copy of the confession as possible, changing the sentence structure only to the extent deemed necessary for comprehension. No attempt has been made to prepare a "modern" translation.

Alkmaar, September 22, 1577

The following articles, having been written and signed by us, are grounded in the Word of God. We the undersigned are of one faith, one heart and mind, one feeling concerning these articles, united to the praise and glory of the Lord. Furthermore, we confess before God and men that the following is the pure, eternal, and everlasting truth.9

I. God

We believe and confess with Holy Scripture that there is but one God, almighty, holy, righteous, and merciful, having neither beginning nor end, and [that He is] an eternal, incomprehensible, divine, and spiritual Being, yes, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Besides Him there is no other. From eternity He brought forth His Son in an incomprehensible and inexpressible manner; through whom also, when it seemed good to Him, God created and ordered the world, sustaining and ruling it according to His pleasure.

II. Jesus Christ

We believe and confess with Holy Scripture that Jesus Christ, together with His human nature, is truly God, the Son of God, begotten and brought forth of the Father in eternity, not in a manner which placed Him outside of the Father as a separate Being but, being born in an inexpressible and incomprehensible manner, He [nevertheless] remained in the Father. Because of this birth in eternity He is the only begotten, first-born Son of God, of one Being with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one substance, truly God. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one, divine, incomprehensible, eternal, spiritual Being.10 We say that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are of one will, one mind, one Being, and therefore, one, true, living, almighty, and eternal God.

III. Holy Spirit

We believe and confess with Holy Scripture, that the Holy Spirit is of one substance. Therefore, we confess Him to be God with the Father and the Son. We confess also that, though this Spirit is of one essence [Being] with the Father and the Son, undivided, He nevertheless proceeds from the Father and the Son.11

IV. The Incarnation

We believe and confess with Holy Scripture, that in the fullness of time God sent His only begotten, first-born Son to be born of the blessed Virgin Mary, whom the heavenly Father had chosen, prepared, and sanctified. Thus there was born in her, through the power of the Almighty, the Savior of the world, God having promised that He would be of the seed of woman (Genesis 3), the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the fullness of time God fulfilled His promise, as also the Apostle teaches, saying that Christ is in the lineage of the fathers according to the flesh, blessed of God in all eternity. Therefore we confess Christ Jesus to be true God and Son of God from all eternity; that in the fullness of time He became completely man, and that He thus has both a divine and a human nature.

V. The Attributes of God

We believe with Holy Scripture that in his Being, God is not visible12 but a Spirit, a spiritual Being, having neither beginning nor end. [We believe that He is] invisible, immeasurable, incomprehensible, above all, immutable and eternal; always perfect in love, longsuffering, gentle, kind, merciful, righteous and almighty, a fountain of life, from whom all good gifts come. Without preferring one before the other, it is His desire that no one should be lost, but much more that all should be saved and live.

VI. The Providence of God

We believe with Holy Scripture that God has known from all eternity all things that happen, have happened, and will happen, both good and bad. [Nevertheless] this foreknowledge compels no one to sin. We confess also that though He foreknows all things, that which happens is not all His will nor work. Even as He is a fountain of life, a Father of light, and in Himself the only true good, so also everything that proceeds and flows from Him, being willed, foreordained, and worked by Him, is good, holy, righteousness and light, for the eternal God cannot will, ordain, or bring forth anything contrary to His own divine nature. Therefore we confess God to so govern the world that whatever is virtuous, good, and righteous upon earth comes through His providence and eternal will. We confess further, that whatever appears before God as presumptuous, as departure from His commandments; all disobedience, all sin, all malice and evil brought forth among men, is neither His will nor His work but contrary to Him, though He sees and permits it in His patience. In summary, we confess that God at times punishes people because of His righteousness. This punishment, though it seem evil in the eyes of men, is righteous before God. Therefore He also orders, and brings to a good end, the evil works of the godless.

VII. The Fall, Judgment, and Damnation

We believe that in Adam God created all men for salvation and eternal life, but because of man's fall and his departure from eternal good and life God foreordained His Son from the beginning as the throne of grace, sending Him in the form of a servant when the time was fulfilled. Through Him life and salvation was proclaimed to all men, as many as accepted His word, repented, and believed in Him. (We speak of the old ones) therefore we confess that God saw, before the foundation of the world, who would hear the Word of His Son, accept His teaching, and receive Him by faith.13 By this foreknowledge He promised, in His grace, to reveal His glory through His Son, by the granting of eternal life. Therefore, even as He has seen the obedience of those who believe, so also He has foreknown the unbelief, deliberate disobedience, the perversity, the hardening of the heart, the ingratitude [toward] God, the voluntary submission of the will to the flesh, of some people, that is, the unbelievers. Therefore, because of their own guilt and perversity, because they have put themselves outside the will of God, and because they persist, without conversion, in running to the abyss of hell, He has promised [them] eternal punishment.

VIII. The Body and Soul of Man

We believe that God created man a two-fold being, consisting of body and soul, of soul and body. The soul is not the body, nor is the body the soul. The body is the house, temple, or tabernacle in which the soul lives, but the soul is the spirit dwelling in the body, the natural life and ruler, which the Scriptures in various places call spirit, breath, or life. Even as every person has only one body, so also every person has one soul, the two together, body and soul, making man complete.

IX. Immortality

We believe that man, thus consisting of body and soul, is destined once to die, which death is a departure of the soul from the body. Though the body loses its natural life and the soul departs, the body being under [the judgment of] death, the soul nevertheless retains the power of life, being imperishable and immortal.

X. Eternal Life

We believe that the souls of believers, after being separated from the body in death, are carried by angels to places where they taste and feel joy and happiness, which places we do not conveniently know how to name except as Holy Scripture itself instructs, namely Abraham's bosom, Paradise. And we confess, contrariwise, that the souls of unbelievers, after being separated from the body in death, are carried [to places] where they suffer pain and fear. With this simple confession about these places we must be content.

XI. Original Sin

We believe that through his transgression Adam ruined his life,14 bringing upon himself and his posterity temporal and eternal death. Yes, having lost the image of God in him, [he has], through the gifts of evil, lost God himself. Yet we confess that this same man has not been robbed completely of the image and light of God, else he would have become complete darkness even as the devils are. We confess, however, that in his mercy, God left a trace of light in fallen man and his descendants. Through this he is still able to achieve some virtues and avoid some sins, and can, through sensitivity [to this light] and the grace of God, come to a closer walk [with God].

We confess and believe concerning original sin, that Christ has freed the entire human race from its power, which is death. Therefore we know of no children who are to be damned because of it, before the time when man deliberately wills to live by and pursue these inner flaws. Therefore we confess man's rehabilitation to equal the fall.15

XII. The Church

We confess concerning the church of God, that it consists of all people upon the face of the earth who, through the power of God, have come to a renewal of the inner man by grace, in whom the true likeness and mind of Christ dwells, and who are truly obedient to God. All these we confess, believe, and hold to be true members of the church of Jesus Christ.

XIII. The Ministry

We confess concerning the mission and call of ministers and church servants, that in times of need16 the congregation shall prepare itself before God with fasting and prayer, calling upon Him for help--for He alone can send the right servants into His harvest--that our heavenly Father may prepare the right servants among the congregations to the glory of His name; servants who will proclaim His holy Word truthfully, and in true Christian love, according to His pleasure, to hungry souls, [as well as] administering the sacraments and the ban. In the choice of these servants the congregation shall deal according to the custom of the Apostles, as we read in Acts 6.

XIV. The Law

We confess concerning the Law that it is the word of command which was given to Moses at Mount Sinai, declaring to us the will of the Almighty.

XV. The Gospel

We confess concerning the gospel, that it is the good news of the grace of God, made manifest in Christ, proclaiming the blessing of eternal salvation and life to the entire human race through the shed blood of Christ, upon the condition of faith in the under.17

XVI. Baptism

We confess concerning baptism that those who accept the word of the ministers, who repent and believe the gospel, shall be baptized with water in the congregation, by a true messenger of God, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, as was taught by Christ, and practiced by the apostles.

XVII. The Lord's Supper

We confess concerning the Supper of the Lord, that it is a sign of divine grace, a seal of the eternal covenant of God, a visible ordinance of ceremony, instituted by Jesus Christ in the congregations of God. It was instituted with bread and wine, the bread broken in remembrance of the death of Christ, the wine received in remembrance of the pouring out of his blood. In receiving it, believing Christian members search themselves to find the true mind to which the Lord's Supper does point. Whatever the Scriptures further teach of the Lord's Supper and its meaning, we believe.

XVIII. The Ban

We confess concerning the ban or Christian chastisement that one must admonish, according to the teaching of Christ in Matthew 18, brethren of the faith who, through transgressions or otherwise, fall or remain in sin, in order that they may be restored and won again, that his soul may be won, and that those who hear and institute the admonition may in brotherly love forget and cover his [their] transgressions. On the other hand, we confess that the obstinate and deliberate sinner or transgressor, after sufficient admonition by the church, shall be separated and cut off from the body of Christ to God's honor, that His church may remain pure, and as an instrument for the conversion of the fallen.

XIX. Confession

We confess that if a brother fell into sin, as we mentioned above, and this occurred with, or became known to, the common people, such person shall be punished with a public confession of guilt before the church, provided his transgression has been verified by two or three witnesses.

XX. Avoidance

Concerning the avoidance of an apostate brother, we confess that one should avoid all deliberate sinners who have been cut off from the church and who persist in carnal living, neither eating nor drinking with them, that they may be shamed and corrected. Nevertheless, since the ban should lead to healing, we do not wish that this fellowship should be denied him in time of need, or when the apostate, through such eating and drinking, might be converted and won again.

XXI. Footwashing

Concerning footwashing of [among] the saints, we confess that all scattered and despised brethren, those who suffer need, pressure, and through persecution have come to us, yes, all the brethren who come, [that they] be received into [our] houses in love, that all proper Christian love, yes, as a sign of love, fellowship, of lowliness and meekness according to the example of the saints of the Old Testament, and the example of Christ and His teaching, that they be received with footwashing, as was also practiced among the believers of the New Testament, Timothy 8.18

XXII. Marriage

We confess that marriage is an institution of God. When a husband and wife have, in chastity, been united in the state of marriage, this marriage is so binding that it may not be separated or broken for any reason except adultery, according to the words of Christ, Matthew 18.

XXIII. The Oath

We confess that all rash oaths are forbidden to the Christian; also all false oaths in the name of God and the Saints. However, when need and Christian love require it, to the praise of God, we permit that one call upon God as witness to the truth of a statement made, even as Paul did.

XXIV. The Resurrection of the Dead

We confess, believe, and expect a resurrection of the just and the unjust. In the last days all people who have been, now are, and will be, shall arise from the dead and be resurrected, that is, their body shall be united with the departed soul, the body being the same and no other, but the accidents shall be changed. Thus all people shall appear before the judgment seat of God, the good to eternal life, the evil to eternal punishment.

Jacop Jans S.19 [Simon Michelssoon] [Simon Jacobssoon] [Albert Verspeck] [Hans de Ries]

Published by permission of Mennonite Quarterly Review, Goshen, Indiana. All rights reserved. Translated and edited by Cornelius J. Dyck. Reprinted from Mennonite Quarterly Review 36 (January, 1962). For information on subscribing to Mennonite Quarterly Review visit their website.


Footnotes to the Confession of Faith

1. Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandica, VII (The Hague, 1910), 51-58.

2. Letter of Hans de Ries to Elias Tookey, December 3, 1626. Inventaris de Archiefstukken berustende bij de Vereenigde Doopsgezinde Gemeente to Amsterdam, II (Amsterdam, 1884), No. 1371.

3. For a discussion of the place of confessions in Anabaptism, see N. van der Zijpp, De Belijdenisgeschriften der Nederlandse Doopsgezinden (Haarlem, 1954), reprinted as "The Confessions of Faith of the Dutch Mennonites," Mennonite Quarterly Review 29 (July 1955), 171-87. My own research in this connection has led me to attribute a somewhat more binding character to the Dutch confessions than van der Zijpp is willing to admit.

4. Reynier Wybrandtsz, Pieter Andriessen, and Cornelis Classen, Apologia ofte Verantwoordinghe tegen Nittert Obbesz (1626). Since the edition of 1626 was not available to me I have used a microfilm copy of a manuscript by the same name, found in the Archives of the Amsterdam Mennonite Church. It seems likely that some changes were made before publication.

5. S. Blaupot ten Cate, Geschiedenis der Doopsgezinden in Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, en Gelderland, I (Amsterdam, 1847), 118-19.

6. E. M. ten Cate, "De eerste waterlandsche belijdenis," Doopsgezinde Bijdragen (1904).

7. Unfortunately this correspondence has not been available to the writer thus far, who herewith acknowledges his indebtedness to J. H. Wessel, De Leerstellige Strijd (Assen, 1945). 90-93. The source is Ecclesiae Londino-Batavae Archivum. Vol. 2: Epistulae et tractatus cum reformationis tum ecclesiae Londino-Batavae historiam illustrantes (1544-1622). Edited by John Henry Hessels. Cantabrigiae typis Academiae sumptibus ecclesiae Londino-Batavae, 1889.

8. E. M. ten Cate, DB (1904), 134-59.

9. Note the "us" and "we the undersigned" in support of multiple authorship as suggested. References such as this, i.e., "the pure, eternal, and everlasting truth," undoubtedly refer to the doctrines discussed, rather than to the articles themselves. Nevertheless, the impression is somewhat more dogmatic than has frequently been assumed with regard to the Dutch confessions.

10. The Dutch term wesen may also be translated "essence." However, since the preceding sentence does refer to "substance," and in the light of the context, the term "Being" seems to be more nearly the intention of the writers.

11. We note the absence of references to the Holy Spirit as the third Person of the Trinity.

12. "Niet grijpelyck noch tastelyck," i.e., cannot be laid hold of nor touched.

13. The meaning of this parenthetical reference is obscure. It is possible that the writers had in mind the eternal state of the patriarchs who lived before the Incarnation.

14. "Syn leven verdorven heeft." The word leven has been changed, by another hand, to selven; i.e., Adam "spoiled himself," or "ruined himself."

15. "Derhalve bekennen wij des menschen oprechtinge also synen val to syn." Synonyms for rehabilitate (oprechtinge) are: to erect, to lift up, to establish. In modern Dutch the spelling has been changed to oprichting.

16. The statement "in times of need" refers to the need for ministers and church workers, not to particular emergencies.

17. The reference is undoubtedly to the "following" articles of faith, affirming the importance of the doctrines discussed, for salvation. the manuscript actually breaks off as indicated.

18. While most Anabaptist-Mennonites based the practice of footwashing strictly upon the example of Jesus (John 13) and the words of Paul (1 Timothy 5), the Dutch Mennonites, as here, also emphasize the Old Testament pattern of footwashing as a sign of hospitality (Genesis 18:4, 19:2, 1 Samuel 25:40, et al.). The reference to Timothy 8 may have been intended to be 1 Timothy 5:10.

19. That this and other subsequent confessions of faith were not taken to be final is seen, for example, from the instructions given to Hans de Ries at a gathering of many Mennonite ministers in Amsterdam, March 4-7, 1581, to draft a new confession of faith. Simon Michelsson and Jacob Jam S. were to assist him. It was to be published as soon as the congregations had given their approval. Archief 1 (Amsterdam, 1883), No. 475.


  • Dyck, Cornelius J. "The First Waterlandian Confession of Faith." Mennonite Quarterly Review 36 (January 1962): 5-13.