Why Pastors Should Engage the Belgic Confession
Among the historic confessions of the Reformed churches, the Belgic Confession deserves a special place of honor. Though the Belgic Confession is usually associated with the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort, as one of three confessional symbols of Reformed churches that find their roots in the Netherlands (the “Three Forms of Unity,” as they are commonly termed), it is among the most catholic of the Reformed confessions written in the sixteenth century.
Confirmation of the unique place of the Belgic Confession as a comprehensive statement of the Reformed faith can be seen in an action of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) after the Synod unanimously adopted its Canons or Five Main Points of Doctrine. Among the Post-Actaor decisions made after the Canons were adopted, the Synod addressed a letter from Pierre Du Moulin, who was delegated to the Synod by the French Reformed church but then prevented from attending by the French civil authorities. Du Moulin’s letter requested that the Synod consider writing a new Reformed confession that would unite all the Reformed churches throughout the world. Recognizing that there was insufficient time remaining to prepare such a confession, the Synod of Dort unanimously agreed that the Belgic Confession could serve this purpose. Because the Synod of Dort was an international synod (composed of delegations from almost all of the major branches of the Reformed churches throughout Europe), and not simply a synod of the Dutch churches, its response to Du Moulin’s request makes it the only Reformed confession that enjoys the status of a commonly acknowledged statement of the Reformed faith.
Occasion, Authorship and Sources
The name of this confession, “Belgic,” testifies to its origin as a statement of the teachings of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands (the “Lowlands”). In the sixteenth century, the Netherlands were known as “Belgica,” a loose association of seventeenth provinces that included the countries known today as Holland and Belgium, together with portions of northern France and Luxembourg. For this reason, the seventeenth-century Latin designation of the confession was “Confessio Belgica” and the Dutch designation was (and is to this day) the “Nederlands-belijdenis” or the “Netherlands Confession.”
The Belgic confession was written early in the second half of the sixteenth century (1561) by Guido de Brès, a French-speaking Reformed pastor who was born in Mons, the capital city in what is today a province in southern Belgium. Much like Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, de Brès authored his confession in response to the ruthless persecution of Reformed believers in the Netherlands during the reign of Philip II of Spain, son of Charles V who bequeathed the territories of the Netherlands to him before his death in 1555. Though it is difficult to determine how many Reformed believers were martyred in this period, some estimates range as high as 100,000, which exceeds the number of Christian martyrs in the first three hundred years of the church’s history. Since the Reformed churches and believers were accused of abandoning the tenets of the historic Christian church and charged with undermining the authority of the civil magistrate in the manner of the ana-Baptists of the period, de Brès sought to present a statement of the Reformed faith that would answer these accusations. Consequently, one year after the confession was written, a copy was sent to Philip II, together with a well-known prefatory address, which expressed the confessors’ readiness to submit to the government in all lawful matters but also to “offer their backs to the stripes, their tongues to knives, their mouths to gags, and their whole bodies to the fire” rather than deny the truths of Scripture. De Brèssealed these moving words with his life when he was put to death by hanging at the hands of the civil magistrate in 1567.
Though the Belgic Confession was originally authored by de Brès, it is remarkably similar in outline and content to the French Confession of 1559, and evidences the influence of John Calvin and Theodore Beza under whom de Brès studied in Geneva in the period of 1556-1559. Since Calvin wrote the original draft of the French Confession and was influential in forming de Brès’ understanding of the Reformed faith, it is no accident that the Belgic Confession remarkably coincides with the French Confession’s teaching. For this reason, the confession was quickly embraced by the churches in the Netherlands. After its adoption by provincial synods in 1563, it was officially recognized as a confessional standard of the churches in the Netherlands at the Synod of Antwerp in 1566.
Outline and Themes
Like the French Confession of 1559 and Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Belgic Confession begins with the doctrine of God (Art. 1), and the two ways by which he can be known (Art. 2, general and special revelation). These articles are followed by an extended treatment of the doctrine of Scripture in several articles (Art. 3-7) that coincide remarkably with comparable articles in the French Confession. However, unlike the French Confession, an article on the apocrypha is added that allows a subordinate use of these books for instruction, so long as no point of doctrine is confirmed by them (Art. 6). The remaining articles on the doctrine of God in the first part of the confession treat the doctrine of the Trinity (Art. 8-9), the deity of the Son (Art. 10), the deity of the Holy Spirit (Art. 11), and the two great works of God in creation (Art. 12) and providence (Art. 13).
After the opening section on the doctrine of God’s knowability through revelation and his works in creation and providence, the second major section of the confession takes up the topics of the creation and fall of man (Art. 14-15), and the person and work of Jesus Christ (Art. 16-21). The first article that deals with redemption in Christ in the second part of the confession treats the topic of “eternal election,” and the remaining articles offer a summary of Christ’s person and work as Redeemer.
The third section of the confession treats the way in which believers participate in the benefits of Christ’s work through the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Art. 22-26). Following Calvin, these benefits are principally free justification upon the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, and the regeneration or sanctification of believers in new obedience. Interestingly, following Calvin’s usage, the confession uses the language of “regeneration” in a broad sense, as virtually equivalent to what is today termed “sanctification” (Art. 24). The confession then concludes with a significant treatment of the doctrine of the church (Art. 27-35), followed by an article on the magistracy or civil government (Art. 36) and an article on eschatology or last things (Art. 37). The Belgic Confession may offer the most explicit affirmation that the entire obedience of Christ provides a sure basis for affirming that believers are right with God and properly heirs of eternal life. Click To Tweet
Four themes in the confession illustrate both its catholicity and distinctively Reformed character.
First, in the opening articles on the doctrine of Scripture, the Belgic Confession affirms several common features of the Reformed view. The Scriptures are an inspired, canonical rule of faith and practice, and are sufficient to regulate, found, and confirm the faith and practice of the Christian church. Contrary to the Roman Catholic Church’s claim to authenticate the Scriptures and to regard the church’s “councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God,” the confession declares the truth of Scripture to be self-authenticated and the only “infallible rule” for the church’s teachings (Art. 7).
Second, in their treatment of the two principal benefits of Christ’s saving work, the Belgic Confession emphasizes the pre-eminent importance of the believer’s free acceptance or justification before God upon the basis of the entire obedience of Christ. Interestingly, the Synod of Dort slightly modified Article 23 in order to affirm explicitly that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness includes “all His merits, and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead.” Thus, the Belgic Confession may offer the most explicit affirmation that the entire obedience of Christ (not only his endurance of the law’s penalty, but also his fulfillment of the law’s precepts) provides a sure basis for affirming that believers are right with God and properly heirs of eternal life.
Third, in the articles that summarize the doctrine of the church, the Belgic Confession affirms its catholicity and embraces the ancient dictum that “outside of it there is no salvation” (extra ecclesia, nulla salus, Art. 28). Therefore, all believers are obligated to join themselves to the “true church,” which is known by three distinctive marks: the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline (Art. 29).
And fourth, consistent with the confession’s aim to distinguish the Reformed faith from an ana-Baptist rejection of the proper authority and calling of the civil magistrate, the confession offers a strongly-worded affirmation of the legitimacy and office of the magistracy to maintain “good order and decency” in civil society (Art. 37).