Calvinistic churches have not been afraid to publish before the world specific statements defining their understanding of the truth as revealed in the Bible. Out of the crucible of bitter hostility and persecution, Reformed creeds have come forth unexcelled for purity and genuine spirituality.
This is the character and the history of the Belgic Confession, one of the three standards of Calvinistic churches of Dutch origin. It summarizes simply but accurately the system of doctrine which is the Reformed Faith. This summary is amazingly complete as can be noticed from the following outline of its contents:
Articles 1–7—The Basis: the existence of God; the revelation of God in nature and in Scripture.
Articles 8–13—The Doctrine of God: the Trinity; the deity of Christ; the deity of the Holy Spirit; creation; providence.
Articles 14–17—The Doctrine of Man: his creation, fall, and depravity; original sin; election; the promise.
Articles 18–21—The Doctrine of Christ: the incarnation; the divine and human natures of Christ; the mercy and justice of God as revealed in Christ; the atonement.
Articles 22–26—The Doctrine of Salvation: justification; sanctification; the New Testament position of the ceremonial law; the Mediator.
Articles 27–36—The Doctrine of the Church: the universality, the indispensibility. the marks, the government, and the sacraments of the Church; church and state.
Article 37—The Doctrine of the Last Things.
As we set out to study these articles we ought to keep in mind that the man who wrote them died as a martyr be· cause of his loyalty to the Reformed Faith. Guido De Bres (or Guy De Bray), born in 1522, broke with the Roman Catholic Church as a young man to join the Reformation movement. This decision meant almost uninterrupted persecution until his death by hanging in 1567.
The Belgic Confession is representative of the determination which De Bres and his brethren in the faith consistently revealed as they sought to witness before those who brought untrue charges against them as Christians. The preface of this Confession, published in 1561, boldly declares that the charge of rebellion against the government, leveled against Reformed Christians, was unfounded. At the same time they served notice on their persecutors that, rather than deny Christ, they would “offer their backs to stripes, their tongues to knives, their mouths to gags, and their whole bodies to the fire, well knowing thaI those who follow Christ must take up the cross and deny themselves.”
De Bres’ Confession has come to Calvinists today by way of the great Synod of Dort, which in 1619 adopted it as one of the standards of the Reformed Church in the Netherlands. Since that time the Belgic Confession has usually been recognized as one of their creedal symbols by Reformed denominations of Dutch origin throughout the world, including the Reformed Church in America, the Christian Reformed Church in America, and the Protestant Reformed Churches in America.
Among the outstanding features of today’s spiritual decline is failure to study and to proclaim the standards of the church. Simple honesty would seem to demand that professing members of the church make it their business to know and to defend the contents of that church’s confession. Comparatively few, however, feel sufficiently responsible to take the trouble to find out just what is written in these standards. The result is, of course, that Mr. Average Church-member is noticeably lukewarm towards doctrine in general, and often actually hostile to the idea that churches ought to maintain with vigor their doctrinal distinctiveness.
In these studies we assume without apology the position that the Reformed Faith is the truth, and that the Belgic Confession is one of the recognized creeds through which that Faith comes to true expression. We believe that the system of truth which the Bible consistently reveals is excellently set forth in it. Through study of this Confession we should gain deeper appreciation for the marvelous structure of the truth as the Reformed Faith has best discovered it.
This has very concrete meaning for the method of our study. From the outset we should determine that we shall see, not a miscellaneous collection of isolated truths, but the organism of Scriptural doctrine. We must strive, then, to see how each of the individual doctrines (such as the doctrine of the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, or the doctrine of justification) is related to other doctrines. and how it fits into its proper place in the divinely revealed system of truth.
It is hoped that the lesson form of these studies will encourage not only individual study, but group discussion as well. Creeds are never private, but common property to all who confess. We should do well to revive the custom of speaking with one another for mutual encouragement and profit concerning the things of God.
In such discussion groups, careful heed should be paid to the reading of the Scripture passages cited at the head of each lesson. Never may we abandon the principle of the supremacy of the Bible as God’s Word, no matter how much we esteem our Confessions. We suggest, therefore, that the leader first of all read the article under discussion before the group. After that, let the passages listed be assigned to various members not only for reading, but also for explanation of the relationship the passage has to the subject of the article studied. Then the questions expounding the article may be taken and discussed. In this way our study ought to strengthen our conviction that in the Reformed Faith the Scriptures are most purely and consistently interpreted.
The Basis: Articles 1–7
Article 1—THERE IS ONLY ONE GOD
We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth that there is one only simple and spiritual Being, which we call God; and that He is eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good.
Romans 10:9, 10 (Faith and confession belong together.)
Hebrews 11:6; John 4:24 (What God is.)
Psalm 90:1, 2 (God is eternal.)
I Kings 8:27 (God is incomprehensible.)
John 1:18 (God is invisible.)
James 1:17 (God is unchangeable.)
Job 11:7–9 (God is infinite.)
Revelation 4:8 (God is almighty.)
Romans 16:27 (God is perfectly wise.)
Deuteronomy 32:4 (God is just.)
Mark 10:18 (God is good.)
1. What is the purpose of the first article?
It states the viewpoint from which the entire system of Christian doctrine is presented. As such this article serves an introductory purpose. We would make a mistake, therefore. if we should attempt to explain in detail its several parts, since the doctrine of God as such, is treated later in articles 8–13.
2. What is the viewpoint expressed here?
Unashamed testimony before a hostile world of faith in God. “We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth . . .” is the language of a living faith expressed by believers with one another and with their Lord Jesus Christ. Here we see the true, vital quality of creedal confession. It is opposed to “dead orthodoxy” in any form. It is spoken in the conviction thai the Christian is obliged to let his light shine in the midst of the world, maintaining the truth in opposition to every form of untruth.
3. Why is no proof offered by the Belgic Confession for the existence of God?
Because the Christian accepts the truth of the existence of God by Faith. God’s existence is the great presupposition of all biblical thinking, This is evident from the fact that the Bible nowhere presents a formal argument for God’s existence. Instead, from its opening verse the Bible assumes that God exists, going on from there to describe him in his names, attributes, persons and works.
4. ls it impossible by means of argumentation to compel the unbeliever to acknowledge God’s existence?
Yes. Doomed to failure is the attempt to compel acknowledgment of God’s existence on the part of an unbeliever by means of argumentation alone. Our thinking apart from God’s revelation can never establish the certainty of God’s existence, since he himself is the very basis of our being and our consciousness, and thus also of our thinking. “God can prove to us that we are and that he is; we cannot prove that he exists.”1 However, not only is it impossible for the creature ever to prove the existence of the Creator, but it is doubly impossible by “sheer logic”, to convince the sinner of God’s existence. His need is normal by argument, since he is prejudiced against God from the very start and is unsuited to judge the evidence presented.
5. Does that mean that we should not witness for God?
By no means, as the very history and the teaching of this first article demonstrates, But our witness must be a faith-witness characterized by a humble willingness to testify of him who is nothing less than God. As redeemed creatures we ought to be eager to speak of him before the world, since we have experienced for ourselves that he can make the blind to see and the dead to live.
6. Is there a pattern in the first article for own testimony?
There certainly is. Notice first of all the element of praise, indicating that the Christian speaks from a heart overflowing with love for God. Praise always requires spiritual experience, and the Belgic Confession, from the first article, indicates that its testimony is not only accurate, but also earnest and joyful.
Our praise, too, ought to be characterized by the deep desire to witness because we know him personally as “the overflowing fountain of all good.” Second is the element of trust, according to which these persecuted Christians fearlessly made known their despised faith before a hostile world, regardless of consequences. Finally, there is the clement of relevance; the Confession from this first article strives to vindicate itself, not only, but to point to him who is the “one only simple and spiritual Being which we call God.” The authors of the Belgic Confession feel an urgency to tell those without that the Christian faith is the only true religion. Significantly, their description of that only saving faith is designed to meet the crisis in which they find themselves in their day. So we, too, moved by gratitude to loving praise, in the spirit of implicit trust, ought to “make our calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10) by an effective witness to the faith, geared to the particular needs of a world essentially no less hostile today!
Article II—BY WHAT MEANS GOD IS MADE KNOWN UNTO US
We know him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small. arc as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God, even His everlasting power and divinity as the apostle Paul says (Rom. 1:20). All which things are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse. Second, he makes himself more clearly and fully known to us by his holy And divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation.
Romans 1:19, 20 (God’s revelation in nature and in his works is sufficient to leave men without excuse for their disobedience.)
Romans 2:11–16 (Judgment will be impartial, for the law of God is revealed even in the heart of the Gentiles.)
Psalm 19:1–3 (We can see God plainly revealed in the glory of the heavens.)
Acts 14:17 (God has never left himself without witness.)
I Corinthians 2:9, 10 (Salvation is beyond general revelation; we need the special revelation by God’s Spirit. )
II Corinthians 3:15–17 (In the Bible we have a revelation adequate to make us “wise unto salvation.”)
Timothy 1:17 (God’s glory is the foremost thought in the praising heart.)
Corinthians 10:31 (We must glorify God in all that we do.)
I. How are articles I and II related?
That which we have confessed in article I is now explained 8S ha ving originated in the general and special revelation of God. We can truthfully say about God only that which God has said first.
2. How does God please to speak to us?
In two ways; in nature and in Scripture.
3. In to what two parts can we distinguish general revelation?
Into the “light of nature in man” (Larger Catechism of the Westminster Assembly, question 2) and the works of God diocernible by man, namely, “the creation, preservation. and government of the universe.”
4. What is meant by the “light of nature in man”?
John Calvin indicated the meaning of this “light of nature in man” in these words:
“We lay down as a position not to be controverted, that the human mind, even by natural instinct, possesses some sense of a Deity…That all have by nature an innate persuasion of the Divine existence, persuasion inseparable from their very constitution, we have abundant evidence in the contumacy (stubborn disobedience) of the wicked, whose furious struggles to extricate themselves from the fear of God are unavailing.”2 The heathen, although they have never received God’s special revelation, the Bible, have by means of the light of nature a certain knowledge of God and a certain consciousness of the moral law in their own hearts (Rom. 2:14–16).
5. What is meant by “the creation, preservation, and government of the universe” in connection with natural revelation?
These are the works of God in which the creature can discern the Godhead, power, majesty and justice of God. All things from their very beginning (creation) to the end (government), great and small, simple and complex, disclose the God who is their Creator, Preserver, and Ruler. CaIvin, again, expressed it this way. “As the perfection of a happy life consists in the knowledge of God, that no man might be precluded from attaining felicity (happiness), God hath not only sown in the minds of men the seed of religion, already mentioned, but hath manifested himself in the formation of every port of the world, and daily presents himself to public view, in such a manner, that they cannot open their eyes without being constrained to behold him.”3
6. Is this natural revelation adequate for man’s spiritual needs?
No, for it does not speak of the Savior and his cross as the only ground for the salvation of sinners. Since man fell and became a sinner he has need for more than a revelation of God as powerful and just. In addition, by sin his capacities for receiving God’s revelation changed so that he is unable to use it aright (Rom. 1:21, 22). Consequently, the terrible perversions of nature described in Romans 1 have arisen among men as in their wickedness and rebellion they changed the worship of the true God into a false, idolatrous religion more suitable to their own desires. Nevertheless, this natural revelation leaves men without excuse, because their changed need and present inability have come about by their own responsible deeds of rebellion.
7. What clearer and fuller revelation of God do we have?
The supernatural revelation contained in the Old and New Testaments or the Bible. This “holy and divine Word”, also called special revelation, reveals God insofar as we need to know him under the present conditions in order to praise and glorify him and to become “wise unto salvation”. This revelation is adequate for our spiritual needs. Through the spectacles of this Word. all of the universe becomes “as a most elegant book” out of which we can read God’s thoughts as expressed in the formation and continual government of the world.
8. What are the differences between God’s revelation in nature and in Scripture?
(a) Natural revelation is based on creation, and is addressed to every intelligent creature without exception; special revelation is based on Christ’s redemptive, re-creative work, and is addressed to all who come within the hearing of it.
(b) Natural revelation is sufficient to leave men everywhere without excuse; special revelation is inadequate for salvation.
(c) God’s special revelation is much more clear and detailed than natural revelation.
Article III—THE WRITTEN WORD OF GOD
We confess that this Word of God was not sent nor delivered by the will of mall, but that men spake from God, being moued by the Holy Spirit, as the apostle Peter says; find that afterwards God, from a special care which he has for us and our salvation, commanded his servants, the prophets and apostles, to commit his revealed Word to writing; and he himself wrote with his own finger the two tables of the law. Therefore we call such writings “holy and divine Scriptures.”
2 Peter 1:19–21 (The Bible is a product of the Holy Spirit, not of man.)
2 Timothy 3:16 (The entire Bible is divinely inspired.)
Acts 1:16 (The Bible is the speech of the Spirit by way of human instrument.)
Jeremiah 36:2; Ezekiel 1:3 (Examples of prophetic awareness show that their writings are God’s Word.)
Exodus 31:15 (God himself wrote the two tables of the law.)
Revelation 22:18, 19 (We may not reduce nor increase the Bible because it is of divine ori~in, character. and authority.)
1. Why does the Confession call the Bible “holy and divine”?
This is proper because the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit. As a result the Bible in all its parts reveals the impress of the character of the Holy Spirit. which is perfect consecration to the Father and the Son. Thus the Scriptures reveal a holy God to whom all honor is due and whose revelation is most plainly seen in Jesus Christ, the perfectly obedient Son of God. Also, acceptance of the Bible’s holy teaching by faith always results in a holy life, that is, a life of opposition to sin and evil and promotion of the kingdom of God.
2. Why does the Confession speak of the Bible as the “written Word of God?”
Because the Bible as we have it in written form was not always the way in which God’s people had God’s Word. For a long time revelation came directly, or by angels, dreams, visions, or tradition (the carrying down of God’s revelation from generation to generation.) We must bear in mind that God’s people have aways been in some way in possession of God’s Word. (Look up in this connection question and answer 19 of the Heidelberg Catechism.) Today it is our blessed privilege to have not only the complete, written Word of God, but also to have it available in easy-to-buy, easy-to-read, printed copies.
3. In what sense is it true that the Bible is inspired?
By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit the Bible has become a “divine book, created by the divine energy and speaking in every part with divine authority directly to the heart of the readers . . .” It is a “God-breathed document which, because God breathed” is “through and through trustworthy in all its assertions, authoritative in all its declarations, and down to its last particular, the very Word of God.”4 The Bible is inspired in this sense: its origin and character is divine, which means that it is the infallible Word of God.
4. What are the different theories of the inspiration of the Bible?
a. The mechanical theory is that view according to which the human writers of the Bible were mere passive instruments in the hand of God. The human writers were only machines by which God wrote his Word. The Scriptures, however, indicate that the secondary authors (Moses, the prophets, Paul, etc.) were not used as insensible machines, but as rational creatures.
b. The dynamic theory conceives of inspiration as a general influence upon the writers so that as holy men they wrote literature of a lofty and noble character. This theory “robs the Scriptures of its supernatural character and destroys its infallibility.”5 Many so-called liberal theologians hold to this view.
c. The organic theory, the correct view, according to which the writers were prepared by the Holy Spirit to be fit instruments for the writing of God’s Word. They were so qualified and guided that they could, without error, serve as those through whom God’s infallible Word could be recorded. This is the view of faith according to which God’s Word is regarded as the wonderwork of his unique, miraculous power.
5. Simply expressed, just what do we mean when we say that the Bible is God’s Word?
We mean that in the plain, literal sense of the word the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the Word of God in written form, without any other limitations whatever. In other words, “the Bible itself, as a book, is the Word of God, and the actual written words of the book are the very words of God.”6
6. Is it accurate to say that the Bible “contains the word of God”?
If you mean only that the Bible “contains” the word of God in the sense that the word of God forms the contents of the Bible, yes. However, if you mean that the Bible includes among other things God’s word, so that it is in part the Scriptures, the answer is an unqualified NO! This distinction has appeared of late in very popular and subtle form in the teachings of the so-called neo-orthodox theologian, Karl Barth. Barth attempts to distinguish between the actual written words of the Bible and the Word of God contained in them. This is to be rejected because the Bible cannot be infallible if the written words are not themselves actually the word of God.
7. What is the reason why God commanded the writing of the Bible?
Out of “a special care which he has for us and our salvation”! Therefore at the heart of his Word is Jesus Christ, our Lord, whom we must confess before the world.
Article IV—CANNONICAL BOOKS OF THE HOLY SCRIPTURE
We believe that the Holy Scriptures arc contained in two books, namely the Old and the New Testament, which are canonical, against which nothing can be alleged. These are thus named in the Church of God.
The books of the Old Testament are the five books of Moses, to wit: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; the book of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, the two books of Samuel, the two of the Kings, two books of the Chronicles, commonly called Paralipomenon. the first of Ezra, Nehemiah. Esther; Job, the Psalms of David, the three of Solomon, namely. the Proverbs, Ecclesiastics, and the Song of Songs; the four great prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel. and Daniel; and the twelve lesser prophets, namely, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
Those of the New Testament are the four evangelists, to wit: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the Acts of the Apostles; the fourteen epistles of the apostle Paul, namely, one to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, one to the Galatians, one to the Ephesians, one to the Philippians, one to the Colossians, two to the Thessalonians, two to Timothy, one to Titus, one to Philemon, and one to the Hebrews; the seven epistles of the other apostles, namely, one of James, two of Peter, three of John, one of Jude; and the Revelation of the apostle John.
II Kings 22:8–13; 23:1–3 (The Scriptures, by their very contents, immediately impress God’s children as being the living Word of God.)
Joshua 10:13 (Reference to an extra-canonical book: “Jasher”)
II Chronicles 9:29 (“The book of Nathan”)
II Chronicles 12:15 (“The book of Jeremiah the Prophet” and the prophecies of “lddo the seer”)
Colossians 4:16 (Perhaps an indication of II Laodicean epistle, now lost.)
John 10:35, Luke 24:44 (Canon of the Old Testament already fixed at the time of Christ.)
John 16:13, 14; I John 2:20, 27 (Witness of the Holy Spirit in the heart.)
Acts 26:22 (The unity of the Scriptures.)
1. What does the Confession of Faith mean when it declares that the Bible books listed are “canonical”?
It means that only the sixty-six books of our present Bible may be received as the genuine and inspired Scriptures, Canonicity distinguishes them from all other religious Iiterature. The word “canon” is derived from a Greek word meaning measuring rod or rule. The contents of all other books are to be measured according to the standard revealed in the sixty-six books of our Bible. That is the significance of canonicity.
2. Why were other books discarded by the Church as non-canonical?
Basically because they were not recognized as divinely inspired as were the existing sixty-six books of the Bible. Many of them (see the textual references above) were allowed to pass into oblivion, while others now in existence are plainly below the standard of the Bible.
3. How did the Church decide that the present Bible was to be mode up of the exisling sixty-six books?
The canon must not be regarded as something which the Church made or decided to establish. Actually the Church only recognized what had long been the general conviction of believers. The canon of the Holy Scriptures must be regarded as the result of a natural, growing process whereby the Holy Spirit led the people of God into all truth.
4. What three Sleps arc disccrnible in this process?
a. First the Spirit’s testimony in the canonical Scriptures that these writings were the infallible revelation of God. The Spirit of Christ testified of the Promise and its realization in our Savior. Therefore Christ could say Moses “wrote of me” (John 5:46).
b. Second in the hearts of the saints the Spirit also testified, so that they recognized the canonical writings as of divine inspiration.
c. Finally, over the years the people of God saw with ever greater clarity the portrait of their Savior unmistakably apparent In these books. The sixty-six books were established as the revelation of God in Jesus Christ which is sufficient unto salvation.
5. Does “canon” then refer to more than just a collection of books?
Yes, it means actually that God through the organic process of the canonization of the Bible has himself identified his Word. It is impossible to believe that man might be capable in his own strength of identifying accurately the Word of God. If he could do that he would then be equal in knowledge with God. God alone can, and God alone did say, “These books are my Word, but those have not proceeded from my mouth.”
6. Can man unaided recognize the Scriptures as the inspired rule for faith and conduct?
By no means. for the mind of man is affected by sin. Only the illumination of the Holy Spirit can bring this about.
7. When was the canon completed?
The Old Testament was very likely fixed as early as 290 B.C. Evidence for this is derived from one of the apocryphal books: The wisdom of Jesus, the Son of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus). The New Testament canon was no doubt established by 400 A.D.7
8. Isn’t it true thai we no longer have the original manuscripts upon which the books were written?
Yes. These manuscripts, coiled autographs, have all perished. Some have suggested that this might well he evidence of God’s special care for the Church since we might be tempted to venerate and worship these documents, were they available.
9. How can we be sure that our Bible is the Word of God if we no longer have the original manuscripts?
Because of the plain fact that God has preserved for His people the Bible. It’s very existence is evidence of that fact. We must not forget that Satan and his allies have and do try every means to obliterate the Bible from the face of the earth. As for the old Testament, the work of the Masorites, professional Jewish scholars, was distinguished for its remarkable accuracy and painstaking care as copyists for the Old Testament Scriptures. There is very little reason to doubt that our Old Testament text is substantially the same as the original manuscripts. And even in the case of the New Testament only about a thousandth part represents noteworthy variation, that is, variation which affects the sense. It has been expressed this way: Among the variations revealed by the ancient copies in existence 19/20ths are of no significance at all, another 19/20th of the 1/20th remaining arc of very little significance, and, finally, none vitally affect Ii principal doctrine of the Christian faith.
10. Doesn’t the Belgic Confession in this article actually refer to only sixty-five books?
Yes. No doubt the book of Lamentations is subsumed under Jeremiah.
11. Do New Testament scholars still consider Paul to be the author of the book to the Hebrews?
Recent thought disagrees with the grouping of Hebrews under Pauline authorship. For reasons why this position is maintained read Prof. W. Hendriksen’s Bible Survey, pp. 428, 429.
12. Does canonicity, however, extend to all sixty-six books?
Absolutely. As the Confession states, “nothing can be alleged” against these books. We are not to distinguish between them as far as their rightful place in that canonical collection of official, divinely inspired book., is concerned. This means two things for us: first, we are never to assume toward any of the books of the Bible an attitude which renders some to be of relative unimportance; second, we ought to study all of the books carefully in order to see the distinct contribution of each to the whole of special, canonical revelation.
(To Be Continued)Footnotes 1. Abraham Kuyper, Dictaten Dogmatiek, vol. 1, p. 77. 2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1, Book 1, Chapter III, pp. 54, 56. 3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1, Book 1, Chapter V, pp. 63. 4. B.B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, p. 150 (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Philadelphia, Penna., has recently published a new edition of this valuable book. Buy it and read it, if at all possible). 5. L. Berkhof, Introduction to Dogmatics, p. 158. 6. Johannes G. Vos, Studies in the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Assembly, p. 7 (This is available in paper binding from the author: Rev. J.G. Vos, Clay Center, Kansas. Brother Vos is also editor of Blue Banner Faith and Life, an excellent Reformed quarterly). 7. cf—W. Hendriksen, Bible Survey, p. 21, 22. Rev. John H. Piersma is pastor of the Franklin Street Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids. Interested in the Reformed confessional standards, he hopes to make available a compact, useable series of discussion lesson on The Belgic Confession. Users are invited to make suggestions for the improvement of these lessons.