A reader encouraged me to follow up on the topic I introduced in the March/April issue of The Outlook—the five Walloon or Walcheren Articles of 1693. I focused on the first article, but what about the other four?
Before answering that question, I offer a confession that suggests why this document continues to hold importance for Reformed churches in the twenty-first century. I am writing these words while representing Reformed Fellowship at the Go & Teach Conference in Jordan Station, Ontario. The conference topic is biblical sexuality, a specific area of contention in our historical moment closely tied to deeper disagreements concerning identity. Conference speakers are noting the need for thoughtful engagement with history and philosophy in order for Christians to understand the origins and implications of prevailing ideas about sexuality and human identity today. The discussion includes thoughtful works such as Carl R. Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self and Christopher J. Gordon’s New Reformation Catechism on Human Sexuality.1 The Walloon Articles, like these more recent writings, point toward the church’s continuing responsibility to speak clearly and reflectively during moments of philosophical and theological dispute.
The dispute engulfing Reformed churches at the end of the seventeenth century involved a wide variety of philosophical perspectives that can be broadly gathered under the umbrella of Enlightenment/rationalist thinking. A primary figure associated with these movements was the French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650). The members of Classis Walcheren perceived that Descartes’s commitment to rationalism held potentially disastrous consequences for the faith of Christians.2 The Walloon Articles offer five variations on a theme, the theme of submitting theological and philosophical disputes to the Word of God. The first article deals most directly with the theme of subjecting human reason to the Scriptures; Articles 2–5 offer a representative sampling of responses to related issues arising from a misunderstanding of this relationship.
Synopsis of Walloon Articles 2–5
The four remaining Walloon Articles address doctrines of the Trinity (Article 2), justification (Article 3), the imputation of Adam’s sin (Article 4), and the works of the good and evil angels (Article 5). Article 2 responds to rationalist teachings that argued “that there is no eternal generation, nor can there be, that the person of the son of God became a Son and was generated in time, and that only because God in his gracious providence so willed it.”3 The rationalists sought to identify a more logically defensible view of the Trinity, but the authors of the Walloon Articles stressed the need to maintain a biblical confession surrounding the distinct functions and names of the members of the Godhead, even though doctrines like “eternal generation” surpass our comprehension.
Article 3 deals with the issue of justification, stating that this teaching concerns “the foundations of our blessed Reformation” and connecting it to relevant passages in the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession.4 This article does not specify particular sources of controversy regarding justification, but it makes five affirmations. First, no moral works can be a source of our righteousness before God. Second, justification is a form of grace distinct from sanctification and glorification. Third, justification stems from the satisfaction of God’s justice brought about through the active and passive obedience of Jesus Christ. Fourth, this justification is ours through imputation, in which we are “clothed with this robe of righteousness, ‘even as if we in our own person had done it.’”5 Fifth, true faith is the instrument through which we receive this imputed righteousness. Classis Walcheren cited “the Fathers [and] the Word of God” as authorities, upholding these points as the accepted teaching concerning justification and resisting alternative interpretations.6
Article 4 considers the issue of imputation directly. This article contends against those who try to make a separation between the innate depravity of human nature and the specific imputation of Adam’s guilt. Adam’s fall impacted all his descendants not just in a general sense of lasting effects on the world, but specifically because we all “were ‘as children’ in the loins of ‘the common father.’”7 We essentially share in Adam’s violation of God’s supreme majesty, as well as adding to our own guilt every day. But, “for our comfort,” the article emphasizes that this imputation of Adam’s sin stands over against the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.8 Our comfort stems from recognizing that as we have shared in the disobedience of Adam, so we share in the obedience of Christ, and his righteousness speaks a better word than the word of condemnation imputed to us through our Adamic nature.
Article 5 concerns the works of the good and evil angels. This article recounts biblical and confessional teachings about angels: created spiritual beings, some of whom have been preserved in their original state and minister to believers, others of whom have fallen by God’s permission and their own wickedness. While they await final condemnation, these fallen angels or demons exert their power against the church and its members, being given a varying amount of freedom in various places and times under God’s sovereign providence. Their judgment is sure, and God will not allow them to do anything to the ultimate harm of the elect. The Walloon Articles warn Christians not to deny or downplay the existence of demons, but rather to be “pupils of Christ.”9 As pupils, believers bear responsibility to learn what God’s Word teaches about these enemies and how we should always trust our heavenly Father to provide us with the complete victory. This closing article references Article 13 of the Belgic Confession, which presents a fitting summary of the overall message of the Walloon Articles:
We do not wish to inquire with undue curiosity into what [God] does that surpasses human understanding and is beyond our ability to comprehend. But in all humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, being content to be Christ’s disciples, so as to learn only what he shows us in his Word, without going beyond those limits.10
The Philosophical Legacy of Descartes
Having summarized the five Walloon Articles, I would now like to discuss why these articles matter today. Put simply, they matter because Descartes and the philosophy he espoused have mattered tremendously in the history of the Christian church since the eighteenth century.
Descartes rooted his philosophy in a solitary self, disconnected from a world of belonging and doubting everything except the very act of thinking. By centering human identity upon an individual’s ability to reason, Descartes split mind from body, directly undermining the premise of the Heidelberg Catechism that we “belong body and soul” to Jesus Christ, the center of the Scriptures. Cartesian philosophy took hold throughout the West, and as its consequences have intensified over the decades and centuries, it has been increasingly opposed by religious as well as secular philosophers.
Descartes’s philosophy contends that we are each free to define ourselves as we think or feel best—an issue that brings us back to the theme of biblical sexuality in the twenty-first century. Once we split mind and body in pursuit of some ideal of abstract reason, statements like “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” cease to be surprising. The authors of the Walloon Articles discerned this progression; one gets the impression that if they were to travel through time and meet a contemporary person struggling with issues of gender identity, they would be troubled, but not surprised. With their thoughtful writing, these church leaders anticipated much of the serious philosophical strife that Cartesian thinking has yielded centuries later.
Confessions as Historical Signposts
The particular insight of the Walloon Articles also points toward a general observation about the church’s responsibility to speak into issues that emerge in the historical moment. Historically, the church has spoken through creeds and confessions: careful and deliberate statements that clarify and apply Christian teaching. These doctrinal statements emerge at specific moments in history, reflecting particular sets of emerging challenges. And this raises a question for Reformed Fellowship and the church at large: If the historical context is always changing, how can the Reformed faith speak into those changes in an unchanging way?
The work of Ronald C. Arnett on religious communication is helpful here. Arnett describes faith positions in terms of narrative, historicality, and metaphor.11 Narrative offers a story that justifies meaningful practices for a given group of people over multiple generations. Historicality acknowledges that the world changes, sometimes not to our liking. Metaphor, understood as a communicative phenomenon than carries a richer meaning than a mere “idea” or “concept,” allows us to make creative applications of an unchanging narrative into a changing historical moment.
Let me illustrate, borrowing one of Arnett’s examples. Consider a parent and a child. Parental love is the narrative that binds father/mother and son/daughter together. The metaphors of “infant,” “toddler,” “young person,” and “adult” guide that narrative as it responds to the historicality of a child’s growth. One’s parenting must adjust to the changing needs of a child in order to remain faithful to the consistent narrative of parental love. Permanence and change dwell together in what Arnett calls a “unity of contraries.”12
The same thoughtful engagement with permanence and change confronts the confessional Reformed tradition. Reformed Fellowship is one example of a Christian association born in the midst of a changing historical moment. As our context continues to change, the issues and needs confronting Reformed Fellowship shift as well, requiring thoughtful and timely responses. Paradoxically, our specific purpose requires regular adjustment in order to remain faithful to our overarching mission of upholding the Reformed faith.
That’s why documents like the Walloon Articles offer so much help today. While these confessional statements do not hold the same authority as the Scriptures, they present “metaphors” that apply those Scriptures to the needs of a particular historical moment. Though not confessionally binding, these documents give us historic precedent for the importance of contemporary statements like Gordon’s New Reformation Catechism. Such statements point beyond themselves, allowing us to continue applying the unchanging story of the Christian faith communicated in the Scriptures to an ever-changing historical moment that desperately needs it.
1 Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020); Christopher J. Gordon, New Reformation Catechism on Human Sexuality (Greenville, SC: Gospel Reformation Network, 2022).
2 For historical context, see Roelf Christiaan Janssen, By This Our Subscription: Confessional Subscription in the Dutch Reformed Tradition Since 1816 (Kampen: Theologische Universiteit van de Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, 2009), 40–41. The most renowned contemporary opponent of Descartes was Gisbertus Voetius (1589–1676). See Willem J. van Asselt, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism, trans. Albert Gootjes (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011).
3 P. Biesterveld and H. H. Kuyper, Ecclesiastical Manual, including the decisions of the Netherlands Synods and other significant matters relating to the government of the churches, trans. Richard R. DeRidder (Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982), 222.
4 Ibid., 223.
5 Ibid., 224. The reference is to Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 23, question and answer 60.
6 Ibid., 224.
7 Ibid. The reference is to the Compendium of Christian Doctrine (an abridged form of the Heidelberg Catechism), question and answer 11. See The Psalter, with doctrinal standards, liturgy, Church Order, and added chorale section (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, for the Netherlands Reformed Congregations, 1991), back matter, 90.
8 Biesterveld and Kuyper, 225.
9 Ibid., 226.
10 I am quoting the URCNA translation of the Belgic Confession.
11 Ronald C. Arnett, “Interpersonal Praxis: The Interplay of Religious Narrative, Historicality, and Metaphor,” Journal of Communication & Religion 21, no. 2 (1998): 141–63.
12 Ronald C. Arnett, Communication and Community: Implications of Martin Buber’s Dialogue (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), 95.
Mr. Michael R. Kearney is a board member of Reformed Fellowship. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in Rhetoric at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.