This article of our Belgic Confession has suffered from the hands of critics more than any article of our Confessions. When one is questioned whether he is in agreement with our forms of unity, there is always, the exception made to this article of the Belgic Confession. Although the subject of the article has been discussed and debated often in the history of Reformed churches there is yet no unity of opinion about the meaning of the article nor is there a positive stand taken after negative criticism. Everyone admits there is something wrong with the article. But wherein the error is there is no agreement. Nor has there been a forthright and clear conception of the duty of the magistrate in matters of religion. And the result of all this has been to my mind a failure to appreciate article 36. I would like to write something about this article to arouse appreciation for the entire article or at least to see the problem and the real necessity of making a confession about the duty of the magistrate. We should not have the idea as if the part of the article under debate takes up a subject about which we could just as well have been silent, Whether we agree with the statement of the article or not the subject confessed is a most important one and all should realize that it is and will become a very important confession of the Church of Jesus Christ in these last days over against the kingdom of antichrist.

Recently the subject has been brought up in the Christian Reformed Church. There were those on their last Synod of 1943 who followed the criticism of the footnote of 1910 and agreed in the main with it. On the other hand there was also a strong defense of the article and a sharp criticism of the footnote. Professor D. H. Kromminga takes this last stand and. wrote a pamphlet expressing his views. I consider this writing of Professor Kromminga to be one of the best contributions to the debate about this article that I have read. It is not only clear, able and honest work, but it also shows the fearless spirit for the truth which we welcome in discussions and especially in matters pertaining to our Confessions. This does not mean we are in agreement.

To really appreciate and understand article 36 we ought to know some important facts about the author and the composition of the Belgic Confession as well as the Confession as a whole. The martyr-life of the author, Guido De Bres, and his marvelous purpose in writing the Confession namelyto prove the Reformed: faith from the Word of God, has made me personally very appreciative of this article 36.

Guido Do Bros was the chief author of the Belgic Confession. Remarkable it is that after having been educated in the Roman Catholic Church he was zealous for the cause of the Reformation. He traveled about as an evangelist zealously proclaiming the truth of the Reformed faith. For his evangelistic activity he was put in prison and chains and hanged on the last day of May, 1567, at the age of 27. The Belgic Confession was revised by Francis Junius, student of Calvin, pastor of a Walloon congregation, and later professor of theology at Leyden. The Belgic Confession was printed about 1566 and was presented to Phillip II of Spain in the vain hope of toleration. The Confession was originally written in French. It was publicly adopted by the Synod of Antwerp in 1566, the Synod of Wesel in 1568, more formally by the Synod of Emden 1571, the Synod of Dort 1574, the Synod of Middleburg 1581, and finally by the Synod of Dort in 1619. Inasmuch as there were different translations at the time of the Synod of Dort 1619, and because the Arminians demanded partial changes in the Belgic Confession, the Synod of Dort 1619, ordered and submitted the three translations, French, Latin and Dutch to careful revision. These translations were made from the precise parchment which the Synod of Antwerp of 1580 ordered to be made from the revision of Francis Junius. This revision of Junius has always been regarded as the authentic document. In Netherlands therefore there has always been the authentic document translated and officially adopted by the Synod of Dort. In America the Reformed Churches had the difficulty of translating the Belgic Confession themselves once again. But there was an excellent English translation made from the Latin text of Dort, says P. Schaff. He refers to the translation of the Reformed Church of America in 1792. That is also the translation which we have in our Churches.

The above is the history of the Belgic Confession. Article 36 has another history of its own. The subject of article 36 is “Of Magistrates”. If you will read the article you will notice it speaks of the following elements: 1) The reason why God instituted government; 2) The office of the civil magistrate; 3) The duty of the subjects toward the magistrates; 4) Wrong views and practices which are rejected. And it is concerning the second element of this article 36 that the debates and discussions arose. The part under dispute reads: “And their office is, not only to have regard unto, and watch for the welfare of the civil state; but also that they protect the sacred ministry; and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship; that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed and the kingdom of Christ promoted. They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere, that God may be honored and worshipped by everyone, as he commands in His Word.”

To this statement of the Confession which speaks of the office of the civil state towards the sacred ministry, the Reformed Churches of Netherlands, De Gereformeerde Kerken, objected and in 1905 took out the part of the article which spoke of the State’s duty to prevent and remove all idolatry and false worship. The statement deleted reads in Holland, “om te weren en uit te roeien alle afgoderij en valschen godsdienst, om het rijk des antichrists te gronde te werpen.”

This action of the Churches of the Netherlands seems to have had an influence upon the Churches in America which was naturally to be expected.

The debate about this much debated article did not stop upon this action of the Reformed Churches of Netherlands in 1905. Rather the discussion continued up to the present time. Other elements in the article were subjected to criticism. Dr. Greijdanus comments about a brochure written by Dr. Van Lonkhuyzen, “De Blijvende Schriftuurlijke Grondgedachte van Art. 36 Onzer Nederlandsche Geloofsbelijdenis”, that there is not much clarity among us. He says that we deleted a part, but there is still a part about which there isn’t agreement. That is the expression, “het woord des Evangelies overal te doen prediken”. The final comment of Greijdanus is that the government has a duty towards God to acknowledge Him and serve Him, and to quote him, “doch wij weten nog zoo weinig hoe.” (Reformatie, 24 Feb. 39, p. 162).

Although the translation of 1792 of the Reformed Church of America changed somewhat the wording of article 36, that is, became an interpretation in a way, there resulted also here in America much discussion and difference of opinion. We all know how that in 1910 the Christian Reformed Church added a footnote to the part of the article which the Reformed Church of Netherlands deleted. Since that time it was felt by the majority that the situation with respect to article 36 was not satisfactory. In 1938 the Christian Reformed Church took out the footnote of 1910 and also the part which was always under debate. And, now as I already intimated there is still difference of opinion in the Christian Reformed Church as to the action of the Synod of 1938. The Synod of 1943 was confronted with the request to again retract the action of 1938 and add the footnote of 1910.

The footnote adopted in 1910 assumes that the article maintains the established church, a union of church and state, and states that history disproves this principle and that practically all Reformed churches have repudiated the idea of the Established Church. It therefore declares that it does not conceive of the duty of the magistrate in this sense.

So far forth I have given something of what has been done about article 36 of our Belgic Confession. To understand more of what is involved requires a further analysis of the arguments given for or against the interpretation of the article and the footnote. This too is a necessary work but is beyond the scope of this article. At least we can receive a definite impression that much work must be done and that this is a vital subject for the Church of Christ in the midst of the world. I cannot refrain from adding a few of my own impressions, however.

In the first place, I believe to understand and appreciate article 36 we must look at it as a product of its chief author, Guido De Bres, and not as a product of the Synod of Dort, or of Reformed fathers who lived when the ideas of the Established Church flourished. They only adopted the Belgic Confession. That means that we remember that it was made by one who was strong in his faith and was suffering from the hands of a cruel tyrant who was a tool of the Roman Catholic Church. That means that his idea about the relation of Church to State and of State to religious matters was not a dead issue. I see in this article a beautiful testimony of a leader and a people who followed him to a despot reminding him what he should do in the sight of God, persecute evildoers, instead of the righteous.

In the second place, we must remember that confessions are made by the people of God in the midst of the battle of faith. Those on the front line make confessions and not the armchair strategists. It is true that upon reflection they can be bettered as to accuracy.

In the third place, I believe the footnote makes a hasty assumption that the article proceeds from the principle of the Established Church, and does not appreciate the article as it should.

In the fourth place, I believe that the article demands of us a clear statement as to the duty of the government and also a testimony to it.