The Belgic Confession, Article II

We know him by two means: East, 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, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, his power and divinity, as the apostle Paul saith, Rom. 1:20. All which things are sufficient to convince men, and leave them without excuse. Secondly, 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.


Introduction

This article of our creed introduces a subject which, judging from the large place and the detailed treatment accorded it, is evidently one of crucial importance for the Reformed faith. No less than six articles are devoted to this subject, a fact which we may take as indicating that our fathers considered the truth of revelation and inspiration, and especially the truth concerning Holy Scripture (to which five of these six articles are devoted), to be a doctrine of foundational importance. The article presently under consideration introduces this subject, setting forth the two means by which we know God, namely, that of His revelation in the universe and that of His revelation in Scripture. From this point on the Confession says no more about the first means, but devotes five articles to the setting forth and explanation of the Reformed faith with respect to the second means, Holy Scripture.

While we might from a certain viewpoint judge that our confessional statement concerning God’s revelation in the universe is rather scanty, it is nevertheless not difficult to see why our creed devotes such an important and primary place to the truth of God’s revelation, and particularly His revelation in Scripture. In the first place, the Confession itself indicates the prime importance of this doctrine by its introductory statement, “We know him by two means.” The question is therefore one concerning an adequate knowledge of God, and one concerning the means of such an adequate knowledge of God. And this is obviously a crucial question. Either the means here mentioned are the means whereby God is known, or they are not. If they are indeed the means, then we know God by these means. But if they are not the means whereby God is known, then we must not speak of a partial or inadequate knowledge of God; and we may not speak of an incorrect or inaccurate knowledge of God. No, if these are not the means, then we do not know God. What we know may be an idol, some deity of our own construction, a mere figment of our imagination. But we do not know God, Who is really God! If the church—be it Romish or any other—or inner light, or philosophy, rather than the means here set forth, are the means whereby God is known, then we do not know God. Moreover, what is said here is applicable to God’s entire revelation and His entire knowledge, that is to say, to all of Christian truth, even as it all belongs fundamentally to the knowledge of God. This doctrine of revelation, and once more, particularly the doctrine of Holy Scripture, is the very foundation of the church’s confession. Take it away, and the whole structure of the Reformed believer’s confession, the whole structure of the truth, totters and crumbles. Then the God whom we claim to know and whom we confess is not. Then there is no creation, no providence, no fall, no sin, no Christ, no redemption, no salvation, no church, no preaching, no sacraments, no discipline, no second coming, no judgment, no heaven, no hell. In this light too, it becomes all-important to make confession concerning the authorship, the canon, the dignity and authority, and the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures.

And as to the apparent disproportion in our Confession in the treatment of the two means, we may make the following observations. In the first place, this disproportion is to be explained from history. The important subject for Reformed believers in the Reformation era in which our creed was drawn up was that of the Scriptures. It was those Scriptures that were under attack. It was the Scriptures that the church was in danger of losing, yea, to a large extent had been deprived of for many years prior to the Reformation. With those Scriptures had been placed on a par the writings of saints, tradition, the utterances and interpretations and decrees of the pope and of councils. And therefore it was necessary, over against the evils of that day, to defend and to maintain the Scriptures. That God revealed Himself in the universe was not under attack at the time; and therefore this doctrine needed no extensive treatment. In the second place, we must not forget that this disproportionate treatment is not nearly so disproportionate as it appears. These two means of revelation are not equally important, and therefore they must not have equal treatment. We shall have further opportunity to see this a bit later. But even now we may note that our Confession itself remarks upon this difference: “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.” Besides, our Confession elevates Holy Scripture to the position of the sole criterion of faith and practice, which means that God’s revelation in. the universe must be read and interpreted in the light of Scripture. And, in the third place, we may add that our creedal statement concerning God’s revelation in the universe, the first means mentioned in this article, is quite adequate when read in the light of the rest of our confession and in the light especially of what our Belgic Confession says concerning Scripture. It is not difficult, yea, not even questionable, to say what a Reformed believer of the twentieth century—let us jay, of the “age of science”—must believe concerning God’s revelation in the universe, and what his approach to and his interpretation of that revelation must be, and how it must take place. Also this we hope to make clear in our subsequent discussion.

We Know Him By Two Means.

There are certain doctrinal formulations and explanations which through long and repeated use come to be accepted, almost automatically, as being Reformed and confessional, so that we do not even challenge them and think them through any more. Such is the case, I fear, in regard to this second article of our Confession. Rather traditionally we regard this article as speaking of God’s “general revelation” and His “special revelation.” The former is His revelation in nature and in history, creation and providence; the latter is His revelation in Christ Jesus, and thus in Scripture. The former is a revelation to all men; the latter is a revelation to only a part of men. The former is a revelation which by itself can never be unto salvation; the latter is a revelation unto salvation. And, according to some, the former, even as it is a general revelation, is a matter of common grace; the latter is a matter of “special” grace. You will find some such explanation as above in many a treatment of the doctrine of revelation, as also in commentaries on this second article of the Confessio Belgica. And I dare say that even in Protestant Reformed circles apart now from that one characterization of revelation as being a matter of common or of special grace, so-called these same traditional distinctions and terms are not infrequently used. That is one of the dangers of traditionalism, that we fall into certain ruts of doctrinal terminology and usage uncritically, without ever making a thorough study and without even challenging terms and ideas, until finally we simply accept something as being Reformed.

But what happens when we carefully analyze the teachings of Article II of our Confession and when we put these traditional views to the test of this second article?

I make bold to say that we discover that these traditional views concerning “general” and “special” revelation have, in fact, no foundation in our Confession. They are not confessional distinctions. Whether they be good or bad is not it present under discussion. Whether those terms are usable or not is an altogether different question. I merely want to emphasize that we must not in an off-hand manner say that the second article of our Confession teaches general and special revelation.

First of all, let me draw your attention to some very elementary facts concerning this article. The first of these is that the article does not so much as mention “revelation,” much less give us a doctrine of revelation or a definition of revelation. This is indeed significant. Do not misunderstand: I do not mean to say, or even to imply, that what is stated in this and subsequent articles has nothing to do with the doctrine of divine revelation. I merely assert that this article does not literally mention revelation, nor define it, nor set forth a dogma of revelation. And I further maintain that this should at least put us on our guard against facilely and naively concluding that in Article II we have an official creedal doctrine of revelation. The second elementary fact, also negative, is that this article certainly does not mention “general” or “special” revelation. In fact, it does not even speak of the means whereby “men” or “all men” know God. The only statement concerning men in general which you find in this article is the one which avers that all these things, i.e., of that elegant book of the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse. This again ought to caution us against simply assuming that this “general-and-special” formula is a confessional one.

In the second place, looking at the positive side of the ledger, we may observe the following:

1) Notice that the article says: “WE know him.” This at once limits all that the article has to say. The subject is not “men” or “mankind” or “all men.” The article does not even speak objectively concerning “the means whereby God may be known.” But this is a confession of faith. And the subject of that confession is “we.” And that “we” is the church, believers aid their seed, speaking organically. In the light of this fact, namely, that this “we” is the same as the “we” of Article I, who “all believe with the heart, and confess with the mouth,” all the rest of the article must be read and interpreted. That “we” know God by the first means as well as by the second. It is before “our” eyes, that is, the eyes of faith, that the creation, preservation, and government’ of the universe are as a “most elegant book.” And “we” are led by the characters in that book to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, His power and divinity. And, moreover, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us, that is, to the church, believers and their seed, by His holy and divine Word.

2) It is in this same spirit that the term “know” must be taken here. This is none other than the knowledge of faith, saving faith. Not a mere intellectual knowledge concerning God is meant; nor does the article distinguish between two different kinds of knowledge of God here. But one knowledge of God, the knowledge of faith, the knowledge which is life eternal, the true knowledge of God, the knowledge which is limited to the church, the elect, is plainly the subject of discussion in this article. And that one knowledge is attained through two means.

3) Finally, take note of the object of this knowledge: “him.” But then remember that this pronoun “him” takes us back to the preceding article. And the preceding article does not merely speak in general of God, but of the God of our salvation, whom we believe with the heart and confess with the mouth. For it is God as the overflowing fountain of all good that is there confessed. And again, you must remember that this limitation applies to the entire article. Both of the means mentioned here are means whereby we know HIM, the overflowing fountain of all good.

(to be continued)

—H.C.H.