The Great Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-79, played an important role in the history of our Belgic Confession. To it, in fact, must be credited the fact that we have this confession today in its present form and that it has achieved an important position among Reformed creeds. Usually we connect only our Canons with the Synod of Dordrecht. And indeed, the Canons were the most important accomplishment of the Synod. But they were not by any means the only accomplishment. This Synod occupied itself with many other matters. We may say that the Reformed churches of Dutch origin did not reach maturity and full unity really until the Synod of Dordrecht, and that this Synod finally established the official creedal position and church political position of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.
We must remember that during the Arminian controversy the very existence of the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession was endangered. This stands to reason. The Remonstrants did not want to be bound by these Reformed documents. For it was not thus, that prior to the composition of the Canons our Reformed churches had no position as to the doctrinal truths at issue in the Arminian controversy. On the contrary, the Canonsmerely served the purpose of articulating and further explaining the position that was already set forth in our other creeds. And the Arminians felt to be sure that there was not room within the confines of theCatechism and the Confession for their views. Therefore they never wanted a synod at which they would be on trial on the basis of Scripture and the confessions. They knew very well that they would be condemned on that basis. But they were more than willing that a national synod be convened for the purpose of reviewing and revising the Catechism and. the Confession. This the Contra-Remonstrants did not want at all. They saw in this a clever maneuver on the part of the Arminians. In the first place, this maneuver was designed to evade an ecclesiastical trial of the Arminians. At such a synod Remonstrants and Contra-Remonstrants would appear as equal parties, with equal rights and privileges. In the second place, if the Arminians at such a synod could succeed in getting the creeds revised to suit their designs, the cause of the Reformed faith would be lost. Once the creeds were revised, the Arminians would have official confessional standing, and their views could never again be attacked as heretical. On the contrary, there would be no room left for the Reformed view. And, in the third place, at such a synod the Arminians, especially because they had the backing of the government, stood a good chance of controlling such a synod and having things all their way. Hence, for a long time there was a struggle about the mere question of the convening of a national synod. Without the government a synod could not be convened. But the government would convene a synod only for the purpose of revising the confessions. This was entirely out of order. If the confessions were to be revised, this could be done only by way of carefully circumscribed gravamina against definite expressions found in the creeds. But simply to convene a synod with the general mandate to review and revise all the creedal literature of the churches was an unheard of thing. This would mean that all that the church had ever formulated and confessed was to be called in question. Hence, the Contra-Remonstrants did not want a synod under such conditions. And this was one of the reasons why the Arminian controversy became such a protracted struggle.
When finally there was a shift in power, and with it a shift in sympathy, in the government, and when the condition of a revision of the confessions was removed, the Great Synod was convened in 1618-’19. And, as you know, the Arminians were indicted, tried, and found wanting.
Then, unexpectedly, after the Arminians had been condemned, the Synod in its one hundred forty-fourth session was after all confronted with a demand to review the confessions. It must be remembered, however, that this was not the same as the earlier demand of the pro-Arminian government. This was not a demand for revision, but for review. And the purpose was not to make any radical changes in the confession, but rather to establish, over against the slander of the Arminians, that according to the consensus of all the churches the Confession of Faith of the Netherlands Churches was in harmony with the Scriptures. This becomes evident from the way in which the request was put by the governmental deputies in the name of the States General. This request was that the Confession of Faith of the Reformed Netherlands Churches should be read and examined in the presence of the foreign theologians, and that every member of the Synod, foreign as well as domestic, should declare whether he finds anything in this Confession as far as the doctrinal points and the essence of the doctrine is concerned which does not appear to be in agreement with the truth of God’s revealed Word or with the confessions of other Reformed churches. However, as far as the method or manner of expression was concerned, and as far as church government was concerned, this was to be examined only by the Dutch delegates. And because especially the British delegates recognized a different form of church government, Articles 31 and 32 of theConfession were excluded from this review.
The Synod acceded to this demand of the government. Every delegate was furnished with a copy of the Belgic Confession. Thereafter the articles were read in order, and everyone was requested “that he, after proper and diligent and serious examination of the same, should further freely and uprightly declare whether in the doctrines contained in the Confession he had noted anything which was not in harmony with God’s Word and which he judged it necessary to change.” (Cf. “Handelingen der Nationale Synode,” p. 305.)
The record of the one hundred forty-fifth session shows that the delegates from Great Britain were the first to declare themselves on this subject. They informed the Synod at this session that they had examined theConfession as carefully as they had examined the teachings of the Remonstrants, and that notwithstanding the Arminians’ insinuations, they found nothing therein contrary to God’s Word, and that for the most part those Arminian indictments could be brought against the confessions of all the Reformed churches. In the one hundred forty-sixth session we find that all the delegates, foreign and domestic, declared that there was no doctrine in the Confession that was in conflict with Scripture, but that, on the contrary, all were in agreement with the truth of God’s Word and the confessions of other Reformed churches.
After this, the foreign theologians solemnly exhorted the Netherlands members of the Synod to persevere steadfastly in this Confession of Faith, to transmit it unfalsified to their descendants, and to maintain it unadulterated even to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. And with equal solemnity our fathers unitedly pledged that it was their purpose to persevere in the calling of this sound doctrine, to teach it purely in the Netherlands Provinces, diligently to stand for it, and keep it, through the grace of God, unadulterated.
An interesting sidelight is the fact that at this same session the delegates from the Waalsche Kerken informed the Synod that the Confession of Faith was approved by a National Synod of the French Churches in 1583. And in the Acts of the Synod of Dordrecht was entered a quotation from the Acts of the French Synod to this effect. This was probably done because the French delegates were unable to attend the Synod of Dordrecht.
We recite this history in detail here because it shows that the Belgic Confession really attained its full stature, not only in the Netherlands but also in the Reformed community generally, at the time of the Synod of Dordrecht. From this time on this creed occupied a place of importance among the numerous Calvinistic confessions, having met with approval from all the churches.
The Synod of Dordrecht performed one more important service with respect to the Belgic Confession. In the Post-Synod, that is, the sessions of synod which were held after the foreign delegates had departed and after the chief business of the synod had been attended to, it was decided to prepare authentic versions of the Confession in French, Dutch, and Latin. The Synod took cognizance of the fact that there were several different versions in existence, each of which differed from the others in various details. A committee was appointed to prepare an authentic text; and they received the mandate to compare the various versions, but to pay special attention to the version which up to this time had been recognized as authentic in the Dutch and the French churches. This was in the one hundred fifty-fifth session, May 13, 1619. The men appointed were Aritonius Thysius, Hermanntiis Faukelius, Daniel Colonius, Festus Hommius (also secretary of the synod), and Godefridus Udeannus. Ten days later the French and the Dutch versions were prepared, and the Synod spent three sessions treating the proposed versions. To the revisions which were made we need not give our attention at this time. Suffice it to say that after careful deliberation and with some further corrections, these French and Dutch versions were adopted by the Synod, and have functioned since then as the authentic text of the Belgic Confession. The Latin version, prepared by Festus Hommius and later published, was not ready in time and was never treated by the Synod. For our Reformed churches, therefore, the French and the Dutch text of Dordrecht are authentic and form the basis of our English translations.
From Dordrecht to the present is a long time. And we cannot go into detail as to the history of this period. Soon after the glorious victory of Dordrecht a period of decline set in. The Reformed churches in the land of our forbears were assailed first by the blighting blast of dead orthodoxy, which began as the lulling breeze of complacency after the hard-fought battle against Arminianism. Rationalism and Pietism were next to assail the churches. It must be remembered too that the church was during this, period in bondage to the state, a factor which made it possible for the champions of the truth successfully to do battle within the church. And to be sure, the confession of the church was endangered in this period, but not in such a way that we of today were deprived of it. In the first place, the official creed of the Reformed Churches had been established once and for all at Dordrecht, that is, before the tides of Rationalism and Pietism swept over the churches. In the second place, the nature of the assault during this period was different. The enemy did not seek to do away with the creed officially. The attempt was rather to ignore the confessions and to make them dead letters in the church. Modernism and error was tolerated while officially and in name the church still maintained the Three Forms of Unity. And so it came to pass that when the separations of 1834 and 1886 took place, these constituted a return to the creeds which were officially held to be the standards of the Reformed Churches. Through the colonization and immigration of our forbears in the 19th and 20th centuries this heritage of the Reformed faith was transferred to our shores; and thus we have the Belgic Confession today.
But once more we may face the question: do we truly have this confession as our own today? Or are we like so many others, past and present, who hold to this confession in name, but not in fact? Our future studies should help us to answer this question.
We must next consider the authority and position of ourBelgic Confession, and, in connection therewith, its value as a creed.
And then we may say, in the first place, that both historically and from the point of view of its contents our Belgic Confession, more than any other of our creeds, purposes to be a symbol. A symbol is a sign, a mark of distinction. Thus, for example, a flag or other national emblem may be called its symbol, that is, the mark of distinction whereby a nation may be distinguished from all other countries. In this same way the confession of a church serves the purpose of a symbol. It constitutes the mark of distinction whereby a certain church and its faith may be known and distinguished in and over against all the world in general, and whereby a particular church may be distinguished from all other churches. Implied in this very idea of a symbol, in the first place, is the fact that it is the calling of the church in the midst of the world to be a living testimony of the grace of God, to let her light shine everywhere, and therefore to give constant expression to her faith, that is, to that which she believes to be the truth revealed in the Word of God. This is such an evidently Scriptural truth that we need not take the time to prove it now. Implied in this idea, in the second place, is the element of distinctiveness, or of spiritual and doctrinal isolation. A nation’s flag sets it apart from all other nations, distinguishes it as occupying a position which no other nation occupies. A church’s creed too sets it apart from the whole world, marks that church as occupying a position by itself, the position of faith. And, especially since the era of the Reformation, when churches and sects multiplied rapidly, a church’s creed sets that church apart from all other churches, marks that church as occupying the position in which she claims to be the purest manifestation of the body of Christ on earth. And therefore, in the third place, a church’s symbol is at the same time a weapon of apology, of defense of her faith. By means of it the church gives an answer to every man that asketh a reason of the hope that is in her.
Now, considered historically the Belgic Confession is surely preeminently such a symbol. As we have seen, this confession was addressed, first of all, to the civil authorities. And to them the churches in the Lowlands intended to set forth their faith, to vindicate their position, and to show the injustice of the persecution and oppression in which the authorities were engaged. Furthermore, this confession was obviously intended to distinguish the Reformed churches and the Reformed believers from both Anabaptists and Roman Catholics, and to demonstrate that the “believers dwelling in the Lowlands” desired “to live according to the purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And, in the second place, in that age of reformation, when the pure faith was once more coming to light in the Lowlands and when many remained to be enlightened and converted from the bondage and darkness of Romanism, this creed also served as a symbol to the believers in general. It proclaimed, “Here, in these churches, is the true faith. Here, in distinction from all other churches, the purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is maintained and preached. By this confession you may know what we believe, and you may compare it with that which is taught and preached elsewhere and with the Holy Scriptures, and thus know that here is the true church of Jesus Christ!”
The same is true when you consider the Belgic Confession from the point of view of its contents. To be sure, our other confessions also serve as symbols. In the very nature of the case, a creed is always at the same time a symbol, or mark of distinction. OurCanons certainly function as a symbol. But this function of the Canons is limited by: the very fact that they deal only with certain points of doctrine, not with the whole of the Reformed faith. The Heidelberg Catechism is also a symbol. But to serve as a symbol is not its chief purpose. The very viewpoint and method of the Catechism preclude this. Its viewpoint is subjective and experiential, and its method of question-and-answer is the method of a book of instruction. But the Belgic Confession, while it intends to set forth the living faith of the church, as is evident from its “We all believe with the heart, and confess with the mouth,” or, “We believe and confess,” or, simply, “We believe,” nevertheless follows the objective, doctrinal order in its treatment of the truth. We may outline its 37 articles as follows:
1. Article 1 is an introductory article, expressing belief in the one God, and at the same time informing us that the confession proceeds from the theological standpoint.
2. In Articles 2-7 the confession treats the means whereby God may be known by us:
a. The two-fold means. Article 2.
b. The divine origin of the written Word of God. Article 3.
c. The canonical books. Article 4.
d. The authority of Holy Scripture. Article 5.
e. The difference between the canonical and apocryphal books. Article 6.
f. The sufficiency of Holy Scripture. Article 7.
3. In Articles 8-11 the doctrine of God is set forth:
a. The Trinity. Article 8.
b. Proof of the doctrine of the Trinity. Article 9.
c. The divinity of Jesus Christ. Article 10.
d. The divinity of the Holy Spirit. Article 11.
4. Articles 12-15 speak of creation, man, and sin:
a. Creation. Article 12.
b. Divine Providence. Article 13.
c. The Creation and Fall of Man. Article 14.
d. Original sin. Article 15.
5. Articles 16-21 speak of Christ:
a. Predestination. Article 16.
b. The promise of the Savior. Article 17.
c. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Article 18.
d. The two natures of Christ. Article 19.
e. The work of Christ from the viewpoint of God’s justice and mercy. Article 20.
f. The satisfaction of Christ. Article 21.
6. Articles 22-26 speak of the doctrine of salvation:
a. Saving faith. Article 22.
b. Justification. Article 23.
c. Sanctification and good works. Article 24.
d. The abolishing of the ceremonial law. Article 25.
e. The intercession of Christ. Article 26.
7. Articles 27-35 deal with the doctrine of the church:
a. The Catholic Christian Church. Article 27.
b. The obligation to join ourselves to the true church. Article 28.
c. The marks of the true church. Article 29.
d. The government of the church. Article 30.
e. The offices of ministers, elders, and deacons. Article 31.
f. The order and discipline of the church. Article 32.
g. The sacraments in general. Article 33.
h. Baptism. Article 34.
i. The Lord’s Supper. Article 35.
8. Article 36 speaks of the civil magistrates.
9. Article 37 deals with the doctrine of the last things.
It must be remembered, of course, that this function of the Belgic Confession as a symbol does not exclude, but rather implies its value from other points of view. In the first place, also this confession serves the positive purpose of a basis and bond of union: upon its basis churches of a common faith can officially and formally unite or have correspondence. In the second place, theBelgic Confession serves as a means for the preservation and defense of the truth and for the transmission of the truth in the line of generations to the church and to believers in all ages. And, in the third place, the Belgic Confession, the more so because it sets forth the truth in systematic, objective order, can serve as a wonderful means of instruction, both to those within and to those without the church. This cannot be emphasized enough in our day. The confession of a church means nothing except in so far as it is the expression of a living faith. Or, to put it another way, the confession of a church as an official creedal statement is valueless except in so far as it is indeed the confession of its members. If, on the other hand, the confession is buried in the dust of antiquity and has a place, not in the hearts of the members, but only in the archives and official literature of the church, it can serve only to rise up as a
testimony against the church in the judgment of God, solemnly reminding the church of what she ought to be, but is not! The church must be thoroughly indoctrinated, therefore. The most solemn duty of the church, in pulpit and catechism class and on the mission field, as well as in its relations and contacts with all other churches, is to maintain the “purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The whole well-being of the church is wrapped up in this maintenance of the faith. The healthy church is the church whose members know what they believe, and believe what they know. The true unity of the church is to be found only on the basis of the truth. And the extension of the church is only possible when the truth bf the gospel of Jesus Christ in all its purity is proclaimed and propagated.
In this connection we must also deal with the arguments raised against the authority and value of our confessions. It is claimed that confessions are merely human productions. The objection is raised that confessions bind the conscience. It is argued that creeds create division and schisms. And it is alleged that confessions hinder the development of the truth.
Essentially, the answer to all these arguments is two-fold.
In the first place, our confessions have no authority by themselves, but derive all their authority only from Scripture. This implies that any binding power which a confession may have is the binding force of the Word of God itself. The latter only may bind the conscience. Only, therefore, in so far as a confession is the expression of the truth of the Word of God may its authority be acknowledged; and only in so far as the church does not fall into the error of dead confessionalism, but acknowledges the Scriptures as the continuous, living source and criterion of her creeds—only in that measure will she be a living, growing church, becoming richer and purer in her knowledge and possession of the truth as it is in Jesus. In the second place, those who deny the authority and value of our confessions must first deny the historic and organic development of the church in the midst of the world under the continuous guidance of the Holy Spirit, Who was poured out in the church in order to lead her into all the truth. If only this latter truth is kept in mind, it cannot be maintained that the confessions are mere human products. But under the obligation of Scripture itself to confess her faith, and under the inward impulse of the indwelling Spirit of Christ, the church must needs give expression to her faith, to the glory of God and to the salvation of the saints.