The Belgic Confession, Introduction (continued)

In connection with this bit of history we must explain, in the second place, the anti-Anabaptist position which this confession so emphatically and openly assumes. We shall not enter in detail into the history of the Anabaptist excesses of this period. Those who are interested may study this history for themselves. But to explain why our confession is so emphatically opposed to the position of the Anabaptists and refers to their errors more than once we must remember, in the first place, that at the time of the Reformation in the Lowlands the Anabaptist movement also made its appearance. Secondly, while it may be conceded that not all the Anabaptists were of the same extreme type, nevertheless their principles reached their logical and inevitable manifestation in the anarchistic and revolutionary actions of extremists like Thomas Munzer, John Matthyszoon, and John Beukelszoon (Jan van Leyden) and their followers. These with their followers engaged in such revolutionary and immoral and communistic practices that they brought ill fame upon the Reformation itself. In the third place, as is so often the case in history, due sometimes to simple ignorance and sometimes to willful wickedness, the tendency was to judge all the followers of the Reformation in the light of the excesses of these relatively few extremists. Reformed and Anabaptists were lumped together as being anarchistic and revolutionary in the minds of the Spanish rulers. And all those who were anti-Roman Catholic were likewise considered to be politically dangerous and revolution-minded. Hence, in order to disprove any connection between the Reformed and the Anabaptists and to divorce themselves from these revolutionaries in the minds of the Spanish rulers our confession was in part composed, and in it the position of the Anabaptists is literally repudiated. It was in part for this same reason that Guide de Bres accompanied his confession with an address to the magistrates. As a means of stilling the storm of Romish persecution and of Spanish tyranny, however, the attempt was a practical failure. Nevertheless, that it was a failure is not the fault of the Reformed believers. They made it very plain that they were not to be associated with the revolutionary Anabaptists, but that they were a law-abiding and honest people, who feared God and honored the king. 

At the same time, in the third place, we must by no means imagine that just because our confession does not mention the Romish Church by name it is weak and compromising in this respect. True, the Belgic Confession is largely positive in its development of the truth as over against the Romish corruptions that led to the Reformation. But we must remember, first of all, that historically it was exactly the purpose of this little confession to demonstrate that the Reformed believers maintained the truth of the Word of God and that they therefore were not to be persecuted as heretics.” In the second place, there were still many to be reached in the Romish Church with the pure gospel of the reformers. Also with a view to these, the confession aimed at demonstrating that the Reformed Churches were not heretical, but proclaimed and maintained the truth of the gospel, that which the Romish Church should have maintained and claimed to represent in the name of Christ, and that which Rome in fact denied and corrupted. Wherever there were true people of God who had not as yet broken with Rome, the most powerful appeal to them was the simple and positive presentation of the old truths. And, in the third place, it is simply not true that the Belgic Confession is weak and compromising or even silent and neglectful as over against Roman Catholicism. This is not the time and place to go into detail in this respect. But a hasty reference to those articles which speak, for example, of justification, of good works and sanctification, or of the sacraments will make it abundantly clear that our Confession assumes a very distinctive position and that it leaves no room for and condemns the perversions of Rome. And most admirably the Confession succeeds in stating the distinctive position of the Calvinistic Reformation.


We must now give our attention to the further history of that little book that was tossed over the wall of the castle of Doornik on that November night in 1561. How came it to be the Confession of Faith of the Reformed Churches? And, in connection with this question, we also face the question whether we are justified in calling it the confession of the church at all? Is it not rather strange that this confession drawn up by Guido de Bres should be called the confession of the church? Our Canons were drawn up by an entire Synod, semi-international in character. The Heidelberg Catechismwas officially authorized by the Elector Frederick, who wanted his province to be Reformed, and, besides, was composed by theologians. Our ecumenical creeds were likewise the product of the church itself. But is not our Belgic Confession the work of an individual, and that too, a rather itinerant preacher and a refugee? 

There are several factors to be considered in this connection. 

In the first place, we must not forget the character of the times in which our confession came into being. They were unsettled times, due to persecution and tribulation. Times they were in which the labors of the church were often well-nigh impossible and had to be carried on secretly. Times they were too when the Reformed churches in the Netherlands were only in the process of formation, when the impact of the Reformation was only beginning to be felt in its full power. There was no nationwide organization of the church as yet. In fact, there was very little organization of any kind among the Reformed churches of this time. Congregation there were; but even these led a very unsettled life because of persecution. And there was a degree of contact and fellowship between the various communities of Reformed believers. Fellowship there was too between pastors and leaders of the churches, sometimes brought about through the very circumstances of persecution and flight to cities where the Reformed faith was tolerated or welcomed. But of organization and unified life and activity among the Reformed churches there was very little. It was simply out of the question, therefore, at that stage of history and under those circumstances to have a creedal statement produced by the official assemblies of the churches. All this does not mean, however, that the Reformed churches of that day and the body of believers shared no common faith and confession. They did. And it only remained for a man or men who were of the church and who lived close to the heart of the church and who perceived the faith of the church pulsating through the entire organism to spell out that faith and set it forth in concise and systematic form, so that later the churches might adopt that expression as their own by official action. It has been said that a genuine confession arises out of the very bosom of the churches as a spontaneous expression of faith. Well, if ever that was the case, it was true in this instance. TheBelgic Confession came into existence in the most spontaneous way possible. Born from the impulse of a living and vibrant faith from within and under the pressing necessity of a fierce and bloody persecution from without, it is the living and spontaneous expression of the faith of the fathers. And the Lord graciously gave to His church His servant Guido de Bres, a man who was able to perceive and to express the very genius of the Reformed faith, in order that he might be the mouthpiece of the “voice of our fathers.” 

In the second place, and in close connection with the above, Guido de Bres is not to be viewed as an isolated individual, separated from the main stream of the Reformed faith and speaking individualistically. On the contrary, he is a son of the Reformation. His life and work betray the influence and instruction of John Calvin. And his confession gives abundant evidence that it is the work of one who was well acquainted with Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, first of all. Secondly, there can be no doubt that de Bres followed in no small degree the French Confession of Faith (1559), of which Calvin himself was the composer in behalf of the French churches. In the third place, there is evidence that de Bres forwarded his articles in their earliest form to Calvin and the other Geneyan theologians for advice. And while Calvin is said to have counseled against introducing another confession in the French-speaking Netherlands, just as he was at first averse to the formulation of a creedal statement for France, but instead advised using the French Confession of 1559, this nevertheless shows us that de Bres took no isolated, individualistic action. Finally, it is to be noted that the original title of de Bres’ confession read: “Confession of Faith. Made with one accord for the faithful wandering in the low countries, who desire to live according to the purity of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Nor was this an idle claim. Guido de Bres was in consultation with men like Godfried van Wingen, Cornelis Cooltuyn, Petrus Dathenus, and Caspar van der Heiden, as well as others. And there is evidence in the writings of the time that his confession was early acknowledged as the confession which “we Reformed of the Netherlands have given over to the King of Spain.” Besides, we may mention that the important church at Antwerp appears to have had a part in its production; at least it was soon known as the Confession of Antwerp. 

Hence, there can be no doubt that already prior to its official adoption by the Reformed churches the Belgic Confession was in reality the expression of the faith of Reformed believers throughout the Lowlands. 

And what took place subsequently simply confirms what we have said. 

In 1562 the first Dutch edition of this creed made its appearance, necessitated by the fact that both the Dutch and French languages were used in the Netherlands provinces at that time. Not long thereafter the confession became the official creed of both branches of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. A Synod at Armentiers in 1563 already required subscription to the creed by officebearers. The Synod of Antwerp in 1566 revised the French text somewhat and also required subscription. Various Dutch synods concerned themselves with the text. The original Dutch edition was recognized as the official edition until the Synod of ‘s Gravenhage in 1553, which approved an edition produced from the French text of 1566 by Arent Cornelissen, minister at Delft. In 1611 still another Dutch edition appeared at the behest of the Synod of Veere in 1610. This one was produced by Faukelius, Walaeus, and Bucerus, among others. Besides, numerous Synods set their stamp of approval on this confession in the period before the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19. The Convent of Wezel (1568) demanded agreement with it on the part of ministers. The Synod of Emden (1571) required that the ministers subscribe to it. The Synod of Dordrecht required that elders and deacons subscribe to the confession in 1574; and in 1578 the Synod of Dordrecht required the same of professors of theology. In 1581 the Synod of Middelburg required that also the school teachers subscribe to this creed. 

Hence, from the very beginning the Belgic Confessionhas been acknowledged and adopted as the official expression of the faith of the Reformed churches. 

—H.C.H.