In our previous articles we have dealt with the life of Guido de Bres, the author, of the Belgic Confession. We have discussed the value of Creeds in general and of the Belgic Confession in particular. In this connection we answered some objections which are commonly lodged against the Creeds. In the present article, the last of the introduction to the exposition of the Belgic Confession, we wish to take note of two outstanding characteristics of this particular creed and give a brief outline of its contents.
Strikingly the Belgic Confession says virtually nothing explicitly concerning the doctrine and practice of the Church of Rome. We say, strikingly, because this stands in sharp contrast with the creedal statements of the Protestants of the time which contained sharp polemic against Roman Catholicism. Our own Heidelberg Catechism, which treats the Reformed faith from an experiential point of view, does not hesitate to condemn the “popish mass” as an “accursed idolatry.” (cf. Lord’s Day, XXX, question 80) The Gallican Confession, which had such a profound influence on the Belgic Confession, as we saw in our last installment, is decidedly anti-Rome. It would certainly appear, therefore, that de Bres deliberately chose not to write anything explicitly anti-Rome. Why? The answer is not that the Reformers were motivated by fear of reprisal on the part of the Romish political leaders of the time. The life and death of de Bres himself precludes this possibility.
There are three factors which contributed to this. First, we must understand that there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of tracts and pamphlets being written in those days which spoke of specific abuses and heresies perpetuated by Rome. There was no real need for de Bres to add to this in the Confession of Faith. It must be understood, in the second place, that the Reformed Faith so beautifully expressed in the Belgic Confession was in itself a clear and strong and sustained protest against the doctrines and practices of Rome. And, thirdly, in this connection it ought to be remembered that there were thousands of saints of God who had little opportunity to become familiar with the doctrines of the Reformation. They were oppressed and kept in ignorance by the hierarchy of Rome. To win these for the faith was the prayer and aim of the Reformers. It may very well be that in the mind of de Bres and his contemporaries it was thought that a positive exposition of the truth of the Word of God would serve better to convince others than an all out attack on the papists.
In the light of this characteristic one would not expect the Belgic Confession to condemn so strongly the abuses of the Anabaptists. This is most assuredly the case. The errors of the Anabaptists are singled out time and again through the thirty seven articles of this creed. No less than three times the Anabaptists are mentioned by name.
To understand why this emphatic condemnation of Anabaptistic errors is present in the Belgic Confession we must know something of this movement. The term Anabaptist (which means, rebaptism, because of their insistence on baptizing again those who had received the sacrament in infancy), denotes a religious movement which began in Switzerland under the leadership of Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz. This movement soon spread to northern and western Europe, and it continued until after the death of Menno Simons (1496-1561), when the term Anabaptist was replaced by the name Mennonite. While the precise origins of this movement have been the subject of rather intense study and debate, its teachings are rather clearly known. From its beginning under Grebel and Manz Anabaptism held the View of a radical separation of church and state. Any cooperation or affiliation between the two was considered to be a denial of the teachings of Jesus Christ. The Church, according to the Anabaptists, was the company of visibly regenerate. For this reason baptism could only be administered to adults upon the confession of their faith and conversion. In the early years the movement was opposed to all violence. They insisted, for example, that military service was sinful, the payment of taxes to a government in war was a violation of the Word of God. Doctrinally the Anabaptists were afflicted with a good deal of subjectivism and mysticism. They looked for guidance through visions and dreams and religious experiences. They held open the possibility of new revelations in addition to the inscripturated Word of God. Apart from special illumination of the Holy Spirit, which alone enabled believers to understand the Scriptures, the Bible remained a dead letter. The Reformers had little sympathy for the movement.
It stands to reason that this kind of subjectivism and mysticism would lead to all kinds of wild excesses in both doctrine and practice. There were, for example, the Anabaptistic Zwickau prophets who came to Wittenberg during the time Luther was being held in Wartburg and accused the Lutherans of a half-hearted reformation. These men predicted that within five to seven years the world would end, at which time all the wicked would be slain while all believers who had been rebaptized would be saved. Thomas Munzer was an adherent of these views and a famous Anabaptist leader in Germany. This man believed that a special inner voice was needed in order to understand God’s Word. Whatever was learned from this inner voice had far more value than any teaching of the Church and her theologians. He conceived for his special assignment as being called to usher in the Kingdom of God after the example of the time of the Apostles. He argued passionately for equality of social status and community of goods. He also taught that if the Kingdom could not be brought peacefully then believers would be forced to fight with the sword. One of God’s elect, Munzer believed, could strangle a thousand of the enemy; two could slay ten thousand. In the Peasants’ War (1525) Thomas Munzer was killed in battle.
By far the most horrible story of Anabaptism is the dark story of Munster. The leaders here were two Dutchmen; John Matthyszoon of Haarlem and John Beukeszoon of Leiden. These men were inspired by the teachings of Melchior Hoffman, who foretold an imminent return of Christ. They encouraged their followers to accompany them to the city of Munster in Westphalia where they said Zion was going to appear in full glory upon earth. The leaders undermined the legal authority and power of the town council, with the result that soon the city was surrounded and besieged by the forces of surrounding cities. Matthyszoon was killed when in a mad frenzy he ran out of the town to attack the enemy. The power fell into the hands of John of Leiden and all restraint was thrown to the winds. Twelve elders were appointed by John to rule under him. All previous marriages were annulled, and polygamy was practiced. John, himself, had sixteen wives in addition to Divara who had been the wife of Matthyszoon. Meanwhile, other Anabaptists were urging that all monks and nuns be slain, and some even dared to advocate the abolition of all civil authorities and governments. It is no wonder that not only the Church of Rome but also all branches of Protestantism opposed these excesses of Anabaptists. The difficulty was that the civil authorities lumped the Anabaptists together with the Reformers and their followers. Hence, de Bres and the leaders of the Reformed Faith were concerned to disassociate themselves from the Anabaptists. This accounts for the repeated and severe condemnation of the Anabaptists and their views which we find in the Belgic Confession.
The Confession of Faith was intended to be an apology for the Reformed Faith, a clear statement of its main tenets so that all might know the truth concerning the Reformed movement.
As to its contents the Belgic Confession is made up of some thirty-seven articles. Articles 1-7 are of an introductory nature. Article 1 expresses belief in God. Revelation is the subject of Article 2; while, in Articles 3-7 the creed speaks of the Reformed faith concerning the Scriptures. In Articles 8-11 the Doctrine of God is treated (Theology) and in Articles 12-15 the Doctrine of Man is developed (Anthropology). The Doctrine of Election is, the subject of Article 16 and Article 17 treats of the Recovery of Fallen Man. The Confession speaks of the Doctrine of Christ (Christology) in Articles 18-22 and of the Doctrine of Salvation (Soteriology) in Articles 23 and 24, Article 25 treats the subject, The Abolishing of The Law, and Article 26 speaks of Christ’s Intercession. The Doctrine of the Church (Ecclesiology) is covered in Articles 27-35. Article 36 speaks of the Magistrates, and the Doctrine of the Last Things (Eschatology) is the subject of Article 37. Thus the Belgic Confession, in distinction from the Heidelberg Catechism which speaks of the truth as it is the experience of the child of God, follows the well known division of dogmatics into six loci or points of doctrine. It is more objective in its approach. One must not, however, expect to find in this Confession a treatment of Reformed Dogmatics. Certainly, while the whole of the Reformed Truth of the Word of God is simply stated and summed, the Belgic Confession is no Dogmatics text.
It is, however, as we have emphasized before an eloquent statement of what we as Reformed Christians, Protestant Reformed Christians, all believe with our hearts and confess with our mouths. That we may grow in that belief and confession is our aim as we study this gem among the Reformational Creeds article by article in the light of the infallible Word of God.