The Belgic Confession
The Belgic Confession is one of the best known and most loved of the Reformed confessions. Philip Schaff, the venerable historian of the church and her confessions, observes that it is “upon the whole, the best symbolical statement of the Calvinistic system of doctrine, with the exception of the Westminster Confession.” This Confession is known most commonly as the “Belgic” confession because it emerged from the French-speaking Reformed churches in the southern “Lowlands” or “Nether-lands” (now Belgium). It has served historically as one of the three confessional symbols of the Dutch Reformed churches. Affection for this confession among these churches stems as much from the poignant circumstances suffered by its original author and subscribers as from its rich statement of the Reformed faith.
In our brief sketch of this confession, we will address both of these features: first, the background and setting within which the Belgic Confession was produced; and second, the distinctive content of its classic statement of the Reformed faith.
Background and Setting
The Belgic Confession was originally written by a French-speaking, Reformed pastor, Guido de Brès, who had been a student of Calvin’s in Geneva. Though de Brès was principal author of the Belgic Confession, other Reformed pastors and theologians, including Francis Junius, who was later to become a well-known Reformed professor at the University of Leiden, contributed to the final, received form of the Confession.
First written in 1561, copies of the Confession were sent to Geneva and other Reformed churches for approval. The present form of the Confession stems from the time of the great Synod of Dordt in 1618–19, when the text was revised and officially approved in four languages (the original French, Latin, Dutch, and German). Not long after it was first written, the Belgic Confession was presented to Philip II of Spain, who exercised sovereignty over the Netherlands at the time, in the vain hope that toleration would be extended to the Reformed faith. From the beginning, this confession enjoyed ready acceptance among the Reformed churches of the Netherlands.
Shortly before his death as a martyr, the principal author of the Belgic Confession, Guido de Brès, wrote from prison the following words to his wife Catherine: “Your grief and anguish, troubling me in the midst of my joy and gladness, are the cause of my writing to you this present letter. I most earnestly pray you not to be grieved beyond measure.… If the Lord had wished us to live together longer, He could easily have caused it so to be. But such was not His pleasure. Let His good will be done then, and let that suffice for all reason…. I pray you then to be comforted in the Lord, to commit yourself and your affairs to Him, for He is the Husband of the widow and the Father of the fatherless, and He will never leave nor forsake you….Goodbye, Catherine, my well beloved! I pray my God to comfort you, and give you resignation to His holy will. Your faithful husband, Guido de Brès.”
These moving words of de Brès were written shortly before he was martyred by hanging for his faith and witness to the great suffering on the part of evangelical and Reformed believers in the Netherlands. These sturdy believers, who could speak of “joy and gladness” even in the midst of severe persecution, declared in the preface to the Confession that they would “offer their backs to stripes, their tongues to knives, their mouths to gags, and their whole bodies to the fire,” rather than deny the truth of the Gospel. That these words were no idle boast is attested by the fact that an estimated 100,000 Reformed believers lost their lives during the struggle for the Reformation of the church in the Netherlands.
The purpose for the preparation of the Belgic Confession and its presentation to Philip II is of particular importance. In the face of intense persecution by this Roman Catholic sovereign and his magistrates, Guido de Brès and the Reformed believers of the Netherlands were anxious to demonstrate that their faith was in accord with the teaching of Holy Scripture and the ancient consensus of the holy catholic church and her councils. Consequently, the Belgic Confession has an irenic tone throughout, especially in its careful demonstration of the Reformed faith’s commitment to the great biblical doctrines of the Trinity, as well as the person and work of Christ. Roman Catholic teaching is rejected at critical points, but the aim of the Confession is to persuade its readers that the Reformed faith is nothing other than the historic faith of the Christian church.
Another purpose of the confession, which distinguishes it from the French or Gallican Confession of 1559, with which the Belgic Confession shares many striking similarities, was to demonstrate that the Reformed faith was distinct from that of the “Anabaptists.” Among the Anabaptists, who had considerable influence in the Netherlands in the early period of the Reformation, there were those who not only rejected the practice of infant baptism but also the legitimacy of the civil magistrate as a servant of God and instrument for exercising his rule. The Anabaptists sharply distinguished Christ’s spiritual kingdom, the church, from the civil order, and advocated a strict separation from the world, which required a refusal of military service, the taking of oaths, and the paying of taxes. Some of the most distinct features of the Belgic Confession indicate that it was written to defend the Reformed faith against the assumption that it shared these features of the radical fringe of the Reformation.
The Belgic Confession is not a confessional statement like the Canons of Dordt that was written to address a particular doctrinal error. Similar to its precursors, Calvin’s Genevan Confession and the Gallican Confession (both completed in 1559), the Belgic Confession offers a comprehensive statement of the Christian and Reformed faith. Broadly speaking, the contents of the thirty-seven articles that comprise the Confession are distributed according to the three articles of the Apostles’ Creed. After several introductory articles that set forth the Reformation view of the inspiration and authority of the canonical Scriptures (Art. 1–7), the Confession first affirms the truth of the Trinity and of God’s works of creation and providence (Art. 8–13).The central section of the Confession sets forth the biblical teaching regarding Christ’s person and work, distinguishing the Reformation’s understanding of salvation by grace alone through faith alone from the errors of medieval Roman Catholic teaching (Art. 14–23). The concluding section of the Confession then offers a summary statement of the person and work of the Spirit, which includes several articles on the church and sacraments as well as a specific article on the divine appointment and ministry of the civil magistrate (Art. 24–37).
For the purposes of our brief summary of the content of the Belgic Confession, we will identify two major themes that stand out in its testimony to the Reformed faith.
First, like the later Westminster Confession of Faith, the Belgic Confession opens with a classic statement of the Reformed doctrine of revelation, particularly the doctrine of Scripture. According to Article 2, God is “made known” by two means, general and special revelation. Though the creation itself, and the superintendence of history under God’s sovereign purposes, testify to God’s everlasting power and divinity, as a “most elegant book,” this general revelation only leaves sinful man in a state of inexcusable ignorance and rebellion before God. Therefore, to make known “more clearly” His will and purpose, especially His redemptive work through Jesus Christ in the Gospel, God has provided His church with the Holy Scriptures. These canonical Scriptures, which were produced under inspiration and possess the full authority of their divine Author, are the only norm for the regulation and foundation of the Christian faith.
Second, in its testimony regarding the person and work of Christ, the Belgic Confession not only echoes the ancient consensus of the church but also emphasizes the distinctive Reformed understanding of sovereign and merciful election (Art. 16), and of Christ’s redemptive work for His people. The doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone is clearly articulated. Of special interest is Article 22, which was slightly revised at the Synod of Dordt in the context of debates regarding the nature of Christ’s righteousness that was imputed for the believer’s justification. This Article specifically notes that Christ’s righteousness includes “all His merits, and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead,” thereby clarifying that the righteousness imputed to believers includes what is known as Christ’s “active obedience.” While the justification of believers is clearly distinguished from the grace of sanctification, these two benefits of Christ’s saving work are inseparably joined in the communication of God’s grace in Christ to believers (Art. 24).
Though the Belgic Confession bears evident marks of the historical context in which it was first written, it remains among the best historic statements of the faith of the Reformed churches. Evangelical believers would do well to acquaint themselves with this Confession, taking note especially of the difficult circumstances of persecution within which it was written. Sealed with the blood of many martyrs, this sturdy testimony to the Gospel of God’s free and sovereign grace in Christ continues to express for many the “living faith of the dead” (Jaroslav Pelikan).