Tag Archives: Belgic Confession article 36

Book Review of Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated Against Dr. Abraham Kuyper

Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated Against Dr. Abraham Kuyper: A Critique of His Series on Church and State in Common Grace, Dr. P.J. Hoedemaker, trans. Ruben Alvarado.  Aalten: Wordbridge Publishing, 2019.

Anyone who has ever studied the Belgic Confession, even on a superficial level, is aware of an oddity in article 36. This is the only place in the Three Forms of Unity where we find a footnote in most versions of the Confession. Whether it is the United ReformedCanadian Reformed, or Protestant Reformed Churches in North America, or the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, all have an additional footnote.

Article 36 is titled “The Civil Government” or sometimes “Of Magistrates” and addresses what we confess about the role of the government. The relevant text in the body of the confession originally read:

[The government’s] task of restraining [evil] and sustaining [good] is not limited to the public order but includes the protection of the church and its ministry in order that all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed, the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honoured and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word. (Italics added)

But the clauses above that I’ve italicized were moved from the body, and relegated to footnote status a century ago, as is explained in the Canadian Reformed edition here:

The following words were deleted here by the General Synod 1905 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland): all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed.

I’ve been a pastor in both the Canadian Reformed Churches, and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, and to my knowledge, neither federation has ever made an official decision about the status of this footnote. Do we confess this or not? It is an odd ambiguity in our Three Forms of Unity.  It is something I addressed briefly in my doctoral dissertation – you can read the relevant section here.

This little book comes from the controversy which led to the words being deleted in 1905.  It provides some of the historical background, illustrating that the deletion was not without its opponents.  This book also provides an occasion to reflect on whether it may be time to revisit the matter in an official, ecclesiastical way.

Philippus Jacobus Hoedemaker (1839-1910) was a curious figure.  While he grew up in a family with roots in the 1834 Secession (Afscheiding), he himself became a minister in the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk (NHK), the Dutch national church.  At one point, he was a professor at Abraham Kuyper’s Free University in Amsterdam, but after the Doleantie of 1886, their relationship deteriorated.  Hoedemaker was an opponent of the Doleantie – the movement out of the Dutch national church led by Kuyper and others.  However, unlike so many others in the NHK, Hoedemaker was a conservative and confessionally Reformed.

This book is a response to a series of articles written by Abraham Kuyper in his newspaper De Heraut (The Herald) in 1899-1900.  In these articles, Kuyper argued against the wording of article 36 about the responsibility of the civil government with regard to idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of the antichrist.  In 1896, Kuyper went a step further.  Together with other notable theologians in the Gereformeerde Kerken (Reformed Churches), including Herman Bavinck, Kuyper put forward a gravamen against article 36.  A “gravamen” is an official objection to a point of doctrine.  These eight ministers alleged that article 36 did not conform to the Word of God and they asked the Synod of 1896 to make a judgment on the matter.  The Synod decided to appoint a committee to study the matter, a committee which bizarrely included Bavinck and Kuyper (!).  It was the work of this committee which would later result in Synod 1905 deleting the allegedly unbiblical words.

In this book, Hoedemaker argues for the original form of article 36.  More accurately, he argues against Kuyper’s objections to the original form of article 36.  He maintains that Kuyper was inconsistent.  On the one hand, he wants to honour King Jesus as the Lord of all of life.  But on the other hand, King Jesus has no crown rights over the responsibility of the civil government with regard to idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of antichrist.  Hoedemaker alleges that this inconsistency is owing to political expediency.  Abraham Kuyper was getting into politics and BC 36 was an embarrassment in trying to build bridges with Roman Catholic politicians.

Hoedemaker makes two points I find especially compelling.  One is mentioned early in the book.  He alleges that the discovery of “the fatal defect” in article 36 is “not the result of the ongoing investigation of the Scripture; but exclusively causes which lie in the times, and in apostasy from the living God” (p.5).  He states repeatedly that Kuyper and others were not arguing from exegesis, but from pragmatic considerations and false inferences.  The pragmatic considerations had to do with Dutch politics.  The false inferences were along the lines of the Confession requiring the civil magistrate to persecute unbelievers and false believers.  Hoedemaker is especially persuasive in addressing that notion.

The other point is a procedural one.  Hoedemaker states that there is a dualism between Kuyper’s political theory and his theology.  Then he remarks:  “It allows him to lodge all manner of objections to the Confession without being called to account” (p.69).  This makes me wonder if Kuyper had ever lodged his disagreement with BC 36 with his consistory.  I have been unable to find an answer to that question.  It seems odd, from a Reformed church polity perspective, that Kuyper and seven other theologians could launch a gravamen at a synod without having discussed the matter with their consistories first.  If they had discussed it with their consistories, would not their consistories bring forward the matter for judgment?  I find it perplexing.

Now there are a few places where Hoedemaker has his own issues.  This book is not entirely about BC 36 – this book is something of a polemic against the Doleantie too.  Hoedemaker writes, “The first step on the road to Reformation is the recovery of the normal relations of church and state” (p.119).  He wants to undo the Doleantie and bring all Reformed believers back into the national church, despite its waywardness.  Elsewhere, Hoedemaker argues that BC 36 is not about the church strictly speaking, but about religion (p.30).  However, the text of the confession itself speaks about the church.  By the way, here Hoedemaker also seems to be ignorant of the textual history of article 36.  The original 1561 Belgic Confession had “things ecclesiastical,” a revision in 1566 adopted the expression “the sacred ministry.”  Either way, the Confession is speaking about the church.

Let me make a few comments about the translation.  There are a few idiosyncrasies that readers should be aware of.  Hoedemaker refers several times to the Heidelberg Catechism and various Lord’s Days.  The translator literally renders them “Sundays.”  Instead of the Secession of 1834 (Afscheiding), he uses the term “Separation.”  Elsewhere he uses the term “Nonconformity,” and I believe he is translating the term Doleantie.  Aside from those sorts of minor things, the book reads quite well in English.

Who should read this book?  I would especially commend it to those with an interest in politics.  When we have so little in our Three Forms of Unity about politics, what little there is should get our attention.  Is it time to revisit the formulation of article 36?  This is where I believe office bearers and especially ministers would do well to give this book a read too.  Perhaps we need a proposal to a synod to clarify the status of the footnote and perhaps even to restore it.  Note well:  we are not talking about changing the Confession or adding something to the Confession that was never there to begin with.  This is something completely different.  In a 1979 article for Clarion, Dr. J. Faber argued for completely rewriting that part of article 36.  That is a possibility.  But if the footnote can be re-examined from a biblical standpoint, perhaps it would be as simple as cutting and pasting the text back into place.

 


Darryl Hart, BC Art 36 and Two Kingdom Theology

I like a lot of stuff that Darryl Hart has done in the area of church history.  I can’t get all that excited about his emphasis on “Two Kingdom” theology, however.  I honestly don’t feel like I have a dog in that fight.  However, I am interested in seeing the Belgic Confession properly understood.  So, in reaction to this post by Darryl, let me share a section of my dissertation, For the Cause of the Son of God (soon to be published by Reformation Media and Press).  The book is on the relationship between the Belgic Confession and mission.  Chapter 5 deals with the missiological strengths and weaknesses of the BC.  Under the sub-heading of “Missiological Weaknesses,” I have this section (5.2.4) on the role of the civil government.

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Earlier (1.1.2) we noted that many in the sixteenth century had an understanding of the interplay between religion and politics that is no longer in vogue today.  Article 36 of the Confession embodies this particular understanding and leads us to consider whether this perspective may be regarded as a weakness.  According to the Belgic Confession, what is the role of the civil government with respect to the ministry of the church, including its mission to the world?  Is this perspective a liability or an asset?

Most modern editions of the Confession have a footnote in article 36.  The footnote is attached to this sentence and is referenced with the asterisk:

Their task of restraining and sustaining is not limited to the public order but includes the protection of the church and its ministry in order that * the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honoured and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word.[1]

The footnote in the Canadian Reformed edition reads:  “The following words were deleted here by the General Synod 1905 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland): all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed.”[2] The Christian Reformed Church took a different approach.  The Synod of 1958 rewrote this section of the Confession to read as follows:

And being called in this manner to contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God, the civil rulers have the task, subject to God’s law, of removing every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship.  They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.  They should do it in order that the Word of God may have free course; the kingdom of Jesus Christ may make progress, and every anti-Christian power may be resisted.[3]

From this it is evident that article 36 has received much scrutiny from Reformed churches in the last century.[4]

It has also received its fair share of misunderstanding.  For instance, John Coakley argued that, while adherents of the Belgic Confession believed that the gospel was to be spread in the world, they nonetheless held to a peculiar view (from a contemporary perspective) of how that mission was to be executed: “As for the activist work of establishing places for the gospel to be heard, what we would now call ‘church extension,’ the Belgic Confession assigned this not to the church per se, but rather to the civil government.  It is the magistrates, not the ministers, elders, deacons, or assemblies of the church, who are charged ‘to promote the kingdom of Jesus Christ and to take care that the word of the gospel be preached everywhere, that God may be honored and worshipped by everyone, as he commands in his word.”[5] From Coakley’s perspective, article 36 is a liability for the missiological relevance of the Confession since it takes mission out of the hands of the church.

It is possible to read the Confession in this way, particularly in its original French:

Et non seulement leur office est de reprimer et veiller sur la politique, ains aussi sur les chose ecclesiastique, pour oster et ruiner toute Idolatrie et faux service de Dieu, pour destruire le royaume de l’Antichrist, et advancer le royaume de Iesus Christ, fair prescher la parole de l’Evangile par tout, afin que Dieu soit honnoré et servi d’un chacun, comme il le requiert par sa parole.[6]

The important words here are ‘pour oster’  and ‘pour destruire.’  It is true that ‘pour’ can sometimes indicate a direct result, as if de Brès envisioned that it would be the civil magistrate who would himself do these things.  However, ‘pour’ plus the infinitive indicates a calculated result, meaning that it was the intent of de Brès that the magistrate would protect the ministry of the Word with the consequence that, because of that protection, the church would see to it that idolatry and false worship were destroyed, the gospel would be preached, the kingdom of antichrist destroyed and the kingdom of Christ advanced.  Thus, Coakley was incorrect in alleging that the Confession placed mission in the hands of the magistrate rather than the church.  It is especially inconceivable that de Brès would have imagined that the state would be responsible for the preaching of the gospel to everyone.  That is the most important clue to tip us off to a different reading of this article.

David Bosch noted that in the seventeenth century, the Reformed churches in the Netherlands were involved in mission within the context of Dutch colonialism.  While he curiously calls this a “superficial missionary effort,” he adds, “It does credit to many Dutch theologians and missionaries, however, that as a matter of principle, they did not regard mission as a responsibility of the state.”[7] Since this church adhered to the Belgic Confession, we can conclude that the Belgic Confession was not understood to be saying that mission was the responsibility of the civil magistrate in its first century of use in the Reformed churches.

In his commentary, J. VanBruggen argued that the deletion of the controversial words from article 36 was regrettable and based on a misreading of the Confession.  A careful reading, he maintained, proved that the Confession’s original position conformed to the teaching of Scripture.  Article 36 did not mean that the government was responsible to organize the church or perform its ministry, but simply that it was to protect the church, guard it from hindrances, and provide it with the room it needs to conduct its ministry.  With regards to the removal and prevention of idolatry, VanBruggen argued that in “the domain of public life, the practice of idolatry and false religion ought to be prevented and forbidden.”[8]

Clarence Bouwman has argued in a similar manner:  “De Brès’ point with the removed words was that when the government gives the church space to preach the gospel, idolatry and false worship in fact are being removed from the community.”[9] Seen from this perspective, there is no weakness at this point in the Belgic Confession, either in its redacted or original forms.  The church has its responsibility to preach the gospel, and this is a missionary responsibility.  The state has a responsibility to protect the church so that the church can faithfully and effectively carry out its gospel ministry.  From passages like Psalm 2 and 1 Timothy 2:1-4, we can recognize this as a biblical position.

Much more could be said about the relationship of article 36 to the mission of the church, but that would be best left for a missiological commentary.  It can be stated with confidence that the position taken is not a weakness, but should be regarded as a strength.  The Confession equips Reformed missiologists with a timeless biblical position on the relationship between church and state.  While this relationship is not currently in place, it is something for which to strive.


[1] BoP, 470.

[2] BoP, 471.

[3] Ecumenical Creeds and Confessions, Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1988), 117.

[4] For the text history of this article in the Netherlands, see J. G. Feenstra Onze Geloofsbelijdenis (Tweede druk) (Kampen: J. H. Kok N.V., 1947), 468-471.  For the history in the CRC (up until the 1940s), see D. H. Kromminga, Article XXXVI of the Belgic Confession and the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1943).  For reflection on the later history of this article in the CRC (up until 1979), see J. Faber, “The Civil Government in Article 36 B.C.,” Clarion 28.24 (December 1, 1979): 510-512.  Faber interacts with Report 33 to CRC Synod 1979 and its pitting the 1561 text of the Confession versus the 1566/1619 texts of article 36.

[5] John Coakley, “The Reformed Church in America as a National Church,” in Church, Identity and Change: Theology and Denominational Structures in Unsettled Times, ed. David A. Roozen and James Nieman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 403.

[6] “And not only is their duty to rein in and watch over political matters, but also in ecclesiastical things, to remove and ruin all idolatry and false worship of God, to destroy the kingdom of the Antichrist, and to advance the kingdom of Jesus Christ, to preach the word of the Gospel to everyone, to the end that God may be honored and served by each one, as he requires it in his Word.”  Translation mine.  The original French quoted above comes from: Guido de Brès, Confession de foy, faicte d’un commun accord par les fideles qui conversent és pays bas (Rouen: Abel Clemence, 1561), 32.  Other editions published in 1561/62 have the same wording.

[7] Bosch, Witness to the World, 127.

[8] VanBruggen, The Church Says Amen, 218-219.

[9] Bouwman, The Overflowing Riches, 396.