Tag Archives: Belgic Confession

Ten Things I Learned from Reformed Scholasticism (1)

Petrus Van Mastricht

Though not nearly as often as previously, I still sometimes see the word “scholastic” used as a pejorative – in other words, as a nasty term.  If someone is deemed “scholastic,” then he must be one of the bad guys in the history of theology.  It’s similar to the word “Puritan” for some people.  It’s an insult.  If someone is “Puritan” or “Puritanical,” then he must be, at best, suspicious.  It’s the same with “scholastic” – a dirty word that instantly casts a dark cloud.

At one point in time, these types of notions were wide-spread.  However, in the last two or three decades, there has been a shift in the way scholasticism is discussed.  This is owing especially to the influence of scholars like Richard Muller, David Steinmetz, and Willem van Asselt.  It’s now widely recognized that scholasticism was a method of teaching theology – it did not have content as such.  There were medieval scholastics, there were Roman Catholic scholastics, there were Lutheran scholastics, and there were Reformed scholastics.  Each used the scholastic method to teach the theology they considered to be correct.

I came to better appreciate this teaching method through my doctoral research on the Belgic Confession.  Medieval scholasticism is in the background of the Belgic Confession, especially in its structure (see ch. 4 of For the Cause of the Son of God).  Protestant scholasticism is even more so in the background of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons themselves are not scholastic – and that by design – yet they bear the marks of men who benefitted from the method.  It should be no surprise.  Many of the delegates to the Synod of Dort were either theologians who used the scholastic method or pastors who had been scholastically trained.

I’ve also benefitted from studying this method.  While I think it would be inappropriate to import the scholastic method into today’s world, there is still a good deal to be learned from it, especially as it was implemented by Reformed theologians in the post-Reformation era.  Let me share ten things that I’ve learned from Reformed scholasticism.

  1. The Best Theology Begins with Sound Exegesis

Reformed scholastics are sometimes dismissed as “proof-texters.”  Throughout their theology works, they make references to Scripture, but don’t always enter into exegetical discussions in those works (there are exceptions).  But that doesn’t mean that exegesis was completely out of the picture – far from it!  In fact, before writing works of theology, many scholastic theologians had first produced exegetical works.  Just on the book of Romans, the Post-Reformation Digital Library indicates 236 titles.  Not all of them are Reformed works, but many are.  Intensive biblical study was the foundation for Reformed theology taught using the scholastic method.

  1. History Matters

Ours is an age often indifferent to history.  As a method in the hands of Reformed theologians, scholasticism worked with the thoughts and conclusions of those long dead.  For example, I turned to a random page in an important scholastic text often referred to as The Leiden Synopsis.  Antonius Thysius is discussing what it means to be created in the image of God.  He refers to the view of Tertullian and others that “the entire man is propagated from the whole man.”  Later on the same page, he interacts with another church father, Origen.  That they were so intimately familiar with these church fathers demonstrates that their discussions were on a different level than many of ours today.

  1. System Matters

While they were not the first ones to understand this, Reformed scholastics maintained that biblical theology is an inter-connected system.  In this system, all the parts do relate in some way to all the other parts.  Moreover, it was clearly understood by most of these theologians that there is a “logic” built into Christian theology.  Therefore, when you read a text like Amandus Polanus’ Syntagma Theologiae Christianae, you can expect that he will begin with preliminary matters (prolegomena), move to the doctrine of Scripture, then to the doctrine of God, deal with creation, sin, redemption, and so on, up to the doctrine of the last things.  This pattern has been continued by many systematic theologians since.

  1. Asking Good Questions

If you want good answers, you have to ask good questions.  Reformed scholastic theologians were skilled at formulating questions that would lead one to helpful answers.  This was an essential part of the scholastic method of training.  Issues would be formulated in terms of either a thesis or a question.  While the Heidelberg Catechism is not a scholastic document, Zacharias Ursinus’ commentary on the catechism certainly is.  When he discusses QA 21 regarding true faith, he identifies six key questions that help clarify this doctrine:

  • What is faith?
  • Of how many kinds of faith do the Scriptures speak?
  • In what does faith differ from hope?
  • What are the efficient causes of justifying faith?
  • What are the effects of faith?
  • To whom is it given?

This method was also employed by Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology – as well as by many others.

  1. Using Precise Definitions

Theologians often use the same words but with different meanings.  A Roman Catholic theologian will use the word “justification,” but he means something quite different than what a Reformed theologian means.  Hence, it is always important to precisely define important terms.  Going back to justification, we can note Petrus van Mastricht as an example.  In his Theoretico-Practica Theologia (6.6), he first gives an exegetical overview of the relevant Scripture passages (see point 1 above) and then moves into a dogmatic discussion based on that.  As part of that, he provides a precise definition of justification:  on account of Christ’s righteousness, God absolves believers of all their sins and pronounces them righteous to eternal life.  Justification, according to van Mastricht, includes God’s imputation of our sin to Christ and his righteousness to us.  He does not assume the definition of this key term, but makes it clear and proceeds on the basis of that.

(to be continued…)

(Another) Proposal to Change the Belgic Confession

There’s a Canadian Reformed synod this year.  Among the items on the agenda will be a supplementary report from the Standing Committee for the Book of Praise.  This report includes a proposal to make a change to article 34 of the CanRC edition of the Belgic Confession.  You can find it here.  I will make no comment and just draw it to your attention.

1580 Handwritten Belgic Confession

Handwritten BC title page

In his book The Belgic Confession: Its History and Sources, N. H. Gootjes notes the existence of a handwritten copy of the Belgic Confession dating to 1580 (see pages 117-118).  This edition is based on the 1566 revision made at the Synod of Antwerp.  This manuscript has now been digitized and is available online from the University of Leiden.  Unfortunately, I don’t know if I can provide a direct link.  To find it, you’ll have to go here and then search for “geloofsbelijdenis.”  That will take you to the search results.  Click on the picture for the third item.  That should take you to the viewer where you can examine the document.  My thanks to Albert Gootjes for drawing my attention to this fascinating item.

One of the most interesting things about this copy of the Belgic Confession is that it was used for subscription in the Walloon churches in the Netherlands.  Starting right after article 37, there are a number of pages filled with signatures of Reformed ministers, including some notable figures from our Reformed church history.  Here’s the first page:


Jean Taffin signed his name here — he was a notable early Reformed minister, author of a book that has been translated into English, The Marks of God’s Children.  Following this, there are several pages of signatures up until 1667.  Then there’s a gap and then another group of signatures under what appears to be a type of Subscription Form.  One of the first names there is Johannes Polyander, one of the delegates to the Synod of Dort 1618-19 and also one of the authors of the Leiden Synopsis.  Here’s the image of that page:

Polyander signature

Another interesting feature about these signatures is that some of them are on behalf of churches or synods.  Last of all, if you survey the names you might come across a David Stuart.  That doesn’t sound Dutch or Walloon, does it?  Who was David Stuart and how did he come to serve as a pastor in the Netherlands?  Perhaps someone reading this knows, but I don’t, at least not yet.

This is a remarkable document, not only for being an early exemplar of the Belgic Confession, but also for what it might tell us about the history of subscription to the Belgic Confession.  The signatures begin in 1580 and run till 1667, a period of 87 years.  It definitely bears a closer look!

Now Available: To Win Our Neighbors For Christ

To Win Our Neighbors for Christ

Now available from Reformation Heritage Books!

In many modern histories of Christian missions, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century is depicted as a movement lacking missionary zeal. It has virtually become a given that the Reformation was not oriented to the church’s missionary task. In To Win Our Neighbors for Christ, Wes Bredenhof answers these charges, proving that it is a mistake to say the Reformation and the confessional documents it produced have nothing to say about missions. The author demonstrates that the Three Forms of Unity—the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort — properly understood, have much to offer the study of missions. More importantly, they encourage us to care about a world lost in unbelief, making us more mission-oriented and outward-looking.


“To Win Our Neighbors for Christ is a helpful tool for every Reformed Christian seeking to understand and use our confessions in a missional way. It gives the historical background for each of the three forms of Unity and shows that the original intent of our confessions was indeed to reach the lost with the good news of the gospel. It also shows how we as a church need to have that same desire to clearly articulate these truths to our own generation of souls today.” — Richard Bout, missions coordinator, United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA)

“Full disclosure: Dr. Wes Bredenhof is my family’s enthusiastic pastor, through whom we are fed with pure gospel preaching. His heart pulses with true love for the biblical, Reformed faith and with a deep desire to reach the lost. In this book he shows us that these two things belong together— indeed, that the Reformed confessions themselves encourage mission. I pray that many more believers would see the intricate interconnections of these two pulses, and I’m sure that this book will help them.” — Dr. Theodore Van Raalte, professor of ecclesiology, Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary


Outward Looking Church: Current Craze or Christ’s Commission? (3)

Revised from a presentation for the Spring Office Bearers Conference held March 22, 2014 in Burlington, ON.  See here for part 1 and here for part 2.

Article 27 expresses the Reformed doctrine regarding the catholicity of the church. Catholicity has several facets. We speak of temporal catholicity—this refers to the fact that the church has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end. We speak of cultural or social catholicity—this refers to the fact that the church is found among every tribe, tongue, and nation. Closely connected with cultural catholicity is geographical catholicity. The church exists all over the world. The two last facets of catholicity are mentioned in the concluding paragraph of article 27: “Moreover, this holy church is not confined or limited to one particular place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world.  Yet, it is joined and united with heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.”

This is an important statement because it acknowledges that there is broadness in God’s plan of salvation. The church is made up of diverse peoples living all over the globe. In his good pleasure, God has gathered these people into his church. From this, we can discern the truth that it is God’s will to gather people from all nations into his church. He has done it in the past, is doing it in the present, and there is every indication from Scripture that he desires to continue doing it in the future. The fact of catholicity reveals God’s intention that this church be a global church.  Being a global church necessarily implies outward looking missionary activity.

Of the articles that speak of the doctrine of the church, article 29 is probably the most well-known amongst us. This article speaks of the marks of the true and false church. First among the marks of a true church is the pure preaching of the gospel. One might think that this too implies missionary activity. Certainly the gospel must be preached in established churches, but it should be a given that the gospel would also be preached to the lost at home and overseas.

However, as they say, there is a fly in the ointment. The difficulty arises from many modern editions of the Belgic Confession. Compare, for instance, the edition used by the United Reformed Churches of North America with the edition adopted by the Canadian Reformed Churches:

URCNA:  “If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein…”

CanRC:  “It practises the pure preaching of the gospel…”

The key difference is the word “therein.” That word also appears in the edition adopted by the Reformed Church in the United States, the Free Reformed Churches of North America and several others. It used to appear in the edition used by the Christian Reformed Church of North America, but no longer does, having been removed in 1985.

There are at least two problems with the word “therein” in article 29. The first problem is that the word did not appear in the original Belgic Confession of 1561. It also never appears in any subsequent French, Dutch, or Latin editions. “Therein” seems to appear out of thin air in the English edition adopted by the Reformed Dutch Church in the United States of America (now known as the Reformed Church of America) in 1792.[1] It has remained with most English versions ever since.

1561 Belgic Confession with proof-text referring to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

1561 Belgic Confession with proof-text referring to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

The second issue is far more important: is it biblical to restrict this mark to what goes on in the church? Here is a place where the original 1561 Belgic Confession can help us. As one of the proof-texts for this statement in the original Confession, we find Matthew 28:18–20, the so-called Great Commission.[2] In this passage, Jesus sends his disciples out to preach, teach, and disciple “all nations.”  The original intent of the Belgic Confession was to include the missionary calling of the church under the first mark.[3] A church that does not faithfully proclaim the gospel both inside and outside its membership has a credibility problem when it comes to being a true church. Therefore, the word “therein” should be excised from all English editions of article 29. The way in which the Belgic Confession shapes outward looking churches is certainly enhanced if we remain with the original text.  [NOTE:  I’m told that the URCNA at its most recent Synod decided to adopt an edition of the BC which leaves out the word “therein.”]

Last of all, there’s an important statement in article 30 regarding the government of the church. Through the divinely-ordained offices of the churches, it is God’s intent that “the true religion may be preserved and the true doctrine everywhere propagated.” Here again, we encounter a problem with the text of the Belgic Confession. Not all editions agree on the exact wording here. The text I just quoted is what most editions follow and it is essentially a translation of a highly-respected Latin edition commissioned by the Synod of Dort in 1618–19. However, the Synod of Dort only adopted authoritative French and Dutch editions. These have a different wording that is reflected in our Canadian Reformed edition, “By these means they preserve the true religion; they see to it that the true doctrine takes its course…” Notice that there appears to be no mention of the true doctrine being propagated everywhere. Instead, “the true doctrine takes its course.” How do we resolve this?

1561 Belgic Confession -- article 30 included a proof-text reference for Galatians 2:8.

1561 Belgic Confession — article 30 included a proof-text reference for Galatians 2:8.

Once again it’s helpful to look back to the very first editions of the Confession. From the proof-texts used, we can get a sense of what de Brès and the Reformed churches intended with this statement. The text used with this statement is Galatians 2:8, “For he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles.”[4] Peter was entrusted with ministry to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles. Both had their own calling in their own place. Both office bearers were called to propagate the true doctrine and between the apostles, this true doctrine was being propagated everywhere, inside and out. From this it appears that the Latin commissioned by the Synod of Dort is a slightly different, but still faithful rendering of what the Confession originally intended to say. The true doctrine taking its course is meant to be the same thing as the true doctrine being propagated everywhere.

So our Confession ties the outward, missionary calling of the church to the offices of the church. It is the responsibility of the office bearers of the church to ensure that the true doctrine of the gospel is proclaimed everywhere—all over the world. Therefore, mission must be an agenda item for Reformed consistories. They must send out, support, and oversee the work of mission in our own country and elsewhere. The Belgic Confession assigns this responsibility to the church’s leaders here in article 30. In this and more ways, the Belgic Confession drives Reformed churches to be outward looking.

Given what I’ve said so far, I think we can rule out the “current craze” possibility.  Being outward looking churches is embedded in our confessional heritage.  But is it biblical?  Can we also go the next step and say that being outward looking is Christ’s commission?

[1] The Constitution of the Reformed Dutch Church in the United States of America (New York: William Durell, 1793), 28.

[2] Guy de Brès, Confession de foy, faicte d’un commun accord par les fideles qui conversent ès pays bas (Rouen: Abel Clemence, 1561), 24. From the very beginning, the Belgic Confession included proof-texts to indicate the biblical basis of its teachings. For some recent discussion of the history and role of these proof-texts, see Nicolaas Gootjes, Teaching and Preaching the Word: Studies in Dogmatics and Homiletics (Winnipeg: Premier Publishing, 2010), 298–300.

[3] Cf. Calvin Van Reken, “The Mission of a Local Church.” Calvin Theological Journal 32:2 (November 1997): 359.

[4] Guy de Brès, Confession de foy (Rouen: Abel Clemence, 1561), 27.

Click here for part 4…