Tag Archives: For the Cause of the Son of God

Revisiting Boer and Bucer

In 2011, Reformation Media and Press published For the Cause of the Son of God, a revised form of my doctoral dissertation.  This book discussed at length the missionary significance of the Belgic Confession.  My main foils were voices within the Christian Reformed Church of North America who had argued that the Belgic Confession was not only irrelevant for mission, but even a liability to a missionary church.  Among the CRC scholars with whom I interacted was Harry R. Boer.

Early in his own revised doctoral dissertation Pentecost and Missions, Boer argued that Reformers like Calvin and Luther believed that the Great Commission (in Matthew 28:18-20 and parallels) was meant only for the apostles.  Then Boer gets to Martin Bucer and he has to admit that Bucer was different.  He had a missionary concern.  Yet, Boer detected an inconsistency in Bucer’s missionary outlook, one which allegedly lined him up with Calvin, Luther and others Reformers on the limited nature of the Great Commission.  Boer quoted from Bucer’s 1538 book Von der waren Seelsorge:

What Christians in general and the civil authorities neglect to do with respect to seeking the lost lambs, this the elders of the Church shall undertake to make good in every possible way.  And though they do not have an apostolic call and command to go to strange nations, yet they shall not in their several churches…permit anyone who is not associated with the congregation of Christ to be lost in error.

The italics were added by Boer and I assume that the translation was his own (he does not indicate otherwise).  From this Boer concludes that “even Bucer did not free himself from the Reformation conception that the Great Commission was limited to the apostles” (Pentecost and Missions, 20).

When I came across this quote and conclusion in my doctoral research, I was perplexed.  Certainly a later book by Bucer (De Regno Christi) sang a different tune.  However, I was faced with two problems:  1) I did not have ready access to the German original of Von der waren Seelsorge (no Post-Reformation Digital Library yet) and 2) Bucer’s book had not yet been translated into English.  I had no way of verifying Boer’s conclusion, but yet I wanted to acknowledge the fact that this was in the literature and offer a possible explanation.  I decided to be charitable to Boer and posited that the difference between Von der waren Seelsorge and De Regno Christi might be chalked up to Bucer changing his mind over time, the former book preceding the latter by about 12 years.  Alternatively, I wrote, perhaps the difference is attributable to the fact that Bucer was writing about elders in Boer’s quote, whereas in De Regno Christi, he was writing about minister-evangelists.

I have recently had the opportunity to revisit this question and I think I have put it to rest.  In a couple of weeks, I’m going to be speaking at two conferences in Brazil about the Reformation and evangelism.  I decided to dig a little deeper into Martin Bucer.  Now I have the opportunity to do that with the help of Peter Beale’s English translation of Bucer’s earlier book, Concerning the True Care of Souls.  More than ever, I’m convinced that Boer got Bucer wrong.

Chapter 3 deals with the management of the church.  Specifically, it is about “how our Lord Jesus carries out his pastoral office and the work of our salvation through his ordained ministers.”  As he does in each chapter, Bucer begins with some relevant Scripture passages.  The very first one in this chapter is Matthew 28:18-20!  After a number of other passages, Bucer offers some explanation.  He says again that it is through his ordained ministers that Christ does his work on earth.  He says, “Through them he calls all nations to reformation and declares to them forgiveness of sins…” (page 21).  This, he writes, is shown by the first text mentioned.  The Great Commission is applied to the ministers of the church.

The most intriguing chapter is the seventh, “How the Lost Sheep Are To Be Sought.”  Again, one finds a number of Scripture texts at the beginning and among them is Mark’s version of the Great Commission in Mark 16:15.  Writes Bucer, “There are three things to learn from these texts.  The first is that those who exercise Christ’s ministry in the church are to seek to bring all people to the knowledge of Christ” (page 76).  In the first paragraph sub-heading, Bucer writes, “All people are to acknowledge Christ as their Lord, therefore his kingdom must be proclaimed and offered to all nations” (page 76).  In that paragraph he acknowledged that not all are elect.  But we have no access to “the secrets of his election.”  So “he commands us to go out into all the world and preach his gospel to every creature” (page 77).  He is paraphrasing Mark 16:15, the Great Commission, and says that it applies to “us.”

Bucer also has some advice for rulers in this chapter.  When rulers take their spiritual responsibilities towards their subjects seriously, “then our dear God will also surely entrust them with rightly seeking out and bringing to Christ those who by birth and breeding are estranged from Christ, such as Jews, Turks, and other heathen” (page 86).  Unfortunately, notes Bucer, many rulers have done a disservice to the gospel by invading and robbing foreign countries.  God judges this behaviour by returning the same upon the heads of oppressors:  “Thus the Jews have sucked dry the poor Christians to a remarkable extent by means of their usury, and the Turks day by day strip us of land and people with violence, making quite alarming advances” (page 87).

Now we come to the quote that Boer supplied in Pentecost and Missions.  This is Peter Beale’s translation:

Now, the elders of the church are always to see to the supply of those things which we have concluded in this article to be lacking in the seeking out of lost lambs by ordinary Christians and rulers.  And if they do not have the apostolic call and command to go to foreign people, they must still see that in the churches where the Holy Spirit has appointed them as bishops and overseers no-one anywhere who does not belong to the fellowship of Christ is left to wander, but seek in every case to do what God always entrusts to them, in order to bring such people to the full communion of Christ. (pages 88-89)

This translation is different from that of Boer in one key word.  In the second sentence, Boer had “And though they…”  Beale has “And if they…”  The German original says, “Und wo sie…”  I’m not a German expert, but from what I can tell, Beale’s translation is more accurate.  If that’s the case, then Bucer is making a concession to those who might argue that the Great Commission does not apply to church elders.  By the way, he is explicitly referring to elders — in German, Bucer uses the word “eltisten,” an older form of the modern German “ältesten.”

To me it is clear that Boer was mistaken about Bucer.  Not only in his later book De Regno Christi, but also in his earlier book Von der waren Seelsorge, Bucer viewed the Great Commission having continuing application in the church of Christ.  Bucer never changed his mind; rather Boer misunderstood him.  How and why did Boer get this wrong?   I could only speculate.  What I know for sure is that my own published doctoral work contains errors too (though nothing that negates my overall thesis).  In some instances, I too misunderstood someone or something, in others I had incomplete information.  All of us are merely human and not only prone to sin, but also to mistakes in our research and reasoning.  This is why advancing scholarship in a field has to be a joint venture.  As we study together and check our work, we can detect the mistakes, correct them, and move forward.        



For the Cause of the Son of God — Excerpt from Chapter 5

My new book on the Belgic Confession is now available for purchase from the publisher for $20.99 US.   If you live somewhere other than the US, it’s available from numerous other online retailers around the world, so shop around and I’m sure you’ll find it.

The following is an excerpt from chapter 5:


5.1  Missiological Strengths

The Belgic Confession is regarded by its adherents as a faithful summary of the teachings of Holy Scripture.  This is something which cannot be taken for granted and which is to be regarded as the foremost strength of this Confession, also when we consider its missiological relevance.  From the perspective of its adherents, a confession cannot be relevant to the mission of the church if it does not take the Bible as its infallible basis.  However, it falls outside the purview of this study to detail the biblical basis of each article in the Confession.  Someone wanting to do that could refer to the commentaries or to Lepusculus Vallensis’ helpful reference manual, The Belgic Confession and Its Biblical Basis.[1]  In this section, we want to explore the missiological strengths of the confession on a broader level.

5.1.1  Confession of a Church Under the Cross

In chapter 3 (3.1.4), we considered the Confession under the rubric of the metanarrative of martyrdom and concluded that, in this regard, the Confession is missiologically relevant.  It was formulated on the foundation of martyrdom and suffering, a theology of the cross.  It communicates the missionary message of martyrdom and suffering.  We saw that a rich missionary harvest resulted from the martyrdom and suffering directly associated with this confession.  Among our conclusions (3.3) was that any church which gives up this Confession is impoverishing itself.  We will now build further on that conclusion.

The precise extent of persecution and martyrdom today is notoriously difficult to measure.  According to the most recent statistics of Barrett et al., 160,000 people were martyred for the Christian faith in 2000.[2]  However, a number of things need to be considered.  First, these numbers are rather elastic on several levels.  Barrett’s figures include 100,000 Roman Catholics, 14,000 Orthodox, 5,000 Marginal Protestants, and 1,000 Anglicans and Old Catholics.  Also, as Schirrmacher notes, there are serious questions about the reliability of this data.  Barrett is unwilling to discuss the data and “fails to give sufficient information on his statistic [sic] methods.”  There is no validity to Barrett’s claims to offer only facts without interpretation.  For instance, included in the figure are countless thousands who have died in civil wars such as those in recent times in African countries like Sudan.[3]  Finally, if these numbers are close to being correct, Schirrmacher observes that, in proportion to the world’s population, the overall number of martyrs has actually decreased since 1970.[4]

Nevertheless, both statistical and anecdotal evidence portrays a world in which many Christians continue to live under the specter of persecution.[5]  While communism has fallen in eastern Europe, it continues to be a political reality in North Korea, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, and the most populous nation on earth, China.  Even as some of these countries just mentioned adapt themselves to a free(r) market economy, active repression of Christians continues, especially in more remote regions, away from Western eyes and ears.  In other countries such as Burma/Myanmar, oppressive dictatorships or military juntas persecute believers.  In many nations in the Middle East, Islam is the official national religion, and Christianity is barely tolerated, if at all.  In those countries where Shari’a law is in place, it is a capital offence for a Muslim to convert to Christianity.  In India and other south Asian countries, militant Hinduism and Buddhism has accounted for a significant proportion of martyrdoms of Christian believers.  In some regions of Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, Roman Catholic persecution of Christians continues to be a reality, though martyrdom appears to be comparatively rare.  Of course, all of that is just scratching the surface.  No one who has given it any serious consideration will deny that suffering for the faith is an ongoing reality – and we expect it to continue this way until the return of the Lord Jesus.

When the gospel goes out into the world, there will inevitably be opposition.  When the Lord Jesus sent out the disciples in Matthew 10, he sent them out “as sheep in the midst of wolves” (10:16).  He warned them that they would be delivered up to councils and scourged in synagogues.  They would be brought before governors and kings.  They could expect opposition from family, even to the point of death.  The disciples were to expect to be hated by all for the sake of Christ’s name and being persecuted, to flee from one city to another.  In John 16, the Lord Jesus spoke in a similar vein, though he added that “the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service” (16:2).  Those who do those things, according to Christ, do them because they know neither the Father nor him.

The metanarrative of martyrdom embedded in the Belgic Confession awakens the church to these realities, and this is one of its greatest strengths.  This happens in at least four distinct ways.

First, the Belgic Confession awakens sending churches to the reality that when they send out missionaries, those missionaries may not return alive or in the same condition as they left.  Missionary work can be dangerous, even life-threatening.  The Confession reminds churches to count the cost.  At the same time, it also encourages churches to know that if the highest price is paid by its missionaries, this too is in God’s hands and he often uses it to build his church.

Second, the Belgic Confession speaks to individual missionaries and other mission personnel.  Missionaries can be encouraged to know that, while their work may be dangerous and even frightening, it will never be in vain.  The Confession continues to witness that even in the darkest hours, God is present and guiding the “cause of the Son of God.”  He did so during the troubles in the Lowlands in the sixteenth century and he will still do so today.

Next, this Confession testifies to the newer believers and younger churches on the mission fields themselves.  They can read this Confession and take heart that the church has often appeared to be in dire straits, but that this was only the appearance of things.  They can know that, because of their union with Christ, they are part of a greater story or metanarrative, and they are not alone in their experiences of suffering, persecution, and even martyrdom.  Confessing the Belgic gives a depth of perspective to younger churches, and this encourages growth in grace and knowledge.

Finally, the Confession engages all its confessors on the reality of persecution, both historically and in the present.  Of course, it is possible to superficially hold the Belgic and never have any conscious awareness of persecution and martyrdom at any point in history.  It may even be possible to thoughtfully subscribe and confess the Belgic without that awareness – the lack of serious attention to this aspect in the commentaries certainly suggests that!  However, this is an essential element of the Confession’s (biblical) message and it deserves more attention.  This is especially so for Reformed believers in the West, who tend to live very comfortably and who may have little awareness of persecution elsewhere in the world, let alone any sense of a theology of the cross.  We need the Belgic Confession to remind us that our brothers and sisters elsewhere suffer for the faith, so that we may pray for them – and in so praying, we are in fact praying “for the cause of the Son of God.”

[1] Lepusculus Vallensis, The Belgic Confession and Its Biblical Basis (Neerlandia: Inheritance, 1993).

[2] Barrett et al., World Christian Encyclopedia (Vol. 1), 11.

[3] Schirrmacher, The Persecution of Christians, 12.

[4] Schirrmacher, The Persecution of Christians, 11.

[5] For some of the anecdotal evidence, see Paul Marshall, Their Blood Cries Out: The Worldwide Tragedy of Modern Christians Who Are Dying for Their Faith (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1997).


Now Available: For the Cause of the Son of God

“We have never really recovered from the ideals of Friedrich Schleiermacher who believed that the creeds and confessions of the church are a hindrance to true spiritual enlightenment.    No place has this been assumed more than in the practice of mission.  Wes Bredenhof offers us a fresh challenge to this separation in this historic, detailed, and robust study on the missiological relevance of the Belgic Confession for the church of Jesus Christ.  The timely study is welcomed as a great contribution in demonstrating that what we confess drives the study and practice of mission.  Reformed pastors, students, or laymen cannot afford to set aside this excellent work.”

Christopher J. Gordon

For the Cause of the Son of God can be purchased online here.

Coming Soon: For the Cause of the Son of God

The Belgic Confession has been a gospel witness sealed in blood ever since its first edition was thrown over a wall to Roman Catholic authorities inside the castle of Tournai.  Dr. Bredenhof sets the Confession at the intersection of biblical, theological, and historical discussions over the church’s mission.  He draws from international scholarship and a broad array of academic disciplines in providing a holistic challenge to the caricature of the Reformation as an inward-focused neglect of the church’s missionary enterprise.  Especially interesting is the connection Dr. Bredenhof draws between the Confession and the suffering martyr-witness of the confessing church to a lost world.  For the Cause of the Son of God will be welcome by those who love the Reformed confessional witness to biblical truth and who are zealous for the world-wide preaching of the gospel.

DR. JOEL R. BEEKE, President of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan


Good news!  The book is just about ready to go to print.  We’re at the last stages of the process.  Hopefully it will be available in the next month or so.

For the Cause of the Son of God

For the Cause of the Son of God is getting closer to publication.  It should be available in about a month or so.  In the meantime, I’d like to share something from the original dissertation that didn’t make it into the book.  This is an excursus from chapter 2.


2.1.3        Excursus: Harry Boer and Pentecost

There can be little question that Harry R. Boer’s Pentecost and Missions has been widely influential in the last half-century of missiology.[1] Michael Goheen noted how Boer, through Pentecost and Missions, strongly influenced Lesslie Newbigin in his thinking about the place of the Holy Spirit in missions.[2] David Hesselgrave indicates that the arguments of Boer in Pentecost and Missions have been rather conclusive.[3] Numerous other examples could be added of authors who accept and promote Boer’s thesis.  Until now, little has been written in a critical vein.

Leaving aside Boer’s material about the place of the Great Commission in the history of the church (see 2.6.1), we can proceed directly to lay out his basic position.  It is well-summarized by Roger Greenway in connection with the statement of the Great Commission in Acts 1:8:

The words, “You shall BE my witnesses” do not merely state what the Church would DO, but what the Church would BE.  The Great Commission, as the divine mandate to the Church to be a witnessing Church, is not only a law similar to that which was set forth at the beginning of human history (“be fruitful and multiply”), but it is its spiritual counterpart in the new creation.  It is a statement of the task of the renewed humanity as the earlier statement expresses the task of the old humanity.  The urge to witness is inborn in the Church.  It is given with her very being.  She cannot not-witness.  She has this being because of the Spirit who indwells her.  Pentecost made the Church a witnessing Church because at Pentecost the witnessing Spirit identified Himself with the Church and made the Great Commission the law of her life.[4]

Stating it in another way, the Great Commission is not so much an extrinsic command; rather, it belongs more properly to the intrinsic character of the Church.

Essential to Boer’s thesis is a distinction between command and law.  Boer writes: “The difference between command and law in the present discussion is, as we conceive it, that command has objective but no subjective force, whereas law has both.  A command comes from the outside and can be obeyed or disobeyed, depending on the attitude of the recipient to it.  A divine law, on the other hand, although it has an external origin, carries within itself its own effectuation.  It finds its subjective aspect willingly responding to its objective aspect.  Understanding command and law in this sense, it may be said that God alone can make laws, and man can give only commands.”[5] In Boer’s thinking, the Great Commission, like the so-called Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:28, is a divine, organic law.  This critical distinction between law and command and the accompanying language is suggestive of the influence of the philosophy of the cosmonomic idea.[6] This philosophy, founded by Herman Dooyeweerd and D. H. Th. Vollenhoven, emerged in the mid-twentieth century in Reformed circles in the Netherlands.  It also later migrated to North America.  For our purposes, it is worth noting that Harry Boer originally wrote Pentecost and Missions as his doctoral dissertation at the Free University of Amsterdam, where cosmonomic philosophy originated.

While a thorough critical evaluation of cosmonomic philosophy falls outside of our purposes for this study, we ought to at least consider the distinction between law and command and what implications an acceptance or rejection of this distinction might have for the Great Commission and, more to the point, our definition of mission.  Does Boer have a significant contribution to offer on this subject?

To answer that, one must again adopt the methodology of ad fontes.  Does Scripture inescapably lead one to this distinction?  Boer does not provide any proof to that end.[7] In fact, when studied more closely all of God’s imperatival speaking can be characterized, on Boer’s scheme, as being “laws.”  This is so because man was created to obey God.  Man’s disobedience to God’s laws is an ethical and moral issue, and while Boer does not explicitly develop his scheme in that direction, it should be noted that, in general, cosmonomic philosophy sees the spheres of faith and morals to be mutually exclusive (or sovereign).  Applying this to the Great Commission we have been considering, it does not appear that obedience or disobedience would be considered an ethical failure.

In Boer’s view, mission is not so much what Christ commanded the church to do as much as what the church spontaneously and naturally is.  While there is much to be said for the leading of the Holy Spirit and the fact that he does spontaneously and naturally lead the church in Christ’s ways, we need to recognize that Boer’s position comes dangerously close to separating law and revelation.  This same criticism has been levelled at cosmonomic philosophy by J. Douma and W. Nieboer.[8] What happens then is that mission becomes whatever the church does rather than what Christ commanded the church to do.  One might argue that a dissonance here is unlikely or impossible since the church will always be naturally led by the Holy Spirit to follow Christ’s Word.  However, such a view is vulnerable to being labelled as an over-realized soteriology that does not adequately take into account the effects of sin.  For this reason, it is better to speak in the categories of purpose and laws.  God’s laws are the imperatives given in his Word; these include the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission.  His Holy Spirit leads and empowers God’s redeemed people to obey these laws, if only in a small measure in this life.  God’s purposes are the reason why a given part of his creation exists, and while this can be distinguished from God’s laws, it cannot be separated.  Man exists in the first place to give glory to God; the same must be said for the church (Ephesians 1:11-12).  Yet clearly, as part of that grand purpose, the command for mission has also been given.[9]

In conclusion, Boer made a significant contribution to missiology by drawing our attention to the indispensable work of the Holy Spirit.  However, Pentecost and Missions did not make any significant advances in answering the question of the definition of mission.  In fact, in some respects Boer represents a potential step backwards from the Word of God as the foundation for missiology.  Following Boer could lead one to a position where mission is what the church spontaneously decides it to be, rather than what the Word of God declares it to be.  If that happens, then we are back to Stephen Neill’s aphorism, “If everything is mission, nothing is mission.”

[1] Harry R. Boer, Pentecost and Missions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961).

[2] Michael W. Goheen,“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you”:  J.E. Lesslie Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 2000), 111.

[3] David J. Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally: An Introduction to Missionary Communication (Second Edition) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 82-83.

[4] Roger S. Greenway, Go and Make Disciples: An Introduction to Christian Missions (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1999), 53-54.  Italics are original.  It should be noted that while Greenway presents this as a direct quote of Boer, the liberties taken more aptly characterize this as a summary.

[5] Boer, Pentecost and Missions, 121-122.

[6] In particular, note the similarities in language between Boer and Dooyeweerd:  “In every modal sphere two sides can be distinguished.  On the one side there is the law or norm which is peculiar to this modality; on the other side there is whatever is subject to this law or norm.  Therefore, Dooyeweerd speaks of the law-side and the factual subject side of each aspect.”  L. Kalsbeek, Contours of a Christian Philosophy: An Introduction to Herman Dooyeweerd’s Thought (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1975), 70.  Cf. Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (Vol.3-4) (Philippsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969), 549.  Dooyeweerd speaks about the “internal structural principle” of the temporal church institution and how that relates to love.  His language and approach sound very similar to Boer.

[7] D. A. Carson’s critique is similar: “In short, Boer’s thesis is tied too much to an argument from silence, and is short on nuance.”  The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 437.

[8] J. Douma, Another Look at Dooyeweerd (Winnipeg: Premier, n.d.), 30-31.

[9] See Carson, The Gagging of God, 437.