Tag Archives: N. H. Gootjes

Happy 450th Birthday to the Belgic Confession!

This year marks 450 years since the Belgic Confession was written by Guido (or Guy) de Bres.  The Confession made its appearance late in 1561, famously being tossed over the castle walls at Tournai (or Doornik, as the Dutch call it).  However, it is quite likely that the Confession was written already early that year.  In his authoritative book on the Confession, Dr. N. H. Gootjes suggests that it may been written already in February of 1561.

Gootjes also believes that the Confession had been adopted by the Reformed churches in the area we know as Belgium even before it was printed.  This is why the Confession uses the first person plural throughout, “We believe…”  At subsequent synods, the authority of the Confession was confirmed and the text of the Confession was fine-tuned.  This process continued up to the Synod of Dort and beyond.  Today the Confession continues to be a living document and so is periodically fine-tuned in some of its details by churches that hold it.  One of the classic examples is the original Confession’s assertion that Paul was the author of Hebrews.  That assertion has been removed from the Canadian Reformed edition.

Following its publication, the Belgic Confession became widely accepted.  It went through numerous printings and its first translation was into Dutch already in 1562.  Within a century it had been translated into German, Latin, Greek, English, and Spanish.  It quickly became one of the most widely held and respected Reformation confessions.

But why?  That’s a question not often asked.  We sometimes take this confessional document for granted.  Did you know there were many confessions and catechisms produced during the sixteenth century?  I’m not speaking of four or five or maybe ten.  We’re talking about dozens.  Dutch scholar William Heijting produced two substantial volumes containing confessions just from the Reformation in the Netherlands.  So why did the Belgic Confession rise to the top and endure while all these others have mostly been forgotten?  There are several factors.

First, as mentioned a moment ago, the Confession was accepted early on as the statement of faith of the Reformed churches in the Low Countries.  It bore ecclesiastical authority from the start.  It was and still is the defining confession of the Reformed churches of that region and churches that trace their lineage there.  By “defining confession,” I mean that this is the starting point for what we together believe.  The Heidelberg Catechism is primarily a teaching document, while the Canons of Dort are a sort of commentary on some points from the Confession and Catechism that were drawn into question by the Arminians.  The Confession, on the other hand, defines what we believe corporately.  It was never written as the personal confession of Guido de Bres — it always had a corporate character.  It always represented the voice of the church.

Next, the Confession has been recognized as a faithful and well-worded summary of the essential teachings of the Bible.  It was developed with an eye to previous confessional writings produced by such Reformed pioneers as John Calvin and Theodore Beza.  It’s also firmly grounded in the biblical teachings of the early church.  Quotes and allusions from the church fathers are to be found everywhere.  In other words, the Reformed churches were not sucking this out of their thumbs.  There was a deep respect for the tradition that respected the Bible.  So the Belgic Confession has long been recognized as a clear, concise, and reliable guide to biblical truth.

Finally, the Confession has also endured because of its roots in the persecuted church.  Those roots make it unique.  It is the only one of the Three Forms of Unity forged in the fires of persecution and in the shadows of martyrdom.  None of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism died for their faith.  Neither did any of the authors of the Canons of Dort.  But on May 31, 1567, Guido de Bres was hung for “the cause of the Son of God” (as he was accustomed to say).  As far as I’ve been able to determine, the Belgic Confession is the only officially adopted Reformed confession written by a martyr.  Other Reformed martyrs did write confessions — there was the Guanabara Confession, written by four Reformed martyrs in Brazil in the sixteenth century — but none of those confessions were officially adopted by any church.  This makes the Belgic Confession a unique document in our confessional library.  It has brought Reformed believers close to the suffering church of the past.  It brings us today also to the suffering church that endures crosses and trials for the sake of Christ.  This too has contributed to its endurance.

The Belgic Confession is 450 years old!  It has served us well, but only insofar as we have paid attention to it.  The Catechism is heard each and every Sunday.  But sometimes the Confession gathers dust.  In his book Credo, Jaroslav Pelikan compares confessions to CDs.  When CDs are stored they are inert and static.  They can be handed down from parents to children without ever being used or heard.  They suddenly become dynamic when placed in a CD player and the sounds of beautiful music issue forth from the speakers.  Confessions only have value as they are “played,” as they are engaged and as their voice is heard through the coming generations.  The 450th birthday of the Belgic Confession presents a great opportunity to “play it again.”


Book Review: Teaching and Preaching the Word

Teaching and Preaching the Word: Studies in Dogmatics and Homiletics, Nicolaas H. Gootjes, Winnipeg: Premier, 2010.  Soft cover, 420 pages, $17.00.

For over twenty years, Dr. Nicolaas (Niek) Gootjes served the Canadian Reformed Churches as a professor of dogmatics at our seminary.  In that time he trained over 40% of currently serving Canadian Reformed ministers.  This compilation of writings was assembled under the leadership of Dr. C. Van Dam as a token of gratitude for his faithful years of service.  It was presented to Dr. Gootjes at a recent reception held to commemorate his retirement.

Teaching and Preaching the Word consists of a mixture of previously published articles in English and Dutch.  Some of the articles are written at a popular level, others on a more scholarly plane.  Many have never appeared before in English.  All of them together represent everything that was good, true, and beautiful about my seminary dogmatics training.

On a formal level, the book is generally well-written and well-edited.  The editor has nicely collated the chapters under various headings:  Revelation, The Birth and Work of Christ, The Holy Spirit, The Sacraments, Other Dogmatic Studies, Reformed Confessions and Preaching.  Unfortunately, in the process of scanning some of the articles, some typographical errors did creep in, but most readers will likely not catch them.  What I appreciated most about Teaching and Preaching the Word was the fact that so many of the items included address contemporary problems.  The editor made excellent choices.

Let me briefly mention some of the highlights.  Controversies continue in the Canadian Reformed Churches about the relationship between science and Scripture.  It’s timely then that almost all of Dr. Gootjes’ writings on that subject are republished in this volume.  For instance, in chapters 1 and 2, he discusses the proper understanding of “general revelation” in article 2 of the Belgic Confession.  Later, in chapter 11, he takes on voices in the Christian Reformed Church which equated creation and providence in the interests of making room for evolutionary theories about origins.

Another contemporary debate concerns the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.  This is the teaching that all of Christ’s law-keeping is imputed to us as a part of our justification.  Some figures associated with the Federal Vision movement have denied this doctrine or minimized its importance.  In chapter 4, Gootjes firmly outlines the development of this doctrine, its presence in the Belgic Confession, its biblical basis, and its importance for preaching and teaching.

Among Federal Vision proponents and sympathizers we also sometimes find the error that says that all baptized children receive not only the promises of God in baptism, but also the very things that are promised.  Gootjes deals with the promises of baptism in chapter 9 and examines the promises of the Triune God that are outlined in the first part of our Form for Infant Baptism.  He especially focuses on the promise that the Spirit will dwell in us.  He asks, “Can these words be applied to all children that are baptized?  Does the Spirit dwell in all of them?” (184).  Carefully he works through the historical, confessional, and biblical data, coming to the conclusion that the Form does not assert an existing situation, but summarizes what is promised to the covenant people of God.

Other highlights include Gootjes’ lengthy defense of catechism preaching (made at the ICRC in 1993) and his excellent chapter tracing the historical development of the concept of “stewardship” in the Reformed worldview.  We also find some of his studies in the Belgic Confession, studies which laid the groundwork for his highly acclaimed book on that confession.  Finally, there is a recent surge of interest in Herman Bavinck.  PCA pastor Ron Gleason has a much anticipated biography coming out later this year – the first one in English.  Moreover, a number of Bavinck’s books have recently been translated including his landmark four-volume Reformed Dogmatics.  Appearing for the first time in English, Gootjes has a fascinating chapter on the structure and methodology of Bavinck’s Dogmatics.  It concludes with a précis of his own vision for theological method – something that will bring an “Ah-ha!” moment to all of his former students.

There are many more wonderful things that I could say about this book, but let me conclude by drawing attention to the care and precision of its author.  As a professor, Dr. Gootjes had a reputation for being meticulous.  He was and is a much-beloved model of erudition, profundity, and piety.  With him, everything has ultimately to be evaluated in the light of God’s authoritative Word.  God richly blessed us with Dr. Gootjes and we give thanks to him from whom all blessings flow.  Sure, there are places where I’ve put question marks in this book.  For instance, I’m not convinced that Calvin was wrong about the sense of divinity (12).  But there is no doubt that this book makes helpful contributions to the study of Reformed theology.  It deserves a wide readership, not only in Canadian Reformed circles, but far beyond.

Teaching and Preaching the Word is available directly from Premier Publishing.  E-mail them at books@premierpublishing.ca


Gootjes: Man as God’s Steward

Okay, one last cool thing about this book (Teaching and Preaching the Word) before I write a review.  Chapter 12 contains an article originally published in 1980 in Dutch, “Man as God’s Steward.”  Gootjes notes that the idea of stewardship did not become influential in the Reformed worldview until the late nineteenth century.  It came through Abraham Kuyper’s treatment of the eighth commandment in his monumental commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, E voto dordraceno.  Kuyper wasn’t the first one to speak of it, but its influence was mediated through him.  Interestingly, Gootjes argues that the “background of Kuyper’s thoughts on the steward is the nineteenth-century reality rather than the multi-faceted picture of the steward found in Scripture” (252).  To be sure, Kuyper generally developed this out of the Bible and its idea of God as owner of mankind, but the details are coloured by his day.  The chapter concludes by outlining four strengths and five weakness of the concept of man as God’s steward.  Fascinating stuff!


Gootjes: the Promises of Baptism

I am getting giddy about this new book, Teaching and Preaching the Word: Studies in Dogmatics and Homiletics.  It’s like re-reading my dogmatics notes from seminary.  Chapter 9 deals with the promises of baptism.  Gootjes tackles the issue of the promises mentioned at the beginning of the Reformed baptism form:

When we are baptized into the Name of the Father, God the Father testifies and seals to us that He establishes an eternal covenant of grace with us. He adopts us for His children and heirs, and promises to provide us with all good and avert all evil or turn it to our benefit.

When we are baptized into the Name of the Son, God the Son promises us that He washes us in His blood from all our sins and unites us with Him in His death and resurrection.  Thus we are freed from our sins and accounted righteous before God.

When we are baptized into the Name of the Holy Spirit, God the Holy Spirit assures us by this sacrament that He will dwell in us and make us living members of Christ, imparting to us what we have in Christ, namely, the cleansing from our sins and the daily renewal of our lives, till we shall finally be presented without blemish among the assembly of God’s elect in life eternal.

He deals specifically with the last part about the Holy Spirit.  He asks, “Can these words be applied to all children that are baptized?  Does the Spirit dwell in all of them?”  He surveys Calvin and Ursinus on these questions and then looks at the scriptural data.  I’m not going to rehearse his entire argument.  Let me just share his conclusion:

…The answer is simple.  The Form does not state that the Spirit actually dwells in all baptized children.  It does not speak of an existing situation.  Rather, this is presented as a promise for the covenant people of God.

That is in complete agreement with Scripture.  The promise of indwelling is first mentioned in Acts 2:39, “The promise is for you and your children…”  It is conditional on repentance and faith: “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins may be forgiven” (Acts 2:38).  It is also mentioned in Romans 8:9-11; there, too, it is conditional on faith.  When the Form for Baptism speaks of the indwelling and sanctifying work of the Spirit, it speaks of promises.  These are great gifts of the covenant offered by God and grasped with the hands of faith.

The same promissory character can be seen in the way the Form speaks about the meaning of being baptized into the name of the Father and of the Son.  The promise that “He will provide us with all good and avert all evil or turn it to our benefit” is fulfilled in those who believe (Rom. 8:28 speaks of “those who love him”).  And the covenant promise of the Son is the forgiveness of sins, and is fulfilled through our union with him, as Romans 6:5 says: “If we have been united with him like this in his death…”

The Form for Baptism follows Scripture in presenting the statement about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as promises.  In baptism, our Triune God promises himself and all his benefits to us.  These are splendid gifts, granted by God and accepted in faith. (192-193)

I hope this book gets the wide readership that it deserves!


Abraham Scultetus on Baptism with the Spirit

The other day I attended a reception to commemorate the retirement of Dr. N. H. Gootjes, my seminary dogmatics professor.  In honour of this occasion, one of his colleagues from the seminary presented a copy of a collection of writings of Dr. Gootjes, Teaching and Preaching the Word: Studies in Dogmatics and Homiletics.  I hope to soon have a review of this book posted here.  So far, it’s excellent.

Chapter 6 deals with “The Baptism with the Holy Spirit and the Meaning of Pentecost.”  Gootjes discusses the history of how various figures have interpreted “baptism with the Spirit.”  One of the figures he mentions is Abraham Scultetus.  Scultetus was a professor at the Reformed academy in Heidelberg.  He was one of the representatives of the Palatinate at the Synod of Dort, 1618-19.  Here’s what Gootjes has to say about him:

In the period that followed [Calvin], this view that the baptism with the Spirit is in fact the essence of the baptism of John and of Christian baptism was very influential.  A noteworthy exception is A. Scultetus (1566-1625), a theologian of great influence at the Synod of Dort, 1618-19.  He mentioned that the general understanding is that John the Baptist distinguished the external baptism and the administration by himself and other ministers from the internal administration of Christ.  However, Scultetus cannot agree with this.  In his opinion, Luke 3:16 mentions two baptisms: a baptism with water and a baptism with fire.  The baptism with water has people submerged in water and pulled from it as a testimony to the Holy Spirit’s work of putting to death and raising to life.  The baptism with fire takes place when the fiery gifts of the Holy Spirit are poured out in people in a miraculous way.  This latter baptism refers to the special gifts of Pentecost, which have been repeated several times since.  Only Christ can give this baptism, and he ceases when the authority of the gospel is sufficiently confirmed.  Scultetus does admit that his opinion is different from that of the majority.

Gootjes has a footnote here indicating that he drew this from the compilation of Balduinus Walaeus, Novi testamenti libri historici: Gr. et Lat. perpetuo commentario (1653): 574-575 as a commentary on Luke 3:16.  Unfortunately, that source is apparently not (yet) available online.