Belgic Confession

Ironically enough the church has been strongly involved in issues related to government and public policy development. Our government is actually patterned after the covenant theological ideas that were a part of the Reformed churches. The role of Christians in government has always been a very controversial issue with very real ramifications for the culture if Christians can be convinced to withdraw their influence. We only need to look at what has happened to America to understand how quickly the culture can degenerate morally.

One of the major creeds that came out of the Reformation which dealt with the role of the magistrate in the relationship between the government and the churches was the Belgic Confession. This is an especially important historical document since most church leaders do not realize what the proper role between the church and the state should be. 

 


REVISED BELGICCONFESSION ARTICLE 36

A few words from Dr. Nelson Kloosterman

Mark Van der Molen is an elder in the Immanuel UnitedReformed Church, DeMotte, Indiana. Professionally, he practices law. Bothcapacities qualify him to write the essay entitled: “Revised BelgicConfession Article 36: The Magistrate is Subject to Both Tables of the Law, theAuthority of God’s Word, and Serves to Advance Christ’s Kingdom.”

This essay is both relevant and readable.Relevant, in terms of its pointed and responsible interaction with some currentinsinuations that the revised BC 36 is compatible with contemporary NL2Kadvocacy of a secular state (i.e., a state free from honoring all of God’s Lawand from advancing Christ’s kingdom). Readable, because he moves, for the sakeof the church, directly from point A to point B to point C in his argument. Vander Molen’s straightforward argument will impress you most by its . . . textualclarity.

Do yourself a favor. Read this elder’s essay, and send it on toyour Consistory or Session, as a competent assessment of contemporary NL2K inlight of his subscription obligation, and his desire genuinely to recover theReformed Confession. You’ll find his essay here.

http://www.worldviewresourcesinternational.com/guest-essay-revised-bc-36-both-tables-and-christs-kingdom/

Dr. Kloosterman also discusses the variant English Translationsin the posts I link on this blog.

http://rpcnacovenanter.wordpress.com/2013/05/30/are-they-really-recovering-the-reformed-confession-belgic-article-36/

Here is the essay Mark Van der Molen wrote.

 BELGIC CONFESSION ARTICLE36: THE MAGISTRATE IS SUBJECT TO BOTH TABLES OF THE LAW,  THE AUTHORITY OFGOD’S WORD, AND SERVES TO ADVANCE CHRIST’S KINGDOM

 Belgic Confession Article 36 “Of the Magistracy andGovernment” has direct application in the ongoing debate over the so-called“two kingdoms” movement.  In particular, Belgic 36 addresses what weconfess about the authority of the Law of God and Scripture for government, themagistrate’s duties toward civil society and the church, and its role in theadvance of Christ’s kingdom.   Critics of the so-called modern “twokingdoms” movement have argued for some time that Belgic 36 does not supportkey distinctives of this movement.

In response to these critiques, “two kingdoms” advocates haveadvanced historical interpretations of Belgic 36 in an effort to harmonize itwith their theology.   First, it is argued that due to the removal of theoriginal “theocratic” language in Belgic 36 which confessed the magistrate hadthe responsibility to “remove and prevent idolatry and false worship”, thatsuch revision more broadly removed the First table of the Law from the magistrate’spurview. Secondly, it is argued that the revised Article 36 supports the viewthat the magistrate is concerned with upholding the 2nd table of Law only, and that by way of naturallaw rather than special revelation.  Finally, it is asserted that sinceChristendom has ended, we now live in the age of religious pluralism where themagistrate is not ordained to promote or advance Christ’s kingdom.[1]

 

This brief paper will undertakeexamination of these distinctive “two kingdoms” claims that the revision ofBelgic 36 intended to:

1.     remove the magistrates concern with the first table of Law,

2.     remove the magistrate’s subjection to the authority of the Wordof God, and

3.     remove the magistrate’s purpose in the advancement of Christ’skingdom.

 

Let’s look at the objection leading to the revision of articleArticle 36 and examine the revision with reference to the contemporaneoushistorical record that accompanied the change.  I trust it will be evidentthat these “two kingdoms” positions on Belgic 36 do not hold up under the lightof day.

Pre-Revision History: Objection to Article 36’s “kill theheretics” clause:

 

As quoted in Dr. Clark’s written historical account of Belgic36, Abraham Kuyper objected to a specific portion of the original Belgic 36regarding the magistrate’s coercive suppression of heresy.  In 1890 Kuyper wrote:

 We oppose this [language] out of complete conviction,prepared to bear the consequences of our convictions, even when we will bedenounced and mocked on that account as unReformed.

We would rather be considered not Reformed and insist that menought not to kill heretics, than that we are left with the Reformed name as theprize for assisting in the shedding of the blood of heretics.

It is our conviction:

1) That the examples which are found in the Old Testament are ofno force for us because the infallible indication of what was or was notheretical which was present at that time is now lacking.

2) That the Lord and the Apostles never called upon the help ofthe magistrate to kill with the sword the one who deviated from the truth. Evenin connection with such horrible heretics as defiled the congregation inCorinth, Paul mentions nothing of this idea. And it cannot be concluded fromany particular word in the New Testament, that in the days when particularrevelation should cease, that the rooting out of heretics with the sword is theobligation of magistrates.

3) That our fathers have not developed this monstrousproposition out of principle, but have taken it over from Romish practice.

4) That the acceptance and carrying out of this principle almostalways has returned upon the heads of non-heretics and not the truth but heresyhas been honored by the magistrate.

5) That this proposition opposes the Spirit and the Christianfaith.

6) That this proposition supposed that the magistrate is in aposition to judge the difference between truth and heresy, an office of gracewhich, as appears from the history of eighteen centuries, is not granted by theHoly Spirit, but is withheld.

We do not at all hide the fact that we disagree with Calvin, ourConfessions, and our Reformed theologians.”

From this excerpt, we can see that Kuyper objected to the“Constantinian” notion that the magistrate could “kill heretics” or “suppressheresy and idolatry”, actions which the original Belgic 36 explicitly calledupon the magistrate to perform.   For our purposes, it is equallyimportant to note what Kuyper did not say. Nowhere in thisoft–quoted excerpt did Kuyper argue that the magistrate should be categoricallyexcluded from performing any duties related to the entirethe First table of Law in every way.

Spurred by such concerns over this “kill the heretics” clause,in 1905 the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church began evaluating changes tothis aspect to the Article. In 1910, Synod considered that while civil rulersshould not destroy false religion by means of the sword, yet “…themagistracy has a divine duty towards the first table of the Law as well astowards the second; and furthermore that both State and Churchas institutions of God and Christ have mutual rights and duties appointed themfrom on high, and therefore have a very sacred reciprocal obligation to meetthrough the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and Son. They may not,however, encroach upon each other’s territory. The Church has rights ofsovereignty in its own sphere as well as the State.” [CRC Acts of Synod,1910; emphasis added]. Little further concrete action occurred until 1943, whenthe CRC Synod appointed a committee to make recommended changes to Article 36.In 1947, Synod received but did not adopt the committee’s recommendations, butrather referred the divided report to be considered at the upcoming ReformedEcumenical Synod (RES) in Amsterdam.

The RES had been studying the issue of the relationship ofChurch and State for some time.   In 1949, the RES adopted a 4 point “Declaration onthe Relationship of Church and State” and forwarded it to the member Reformedchurches for response.  In 1954, the Gereformeerde Kerken of theNetherlands  (GKN)  sent a proposed revision to Belgic 36 to themember Reformed churches, including the Christian Reformed Church in NorthAmerica, requesting consideration of the revision.  That same year, theCRC Synod appointed a committee to confer with the GKN on the matter.  In1957, the CRC Synod appointed a committee to study and make recommendations onthe GKN’s proposed changes to Belgic 36.   Finally, in 1958, the CRCSynod adopted the GKN’s proposed changes to Belgic 36, which removed theoffending language regarding the coercive suppression of heresy and substitutedlanguage that contained a more fulsome description of the relationship ofchurch and state. This same Synod also adopted the RES 4 point “Declaration onthe Relationship of Church and State”. [2]

The 1958 version of the Belgic Confession Article 36 appears inthe 1976 Edition of the Psalter/Hymnal adopted[3] bythe United Reformed Churches, and reads as follows:

“We believe that our gracious God, because of the depravity ofmankind, has appointed kings, princes, and magistrates; willing that the worldto be governed by certain laws and policies; to the end that the dissolutenessof men might be restrained, and all things carried on among them with goodorder and decency.  For this purpose he has invested the magistracy with thesword for the punishment of evildoers and for the protection of them that dowell.

Their office is not only to have regard unto and watch forwelfare of the civil state, but also to protect the sacred ministry, that thekingdom of Christ may thus be promoted. And being called in this mannerto contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God, thecivil rulers have the task, in subjection to the law of God, while completelyrefraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and whilefunctioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them,to remove every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect ofdivine worship, in order that the Word of God may have free course, the kingdomof Jesus Christ may make progress, and every anti-Christian power may beresisted.*[4]  They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospeleverywhere, that God may be honored and worshipped by everyone, as He commandsin His Word.,

Moreover, it is the bounden duty of everyone, of whatever state,quality, or condition he may be, to subject himself to the magistrates; to paytribute, to show due honor and respect to them, and to obey them in all things whichare not repugnant to the Word of God; to supplicate for them in theirprayers that God may rule and guide them in all their ways, and that wemay lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity.

Wherefore we detest the Anabaptists and other seditious people,and in general all those who reject the higher powers and magistrates and wouldsubvert justice, introduce community of goods, and confound that decency andgood order which God has established among men.”

With this adopted version set before us, let’s provide someanswers to the claims of the “two kingdoms” movement.

  The revised Belgic maintains the magistrate’s subjection to bothtables of Law

The revised Belgic 36 confesses and identifies the higher lawauthority to which the magistrate is subject: “ the civil rulers havethe task, in subjection to the law of God,..”    Whileit is stating the obvious, but this plain language identifies the Law of Godas norming the magistrate duties.   Let’s also note what thislanguage does not say.  No division is made anywhere inArticle 36 between the First table of the Law and the second Table of Law.  The article does not read that the magistrateperforms his tasks “in subjection to the Second Table of the Law of God”.  Rather, we have a positive and broad normative authority that encompassesboth tables of the Law.

Nonetheless, this language is apparently is not enough for some“two kingdoms” advocates, as the questions persist:

“… some substantial biblical-exegetical and theologicalquestions remain unresolved. Is there any New Testament warrant for saying, aswas said in 1910, that the magistrate has duties relative to the first table ofthe Decalogue? If so, from where would make such an argument and what wouldthose duties be? The New Testament is apparently silent about the role of theRoman Caesars in enforcing the first table. “ [1]

However, the magistrate having “first table” responsibility wasnot a question for the 1910 Synod which first considered removing the “kill theheretics” clause nor was it a question for the 1958 Synod that adopted theBelgic revision. As noted above, the 1958 Synod also adopted the ReformedEcumenical Synod’s 4 point “Declaration on the Relationship of Church andState”.     The very first point of that Declaration reads:

“A.) that, in agreement with the confession of the churchesrepresented in its midst, it maintains that the magistrate is instituted by Godand is endowed with power, in order that it, on its part and within the limitsset for its authority, promote the maintenance of human life and itsdevelopment in agreement with both tables of the law of God.[2]

 

So in the text of the revised Belgic we have themagistrate performing its tasks “subject to the Law of God”.  Inthe contemporaneous RES Declaration the church declared the magistrate’s tasksas being carried out “in agreement with both tables of the Law.”  In recommending the adoption of both the RES Declaration and the Belgicrevision, the synodical advisory committee found this RES declaration …”inharmony with the general temper and teaching of the Belgic Confession.”[3]

To be clear, it is legitimate to question in whatparticular manner the magistrate should honor, uphold, or perform itstask in subjection to first table of the law.  Undoubtedly, as history hasshown, it is now agreed that “killing heretics” is not the proper manner ofgovernment upholding commandments 1 & 2 of the first table.  Otherquestions can legitimately be asked regarding the manner of upholding the 3rd and 4thcommandment aswell.

What is not legitimate is a “two kingdoms” re-writing of historyto suggest the entire first table has been entirely removed from themagistrate’s purview.  Kuyper did not argue for a “table 1-ectomy”.   More importantly, neither did our Reformed forbears whenthey revised the confession.  Until we see a “two kingdoms” proponentsuccessfully overture for a second-table-only revision, our confessionalsubscription today yet stands with the churchmen who adopted the RESDeclaration and the revised Belgic 36 which retains the principle that themagistrate’s tasks are subject to both tables of God’s law.

 The Revised Belgic maintains the magistrate’s subjection to theWord of God.

 The revised Belgic maintains an important special relationshipbetween the magistrate’s duties and the Word of God.   Therevision did not remove God’s concern that his Word be protected and advancedamong the nations.

First, we confess that God has a divineprotective purpose in that the magistrate is “… toremove every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect ofdivine worship, in order that the Word of God may have freecourse,…”.    I’ll pause again to note that whichshould be obvious, but has become necessary to highlight in this debate.  Wedo not confess that God ordains the magistrate so that the Koran, the Book ofMormon, the Apocrypha, and humanistic natural law may pluralistically flourish alongside theWord of God.  It would contradict God’s nature as the only true God tosuggest that He appoints magistrates to ensure the promotion of anti-God“scriptures” that oppose God and his only true Word.

Second, we note God has a divine redemptive purpose inordaining the magistrate in that “..[t]hey must therefore countenancethe preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere, that Godmay be honored and worshipped by everyone, as He commands in His Word.” Here we confess that the magistrate has a duty to recognize the proclamation ofthe Word of God with the divine goal that all men may worship the one True Godin accord with the Word of God.

 

Third, we note that God has placed divine authoritative limits upon the magistrate’spower in that we are to obey the magistrate “…in all things which are notrepugnant to the  Word of God.”   Our obedience tothe magistrate is not unconditional.  If the magistrate were to command usto commit acts contrary to what God has commanded in His Word, then ourobedience is to God, not man.   What form or manner our resistance toungodly laws may take is beyond the purview of this paper.  Much has beenwritten on the topic of resistance theory in Reformed history.  But let ussimply acknowledge that the Word of God does place positive, authoritative, andnormative limits on the magistrate’s duties.

 Lest one think this is simply my reading of the revised Belgic36, listen again to the 1958 Synodical committee which recommended therevision:

“This formulation expresses the Scriptural teaching that thecivil rulers are bound by the authority of the Word and theLaw of God.  This precludes every form of totalitarianism which becomes alaw unto itself. (Romans 13:4ff).[4]

Consistent with this confession on the magistrate’s dutifulsubjection to the Word of God, the RES “Declaration” adopted at this same 1958Synod stated:

B. that consequently the magistrate is called to protect thepreaching of the gospel and all the holy service of God with allthe means given to it by God, in order that freedom of conscience to serve God accordingto His Word be guaranteed…”

“C. that the church shall honor and recognize themagistrate in this its God given power and service; that it shall faithfullyproclaim the full demands of the Gospel, as well as for thelife of the magistrate as for that of its subjects…”[5]

 

So let’s not be easily distracted by “two kingdoms” argumentsthat confessing the normativity of God’s Word on the magistrate equates withbeing a theonomist, theocrat, or Reconstructionist.  While the spiritualkeys belong to the church, the demands of the law and the gospel are binding onall men, the magistrate included.   The Word of God’s specialnormative function and purpose is found in the text of the revised Belgicitself, was cited by the committee recommending the revision, and wascontemporaneously affirmed by the syndical delegates in adopting the RES“Declaration”.

The Revised Belgic maintains the magistrate’s purpose to advancethe Kingdom of God

 

In describing the magistrate’s tasks, the Belgicexplicitly notes that the concern of the state is not exclusively for themaintenance of the civil state, but it has a purpose related to the advance ofthe kingdom of God:

 

“Their office is not only to have regard unto and watch forwelfare of the civil state, but also to protect the sacred ministry, thatthe kingdom of Christ may thus be promoted.”

The Belgic goes on to describe what kind of society themagistrate is called to cultivate:

“..being called in this manner to contribute to the advancementof a society that is pleasing to God,…”

Certainly, we can all agree that this does not meanthat the state is taking upon itself the spiritual keys of the kingdom thatrightfully belong to the church.  The magistrate does not preach thegospel in the divine worship service, nor administer spiritual discipline tothe unrepentant.   The Belgic confesses that the magistrate has adivine ordination to protect the church’s ministry with the divine purpose thatthe kingdom of Christ may advance.   The nature ofthe society the magistrate should contribute towards is one pleasing to God,i.e., at least outwardly conforming to His will as revealed in His Word.

Yes, we live in a religiously pluralistic society. The U.S. constitutionprotects the individual freedom of religion. However, we Reformed Christians donot (yet) confess that the Triune God has ordained earthly magistrates tospecially protect all anti-Christian, Satanist, Buddhist, or Muslim religionswith the goal that the anti-Christ kingdoms of Buddha, Satan, or Islam’s Allahmay advance.  Rather, the revised Belgic 36 states the magistrate iscalled upon:

“… to remove every obstacle to the preaching of thegospel and to every aspect of divine worship, in order that the Wordof God may have free course, the kingdom of Jesus Christ may makeprogressand every anti-Christian power may be resisted..

In harmony with this confession, the RES “Declaration” goes onto declare that the magistrate’s protection of the church includes that :

B)… every anti-Christian power which would threaten thechurch in the exercise of its holy ministrations be resisted and prevented.”[1]

 

Undoubtedly, the manner of the magistrate accomplishingits God- ordained and God -honoring purposes in a pluralistic age lead us intodifficult thorny questions.  But difficulty in application does notabrogate the principles we confess.  Let us remember that God has ordainedthe civil magistrate to protect the church, contribute to the advancement of aGod pleasing society, and resist anti-Christian forces that would disturb thechurch, all with the goal to advance the kingdom of Christ.

 

Conclusion

In examining both the text of the revised Belgic 36 and theaccompanying historical record surrounding the revision, we should clearlyconclude that:

1.     the Magistrate is subject to both tables of God’s law

2.     the Magistrate is subject to the authority of God’s Word

3.     the Magistrate is ordained to advance the kingdom of Christ.

 

It is incumbent upon URC office bearers who personallymight have trouble with the confessions to refrain from publicly contradictingthe confessions either directly or indirectly.  If an office bearersincerely believes he must take biblical exception to the current formulation,there are ecclesiastical means to make these concerns known.  Until thattime, one should not resort to confusing the history, or obfuscating the plainlanguage of the confession to achieve a de factorevision by non-ecclesiastical means.

It is a now time for the Reformed churches to recover theReformed Confessions, revised Belgic 36 included.

Mark Van Der Molen

DeMotte, Indiana

5/28/13


 

 http://rpcnacovenanter.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/belgic-confession-25-how-the-ot-law-continues-to-regulate-christian-living/