The Belgic Confession
A Bit to Read
The Belgic Confession
To train young men to be ministers of the Word of God is no small task, and invariably takes a great deal of time and commitment. Just imagine: all the background reading and study that’s required to teach the entirety of reformed doctrine and ethics and philosophy, the entirety of Old Testament and New Testament studies together with the trends happening in those fields today, the how of preaching and giving pastoral care, the full scope of church history and the how of church government, and so very, very much more; there’s so much to pass on to the students! And it won’t do to get stale or out of touch with the latest developments in one’s field…. The four current professors at the College have no small task. Perhaps it’s understandable, then, that not many scholarly publications have appeared over the years from the College’s instructors.
Precisely for this reason is it fitting to draw attention to a publication recently published by Prof Dr NG Gootjes, professor of dogmatology – and that’s to say that he’s the man responsible at the College for teaching reformed doctrine and ethics and philosophy. Last month Baker Academic, a world-renowned publisher of theology books (they’re based in Grand Rapids) released a book entitled The Belgic Confession: its History and Sources, written by our esteemed professor. The book covers 229 pages, comes with a plain yet attractive cover, is pleasantly laid out, and is available from Amazon (you can google to that) for $30 (including postage). I collected my copy from the mailbox yesterday, and finished reading it this morning.
What the book is about? The Belgic Confession is one of the world’s best-known statements of faith, and serves as one of the confessions of many reformed churches. Though the Belgic Confession comes originally from the Netherlands, it today has a prominent place in many English speaking churches of the world, including the Canadian Reformed Churches. Yet there has never appeared in the English language a detailed treatment of where the Belgic Confession comes from, how it was written, how it was originally received, how it grew from the author’s hand into the document printed in our Book of Praise, etc. Prof Gootjes has provided this treatment, and he’s done it well. The book is written with the ‘churchly audience’ in mind (as the Preface says), yet is of such scholarly caliber that it could be published in Baker’s “Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought” series. A hearty congratulations is in order to Prof Gootjes, and hence to the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches.
A bit more detail on the content of the book may be in place. Prof Gootjes tells us of Guido deBres’ work amongst the French speaking Reformed people of the Southern Netherlands (now Belgium), and the struggle to pass on the wealth of Scripture in a context of persecution. In his efforts to impress on his people what the gospel really was about, deBres penned a confession. He did not, however, start this confession from scratch, but drew heavily on the Gallican Confession published in France a couple of years before. In fact, John Calvin himself had a hand in forming the Gallican Confession, and it’s known that deBres was in contact with Calvin. Gootjes even concludes that Calvin received a copy of deBres’ confession and expressed his agreement with it. Not surprising, then, that there’s a strong similarity in thought between Calvin’s Institutes and the Belgic Confession!
Prof Gootjes tells us too that in writing his confession, deBres also made use of a personal creed drawn up by Theodore Beza, another leader of note in the Great Reformation. DeBres borrowed from Beza, modified bits of Beza’s work, and omitted other parts of it. DeBres, then, thought for himself, yet insisted on standing on the shoulders of those who labored before him. And that, of course, is distinctly how it ought to be, for the Lord is gathering a catholic church – and that’s to say that no generation has to reinvent the wheel but may (and must) treasure the work of others in whom the Lord has worked the gift of faith.
Prof Gootjes shows too that deBres’ confession was never intended to be simply deBres’ private property or personal conviction. Before he published his confession, deBres had a number of other ministers read through it to offer improvements. When the Belgic Confession was published in the autumn of 1561, its cover page indicated that this Confession was “made with common accord by the believers who live in the Netherlands, who desire to live according to the purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “By common accord”: from the word go, this confession belonged not to an individual but to the churches. More, from the day it first appeared in print, this confession documented what the reformed churches actually believed and it was the statement that united the churches in one faith. Since the days of its beginning, members of the churches were meant to embrace it and office bearers were meant to subscribe to it.
And that’s intriguing. For, as Gootjes relates, the times were tumultuous. We’re told of the summer cottage where deBres secretly did his work, how his supporters put fire to his study to prevent the persecutors from finding his books and papers, how the persecutors came upon the fire and put it out – and salvaged a couple hundred copies of the printed confession, only to use it against the reformed believers and ultimately destroy what they salvaged. Given the pressures of the time, one wonders whether a new confession was worth publishing or spreading. One could question too whether in such circumstances the churches (and hence the members) do well to have a common confession, let alone have the office bearers subscribe to it. I suspect that in our day we’d think this to be a bit over the top. But awareness of how our fathers treated the confession does us well, for here’s incentive for modern people to treasure this precise statement of faith in our day and hold each other to it. After all, this confession catches so accurately what the Lord has told us in Scripture, and there simply are no circumstances that allow us to deviate from anything the Lord has revealed.
Are there weaknesses in Prof Gootjes’ book? Of course there are; aside from the Bible, there is no book without weaknesses. Yet I’m happy to admit that the weaknesses of this book are, to my reading, few and far between. I picked up no typos, but did notice some awkward grammar. The flow of thought in the book is clear, and the grounds offered for the various conclusions are well developed. Yet precisely there is perhaps the greatest weakness of the book. The average reader, I think, will not find all the argumentation leading to the conclusions too spell-binding. Then again, that need not be a problem; here and there there’s a page or three one can easily skip without loosing the flow of the book.
A worthwhile acquisition – or birthday gift? I’d say Yes. Just don’t leave it sitting on the shelf… Neither the contents nor the labor behind the contents deserve that.
The Theological College plays an important role in the life of the churches. We’re thankful that the Lord has given Prof Gootjes the strength and insight to come to this publication. May the Lord God grant the professor further health and strength to continue his work, and make him and his fellow professors a continued blessing for the churches. As to scholarly publications from Hamilton’s professors: we look forward to more!
15 November 2007