Reformed Confessions: The Belgic Confession (1561)

John R. Muether

In the mid-sixteenth century the Netherlands (“low countries”) were seventeen provinces under the Spanish crown. A spirit of religious leniency ended when Philip II inherited this realm from Charles V in 1555; unlike his father, Philip was determined to crush Protestants movements, which were largely Lutheran or Anabaptist.

By 1560 Reformed congregations began to form in the southern provinces through the work of Geneva-trained ministers. Guido de Brès (ca. 1523–67), an itinerant preacher in the southern provinces, wrote the Belgic Confession while pastoring a church in Dornik. Its thirty-seven articles follow the order of the French Confession of 1559, though it is far more elaborate in its discussion of the Trinity, incarnation, justification and sanctification, and church and sacraments. Contemporary readers may be surprised to encounter its affirmation that faith precedes regeneration. The Belgic Confession employs regeneration in a broader sense that is synonymous with sanctification; the narrower sense as new birth gains prominence at the Synod of Dordt in the wake of the Arminian controversy.

Particularly noteworthy is the Belgic’s relatively mild condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church and its stress on distancing the Reformed from Anabaptists. Denunciations of Anabaptism appear in articles 18 (the incarnation), 34 (baptism), and 36 (civil government). Strong language concludes article 36:

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

The basic outline of Presbyterian church order is found in articles 30–32. Article 32 include a strong articulation of the regulative principle of worship (see excerpt below). This language challenges the popular contemporary misconception that the regulative principle is a later invention of English Puritanism.

In its original French version the Belgic included a lengthy preface to King Philip II that affirmed the Reformed movement’s eagerness to obey the magistrate in all lawful things. And yet, “having the fear of God before our eyes,” the letter promised to maintain the doctrine of the Confession, even to the point of “yielding our backs to stripes, our tongues to the knives, our mouths to gags, and our whole bodies to the flames,” as they were “ever ready and willing, if it be necessary, to seal it with our own blood.” De Brès himself was granted that opportunity in 1567 when he became the only author of a primary Reformed confession to die a martyr’s death.

The Synod of Antwerp’s adoption of the Belgic Confession in 1566 marked the establishment of Calvinism in the Netherlands. A half century later it was incorporated into the Three Forms of Unity by the Synod of Dordt in 1619. According to Philip Schaff, the Belgic Confession was the “best symbolic statement of the Calvinistic system of doctrine” before the composition of the Westminster Confession of Faith.[1]

Excerpt from Article 32 – The Order and Discipline of the Church

In the meantime we believe, though it is useful and beneficial that those who are rulers of the Church institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the Church, yet that they ought studiously to take care that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, has instituted. And therefore we reject all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever. Therefore we admit only of that which tends to nourish and preserve concord and unity, and to keep all men in obedience to God. For this purpose, excommunication or church discipline is requisite, with all that pertains to it, according to the Word of God.

The Sequence of Confessions

Sixty-Seven Articles of Ulrich Zwingli (1523)
Tetrapolitan Confession (1530)
First Helvetic Confession (1536)
French Confession of Faith (1559)
Scots Confession (1560)
Belgic Confession of Faith (1561)
Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
Second Helvetic Confession (1566)
Canons of the Synod of Dordt (1619)
Westminster Confession & Catechisms (1643)

[1] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom: with a History and Critical Notes, 3 vols. (New York: Harper, 1877), 1:506.

John R. Muether serves as a ruling elder at Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Oviedo, Florida, dean of libraries at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, and historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, June–July 2017.

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