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The Revision of Belgic Confession Article 36

R. Scott Clark

April, 2012
©2012 All Rights Reserved.

Eugene Osterhaven called this "the most difficult and disputed" article in the confession.1 As will appear below, the desire to revise this article has existed in the Reformed churches in both the Nederlands and in the USA since the late 19th century and revision has come in fits and starts and there is no little ambiguity about the status of the original article across the confessional Reformed world.

What follows is an English translation revised according to the original French and Latin version of the article made with reference to the French text as it appears in Schaff's Creeds of Christendom, 3.432–33 and with the Latin text (adopted by the Synod of Dort, 1619) in Müller, Di Bekenntnisschriften der Reformierten Kirche, 248.

Article 36

Concerning The Magistrate

We believe that our good God,2 because of the depravity of mankind, has appointed kings, princes, and magistrates; willing that the world should be governed by certain laws and policies; to the end that the dissoluteness of men might be restrained, and all things carried on among them with good order and decency. For this purpose He has placed the sword in the hand of the magistate, for the punishment of evil doers and for the defense of them that do well.3

The two sections that follow are the most disputed and have been broken into paragraphs for clarity:

[For their office is not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the [civil] polity,4 but also to maintain the true sacred ministry;5 and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship; that the kingdom of anti-Christ may be thus destroyed and the kingdom of Christ promoted.]6

They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere, that God may be honored and worshipped by every one, as He commands in His Word.

Moreover, it is the bound duty of every one, of whatever state, quality, or condition he may be, to subject himself to the magistrates; to pay tribute, to show due honor and respect to them, and to obey them in all things which are not repugnant to the Word of God; to supplicate for them in their prayers that God may rule and guide them in all their ways, and that we may 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 would subvert justice, introduce community of goods, and confound that decency and good order which God has established among men.

History the Revision of Article 36

According to John Kromminga, questions first arose in the CRCNA over what is described in this article as the Constantinian language of the original article 36 did not arise immediately after the Afscheiding (separating) in 1834.7 The CRCNA separated from the RCA in 1857 and by 1879, in the church newspaper, De Wachter (The Watchman), questions were being raised about the applicability of the Constantinian language in article 36.8

Two decades later, in the 1890s Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) argued:

We oppose this [Constantinian language in article 36] out of complete conviction, prepared to bear the consequences of our convictions, even when we will be denounced and mocked on that account as unReformed.

We would rather be considered not Reformed and insist that men ought not to kill heretics, than that we are left with the Reformed name as the prize 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 of no force for us because the infallible indication of what was or was not heretical which was present at that time is now lacking.

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

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

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

5) That this proposition opposes the Spirit and the Christian faith.

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

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

In the same period, in the USA, the same sorts of concerns were arising.9 In 1905 the Synod of the Gererformeerde Kerken Nederlands (the denomination that arose from the merger of the 1834 Afscheiding and the 1886 Doleantie, "the Sorrowing," a separation from the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk led by Abraham Kuyper) took action to revise article 36. In 1906 "three classes and one congregation petitioned the Synod of the CRCNA for a revision of the article.10 Synod appointed a committee. That committee failed and a new committee was appointed in 1908 "to give a more accurate explanation of the disputed portion of Art. 36 in a note."11

Synod, in 1910, added the following explanatory footnote:

This phrase, touching the office of the magistracy in its relation to the Church, proceeds rom the principle of the Established Church, which was first applied by Constantine and afterwards also in many Protestant countries. History, however, does not justify the principle of State domination over the Church, but rather a certain separation of Church and State. Moreover, it is also contrary to the New Dispensation that authority be vested in the State arbitrarily to reform the Church, and to deny the Church the right of independently conducting its own affairs as a distinct domain alongside the State. the New Testament does not subject the the Christian Church to the authority of the State that it should be controlled by political measures, but only to our Lord and King as an independent domain alongside and altogether independent of the State, that it may be governed and built up only by its office-bearers and with spiritual means. Practically all Reformed Churches have relinquished the idea of the Established Church as not in accordance with the New Testament, and advocate the autonomy of the Churches and personal liberty of conscience in the service of God.

The Christian Reformed Church in America, being in full accord with this view, feels constrained to declare that it dos not conceive of the office of the magistracy in this sense, that it is in duty bound to exercise political authority also in the sphere of religion by establishing a State Church, maintaining and advancing the same as the only true Church, and to withstand, destroy, and exterminate by means of the sword all other Churches as embodying false religions; and also to declare that it does positively hold that, within its own secular sphere, the magistracy has a divine duty with reference to the first table of the Law as well as the second; and furthermore that both State and Church as institutions of God and Christ have mutual rights and duties appointed them from on high, and therefore have a very sacred reciprocal obligation to meet, through the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. They should not, however, encroach upon each other's domains. The Church as well as the State has the right of sovereignty in its own sphere.12

In 1936 the (Calvin) Seminary faculty (the official seminary of the CRCNA) "expressed its dissatisfaction with the article as revised by the footnote...."13 Synod commissioned them to make a recommendation which they did. "Their advice was to drop the footnote formerly adopted and to exscind a portion of the disputed clause. The article should now read:

Their office is not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state but also to protect the sacred ministry, that the Kingdom of Christ may be thus promoted.14

Synod followed this advice in 1938, prompting a protest in 1939 that was rejected,15 but dissatisfaction continued and Synod formed another committee in 1940 to re-write article 36. The proposed revision appeared in 1946 but was contested for several years.

Finally, in 1958, Synod declared the Constantinian language of the original article "unbiblical" (see below) and adopted a substantial revision of Article 36:

We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings.

For that purpose he has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good.

And being called in this manner to contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God, the civil rulers have the task, subject to God's law, of removing every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship.

They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.

They should do it in order that the Word of God may have free course; the kingdom of Jesus Christ may make progress; and every anti-Christian power may be resisted.

We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings.

For that purpose he has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good.

And being called in this manner to contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God, the civil rulers have the task, subject to God's law, of removing every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship.

They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.

The latest CRC revision, in 1985, moved the following paragraph to a footnote:

They should do it in order that the Word of God may have free course; the kingdom of Jesus Christ may make progress; and every anti-Christian power may be resisted.

The same CRC synod removed this paragraph:

And on this matter we denounce the Anabaptists, other anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.

and placed it in a footnote.

The United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) holds the Belgic Confession but, to date the churches, which were largely formed by congregations that had separated from the CRCNA, have not stipulated which form of the Belgic Confession they subscribe. The form of Article 36 on the Religion" (italics origina). Beets defends his view of the Confession by invoking George Washington's farewell address (1796) on the necessity of religion for morality. Beets argues, "It is because of these considerations that we maintain what our Confession declares concerning magistates." He interpreted "countenance" to mean "approve and aid openly" the preaching of the Word.18

More recently J. van Bruggen has argued the Constantinian case, that Synod Utrecht (1905) was wrong to attempt to read the Confession "according to the intention of the authors."19 He says "[t]his is wrong! We must read it in light of Holy Scripture.")

First, in response, first, it's not clear why we cannot do both. It is hard to see how van Bruggen's proposed hermeneutic could avoid hopeless subjectivism. Surely a historical reading of a document must first begin with authorial intent. We call this the historical or literal sense of the text.

Second, the Confession must be compared with Scripture and, if found wanting, must be revised. He also claims that the article does not assume the right of the government to put heretics to death. This claim is historically untenable. There were Reformed folk who opposed civil enforcement of religious orthodoxy but such opposition was not the majority view and there is no evidence that De Bres or most of the rest of the Reformed world in the period doubted Constantinianism.

Third, van Bruggen argues that the disputed words really only mean only that the civil government is to prevent public idolatry and he claims that the magistrate should thus enforce both tables.20 He seems to be distinguishing punishing heretics and preventing idolatry. Historically this is a distinction without meaning. One wonders to which Dutch (since Kuyper's 1901–05 service as Prime Minister) or American government van Bruggen would trust to decide what constitutes idolatry and to prevent it? How does a civil government prevent somethign without punishing its practice? E.g., civil authorities prevent infractions by punishing them. Certainly the reading that Beets gave to this article in 1929 and that van Bruggen offered more recently suggests that Constantinianism remains alive in the Dutch Reformed tradition.

A fourth question is suggested by Hyde's analysis of this article. He writes "the Confession describes the church in articles 27–35 as a spiritual kingdom that exists in the midst of the kingdoms of this world. In article 36 the Reformers' doctrine of the two kingdoms is clearly in the background."21 He further notes, as this article has also observed, that the original texts of the Confession do not speak of God as "gracious" in appointing the civil magistrate.22 He points out that the earlier Latin translation used the expression "optimum maximum.23 This was the language used by Roman philosophers such as Cicero, in other words it suggests that the original understanding of this article and its doctrine viewed the civil sphere as more a sphere of natural law than a sphere of redemptive grace. Thus, Hyde concludes, "By using this language, the Belgic Confession grounds the civil government in God's goodness, not his grace, in creation, not redemption"24

If Hyde is correct, then there was an inherent tension between the notion of two distinct kingdoms under God's sovereign rule and the Constantinian assumptions on which some of the language of the original article rested. The modern history of the revision of the Confession seems to be an tacit recognition, if imperfect resolution, of that tension.

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ENDNOTES

1. Eugene M. Osterhaven, Our Confession of Faith: A Study Manual on the Belgic Confession (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2nd printing, 1964), 190, cited in Daniel R. Hyde, With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession (Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship Inc., 2008), 478.

2. Schaff's translation translates bon with "gracious" but this does not seem to be the best translation. The Latin text has benignum Deum, which might be translated "favorable" but not "gracious." Further, since both French and Latin have distinct terms for "gracious" it seems best to use it "good" or perhaps "kind" here in English.

3. Schaff translates the second clause "for the praise of them that do well." Other English translations have "for the protection...." This is closer both the French (maintenir) and the Latin (defendenis).

4. French, "sur la police." Latin, "pro conservandea politia." The reference here is clearly to the civil, not ecclesiastical, polity hence the editorial insertion.

5. The Latin has "verum etiam ut sacrum tueantur Ministerium...."

6. French, "maintenir." Latin, "tuentur." Schaff translates as "protect." The 1976 CRC edition follows this. This is possible from either the French or the Latin but both could also be translated with "support." The first assumption here is almost certainly that public funds would be used to support the ministry. In this period it was not a matter of whether the church would be publicly funded but which church (Protestant, i.e., Lutheran or Reformed or Roman) would be publicly funded. Remember that the Peace of Augsburg (1555) was only five years old when the Belgic Confession was first published. The second assumption, of course, is that the Constantinian system, as it had developed through the middle ages, was essentially correct, that the civil magistrate had a duty to uphold Christian orthodoxy and to punish heretics.

7. John Kromminga, The Christian Reformed Church: A Study in Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1949), 66. On the history of the CRC revisions see also Nicolaas H. Gootjes, The Belgic Confession: Its History and Sources (Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought) (Baker Academic, 2007), 185–87.

8. De Wachter, 12.2 (April 10, 1879), 2. Cited in Kromminga, The Christian Reformed Church, 67, n. 9. See also Jacob Van Bruggen, The Church Says Amen: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession, trans. Johanna VanderPlas (Neerlandia, AB and Pella, IA: Inheritance Publications, 2003), 217–18, which says, "The third part of this article has given rise to much contention. The seventeen words one finds in brackets have been the centre of many debates. At the General Synod of Middelburg (1896) eight members submitted an objection to these words. A decison on this objection was finally made at the Synod of Utrecht (1905). This Synod deleted these words."

9. Kromminga, ibid, 67. n. 10.

10. Acts of Synod, 1908, Art. 93, p. 53 cited in Kromminga, ibid, 67, note 11.

11. Acts of Synod, 1908, Art. 20, p. 49 cited in Kromminga, ibid, 67, n. 14.

12. Acts of Synod, 1910, Supplement X, p. 104 cited in Kromminga, ibid, 68, n. 15.

13. Kromminga, ibid, 68.

14. Kromminga, ibid, 68.

15. Acts of Synod, 1939, p. 88 cited in Kromminga, ibid, 68, n.19.

16. An electronic search of the 1996 minutes of "First Synod of the United Reformed Churches in North America" does not show the phrases "Belgic Confession" or "Confession of Faith." The expression "Belgic Confession" appears in the minutes between 1997 and 2010 but there is no reference to article 36.

17. On the history of the URCs see Cornelis P. Venema, "Integration, Disintegration, and Reintegration: A Preliminary History of the United Reformed Churches in North America," in R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim ed., Aways Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey (Escondido: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), 224–50.

18. Hyde, With Heart and Mouth, 479.

19. van Bruggen, ibid, 218.

20. idem, ibid, 218–19.

21. Hyde, ibid, 480.

22. H. A. Niemeyer, Collectio Confessionum in Ecclesiis Reformatis Publicatarum (Leipzig: Julius Klinkhardt, 1840), 387.

23. Henry Beets, The Reformed Confession Explained: A Popular Commentary and Textbook on the Netherland Or Belgic Confession of Faith (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1929), 270–71.

24. Hyde, ibid, 483.