Since my attempts to get back into regular blogging haven’t gained as much traction as I’d hoped, I’m going to begin a new project intended to kickstart things afresh.
Two years ago, in observation of the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism (one of the great teaching documents of the Reformed tradition), I spent a year offering brief commentary and reflection on its contents. [You can peruse all of those efforts on the site, tagged under “Heidelberg”.] If nothing else, it was a personally beneficial exercise–though I do hope it was meaningful to someone (anyone?) else besides just me.
In light of that, I’m going to start a similar project with what might be my favorite of the Reformed confessions, the Belgic Confession (1561). You can find a great summary of its history and context here, though a few basics at the onset might be helpful:
- It is one of the oldest Reformed statements, written in response to a period of Spanish Inquisition.
- It seeks to demonstrate three things about the Reformed teachings: (1) That they align with the early Christian creeds; (2) That they differ from the Roman Catholic doctrine of the day; and (3) That they are distinct from the Anabaptist Protestant doctrines.
- It was written by a pastor, Guy de Bray (1522-1567), who modeled it after the French/Gallican Confession. De Bray was eventually executed for the beliefs outlined in this document.
Beyond its historical, ecclesiastical, and theological significance, I’ve always deeply appreciated this document for the profound yet pastoral way in which it is written. So what I hope to do over the next few months is post some brief reflections and commentary on each of the 37 articles in the confession, each of which could stand on its own, though are also meant to be read as a series.
Enough preface, time to start.
THE BELGIC CONFESSION
THERE IS ONLY ONE GOD
We believe with the heart and confess with the mouth that there is one only simple and spiritual Being, which we call God; and that He is eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good.
It’s not uncommon for Reformed confessions to begin with a statement–direct or indirect–on the nature of God. For example, even though the Heidelberg Catechism does not develop its doctrine of God till question 25, the famous opening question still identifies the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Westminster Confession of Faith, by contrast, opens with its doctrine of Scripture before moving into the doctrine of God in chapter two (the Shorter and Larger Catechisms follow the same order). That the Belgic Confession begins with a statement about God is not terribly distinct. The way it frames that opening statement, however, is interesting.
Note that nothing here is said of the Trinity, arguably “the core of the Christian faith” (Bavinck). That does come in depth in articles VIII-IX, after several articles on the doctrine of Scripture. De Bray’s approach, then, is to follow the trajectory found in Romans 1:19ff, namely that what Calvin and others call a senses divinitatis (sense of the divine) is common to all humankind. The logic goes like this: we cannot expound upon the doctrine of the Trinity without recourse to special revelation (i.e. the inspired Word of God), but before we begin expounding the Word of God, we must acknowledge that all people have an awareness of the divine, though they may reject it or suppress it.
Here’s how Paul put it in Romans 1:19-20: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” In a certain sense, therefore, the first article is not necessarily distinctively Christian (and certainly not exclusively Reformed) in content. It is the common knowledge available to all humankind.
This doesn’t mean it is empty of significance, however. Each of the descriptions and characteristics listed is full of meaning and significance. Shelves of books have been written on each, so I won’t pretend to exhaustively detail anything here. Still, some brief observations are due. We confess that God is:
- One–There is not a pantheon of gods, but one deity. (Deut 6:4; Eph 4:6; 1 Tim 2:5; 1 Cor 8:6)
- Simple–Not as in ‘uncomplicated’ or ‘modest’. This is a philosophical category, referring to an existence that is noncomposite in nature. In other words, God is not the sum of his parts (or attributes), but all of his attributes are “identical with and inseparable from” his divine essence (Muller). This refers to God’s absolute perfection, for anything defined in distinction by its parts is necessarily contingent on some level, which God is not.
- Spiritual–God is not a physical entity. (John 4:24)
- Eternal–This God exists not only from all time, but even before and outside of time. (Psalm 90:2; Isa 40:28)
- Incomprehensible–Augustine famously said, “If you comprehend it, then it is not God”. This does not mean that we cannot know God truly, only that we cannot know God exhaustively. God has revealed himself in ways that we can understand (the Reformed doctrine of accommodation), yet remains above us. God’s ‘thoughts are not our thoughts’, for they are ‘higher than the heavens are above the earth’ (Isa 55:8-9; Rom 11:33)
- Invisible–Because God does not have a body, we cannot see him unless he accommodates himself in some way. The Incarnation is the supreme example of this, though it is also much more than just God making himself ‘seeable’. (Rom 1:20; Col 1:15; 1 Tim 6:16)
- Immutable–God, not only in his essence, character, and nature, but also in his purposes and decrees, does not change. (Num 23:19; Mal 3:6; Jas 1:17)
- Infinite–There are no limits to God in terms of any of his attributes. (1 Kgs 8:27; Isa 44:6; Jer 23:24)
- Almighty–Nothing is outside of God’s ability, nor is there anyone or anything greater than he. (Gen 17:1; Matt 19:26; Rev 1:8)
- Perfectly wise–God’s counsel, decrees, law, and promises are inscrutable. There is no higher source of wisdom and no possibility that new information/experiences will enlarge or alter God’s purposes. (Rom 16:27; 1 Tim 1:17)
- Just–God’s standards are true, his judgments righteous, and his verdicts beyond reproach. Because God is just, he acts justly in all things–though we may not yet see the full reasons or ramifications of this until the day when all is brought to light at the final judgment. (Jer 12:1; Rom 3:25-26; Rom 9:14; Rev 16:5,7)
- Good–Not in a comparative sense, but in an absolute sense. All that God does and says is without shadow of evil or imperfection. (Matt 19:17)
- The overflowing fountain of all good–Because God is good and all that he does is good, all that he does in the lives of and for the sake of his people is good. No good thing comes to us apart from him. (Jas 1:17; 1 Chr 29:10-12)
This is the God who is revealed through his creation and, therefore, known to–and by–all. There is no other.