Revised Belgic Confession Article 36: The Magistrate Is Subject To God’s Law

Belgic Confession Article 36 “Of the Magistracy and Government” has direct application in the ongoing debate over the so-called “two kingdoms” movement. The Magistrate Is Subject To Both Tables Of The Law, The Authority Of God’s Word, And Serves To Advance Christ’s Kingdom

In examining both the text of the revised Belgic 36 and the accompanying historical record surrounding the revision, we should clearly conclude 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 personally might have trouble with the confessions to refrain from publicly contradicting the confessions either directly or indirectly. 

 

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

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

This brief paper will undertake examination of these distinctive “two kingdoms” claims that the revision of Belgic 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 Word of God, and
  3. remove the magistrate’s purpose in the advancement of Christ’s kingdom.

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

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

As quoted in Dr. Clark’s written historical account of Belgic 36, Abraham Kuyper objected to a specific portion of the original Belgic 36 regarding 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 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.”

From this excerpt, we can see that Kuyper objected to the “Constantinian” notion that the magistrate could “kill heretics” or “suppress heresy and idolatry”, actions which the original Belgic 36 explicitly called upon the magistrate to perform.   For our purposes, it is equally important to note what Kuyper did not say. Nowhere in this oft–quoted excerpt did Kuyper argue that the magistrate should be categorically excluded from performing any duties related to the entire the 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 to this aspect to the Article. In 1910, Synod considered that while civil rulers should not destroy false religion by means of the sword, yet “… the magistracy has a divine duty towards the first table of the Law as well as towards 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 Son. They may not, however, encroach upon each other’s territory. The Church has rights of sovereignty in its own sphere as well as the State.” [CRC Acts of Synod, 1910; emphasis added]. Little further concrete action occurred until 1943, when the CRC Synod appointed a committee to make recommended changes to Article 36. In 1947, Synod received but did not adopt the committee’s recommendations, but rather referred the divided report to be considered at the upcoming Reformed Ecumenical Synod (RES) in Amsterdam.

The RES had been studying the issue of the relationship of Church and State for some time.   In 1949, the RES adopted a 4 point “Declaration on the Relationship of Church and State” and forwarded it to the member Reformed churches for response.  In 1954, the Gereformeerde Kerken of the Netherlands  (GKN)  sent a proposed revision to Belgic 36 to the member Reformed churches, including the Christian Reformed Church in North America ,requesting consideration of the revision.  That same year, the CRC Synod appointed a committee to confer with the GKN on the matter.  In 1957, the CRC Synod appointed a committee to study and make recommendations on the GKN’s proposed changes to Belgic 36.   Finally, in 1958, the CRC Synod adopted the GKN’s proposed changes to Belgic 36, which removed the offending language regarding the  coercive suppression of heresy and substituted language that contained a more fulsome description of the relationship of church and state. This same Synod also adopted the RES 4 point “Declaration on the Relationship of Church and State”. [2]

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

“We believe that our gracious God, because of the depravity of mankind, has appointed kings, princes, and magistrates; willing that the world to 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 invested the magistracy with the sword for the punishment of evildoers and for the protection of them that do well.

Their office is not only to have regard unto and watch for welfare of the civil state, but also to protect the sacred ministry, that the kingdom of Christ may thus be promoted. 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, in subjection to the law of God, 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, to remove every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship, 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.*[4]   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 bounden duty of everyone, 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.”

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

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

The revised Belgic 36 confesses and identifies the higher law authority to which the magistrate is subject: “ the civil rulers have the task, in subjection to the law of God,..”    While it is stating the obvious, but this plain language identifies the Law of God as norming the magistrate duties.   Let’s also note what this language does not say.  No division is made anywhere in Article 36 between the First table of the Law and the second Table of Law.   The article does not read that the magistrate performs his tasks “in subjection to the Second Table of the Law of God”.   Rather, we have a positive and broad normative authority that encompasses both 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 theological questions remain unresolved. Is there any New Testament warrant for saying, as was said in 1910, that the magistrate has duties relative to the first table of the Decalogue? If so, from where would make such an argument and what would those duties be? The New Testament is apparently silent about the role of the Roman Caesars in enforcing the first table. “ [5]

However, the magistrate having “first table” responsibility was not a question for the 1910 Synod which first considered removing the “kill the heretics” clause nor was it a question for the 1958 Synod that adopted the Belgic revision. As noted above, the 1958 Synod also adopted the Reformed Ecumenical Synod’s 4 point “Declaration on the Relationship of Church and State”.     The very first point of that Declaration reads:

“A.) that, in agreement with the confession of the churches represented in its midst, it maintains that the magistrate is instituted by God and is endowed with power, in order that it, on its part and within the limits set for its authority, promote the maintenance of human life and its development in agreement with both tables of the law of God.[6]

So in the text of the revised Belgic we have the magistrate performing its tasks “subject to the Law of God”.  In the contemporaneous RES Declaration the church declared the magistrate’s tasks as being carried out “in agreement with both tables of the Law.”   In recommending the adoption of both the RES Declaration and the Belgic revision, the synodical advisory committee found this RES declaration …”in harmony with the general temper and teaching of the Belgic Confession.”[7]

To be clear, it is legitimate to question in what particular manner the magistrate should honor, uphold, or perform its task in subjection to first table of the law.  Undoubtedly, as history has shown, it is now agreed that “killing heretics” is not the proper manner of government upholding commandments 1 & 2 of the first table.  Other questions can legitimately be asked regarding the manner of upholding the 3rd and 4th commandment as well.

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

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

The revised Belgic maintains an important special relationship between the magistrate’s duties and the Word of God.   The revision did not remove God’s concern that his Word be protected and advanced among the nations.

First, we confess that God has a divine protective purpose in that the magistrate is “… to remove every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship, in order that the Word of God may have free course,…”.    I’ll pause again to note that which should be obvious, but has become necessary to highlight in this debate.  We do not confess that God ordains the magistrate so that the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Apocrypha, and humanistic natural law may pluralistically flourish alongside the Word of God.  It would contradict God’s nature as the only true God to suggest 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 in ordaining the magistrate in that “..[t]hey 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.”  Here we confess that the magistrate has a duty to recognize the proclamation of the Word of God with the divine goal that all men may worship the one True God in accord with the Word of God.

Third, we note that God has placed divine authoritative limits upon the magistrate’s power in that we are to obey the magistrate “…in all things which are not repugnant to the  Word of God.”   Our obedience to the magistrate is not unconditional.  If the magistrate were to command us to commit acts contrary to what God has commanded in His Word, then our obedience is to God, not man.   What form or manner our resistance to ungodly laws may take is beyond the purview of this paper.  Much has been written on the topic of resistance theory in Reformed history.  But let us simply acknowledge that the Word of God does place positive, authoritative, and normative limits on the magistrate’s duties.

Lest one think this is simply my reading of the revised Belgic 36, listen again to the 1958 Synodical committee which recommended the revision:

“This formulation expresses the Scriptural teaching that the civil rulers are bound by the authority of the Word and the Law of God.  This precludes every form of totalitarianism which becomes a law unto itself. (Romans 13:4ff).[8]

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

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

“C. that the church shall honor and recognize the magistrate in this its God given power and service; that it shall faithfully proclaim the full demands of the Gospel, as well as for the life of the magistrate as for that of its subjects…”[9]

So let’s not be easily distracted by “two kingdoms” arguments that confessing the normativity of God’s Word on the magistrate equates with being a theonomist, theocrat, or Reconstructionist.  While the spiritual keys belong to the church, the demands of the law and the gospel are binding on all men, the magistrate included.   The Word of God’s special normative function and purpose is found in the text of the revised Belgic itself, was cited by the committee recommending the revision, and was contemporaneously affirmed by the synodical delegates in adopting the RES “Declaration”.

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

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

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

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

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

Certainly, we can all agree that this does not mean that the state is taking upon itself the spiritual keys of the kingdom that rightfully belong to the church.  The magistrate does not preach the gospel in the divine worship service, nor administer spiritual discipline to the unrepentant.   The Belgic confesses that the magistrate has a divine ordination to protect the church’s ministry with the divine purpose that the kingdom of Christ may advance.   The nature of the 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. constitution protects the individual freedom of religion. However, we Reformed Christians do not (yet) confess that the Triune God has ordained earthly magistrates to specially protect all anti-Christian, Satanist, Buddhist, or Muslim religions with the goal that the anti-Christ kingdoms of Buddha, Satan, or Islam’s Allah may advance.  Rather, the revised Belgic 36 states the magistrate is called upon:

“… to remove every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship, 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..

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

B)… every anti-Christian power which would threaten the church in the exercise of its holy ministrations be resisted and prevented.”[10]

Undoubtedly, the manner of the magistrate accomplishing its God- ordained and God -honoring purposes in a pluralistic age lead us into difficult thorny questions.  But difficulty in application does not abrogate the principles we confess.  Let us remember that God has ordained the civil magistrate to protect the church, contribute to the advancement of a God pleasing society, and resist anti-Christian forces that would disturb the church, all with the goal to advance the kingdom of Christ.

Conclusion

In examining both the text of the revised Belgic 36 and the accompanying historical record surrounding the revision, we should clearly conclude 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 personally might have trouble with the confessions to refrain from publicly contradicting the confessions either directly or indirectly.  If an office bearer sincerely believes he must take biblical exception to the current formulation, there are ecclesiastical means to make these concerns known.  Until that time, one should not resort to confusing the history, or obfuscating the plain language of the confession to achieve a de facto revision by non- ecclesiastical means.

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

Appendix

Reformed Ecumenical Synod “Declaration on the Relationship of Church and State”:

“In the matter of the relationship of Church and State, Synod declares:

  1. that, in agreement with the confession of the churches represented in its midst, it maintains that the magistrate is instituted by God and is endowed with power, in order that it, on its part and within the limits set for its authority, promote the maintenance of human life and its development in agreement with both tables of the law of God;
  2. that consequently the magistrate is called to protect the preaching of the Gospel and all the holy service of God with all the means given to it by God, in order that freedom of conscience to serve God according to His Word be guaranteed and every anti-Christian power which would threaten the church in the exercise of its holy ministrations be resisted and prevented;
  3. that the church shall recognize and honor the magistrate in this its God-given power and service; that it shall faithfully proclaim the full demands of the Gospel, as well as for the life of the magistrate as for that of its subjects, and shall be mindful of the apostolic injunction to make supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving for all men, for kings and for all that in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness  and honesty;
  4. that the magistrate, under penalty of forsaking its holy office and itself falling into tyranny, should forbear assuming the right and the power of the only King of the Church Jesus Christ, who from heaven rules and protects and once shall completely save his church; so that the church with its officers in all that has been given and entrusted to it as its tasks and privilege by its King owes allegiance and responsibility to Him alone, and shall for the coming of His kingdom and the overthrow of the kingdoms of antichrist have its expectation fixed alone upon the power of His Spirit and revelation of His glory.”

 

Grounds stated supporting adoption of the Revision to Belgic Confession Article 36:

  1. This formulation expresses the Scriptural teaching that the civil magistrate rulers have the task to contribute to the development of a God-pleasing society (See Romans 13)
  2. This formulation expresses the Scriptural teaching that the civil rulers are bound by the authority of the Word and Law of God.  This precludes every form of totalitarianism which becomes a law unto itself. (See Romans 13:4ff)
  3. This formulation expresses the Scriptural teaching that the two realms of Church and State must be distinguished as to their spheres of operation and as to the nature of the means that are entrusted to them. (See Matthew 22:21) (Cf. Acts of Synod 1946, p. 416 for additional passages).
  4. This formulation expresses the Scriptural teaching that the civil rulers, in order to fulfill their God-given tasks, must remove the impediments to the preaching of the gospel and the advance of God’s kingdom. (See 1 Timothy 2: 1,2).

Mark Van der Molen is a lawyer and an elder in the Immanuel United Reformed Church, DeMotte, Indiana. This article appeared on the Worldview Resources International blog and is used with permission.



[1] Audio of “two kingdoms” proponent Dr. R. Scott Clark’s arguments regarding Belgic 36 can be found here: http://rscottclark.org/wp-content/audio/heidelcast-14-belgic-art-36.mp3.  Clark’s written treatment of the history of the Belgic 36 can be found here: http://clark.wscal.edu/RevisionBelgic36.php.  Regarding the magistrate being limited to the second table of the law, Dr. Clark has stated: “It is not the magistrate’s duty to police every sort of violation of natural law and sin. For example, no one but theocrats want the state enforcing obedience to the first table of the law. The magistrate’s natural sphere of concern and authority is in the second table. http://heidelblog.net/2008/10/natural-law-the-two-kingdoms-and-homosexual-marriage/.  Clark repeats this second table only position: “The early church knew nothing of theocracy. It was only after Constantine and after we began to have a privileged position (not immediately but over time) in society that we began to confuse the two kingdoms and expect the magistrate to enforce the first table.”  http://heidelblog.net/2011/03/more-on-theocracy/.   Regarding natural law vs. special revelation norming the magistrate, Clark has stated: “The cultural or civil sphere is normed by God’s general or natural revelation. Special revelation wasn’t given to norm cultural or civil life.” (heidelblog url no longer found, but text preserved).  Dr. Michael Horton asserted: “God secretly governs the nations just as He does the church, although He governs the former through natural law and common grace and latter through His Word written and preached.” The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way”, pp. 366-7, (Grand Rapids, 2011).  Dr. Darryl Hart has stated: “To expect the Bible to address the affairs of state is to apply the wrong standards.  We have general revelation to muck through the political realm.  We have the Bible to plod along in the church.”  http://greenbaggins.wordpress.com/2008/11/01/election-cycle-2008-and-the-christian/#comment-56987. With respect to the state advancing God’s kingdom, Horton has stated: The kingdom of God advances through the proclamation of the Gospel, not through the properly coercive powers of the state..” http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/tale-two-kingdoms/.  ;”.. it is certainly true that America is not a Christian nation and in any case Christians should not seek to promote distinctively Christian doctrines and practices through the properly coercive power of the state.” http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/page/3/?s=christian+culture.

[2] 1958 Acts of Synod, Christian Reformed Church, pp.174-177.  The full text of the RES Declaration and the grounds stated for adoption the revised Belgic 36 are found in the Appendix of this paper.

[3] In his written history of Belgic 36 cited in fn.1 above, Dr. Clark makes a remarkable claim that the United Reformed Churches have never adopted any particular version of Belgic 36.  If that were true, then all the officebearers in the history of the URC have been subscribing to the Three Forms of Unity, minus any particular version of Belgic 36.   Perhaps Dr. Clark might be prompted to read the first Acts of Synod of the United Reformed Churches when the URC adopted by incorporation the 1958 Belgic version found in the 1976 Psalter/Hymnal.

[4]  This highlighted substitute text is the language drafted and proposed by the GKN.   At the same time the 1958 Synod approved this GKN language, it removed the original objectionable phrase– “..and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and  false worship, that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed and the kingdom of Christ promoted.”  

[5] http://clark.wscal.edu/RevisionBelgic36.php

[6] 1958 Acts of Synod, Christian Reformed Church, p 28.

[7] Id., p. 178

[8] 1958 Acts of Synod, Christian Reformed Church, p 30.

[9] Id., p. 28.

[10] Id.



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