Several of the most distinctive features of the Reformed doctrine of the church and sacraments receive special notice in this Confession. The holy catholic church is the “assembly of those who are saved, and outside of it there is no salvation” (Art. 28). The “marks of the true church” are identified as the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments instituted by Christ, and the exercise of church discipline. The government of the church is based upon the teaching of Scripture and requires the appointment of three kinds of church officers: ministers of the Word, elders, and deacons, who together comprise the “council” of the church.
Philip Schaff, the venerable historian of the church and her confessions, once observed that the Belgic Confession is “upon the whole, the best symbolical statement of the Calvinistic system of doctrine, with the exception of the Westminster Confession.” This Confession is known most commonly as the “Belgic” confession because it emerged from the French-speaking Reformed churches in the southern “Lowlands” or “Nether-lands” (now Belgium). It has served historically as one of the three confessional symbols of the Dutch Reformed churches. Affection for this confession among these churches stems as much from the poignant circumstances suffered by its original author and subscribers as from its rich statement of the Reformed faith.
Background and Setting
The Belgic Confession was originally written by a French-speaking, Reformed pastor, Guido de Bres (pronounced Gee-doe de Bray), who had been a student of Calvin’s in Geneva. Though the principal author of the Belgic Confession, other Reformed pastors and theologians, including Francis Junius, who was later to become a well-known Reformed professor at the University of Leiden, contributed to the final, received form of the Confession. First written in 1561, copies of the Confession were sent to Geneva and other Reformed churches for approval. The present form of the Confession stems from the time of the great Synod of Dort in 1618-19, when the text was revised and officially approved in four languages (the original French, Latin, Dutch and German).
In the face of intense persecution by Phillip II of Spain, Guido de Bres and Reformed believers in the Netherlands were eager to show that their faith was in accord with the teaching of Holy Scripture and the ancient consensus of the holy catholic church and her councils. Consequently, the Belgic Confession has an irenic tone throughout, especially in its careful demonstration of the Reformed faith’s commitment to the great biblical doctrines of the Trinity, as well as the Person and work of Christ. Roman Catholic teaching is rejected at critical points, but the aim of the Confession is to persuade its readers that the Reformed faith is nothing other than the historic faith of the Christian church.
Another purpose of the confession, which distinguishes it from the French or Gallican Confession of 1559 with which the Belgic Confession shares many striking similarities, was to demonstrate that the Reformed faith was distinct from that of the “Anabaptists.” Among the Anabaptists, who had considerable influence in the Netherlands in the early period of the Reformation, there were those who not only rejected the practice of infant baptism but also the legitimacy of the civil magistrate as a servant of God. The Anabaptists sharply distinguished Christ’s spiritual kingdom, the church, from the civil order, and advocated a strict separation from the world, which required a refusal of military service, the taking of oaths and the paying of taxes. The Belgic Confession was also written, therefore, to defend the Reformed faith against the suspicion that it embraced these features of the radical Reformation.