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Blogging the Belgic (Intro)

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Many people think that confessions of faith and theological documents emerge from ivory towers in the midst of peace and tranquility, existing only for the intellectual stimulation of geeky theologians, but this is not true, especially in regards to the document that we know today as the Belgic Confession, which was first written in 1561 (it was revised and updated in 1566 and 1619 to the form that we have today). It emerged from an area known as the southern Netherlands (present day Belgium) in the midst of religious persecution in the middle of the 16th century; those who were found to possess a copy of it would have it confiscated and burned (so very few early copies remain). People found to hold these beliefs could face punishment; one hundred thousand Netherlanders died for their faith in this period (more martyrs than in the first 3 centuries of the church!). It was written not as mere mental stimulation, but as a way to explain to the king and other leaders what it was that these Reformed Christians believed, showing that it was in line with what the Bible teaches (and the early church taught) and that they were not rebel-rousers but actually faithful citizens working for the good of the land. At one point, it was sent to the king (actually thrown over a wall!) with a letter calling for toleration of this church and its beliefs, but also stating that those who held to this document were willing to suffer and die for their beliefs in obedience and emulation of their crucified Lord. It was not just for the king, though, as it was also designed to help these Christians be able to give an account for the hope that they had (as we are told to be ready to do in 1 Peter 3:15), so the people of the church would be able to explain their faith in the midst of this turbulent time.

The document itself, originally written in French (the language of the land), is anonymous, not listing any author, but historical research shows that the primary author of the document was Guido de Bres, who was a pastor who had come to faith in the midst of the persecution. De Bres knew the high cost of faith (the minister who served before him in the town of Lille had been burned at the stake!) and experienced persecution himself, as he had to flee his land at times (including after this document was written, leaving behind all his possessions — even his books!) and would be executed for his faith in 1567 (450 years ago on May 31), just a few years after the document was written. He seems to have written the document and shown it to others for improvements and approval. Although de Bres wrote this document, he did not create it from scratch, showing that the ideas in this document were not novel or new; the Belgic Confession is heavily influenced by the Gallican Confession, which was a confession of faith and beliefs written a few years earlier in France and heavily influenced by the church leader John Calvin who ministered in Geneva, Switzerland. Why did de Bres and others write a new one if others were out there? Likely because they believed that the people of the land needed their own confession to really show that their faith was not the imposition of the French but from their own conviction. That said, it was not substantially different from the other confessions.

While de Bres wrote it, it was not on his authority that it became an important document for the church. Leaders from the churches in the land saw it was a great summation of their beliefs and it was adopted as the statement of faith for the church in the land – and because the Christian faith does not change, the Reformed church continues to see this document as a summation of what Scripture (the Bible) teaches us about God, his world, and how we are to live in this world. Every minister in the church had to sign that these are the truths that he believes and will teach. Above all, it is important to know that this document is not on par with the Bible, but that it seeks to organize what the Bible teaches in regards to certain areas since the Bible is essentially a story rather than a treatise of belief. It is not complete in every area of belief, as it was written by fallible humans, but we believe that what it teaches reflects the Bible.

I share this background to show that the the Belgic Confession features truths that transform and truths that Guido de Bres and many others believed were doctrines to die for. The original title page describes it as the beliefs of “those who seek to live in accordance with the gospel,” showing that these beliefs are not just intellectual things to know but are connected to gospel living. Therefore, they are worth examining (which we will start to do next week, Lord willing, with article 1). The existence of the document itself should also be a great reminder to us all that we must be willing to deny ourselves and follow Christ no matter that cost; de Bres and the early readers of this document show us a model of that, for which we should be thankful.

Questions about Bible or theology, e-mail them to Pastor Brian at Theology@wearefaith.org. You can also subscribe by filling out the info on the right side.

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