Can an Old Confession be Current?
Article 29 of the Belgic Confession
In Art 29 of the Belgic Confession, the Reformed doctrine speaks of the true and false church. Within the community of churches in the Netherlands this article has become a much discussed and even infamous topic. Many people urge us to place it in a museum of antiquities, and if that can’t be done because of church regulations or other difficulties, we are still expected to at least gradually forget about this article and not bother our children with it. If there is one part of the Belgic Confession that has outlived itself, then it surely is this bit of 16th century leftover.
The fact is, that at one point in history this portion of our Reformed confession was written as an aid to believers who wanted to join Christ’s church (the true church) wherever God establishes it (see Art 28). Art 29 also wants to make it clear that no person has the right to separate from Christ’s church. Furthermore it wants to convince us of the necessity to make careful decisions based on God’s Word in days of persecution, crisis and great distress. For we live in a world where Christ’s church is surrounded by deceit, poor guidance and confusion. When we need to make decisions and choices, we ought not to be delayed and diverted by irrelevant side issues. This would, for example, be the case when we would disregard the church of Christ because of its insignificance and invisibility (for example, underground churches in France). Or when the falsification of the church is not noticed because people are so in awe with the outer pomp and splendour of the Roman institute. The marks of the true and false church help the believers to discern clearly and to ask sound questions: Is the gospel of Christ’s grace taught? Are the sacraments administered as Christ instituted them? Is discipline exercised as a weapon against sin or as an instrument of human power display? Is the relationship with God recognizable in the lives of church members, in their knowledge of their misery, in their understanding of redemption and sanctification of life? In short, is the obedience to the Word of Christ – Christ’s easy yoke – recognizable in the lives of office bearers and other church members?
The marks of the church cannot be recognized upon neutral observation. They are only spiritually discernable and therefore are for the guidance of people who bow down to God’s Word, love the gospel of Christ and do not wish to wander off in days of distress.
Process and Dynamics
Dr. J. van Genderen spoke to us about the true church which can become a false church. This does not happen overnight, but eventually, through a process of degeneration. We have every reason to take to heart van Genderen’s words on the progressive character of degeneration and to consider its implications. In other words, we can and may not speak about the true and false church in a “static” fashion.
When we – following the words of Dr. K. Schilder – say that we are not allowed to speak about the marks of the church in a “static” fashion, which means, separated from the daily activities of the living Christ 1, then certainly the same applies to the issue of “true” and “false” church.
An example of dealing with both these issues in a “static” fashion: at the Reformation we were re-taught the confessional language of the church (after years of dominance by Kuyperian terminology: “pluriformity,” more or less “pure revelation of the body of Christ” etc.). We called on all believers to “come with us” and “to do as us” – without priding ourselves. On the contrary, we did it with “fear and trembling”, because we were speaking heavy words and realized we were called to do so. In faith we realized we were Christ’s church and we demonstrated this by calling ourselves “true church.” At the same time we had learned (mainly from K. Schilder), that it is not in line with the Reformed confession to speak of the “true church” in the plural sense. After all, God doesn’t want two churches of Christ side by side, at one and the same location. “We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church” (Art 27 BC).
When someone in this situation reasons as follows: a. there is only one true church; b. we are the true church; c. therefore, all other congregations at this location are “false churches;” they speak in a “static” fashion, both concerning themselves and the believers in other church formations. Undoubtedly he draws out an extremely clear and easy to use map, but he forgets one thing: the dynamics of Christ’s presence in a confused world, the active intervention of the living Lord of the church against the power of temptation and dispersion. Such a seemingly logical reasoner disregards the temporary character of each institute and apparently has no knowledge of Christ’s work in other institutes. Or maybe he thinks that Christ is tied to the route that he himself was taught over the years. This person actually speaks about an abstraction when he uses the words, “Christ’s Church” or “false church.” He brings forward a few terms which logically rule out one another. But he does not see the Head of the Church, nor does he pay attention to the work done by that Head. He also does not ask himself in what stage of process is the life of his own institute and that of other institutes.
True and False Church are Not Labels
The marks of the true and false church are not labels, handed out by a central office somewhere and, once acquired, to be applied by us so they will be inextricably attached to every institute that has received this treatment. The processional character of history – including church history and history of salvation – ought to make us humble, with regard to ourselves as well as other church institutes. Tomorrow the living Christ can bring about a reformation in an institute that we had already removed from our attention.
The false church begins with you and me, as soon as God leaves us alone to fend for ourselves. Being a church is not a result of good human qualities. Staying a church is also not something to take for granted. When someone does not understand these things, and yet talks about the church in the manner of the man in our example above on, he talks pointlessly while “he has lost connection with the Head.” (See Colossians 2:19).
The question arises whether in this perspective it is still meaningful or possible to keep using the confession as worded in Art 29. We can categorize without too much difficulty the differences between the Reformed and Roman Catholic Church under the terms “true” and “false.” “These two churches are easily recognized and distinguished from each other” (Art 29). Usually we also don’t have too many problems categorizing the sects from past and present times. However, it will probably not be as easy to label all the different “Reformed” churches. Therefore, if we assume that Art 29 is permanently current, we are still left with this pressing question: when can one in good conscience speak of a “false church?”
K. Schilder answered this question by stating that an institute becomes a false church when a yoke different from the one Christ gives becomes a basis, a standard, and a principle for the church assembly.2 (In addition to articles 28 and 29 he also referred to Art 32 of the BC) This is how the believers in the sixteenth century spoke with regard to Rome. And likewise it is how the believers at the time of the Secession in 1834 spoke with regard to the synod of the Dutch Reformed Church. This is also how the Act of Liberation spoke with regard to the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands (Synodical). In all these cases the final decisions, which consisted of acts of ex-communication, have been regarded as crucial course deciding factors (and as such the end of the process). 3
Dealing with such important characterizations in a non-“static” way also implies that we cannot keep statistics of them, or supply the appropriate labels from stock. Throughout history one constantly has to make new decisions, while realizing (and, in the case of a negative decision, also hoping) that each decision is as provisional as the church institute itself. The church, not blind to the developments within its circles and on guard for shifts and changes surrounding it, has chosen its own way – also since the beginning of the 19th century, when radical changes began to reveal themselves in the situation of church life.
Dealing with Article 29 of the BC
There is no doubt that at this point many readers ask themselves, now with renewed urgency, the question stated before: can it still be considered useful to insist on using the old confessional terms “true church” and “false church?” What is the use if at any given moment the configuration of the church can change? Are not both terms the result of our need for conceptional and logical reasoning, while there is never an actual reality that correlates to it? A century ago already this opinion was voiced by none other than Dr. H. Bavinck. He wrote that the “true church” in absolute sense cannot exist here on this earth, and that the same goes for the “false church.”4
“True” and “false” are, according to this philosophy, mostly concepts required by our reasoning intellect and not by actual facts and God’s revelation regarding these facts.
If this were the case, it would be wise for us to bring this type of terminology to a halt (and all quarrels and misunderstandings with it). Yet at the same time we would be robbing the Reformed confession of its strength and current character.
Of course it was known all too well in the 16th century, as it is today, that “there is not one church which completely lives up to the demand of God in all areas of doctrine and life, in preaching of the Word and sacraments” (Bavinck). Why else would they have fought so passionately for the preaching of “justification by faith alone?” The Reformers were not fanatical perfectionists. Also, with regard to the term “false church,” it is according to Bavinck a contradiction in terms. It cannot exist in absolute sense “since she would be church no longer.” “False church” in fact only applies to the Roman Catholic Church “in as far as it was pontifical.” Here again we are struck by the abstract way of reasoning. A false coin “in absolute sense” is indeed not a coin if we look at the term from a financial institute’s point of view. But this reasoning only takes into account one aspect of reality. Just like fraud represents an enormous reality directed against society, the same is the case with the “false church.” Temptation, appearances, and deception are kept alive in this world through her. As much as the “false prophet” in Jeremiah’s days represented a horrific practice and was definitely not regarded as a logical absurdity separate from the reality of people’s lives, in the same way this will not be the case with the false prophesy about which our Lord speaks to us in his Revelation to John. A logical contradiction – because a false prophet “in absolute sense” is no longer a prophet? Wishful thinking! The appearance of “the false prophet” will be a bizarre, but definitely not an unappealing event and exactly because of that, it will represent a terrible reality. It has been revealed to us so that we can be on our guard! In the same sense the apostle spoke to us about the “logical” unreality and the tangible, real functionality of the “so-called gods,” which are in the world (1 Corinthians 8:4-6).
Not even the argument brought forward by Bavinck concerning the “false church,” which argues that remnants of Christ’s church can be found within the false church, can hold water in this case. In this regard G. Visee has correctly said the following: “the place of origin of the Roman Catholic Church is not Mecca, but Jerusalem.” Even in the false church this truth can be found.
Confession – a Human Pretence?
When faithful children of God gather under the authority of God’s Word, recognizing Christ’s presence through the Holy Spirit (according to Matthew 18:20 and 28:20), and they speak as follows: “we are here together as church of Christ, as his catholic church on location,” they speak correctly. These are words born from thankful discernment of Christ’s church-gathering work. This is what is meant by these words: we know that we are the true church. This is the way in which the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated) have expressed their love for the confessional language since 1944. However, in my opinion they have missed (or at least seriously underestimated) the point that the expression “true church” is no longer understood. Over a period of at least one century the actual meaning of this confessional expression has changed in such a way that people around us now believe this phrase to have the meaning of “perfect church.” As we saw earlier on, H. Bavinck actively supported this.
As a result, people around us cannot help but regard the people in the Reformed Churches (Liberated) as arrogant and self-assured people. We don’t even want to mention the fact that many members of this church often have substantiated this opinion because of “static” reasoning, as in the example earlier on in this article. It would do the members of the Reformed Churches (Liberated) well if they kept this in mind and endeavoured to avoid possible misunderstanding all together.
In this context I would also like to ask our critical readers the following question: what in fact would happen if a number of faithful children of God would gather for a worship service and they expressed (possibly explicitly) that they do not present themselves as the church of Christ on location, and that they seriously do not believe (and nobody ought to second guess them on this point) that all believers and outsiders have the obligation to join them, because they do not possess these types of pretensions and conceit? In that case the believers are ashamed of their own name: church of Christ. They prepare themselves for the number one heresy of our century: everyone’s choice ought to be respected in a tolerant, pluralistic society. Even in church matters the customer is always right. Clients and customers have their own inalienable rights and the churches would be wise to approach the people with good sale offers and compelling window displays, for otherwise the potential buyers will go to the competition instead. Nowadays we call this “religion-shopping.” It is not accidentally an American product. It is a brightly coloured and revealing word. It shows us that religious individualism and denominational classification bring their own mottos. Not God’s choice, but our preference constitutes the gathering of the congregation. Because “religion-shopping” and “denomination” as such are arch-nemesis of the catholicity of Christ’s church, they are both driving forces behind the falsification of the church.
“Confession” of the Church and “Ideas” of the People
“The true church idea has caused a lot of damage.” This statement from the mouth of J. Douma was publicized in large print recently in the Dutch newspaper Nederlands Dagblad (Aug 5, 1994). We counterbalance this idea with the “true church” confession. The true church confession has for centuries already made known to the congregation its own nature. It has tried to make the congregation aware of the great disaster of falsification. The opinion (held by H. Bavinck and many others) that there is no such thing as a “true church” in absolute sense, is just as much a human view point that has caused a horrendous amount of damage to the faith in Christ’s church: her qualities and her marks. In the end, Bavinck’s description is also no more than a “true church idea” that cannot be reconciled with the intentions of the Reformers. For they knew all too well that even the true church of Christ shows merely a beginning of the new obedience, and furthermore that throughout the centuries there have been wolves inside and sheep outside of the fold.
Human ideas concerning this confession are apparently capable of growing quickly into ideologies to the “right” and to the “left” (see 2 Corinthians 6:7). It is wise to pay attention to this and to take it into account.
But all this cannot warrant the removal of the confession’s function to witness the truth and be a weapon against falsification. In that sense the confession has definitively not aged. On the contrary, it will more and more prove its contemporary truth in an enchanted world filled with the appearances of godliness (2 Timothy 3:5 and 4:3, etc.).