Banner of Truth
What is the function and the meaning of a confessional standard? We know the answer. It is the proclamation of the truth over against heresies which are a menace to that truth. A confession or a creed may never add anything to God's Word, and, summarizing what the Bible teaches with regards to particular issues, it must refute the teachings which stray from that truth. Does such a document only function inwardly? It is only intended for inside use, or does it also have something to say to outsiders?
I believe that the latter is the case. Christ has given the church the specific instruction to preach the gospel to all the peoples. That is an ongoing process. And also our Reformed churches may do that, and therefore they must do it. Evangelism is a constant calling. But when that has results, so that some show an interest, a summary, explanation and defense of the truth which is proclaimed is very useful. And even over against outright enemies of the sound doctrine it is necessary that this doctrine be confirmed and the slanderous errors rejected. The church does not have any doctrinal creeds which do not consider the outside world and are intended for internal use only. Christ has foretold his disciples that they would be dragged before kings and governors to bear testimony before them and the gentiles. And they need not worry about how they should speak, for what they were to say would be given to them in that hour (Matthew 10:18ff.). Of course they were not allowed to make that promise into a silk pillow on which to fall asleep. God's children must actively search the Scriptures as well as the confessions based thereon. Then they are truly capable of witnessing to those who are outside and who should repent and join the church. “Fear God and keep His commandments – all people are called upon to do that” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
Exhortation to Those Outside
The Canons of Dort contains a conclusion in which the Synod expressly addresses people outside the church. We read:
Wherefore, this Synod of Dort, in the name of the Lord, conjures as many as piously call upon the name of our Savior Jesus Christ to judge of the faith of the Reformed Churches, not from the calumnies which on every side are heaped upon it, nor from the private expressions of a few among ancient and modern teachers, often dishonestly quoted, or corrupted and wrested to a meaning quite foreign to their intention; but from the public confessions of the Churches themselves, and from this declaration of the orthodox doctrine, confirmed by the unanimous consent of all and each of the members of the whole Synod. Moreover, the Synod warns calumniators themselves to consider the terrible judgment of God which awaits them, for bearing false witness against the confessions of so many Churches; for distressing the consciences of the weak; and for labouring to render suspect the society of the truly faithful.
So it is clear: the official documents of the church contain a serious address to those who are outside.
Francis I and Calvin's Institutes
In 1534 the reformer John Calvin was an exile in Basel, where he began writing a book for the purpose of instructing Christians in the doctrine of the holy Scriptures. At that time he received word that Francis I, king of France, was planning to intensify the persecution of the French Protestants. However, the monarch had treaties with several German states where Protestants formed a majority. He did not want to lose those allies, but at the same time he wished to continue the persecution of the heretics with full strength. In order to achieve this, the French king, on February, 1535, ordered the preparation of a strong edict which he forwarded to the states of the German Empire. In it he claimed that the French Reformed were seditious extremists, who rejected all law and authority, people who were of the same persuasion as Thomas Munzer and his bent of Anabaptists, at whose hands the Germans had suffered so much.
When Calvin received that information, he was greatly shocked and most indignant. Immediately he set out to expose this slander. With even greater zeal he committed himself to the writing of his book, which he called Institutes of the Christian Religion, and he adapted the text, where necessary, to this broader purpose. Not only was the book intended to instruct the simple Christians, it was also to function as proof before King Francis I and other opponents that their accusations of the French Reformed people were altogether unfounded.
When the book was finished, Calvin sent it directly to the monarch and added a beautiful detailed letter to him. This was a marvellous document, probably the best ever produced by the reformer. In it he summarizes the contents of his apologetics and he disproves every one of the accusations. Since then this letter to King Francis I has been included in every edition of the Institutes that was ever published. So, also the Institutes is not just a book to teach the church members, but just as much a document directed to the outside world, even addressing the king of France.
Guido de Brès in Calvin's Line
In 1559 Calvin wrote a confession, the so-called Confessio Gallieana, which was adopted by the French Reformed Churches as an official creed. In this document he followed the same basic outline as in his Institutes. It is almost certain that Guido de Brès, who had fled from The Netherlands in 1556 to escape persecution, met John Calvin in Frankfurt am Main, Calvin's residence for a short while. Most likely he was informed of Calvin's intention to summarize the main elements of the Reformed doctrine. When the document was published in 1559, Guido de Brès – he had meanwhile returned to the Southern Netherlands – used it as his outline for the preparation of his own confessional paper, which so strongly resembles the Confessio Gallieana. That is how the Belgic Confession originated.
In the night of 1 to 2 November 1561, de Brès placed the confession document in a sealed parcel addressed to Philip II, King of Spain, and had it thrown over the wall of the Castle at Doornik. And in the same manner as Calvin had added to his Institutes a letter to King Francis I, so did de Brès add a letter to the king of Spain, Philip II. For also this monarch attempted to place the Reformed believers on the same level as the revolutionary Anabaptists. In this splendid letter of de Brès, as well as in the Belgic Confession itself (see Article 34 and Article 36), the doctrine and practices of the Anabaptists are powerfully opposed. Thus also the Belgic Confession is not only directed inwardly. It also professes to the outside world. That is the proper function of any confession:
So everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven.Matthew 10:32
The days of Calvin and de Brès was a time of great upheaval in church life and there was much confusion. The message of the true gospel touched many hearts, but there were also many heretics and sectarians who spread their teachings, and then there was the enormous opposition of the Church of Rome and of the governments which cooperated with Rome and threatened those who dared to join the Church of the Reformation with the heaviest penalties. It was then that quite a few people did not take that final step, for fear of persecution. Although they had already broken with Rome in their hearts, they wished to keep a low profile in the public eye, because an open Reformed witness was dangerous. “Nicodemites,” these people were called, with an allusion to Nicodemus, who, fearing the Jews, came to Jesus at night.
Also such people are addressed with a word of warning in the Belgic Confession. The Confession does not deny them the title “Christians,” but it does seriously admonish them that “…no person of whatever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church…” (Article 28). And a little further in the same article: “ … it is the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the Church, and to join themselves to this congregation, wheresoever God has established it, even though the magistrates and the edicts of princes were against it, yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment. Therefore, all those who separate themselves from the same or do not join themselves to it act contrary to the ordinance of God.”
Read What It States
Anyone who reads what it states can only conclude that in this article are addressed those believers who are (as yet) outside the Church. To them comes the call to join the true Church! That is, therefore, their calling, their task.
This matter has become an issue recently as the result of a conflict which took place in the Reformed Church of Grootegast, a place in The Netherlands. The local minister, the Rev. J. Hoorn, believed that outside the Reformed churches there are no people whom we may regard as true Christians. The majority of the consistory rejected this opinion and so did the classis, referring, among other things, to Article 28. A minority of the consistory, the minister and one elder, was not convinced and is of the opinion that Article 28 must be read completely differently. I quote from the March 12 issue of Nederlands Dagblad in which the positions of both parties were presented. There we read:
A minority of the consistory is of the opinion that neither the Scriptures nor the Confession attributes the name of true Christians to those who live outside the communion of the holy Catholic Church. That is also not done in Article 28. This article was not written – as is often claimed – with regards to believers outside the church, who would then be called upon to make the “proper church choice” by joining the true church. Article 28 is aimed especially at those who ARE members of the Church. The members are addressed here with the exhortation to join the church TRULY. In other words, in Article 28 is not at stake the address of the church, but our demeanor with respect to the church. “To join” means that we may not be dead members, who just come along for the free ride, but that we are living members whose joining the church is a continuous and uninterrupted activity. Article 28 provides the details as to how we must do this. And if we don't, we act against God's ordinances. For the Lord wants us together to form one community and show this to one another not only in words but also in deeds.
This minority builds its case on the conviction that Article 28 is not directed outwardly, but that it is aimed only at the members inside. I believe that this minority explanation forces the article to say something that is not there. In 1561 the issue at stake was very simply that the believers ran quite a risk by joining the Reformed churches. The consequence could be “death or any other corporal punishment.” And yet, the confession directs, it is the office, the calling, the duty of all believers, to join this assembly wherever God has called her. The issue of the church's address was plainly stated here: there and there you must report, notwithstanding edicts, prohibitions and dangers, and if you ignore that command, you act against God's ordinances. Those are heavy words. We must maintain them unchanged, also today when no one's life is in danger as a result of joining Christ's congregation somewhere. But the fact that there are Christians who do not join the church is not denied by the Confession.
Groen van Prinsterer
Groen van Prinsterer never joined the churches of the secession of 1834. One can bring all kinds of extenuating circumstances to the fore in order to explain that choice. One can point at his very brave and effective defence of the people of the secession. But the fact does not change: also he is included among those to whom the judgment of Article 28's concluding sentence applies. I believe that default has done damage to Groen van Prinsterer's unrelenting struggle for reformation in church, school, and political life. But would I dare to deny him the name of Christ-believer or count his labor as “useless” or “of little value”? Of course not. Grateful to God, we make use, even today, of the fruits of his labors.
But the true unity, the one for which Christ prayed, is served best if we take seriously what the church confesses about the church and if we don't force its articles to say things that are not there.