The Doctrinal Approach of the Belgic Confession

As a creed the Belgic Confession is doctrinal. It is a book of doctrine. The doctrine of the Belgic Confession is the doctrine of the word of God. Scripture is a doctrinal book. It is the revelation of the truth of God in Jesus Christ and contains all that is necessary for the believer’s faith and life. Each doctrine of Scripture is revealed throughout the Bible. For instance God reveals the truth of creation not only in Genesis 1 and 2, but also in the Law of Moses, in the book of Isaiah, and other places in Scripture. The doctrine of creation in the Belgic Confession takes all those passages together and summarizes what God’s word teaches. The Belgic Confession does the same with the rest of the doctrines. It draws together the truth of some doctrine from all of Scripture and summarizes that teaching. 

The Reformed churches confess about the Belgic Confession in the Formula of Subscription, “That all the articles and points of doctrine…do fully agree with the Word of God.” The Formula of Subscription is found in the back of The Psalter. It is a promise that every officebearer makes about the creeds. Because the creeds “fully agree” with the word of God the officebearer promises to teach and defend that doctrine and not to contradict it in any way. Because the Belgic Confession is the doctrine of Scripture it contains the truth that a believer must know for his comfort and salvation. 

The Belgic Confession organizes the doctrine according to the ancient division of doctrine known as the six loci of Reformed doctrine. The Latin word loci is the plural of locus. That word means a topic. There are six main topics of Reformed doctrine. The Belgic Confession treats all the main doctrines of the Reformed faith under six topics. Organizing the doctrine in this way the Belgic Confession is different from the Heidelberg Catechism which develops Reformed doctrine under the theme of comfort. Being a nearly complete treatment of doctrine, the Belgic Confession is different from the Canons of Dordrecht, which focus narrowly on the truth of salvation. Because of its completeness and the way that the Belgic Confession organizes the doctrine it is called a systematic creed. 

The first topic is theology, of the study of the doctrine of God. Sometimes the word theology refers to the study of doctrine generally. All of doctrine is the study of God even when the subject is creation, man, the church, or salvation because all of creation, time and history, man, salvation, the church, and then finally the end of all things are the works of God. But in the topic of theology the church studies God himself as he revealed himself in Scripture. Central to the confession of the truth of God in the Confession is that God is triune. This doctrine takes up the majority of the Belgic Confession’s section on theology. The Belgic confession treats this doctrine in Articles 811. 

The second subject is anthropology, or the study of man. This includes the truth of the creation of the world, the creation of man, the fall, man’s total depravity, and God’s providential government of the world. The Belgic Confession explains this in Articles 1215. The Belgic Confession’s explanation of man’s total depravity and absolute inability to do or to will the good was central to the Reformed faith’s controversy with Rome. Rome taught that man has a free will. That man is totally depraved is basic to the confession that salvation is all of grace and all the work of God. The condition of the man whom God saves by grace is hopeless, and his salvation is wholly a wonder of grace in which God raises the dead. 

The third topic is Christology, or the study of Christ. This is the beginning of the Belgic Confession’s treatment of the wonderful work of God’s grace to save his people from their sins. The Belgic Confession explains the truth about Christ in Articles 1621. The Belgic Confession appropriately begins this subject with an article on election. That teaches that Christ himself was not an afterthought by God, but God created all things and controlled the fall of man into sin in order to reveal his saving grace in Christ. Further, the Belgic Confession begins with election to impress on us that the whole work of salvation must be understood in relationship to election. Election is the fountain of every saving good. God saves those and those only who are appointed to salvation. The Belgic Confession has only the barest confession regarding election and reprobation. The fuller confession of the doctrine is found in the Canons of Dordrecht. 

The fourth topic is soteriology or the study of salvation. We must understand the word salvation to mean the application to the elect by the work of the Holy Spirit of all the benefits that Christ merited on the cross. Christ also saved his people at the cross. At the cross he fully accomplished salvation for his elect as the Belgic Confession says in Article 21, “this only sacrifice, once offered, by which believers are made perfect forever.” That salvation accomplished by Christ must come into the possession of God’s elect people. This is the truth of soteriology. The Belgic Confession explains this doctrine in Articles 2226. 

The fifth subject of doctrine is ecclesiology, or the study of the church. This is the largest section in the Belgic Confession taking up nearly a quarter of its entire length. In addition to the serious controversy that the Reformed churches had with Rome over the matter of salvation, they had a closely related controversy over the doctrine of the church. Rome taught that the institute of Rome was the only church and denied that the church is the elect body of Christ. Rome was a hierarchy ruled from the top down by the pope and she denied the office of all believer and the equality of local churches and officebearers. Rome’s false doctrine of the church was the toxic environment conducive to the flourishing of Rome’s false doctrine about salvation. Hierarchy and heresy are close friends. 

The Belgic Confession explains the truth of the church in Articles 2736. Central to the Belgic Confession’s doctrine of the church is the confession that the church is the company of the predestinated, the elect body of Christ. This church of Christ is manifested in local true churches of Jesus Christ ruled by elected office bearers—not popes, bishops, and priests, but ministers, elders, and deacons. The Belgic Confession maintains that outside of membership in a true church of Jesus Christ in the world there is no salvation. 

A bit strange to us the Belgic Confession includes the doctrine about civil government in the section on the church. The Reformers nearly to a man taught that it was the duty of the government to establish the true church in the world. With this teaching of the Belgic Confession—and only this teaching—we may disagree because early in the 20th century the Reformed churches attached a footnote to the Belgic Confession disagreeing with this point. This also teaches us that while the creeds teach the doctrine that is binding on the Reformed believer they are always subject to the test of Scripture and may be changed if the churches deem that necessary. 

The sixth topic is eschatology or the study of the end times. The Belgic Confession treats this in article 37. The doctrine of the end times was not well developed at the time of the Reformation. The main point that the Reformation recovered about the end of the world and the coming of Christ is that the coming of Christ is the object of the believers hope. Because of its false doctrine of works righteousness Rome made the coming of Christ the object of terror for the believer. False doctrine about salvation that makes salvation partly the work of man always destroys comfort, assurance, and hope. When the Reformation recovered the truth that salvation is all of God’s grace, it also returned to the believer his comfort, assurance, and hope, especially over against the grand events of the coming of Christ and the final judgment. Though its treatment of the subject is brief the Belgic Confession’s single article contains all the basic truths about the end of the world and impresses on us to look forward to that day in hope and pray ardently for the quick coming of Christ. 

Beginning the creed there is also a section on the knowledge of God including a large explanation of the Scripture. The Belgic Confession teaches the truth that is essential for all theology: God is knowable. God is known to us because he has revealed himself. Without the act of God to make himself known to us there would be no knowledge of God and no theology. God makes himself known in creation. This revelation of God is incomplete because it lacks Christ. This revelation of God does not give saving knowledge of God. God purposes by this revelation to leave man without excuse for his idolatry, unthankfulness, and failure to worship God. The full, complete, and saving revelation of God is Jesus Christ. We know him from the sacred Scripture. The Bible is the only source of all right doctrine and true knowledge of God. 

The form of the Belgic Confession teaches that the truth of Scripture must be systematized. That means that the truths that Scripture reveals must be organized in a logical fashion. The truth of God can be systematized because it is logical and does not contain any contradictions. This idea about the truth of Scripture is attacked. Today the thinking is that the truth is paradoxical. What is meant by paradoxical is not an apparent contradiction which can and must be resolved, but that the truth is entirely contradictory. So it is taught as profound theology that God loves and desires to save all men and there is election and reprobation, that God is three Persons and one Person, or that the Three Persons of the Trinity are all coequal and the Son is subordinate to the Father and the Spirit subordinate to the Son. These are irresolvable contradictions. Such contradictions make the truth of God unknowable. If in the field of mathematics 2+2=4 and 2+2=6, then the truth of what 2+2 equals is unknowable. When this is done in theology, God is rendered unknowable. In churches where these contradictions are taught, the knowledge of God is taken away to the destruction of faith and godliness. The Belgic Confession teaches in its very structure that the truth is one harmonious whole without contradictions. The truth can and must be arranged logically. By means of this logical structure, God is known more and more by the believer. 

Its doctrinal content and order are the beauty and the glory of the Belgic Confession as a creed. It teaches the knowledge of God in his Son Jesus Christ, whom to know is life eternal (John 17:3). There is no grander subject that the believing young person can study than the theology of the Belgic Confession. Its doctrine is the truth of God as revealed in the sacred scripture for our faith, salvation, and comfort. 

Originally published in: Vol. 78 No. 10