At the end of yesterday’s installment, Dr. Praamsma reminded us that attacks on the reliability of Scripture are nothing new. Men such as Celsus and Julian the Apostate did everything they could to undermine the Word of God. Today, as he continues, Dr. Praamsma briefly discusses how these challenges were met by Augustine and, later in history, by Abraham Kuyper.
How Augustine Met It
The great church father Augustine was, before his conversion, vexed by this same problem which he could not solve. In the New Testament, Christ was introduced by long and contradictory genealogies.
It is remarkable that although before his conversion Augustine was beset by intellectual doubts, after his conversion he believed the whole Bible as it was written. “For Augustine, the Bible was the only truly reliable history book, because it was not written by men alone and because the choice of what is significant had been correctly made” (P. Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 322).
“Augustine teaches that, if we think we see a contradiction in Scripture, we may not say that the author was mistaken. There may be a defect in the manuscript or the translation is not correct or we don’t understand the right meaning” (A.D.R. Polman, “Augustine” in Christelijke Encyclopedie, 1:382).
Augustine was moved by the Spirit to accept the Word of the Spirit without making objections. He did not even object against the “discrepancy” between Matt. 27:7 and Acts 1:18. The different versions of Judas’ death were not first discovered by theologians of our time; they have always been recognized. Augustine found the obvious solution, writing: “He fastened a rope round his neck and, falling on his face, burst asunder in the midst” (Against Felix the Manichean, I.4).
Busken Huet versus Kuyper
Dr. Boer wrote differing Bible passages in two columns. A man who did about the same was the nineteenth-century minister Conrad Busken Huet. In letters (not columns) written to a lady friend, he tried to make clear the incontestable incompatibility of several comparable parts of the Bible (Brieven over de Bijbel).
Thirteen years afterward Busken Huet wrote scathing words at the address of a young minister who had dared to attack Modernism and who had taken a firm stand in favour of an unqualified belief in all the facts and figures of the Bible (Litterarische Fantasieen and Kritieken XV, 167). That young minister was Abraham Kuyper and Busken Huet wrote about him that he was a courageous man but also a man behind the times. Science had proven that orthodoxy was untenable.
But what was the special feature of the stand made by Abraham Kuyper? It was the fact that he was a converted man; he had harboured the same doubts. At one time he’d had the same reverence for the power of modern science as shown by Busken Huet; he had applauded when one of his professors had dared to say that modern man cannot believe any more that Jesus was physically raised from the dead. But the almighty hand of God had changed his heart and now he believed like a child all the words of God revealed in the Bible, as true and without error. This is what he wrote: “Each of the writers [of the Bible] was so moved and directed by the Holy Spirit that the page of Scripture which, after pencil and pen had been laid aside, lay before him, was as unalterably written down as though it had originated in an immediate divine creation.” He added: “The Scripture is God’s Word, both as a whole and in its parts” and “Hence it was a verbal inspiration, not mechanically by whispering into the outward ear, but organically by calling forth the words from man’s own consciousness. That means: by employing all those words that were on hand in the spiritual senses of the writer” (In Kuyper’s speech, “De hedendaagsche Schriftcritiek in hare bedenkelijke strekking voor de Gemeente des levenden”).
The point is not that the great theologian Abraham Kuyper wrote these words, but that the converted Christian Abraham Kuyper did so. Much as Augustine had done, he had been forced to conquer all the intellectual objections of his age to which his own heart had responded. He had accepted the Bible as it was and is, the infallible Word of God. His wisdom appears in the four caveats which he adds to this lecture:
We don’t have the original manuscripts.
Scripture is not the book of a notary, but the work of a heavenly Artist who paints with a diversity of colours.
If passages of Scripture seem to be contradictory, they should be brought into harmony in a spiritual way, not artificially.
If there remain baffling problems (cruces), I should confess my ignorance.
There is an overture circulating in the Canadian Reformed Churches which proposes a change to article 14 of the Belgic Confession (you can find it here). The change is intended to address theistic evolution. The hope is that this overture will find its way to the table of General Synod 2016. My purpose in this article is not to defend the overture as such. Instead, I want to tackle the broader question of whether the Belgic Confession may be changed. Upon first reading this overture, some readers will instinctively recoil at the idea. To address that reaction, in this article I will review some of the substantial changes that have already taken place in the 454 year history of the Confession. We’ll briefly consider some of the differences that currently exist between the CanRC edition of the Belgic Confession and the editions used by other Reformed Churches. Finally, we will hear some voices from the past about the possibility or desirability of making changes to our confessions.
Changes Prior to 1944
When the Belgic Confession was first written in 1561 it still needed a lot of refining. The Reformed churches of the Low Countries had put much effort into producing their confession, but the atmosphere of persecution meant that initial collaboration was minimal. The original format of the Confession was rough and in need of some editorial work. A synod was held in Antwerp in 1566. This synod made many changes to the Belgic Confession. Some of the changes were merely editorial – the synod pared down some of the original wordiness of the Confession and also deleted at least one witty remark from Guido de Brès. But there were also several substantial changes made.
For example, Synod Antwerp 1566 revised article 5 to add a third function of Scripture: “confirming of our faith.” “Proceeding from the Father and the Son” was added to article 8. In article 16, the statement “the fall into which they had fallen” was replaced with “the fall into which they had thrown themselves.” Article 36 saw many changes at this Synod and one of the most substantial was the addition of an explicit renunciation of the Anabaptists.
For the next 53 years, the text of the Confession remained relatively static. However, with the Synod of Dort of 1618-19 we again see some substantial changes. We often associate the Synod of Dort only with the Canons of Dort. The reality is that this Synod also made some significant changes to the Belgic Confession.
As a result of objections made by the Arminians, changes were made to many of the articles, many either cosmetic in nature or related to formulations. However, there were also more weighty changes. For example, the attribute “almighty” was added to article 1. God’s preservation was added to article 2, as were the words “more clearly and fully.” One of the most significant revisions was made in article 22 in response to a theological controversy over the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. In Reformed orthodoxy, we believe that when Jesus Christ was obedient to God’s law when he lived on this earth, he did it in our place. His obedience is credited to our accounts before God. The German theologian Johannes Piscator had denied this. His teaching on this point had already been condemned and ruled unorthodox by the French Reformed churches and the English. The Synod of Dort followed suit by adding these words (in bold ) to article 22, “…and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.” This change made it clear that the imputation of the active obedience of Christ was (and is) the doctrine of the Reformed churches. One is not permitted to deny this doctrine.
Finally, we should note a substantial change made in more recent times. At the Synod of Utrecht 1905, a group of theologians (including Abraham Kuyper) proposed a change to article 36 so that this article would better conform to biblical teaching about the civil government. As a result, these words were deleted: “all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed.” Since then these words have often been relegated to a footnote in most editions of the Belgic Confession, including ours.
At Synod 1983, a new English edition of the Belgic Confession was adopted by the Canadian Reformed Churches. This edition featured many departures from previous editions. As in previous times, some of the changes were merely cosmetic, fixing up the wording here, or a formulation there. However, there were also several changes made that were more substantial. In fact, Synod 1983 considered these changes to be of such a weight that “the churches abroad” should be informed. Let’s briefly note just three of those changes.
In article 1, the words “which we call God” were deleted since it was felt that we do not call him “God” on our own initiative. Paul was no longer to be recognized as the author of Hebrews in article 4 and the book of Lamentations in that same article was to be mentioned as a separate book (previously it was included as part of Jeremiah). Article 9 saw several changes, including “always been maintained in” becoming “always been maintained and preserved.”
As a result of Synod 1983, the Canadian Reformed Churches have a faithful and elegant rendition of the Belgic Confession, but one that differs substantially in several places from editions used in other churches.
Other Reformed Changes
Our churches are not the only ones who have made changes to the Belgic Confession over the years. There are several significant differences that exist in the editions of the Belgic Confession held by our sister churches and others. Let me give two examples.
The first is with what the RCUS did with article 15. Our edition says regarding original sin: “It is not abolished nor eradicated even by baptism, for sin continually streams forth like water welling up from this woeful source.” However, the edition of the RCUS says (bold added): “Nor is it altogether abolished or wholly eradicated even by regeneration; since sin always issues forth from this woeful source, as water from a fountain…” “Baptism” has been replaced by “regeneration.” It is not immediately clear why this change was made. The change has no basis in the original 1561 text, in the French or Dutch texts adopted by the Synod of Dort, or in the Latin text commissioned by Dort.
The second example is found not only with the RCUS, but also with the URCNA, FRCNA and others. In article 29, our CanRC edition reads regarding the true church, “It practices the pure preaching of the gospel…” Most other English editions read (bold added), “If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein…” The word “therein” did not appear in the original Belgic Confession of 1561. It also never appears in any subsequent French, Dutch, or Latin editions. “Therein” seems appear out of thin air in the English edition adopted by the Reformed Dutch Church in the United States of America (now known as the Reformed Church of America) in 1792. It has remained with most English versions ever since. Why or how it was originally added is unclear. What is clear is that this word became a substantial issue later on in debates about the missionary relevance of the Belgic Confession in the Christian Reformed Church. Some argued that this word gives the impression that the preaching of the gospel is only meant for inside the church.
What have those who have gone before us said about this matter of changing the confessions? Above we already noted Dr. Abraham Kuyper’s involvement in making a substantial change to article 36. From his involvement in that endeavour, we can draw the conclusion that he was not averse to making changes he thought were necessary. However, Kuyper is often portrayed as a villain in our tellings of church history, so perhaps some would not be so impressed with his take on this. Then let’s turn to one often portrayed as a hero in our tellings of church history: Dr. Klaas Schilder. He said, “Every confession is capable of being revised. Of course, not every three years. It is a sign of impotence that we are still unable to do that. We have clung too much to traditions and had too little opportunity for study.” For Schilder too, revision of the Confession, whether by addition or subtraction, could not be automatically ruled out. In fact, remarkably, he described the inability to do it as impotence.
As for Canadian Reformed theologians, we could turn to the late Dr. Jelle Faber. Dr. Faber was a student of Schilder and perhaps had learned something from him on this. In a 1979 Clarion article, Faber discussed article 36 of the Confession. He concluded (bold added), “Let us not return to 1561; let us also not undo the decision of 1905 – as some of our Dutch brothers propose – but let us rewrite the entire third passage of Article 36 of our Belgic Confession.” Some twenty years later, Faber was speaking along similar lines: “The Canadian Reformed Churches have modernized the English text and in the course of this process they have even made some changes in the content of the confessions.” Of course Faber would say this – he was personally involved with making all of those changes. He was on the committee that produced the revised Belgic Confession for Synod 1983. Therefore, we can conclude that also the esteemed Dr. Faber was not opposed in principle or practice to making changes to the Belgic Confession.
The case is solid that Reformed churches and theologians have never regarded the Belgic Confession to be an historical document that may never be changed. In fact, many changes have been made for several reasons, including as a response to serious doctrinal error. The Confession has never been a static document. What we call the Belgic Confession in our Book of Praise is not exactly the Belgic Confession that was written by Guido de Brès in 1561. It is not even a translation of the 1561 Confession – rather, it is what we call an edition. Like it or not, the fact is that we already have a Canadian Reformed edition of the Belgic Confession.
Moreover, we have sister churches who have their own different editions of the Confession. They have either made their own changes or not followed the changes we made. This has never proven to be any difficulty in our relationship with these churches – we can be confident that changing article 14 would not break this pattern. In fact, given the strong stand of some of our sister churches (RCUS and URCNA) on the issue of origins, we might expect that this proposed change would rather be encouraged and welcomed. At Classis Ontario West of March 11, 2015, fraternal delegates from the OPC, URCNA, and RCUS actually encouraged our churches to take this kind of action against the doctrinal error we’re facing.
We have always said that only the Word of God is infallible, inerrant, and unchangeable. In principle, we have always maintained that the confessions are man-made documents bearing ecclesiastical authority. The confessions of the church need to reflect the teaching of the Word of God in ways that are relevant to the life of the church today. If there is an obvious need to make a change, the change can and must be made.
So the question is not: can we make any changes to the Belgic Confession? History is full of instances where changes have been made, both by ourselves and others. History provides instances where our theologians have argued for changes. The question really becomes: is a particular issue of such weight and significance that a change should or even must be made to the Confession? That is the question our churches need to be considering today as they discuss this particular proposal.
 In article 34 on baptism, de Brès wrote of how it profits us not just once, but through our whole life. The original Belgic Confession added, “otherwise we would always need to have our heads in the water.”
 For documentation of all these changes and more, see Nicolaas H. Gootjes, The Belgic Confession: Its History and Sources (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 122-131.