For the Cause of the Son of God-3

The Missionary Significance of the
Belgic Confession

by Dr. Wesley L. Bredenhof

ISBN 9 780977 344253
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For the Cause of the Son of God


Book Description
Table of Contents
Biography on Wesley Lloyd Bredenhof
Introduction to this book.
Introduction to Reformed Mission History Series
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This book was originally written as a Th.D. dissertation for Reformation International Theological Seminary.  The project was conceived when I was serving as a missionary in the north-central region of the Canadian province of British Columbia.  During and after my seminary studies, I had a special interest in three areas of research:  the Belgic Confession, church history, and missiology.  I was interested in writing a thesis that would bring these three areas together. 

Right from the beginning, I was convinced that it had to focus on the significance of the Belgic Confession for the study and practice of mission.  There were three phenomena that I observed that led me in that direction.  First, in my church federation (the Canadian Reformed Churches) there was and is a growing emphasis on the importance of missionary outreach/evangelism.  Of course, this is a development to be welcomed and encouraged!  Second, there are a number of people in my federation who view the confessions of the church as a liability.  They are a minority, but they also tend to be the ones who place a lot of stock in mission.  Third, there is a notion among some Reformed folk (including among some in my own federation) that being missionary-minded and being confessional are to some degree antithetical.  It almost seems to be a given that you cannot be a missionary and love the Reformed confessions – and a Reformed missionary is certainly not going to use the Reformed confessions in any kind of conspicuous way. 

Given these three phenomena, I concluded that it would not be long before someone comes along and lays our past lukewarmness about mission at the feet of the Belgic Confession.  Why the Belgic Confession in particular?  Because it is the preeminent defining confession in the Three Forms of Unity.  The Heidelberg Catechism is primarily a teaching confession, focussed on teaching some key points of Christian doctrine.  The Canons of Dort are a primarily a polemical confession, focussed on refuting the Remonstrants and explaining further the doctrines of grace found in the other two confessions.  Even if individuals are not familiar with these categories, if there is a problem to be found with the confessions and mission, the blame will intuitively be laid at the feet of our defining symbol, the Belgic Confession.  This book is therefore a pre-emptive effort to address those who might be tempted to see the Belgic Confession as a hindrance for the mission of the church to reach the lost with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let me also say something here to my Presbyterian brothers and sisters.  You are more familiar with the Westminster Standards than the Three Forms of Unity.  That is to be expected – of course, the situation is reversed for me.  However, I am familiar enough with the Westminster Standards to be able to say that I think this study may have interest and relevance for you as well.  It is true that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms emerged from a completely different context than the Belgic Confession.  Peace and stability allowed a group of theologians to work on these confessional standards for several years in the 1640s.  The Belgic Confession, as will be elaborated upon in chapter 3, comes out of the fires of persecution and an unsettled ecclesiastical world.  Nevertheless, it may be said that the faith expressed in the Westminster Standards is largely that found in the Belgic Confession.  Of course, the Westminster Standards are much later and so one can expect to see further theological developments, but at the roots, both share a common confessional heritage.  So, for instance, some of what is said about article 36 of the Belgic Confession in chapter 5 can be applied also to what the Westminster Confession affirms in chapter 23.3 (particularly in the original unaltered text). 

Unfortunately, very little has been written on the missiological significance of the Westminster Standards.  In his brief missiological study of WCF 14, Valdeci Santos did not identify any other works, other than to mention some comments of B. B. Warfield on the 1903 American revision of the WCF.  Warfield affirmed that “the Confession, as it was originally written, disclosed a missiological concern.” [1] However, it does not appear that much has been done to systematically outline that concern in any comprehensive way.  Perhaps this is the appropriate place then to encourage one or more of our Presbyterian brethren to undertake such a study.  It could surely be of mutual benefit and serve the advancement of the gospel in our countries and overseas.

That brings us back to the Belgic Confession and its missiological relevance.  The question is not a new one.  In fact, this might be considered a question that has already received a decisive judgment.  In 1972, Christian Reformed missiologist Robert Recker concluded that “the Belgic Confession projects an image, in the main, of a church talking with itself rather than a church before the world.”[2]  He went on to write:  "If I were to construct a missiology today, or if I would hope to be inspired with missionary passion, I would reach for the Bible and not for the Belgic Confession.  Reading this Confession with analytical care impressed me with the fact that it is partial.  And when I read it to discern the missionary focus of the whole Word of God, then I can only say it is inadequate."[3]

Recker’s opinion is by no means idiosyncratic or unexpected.  Many contemporary missiologists and church historians see the Reformation in general as a movement lacking in missionary zeal and character.[4]  This view has a lengthy pedigree, going back at least to Gustav Warneck.[5]  If this view is true, we would also reasonably expect the confessional documents of the Reformation to reflect a lack of missionary zeal and consciousness. 

This book will argue that past judgments on the missiological relevance of the Belgic Confession have not done it justice.  In the past, missiologists and church historians have simply worked with the received dogma that the Reformation was not in any sense a missionary movement.  This in turn has affected how they regarded the Belgic Confession.  In more recent times, new scholarship is bringing a fresh and more accurate contextual understanding of the Reformation, particularly of how the Reformers viewed themselves.[6]  This new scholarship impacts our assessment of the Reformation and mission and consequently also our assessment of the confessional documents of the Reformation.

I will examine the relevance of the Belgic Confession for contemporary Reformed missiology.  The history and background of the Confession will be investigated to determine its original missionary intent and nature.  I will explore how and why it was organized in relation to its intent and nature.  The missiological strengths and weaknesses of the Confession will be outlined.  I will also consider its relationship to the study and practice of mission in the Dutch Reformed churches of the seventeenth century.  Finally, this study will interact with those who have already rendered their judgments on whether the Belgic Confession has missiological relevance for today.     

As I noted above, this study is intended to be church historical, symbolic, and especially missiological in nature.  From a church historical perspective, I am interested in describing the milieu from which the Belgic Confession emerged and in which it later functioned, particularly in the seventeenth century and last half of the twentieth century.  From a symbolic perspective, I want to study and identify the content, form and structure originally given to the Belgic Confession and evaluate how that might relate to mission.  The perennial issue of status confessionis (being in a state of having to make a confession) also requires description and evaluation, and again specifically relating that issue to the study and practice of mission.  From a missiological perspective, I am interested in developing a formulation of the missionary mandate from Scripture and describing and evaluating the understanding of that mandate in the Belgic Confession and its historical context.  I am also concerned with exploring questions regarding contextualization and communication pertaining to the Confession in its original context, in some historical uses, and today.  Given the diversity of fields involved, various methods have been employed, some of which have just been mentioned.  Others will be noted at the appropriate places in the body of the study. 

With those methods and broad purposes in mind, chapter 1 will provide a brief history of the Confession, noting the salient points for the purposes of this book.  In a parallel (though obviously much briefer) discussion on John Calvin’s missiological relevance, James DeJong has pointed out that the definition of mission is crucial.[7]  Therefore, chapter 2 will develop the definition of mission.  Chapter 3 will consider the original missionary nature and intent of the Belgic Confession.  Chapter 4 will analyze the structure of the Confession with an eye to its missionary intent and nature.  In chapter 5, we discuss the missiological strengths and weaknesses of the Confession.  Historical missiological/missionary uses of the Confession in the seventeenth century receive attention in chapter 6.  In the next chapter, more recent judgments on the missionary significance of the Confession are described and evaluated.  Finally, chapter 8 offers concluding thoughts and considers the issue of status confessionis and the relationship between confessions (in general) and the study and practice of mission. As far as literature is concerned, this study will utilize primary sources in their original language where necessary and possible.  With regard to secondary sources, the focus will be primarily on those available in English.  However, in a number of places, resources available in Dutch, German, and French have also been referenced.

Does the Belgic Confession have anything to say to the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ today?  Twenty-first century Christians appear to consider mission as the “Cause of the Son of God” par excellence.  The question before us is whether this Reformation confession has a similar orientation.  Please join me now as we begin investigating that question…

[1] Valdeci S. Santos, “A Missiological Analysis of the Westminster Confession of Faith – Chapte r 14,”  in The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century (Vol. 3), ed. J. Ligon Duncan (Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2009), 329.

[2] R. Recker, “An Analysis of the Belgic Confession As To Its Mission Focus,” Calvin Theological Journal 7.2 (November 1972): 179.

[3] Recker, “An Analysis,” 180.

[4] For a recent example, see A. Scott Moreau, Gary R. Corwin, and Gary B. McGee,  Introducing World Missions:  A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 120-121.

[5] Gustav Warneck, Outline of a History of Protestant Missions from the Reformation to the Present Time (New York: Fleming H. Revel Company, 1901), 19.

[6] See Scott H. Hendrix, Recultivating the Vineyard:  The Reformation Agendas of Christianization (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004); Hans-Werner Gensichen, “Were the Reformers indifferent to missions?,” Verbum SVD 25.1 (1984): 3-10.

[7] James DeJong, “John Calvin in Mission Literature,” Pro Rege 4.1 (September 1975): 10.