Inerrancy — Lessons from History (3)

13 October 2009 by Wes Bredenhof

The Belgic Confession’s articles regarding Scripture were noted in the paper that sparked the discussion over at Reformed Academic.  During the discussions in the CRC in the 1960s and 1970s, the Belgic Confession was also often appealed to — by both sides.  Yesterday, I quoted J. Visscher who outlined what he viewed as “the Reformed position” on inerrancy in 1979.  He appealed to the Confession in favour of inerrancy.  So, I think it’s worthwhile to reflect for a moment on whether or not the Belgic Confession has something to say to this question.  To answer that, we need to go back in history — which is good, because this series is entitled, “Lessons from History.”

The Belgic Confession was written by Guido (Guy) de Bres and first published in 1561.  Although written by de Bres, it was likely adopted by at least some of the Reformed churches in the Low Countries before its publication.  De Bres used sources, the most prominent which are Calvin’s Institutes, the French (Gallican) Confession of 1559 and a confession written by Theodore Beza.

In the context of the Low Countries (present-day Belgium, Netherlands, parts of France and Germany), there were two main opponents to the Reformed faith.  On the one hand, there was the Roman Catholic majority.  The government was Roman Catholic and took a very dim view of the existence and propagation of the Reformed faith.  This dim view was primarily because of the other group, the Anabaptists.  While Anabaptists were never very numerous in the Low Countries, they were vocal and they had a reputation as rebels and revolutionaries.  The Belgic Confession was written primarily to distinguish clearly the Reformed from the Anabaptists.

These two groups are not only addressed in the Belgic Confession, but also in the two largest books of de Bres.  In 1555, he wrote Le Baston de la Foy Chrestienne — in this work he responds to the errors of the Roman Catholics using Scripture and the church fathers.  In 1565, La racine, source et fondement des Anabaptistes appeared, his magnum opus exposing the errors of the Anabaptists.  Both works are important for this discussion because in both de Bres does not have to discuss the nature of Scripture.  He does have to debate the authority of Scripture for both Roman Catholics and Anabaptists drew sola Scriptura into question.  But all agreed, whether Reformed, Roman Catholic, or Anabaptist, that God had inspired the Bible and that it was an infallible rule for faith and life.  For all it was a book whose trustworthiness could not be called into question.

A couple of days ago, I posted a quote from Scott Clark’s Recovering the Reformed Confession in which he stated that the medieval, Reformation and post-Reformation church all held to a form of inerrancy.  Clark is right.  But it was not a very nuanced and detailed form of inerrancy, neither does it appear that the word “inerrancy” was actually used.  That would only come later after the Enlightenment period saw the introduction of critical approaches to the Bible.  Necessity demanded the extensive refinement and development of a doctrine of inerrancy that had hitherto been generally taken for granted and assumed.

I would argue that Visscher was correct in 1979 to appeal to the Belgic Confession, because inerrancy is there in an incipient form.  Article 4 asserts that “nothing can be alleged” against the canonical books of the Bible.  No one can make an accusation of contradiction or error.  Article 5 states that “we believe without any doubt all things contained in them.”  No exceptions are made — if God says it, we accept it as the word of our Father who will never lie.  To pit Scripture’s sufficiency in matters of salvation against Scripture’s truthfulness in other matters is a false dilemma unknown to the Belgic Confession.  The traditional Reformed doctrine of Scripture has always assumed an incipient form of inerrancy.

I love the Belgic Confession and I’ve never thought that the day would come when we would have to strengthen it in the Canadian Reformed Churches so as to be explicit on the question of inerrancy.  Biblical inerrancy is what I was taught in catechism, at my Christian school, and in seminary.  It’s what I teach from the pulpit and in catechism classes.  The question is:  if it now needs to be explicit in the church’s confessing, what is the best way to do that?  Embed it in our liturgical forms or perhaps the introduction to a new Church Order?  Or should we ever so slightly amend the Belgic Confession?  More on that in the days to come…

4 responses to “Inerrancy — Lessons from History (3)”

  1. I do not recall being taught inerrancy in my growing up in the CanRC. In your training — particularly at the seminary — was there ever any nuanced consideration given to the different flavours of inerrancy, and whether perhaps certain ways of interpreting inerrancy are inconsistent with the Reformed confessions? Also, I wonder how one goes about revising a historic document while keeping its name. And would this be a way to avoid the charge of extra-confessional binding?

    • One of our professors lectured extensively on this topic and examined numerous approaches and analyses. But he didn’t really go into the issue of whether any of these views might be inconsistent with the Belgic Confession.

      As for your second question, the Belgic Confession has been revised and/or amended several times over the centuries — this has never been a problem. For instance, the Synod of Dort strengthened the Confession with regards to the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Gravamen are nothing new in our history.

      And with regards to the issue of “extra-confessional binding,” I will have more to say on that in the near future. Stay tuned.

  2. It is noteworthy that Louis Berkhof, (his Systematic Theology, a staple diet for CanRC theology students), defends inerrancy as a doctrine compatible, even concurrent with infallibility in his Pricipia of Dogmatics (reprint ed pg 153 ff)


  3. Inerrancy is not a product of modernism, I don’t know why everyone keeps preaching and believeing that. The modern version of inerrancy actually started with augustine and prior to that, it was applied to the septugaint and latin vulgate….check it out below…

Leave a Reply