Laying on of Hands & the Belgic Confession
Have you ever wondered why the ordination of ministers includes the laying on of hands, but not the elders or deacons? At least this is the practice in most (if not all) Reformed churches with their roots on the continent. In Presbyterian churches, practices may vary and sometimes the ordination of elders and deacons also includes the laying on of hands, especially if the church practices ordination for life to these offices.
Dr. C. Van Dam has some helpful discussion of this in his book, The Elder: Today’s Ministry Rooted in All of Scripture. He points out the following:
On the European continent, the first edition of article 31 in the Belgic Confession (1562) stipulated laying on of hands in the ordination of ministers and elders; however, this stipulation was left out in subsequent editions. (134)
Even though he gets the date wrong (the Confession was first published in 1561), this is something that grabbed my interest. I looked into this a bit more and there’s an interesting history here in the text.
This is the relevant part of article 31 in the 1561 Rouen edition:
The 1561 Lyons edition is exactly the same and so are the two extant editions from 1562. In translation, it reads:
We believe that the ministers, elders, and deacons ought to be chosen for their offices by a lawful election, with the invocation of the name of God, and the vote of the Church, then confirmed in their offices by the laying on of hands, as the word of God teaches.
Note that the imposition of hands was not just for ministers and elders, but also for deacons.
The first Dutch edition of 1562 also had these words. When and how did these words about laying on of hands drop out? One of the earliest extant editions without them is the Latin text found in Harmonia Confessionum in 1581. The Harmonia Confessionum was prepared and published in Geneva at the direction of Theodore Beza. One might think that perhaps there was a difference in practice between Geneva and the Lowlands on this point. However, N.H. Gootjes has pointed out that one of de Bres’ sources for the Belgic Confession was Beza’s Confession de la foy chrestienne. In Beza’s confession (5.38), he also states that elders and deacons should be ordained with the imposition of hands (as a testimony of their lawful election). Beza could have been the source for article 31, so it doesn’t seem reasonable to think that he was the one who changed it. The change must have taken place earlier and the text which was used in Geneva for the Harmonia had already been modified.
Most likely the change happened when the Belgic Confession was revised at the Synod of Antwerp in 1566. I don’t have a 1566 edition to confirm this. My guess is that the practice of the first churches to adopt the Confession was to impose hands when ordaining to all the offices. However, further afield in the Low Countries, this might not have been done and the Synod revised the Confession to account for this. The change has held its ground ever since and when the Synod of Dort adopted an official text of the Belgic Confession, it did not include the laying on of hands in article 31.
With regards to collections of confessions, J.N. Bakhuizen van den Brink (De Nederlandse Belijdenisgeschriften) notes this issue. So does Niemeyer (Collectio Confessionum), but not with as much detail. Muller (Die Bekenntnisschriften der reformierten Kirche) doesn’t note it and neither does Schaff (Creeds of Christendom).
To conclude, I think de Bres was correct to include this in the Belgic Confession. I agree with Van Dam:
…since the office of minister (or teaching elder) and that of ruling elder are both elder offices, there is a certain inconsistency in using the laying on of hands with the teaching elder and not the ruling elder. It would be good if a more consistent use of this ritual could be achieved. (135)
I wonder whether the practice fell away for practical reasons. Perhaps it was considered awkward to continue it when the churches become large and, at times, a dozen men would be ordained. Just a guess.
There is also the question of who does the laying on of hands at an ordination. About 9 of the 15 elders (those who were seated at the front of the church) joined Rev. J. Visscher in this at the ordination of Rev. R. deJonge in Langley on 11 October 2009; it was a very meaningful ceremony. We later noticed that while our current church order makes no mention of it, the PJCO stipulates that only ministers may participate in the laying on of hands.
You’re spot on, Wes. I did find the change (dropped reference to laying on of hands) in the 1566 version. I can send you a PDF if you give my your email address.
I just saw this now — after writing a new blog post about it in 2017. Thanks anyway, brother!
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