Book Review of Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated Against Dr. Abraham Kuyper
Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated Against Dr. Abraham Kuyper: A Critique of His Series on Church and State in Common Grace, Dr. P.J. Hoedemaker, trans. Ruben Alvarado. Aalten: Wordbridge Publishing, 2019.
Anyone who has ever studied the Belgic Confession, even on a superficial level, is aware of an oddity in article 36. This is the only place in the Three Forms of Unity where we find a footnote in most versions of the Confession. Whether it is the United Reformed, Canadian Reformed, or Protestant Reformed Churches in North America, or the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, all have an additional footnote.
Article 36 is titled “The Civil Government” or sometimes “Of Magistrates” and addresses what we confess about the role of the government. The relevant text in the body of the confession originally read:
[The government’s] task of restraining [evil] and sustaining [good] is not limited to the public order but includes the protection of the church and its ministry in order that all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed, the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honoured and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word. (Italics added)
But the clauses above that I’ve italicized were moved from the body, and relegated to footnote status a century ago, as is explained in the Canadian Reformed edition here:
The following words were deleted here by the General Synod 1905 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland): all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed.
I’ve been a pastor in both the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, and to my knowledge, neither federation has ever made an official decision about the status of this footnote. Do we confess this or not? It is an odd ambiguity in our Three Forms of Unity. It is something I addressed briefly in my doctoral dissertation – you can read the relevant section here.
This little book comes from the controversy which led to the words being deleted in 1905. It provides some of the historical background, illustrating that the deletion was not without its opponents. This book also provides an occasion to reflect on whether it may be time to revisit the matter in an official, ecclesiastical way.
Philippus Jacobus Hoedemaker (1839-1910) was a curious figure. While he grew up in a family with roots in the 1834 Secession (Afscheiding), he himself became a minister in the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk (NHK), the Dutch national church. At one point, he was a professor at Abraham Kuyper’s Free University in Amsterdam, but after the Doleantie of 1886, their relationship deteriorated. Hoedemaker was an opponent of the Doleantie – the movement out of the Dutch national church led by Kuyper and others. However, unlike so many others in the NHK, Hoedemaker was a conservative and confessionally Reformed.
This book is a response to a series of articles written by Abraham Kuyper in his newspaper De Heraut (The Herald) in 1899-1900. In these articles, Kuyper argued against the wording of article 36 about the responsibility of the civil government with regard to idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of the antichrist. In 1896, Kuyper went a step further. Together with other notable theologians in the Gereformeerde Kerken (Reformed Churches), including Herman Bavinck, Kuyper put forward a gravamen against article 36. A “gravamen” is an official objection to a point of doctrine. These eight ministers alleged that article 36 did not conform to the Word of God and they asked the Synod of 1896 to make a judgment on the matter. The Synod decided to appoint a committee to study the matter, a committee which bizarrely included Bavinck and Kuyper (!). It was the work of this committee which would later result in Synod 1905 deleting the allegedly unbiblical words.
In this book, Hoedemaker argues for the original form of article 36. More accurately, he argues against Kuyper’s objections to the original form of article 36. He maintains that Kuyper was inconsistent. On the one hand, he wants to honour King Jesus as the Lord of all of life. But on the other hand, King Jesus has no crown rights over the responsibility of the civil government with regard to idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of antichrist. Hoedemaker alleges that this inconsistency is owing to political expediency. Abraham Kuyper was getting into politics and BC 36 was an embarrassment in trying to build bridges with Roman Catholic politicians.
Hoedemaker makes two points I find especially compelling. One is mentioned early in the book. He alleges that the discovery of “the fatal defect” in article 36 is “not the result of the ongoing investigation of the Scripture; but exclusively causes which lie in the times, and in apostasy from the living God” (p.5). He states repeatedly that Kuyper and others were not arguing from exegesis, but from pragmatic considerations and false inferences. The pragmatic considerations had to do with Dutch politics. The false inferences were along the lines of the Confession requiring the civil magistrate to persecute unbelievers and false believers. Hoedemaker is especially persuasive in addressing that notion.
The other point is a procedural one. Hoedemaker states that there is a dualism between Kuyper’s political theory and his theology. Then he remarks: “It allows him to lodge all manner of objections to the Confession without being called to account” (p.69). This makes me wonder if Kuyper had ever lodged his disagreement with BC 36 with his consistory. I have been unable to find an answer to that question. It seems odd, from a Reformed church polity perspective, that Kuyper and seven other theologians could launch a gravamen at a synod without having discussed the matter with their consistories first. If they had discussed it with their consistories, would not their consistories bring forward the matter for judgment? I find it perplexing.
Now there are a few places where Hoedemaker has his own issues. This book is not entirely about BC 36 – this book is something of a polemic against the Doleantie too. Hoedemaker writes, “The first step on the road to Reformation is the recovery of the normal relations of church and state” (p.119). He wants to undo the Doleantie and bring all Reformed believers back into the national church, despite its waywardness. Elsewhere, Hoedemaker argues that BC 36 is not about the church strictly speaking, but about religion (p.30). However, the text of the confession itself speaks about the church. By the way, here Hoedemaker also seems to be ignorant of the textual history of article 36. The original 1561 Belgic Confession had “things ecclesiastical,” a revision in 1566 adopted the expression “the sacred ministry.” Either way, the Confession is speaking about the church.
Let me make a few comments about the translation. There are a few idiosyncrasies that readers should be aware of. Hoedemaker refers several times to the Heidelberg Catechism and various Lord’s Days. The translator literally renders them “Sundays.” Instead of the Secession of 1834 (Afscheiding), he uses the term “Separation.” Elsewhere he uses the term “Nonconformity,” and I believe he is translating the term Doleantie. Aside from those sorts of minor things, the book reads quite well in English.
Who should read this book? I would especially commend it to those with an interest in politics. When we have so little in our Three Forms of Unity about politics, what little there is should get our attention. Is it time to revisit the formulation of article 36? This is where I believe office bearers and especially ministers would do well to give this book a read too. Perhaps we need a proposal to a synod to clarify the status of the footnote and perhaps even to restore it. Note well: we are not talking about changing the Confession or adding something to the Confession that was never there to begin with. This is something completely different. In a 1979 article for Clarion, Dr. J. Faber argued for completely rewriting that part of article 36. That is a possibility. But if the footnote can be re-examined from a biblical standpoint, perhaps it would be as simple as cutting and pasting the text back into place.