As I prepare for ordination in the Reformed Church in America, I am wrestling with the documents, Creeds, and Confessions to which I will be committing myself. I invite you to reflect alongside me.
In the Belgic Confession, one of the most foundational documents of the Reformed tradition, there is an incredibly odd Article towards the end–number 36. It is about the Civil Government and it says, among other things:
We believe that because of the depravity of the human race, our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. God wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings….
And the government’s task is not limited to caring for and watching over the public domain but extends also to upholding the sacred ministry, with a view to removing and destroying all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist; to promoting the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and to furthering the preaching of the gospel everywhere; to the end that God may be honored and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word….
The whole of the Confession is worth your time and reading. It is beautiful and ecumenical. Its desire is to bring people together and articulate the Reformed tradition in a charitable and loving way. And yet, this Article–the next to the last one in the whole writing–sticks out like a sore thumb in both tone and content. It’s so confusing. Why is it written this way? What do we make of it today?
The primary author of this document, Guido deBres, lived in a world where the fundamental societal glue was the common religion among citizens. National identity was intimately wrapped up in religion. Prior to the rise of democratic states and individualism, citizenship was seen more as being swept into the umbrella of meaning, narrative, and identity of that particular State. Nowadays, however, we believe a given nation-state’s identity is more of an emergent property rising from its collective individual citizens.
In deBres’ time, a nation had to establish its character as a mold into which its people were formed. If you were a Christian in this sort of society, it would make sense that, for the sake of peace and collective spiritual formation, you would want the government to be a particularly “Christianized” one.
Further, the Belgic Confession is written in the fires of persecution. DeBres was executed as a heretic by Catholic leaders shortly after finishing this document. In writing this particular Article on politics, it seems he wanted to demonstrate his support for Civil Government, rather than his desire to upset it. He wanted to portray his belief as being within the bounds of the Catholic authorities which were seeking to harm and punish him.
Beyond culture, however, there are theological reasons for this Article taking its shape. The first reason is the belief that God works in and among corporate groups. God’s Covenant is not with a bunch of individuals, but with one, corporate, communal society. If God relates to us communally, then the instruments of spiritual formation can also be communal. If that’s true (the logic goes), then Corporate, political governing bodies have the God-ordained right to help shape and form the people into God’s image.
Second, at the time the Confession was written, one’s entrance to salvation was not seen as primarily an emotional, individual conversion. That is more a product of the Post-Great Awakening Evangelicalism we find ourselves in today. For most of Church History, the Christian life was more about acculturation than conversion—small faithfulness in the midst of one’s broader existence.
While I actually think this is a better way of viewing the Christian life, when you add the Reformation’s collapse between the “sacred” and the “secular”, you have a situation ripe for blending State Power with the mundanities of human existence. This means that Christian growth, politics, and everyday human existence were seen as all thrown in and mixed into the same pot of human life. It would make no sense to separate “secular” politics from “sacred” religion.
You see, for most people in deBres’ time, religion was likely not a high-stakes endeavor, nor was there such anxiety over which religious sect (or denomination) was “right”. There was the Church. You were a part of it. It was that simple. And if things were that simple and stable, then of course the State should have a role in maintaining that simplicity and stability, right?
Lastly, we see from the opening lines of this Article that deBres has human depravity in the forefront of his mind as he writes this. Civil Government, at its most basic level, is to serve as a restraint to human depravity on a societal level. Accompanying the Reformed belief that depravity is total—that it has infiltrated and infected every part of human existence—one can see the logic that expands the scope and realm of governmental restraint. In such a world, there is no such thing as a distinction between “private” and “public” depravity, or some depravity for which there is not a compelling state interest in regulating.
Why Oh Why!?
As I said earlier, deBres died for these words at the hands of the Civil Government. And honestly, with that situation in mind, I don’t understand what he’s trying to accomplish in writing this Article. Wouldn’t his very own persecution want him to propose much more political freedom for a plurality of views? Did he think that his own government execution was unjust according to this Article? Did he think that his views actually should have been treated as perfectly within the bounds of the society at the time?
I’m not sure; and the more I think about this, the more I feel like he wouldn’t have even thought or experienced this using these same categories. In fact, he would perhaps look at our current American society and say it still works in the very way he advocated in this Article! Our government still upholds sacred ministries, combats heresies, promotes preaching, and spreads their message to the ends of the earth. The only difference, though, is that they have a very different religion which they serve: the American Civil Religion rather than Christianity.
Tomorrow, I’ll offer some thoughts on how this Article might help us think about politics today. In the meantime, what do you think about this Article?