The purpose for the preparation of the Belgic Confession and its presentation to Philip II is of particular importance. In the face of intense persecution by this Roman Catholic sovereign and his magistrates, Guido de Brès and the Reformed believers of the Netherlands were anxious to demonstrate that their faith was in accord with the teaching of Holy Scripture and the ancient consensus of the holy catholic church and her councils. Consequently, the Belgic Confession has an irenic tone throughout, especially in its careful demonstration of the Reformed faith’s commitment to the great biblical doctrines of the Trinity, as well as the person and work of Christ.
The Belgic Confession is one of the best known and most loved of the Reformed confessions. Philip Schaff, the venerable historian of the church and her confessions, observes that it is “upon the whole, the best symbolical statement of the Calvinistic system of doctrine, with the exception of the Westminster Confession.” This Confession is known most commonly as the “Belgic” confession because it emerged from the French-speaking Reformed churches in the southern “Lowlands” or “Nether-lands” (now Belgium). It has served historically as one of the three confessional symbols of the Dutch Reformed churches. Affection for this confession among these churches stems as much from the poignant circumstances suffered by its original author and subscribers as from its rich statement of the Reformed faith.
In our brief sketch of this confession, we will address both of these features: first, the background and setting within which the Belgic Confession was produced; and second, the distinctive content of its classic statement of the Reformed faith.
Background and Setting
The Belgic Confession was originally written by a French-speaking, Reformed pastor, Guido de Brès, who had been a student of Calvin’s in Geneva. Though de Brès was principal author of the Belgic Confession, other Reformed pastors and theologians, including Francis Junius, who was later to become a well-known Reformed professor at the University of Leiden, contributed to the final, received form of the Confession.
First written in 1561, copies of the Confession were sent to Geneva and other Reformed churches for approval. The present form of the Confession stems from the time of the great Synod of Dordt in 1618–19, when the text was revised and officially approved in four languages (the original French, Latin, Dutch, and German). Not long after it was first written, the Belgic Confession was presented to Philip II of Spain, who exercised sovereignty over the Netherlands at the time, in the vain hope that toleration would be extended to the Reformed faith. From the beginning, this confession enjoyed ready acceptance among the Reformed churches of the Netherlands.
Shortly before his death as a martyr, the principal author of the Belgic Confession, Guido de Brès, wrote from prison the following words to his wife Catherine: “Your grief and anguish, troubling me in the midst of my joy and gladness, are the cause of my writing to you this present letter.