[K:NWTS 23/2 (Sep 2008) 72-74]

Book Review

Nicolaas H. Gootjes, The Belgic Confession: Its History And Sources. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007. 240pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-8010-3235-6. $29.99.

At last we have a book in English about the origins of the Belgic Confession. There have always been brief summaries about its origin, but nothing of substantial scholarship. Finally, we have such a book and a good one at that. Furthermore, you don’t have to read a thousand pages of technical data to glean a few ideas. Here are only 177 pages of text packed with the basic information.

The first chapter begins with an early history of the Confession. “Printed copies of the confession surfaced in Doornik on four different occasions during the fall and winter of 1561-62. The circumstances were rather unusual. On the occasion of the fair held on September 14, 1561, some Reformed believers from Valenciennes came to Doornik to discuss their common cause with fellow Reformed believers there. Together they decided to stage public demonstrations in their cities. On September 29, about one hundred people began singing the Psalms in French on the streets of Doornik. They soon attracted a following of about six hundred people. The next day, the number of demonstrators grew to three or four thousand” (14-15). This, of course, got the attention of the government, which took action to subdue the Reformed movement. So, on November 2, 1561, a package containing the confession was found inside the outer wall of the castle in Doornik—thrown there by those who were Reformed. “They publicly wanted to make known to the authorities what they believed on the basis of God’s Word” (15). This was accompanied by a letter explaining that they were willing to give up their lives for their faith.

King Philip II of Spain, who ruled this territory at the time, appointed a committee of three commissioners to go to Doornik to investigate what was happening. As a result of their investigations, persecution broke out as the committee attempted to discover the source of the confession. Most of our information about the confession’s beginnings comes from the reports of the interrogations of this committee. The first chapter continues with this information and a discussion of the various early extant copies of 1561.

In chapter 2, the question of who authored the confession is discussed. Guido de Bres is usually given as the author in modern documents. Was it really he? Or was it someone else? Or was it a group of men? Again, with meticulous detail, Dr. Gootjes examines the evidence. He also examines historical studies of this question. The consensus is on the side of Guido de Bres. A study of his life also supports this conclusion.

Chapter 3 discusses the relationship of Calvin’s Gallican Confession (1559) to the Belgic Confession, while chapter 4 discusses the relationship of Beza’s Confession (1560) to it. The conclusion drawn by comparing the contents is that de Bres must have had both of these documents before him while he wrote his own. These two chapters make interesting read as Gootjes makes detailed comparisons of the wording of all three confessions.

Chapter 5 discusses the authority the confession had in the churches before the Synod of Dort (1618-19). Again, through a meticulous study of the original documents, Gootjes concludes that the local synods did accept its authority and used it as the standard for their teaching.

Chapter 6 discusses the revision of the confession in 1566 by the Synod of Antwerp in order to make the Dutch edition accord with the French edition. This revision: (1) corrected numerous misprints which occurred in the first printing; (2) replaced Latin sentence structures with more common sentences; (3) abbreviated long sections; (4) added phrases; (5) also added substantial new sections. However, none of these changes substantially altered the original meaning of the confession, but only clarified it.

Chapter 7 deals with the Synod of Dort which was the first national synod held since the synod of 1586. All the other synods were regional. At this Synod, which was held to deal with the Remonstant movement, the Belgic Confession was adopted as the official teaching of the church. At the same time, the Synod also took steps to make one authoritative edition, since there were so many different versions circulating. In this chapter, there is a discussion of the Remonstrant’s attitude to the confession and the revisions that were adopted.

Chapter 8, the final chapter, discusses the various translations that have been made of the confession into many other languages. The original language was French and the first translation was into Dutch. From then on, it has been translated into many tongues down to this present age.

At the conclusion of the book is an Appendix with nine documents that were very important in the understanding of the development of the creed. My only regret is that these documents are printed in their original French, Latin and Dutch and are not translated. Dr. Gootjes is obviously a scholar of the first rank and has a wide knowledge of many languages (he has written books in English, Dutch and Korean). However, most of us who use this book are confined to English. What a pity we can’t read the Appendix.

This book is highly recommended.

—J. Peter Vosteen