As part of our homework for the new members’ class at our church we were asked to read the first 14 sections of the Belgic Confession (PDF). I had never encountered the document before. According to our textbook-of-sorts, the confession was written during the middle of the 16th century, during a time in which the Reformed churches of the Netherlands were being persecuted by the Roman Catholic government of that nation. A copy was sent to King Philip II, with notice that the petitioners “were ready to obey the government in all lawful things, but that they would ‘offer their backs to stripes, their tongues to knives, their mouths to gags, and their whole bodies to the fire,’ rather than deny the truth expressed in this confession”.
I don’t know if you’re supposed to enjoy reading confessions, especially when they’re assigned for homework!, but I did. I was impressed with the precision of the language and how completely, yet concisely, it covered the topics discussed. (Just what a confession is supposed to be, right?) Maybe I don’t run in the right circles, or maybe new creations just aren’t necessary in this area, but I couldn’t think of any modern document that compared to this one in terms of concise, comprehensive, theological clarity. It made me think of a section in Christopher Hitchens book The Rage Against God.
I recognized in the great English cathedrals and in many small parish churches the old unsettling messages. One was the inevitability and certainty of my own death, the other the undoubted fact that my despised forebears were neither crude nor ignorant, but men and women of great skill and engineering genius – a genius not contradicted or blocked by faith, but enhanced by it. The simple beauty of a hammer beam roof or a Norman chancel arch, let alone of the pillars in Durham nave, seems to be quite beyond the architects and builders of our own enlightened age.
Our forebears were not crude or ignorant, but at times, perhaps especially in matters of religion, we are tempted to believe that they were. Hence, in the secular world, the implication or explication than mankind has now outgrown religion, the thinking of our (it is supposed) collective childhood. And although I wouldn’t say that, I do think I sometimes feel the same temptation to temporal arrogance, thinking without even meaning to that I’m smarter or better than my ancestors – and not just in matters of science (where I really do know more), but even in social or religious matters they dealt with equally as myself. It isn’t a good thought. Many of them were people of skill or genius, much better than we in their fields of work. Some were apparently more skilled in architecture than we are today, and others, it seems, in reasoning-out and writing confessions of faith.