Notes on a Possible Difficulty in Belgic Confession Article 14

Rev. 28 January 2008

[An earlier version of this essay was published in Christian Observer 173.23 (December 1, 1995): 23.]

We believe that God created man out of the dust of the earth, and made and formed him after his own image and likeness, good, righteous, and holy, capable in all things to will agreeably to the will of God. But being in honor, he understood it not, neither knew his excellency, but willfully subjected himself to sin and consequently to death and the curse, giving ear to the words of the devil. For the commandment of life, which he had received, he transgressed; and by sin separated himself from God, who was his true life; having corrupted his whole nature; whereby he made himself liable to corporal and spiritual death. And being thus become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways, he has lost all his gifts which he had received from God, and retained only small remains thereof, which, however, are sufficient to leave man without excuse; for all the light which is in us is changed unto darkness, as the Scriptures teach us, saying: The light shines in darkness, and the darkness did not apprehended it; where St. John calls men darkness

The most basic way to understand who we are in Christ, is to grasp what we were in Adam, created in righteousness and true holiness, God’s image. Thus man as imago Dei (Image of God) is the core of Reformed anthropology.

Among the mainstream Protestants (Reformed and Lutheran) there was a general consensus against the medieval doctrine of the donum superadditum (superadded gift) i.e., that man was created with a certain deficiency in grace which was remedied before the fall with a “superadded gift” of grace. According to most medieval theologians, this “superadded gift” was lost in the fall. In such a scheme, the fall becomes not a primarily a violtion of God’s law but a fall from grace. They held this doctrine because they assumed the existence of a sort of chain of being between God and humanity with God at the top and us at the bottom. They conceived of the fundamental human problem not as a legal problem but as a lack of being or even a lack of divinity. Thomas Aquinas spoke of salvation as “divinization” and the Roman Church today (Catechism, 1994) teaches that God and humans both participate in “being.” The “chain of being” lives on in Roman theology. In the medieval (and Roman) view, human beings, by virtue of being human and finite, are in need of this grace. Hence Aquinas taught the “grace perfects nature.”

Scripture, however, knows nothing of such a “chain of being” or of the sort of “grace” before the fall. The medieval view makes sin an ontological or metaphysical (i.e., our ‘being’ or creation) problem rather than a moral-legal problem. [See s.v. donum super additum, Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985).] In contrast, the Belgic affirmed the paradox of man’s high state at creation, his free will and his mutability (posse peccare, posse non peccare), which made the fall a possibility .

In this regard, however, we note that de Bres chose to use an expression which presents us with certain challenges: “…he understood it not, neither knew his excellency” (il n’en a rien su; et n’a pas reconnu son excellence). To face the question squarely: did de Bres move backward toward understanding sin as a created lack of natural ability? It is possible that de Bres expression here tended to weaken his otherwise strong emphasis on the fall as a free act of Adam’s will (volontairement)? Does the Belgic Confession lay the blame for the fall at the feet of natural, created, human inability?

The first step to mitigating this question is to consider some proximate and remote sources for the language of the Confession. It seems likely that the confession is invoking the imagery of Ps 49:20, “(ESV), “Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish.” The difficulty, however, remains inasmuch as the Psalmist is evidently thinking about humanity after the fall, not before the fall. Among the late Patristic/early medieval theologians, John of Damascus appealed to this language to explain the fall. In his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 2.30, the Damascene argued that God endowed Adam with “divine grace” and also placed him under a probationary law to test him. Adam had free will to obey or disobey. By virtue of his sin, argued Damascus, Adam fell from grace (3.1) and was banished from paradise. Though the Protestants would reject the Damascene’s doctrine of original sin as a fall from grace, this text does at least establish a pattern of appealing to the language of Ps 49 when explaining the fall. (Thanks to my colleague Danny Hyde for pointing us to this reference).

Schaff (Creeds of Christendom, 3.398) cites no variants in the French text of Belgic Art. 14 but there is an interesting textual variant in the Latin text of Art. 14. H. A. Niemeyer notes the the text published in the 1612 Corpus et Syntagma adds the phrase, “iumentis similis factus est” (having been made like an animal), the effect of which is to invoke Ps 49:20″ (48:21 in the Vulgate, “homo cum in honore esset non intellexit conparavit se iumentis et silebitur.” This variant seems to be a signal that the Reformed churches understood this language to be a reference to Ps. 49:20. [See H. A. Niemeyer, Collectio Confessionum in Ecclesiis Reformatis Publicatarum (Leipzig: Julius Klinkhardt, 1840), 368]. For more on the background and textual history of the confession see Nicolaas H. Gootjes, The Belgic Confession: Its History and Sources (Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought) (Baker Academic, 2007).

The language used by, Calvin, by whom de Bres (and consequently the Belgic Confession) was heavily influenced, was a little different. In his (1559) Institutes 1.15.8 Calvin said Adam “excelled in those preeminent endowments, so that his reason, understanding, prudence and judgement not only sufficed for the direction of his earthly life, but by them men mounted up even to God and eternal bliss”. [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed., J.T. McNeill, trans., F.L. Battles (London, 1961)]. His praeclaris dotibus excelluit prima hominis conditio, ut ratio, intelligentia, prudentia, iudicium non modo ad terrenae vitae gubernationem suppeterent, sed quibus transcenderent usque ad Deum et aeternam foelicitatem, Opera Selecta, 5 vol., ed., Peter Barth and W. Niesel (Munich, 1926-62), 3.185.31-4>

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) used the same sort of language as Calvin:

6. Did God create man thus wicked and perverse?

No, but God created man good and after His own image, that is, in righteousness and true holiness, that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness, to praise and glorify Him.

7. From where then comes this depraved nature of man?

From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise, whereby our nature became so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin.

It is evident that the Calvin, the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism all had the same interest and goal: to show that the fault of the fall belongs to Adam not to God. In other words, the primary function of this language was apologetic. It functions as a sort of homely, almost psychological mitigation of the mystery of the fall. Where the HC and Calvin seem almost to intensify the mystery of the fall, the Belgic seems to offer an explnation of how it is possible that Adam, who was created without sin, should have sinned. To be sure, it is doubtless true that, as a finite, though sinless, creature, Adam did not fully understand the blessedness that lay before him should he pass the probation. The Belgic (likely) seized on the language or imagery of Ps 49:20 as a sort of explanation of how Adam fell, ignoring, for the moment, the fact that Ps 49 is describing fallen man.

The Belgic was not alone in using this sort of language. The language of the confession is quite similar to the sort of language found in some early Reformed orthodox writers. In his Summa Theologiae (1561-62) Question 25, Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83), defined the source of original sin as, “the guilt, because of the fall and ignorance of our first parents” which he, like de Bres, made parallel to their “will and inclination.” “inclinatio est reatus propter lapsum primorum parentum, et ignorantia et dubitatio de Deo et eius voluntate….” Zacharias Ursinus, Opera Theologica, 3 vol., ed. Q. Reuter. (Heidelberg, 1612) 1, 11.] Johannes Wollebius (1586-1629) in his Compendium Theologiae (1626) IX.2.v described the first stage of the fall as “[t]houghtlessness and meddlesomeness.” [John W. Beardsley, trans. and ed., Reformed Dogmatics (New York, 1965), 67.] We should also remember that the phrase follows immediately a very strong affirmation of the original ability of Adam to fulfill the law. Adam is described as the “image and likeness, good, righteous, and holy, capable in all things to will agreeably to the will of God.” The phrase “understood it not” is followed immediately by the line, “but willfully subjected himself to sin and consequently to death and the curse, giving ear to the words of the devil.” The emphasis in the article is clearly on the exercise of Adam’s free will. In contrast to John of Damascus (and all medieval theology after him), the Belgic makes here is no mention or even any (clear) implication of a fall from grace or nature inability. At most the Belgic can be understood to be appealing to Adam’s finitude (which cannot be denied and which even the Damascene affirmed) as a way of thinking about the mystery of the fall. Indeed, rather than thinking of the Belgic Confession in the context of the donum, we should think of it in the context of the orthodox Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works. The next clause of the confession affirms: “For the commandment of life, which he had received, he transgressed; and by sin separated himself from God, who was his true life; having corrupted his whole nature; whereby he made himself liable to corporal and spiritual death.” For the Belgic Confession, and the Reformed Churches, Adam’s fall (and ours in him) is not the result of a lack of being nor is it a fall from grace. The fall was a transgression of “the commandment of life.” It was a legal matter. It had legal and moral consequences.

Like Calvin and the later Reformed writers, de Bres highlighted the continuity between the Reformed doctrine of sin and redemption with that of Augustine. It was the British monk Pelagius (c.400) and his followers who challenged the federal union between Adam and his posterity. Breaking the legal/moral link between Adam and us had the effect of almost eliminating the effect of sin on us. Though the Councils of Carthage (411) and Orange (529) sided with Augustine, afterwards the majority of the medieval church moved in a steadily semi-Pelagian direction, attempting to synthesize Pelagius with Augustine. The synthesis said that sinners are able to cooperate with grace. [Jonathan H. Rainbow, The Will of God and the Cross (Allison Park, PA, 1990), 9-48.]

The Reformation was a renewal of Augustine’s doctrines of sin and grace and a rejection of this synthesis. The Belgic was a part of that Augustinian renewal. Thus it describes the corruption of sin in moral/legal not ontological or metaphysical categories and this corruption is total (ayant corrompu toute sa nature). Thus the Belgic is a re-affirmation of Augustine’s doctrine of sin and depravity over against medieval semi-pelagianism and it stands in continuity with the Reformed orthodox doctrine of man, the covenant of works, and the fall. For more on this article see Daniel R. Hyde, With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession (Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, 2008), 189-91.