Our typical interactions with the Indiana attorney and URC elder, who appears to be anti-2k all the time, have been of the drive-by variety in comm boxes at various blogs. But now Mark Van Der Molen has outdone himself and provided a substantial rendering of the history of the revision of the Belgic Confession, Article 36, on the civil magistrate. Particularly intriguing are the revisions’ emergence in the context of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, an international Reformed ecumenical body that offered to churches like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church a “conservative” alternative to either Carl McIntire’s International Council of Christian Churches or the liberal Protestant World Council of Churches. Readers should check Van Der Molen’s account on their own. They should also be aware of the debate over whether confessional subscription to the revised Belgic extends to footnotes.
Instead of weighing in on another communion’s internal debates, I want to challenge several implications that follow Van Der Molen’s narrative:
First, he claims that 2k advocates have used the revision of Belgic 36 to:
1. remove the magistrate’s concern with the first table of the Law,
2. remove the magistrate’s subjection to the authority of the Word of God, and
3. remove the magistrate’s purpose in the advancement of Christ’s kingdom.
I can’t speak for all 2kers (particularly Scott Clark and Mike Horton, who have subscribed the Three Forms of Unity), but I am not sure that Van Der Molen describes accurately their motives or the consequences of their position. This construction is again a common tactic among 2k’s critics, that somehow 2kers want to see God’s word flouted, and Christ’s kingdom reduced, and the gospel denied. In point of fact, and an attorney should know this, the arguments of 2kers do not prove what their motives are. Also, important to note, is that 2kers have denied explicitly having such anti-biblical, antinomian, and anti-kingdom motivations. Instead, they have repeatedly affirmed that they promote 2k for the good of the church, the defense of the gospel, and the rule of Christ among his people. Doesn’t such testimony count for anything with an officer of the court (I guess not when he is prosecuting alleged offenders)? Of course, 2kers could be confused, foolish, or simply wrong about the effects of 2k. But Van Der Molen once again engages in the overreach common among 2k’s critics (not to mention Rush Limbaugh or Fox News).
Second, Van Der Molen has a Netherlands-centric reading of Reformed history. For instance, he accuses 2kers of re-writing history to make it fit their view (meanwhile he does not notice how 2kers have written a great deal about the larger history of Reformed Protestantism than his narrow topic of revising Belgic 36):
What is not legitimate is a “two kingdoms” re-writing of history to suggest the entire first table has been entirely removed from the magistrate’s purview. Kuyper did not argue for a “table 1-ectomy”. More importantly, neither did our Reformed forbears when they revised the confession. Until we see a “two kingdoms” proponent successfully overture for a second-table-only revision, our confessional subscription today yet stands with the churchmen who adopted the RES Declaration and the revised Belgic 36 which retains the principle that the magistrate’s tasks are subject to both tables of God’s law.
This is a questionable reading of history on several grounds. First, Van Der Molen shows no awareness of the revisions that American Presbyterians made to their confession 150 years before the Belgic revisions. Last I checked, Presbyterians were part of the Reformed churches. The American revision includes this language, which I admit is different from the Belgic revisions:
Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance. (23.4, emphasis added)
But in narrowing his historical analysis to the Belgic’s revision, Van Der Molen gives the impression that the Presbyterians don’t count (or that when he cites VanDrunen or me, Orthodox Presbyterians are not bound by Belgic as church officers).
Also troubling about Van Der Molen’s references to the Belgic’s revision’s context is a complete disregard for what happened to the RES or its member churches. The GKN, one of the big players in establishing the RES, no longer exists, having run out of confessional steam in 2004 to join the national generically Protestant church of the Dutch monarchy. Nor does Van Der Molen observe that the RES itself no longer exists, having in2006 voted itself out of existence when it joined the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, a body dominated by liberal Reformed and Presbyterian communions. So if Van Der Molen wants his church brethren to respect their forefathers, he may want to specify which forefathers they might be. The GKN? The CRC? The RES? Is Van Der Molen really pinning his hopes on that group of Reformed churches? Talk about re-writing history.
Third, and relatedly, Van Der Molen ignores the ecumenical relations that governed the churches that revised the Belgic Confession. He concludes by stating it is time now “for the Reformed churches to recover the Reformed confessions, Belgic 36 incuded.” Well, how about the American revisions to the Westminster Confession? Does Van Der Molen really want to recover that confession? Or how about the ecumenical relations that may bring tensions between the existing Belgic 36 and OP Confession 23? Did the CRC or GKN (or the Covenanters, for that matter) ever make teaching on the civil magistrate the basis for fraternal relations? Have the URC and OPC objected to the other communion’s teachings on the civil magistrate in attempting to produce a psalter-hymnal? Has Westminster California or Mid-America Seminary ever required its Orthodox Presbyterian ministers to own the Belgic’s teaching on the magistrate and forsake their own communion’s confession?
To my knowledge, the answer is no. But Van Der Molen seems to think that Belgic 36 now needs to govern all the Reformed believers. Why? Three syllables, two words: culture wars. Theonomy, the religious right, and certain varieties of neo-Calvinism (including the Federal Vision) are all reactions to the perceived secularization of the United States in a period known as “Post-Protestant America.” Conversely, 2k is a set of arguments with the aim of steering the churches away from “putting their trust in princes.” Both have developed at the same cultural moment. One has a very narrow reading of Reformed history. The other does not.