Creeds & Confessions

Heidelberg Catechism Q.1 – Your Only Comfort in Life and in Death

The Starting Point of the Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism starts with the most important question that one can ask – literally a question of life and death! In doing so, the catechism wastes no time, and shows us that the Christian faith is no trivial matter. This sets the tone for everything that follows:

Q.1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism similarly begins by asking “What is the chief end of man?” It answers by saying that man’s chief end “is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Both catechisms have good starting points, for both begin by making us face questions of ultimate and eternal significance.

In his book on the Heidelberg Catechism, The Good News We almost ForgotKevin DeYoung writes,

“In truth, both catechisms start in appropriate places. Heidelberg starts with grace. Westminster starts with glory. We’d be hard-pressed to think of two better words to describe the theme of biblical revelation.” (p.21)

Whether you begin with grace (Heidelberg) or glory (Westminster), either way both catechisms begin by asking questions regarding the state of sinful man in relation to his Creator.

The Source of Our Only Comfort in Life and in Death

The catechism begins by pointing believers to the only true source of comfort in life and in death – that we have been bought with a price, and belong (in life and in death) to our Lord Jesus Christ. The first part of the answer spells this out for us when it has us confess in very personal terms (i.e. “I,” “my,” etc.) that our only comfort is found in this:

“That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”

This is a truth that the Scriptures point us to again and again, especially in the writings of the Apostle Paul:

  • “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” (Romans 14:7–9, ESV, Italics added)
  • “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20, ESV, Italics added)

Why is that a source of such great comfort in life and in death? The answer to that question is found in what Q.1 has to say about the redemption of Christ – the price that He paid for our salvation from sin – and what that redemption has accomplished for all who are in Christ.

The Redemption of Christ

Why is it that we no longer belong to ourselves, but rather to our faithful Savior? Because, as the catechism goes on to have us confess (again, in very personal terms),

“He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.”

So the ultimate source of our only comfort in life and in death is that we no longer belong to ourselves, but to Christ; and that is only the case because of His redemption for our sins by His cross and resurrection.

And what did Christ’s redemption accomplish? At least two things: 1.) Forgiveness and the Removal of Guilt (“fully paid for all my sins”), and 2.) Freedom to Serve God (“and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil”). You could say that these two things generally are speaking of justification and sanctification.

  • “ . . .waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:13–14, ESV)
  • “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (Hebrews 2:14–15, ESV)

The Providential Care of Christ

Not only is the redemption of Christ a source of great comfort for us in life and in death, but so also is His providential care for us. The catechism goes on to say:

“He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.”

Not only are we redeemed by Christ, but we are also unfailingly preserved in the love of God in Christ as well. Not only can nothing separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:37-39), but He also watches over us in this life in such a way, that nothing can so much as harm a hair on our heads apart from the will of God.

Here the Heidelberg Catechism is borrowing language directly from at least two passages:

  • “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29–31, ESV)
  • “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:28–30, ESV)

The Assurance of Christ

Lastly, this opening question of the catechism speaks of the great blessing of the assurance of our salvation and the work of the Spirit of Christ within us:

“Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

This assurance is also part of the only comfort in life and in death that is ours only in Christ! Not only are we assured of eternal life in Christ by the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit enables us to live for our Savior the rest of our days!

Do you belong to Jesus Christ by faith, so that you yourself have the only true comfort in life and in death that is found in no longer belonging to yourself, but rather in belong to the Lord Jesus Christ, in body and soul, and in life and in death?

No other comfort will do. Every other source of comfort will ultimately let you down, both in this life, and certainly in the day of judgment.

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An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism

heidelberg_study guideThe History of the Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism is named after the place in which it was composed –  Heidelberg, a city in the Palatinate, which was a province in Germany. It was composed at the behest of the ruler of the Palatinate, Elector (or Prince-Elector) Frederick III (1516-1576), and first published in 1563.

The primary author of the catechism was Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583), who was just 28 years-old at the time (!), and was professor of theology at the Heidelberg University. Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587), who himself was just 26 years-old at the time, and was the court preacher of Frederick III, is thought by some to be the co-author of the catechism, but many hold that he was mainly responsible for the editing and final composition of the original edition that was approved by the Synod at Heidelberg in 1563.

Its original full title translates to “Catechism, or Christian Instruction, as Conducted in the Churches and Schools of the Electoral Palatinate.” (See The Creeds of Christendom, by Philip Schaff, Vol.III, p.307.) This gives us a good idea of the extent of its originally-intended use – not only as a means of promoting doctrinal unity throughout the Palatinate, but also as a teaching tool in both the churches and in schools as well.

The Structure and Outline of the Heidelberg Catechism

Not long after its original composition the questions in the Heidelberg Catechism were numbered, and it was divided up into 52 sections, one for each Lord’s Day (i.e. Sunday) of the year, so that it could be more easily used as a teaching tool in the churches, both for instruction as well as for catechetical preaching. In this way a church could teach her members the entire summary of the basics of the faith at least once every calendar year!

Not only that, but the entire catechism is outlined or structured around three (3) points or sections, often summarized as the “3 G’s” –  Guilt (Q.3-11), Grace (Q.12-85), and Gratitude (Q.86-129). This very outline (although not employing these exact terms) is made explicit in Q.2, which says:

“Q.2 What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?
A. Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.”

Those “three things” that we must know in order to live and die in the joy of our comfort in Christ Jesus correspond to the “3 G’s” listed above. To know our guilt is to know how great our sin and misery are; to know God’s grace in Christ is to know how we are set free from all our sins and misery; and to know true gratitude is to know how we are to thank God for such deliverance.

The catechism (like many others composed since the start of the Protestant Reformation) includes somewhat lengthy expositions of the The Apostles’ Creed (Q.22-58), The Ten Commandments (Q.92-115), and the Lord’s Prayer (Q.116-129), which are commonly considered to be the ABC’s or building blocks of the Christian faith and life. As Puritan writer Thomas Watson well states it:

“The ten commandments are the rule of our life, the creed is the sum of our faith, and the Lord’s prayer is the pattern of our prayer.”  (The Lord’s Prayer, p.1)

No wonder those three (3) things were so commonly taught in the catechisms of the churches of the Reformation!

The Influence of the Heidelberg Catechism

In the Introduction to his book, The Heidelberg Catechism: A Study Guide, G.I. Williamson writes,

“The Heidelberg Catechism is one of the finest creeds of the Reformation period. A faithful teacher of millions, it has stood the test of time. It is still, today, one of the best tools available for learning what it means to be a Christian.” (p.1)

That is high praise indeed, and well-earned at that. Regarding the widespread reach and influence of the Heidelberg Catechism, Philip Schaff writes:

“It is stated that, next to the Bible, the ‘Imitation of Christ,’ by Thomas a Kempis, and Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ no book has been more frequently translated, more widely circulated and used.” (The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. I, p.536)

The fact that this catechism has endured the test of time for over 450 years is a testament to its clarity and usefulness. It still remains a vital part of the doctrinal standards (known as the “three forms of unity”) of the Reformed Churches in continental Europe and America.

 

THE BELGIC CONFESSION – ARTICLE 8 (THE Trinity)

Article 8 of the Belgic Confession holds forth the biblical doctrine of the Trinity:

According to this truth and this Word of God, we believe in one only God, who is the one single essence, in which are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct according to their incommunicable properties; namely, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is the cause, origin, and beginning of all things visible and invisible; the Son is the word, wisdom, and image of the Father; the Holy Spirit is the eternal power and might, proceeding from the Father and the Son. Nevertheless, God is not by this distinction divided into three, since the Holy Scriptures teach us that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit have each His personality, distinguished by Their properties; but in such wise that these three persons are but one only God.

Hence, then, it is evident that the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Father, and likewise the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. Nevertheless, these persons thus distinguished are not divided, nor intermixed; for the Father has not assumed the flesh, nor has the Holy Spirit, but the Son only. The Father has never been without His Son, or without His Holy Spirit. For They are all three co-eternal and co-essential. There is neither first nor last; for They are all three one, in truth, in power, in goodness, and in mercy.

The Belgic Confession begins with an article about God (Article 1), followed by a series of articles about Scripture, which is the means by which we come to know God rightly (Articles 2-7). Now here in Article 8 the Confession circles back to deal with the doctrine of God, specifically the doctrine of the Trinity (articles 8-11). Article 8 states the doctrine of the Trinity in some detail, while Article 9 gives the reader the scriptural proofs for that doctrine.

And so Article 8 explicitly points back to the Articles that preceded it, saying that it is, “According to this truth and this Word of God” (i.e. the Scriptures as the inspired, authoritative, and sufficient Word of God as detailed in Articles 2-7) that “we believe in one only God, who is the one single essence, in which are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct according to their incommunicable properties; namely, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (i.e. the Trinity). All of that is to say that we believe and confess the doctrine of the Trinity primarily because the Scriptures plainly teach it.

Only One God

The Confession states that “we believe in one only God, who is the one single essence . . . .” So we believe in only one God, “who is the single essence” (or substance). This is also what the Nicene Creed (325 A.D.) affirms when it says that the Lord Jesus Christ is “of one substance with the Father.”

That there is only one true & living God is taught throughout Scripture. For instance, Deuteronomy 6:4 says,

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (ESV)

Likewise Isaiah 45:5 says,

“I am the LORD, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;” (ESV)

The New Testament teaches this as well. In James 2:19 says,

“You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (ESV)

As Christians, we believe and confess that “There is but one only, the living and true God” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.5).

One God in Three Distinct Persons

Nevertheless, in this “one only God, who is the one single essence” there are “three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct according to their incommunicable properties; namely, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

This too is plainly taught in the Scriptures. For example, the baptismal formula in the Great Commission says,

“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (ESV)

We are to baptize disciples “in the name [singular = not “names”] of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (v.19).

Likewise the benediction found in 2 Corinthians 13:14 says,

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (ESV)

That the Persons of the Godhead are “distinct” from each other (while in no way separate) is emphasized by the use of three descriptive terms – “really, truly, and eternally.” In other words, the distinction between the Persons of the Godhead (i.e. the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) is real and true, and not merely imagined or apparent, as was taught by the heresy of modalism, which holds that there is one God who appears to take turns (so to speak) revealing Himself as being the Father one moment, and as the Son the next, etc.

Not only that, but the Persons of the Trinity are also “eternally” distinct. The one true and living God has always been one God in three Persons. That being the case, we are not to conceive of God as if the Persons of the Trinity were so distinct as to be separate (which would be tri-theism or polytheism). That is why the first paragraph of Article 8 goes on to say:

“God is not by this distinction divided into three, since the Holy Scriptures teach us that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit have each His personality, distinguished by Their properties; but in such wise that these three persons are but one only God.”

The Westminster Shorter Catechism sums this up quite nicely for us when it says,

“Q.6. how many persons are there in the Godhead? A. There are three persons in the Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.”

When the second paragraph of Article 8 says that “these persons thus distinguished are not divided, nor intermixed” it employs similar language to what is found in the Athanasian Creed, which states:

“That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;

Neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance.

Article 8 closes with the following statement:

“The Father has never been without His Son, or without His Holy Spirit. For They are all three co-eternal and co-essential. There is neither first nor last; for They are all three one, in truth, in power, in goodness, and in mercy.”

So the biblical doctrine is that there has never been a time when there was not a Trinity. God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are not created beings, but are eternally-begotten and eternally-proceeding from God the Father. And, lest that be misunderstood, the Confession goes on to say that “There is neither first nor last.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism likewise affirms this very truth when it states that the three Persons of the Godhead are “the same in substance, equal in power and glory” (Q.6).

Speaking of the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity, which the one true holy, Catholic church has always confessed throughout her history, Daniel R. Hyde writes,

“Catholicity is expressed in no better way than in the confession of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. One of the purposes of the Belgic Confession was to express that the Reformed faith was nothing less than the faith of the ancient Christian church.” (With Heart and Mouth, p.112)

 

The Impossibility of Good Works Apart from Justification by Faith Alone (Belgic Confession Article 24)

It has been rightly said that faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone (i.e. sanctification and good works must necessarily follow). You can even go so far as to speak of the necessity of good works, although certainly not as the grounds or basis for our justification.

But have you ever considered the fact that good works are actually quite impossible apart from justification by faith alone? The first paragraph of Belgic Confession article 24 makes this abundantly clear:

“We believe that this true faith, being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God and the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin. Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a faith working through love, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word.”

Here the Confession addresses one of the most common objections to the gospel of God’s free grace in Christ. People sometimes hear of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone (i.e. not by works), and conclude that if we are not saved by our works, and if salvation is really a free gift of God’s grace, then it does not matter how we live. Legalists will often go so far as to suggest that the gospel of free grace will invariably lead to licentiousness. (Paul addresses this same objection in Romans 6:1-14.)

In answer to this objection the Confession states,

“Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a faith working through love, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word.”

And so not only does justification by faith not lead to people being “remiss” or lacking in pious and holy living, but the Confession goes so far as to say that, “on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation.”

Justification by faith alone is the only real source of truly good (not perfect) works. Salvation by works (which is what every other religion in human history ultimately teaches) is really what results in the utter absence of good works, as truly good works are done of out a living faith and a true love for God, whereas the religion of works or legalism spurs people on to works “only out of self-love or fear of damnation.”

In the end all forms of works-based salvation (false gospels all) ironically end up destroying or preventing the very possibility of good works, while only the free grace of the gospel and justification by faith alone can ever truly lead to good works, which must be done out of love to God.

Another way of saying that is to say that good works are utterly impossible for us outside of justification by faith alone.

 

“Even More Present Than Before” – John Calvin on the Ascension of Christ

Institutes CalvinIn his 1541 edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin includes an extended exposition of the Apostles’ Creed. (That section alone is worth the price of the book.)

His comments on the the Creed’s statement regarding the ascension of Christ (i.e. “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty”) are noteworthy and helpful.

It is sometimes asked how Christ’s promise to be with us “always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20, ESV) can be compatible with His ascension to the right hand of God the Father. In some sense, then, isn’t He actually not with us, or at least in some way less present with us than He was during His earthly ministry?

To this question Calvin says the following,

“Thus being received into heaven, he removed his bodily presence from our sight, not so as to leave without help believers who still have to live on earth, but to rule the world with a power even more present than before. Certainly his promise to be with us to the end of the age has been fulfilled by his ascension, for as by it his body was lifted above all the heavens, so its power and effectiveness reach far beyond all bounds of heaven and earth.” (p.253)

What an amazing statement! Even though our Lord Jesus Christ is no longer bodily present for a time until He returns, He now rules over all things “with a power even more present than before” (italics added)!

Not only that, but Calvin goes on to say that Christ’s ascension, far from undoing His promise to be with us always, is actually the very fulfillment of it! It is because Christ has ascended “above all the heavens” that His “power and effectiveness reach far beyond all bounds of heaven and earth.” And so it is because of Christ’s ascension that He is actually with us always, even to the end of the age!

The Belgic Confession – Article 7 (The Sufficiency of Scripture)

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away anything from the Word of God, it does thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects.

Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all: for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore, we reject with all our hearts whatsoever does not agree with this infallible rule, as the apostles have taught us, saying, Prove the spirits, whether they are of God. Likewise: if anyone comes unto you, and brings not this teaching, receive him not into your house. (Belgic Confession, Article 7)

The Sufficiency of Scripture for Faith and Practice

Article 7 of the Belgic Confession deals with the sufficiency of Scripture. It states that the Scriptures alone “fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein.”

To say that the Scriptures “fully contain the will of God” is to say that nothing that we need for faith or practice is lacking in it, and so nothing may be added to or taken away from it. The Scriptures themselves teach this:

  • “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (2 Peter 1:3–4, ESV, Italics added)
  • “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Revelation 22:18–19, ESV, Italics added)

To say that the Scriptures “fully contain the will of God” is also to say that in the Bible God has revealed to us everything that we need to know about faith (what we are to believe) and practice (how we are to live). Similarly, the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man” (Q.3). These are the principal or primary aims and ends of Scripture.

  • The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;” (Psalm 19:7, ESV)
  • “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:32, ESV)
  • “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16–17, ESV)

This, however, does not mean that God has revealed everything that there is to know about everything, much less that the Scriptures are somehow encyclopedic in nature. There are many things that God has not revealed to us in the pages of Scripture:

“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29, ESV)

Even the history (for example) that is contained in the Bible, while true & inerrant, is not exhaustive in nature – it is not intended to be. The Gospels do not tell us everything that we might want to know about Jesus. The Apostle John plainly states that if he were to have included everything that the Lord Jesus did, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). But the Scriptures do tell us everything that we need to know about the Lord Jesus Christ in order to be saved.

The Sufficiency of Scripture as Our Infallible Rule (or Standard)

Belgic Confession Article 6 dealt with the right way to view the Apocrypha – as non-canonical, extra-biblical writings that may be read and possibly even learned from, “so far as they agree with the canonical books,” but which are not authoritative, and must be judged according to the testimony of Scripture, which is our sole authority for faith and practice.

Here Article 7 similarly deals with how non-canonical, extra-biblical writings (as well as customs, councils, confessions, etc.) are to be viewed in light of the sufficiency of Scripture in particular. The Confession states:

“Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God . . . .”

All too often even when the authority of Scripture is affirmed, its sufficiency is either implicitly or explicitly denied. And so (to use the phrase from this Article) the Scriptures alone are to be our “infallible rule,” by which we are to test all things.

  • “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:20–22, ESV)
  • “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1, ESV)

And so the ancient ecumenical creeds, and the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms (to name just a few examples), however true, useful, and helpful they may be, are not (and should never be) our ultimate standard for faith & practice. That is a place rightfully reserved for the Scriptures alone. They are subordinate standards, and must themselves even be tested by the Word of God.

The Belgic Confession – Article 6 (The Difference Between the Canonical and the Apocryphal Books)

We distinguish those sacred books from the apocryphal, viz: the third and fourth books of Esdras, the books of Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Jesus Sirach, Baruch, the Appendix to the book of Esther, the Song of the Three Children in the Furnace, the History of Susannah, of Bel and the Dragon, the prayer of Manasseh, and the two books of the Maccabees. All of which the Church may read and take instruction from, so far as they agree with the canonical books; but they are far from having such power and efficacy that we may from their testimony confirm any point of faith or of the Christian religion; much less may they be used to detract from the authority of the other, that is, the sacred books. (Belgic Confession, Article 6)

Article 6 of the Belgic Confession deals with the Apocryphal (i.e. non-canonical) books, and so clearly and explicitly distinguishes them from the canonical books.

Many in our day might see any discussion of the Apocrypha as unnecessary, or even as a waste of time, but surely it is significant that the authors of both of the most prominent Reformed confessions of faith that were produced in the 16th and 17th centuries (i.e. the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession of Faith) saw fit to include explicit statements on this very subject.

The Background of the Apocrypha

The apocryphal books were so named because the origin and authorship of these books was unknown.1 (The word “apocrypha” means “hidden”.) They were rejected as being non-canonical by the ancient church.

The apocryphal books were included in the Septuagint (LXX), which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures. The apocryphal books, however, were not included in the Hebrew Canon. When Jerome (347-420 A.D.) later translated the Septuagint into Latin, he then included the apocryphal books as well.

The apocryphal books later came to be accepted as canonical by both the Roman Catholic Church as well as the Eastern Orthodox Church. In fact, the Council of Trent (1546) went so far as to declare that anyone who failed to receive the apocryphal books as holy and canonical “as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately condemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema” (i.e. accursed or condemned).

The Rejection of the Apocrypha

The Protestant Reformers, following the lead of the history of the early church, rejected the Apocryphal books, and made a clear distinction between them and the canonical books. The first part of this Article’s statement on the Canon says, “We distinguish those sacred books from the apocryphal . . . .” And for the sake of clarity the Confession lists both the canonical books (Article 4) as well as the apocryphal or non-canonical books (Article 6).

The reasons for the rejection of the Apocrypha are many. First, they were not considered to be a part of the Hebrew canon. Their origin was some time after the writing of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament. Not only that, but the apocryphal books were also not accepted as being canonical by the ancient church.

with-heart-and-mouthNot only was the authorship and origin of the apocryphal books in question, but their content was found to contain blatant historical inaccuracies and theological errors that contradicted the teachings of Scripture. Daniel R. Hyde notes:

“Finally, the basis for the doctrine of purgatory is supposedly found in the words of 2 Maccabees 12:43-45, which mentions prayer for the dead (v.44).”2

Seeing that the Roman Catholic church uses these non-canonical books to establish or support unbiblical doctrines and practices serves to show why this issue was found to be important enough to be included as one of the articles of faith in the Belgic Confession (as well as the Westminster Confession of Faith – 1.3).

The Use of the Apocrypha

Article 6 of the Belgic Confession, despite explicitly rejecting the apocryphal books as being non-canonical, nevertheless does not forbid or prohibit the church from using them. It goes on to state:

“All of which the Church may read and take instruction from, so far as they agree with the canonical books; but they are far from having such power and efficacy that we may from their testimony confirm any point of faith or of the Christian religion; much less may they be used to detract from the authority of the other, that is, the sacred books.”

So, according to the Belgic Confession, we may read them and even”take instruction from” them, but only as they are found to be in agreement with the teachings of Scripture. No point of doctrine may be established or confirmed by them (e.g. purgatory), nor are we to view them as authoritative. Whenever their teachings are found to contradict those of Scripture, those teachings of the Apocrypha must be rejected.

Likewise the Westminster Confession of Faith states:

“The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.” (1.3)

And so it is clear that we are to view the apocryphal books as not being inspired or canonical, but simply as any other merely human (and so fallible) writings. That means that we may certainly read them, and at times may even learn from them. But when all is said and done, they must be carefully weighed and judged according to the Scriptures themselves, which are our only inspired and authoritative rule for faith and practice.

1  See With Heart and Mouth, p.90.

2 Ibid, p.98