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Christology Eschatology

Incoherence in the Belgic Confession (1561), between its Christology and its Eschatology

Recently, I was reading the Belgic Confession (1561), which is one of The Three Forms of Unity within the Reformed Church. In Article 19 of the Confession, on “The Union and Distinction of the Two Natures in the Person of Christ,” I was intrigued by the implications I discerned for the understanding of the nature of hell which is dubbed “conditional immortality” or “annihilationism.” I welcome comment from readers of this post.

Article 19 states:

We believe that by this conception the person of the Son is inseparably united and connected with the human nature; so that there are not two Sons of God, nor two persons, but two natures united in one single person; yet that each nature retains its own distinct properties. As then the divine nature hath always remained uncreated, without beginning of days or end of life [1Pet 3:18; Acts 2:24; Isa 53:8], filling heaven and earth, so also hath the human nature not lost its properties, but remained a creature, having beginning of days, being a finite nature, and retaining all the properties of a real body [1 Jn 1:2; Jer 23:6; 2 Tim 1:10; Jn 6:51]. And though He hath by His resurrection given immortality to the same, nevertheless He hath not changed the reality of His human nature; forasmuch as our salvation and resurrection also depend on the reality of His body.

It would have been a treat to talk about the implications of this statement, with Guido de Bres, who was the original author of the Confession, and with the Reformed theologians who eventually formulated the document in its present form. De Bres was a pastor in the Netherlands, and he had been a student of John Calvin and Theodore Beza, in Geneva. Clearly, the final framers of this Confession did not believe humans to be intrinsically immortal. Indeed, our mortality is so fundamental to our humanity that the eternal Son had to add mortality to the complex of his attributes when he added human nature to his being. As pre-incarnate, he was “uncreated, without beginning of days or end of life” but, in becoming “flesh,” he added a temporally limited, finite, nature to his person.

I was particularly intrigued by the statement that “by His resurrection” he gave immortality to his own body. I hear in this so clear a statement of conditional immortality that I wonder if the framers apprehended it as clearly. It seems very obvious. If the Father had not raised the incarnate Son, making him immortal, while still being fully human, then his death would have been the end of his human nature, it would have reached the “end of life,” irrevocably. In short, Jesus, as the second Adam, became immortal by virtue of his resurrection, which vindicated his claims and declared his righteousness, and only those who are united to Christ by faith will share in the fruit of Christ’s resurrection, namely, eternal life or immortality.

Article 37

Alas, the framers of the Belgic Confession were most likely blind to the implications of their own Christology for their eschatology. In Article 37, they stated that the elect “shall see the terrible vengeance which God shall execute on the wicked [Dan 7:26].” It is interesting that the text cited here says that the final rebellious king [antichrist?] will have “his power taken away and completely destroyed forever” [NIV], but it does not explicitly say that the king himself will be “destroyed forever,” though it does not rule out that possibility either. The rub comes at the end of that sentence in the Confession, because the wicked “shall be convicted by the testimony of their own consciences, and being immortal [italics are mine], shall be tormented in that everlasting fire [Rev 21:8; 2 Pet 2:9].”

Hmmm! From where, we must wonder, did the wicked get this gift of immortality? Since the Word incarnate only became immortal through the power of his resurrection, the statement that the wicked are immortal is extremely puzzling. Many classic affirmers of eternal conscious torment had affirmed a Platonic understanding of human souls as intrinsically immortal, but Article 19 had rejected this notion of humanity, so there is a strange tension and discord between Articles 19 and 37.  By now, I expect that the framers of the Confession have seen their serious blind spot and are happy that conditionalists are correcting their error.

What do you make of this?

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By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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