Fulfilling Or Fulfilled? An Ambiguity In Belgic Confession Article 5

Belgic Confession Art. 5

French English Latin English
car les aveugles mémes peuvent apercevoir que les choses adviennent qui y sont prédites. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are fulfilling. (Schaff) quum et ipsi caeci rerum omnium, quae in illis praedictae fuerunt, impletionem et executionem clare conspicere, et veluti sensibus percipere possint Since also the blind are able to see clearly, as if they were to perceive with the senses, the fulfillment and execution of the things predicted in the Scriptures.

Each year, the required Reformed Confessions course (Three Forms section) we work through the Belgic, the Heidelberg, and the Canons. There is a puzzle in the last clause of Art. 5. Schaff’s English translation follows the French closely but there is a question about how to render adviennent. It’s a third plural present active indicative (or subjunctive) of advenir.

The question is: Does the Belgic refer to things that were being fulfilled in the 1550s (on the assumption that the Belgic was composed in 1559) or is it a reference to things that were fulfilled in the canonical period? Schaff’s “are fulfilling” seems odd on either account. The 1959 edition published by the CRC has “are being fulfilled.” When I began looking into this I hoped that the Latin text might provide some relief. Unfortunately, as you can see from the chart above, it does not. Is the “impletionem et executionem” completed or ongoing? Grammatically it does not see clear.

To add to the ambiguity, there is a textual variant in the Latin text. The text in the chart above is that found in Niemeyer’s Collectio Confessionum (1840) notes that in the 1612 Syntagma (body of confessions) the text has “illis scriptis,” (i.e., in the Scriptures), which doesn’t change anything since scriptis was already implied. In the modern critical edition, however, E. F. K. Müller, Die Bekenntnisscriften der Reformierten Kirche (1903) is different in a few respects:

quum vel ipsi caeci ea, quae in illis praedicta fuerunt, evenire, ipso quasi contact deprehendant. [Since the blind themselves should see these things, as if by contact itself, which were predicted in them, to be coming about]

This text seems to tilt toward the present fulfillment of things predicted in Scripture. Since the grammar is ambiguous let’s take a look at the larger context to see if we can arrive at greater clarity.

We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith; believing without any doubt all things contained in them, not so much because the Church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they carry the evidence thereof in themselves. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled.

The issue with which the article is dealing is the authority of the canonical books. The Belgic gives three proofs of the authority of the canonical books: We receive the canonical books because of their intrinsic authority, not because the church confers authority upon them. The canonical books make the church, the church does not form the canon (rule). Scripture, as God’s Word, is self-authenticating. The second proof is the Spirit’s internal testimony by which the authority of the canonical books is affirmed and confirmed. The ambiguities appear in the third proof, the fulfillment of prophecy.

The first two proofs are grounded in redemptive history but they have an existential, contemporary aspect to them. We are still receiving the canonical books as self-attesting. The Spirit is still witnessing to us that, yes, the Scriptures are the canon and these are the canonical books. In that case, there’s not a clear pattern of historical or retrospective perspective.

Then we turn to commentators to see how they’ve interpreted this language. Henry Beets, The Reformed Confession Explained (1929) synthesized a retrospective and conspective [my term] interpretation. He wrote:

The second phrase, quoted above, “about the fulfilling of the things foretold” evidently refers to the prophecies of the Word of God—whose fulfilling is perceived even by the blind. Think of those pertaining to Jerusalem’s gall, about Tyre, Sidon, Nineveh, Babylon, and particularly the things foretold about the tribe of the wandering foot—the Jew. What the bible has predicted about the persecution of the followers of Christ in the days of the Reformers, was perhaps in the mind of the author of the Creed when this confession was written. What a literal, though fearful confirmation of what the Lord had spoken and his apostles written on the subject of persecution was then in evidence!

Jan van Bruggen, The Church Says Amen (English translation, 2003) said,

Read Scripture though: it is a two-edged sword! “Even the blind are able to perceived that the rings foretold in them are being fulfilled” (see also Isaiah 42:7). The prophecies, often spoken centuries before, were fulfilled, and the course of the history and life of the Church unfolds along the specific paths already determined by Scripture centuries before.

This seems to follow the same approach as Beets (retrospective and conspective). Daniel Hyde, With Heart and Mouth (2008) writes of the fulfillment of the promises within canonical Scripture and of God’s ongoing testimony to us in Scripture and in Christ.

Of the three commentaries Beets does the best job of confronting this particular issue most directly. One of the three proofs or confirmations of the authority of the Word is the fulfillment of prophecy. Certainly that includes that which occurred in redemptive history, recorded in the canonical Scriptures themselves, but the grammar seems to push us to think that Guido de Bres (1522–67) also intended to say that events of the 16th century also served as confirmation of the truth of Scripture.

What might some of those events have been? The most intense suffering of the Dutch Reformed churches, the “churches under the cross,” occurred from 1566 through the 70s, when the Spanish unleashed a terrible campaign of repression during which thousands of Protestants were killed. de Bres, however, wrote this article probably in 1559 so he probably have had in mind things such as the general persecution of the Reformed by Romanist (Spanish) authorities, the explicit rejection of the gospel by Rome in session 6 of the Council of Trent (1547), and arguably the papacy itself, which, by wielding both civil and ecclesiastical authority against the Protestants, looked very much like the biblical anti-Christ. The reference to antichrist in the original text of Belgic Confession art. 36 also appears to be an implied reference to the papacy.

We live after the revision of WCF 25.6, after the rise of the modern ecumenical movement, so we are not used to seeing this identification but it was a commonplace among Protestants. Luther taught it repeatedly. John Frith (1503–33) published a treatise arguing this case in 1529. In his commentary on 1John 2:18, Calvin identified the papacy with the antichrist using language that was quite similar to that used in Belgic Confession art. 5:

The Popes have imagined an Antichrist, who for three years and a half is to harass the Church. All the marks by which the Spirit of God has pointed out Antichrist, clearly appear in the Pope; but the triennial Antichrist lays fast hold on the foolish Papists, so that seeing they do not see. Let us then remember, that Antichrist has not only been announced by the Spirit of God, but that also the marks by which he may be distinguished have been mentioned.

The Heidelberg theologian Georg Sohn (or Sohnius; 1551–89) wrote an entire treatise (1588) defending the proposition that the pope is the antichrist.

The original text of Westminster Confession 25.6 said:

There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ: nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God.

The divines spoke this way after more than a century pan-Protestant consensus that the papacy represented the spirit of antichrist and that the popes embodied the pretensions of antichrist.

When de Bres wrote article 5, he was in the midst of a vigorous persecution, where believers were forced to meet in small groups (which they called “dinner parties”) in houses or in fields. de Bres himself spent years on the run from persecution. When he accepted his last pastoral call, it cost him his life, as he knew it might when he took the call. All these things looked very much like the kinds of persecution and suffering our Lord promised his people.


1. Thanks to Casey Carmichael for his help with the grammar of the Niemeyer edition of the Belgic.

2. We have retrospective and prospective but not conspective. It is not listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. I think it’s an excellent word that we should have so I made it up.

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  1. Another Heidelberg theologian, Girolamo Zanchi (Jerome Zanchius), had similar things to say in his Commentary on 2 Thessalonians (specifically chapter 2). It would be difficult to make even a representative (let alone a full) list of Reformed theologians that defended this doctrine.

    One work that probably should be translated into English is Nicolas Vignier’s “Theatre de l’Antechrist,” a work commissioned by the Reformed Synod in France that runs to nearly 1,200 pages.

  2. Many are under the impression that the revision of the Westminster Confession on this point occurred in 1789; in point of fact, this article was not revised until 1903.

    • Yes and it should be recognised that Charles Hodge, who was anything but bigoted in his attitude towards RCs, has a trenchant defence of the papal antichrist doctrine in his Systematic Theology.

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