by Travis Grassmid
The date was October 31, 1517. Martin Luther, a young monk and teacher of theology, posted his famous ninety-five theses on the Wittenberg church doors, an act which marked the beginning of what is now known as the Protestant Reformation.
Of course Luther was not alone; there were many stalwart men of faith beginning to challenge the status quo of 16th century Catholicism. While Luther was teaching in Wittenberg, John Calvin was writing profusely in Geneva. Throughout Europe a fresh wave of commitment to Scriptural authority was sweeping the land. Thus began a tidal wave of true revival in the church. “Protestants” (as this new breed was called) were protesting the tyranny of a self-serving church, and striving for a return to humble submission to the self-authenticating and authoritative Word of God.
There is a popular truism which states, “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This was the trap into which the Roman Catholic Church of the 16th century had fallen. In matters of faith and practice, they had nearly complete control of theology. From the selling of indulgences, to the interpretation of Scripture, the church of Rome ruled with an iron fist.
Now, fast forward forty-four years. The location is Doornik (southern Netherlands, now a part of Belgium), a city under the control of King Phillip II of Spain. Phillip II, being a devout Catholic, was actively engaged not only in promoting Catholicism throughout his kingdom, but also was willing to be the instrument for enforcing his religion. No other religion would be permitted under his reign, and particularly not that accursed theology of Calvin and Luther. Enter, the Spanish Inquisition.
Here is where it gets interesting. Doornik had for some time been under French rule, and the seeds of the Reformation had not only been planted, but they had germinated and taken firm root. They would not be subjugated by Rome easily. In September of 1561, one of the most unusual “peaceful protests” ever recorded in history took place. About 600 citizens gathered at the local fair and began singing Psalms! The good people of Doornik wanted to hear God’s Word in their own tongue. The governor, sister to King Phillip II, was outraged!
About a month after the protest of Psalms, there was a document nailed to the doors of the local Roman Catholic Church; an unsigned document, purportedly representing the desires of the protesters of Doornik, a document which we now know and cherish as the “Belgic Confession of Faith.”
What made this document so offensive to the mother church, you may ask? In short, it is the fact that this document was a well-crafted letter which clearly articulated the inerrant, authoritative nature of Scripture alone as our Christian authority. In so doing, the authority of the church over the Word of God was challenged, a challenge which the church could not tolerate.
Two sets of documents nailed to church doors, with forty-four years separating the two occurrences.
Each of these occurrences was for the express purpose of “protesting” the extra-biblical abuse of power by the church of her day. Each of these acts of protest was the result of godly men, holding the Word of God high, as the only inerrant authority. Each of these protests resulted in continued and even magnified persecution; but then, comfort in this life held very little compulsion to men who longed for that heavenly city. Martin Luther would be hunted. Guido de Bres (the preacher who penned the words of the Belgic Confession) vowed that he and the protesters would, “‘offer their backs to stripes, their tongues to knives, their mouths to gags, their whole bodies to fire’ rather than deny the truth expressed in this Confession” (Introduction to the Belgic Confession – 1959 edition of the Psalter Hymnal).
For over 450 years now, the courage of those valiant protesters of Doornik has been used by God to keep His church rooted in Scriptural authority. Article V of the Confession sets the standard for our understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture:
“We receive all these books (the sixty-six being listed in Article IV), 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 blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled.”
The Reformed are sometimes accused of holding confessions to either being higher, or at least equal to, the Word of God. However, the beauty of true confessionalism is that our confessions unabashedly hold God’s Word above any word of man.
Rev. Travis Grassmid is Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies and Counseling at Heidelberg Theological Seminary.