Acton Institute Powerblog

The Belgic Confession and Political Justice

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

Much of the discussions I’ve been involved in over recent months that have focused on the federal budget have involved some basic assumptions about what the Christian view of government is. Sometimes these assumptions have been explicitly conflicting. Other times the assumptions have been shown as the result of exegetical commitments about what Scripture says.

The Belgic Confession of 1561This is, for instance, one of the points that came up right at the conclusion of the panel discussion about intergenerational justice at AEI a few weeks ago. The question was essentially whether and how we can move from the example given in the Old Testament nation of Israel to conclusions about the role of governments today.

There’s much to be said on this point, and it is an important hermeneutical question. What I will point out here, however, is that there are significant and noteworthy traditions of how to do precisely this.

In this regard, I’ll point to this year’s 450th anniversary of a major confessional document for the Reformed tradition, the Belgic Confession. Article 36 of the confession, which has had its own share of interesting interpretive history, lays out the basic role of the civil government:

We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings.

For that purpose he has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good.

The clear emphasis on the task of the civil government here isn’t on some undifferentiated concept of “justice” or comprehensive shalom but rather a kind of procedural justice focused on “good order” and retributive justice, for which reason God “has placed the sword in the hands of the government.”

The Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, teach that the ruler is to “do justice.” But what that means precisely is not self-evident. Your understanding depends in part on whether and to what extent you think the “political” sphere has limits, or whether you distinguish between the “justice” that is appropriate to different spheres. It is not obvious that this biblical injunction to “do justice” means that the federal government is required to provide direct material assistance to the poor on an ongoing and permanent basis.

The Belgic Confession outlines the limits of the civil magistrates’ power and authority: “They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.” As the Reformed tradition celebrates the 450th anniversary of the Belgic Confession this year, this is a perspective that warrants greater attention and fidelity.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Roger McKinney

    I think some at the School of Salamanca clarified the issue even more. I can’t remember the scholar’s name, but he told the king of Spain that he had the right to collect taxes in order to protect the life, liberty and property of the people. Anything else was theft.

  • Dan H.

    I wonder what Guy de Bres would have made of passages like 1 Sam. 10:17-24?

    There seems to be a tension (see 1 Sam. 11:1-11) in the Hebrew scriptures themselves regarding the precise nature of state and whether or not God has ordained as opposed to allowed it.

  • Dan,

    Well maybe he ordains government but not particular forms as such. Monarchy in the OT might be an example of that kind of distinction. But that raises precisely the kind of hermeneutical question that I mentioned at the AEI event. What is the modern-day analog to the Israelite king? The president? The federal government as a whole? And how does the particular instantiation of that polity in the OT normatively relate to contemporary forms of government? These are not simple and easy questions that allow us to make 1:1 comparisons.

  • Jordan:

    Have you reached at least a working hypothesis as to the extent to which the relationship between the subjects and the kings of Israel and Judah is parallel to the relationship between the the citizens of the United States and their federal government? In what sense are the moral and especially theological questions presented by the call for governmentally enacted social justice theoretical matters of (God-ordained?) sovereignty and in what sense a practical question in terms of the existence of state power? To what deference are the precedents of the Supreme Court of the United States entitled in terms of having an effect upon the moral and theological inquiries involved the call for legally enforced social justice?

    I do hope you’re planning to publish something on this timely issue soon.



  • Michael, this doesn’t address all of your questions directly, but certainly is relevant:

    Herman Bavinck, “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today (1891)”

  • Roger McKinney

    Dan, that passage is extremely important! God makes it clear that allowing the Israelis to have a king was punishment for their rebellion against him. Per Romans, one of God’s most severe judgments is to let people have their way. The consequences are almost always disastrous.

    The issue is a question of hermeneutics. Using sound hermeneutic principles, the concept of justice in the OT is clear. It was a legal term. Some people try to cloud the issue in order to make their socialism more palatable.

    In the only government God ever created, he made no room for legislative or executive branches. His only governmental institution was the judge. That’s it! There was no standing army, no president or cabinet, no police officers.

    God provided the law and that gave it authority. No one else would dream of writing law because that would place them on the same level as God. The attitude was similar to that of natural law in the middle ages. All the judges had to do was apply God’s law to specific situations.

    Clearly, what God endorsed in his government was natural law and common law. He made no room for legislative law at all.

    God intended man to be free from men who assume legislative and executive authority. They are punishments from God for our rebellion. We are to follow God’s law, pick good judges and let them apply God’s law to build up a body of common law.

    Tax collection, which went to the priests, and the poor laws were voluntary. God created no executive branch to enforce them. Enforcement of criminal and civil laws were left the citizens involved, particularly the family.

    This bare bones government makes it clear that God had a purpose for government, and that purpose was to enforce his laws. But the people could not enforce all of his laws. They couldn’t enforce the religious and poor laws. They could not take violations of those laws before a judge and demand compensation. Clearly, God intended those laws to be voluntary. But the people could take criminal or civil law violations to a judge or panel of judges and the people had God’s authority to enforce the judge’s decision.

    When I point these things out to people, I always get the response “But Israel was a theocracy! We aren’t.” So? What did it mean for Israel that it was a theocracy? It meant that God judged the nation for violating its religious, poor and land laws, but only after a very long period of violation.

    He punished idolatry by having other nations conquer Israel on a regular basis. Americans don’t like the idea that God would allow other nations to conquer us, so we think we can maintain a standing army to intimidate potential invaders and keep others from attacking us no matter how ungodly we become. How has that worked out?

    God sent Israel into exile for disobeying the poor and land laws, but only after about a thousand years of violation! God seems pretty lenient there.

    Does God not punish nations today for ungodliness and immorality? Of course he does! The world is not much less of a theocracy today than it was in early Israel. War and conquest are two of God’s most common punishments.

    What are the punishments for disobeying God’s economic laws? What else but economic disaster as happened in the USSR and China?

  • Roger McKinney

    I apologize for the long posts, but as you can tell I think this is a very important subject for Christians.

    I think the reason that even Christians place so much faith in the state is that they think they can eliminate the negative consequences of disobeying God’s law through the power of the state. Mises called it statolatry. It is worship of the state.

    If we follow God’s laws regarding property, especially free markets, we will prosper. But people think they can ignore God’s laws with impunity and overcome them with the power of the state.

    People think they can ignore God’s laws about murder and promote abortion and the state will negate the consequences that God has built into human nature.

    The right thinks it can avoid God’s judgment of having another nation conquer us by simply building a big enough army and piling up the equipment.

    The arrogance is no less than that demonstrated by the builders of the Tower of Babel!

    If people follow God’s laws, no state is necessary. If they don’t follow God’s laws, no state can prevent the judgment to come. No amount of legislation, police power or military might can overcome the results of people acting ungodly.

  • Hello Roger – might I ask you to clarify the sense in which you mean ‘voluntary’. You clearly mean legally voluntary, but ethically voluntary as well? I am sure you don’t mean that it didn’t matter whether the poor laws were observed or not, or that God gave (and gives) less importance to the care of the poor than he did (and does) other aspects of life. I think it is very important to emphasise that if one disagrees with state welfare systems, one must be as insistent, if not more so, on one’s absolute duty to assist the destitute.

  • Excellent point Luke. It seems to me that those religiously inclined among us who would have the state run the hardship assistance program for the society may take this position because they prefer not to personally embrace the obligation to sacrifice which their faith places upon them. They prefer to force their better off neighbors, who are not so inclined, to help them with what is their own personal moral duty to the poor. In so doing they get to feel good about themselves (believe that they have discharged their ethical obligation) because of the way that they vote and not because of the sacrifices which they have personally made. In the absence of a state run system, the responsibility of the believer to do justice to the poor is enhanced because there will be more need.

  • Roger McKinney

    Luke, right, the poor laws and tithes were ethically required by God, but he did not create an earthly enforcement mechanism as he did for enforcing the civil and criminal laws.

    God remains consistent throughout the Bible on helping the poor and giving to his work: it is voluntary in the sense that he doesn’t allow other human institutions to coerce conformity.

    Individually, giving to the temple and the poor was a test of one’s love for God. Collectively, God punished Israel for not following those because that failure demonstrated a form of idolatry among the whole nation.

    So how do we handle the poor laws today? Capitalism has demonstrated a far better way to help the poor than through charity. Charity will always be needed in the worst cases for temporary relief, but providing jobs that lift the poor out of poverty is so much better than charity.

    Capitalism has lifted billions out of starvation poverty since the 17th century. All of the charity given from Adam and Eve through the reformation never changed the standards of living of any more than a handful of people. Standards of living in 1600 were no different from those in the days of Abraham and Sarah.

    Capitalism, not charity, lifted the Dutch, then the English and Americans, and then Western Europe from Malthusian cycles of famine and death. Most recently a tiny, tiny dose of capitalism has lifted over 300 million Chinese from starvation to relative wealth.

    So if you take the principle at the heart of the poor laws, lifting the poor out of poverty, and apply it today, that would require greater capitalism. Socialism has never done anything other than increase poverty.