Constantinianism and Article 36 of the Belgic Confession of Faith

And their office is, not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also that they protect the sacred ministry, and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship; that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed, and the kingdom of Christ promoted. They must, therefore, countenance the preaching of the word of the gospel every where, that God may be honored and worshiped by every one, as he commands in his Word.

Article 36, clause 3 of the Belgic Confession of Faith

Our Netherland churches also are about to reconsider the article in our Confession which touches on this matter.

Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, p. 99.

The major objection that proponents of the “free church in the free state” make against Article 36 of the Belgic Confession is summarized in the term “Constantinianism.” By this, two things are meant:

First, the inclusion of the entire church within a single church institute. Constantine is held to have established the Christian religion as the religion of the state, and to have promoted the then-existing Christian church to the level of the state church – in other words, to have initiated what historians have come to call “Caesaropapism.” It is the system in which citizenship and church membership are equivalent, in which the personnel of the church are state functionaries, in which the head of state is also head of the church.

While this may have been true for Byzantium, it was not for Western Christendom. The Roman Catholic church ruled out such a state church by its autonomous church government. Nevertheless, the evil lay precisely in unification within a single overarching institute. Abraham Kuyper put it like this:

In Constantine’s day, the attempt was made in an evil hour to seek the unity of the church of Christ in the unity of her organization. One government recognized by all the congregations on earth, one language spoken by all priests, one splendid liturgy would be the form of worship in all places of worship! Rome owes its rise and bloom to this lingering and devouring idea (Vrijheid, p. 15).

The Reformation broke with this overarching unifying institute, but – say the critics – it did not learn its lesson; instead, it reverted to a form of Caesaropapism. The unity of a single church institute was now established at the national level, resulting in the state church. Kuyper again:

The work of the Reformation, however beautifully begun, ceased halfway. It was to bring freedom of the spirit, and it wreathed itself with laurels when only the freedom of the national church was guaranteed. This cannot be emphasized enough. Rome’s unity embraced all lands and in every land every soul that confessed. When the curse of that unity made itself manifest, it was broken, but only halfway: yes, the former bond, not the latter. The people’s church was made free from the universal church founded by Rome, but unity was maintained in that people’s church. Thus Rome’s evil, albeit on a smaller scale, returned to the national churches, and the idea of preserving the unity that had been found useless to the world, at least to maintain one’s own heritage, proved so powerful that men of wise minds have not yet escaped her temptation (Vrijheid, p. 16).

But the time of the state church has passed: “The state church has had her day. It may be asked whether she ever brought blessing. Now that every sphere of life is seeking its own form, her restoration is not even to be considered” (Vrijheid, pp. 8–9). And in the condition of pluriformity in which we now live, there is no way for the magistrate to decide which church institute is the true one. “And now we put to those who wish to maintain Article 36 unchanged – and they lack any right to participate further, as long as they have not answered it pertinently and conclusively – this question, dominating the whole dispute: How should the magistrate, if he finds more than one visible church on his terrain, decide which among the many is the only true one?” (De Gemeene Gratie, vol. III, p. 249).

Now then, such forced church unity in a single institute entails the second aspect of Constantinianism, the persecution of heretics. This second element was necessitated by the first. Kuyper again:

This system of bringing differences in religious matters under the criminal jurisdiction of the government resulted directly from the conviction that the Church of Christ on earth could express itself only in one form and as one institution. This one Church alone, in the Middle Ages, was the Church of Christ, and everything, which differed from her, was looked upon as inimical to this one true Church. The government, therefore, was not called upon to judge, or to weigh or to decide for itself. There was only one Church of Christ on earth, and it was the task of the Magistrate to protect that Church from schisms, heresies and sects (Lectures on Calvinism, pp. 100–101).

Kuyper charged that the Reformation continued with this Constantinian and medieval policy, and this was enshrined in Article 36. As he put it in Lectures on Calvinism (p. 100):

The duty of the government to extirpate every form of false religion and idolatry was not a find of Calvinism, but dates from Constantine the Great, and was the reaction against the horrible persecutions which his pagan predecessors on the imperial throne had inflicted upon the sect of the Nazarene. Since that day this system had been defended by all Romish theologians and applied by all Christian princes.

And in De Gemeene Gratie [Common Grace] (vol. III, p. 95), he added:

This entire system was not a new discovery by the Reformed but the general sentiment of their time, against which only a few voices were raised in protest. It was the theory of Rome which was maintained for centuries, the error of which one did not yet discern. One drifted along with the current of the past and defended the received sentiment with the same arguments with which it has always been professed. One therefore cannot say that our fathers parroted the Roman opinion half-consciously. That was not the case. It was a received opinion which they themselves approved of, advocated, and broadly defended.

But were not the Netherlands a haven for those persecuted for their faith? Yes, but this came despite the church’s adherence to Article 36:

The conflict with their deeper-lying principles only gradually came to light in practice, and to awareness in Reformed life. For notwithstanding that our fathers agreed unanimously with Article 36, including that difficult clause, the Netherlands became the cradle, not of persecution because of faith, but of freedom of conscience (De Gemeene Gratie, vol. III, p. 95).

Now then: These two positions – that Article 36 demands a single church institute such as is manifested in a state church, and that it mandates the persecution of heretics – constitute its supposed “Constantinianism.”

There is nothing to either of these charges.

The Reformed church in the Netherlands, for which the Belgic Confession was one of the Three Forms of Unity (along with the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort) never was a state church in the sense here intended. She never embraced the entire population and never attempted to do so. What she did do was occupy the public square as the church of the Netherlands, the church which spoke with one voice to the magistrate (and whether the magistrate listened was another matter). Other churches were tolerated, other faiths were allowed a private existence, but as far as the public square was concerned, the Dutch Reformed church as the representative of true religion was recognized (not established) by the magistrate.

It is of the utmost importance to recognize here that Article 36 discusses the question of religion, not of a church institute, which church should be selected, etc. Hoedemaker put it like this:

According to our Confession, the civil government is to determine

1) which religion in the state is to be accepted into the commonwealth and as such is to be protected and administered with public authority;

2) which religion will be allowed and tolerated (Article 36, p. 121).

The Reformed church as the representative of the true religion became the recognized church of the polity. This then was not the same as an established church, and certainly not the same as a state church. Johan Huizinga characterized the Reformed church’s position in the Dutch polity along these lines: “The reformed faith was never a state or established religion, as Anglicanism, for instance, is in England. It held sway in the State, was supported by the State and was even granted a kind of public monopoly; if you like it was the Church of the State, but it was never a state church in the full sense of the word” (Dutch Civilisation in the 17th century, p. 48).

Article 36, then, does not mandate the establishment of a single church institute. It is true religion, not the true church, of which it speaks. “The ‘removal and prevention of heresy and false religion’ of which the Confession speaks, therefore has nothing to do with Christian churches and sects separated from each other in this way or that, but with entirely different groups which, through their godless positions or what our fathers considered to be such, infringe on the honor of God. It presupposes the freedom discussed above [i.e., freedom of private conviction and worship], which is inseparable from the national Reformed church’s viewpoint regarding faith and the work of the Holy Spirit” (Hoedemaker, Article 36, p. 122).

Kuyper’s line of argument about the magistrate being at a loss to choose between multiple church institutes, therefore falls entirely to the ground.

What about the persecution of heretics? This likewise has to be understood in terms of the church’s function as custodian of the spiritual dimension of the public square. Public power carries inherently within it the requirement to establish a certain religion and to order public affairs, and the law it enforces, in terms of that religion. For at bottom the res publica, the “public affair,” is a shared ethical system, by which all who share a certain territory must abide. This is sovereignty in the strict sense, and it is inescapable. The law established by, and the institutions established for public power are expressions of that ethical system. And there is no ethical system without an ultimate ground upon which it stands. That ultimate ground, the source and the purpose and the goal of the ethical system, is religion.

This power is indeed inescapable, but it is also limited; it is restricted by the very fact that it is public power. According to Article 36, then, the “remove and prevent” function “not only can but must be restricted to public life, the sphere to be reckoned to the civil government” (Article 36, p. 122).

The flip side of this is freedom of conscience, which was recognized by the Reformed church and is in fact promoted by Article 36. “It is in conflict with history when the matter is so presented as if there were a pagan viewpoint which was first taken over by the Roman church, then by Protestantism, and which subsequently, gradually was supplanted by a more liberal sense and greater generosity. We already knew the reason behind not forcing faith or promoting it by fear and hope. This was the direct, obvious consequence that could be derived from the Confession itself” (Article 36, pp. 120–121).

As one example, the Leyden University professors’ Synopsis Purioris Theologiae of 1625, which put it this way:

Although the magistrate may prohibit his subjects from publicly slandering the religion that he approves, he may not obligate them to accept faith, i.e., the form of confession approved by public right, and to confess and render assurance of this before men. Faith arises through persuasion, not coercion. People should be left more to their own devices about religion than about anything else. The Christian magistrate must avoid nothing as much as the foolish, impetuous severity which nurtures hypocrites, and forces subjects to confess with their mouths without believing in their hearts (Disp. L. LIX.).

Kuyper does the Reformers a great disservice when he attributes to them a simple acquiescence in received opinion and practice regarding the treatment of heretics and freedom of conscience. How is it that the Netherlands became the cradle of freedom of conscience? The Arminians? Might it not be because of, not despite, the church’s confession?

What if that difficult clause in Article 36 showed that it is precisely persecution on account of faith that is ruled out? …. The opinion unjustly attributed [by Kuyper] to our fathers was in conflict not only with the underlying principles of the Reformed church, but with the entire Confession in its most obvious teachings. The civil government had to fulfill everything commissioned to it on its own terrain, public life. It was no lord of conscience, no taskmaster of faith.… Dr. Kuyper is mistaken when he attributes this opinion to the fathers, and therefore also when he attributes attachment to this opinion to the desire for imitation (Article 36, p. 41).

Article 36 certainly does require the civil magistrate to remove and prevent false religion and idolatry. But this is inescapable. It all depends on what is deemed to be false religion and idolatry. The modern liberal state exercises the function of Article 36 as faithfully as any Christian state ever did, only in inverse fashion. For it removes the true religion from the public square and prevents it from exercising any influence there – and it does so as a matter of high principle, precisely as Article 36 requires, only, as we said, in inverse fashion. Writing in 1901, Hoedemaker tellingly wrote that “The modern state does not tolerate the church on its [i.e., the public] terrain. It only knows of [private] clubs, societies, and foundations, and should one desire recognition before the law, it must come in these forms. Speaking of removal, it is not possible to suppress a moral person more effectively than our constitution does” (Article 36, p. 70). And with the advent of political correctness, cancel culture, and “wokeness” on the part of public institutions and public education, is it not thoroughly evident that Article 36, far from being a relic of the past, faithfully represents the scope of state power? In fact, it forms a salutary restriction on that power by its focus on the public sphere, protecting the private sphere from interference, contrary to the contemporary drive of activist ideologues to invade that sphere.

Hence, it is not a question of whether or not the civil magistrate will remove and prevent false religion and promote true religion. It is simply a question of which religion will be considered true, and thus promoted, and which will be considered false, and thus removed and prevented. This is the hard-fought lesson we have now learned.

Works Cited

Hoedemaker, P. J. Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated against Dr. Abraham Kuyper. Aalten: Pantocrator Press, 2019.

Huizinga, Johan. Dutch Civilisation in the 17th Century and other essays. London: The Fontana Library, 1968.

Kuyper, Abraham. De Gemeene Gratie. Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1902–1904.

—. Lectures on Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1931 [1898].

—. Vrijheid. Amsterdam: H. de Hoogh & Co., 1873.

Polyander, Johan, et al. Synopsis purioris theologiae, disputationibus quinquaginta duabus comprehensa. Ed. Dr. H. Bavinck. Leyden: Donner, 1881 [1625].