We commemorate the miraculous birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we again say with the church of all ages: "He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary." This article of our catholic and undoubted Christian faith was further developed in the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, at the time of the sixteenth-century Reformation. In Lord's Day 14 we confess that

the eternal Son of God, who is and remains true and eternal God, took upon Himself true human nature from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary, through the working of the Holy Spirit. Thus He is also the true seed of David, and like His brothers in every respect, yet without sin. [2]

Article 18 of the Belgic Confession says:

Contrary to the heresy of the Anabaptists, who deny that Christ assumed human flesh of His mother, we therefore confess that Christ partook of the flesh and blood of the children. He is a fruit of the loins of David; born of the seed of David according to the flesh; a fruit of the womb of the virgin Mary; born of woman; a branch of David; a shoot from the stump of Jesse; sprung from the tribe of Judah; descended from the Jews according to the flesh; of the seed of Abraham, since the Son was concerned with the descendants of Abraham. Therefore He had to be made like His brethren in every respect, yet without sin. In this way He is in truth our Immanuel, that is, God with us.[3]

For a correct understanding of this confession we must realize that at the time of the Reformation the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession had to fight not only against Rome but also against the Anabaptists. With respect to the Catechism we only need to think of its strong defense of the right which the children of the church have to baptism as a sign and seal of God's covenant (Lord's Day 27); and of Lord's Day 37, which deals entirely with the oath. Anabaptists denied that one could swear by the Name of God in a godly manner. The Belgic Confession does not even mention Rome by name. But it specifically denounces the heresy of the Anabaptists in the Articles 18, 34, and 37.

We live in a part of the world where due to the widespread Baptist movement there is great interest in the doctrine of the Anabaptists and the later Mennonites. Therefore it is good to take notice of recent studies concerning this subject. They can deepen our knowledge of the historical background of our own Reformed and therefore anti-Anabaptist confession and can indirectly serve our faithful understanding of God's revelation, also concerning the great mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh (I Tim. 3:16).

When one reads the Mennonite book of martyrs, The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, he will notice that one of the most important questions asked by the inquisitors of Rome was the question regarding Christ's birth of the virgin Mary. For example, in 1549 a certain Eelken was asked in the city of Leeuwarden: "What do you say; did the Son of God not receive flesh and blood from Mary?[4] Joos Kindt describes this point of the investigation to which he himself was subjected in 1553 as follows: "Ronse asked whether I did not believe that Christ had taken His flesh from Mary. I said: 'No'."[5] Claes de Praet of Ghent (1556) relates the dialogue as follows: "Priest: 'Do you not believe that Christ is man from Mary's flesh?' Claes: 'No'.[6] These examples could be multiplied. Those who want to know more can find an overview in an interesting dissertation, The Development of Dutch Anabaptist Thought and Practice from 1539-1564, published last year by William Keeney, an American who is presently connected with Bluffton College.[7] In this book he deals with the ideas of Menno Simons and Dirk Philips, the leaders of the "quiet" Dutch Mennonites of the sixteenth century.

In an appendix the author gives numerous quotations from the Martyrs Mirror, all pertaining to the Mennonite confession of the incarnation of Christ. When one reads these quotations he understands the sigh of the Dutch Protestant Johannes Anastasius Veluanus: "For it is dangerous to die for false articles, as do those miserable Anabaptists, who rather die than confess . . . that Christ received his flesh from Mary. . . ."[8] At the same time he understands not only why Guido de Brés, the author of our Belgic Confession, took such great pains to explain to King Philip Il that the Reformed people were no Anabaptists, but also why in his book The Root, Source and Foundation of the Anabaptists or Rebaptists of our Time (1565), he devoted more than 300 pages to their error regarding the incarnation of Christ.

What was this error and how did it come to the fore? Melchior Hoffman, an Anabaptist from Southern Germany who had much influence on Menno Simons and the Dutch Anabaptists, used the following illustration: "'Even as the dewdrop falls into the oyster shell and therein is changed into the pearl', so the eternal Word came into Mary's womb through the Holy Spirit and became flesh and blood without partaking of the flesh and blood of Mary's body."[9] The body of Christ therefore had its origin in heaven and not on earth.

Keeney, a Mennonite, has much sympathy for the Dutch Anabaptists. Nevertheless, he too must admit: "At times Hoffman seems to accept the identification of the spiritual as good and the material or physical as evil, very much as the Gnostics did earlier. " [10] This means that Hoffman is inclined to identify matter with evil, as the Gnostics did in the first centuries. Here we come to the background of the Anabaptist heresy. Where Gnosticism appeared in Christian vesture, it was a mixture of heathen and Christian motifs. The heathen motif was particularly the contempt of matter, of nature, of creation. While God's Word teaches us the distinction between God's wrath against sin and God's grace in Christ, Gnosticism is guilty of the error of contrasting nature and grace, an error which harasses Christian thought even today. To use the characterization of C. Conk, who in his explanation of the Belgic Confession tightly draws much attention to the anti-Anabaptist thrust of this confession: "The Anabaptist devil is not yet dead."[11] The Word of God proclaims the recreation of heaven and earth, which came forth from the hand of the Creator as good, but was delivered to Satan by the first Adam through the rebellion of sin. Anabaptist thinking, however, only knows of a totally different creation, which takes the place of the first one.

This Anabaptist thinking also came out in the doctrine of the incarnation of the Word. Dirk Philips asked: "If the flesh of Christ is of the earth and earthly, from Adam and his seed . . . how then was the Word of God made flesh?"[12] Menno Simons put it in a similar way when he said: "We confess and say . . . that the Scripture exempts none from sin but Him that is free indeed, namely, Christ Jesus (Isa. 53:13); whereby it is plainly shown that He is not from (van) Mary's flesh, which was also included under sin ...."[13]

Memo and Dirk formulated their ideas with great accuracy. They chose their prepositions very precisely. "Their formula was: Jesus Christ was conceived in Mary through or from the Holy Spirit, but was born out of Mary and not from Mary. They also say that Jesus was born from God out of Mary.[14] The question was therefore whether Jesus was born of the virgin Mary or only out of Mary. "From" or only "out of'? The Anabaptists made a very determined choice: Jesus is not born of the virgin Mary. He is only born out of the virgin Mary. They strongly emphasized the preposition "out of' and placed it over against the preposition "of." Only in this way could, in their opinion, the great mystery of our religion be preserved. Only in this way could one in a godly manner commemorate the birth of Christ Jesus and, in it, the deliverance of life!

It is remarkable that the Anabaptists attempted to support their idea with a physiological theory concerning the conception of a child. The school of the philosopher Aristotle taught that only the male seed was active in procreation. The female seed was passive, and did not contribute substance to the child. The Lord Jesus had supposedly been nourished in Mary and had been born out of Mary, but He had had no part in her nature. Calvin and other Reformers like Micron and De Bres rejected the physiological supposition of the Aristotelian school although in their time it was still generally accepted-and showed thereby that a correct understanding of God's revelation in Holy Scripture also has consequences for Christian science! The leaders of the Dutch refugee churches, John a Lasco and Marten Micron, had a debate with Menno Simons in the months of January and February, 1554, in Emden, Germany. Micron wrote letters to Geneva. To him we owe the fact that Calvin extensively dealt with this idea of the Anabaptists in the 1559 edition of his Institutes (II. xiii): "Christ Assumed the True Substance of Human Flesh."

Calvin mentions that in the time of the early church "the Marcionites fancied Christ's body a mere appearance, while the Manichees dreamed that He was endowed with heavenly flesh."[15] When he writes in this chapter about the modern disciples of the old Manichees he no doubt thinks of Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, and other Anabaptists. The Reformer of Geneva places many testimonies from Scripture over against their false doctrine. The blessing is promised neither in heavenly seed nor in a phantom of a man, but in the seed of Abraham and Jacob (Gen. 22:18; 26:4). And the eternal throne was not promised to a man of air, but to the Son of David and the fruit of his loins (Ps. 45:6). Hence, when He was manifested in the flesh, He was called "the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Mt. 1:1). This is not only because He was born out of the virgin's womb, although created in the air, but because, according to Paul's interpretation, he "descended from David according to the flesh" (Rom. 1:3). Similarly, the same apostle, in another passage, teaches that He descended from the Jews (Rom. 9:5). For this reason the Lord Himself, not content with the name "man," frequently calls Himself also "Son of Man," meaning thereby to explain more clearly that He is a man, truly begotten of human seed.

Furthermore, Calvin reminds us of Galatians 4:4 born of woman) and of Hebrews 2 (Christ did not take upon Himself the nature of angels, but our nature; we are counted His brothers through the benefit of association with Him). We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15). In our flesh the sins of the world had to be expiated (Rom. 8:3)."[16] In 1 Corinthians 15:47-a text referred to by Manichees and the Anabaptists in support of their false doctrine-the apostle does not speak of a heavenly essence of Christ's body, but of a spiritual force that, poured out by Christ, quickens us.[17]

Much more could be quoted from Calvin. A minister of the Word who wants to preach powerfully on Lord's Day 14 acts wisely if he studies this controversy between the Reformed and the Anabaptists. The connection between the confession regarding the incarnation of the Word and the reconciliation through the satisfaction at the cross of Calvary will then also become clear. Behind this Anabaptist thinking is a pantheistic trait. Christ had a heavenly body, and those who are regenerated become partakers of the divine nature in a mystical way. Over against this idea the Reformed confession connects the mystery of our religion in the incarnation of the Word directly to the reconciliation through the satisfaction of God's justice by the Surety and Mediator, and to the confession of justification by faith alone.

The Anabaptists objected to the Reformed people that when they, that is, the Reformed, speak of Jesus' partaking of human nature, they thereby turn even the ungodly into brothers of Christ. Calvin replied that the children of God are not born of flesh and blood, but of the Spirit through faith. "Hence flesh alone does not make the bond of brotherhood."[18] It appears to me that we have an important motif here, which is also of value against modern Roman Catholic conceptions, such as that of Karl Rahner, who sees all men included in an "anonymous Christianity" by virtue of the incarnation of the Word. Over against the Anabaptist thinking Calvin states: "Even though the apostle assigns to believers alone the honor of being one with Christ, it does not follow that unbelievers cannot be born of the same source [i.e., born of flesh]."[19] Over against a false conclusion like that of modern Roman Catholic theologians, his following remark applies: "When we say that Christ was made man that he might make us children of God, this expression does not extend to all men. For faith intervenes, to engraft us spiritually into the body of Christ.[20]

Here we see the fruits of a faithful understanding of God's revelation in the Reformation of the sixteenth century. For instance, when one compares Calvin with Irenaeus, a strong opponent of the error of Gnosticism in the early church, he sees the strong emphasis on the call to faith. Unfortunately, this is also forgotten in the modernistic Roman Catholic theology of our time, which is full of universalist tendencies, and which dreams of the deliverance of all men without mentioning the necessity of faith in the crucified Christ.

Now that we again commemorate the birth of our Savior, we may, by the grace of God, do this as Reformed people. God made a new beginning: Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit. But God makes a new beginning for His old work, the work of a formerly good creation: Jesus Christ was born of the virgin Mary. And we may say it without hesitation: born of." We do not have to worry about prepositions: "Should I say out of Mary? May I not say of Mary?" We may use both expressions, for He truly took upon Himself our flesh and blood. He became one of us. As our Surety and Mediator He went from the manger to the cross, and by His satisfaction of God's justice he obtained our reconciliation to God. Yes, He is the Savior of God's entire cosmos: soon there will be a renewed heaven and a renewed earth. There will be the resurrection of the flesh, of the flesh which He took upon Himself in His incarnation. All one has to do is ask, "Do I believe His saving and comforting Word?" It is a profound wealth to be Reformed and to think in a Reformed manner about the Surety and Mediator Whom the world needed for its eternal reformation.


[1] <RETURN> This article was first published in Dutch under the title "Dopers denken over de vleeswording" in The Canadian Reformed Magazine 18 (Christmas Issue, 1969), 6-8. A translation by R. Faber was first published in Reflector 20 (March, 1970), 10-15.

[2] <RETURN> Book of Praise: Anglo-Genevan Psalter, 2nd ed. (Winnipeg: premier, 1984), 487-488.

[3] <RETURN> Ibid., 453.

[4 ] <RETURN> Thielernan J. van Braght, The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, trans. Joseph F. Sohm, 10th ed. (Soottdale: Herald Press, 1975), 484.

[5] <RETURN> Ibid., 542.

[6 ] <RETURN> Ibid., 558.

[7] <RETURN> William Echard Keeney, The Development of Dutch Anabaptist Thought and Practice from 1539-1564, Diss. (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1968).

[8] <RETURN> Samuel Cramer and Fredrik Pijper, eds., Bibliotheca Refornatoria Neerlandica (Me Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1903-1914), 4:343. Quoted and trans. from Keeney, 213.

[9] <RETURN> Cramer and Pijper, 5:311. Quoted in Keeney, 213.

[10] <RETURN> Ibid., 90.

[11] <RETURN> C. Vonk, De voorzeide leer (Barendrecht: Barendrecht, 1955), 3a:90.

[12] <RETURN> Cramer and Pijper, 10:150. Quoted in Keeney, 90.

[13] <RETURN> Menno Simons, Opera Omnia Theologica, of alle Godigeleerde Wercken, ed. J.Jz. Herrison (Amsterdam: Johannes van Veen, 1681), 368. Quoted in Keeney, 90-91.

[14] <RETURN> Ibid., 90.

[15] <RETURN> Inst. 11xiii. 1. Quotations are taken from John T. McNeill, ed. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960).

[16] <RETURN> Ibid.

[17] <RETURN> Ibid., II.xiii.2.

[18] <RETURN> Ibid.

[19] <RETURN> Ibid., II.xiii. I.

[20] <RETURN> Ibid.; emphasis added.