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Guido De Bres and the Birth of the Belgic Confession

Guido De Bres and the Birth of the Belgic Confession.

By Rev. W. Peter Gadsby
From Our Banner: August, 1976.

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Guido de Bres was the main author of the Belgic Confession of Faith, which after only minor revision stands as the main symbolic document of the Continental Reformed Churches and their offspring. In the words of the famous church historian Philip Schaff, the Belgic Confession is "the best symbolic statement of the Calvinistic system of doctrine, with the exception of the Westminster Confession," (Note: symbolics is the study of the creeds and confessions of the church).

Guido de Bres was born in Mons, capital of the southernmost province of Belgium, in 1522 - just five years after Martin Luther hammered his ninety-five propositions to the Castle church door in Wittenberg.

Guido and his brothers and sisters grew up amidst the turmoil which accompanied the spread of the Lutheran 'heresy'. His oldest brother Christophe, who was a glassware merchant, used his trade as a cover for the distribution of Bibles and Reformation literature as he travelled all over Europe.

Young Guido was apprenticed to a stained-glass artist, but his thoughts turned often to the new Reformation truths which were being discussed even in the market places. Men were being beheaded for professing them. Sometime while a teenager, Guido procured a Bible which he read, together with other, Reformed literature. Before he was twenty-five years old, Guido de Bres was converted to Christ, and embraced the doctrines of the Reformers. Now he was a heretic, in danger of being burnt at the stake if his new faith became known.

In 1548, he made the difficult decision, and departed to England which at that time was a haven for those of the Reformed persuasion. After the death of Henry VIII (1547), the cause of the Reformation gradually began to advance in England, guided by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (who produced the Book of Common Prayer).

Guido de Bres attended classes in theology conducted by eminent Reformers such as a Lasco, and Bucer of Strasbourg.

In 1552, he returned to the Low Countries and became a travelling preacher, based in Lille, about 65 km from his home town. He ministered to a group of Christians who met secretly in Lille, and who called themselves the Church of the Rose.

In 1556, Philip II instituted persecution against the Protestant heretics. Several members of the Church of the Rose were martyred. The rest of the congregation escaped to Frankfurt where there was a Flemish congregation. There was also an English refugee church there - "Bloody" Mary, an ardent Roman Catholic, had succeeded her brother to the English throne in 1553 and began persecuting the Protestants - the temporary pastor of this church was John Knox, later to become the father of the Scottish Reformation. There was also in Frankfurt a French refugee church which was having a deal of strife among its members. In September of 1556, John Calvin himself travelled from Geneva hoping to settle these problems; so it was that Guido de Bres met the great Reformer.

Seeking to improve his Hebrew and Greek, de Bres went to Lausanne to study under Theodore Beza, and after two years when Beza went to Geneva to assist Calvin, de Bres went along too. He spent another year in the Reformation capital, studying under Calvin.

After these three years of study, de Bres began to yearn for the active ministry again. So travelling up the Rhine, he came to the city of Doornik (now Tournai), about 15 km east of Lille. He became the minister of the secret Protestant Church of the Palm, studying in a little garden house and preaching in the evenings in private homes.

It was here in Doornik that he fell in love with the dark-eyed Catharine Ramon. Proposing marriage to her, he warned her that he could only offer her a life of uncertainty in this world. She replied that it was enough to know that they loved one another and that they were in God's good hand. So it was that in 1559 they were married; and in that first year of marriage de Bres began work on his Confession of Faith, while continuing his secret and dangerous ministry. He hoped to provide the people with a summary of the Christian faith so that they would be kept from falling into error.

As long as the church stayed "underground" it was not bothered by much persecution due to the disinclination of the city magistrates to assist the emissaries of the King's Regent in their heresy hunts.

Thus the church grew steadily and de Bres hoped to see the day when the leaven of the Reformed teaching would have filled the whole city. But it was not to be. Robert due Four, one of the members of the Church of the Palm, decided that it was time to come out into the open: they would sing Psalms in public, openly avowing their faith.

So on 29 September, 1561, in the evening, several hundred Protestants, assembled in the market place. Lustily singing the Psalms of David they marched along the main streets. Fearing insurrection, the governor in his castle ordered that the marchers be fired upon. But to no avail - next evening they were out again, 500 strong in masks and cloaks defying the city magistrates, singing and shouting in front of the house of the bishop's vicar.

When the bishop of Doornik, who was in Brussels, received word of these disturbances, he went immediately to Margaret, the Regent. She was furious and despatched commissioners to Doornik to investigate. Hundreds of people were interrogated under threat of torture, and gradually the story of the Church of the Palm was pieced together.

De Bres remained undetected, having gone by a false name for many years. In hiding in his rooms he wondered what to do. The royal commissioners' investigation had thwarted his plans for a gradual Reformation - the Protestants were being labelled as a disorderly bunch of rebels against rightful authority, no better than the troublesome Anabaptists.

So the plan was conceived to present the king with a copy of the Protestants' Confession of Faith. This would show that they were not revolutionaries; it stated that "they detest the Anabaptists and other seditious people, and in general all those who reject the higher powers and magistrates and would subvert justice, introduce community of goods, and confound that decency and good order which God has established among men" (Belg. Conf. Art XXXVI). However they would "offer their backs to stripes, their tongues to knives, their mouths to gags, and their bodies to the fire" rather than deny the truths set forth in this Confession.

De Bres was not unaided in formulating this Confession of Faith. It is largely modelled on the Gallic (French) Confession of 1561, which itself reflected very much the theology of John Calvin, He was also helped by Adrian Saravia of Leiden and Herman Moded, Chaplain to William of Orange.

According to one writer, a draft of the Confession was taken to Geneva in 1559 for approval, but this was withheld. It is said that Calvin liked it, but advised de Bres against publishing another Confession - the Gallic was adequate in his opinion, and the introduction of another creed would prove divisive.

Nevertheless, on November 2, 1561, the gatekeeper of the castle of Doornik found a package which had been thrown over the wall the night before. It was addressed to King Philip II, and contained a copy of the Belgic Confession together with an open letter to the King's commissioners, warning them that nothing that they could do would prevent the progress of God's work in Doornik: "If you try by killing, for everyone who dies, a hundred will rise in his place. If you will not forsake your hardness and your murder, then we appeal to God to give us grace patiently to endure for the glory of his name .... and heaven and earth will bear us witness that you have put us unjustly to death."

De Bres escaped from Doornik sometime in December 1561, going into exile in French towns near the Lowlands border. Early in 1562, his lodgings in Doornik were discovered and his identity at last revealed. His papers were publicly burnt, and de Bres burnt in effigy in the Doornik market square.

For five years, Guido de Bres and his family lived in peace, as he pastored various Huguenot congregations. Three times in disguise he visited Doornik, and many times he ventured as far as Antwerp. In 1566, the first synod of the Lowlands Reformed Churches was held in Antwerp, again in strict secrecy. Only those who knew the password 'The Vineyard" were permitted entry. At this synod, which revised Art. XXXVI (The Magistracy, Civil Government), the Confession was adopted officially as a symbol of the faith of the Reformed Churches. This time, the Confession received the approval of Geneva but it was not until 1580 that it gained universal acceptance in the Low Countries.

Shortly after this synod, de Bres accepted the call to labour with Peregrin de la Grange - a fiery Genevan-trained preacher - in Valenciennes, near the French border. Together they preached to thousands who assembled in the fields outside the city; no one dared try to defy this movement which extended to the grass roots of society.

The enthusiasm for reform carried with it excesses of violence. Unruly mobs broke into cathedrals in several cities, ransacking them and removing every remaining vestige of Catholicism.

When Philip, in his palace in Spain, heard of these uprisings, he was quick to act. Fresh troops were despatched to subdue every town in which Protestantism was strong. The persecution grew. When it reached Valenciennes, the people decided to resist the forces of Philip, against the counsel of de Bres.

Abandoned by its allies, the city was taken after a siege lasting several months. Amazingly, de Bres and some companions escaped from the city. But their freedom was shortlived: one of them was recognised, they were captured and brought in chains to the castle of Doornik, where six years before de Bres' Confession had been thrown over the wall. Cruelly treated by his captors, de Bres was transferred to Valenciennes where he spent seven weeks in the Black Hole of Brunain - an obscure and filthy dungeon.

Incredibly, it was in this place that de Bres, in midst of suffering, wrote a 233 page treatise on the Lord's Supper - a brilliant and thorough exposition - as well as his touching farewell letters.

On May 31, 1567, together with de la Grange, de Bres was brought to the marketsquare of Valenciennes. Even as he reminded the gathered crowd to be respectful to the magistrates, and to continue faithful to the Word which had been preached to them, the hangman received his signal and threw his victim from the scaffold.

Guido de Bres was dead. But the Confession he wrote lived on, and through it he still speaks today of the faith for which men have died.


Analysis and brief history of the Belgic Confession.

Analysis
The 37 articles are arranged in theological order, proceeding from God, describing God's work and finally returning to God. It is more systematic than the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). It is divided thus:

1. God and the means by which he is known.(Arts. I-XI).
2. Creation, providence, the fall and its consequences (Arts. XII-XV).
3. Election and the restoration of fallen man (Arts. XVI-XVII).
4. Christ (Arts. XVIII-XXI).
5. The blessings of salvation (Arts. XXII-XXVI).
6. The church and the means of grace (Arts. XXVII-XXXV).
7. Government and eschatology (Arts. XXXVI-XXXVII).

History
At the Synod of Dordt (1618-19), the Remonstrants demanded a completely free revision of the Belgic Confession. Given the opportunity to present their objections, however, they were able to produce nothing of more than a trifling nature. The Synod unanimously adopted the Confession and proceed to formulate an authoritative edition in Dutch, French and Latin. No changes in substance were made to the Confession as it had been approved by the Synod of Antwerp in 1566.

In 1905, the General Synod of the GKN (Reformed Church in the Netherlands) changed Art. XXXVI, omitting the reference to the duty of the civil magistrate to "remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship, that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed and the kingdom of Christ promoted." The Christian Reformed Church in the USA followed suit in 1938, rejecting as unsatisfactory the 1910 expedient of inserting a declaratory footnote while retaining the offending phrases.

The Confession is today used in the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk (the State Church), and the GKN in Holland and Belgium, as well as the Reformed and Christian Reformed Churches in the US, the three Afrikaans churches in South Africa, and the Reformed Churches of Australia and New Zealand.

Conclusion
Even though mainly the work of one individual, and forged in the fires of persecution, the Belgic Confession remains as one of the very best of the Reformed Confessions, expressing the faith of many Reformed Christians around the globe to this very day. Its strict adherence to the supreme standard of the Holy Scriptures is reflected by the fact of its continuing virtually unchanged since coming from the pen of its framer. The memory of Guido de Bres, Martyr for Christ, will live on wherever men confess the faith of Jesus Christ, once for all delivered to the saints.

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