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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Analysis and brief history of the Belgic Confession.
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).
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
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.
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.