Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Part of the power and enduring value of our confessions is the fact that they arose out of the life of the church. They were not drawn up by men sitting in ivory towers, contemplating the truth of Scripture but far removed from the battle for the faith. They breathe the life of the church’s struggles.
The Heidelberg Catechism was written in the struggles between Calvinism on the one hand and Lutheranism and Romanism on the other hand, as these struggles were bitterly fought out in Frederick’s Palatinate. The Canons of Dordt arose out of the fierce battle with Arminianism which all but engulfed the churches in the Netherlands in the first part of the 17th century. TheConfession of Faith (Belgic Confession) was written and reflects the bitter persecution of the saints in the Lowlands in the early years of the Reformation.
It is persecution which gives to the Confession of Faithits moving power. The affirmations of the confession, “We all believe …”; “We confess …”; “We believe and profess …” take on new meaning when we understand that they are shouts that arise from scaffolds, burning piles of tinder, deep prison cells, and cruel tortures chambers.
Its author, Guido de Bres, died on the scaffold for his faith. To his story we now turn.1
Early Life And Conversion
Guido de Bres was born in Mons in 1522 2, the fourth child of a family of glass painters. In Mons the art of glass painting had been highly developed, and Mons deservedly had an international reputation for the skill of its artists. Guido himself was trained for this work.
Guido’s family carried on the traditions of the guilds in Mons, although the children were split on Reformation doctrine. John, the oldest, while remaining Roman Catholic all his life, helped Protestants in times of persecution. Christophe was a seller of glassware, but spent his entire life distributing Bibles and Protestant literature, often at great risk to his life. Jerome became a cloth dyer and remained within the Romish Church. Marlette, the only girl, married a Protestant in Valenciennes and, with her husband, was deeply involved in Protestant affairs.
The city of Mons was on the border of France and the Lowlands, that part of the Lowlands which is now Belgium. Here Lutheranism had first come and had been eagerly studied by the citizens; but the Huguenots from France soon followed with the purer Reformation doctrines of John Calvin.
Guido, already in his teens, heard from others Reformation truths and could not help but listen to the stories of those who, already then, were being killed for the sake of the gospel. He was only 14 when the news reached him of Tyndale’s cruel martyrdom.3 It may have been Tyndale’s willingness to die for the sake of translating the Bible into the language of the people that led Guido to study the Scriptures. But it was through this study that God led him to true faith in Jesus Christ.
Guido decided, perhaps because of persecution in the Lowlands, to go to London and join a refugee church in East London. East London was a haven for refugees from many different countries in Europe who were forced to flee because of persecution. And so in that part of London could also be found a Walloon4 congregation, to which Guido joined himself. The refugees had peace in England because of the benign rule of Edward VI who, though young, favored Protestantism. 5 Here he studied for the ministry and listened to the powerful preaching of the great Reformers a Lasco and Martin Bucer.
Work In The Lowlands
But Guido’s love was for his native land, and in 1552, at the, age of 30, he returned—as an evangelist and traveling, preacher. From that moment on, his life was in almost constant danger.
His first field of labor was the city of Lille, in which a large secret Protestant community had been established under the name, the Church of the Rose. From Lille he went to Ghent, where he published a tract entitled Le Baton de la foi,6 a stirring defense of the Reformed faith.
Guido enjoyed a brief interlude at this time. Traveling to Frankfurt in Germany, Guido met Calvin and was persuaded to come to Geneva. In the three years he spent in Geneva, Guido learned the Reformed faith more perfectly, mastered Greek and Hebrew under Beza and Calvin, and was more fully equipped for the gospel ministry. During this period (1559), he also married Catherine Ramon and with her had four or five children, the oldest named Israel, and the second, Sara.
While Guido was in Geneva, Charles V 7 retired, weary and careworn, to a monastery in Spain, and his cruel son Philip II came to the throne determined to stamp out all “heresy,” especially in the Lowlands. While, therefore, up to this time persecution had been sporadic and relatively light, it now became more severe and bitter.
de Bres, after returning again to the Lowlands, was forced to travel in disguise and under the pseudonym of Jerome. Although the cities in southern Belgium and northern France (Lille, Antwerp, Mons) were the area of his labor, his headquarters was in Doornik, where he ministered to the congregation which had chosen as its name, the Church of the Palm.
Here two former ministers had been burned at the stake for their faith; here the congregation knew de Bres only as “Jerome”; here the meetings of the congregation were always held in secret and at night, with small groups of not more than 12 attending at one time.
In spite of the problems which the congregation faced, de Bres organized the church with elders and deacons and faithfully administered the sacraments.
But even this situation did not remain, for a more radical group of the believers, under the leadership of Robert du Four, thought it cowardly and unfaithful to Christ to keep their faith secret. The group, several hundred strong, moved in public procession through the city singing Psalms in open defiance of the authorities. The next night, September 30, 1561, 500 Protestants gathered for the same purpose. The result was that Roman Catholic investigators were sent with orders to suppress Protestantism in the city.
Although Guido managed to hide until December and flee in safety, all the information of the secret congregation was discovered, Guido’s true identity was found out, the people of the church were forced to flee or be killed, and Guido’s rooms were ransacked and his papers (including letters from Calvin) were burned. Guido was hanged in effigy.
Guido concentrated his work for several years in northern France, perhaps some of the quietest years of his ministerial career. Although also in France persecution against the Huguenots raged, in Guido’s area the church had peace. He worked in Amiens, Montdidier, Dieppe, and Sedan, building up the congregations and preaching faithfully the gospel.
But he could not refrain from making periodic trips into his own country, a “lion’s den” of danger. He traveled three times to Doornik, his old congregation, once to Brussels to meet with William of Orange concerning matters of union between Calvinists and Lutherans, once to a secret Synod of the Reformed churches held in Antwerp (the password for entry was “Vineyard”) where de Bres’ Confession8 was adopted as the official confession of the Reformed Churches.
In 1566 de Bres went to Valenciennes to become a preacher in the church there, a congregation which called itself the Church of the Eagle. While the Protestant faith grew so rapidly that the Roman Catholic authorities dared not interfere in the religion of God’s people, certain radical elements once again stepped forward and created trouble. Stirring up large mobs, they went through all the cathedrals smashing burning, destroying anything that in the least smelled like popery. Philip II, infuriated at this, sent troops to lay siege to the city, which surrendered on Palm Sunday, 1567. Although de Bres escaped with four companions, he was soon captured and imprisoned.
His Martydom and Importance
The sad story is now soon told.
He spent the first part of his captivity in a prison in Doornik, where he could receive visitors. Many of his visitors, however, were enemies who came to taunt him. But just as was the case with the apostle Paul (Phil. 1:12-14), Guido’s imprisonment became an occasion for him to witness to the truth. When a princess, along with many young court ladies, came to mock, and the princess said in horror at Guido’s heavy chains, “My God, Mr. de Bres, I don’t see how you can eat, drink, or sleep that way. I think I would die of fear, if I were in your place,” Guido responded: “My lady, the good cause for which I suffer and the good conscience God has given me make my bread sweeter and my sleep sounder than those of my persecutors.” And, then, still responding to the princess, “It is guilt that makes a chain heavy. Innocence makes my chains light. I glory in them as my badges of honor.”
Soon Guido was transferred to Valenciennes and thrown into a dark, cold, damp, rat-infested dungeon known as The Black Hole. In spite of the cold, the hunger, the horror of this hole, Guido wrote a tract on the Lords Supper and letters to his friends, his aged mother, and his wife. A letter to his wife is an especially moving testimony of his faith.
My dear and well-beloved wife in our Lord Jesus.
Your grief and anguish are the cause of my writing you this letter. I most earnestly pray you not to be grieved beyond measure…. We knew when we married that we might not have many years together, and the Lord has graciously given us seven. If the Lord had wished us to live together longer, he could easily have caused it to be so. But such was not his pleasure. Let his good will be done…. Moreover, consider that I have not fallen into the hands of my enemies by chance, but by the providence of God…. All these considerations have made my heart glad and peaceful, and I pray you, my dear and faithful companion, to be glad with me, and to thank the good God for what he is doing, for he does nothing but what is altogether good and right…. I pray you then to be comforted in the Lord, to commit yourself and your affairs to him, he is the husband of the widow and the father of the fatherless, and he will never leave nor forsake you….
Good-bye, Catherine, my well beloved! I pray my God to comfort you, and give you resignation to his holy will. Your faithful husband, Guido de Bres.
Guido was publicly hanged on May 31, 1567 at the age of 47. He was pushed off the ladder while comforting the crowd which had gathered and urging them to faithfulness to the Scriptures. His body was left hanging the rest of the day and buried in a shallow grave where dogs and wild animals dug it up and consumed it.
Guido de Bres is the author of our Confession of Faith, although he was assisted by Adrien de Saravia (professor of theology in Leyden), H. Modetus (chaplain of William of Orange), and G. Wingen. It was written in the vain hope that is would persuade the cruel Philip II to see that the views of the Calvinists were truly biblical and stop persecution against them. Roman Catholics had lumped the Calvinists with the radical and wile-eyed Anabaptists who rejected the authority of magistrates, and the Confession sets the Reformed faith over against Anabaptism.
The Confession was thrown over the wall in Doornik and ultimately did reach the king, but it served only to arouse Philip to greater fury against the saints of God.
In a letter which was added to the Confession, Guido and his co-workers protested against being called rebels against authority, solemnly averred that though they number over 100,000 and are cruelly oppressed by “excommunications, imprisonments, banishments, racks, and tortures, and other numberless oppressions which they had undergone,” they obey their government in all things lawful, and that “having the fear of God before their eyes, and being terrified by the threatening of Christ, who had declared in the Gospel that he would deny them before God the Father, in case they denied him before men, they therefore offered their backs to striped, their tongues to knives, their mouths to gags, and their whole bodies to the fire.”
From this spilled blood God caused to emerge a confession of faith which had held a special place in the hearts of Reformed believers. It is as if, knowing that the confession was written in blood, the saints receive it as a sacred trust, precious and vibrating yet with the faith of their fathers.
Our fathers both knew what they believed and were faithful to it, even to death. We have received, by the Spirit of truth, the glorious fruit which God worked through them. It is entrusted to our care that we may be faithful to it and teach it to our children.
We ought earnestly to pray that we may know as they did the faith, and that we may be faithful to it as they were, for persecution shall soon also be our lot.
1 It is very difficult to find any material on Guido de Bres; but an outstanding popular biography has been written by Thea B. Van Halsema which bears the title: Glorious Heretic: The Story of Guido de Bres.
2 Schaff, in his History of the Creeds, claims the date may have been 1523.
3 The translator of the English Bible who died for, his faith in the Lowlands.
4 French-speaking citizens of the Lowlands.
5 Edward died after only a few years on the throne and “Bloody Mary,” who followed Edward, began a systematic persecution of Protestants which forced many to flee again to the continent.
6 “The Staff of the Faith.”
7 Ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and present at Worms during Luther’s stirring defense.
8 See below.