This is the third time in the fifty year history of The Standard Bearer that an exposition of the Belgic (or Netherlands) Confession of Faith is begun. The first exposition is a brief series written in the Dutch language and may be found in volume VII. In volume XXXVII Prof. H. C. Hoeksema began a, new series which, due to the press of other editorial duties, was never completed. Several articles appeared from the pen of the Rev. J. Kortering who is now editor of the rubric, The Strength of Youth. It is our prayer that God in His mercy may grant that this new series of expositions of the Belgic Confession may be completed.
As we begin we pray, too, that these expositions may contribute toward a deeper understanding and appreciation of the faith of our fathers. The danger threatening the Church of our time is not dead orthodoxy as so many allege. The opinion is widely held that the Church must revise and update the creeds because they as products of their time do not accurately reflect the faith of the Church in the twentieth century. The creeds, so it is said, do not speak to the issues we are facing in these days. If the Church refuses to revise her creeds she will become hopelessly enmeshed in the past and become unable to fulfill her task in the world. From this position we wish to separate ourselves. It is true that creeds are products of their times and we shall take note of this as we proceed with our exposition of each article of the Belgic Confession. Nevertheless it is our firm conviction that the Three Forms of Unity express eloquently the truth of the infallibly inspired Scriptures. If the Church is really serious about her calling she could do no better than listen carefully to “the voice of our fathers.” If ever there was a time when the Church needs to be firmly anchored in the truth of the Scriptures as set forth in the Belgic Confession, it is now. The truth is assailed on every crucial point and the departures from the faith occur so rapidly that one can hardly keep abreast of them. The Church and our Protestant Reformed Churches in particular had better know the truth lest the lament of God’s prophet be true of them: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. . .” (Hosea 4:6)
To understand and appreciate the Belgic Confession we ought to know something of the fascinating historical situation in which it was written. Because the period into which we delve is as detailed and complicated as it is fascinating we shall offer but a sketch drawn in only a few, broad strokes. Those readers interested in further study may consult any good Reformation history text or Dr. Peter Y. DeJong’s two volume exposition of the Belgic Confession entitled The Church’s Witness To The World.
Our interest is in the lowlands during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. These territories included what are now the countries of The Netherlands, Belgium, and northern France and at that time were called simply, Netherlands. Until 1477 these lands had been ruled by the Burgundian princes whose line became extinct at that date. In 1515 Charles of Spain, the son of Ferdinand and Isabella, began his rule. Having been crowned emperor. of the Holy Roman Empire in 1521 Charles set about the task of unifying the independent states under his rule. This meant trouble, for the states of the lowlands were rather fiercely independent. Though the writings of Martin Luther were widely read they had minimal impact on the people of the lowlands. The latter, who found themselves being robbed of rights and privileges almost daily under Charles V, were much more attracted to the teachings of the Anabaptists who advocated defiance of the government. Charles V, believing himself to be king by divine right, and being a faithful son of the Roman Catholic Church, initiated the infamous inquisition in an attempt to compel the people of the lowlands to submit to the pope. By 1524 the inquisition was in full swing with papal approval.
What the Scriptures say of Israel in Egypt’s bondage could be said of the saints who suffered under the inquisition: “the more they were afflicted, the more they multiplied and grew.” And they were afflicted! Historians tell us that more Christians were put to death in the sixteenth century than in the days of the persecution of the early church by the Roman emperors. In 1529 an ordinance was imposed which ruled that all who made insulting remarks about images of God, the virgin or saints, failed to report heretics, or who even discussed questions about the faith were to be put to death. Even this failed to stem the tide. The printing presses were groaning under the load of forbidden books and reformation literature poured into the lowlands especially from Germany. By 1540 all heretics were deprived of their property and those who sheltered heretics were liable to the death penalty.
Charles V died and was succeeded by his son, Philip II, in 1555. If Charles was a faithful son of the Roman Catholic Church, Philip was fanatical in his devotion to Rome. He recognized that the Netherlands with its industrial and commercial advances was crucial to the success of the Spanish Empire. In order to increase his control of the lowlands he increased taxes and withdrew the constitutional privileges of many of its cities. Philip appointed his sister, Margaret of Parma, as his regent. Margaret, with the assistance of a council of three, flagrantly ignored the rights of the nobility. At this point Prince William of Orange became leader of the resistance movement which eventually won independence for the northern provinces. By the papal bull of 1559 the lands were divided into fifteen bishoprics and three archbishoprics, appointments to which were made only by the pope. Politically and religiously the lowlands was in the cruel grip of Philip II.
By now the teachings of Calvin had entered the Netherlands and won the allegiance of thousands. These were attracted to the clear, simple statement of the Christian faith rooted solely in the Word of God which Calvinism offered. While the Anabaptists continued with no little vigor, Calvinism gained a significant foothold among the people of the lowlands. Among the leaders of the Calvinistic Reformation in the Netherlands was Guido de Bres, the author of the Belgic Confession.
The statement of P.Y. DeJong is worthy of emphasis: “The memory of this intrepid preacher and teacher of the holy gospel deserves to be permanently enshrined in our hearts.” (The Church’s Witness To The World, vol. I, p. 21)
We are told that just prior to his birth (ca. 1522) de Bres’ mother heard the preaching of an Augustinian monk, Hendrik van Zutphen, as he traveled through Mons, de Bres’ birthplace, on his way to Wittenberg. Upon hearing the message his mother prayed that if the Lord gave her a son he might become a preacher. Little did she realize what God had in store for her son. As child de Bres was brought up in the Roman Catholic faith. Later he described himself as being at first unbelieving and blind! Apparently, though we know very little of his early life, he was converted to the Reformed faith at an early age.
These were not easy times for the faithful, for the flames of persecution under the Spanish ruler were burning fiercely. Everywhere those suspected of heresy were hunted and if found, subjected to the most cruel tortures and put to death. In 1547 de Bres fled for his life to England where under Edward VI adherents to the Reformed faith were cordially welcomed. During the nearly live years de Bres spent in England he came into contact with several gifted leaders of the Reformation. Among these were John a Lasco, the homeless Polish nobleman, who was pastoring a refugee church in London; and, Petrus Dathenus, an outstanding preacher; later considered to be the father of the liturgy of the Dutch churches. In 1552 de Bres was able to return to his homeland where he traveled from city to city preaching the Reformed faith and gathering small groups of believers into congregations. During this time he wrote his first book,Le Baston de la Foy Chrestienne, “The Rod of the Christian Faith.” In this volume de Bres, by quoting voluminously from the Bible, demonstrated that what he and others were teaching was the truth of the Word of God. Many of the subjects dealt with, as well as the general outline of this book, are incorporated in the Belgic Confession. After a period of exile in Frankfurt, Lausanne, and Geneva, de Bres was able to return to southern Netherlands in 1559, at which time he married Catherine Ramon. Under Philip II the floodgates of persecution were opened and all who broke with the Romish church were accused of undermining the authority of government, a charge stemming from the excesses of some of the anabaptists with whom the Reformers were lumped by the enemies of the Reformation.
For the two-fold purpose of replying to these unfounded charges and instructing the faithful, de Bres wrote his Confession of Faith. He was laboring in Tournai, a city wrested from the French by Charles V in 1521. Both because of the reformers who resided there and on account of this city’s sympathies for the French, Tournai was closely watched by the authorities. When a large group of believers spontaneously gathered in a public place and began singing the Psalms, which was strictly forbidden, Margaret of Parma ordered the arrest of all those suspected of heresy de Bres was forced to flee once. more.
During the night of Nov. 1, 1561, he took a copy of his Confession of Faith, together with a letter addressed to the authorities, and tossed it over the castle wall where the commissioners of Margaret of Parma were lodging. de Bres became the object of an intense and relentless search. The years 1561 to 1566 were spent in exile in France among the Calvinists. Subsequently de Bres returned and ,became pastor of a congregation in Valenciennes, a town in southern Netherlands. When the iconoclastic disturbances broke out and many images and relics were destroyed and Roman Catholic sanctuaries profaned, the hostility of the authorities knew no bounds. The city was besieged and capitulated after three months. de Bres was captured while fleeing and imprisoned. On the evening of May 30, 1567, having refused to deny the Reformed faith, Guido de Bres was hanged. He is said to have addressed his fellow prisoners: “My brethren, today I am condemned to death for the doctrine of the Son of God. Let Him be praised for this. I am very glad on account of it. I never thought that God would show me such an honor. I feel my heart swelling with grace, which God causes to descend upon me more and more; and I am from moment to moment strengthened. My heart springs with joy within me.”
This is how precious the Reformed faith was to Guido de Bres. He lived for what he wrote in the Belgic Confession and he died for it. Would we?