(Note: At its last annual meeting the staff decided that the undersigned should continue with this rubric and treat our Belgic Confession, sometimes called The Netherlands Confession, or simply The Confession of Faith. There was an earlier treatment of this creed beginning in Volume VII of The Standard Bearer. However, this was in the Holland language; and besides, it was very brief. It is, therefore, surely not amiss that this important and precious Reformed document be studied anew. And it is our hope that these studies, under the blessing of our covenant God, may serve for the deeper understanding and the maintenance of the faith once delivered to the saints.)
Four hundred years ago, under cover of the night on November 1, 1561, a small packet was thrown over the wall of the castle at Doornik (Tournai), in the southern Netherlands, which at that time included what is now Belgium and northern France. That packet contained a little book and a letter. The former was a confession of faith composed by Guido de Bres; the latter was addressed to the commissioners of the Spanish regent, Margaret of Parma, who had instituted an investigation of the new religious movement in Doornik and had instructed her commissioners to arrest all who were suspected of heresy. De Bres in his letter and his confession defended the believers against the dual charges of revolution and heresy. For this reason the confession itself was also introduced by a letter to Philip II, the Spanish and Roman Catholic king who claimed authority over the Lowlands at that time. Some two hundred printed copies of this confession were later found; and de Bres himself had distributed some of them. Thus our Belgic Confessionfirst saw the light of day.
The story of the Belgic Confession, therefore, is the story of Guido de Bres. And the story of Guido de Bres is the story of the Reformation in the Netherlands. And the latter is a story of bloodshed and horror, of tyranny and persecution, of inquisition and torture. But it is also a story of martyrdom and faithfulness unto death. It is the story of the victory of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the story of the triumph of God’s grace, whereby He preserved His truth and His church.
We cannot tell that story in all its details here. Volumes have been written about it, and it is so long that to tell it would take us far afield, away from our purpose of studying the Belgic Confession. Nevertheless we cannot properly understand nor rightly appreciate this confession without knowing something of its history. And the salient features of that history we shall try to view, in connection with the personal history of Guido de Bres.
Luther’s theses had already been nailed to the door of the church at Wittenberg in 1517 when de Bres was born. Although many of the details of his life are cloaked in obscurity, historians agree that 1522 was the most probable year of his birth and that the place was Mons, in the southern Netherlands, now Belgium. His mother was a zealous Roman Catholic. And it is reported that she prayed fervently that her child might grow up as a preacher of God’s Word, and not a heretic, because shortly before his birth she had listened to a traveling monk who had preached powerfully against the rising heresy of the day. Indeed her son grew up to be a preacher, but not as his mother had expected and desired! Little is known of de Bres’ youth and early training. But apparently he was converted some time before 1547 through the reading of the Scriptures, as well as through the means of the Reformation literature that was so widely distributed especially in the Lowlands.
But the time of de Bres’ conversion was a period when the ecclesiastical and political climate was not favorab18e for any who adhered to the faith of the Reformation. Charles V, the son of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, ruled what remained of the Holy Roman Empire, including the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands. And Charles was determined to maintain his authority over this rich territory. Besides, he was a staunch ally and supporter of the pope, undoubtedly to a large degree for selfish and political reasons. However, not only were these provinces of the Netherlands determined to maintain their economic and political freedom over against Charles’ attempts to exploit them, but this was also the period when the Reformation had made considerable inroads into this part of Europe. First the Lutheran Reformation had had its impact; and even though there was never a large number of Lutherans in the Netherlands, Lutheran literature had its influence. About the same time the teachings of the Anabaptists had their effect. And the Anabaptists succeeded in stirring up rebellion and dissatisfaction with Spain and Rome. Soon after, the Calvinistic Reformation made tremendous inroads into the Lowlands. The amount of literature that was disseminated in the provinces was vast. The number of converts grew. The inevitable result was a clash between the Roman Catholic Charles V and the Reformation-minded Lowlanders. And the Spanish Charles determined to invoke the terrors of the Inquisition against his heretical subjects. By the year 1540 the property of all “heretics” was subject to confiscation, and the death penalty was invoked upon all such heretics and upon any who supported them in any way. And so in 1547 Guido de Bres was forced to flee for his life to the safer religious climate of England, where, in the days of Edward VI, the Reformed refugees from Roman Catholic persecution were welcomed. Here he remained for about five years. And it was in England that de Bres became prepared for his life’s work as a preacher of the gospel and as a leader in the Reformed churches in the Lowlands. At London there was the Church of the Refugees, of which John a Lasco was the pastor. With him and with Petrus Dathenus and other famous Reformed leaders de Bres had contact in these years; and through this fellowship he learned much.
When Mary ascended England’s throne and England itself witnessed a bloody Romish persecution, however, de Bres returned to his homeland. And from 1552 to 1556 he became a traveling preacher, with Rijsel as the center of his labors. But in 1556, one year after Charles’ successor, the cruel and absolutistic Philip II, became the Spanish ruler, a heavy persecution broke out, necessitating flight once more. At Frankfurt am Main, his next city of refuge, he came into contact again with a Lasco, and also with Calvin, who is said to have visited three weeks in Frankfurt that year. One year later we find de Bres in Switzerland, at Lausanne and Geneva, where his schooling was completed. In 1559 he returned to Doornik (Tournai), apparently a hot-bed of heresy in Roman Catholic eyes and under careful scrutiny by the Spanish authorities because of its pro-French leanings. Here de Bres took up his ministry with vigor and effectiveness. Here too he married Catherine Ramon, by whom he had several children. But this Reformer was destined to have little peace and quiet in his brief life span. In September of 1561, needlessly and against the warnings of de Bres himself, a number of the inhabitants had staged one or more chanteries, psalm-singing parades. If, as is reported, they were seeking martyrdom and attempting to fan the fires of persecution, they succeeded well. For the wicked Margaret of Parma sent her commissioners to investigate and to punish all those who were guilty of violating the royal edicts. Heretics were to be arrested. Finally the persecution waxed so hot that de Bres was forced to flee again. But before he left, he tossed his little packet over the castle-wall at Doornik for the benefit of the commissioners, of Margaret, and of Philip II. His house was burned, his library was destroyed, and he himself became an exile for whose head the Inquisition would pay a goodly bounty.
France became the next scene of his labors. And here he stayed, with the exception of a few brief and secret trips to Belgium, laboring in various cities where the Reformed faith had gained a foothold. But the Reformed believers in the southern Netherlands urged his return. And in 1566 he deemed that the time had come for that return. After a brief stay at Antwerp, he settled at Valenciennes. Here he labored for less than two years along with Peregrin de la Grange. Through their labors it came about that more than two-thirds of the citizenry became adherents of the Reformation faith. But at the occasion of the iconoclastic riots of this time, in which the people of Valenciennes also took part, persecution broke out anew. The violation of Roman Catholic sanctuaries and the destruction of Romish images and relics stirred the authorities to a frenzied rage against the Calvinists. In December of 1566 the city was declared to be in a state of rebellion. Noircarmes laid siege to the city with his Spanish soldiers. And after three months, because no succor came from the outside and because the city was not prepared for a long siege, surrender came. The two preachers were the object of intense search, and were captured while fleeing. First imprisoned at Doornik and later brought to Valenciennes for imprisonment and trial, de Bres underwent intense questioning at numerous hearings. His faith never wavered. He rejoiced more than ever in tribulation. Condemned to be hanged, on the last day of his life, May 31, 1567, before he left the prison, he is said to have addressed his fellow-prisoners as follows: “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.” To the gallows in the public marketplace he was brought. At the foot of the ladder de Bres wished to pray, but he was forbidden. Then he admonished the people to remain steadfast in the truth. And thus he died the death of a martyr.
From this brief account we may learn, in the first place, that the Belgic Confession is no dead letter, coldly and academically composed, but the expression of the living faith of the church, rising from the very heart, written, as it were, in the blood of persecution, and maintained at the cost of death. To make a confession of faith when skies are blue and no clouds of persecution appear is one thing; to make it mid the storms of tribulation and persecution is quite another. Guido de Bres paid for his confession with his life. And thus did thousands upon thousands of children of God in his times. Reliable historians tell us that far more martyrs died in the Netherlands during the reign of Charles V only than died in the first three centuries of the Christian era in the Roman Empire.
Four hundred years have passed! Can it be said today that the Belgic Confession of Faith is as precious today to those of the Reformed churches as it was in yesteryear? Judging by the growing trend toward doctrinal indifference and ignorance, not to speak now of outright departure from the truth, one could not make this estimate. But how about you and me? Do we know what we believe? Will we maintain it? Do we live it? Do we count the faith once delivered to the saints an incomparably precious heritage? Do we live according to it in such a way that we would be willing to die for it—yes, and by it?