Some of the interesting highlights of the Guanabara Confession include, first, that this document was written by regular church members, not highly trained and ordained theologians. Understanding their God-given place in the body of Christ and their theological limitations, they answered according to their ability. They admitted this fact when writing about one aspect of the doctrine of marriage in Article 14: “…nevertheless, we will leave the judgment on this matter to ones more knowledgeable in the Holy Scriptures….”
Although they humbly admitted that they were not gifted, trained theologians like John Calvin and others, yet they produced a clear confession of the faith.
Secondly, it is encouraging to see that they knew the writings of the church fathers. They referenced Augustine (several times), Tertullian, Cyprian, and Ambrose. Have we today read any of the writings of these church fathers and their orthodox statements about the doctrines of the Trinity, the Lord’s Supper, forgiveness of sins, and others? Maybe our reading goes back to John Calvin, Martin Luther, and other Reformers, but what about the earlier church fathers? If we have not read beyond our Reformed forefathers, then some reading opportunities still await.
Third, they appealed in their answers to the Word of God, the apostolic doctrine, and the church confessions. For example, when explaining their convictions about the doctrine of the Trinity, they wrote that they believed “…that which the Word of God and apostolic doctrine and symbol teach us” (Art. 3). Of course, “symbol” is a reference to the Symbolum Quicunque, or, as we more commonly know it, the Athanasian Creed. In so doing, they confessed the faith of Holy Scripture in conscious connection with the church of all ages. This is evidence that they were biblical and confessional, a significant characteristic of being Reformed.
Fourth, the Guanabara Confession confesses truths of Calvinism, especially what we commonly know as the “Five Points of Calvinism.” The confession states total depravity, the bondage of the will in sin, double predestination, irresistible grace, and the preservation of the saints (Art. 10). Although the confession does not address particular atonement directly, there are clear implications from the confession that the men also believed in this doctrine. For example, this is implied in their conviction that Jesus Christ is the only Mediator, Intercessor, and Advocate of the elect by whom alone we have access to the Father (Art. 16).
Fifth, they rejected transubstantiation and the popish mass, which is the subject of Articles 5-8. In rejecting the popish eucharist, they wrote, “thus, we do not understand the saying that the bread and wine are actually transformed or transubstantiated in their body, because the bread continues with its nature and substance; likewise the wine, there is no change or alteration” (Art. 5). It is encouraging to observe their God-given ability to reject the heresy of transubstantiation, and that “transubstantiation” and other significant doctrinal terms were in their working vocabulary. They were certainly well equipped and prepared to defend the truth of the Word of God.
Sixth, they rejected the Roman Catholic practice of monastic vows of celibacy and upheld the necessity of marriage for those in the office of the ministry of the gospel. While we agree with their understanding from Scripture about divorce on the ground of adultery (Matt. 19:5), we do object to their understanding of the freedom of “the non- guilty party” to remarry while his or her spouse remains alive. We believe that the remarriage of the “non-guilty party,” unless the “guilty” spouse has died, is forbidden by Scripture (Rom. 7:2-3). Beyond that objection, we can appreciate their insistence on marriage normally for ordained pastors in the church. They were concerned to keep the churches pure from unnecessary vows of celibacy, which tended “to corrupt the true service of God,” and to protect ordained pastors from such vows that in most cases, according to their observation, only tempted God (Art. 13).
Seventh, they rejected the whole Roman Catholic enterprise of additional intercessors and mediators in the saints who have died and are now in heaven. They wrote that “as to the saints who died, we say that they desire our salvation and the fulfilment of the kingdom of God and that the number of the elect is completed; nevertheless, we must not direct ourselves to them, as intercessors to obtain something, because we would be disobeying the commandment of God…” (Art. 16). Thus, they boldly rejected Mary as co-mediatrix and all other saints in heaven as those to whom one may pray for a blessing or some other kind of spiritual or physical help.
Finally, in their last article, they rejected prayers for the dead, and, by implication, masses for the dead, another Roman Catholic enterprise. This is a common practice still today, the goal of which is to merit for the dead souls of relatives in purgatory a reduction in their painful purgation (suffering) and an early release (justification) into heaven. The four believers (see box for names) rejected this practice as a pagan custom, contrary to the church fathers, and contrary to Scripture (Art. 17).
From our brief sampling of the Guanabara Confession, it is not difficult to imagine the angry reaction of Captain Villegagnon, a loyal Roman Catholic, to the Huguenots’ resolute rejection of deeply rooted practices and teachings of the Romish church. About 12 hours after receiving their response, he hung them. After the death of these Reformed martyrs and the expulsion of the French Huguenots from Guanabara Bay, the presence of the Reformed faith and preaching would not return to that region in South America until later in history.
What are some points of significance about this part of Reformed church history?
First, Reformed churches were interested in foreign missions from the beginning of the Reformation and did the work of foreign missions as they were able. This history is a clear example of that. John Calvin and the church in Geneva encouraged and sent gifted and trained men in obedience to the Lord of the harvest to South America for a potential ecclesiastical work for the advancement of the kingdom of Christ in another part of the world. This concern for foreign missions is implied in the Guanabara Confession when the men wrote about “the fulfilment of the kingdom of God and that the number of the elect is completed” (Art. 16). The attempt to establish a Huguenot-friendly settlement in South America had the purpose of the establishment of a Reformed congregation and foreign mission work with the Tamoio and Tupinamba tribes. Thus, their belief in sovereign grace and election did not hinder them from foreign mission work, but rather served as the sure basis and motivation for the Huguenot families and ordained missionaries to serve the Lord in South America among new peoples, tribes, and languages according to His will.
Second, a characteristic of the members of Reformed churches at that time, shown by the Guanabara Bay martyrs, was how capable they were in explaining and defending the Reformed faith (apologetics). At that time (and still today), Roman Catholicism appeared to view ignorance and doubt as virtues for its disciples. Ordinary members of Roman Catholic churches were generally ignorant of the Holy Scriptures and lived in fear and doubt about their salvation and future. In contrast, the Reformed churches fed the flock of God with His Word so that the sheep received certain, doctrinal knowledge and hearty assurance of their salvation in Christ alone. That these men could write the 17 Articles of the Guanabara Confession in a relatively short period of time is evidence of the grace of God through the means of faithful catechism training and expository preaching in the Reformed churches in France and Geneva. Certainly, they were not destroyed for lack of knowledge. Rather, by the faithful administration of the means of grace, they were equipped by the Holy Spirit to explain and defend accurately and without confusion the doctrines of Holy Scripture according to the confessions of the true church of Jesus Christ. Of course, this is a good example for us to imitate in our present age.
Third, embracing and maintaining our confession of the truth of Holy Scripture according to the Reformed confessions comes with a high price. This history of the Guanabara Bay martyrs illustrates that price: everything, even our earthly life. In spite of the present ease in which most of us live with regard to our Reformed faith and practice, we must realize that embracing the Reformed doctrine by a living faith in our present age exposes us and our generations to persecution and death for Jesus’ sake. This should be no surprise to us because Jesus told us this would happen to His true disciples. If the enemies of the kingdom of God treated Christ as they did, then we should expect to suffer similarly and die for His sake (John 15:18-21). In light of that high cost, we must seek the grace and Holy Spirit of our Father to prepare us and our children to write, if necessary, our own death warrants in answer to a persecutor who asks us about our Christian hope and threatens to torture and kill us if we do not recant our biblical and Reformed convictions.
Fourth, it is important to remember that the Lord of the harvest was in providential control of this chapter in Reformed church history. The Lord of the harvest executes God’s will, and so guides the spread of His true gospel in the earth. That means that what the Reformed in France and Geneva in the 1550s may have envisioned for the spread of the true gospel of Christ in the earth, specifically, the Guanabara Bay region, the Lord did not bring to pass. According to the Lord’s will, the Huguenots were only in Guanabara Bay for a short three years. It was not the Lord’s time for Reformed churches to maintain a witness of the Reformed faith in missions or established churches in Brazil for many generations after 1558. Not until much later in history, would the Lord bring back the light of the Reformed churches to that region.
That principle of the Lord’s sovereign guidance in missions is an important principle to remember. The good foreign-mission desires that we may have regarding the spread of the Reformed faith into new and hard- to-reach places may not come to pass when and for how long we have desired or envisioned. We are reminded that the Lord of the harvest directs and fulfills His work of missions through His servants according to God’s good pleasure and eternal counsel by various means. Even in missions, not our will, but the Lord’s will must be done. All of our planning, praying, preaching, and pouring out of our souls in the work remain always subject to His sovereign direction and good pleasure.
Finally, may the concluding wish of the Guanabara Bay martyrs expressed at the end of their confession be fulfilled in us as it has been in them. They concluded thus:
This is the answer that we give to the articles that we have received from you, according to the measure and proportion of faith, which God has given us, praying that He may be pleased that this faith not be found dead in us, but bearing fruits worthy of His children, and that we may grow and persevere in it, so that we will render praises and thanksgiving to Him forever. Amen.
3. We believe, concerning the Son of God and concerning the Holy Spirit, that which the Word of God and apostolic doctrine and the symbol teach us.
5. We believe in the holy sacrament of the Supper, as corporal figures of bread and wine, and that faithful souls are actually fed with the very substance of our Lord Jesus, as our bodies are fed by food; thus, we do not understand the saying that the bread and wine are actually transformed or transubstantiated in their body, because the bread continues with its nature and substance; likewise the wine, there is no change or alteration.
We differentiate, nevertheless, this bread and wine from other bread and wine dedicated to the common usage, understanding that these are, for us, sacramental signs, under which truth is infallibly received. The reception of this truth, however, is not possible except by faith, and it is not proper to imagine anything carnal, nor to prepare the teeth to eat, as we learn from Saint Augustine, when he says, “Why do you prepare the teeth and the stomach? Believe, and you have eaten.”
The sign, therefore, does not give us the truth nor the signified thing; but our Lord Jesus Christ, by His power, virtue and goodness, feeds and preserves our souls and makes them share in His own flesh and blood, and all His benefits.
13. The separation between a man and a woman legitimately united by marriage cannot be done, except on account of adultery, as is taught by our Lord (Matt. 19:5). And not only is this cause for separation, but also, with the cause properly examined by authorities, the non-guilty party, if cannot contain himself, should marry, as it is taught by St. Ambrose, on the seventh chapter of the first letter of Corinth. The authority, however, must proceed in this matter with mature counsel.
14. Paul, when teaching that the overseer must be the husband of one wife, is not saying that another marriage is not proper, but he is condemning bigamy, which attracted many in those days; nevertheless, we will leave the concluding judgment on this matter to ones more knowledgeable in the Holy Scriptures, and we will not base our opinion in this matter solely on our faith.
16. We believe that Jesus Christ is our only mediator, intercessor and advocate, by whom we have access to the Father, and that, justified by His blood, we will be free from death; and reconciled by Him we will have full victory against death.
As to the saints who died, we say that they desire our salvation and the fulfillment of the kingdom of God, and that the number of elect is completed; nevertheless, we must not direct ourselves to them, as intercessors to obtain something, because we would be disobeying the commandment of God. As to us, the living, while we are united as members of one body, we should pray one for another, as we are taught by many passages of Scriptures.
This is the answer that we give to the articles that we have received from you… (see the end of the article for the full conclusion).
Jean du Bourdel, Matthieu Verneuil, Pierre Bourdon, Andre la Fon