After suggesting some possible dangers for the Presbyterian/Reformed crowd (to which I belong gladly), I thought it might be helpful to take a few posts to introduce the Reformed Confessions. I am ordained in the Reformed Church in America, and as a mainline denomination we are a real mixed bag. But our confessional standards are second to none. We adhere to three doctrinal standards: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. The story behind the Belgic Confession is particularly inspiring.
Guido de Bres was born in 1522 in Mons, on the border between France and the part of the Lowlands which is now Belgium. He was the fourth child in a family of glass painters. As a young man he was apprenticed to a stain glass artist, but his life’s work was not to be in glass artistry.
While a teenager, he obtained a copy of the Bible (which was not nearly so easy to do in those days) and read it for himself along with some of the literature coming out of the Reformation. Before he was twenty-five, he converted to Christ and embraced the teachings of the Reformers.
He then moved, for a time, perhaps because of the threat of persecution, to London, which had become a haven for religious refugees. In London, he found a Reformed Walloon congregation (French-speaking citizens from the Lowlands). Here he studied for the ministry and heard great Reformers like a Lasco and Bucer.
In 1552, at the age of 30, he returned to the Lowlands and became an itinerant preacher. He ministered to a group of Christians meeting in secret in Lille (about 35 miles from Mons). The fellowship there called themselves “The Church of the Rose” and many of them would be martyred when Philip II came to power in Spain and called for a crack down on the Protestant heretics.
Much of the congregation fled to Frankfurt where there was a Flemish congregation. De Bres met John Calvin while in Frankfurt and from this meeting, he wound up spending two years studying Hebrew and Greek with the Reformer Theodore Beza, and then another year in Geneva studying under Calvin.
After three years of study, he re-entered the ministry, pastoring an underground congregation in Doornik (10 miles from Lille) called “The Church of the Palm.” While in Doornik, Guido de Bres, who now went by the pseudonym “Jerome,” fell in love with Catherine Ramon, and the two were married in 1559 and had four or five children together.
As long as the Protestants in the Lowlands stayed underground, they faced minimal persecution. Or at least, at first. Robert du Four, a member of de Bres’ church thought it was cowardly to keep their faith secret. So for two nights in a row–September 29 and 30, 1561–du Four organized a mass demonstration. Several hundred Protestants met in the marketplace and marched through the street of Doornik singing the Psalms, which was a sign of Reformation defiance. The Bishop told the Regent and the Regent dispatched investigators to Doornik to suppress the Protestant uprising.
De Bres lay in hiding for several months. While in hiding, de Bres, along with a few others, became convinced that the best course of action was to present the King with a Protestant Confession of Faith in order to show that they were not violent revolutionaries like many of the Anabaptists. This Confession published in 1561, modeled after Calvin’s French Confession and chiefly authored by Guido de Bres, became known as the Belgic Confession.
On November 2, 1561, the gatekeeper at the castle of Doornik found a package which had been thrown over the wall addressed to King Philip II. The package contained the Belgic Confession and a letter from de Bres and his fellow Protestants. The letter said in part “If you try [to stop us] 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 Doornik just before the authorities pieced together enough information to implicate the Church of the Palm and ransacked de Bres’ home, destroy his papers, and burn his effigy in the city square. As an exile in France, he pastored various Huguenot congregations. In 1566, de Bres attended a secret synod held in Antwerp. Only those who knew the password, “Vineyard,” were permitted to enter. At this meeting, they revised the Confession and adopted it officially as a statement of faith for the Reformed Churches in the Lowlands.
De Bres then accepted a called to work with another minister as field preachers to the Church of the Eagle in Valenciennes near the French border. Together, they drew quite a following with their preaching of the Reformed faith. Unfortunately, some of their followers went too far and broke into cathedrals, smashed icons, and ransacked Catholic churches.
When Philip got news of the uprising, he intensified the persecution. The people of Valenciennes, against de Bres’ advice, decided to fight Philip’s men. After holding out for several months, the people of the Church of the Eagle surrendered and the city was overtaken. Amazingly, de Bres escaped. But he was soon captured and put in the prison for seven weeks in the infamous dungeon, the Black Hole of Brunain.
While in prison, he wrote a 233 page treatise on the Lord’s Supper and wrote a final letter to his wife. It is one of the most touching, faith-filled, heart-wrenching, God-glorifying pieces of writing that no one knows about.
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 marred 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 cause 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 going, 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 you nor forsake you.
On May 31, 1567, Guido de Bres, 47 years old, was publicly hanged in the marketsquare of Valenciennes. He was pushed off the scaffold as he exhorted the crowd to be faithful to Scripture and respectful to the magistrates. His body was buried in a shallow grave where it was later dug up and torn apart by wild animals. Today few know the name of Guido de Bres, but millions continue to be nourished by the Confession he wrote.