During the sixteenth century, many severe persecutions were launched against the Protestant Reformers. The strength of the Reformation was tried in its very infancy, and because the movement was born, not of men, but of God, grace was given in abundance to the people of God to faithfully endure this era of tempest. Many thousands of them lived from the principle, “Our backs we offer to stripes, our tongues to knives, our mouths to gags, and our whole bodies to the fire, rather than that we deny Christ.” On this principle, the church thrived and because of it, many suffered martyrdom. To the latter belongs also the author of our Belgic or Netherlands Confession, Guido de Bray (Guy De Bres).
In this issue, we wish to acquaint our readers with the author of the Confession which we will discuss in future issues. We must know how our cherished Confession was brought to birth. Knowing this, we, too, will more deeply appreciate this part of our Reformed heritage, which we are too frequently inclined to take for granted. And we may best learn of the origin of our Confession by perusing the life of the man whom God used to compose it. Although De Bres is not the exclusive author of the Confession, he is regarded as the principal one.
De Bres was born in 1522 at Mons. His mother, by whom he was reared, was a strict Roman Catholic. This early training in Catholicism, however, did not alter the fact that before he reached the age of twenty-five, he had become a thorough Protestant. When persecution broke out in 1548, De Bres fled to England, where he spent four years. Upon his return, he settled at Ryssel, where he won great popularity as a preacher. His ministry, however, was of short duration, for four years later, his congregation was dispersed by a fresh persecution, and he was compelled to flee, going for a while to Ghent, then to Frankfort, and finally to Switzerland. Three years later, in 1559, he returned to southern Netherlands where he established headquarters at Tournai, although he also again served Ryssel and Valenciennes. In disguise for safety’s sake, he paid visits to Antwerp and Mons in behalf of the cause of the Reformed faith.
The next incident of importance occurred in 1561, when in September of that year, the public singing of Marot’s psalms gave rise to a judicial investigation, which again exposed Guido De Bres to new dangers. Undaunted, he, rather than fleeing once more for safety, undertook to secure justice for his comrades, by laying before the authorities his Confession of Faith (The Belgic Confession) in Thirty-Seven Articles, in the form of that adopted by the French Reformed churches in 1559. This Confession, according to A. H. Newman, was drafted by Guido de Bres before he was twenty years of age. Whether this is true, we cannot say: but it is not impossible, because this Reformer’s entire life numbered only forty-seven years. In 1561 he used the Confession before the authorities, hoping to convince them that he and his friends were not revolutionary Anabaptists as they had been charged. His attempt, however, failed. It did not stop the persecutions. It has this effect though, that it reached the public eye, and as is evident from frequent editions that were published, it met with wide-spread and popular approval; it won thousands to the cause of the Reformation, and it was soon recognized as a standard formula.
De Bres’ known identity as author of the Confession, however, compelled him now to escape from Tournai to Amiens and from thence to Antwerp. Storm followed storm. In 1564 he was in Brussels for a conference with William of Orange, and took part in the negotiations at Metz for a union of the Lutherans and Calvinists. Then he found a refuge at Sedan, with Henri Robert de la Marck, Sieur de Bouillon; but two years later, he was called back to a post of danger by the consistory at Antwerp. In August of this same year, he settled at Valenciennes, where by this time about two-thirds of the inhabitants were in sympathy with the Reformation. The governor’s attempt to suppress the movement led to the siege of the city in December and its surrender in the following March. Once more De Bres attempted to flee but he and his fellow preachers were captured a few hours later at Saint-Amand and sent as prisoners to Tournai and then back to Valenciennes. There on May 31, 1567 he was executed. He was sentenced to be hanged in front of the town hall and thus ended a life full of toil and peril, which is one of the glories of the Reformation in the southern Netherlands.
Concerning the Confession itself, it may be pointed out that it was originally written in the French language. Aiding Guido De Bres in its composition are such men as H. Savavia, professor of theology at Leyden and afterward in Cambridge; H. Modetus, chaplain for some time of William of Orange; and G. Wingen. It was revised by Francis Junius of Bourges (1545- 1602), a student of John Calvin, pastor of a Walloon congregation at Antwerp, and afterward professor of theology at Leyden. He abridged the sixteenth article (dealing with election) and sent a copy to Geneva and other churches for approval. Later the Confession was translated into the Dutch, German and Latin. Various Synods in the Netherlands, from 1566 on, adopted it. The most important of these is the Synod of Dordt in 1618-1619 which approved it and accepted it along with the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dordt, as one of the symbols of the Reformed Churches in Holland and Belgium. It is interesting to note that the Arminians at this Synod objected to this. This is, of course, understandable. They demanded that parts of it be changed, but their demands were not granted by the Synod.
The Confession itself, in distinction from the Heidelberg Catechism, does not follow the subjective, experiential method of discussing the truth, but rather, follows the dogmatic order. It treats, in order, the doctrines of God (Theology), Man (Anthropology), Christ (Christology), Salvation (Soteriology), Church (Ecclesiology), Last Things (Eschatology). The Confession treats rather fully the truths of the Trinity, the Incarnation of Christ, the Church and the Sacraments. Finally, Article 36 treats the matter of the relation between the church and the state and is based upon a conception prevalent at that time which is no longer accepted in its entirety.
D.V. we will begin next time to discuss all these truths contained in the 37 Articles over against the countless errors that seek to undermine the faith of the church.