Guido De Bres – The Man of the Confession

This contribution will be followed in the December issue by a second article, also by Dr. Praasma, on: The Confession of Man. These articles are written in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the preparation of the Belgic Confession by the Christian martyr, Guido de Bres.

This year we celebrate the fourth centennial of the Belgic Confession. To be very precise, it was the 25th of May, 1561, that in Rouen a little booklet was edited under the title: CONFESSION DE FOY, faiete d’un commun accord par les fideles qui converscnt es pays-bas, lesquels desirent vivre selon la purete de l’Evangile de Nostre Seignucr Jesus Christ.1

(Confession of faith, made by common agreement by the believers who live in the Netherlands and desire to live according to the purity of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.)

The name “Belgic Confession” seems to have been given quite accidentally; in the Netherlands this Confession is called the Dutch Confession; there is at the moment no genuine Belgic Church which maintains this Confession. On the other hand there are Churches in America, in Africa and Australia, who honor it as one of their standards.

Nevertheless, its author was a real Belgian, and in his days it seemed that Belgium would gradually become a Calvinistic country. The springtide of the Reformation rose suddenly in the South of the Low Countries, and thousands upon thousands again chose for the new and yet the old gospel of the only comfort in life and death. But this country, which saw the dawn of Reformation, experienced also the heat of the Counter-Reformation. The young, high. spirited, and hopeful movement was suppressed and suffocated in blood and tears. One of the greatest sons of the Belgium of those days was Guido de Bres. In him we find all the energy, the spirit, the faith of the people of this country in that period.



In this article I do not intend to describe his life or to give a short sketch of all his activities; there are good biographies available.2 I only will try to give some reflections on his life, to throw some light on certain characteristic details.

Let me write something about his Calvinism; his moderation; and his martyrdom.

Guido de Bres was a pur-sang Calvinist, and his confession was a genuine, Calvinistic one. What does that mean and why should we make use of the name “Calvinist,” when it was not appreciated by Calvin himself and was used contemptuously by the Lutherans in that time?

Well, in calling de Bres a Calvinist I do not refer to the fact that he was a pupil of this Reformer in the most literal sense of the word, since he studied in Geneva (about 1556–1558) and afterward corresponded with Calvin. Neither do I suggest that de Bres formed a kind of Calvinistic faction; that he was the center of a religious group of a very special character, visible most of all in its anti-papistic or its anti-anabaptistic traits. No, although in his confession the antithesis with Rome and the anabaptists is evident, nevertheless the name “Calvinist” can never be justified only on negative grounds.

De Bres was a Calvinist because he was a man motivated in all things by the fear of the Lord. The motto of the apostle moved his heart; “One thing I do” (Phil. 3:13) and the wish of the psalmist was the sigh of his soul: “One thing have I desired of the Lord; that will I seek after” (Ps. 27:4). Already before his birth his mother had prayed that the child which she was expecting might be a preacher of the Word of God. That prayer was answered, although in a different way than the mother had imagined. In his last letter to his mother from his jail de Bres wrote: “You prayed that your child might be as that Jesuit.3 God has made him a Jesuit indeed, but not of that new sect which is called Jesuits. He has made me a true follower of Jesus the Son of God and He has called me to the holy service, not to preach the doctrine of men, but the pure and simple Word of Jesus and His apostles; which I have done till now with a good and sound conscience, seeking only the salvation of men, not my glory nor my particular profit. Mind the zeal of the Lord which has been in me, accompanied by many crosses, afflictions and difficulties, and that not for a small number of days, but for many years.”4

The entire life of de Bres was a hearkening to the call of the Lord, a service of the Lord with all his heart and mind and strength. After his conversion he immediately began to preach, and all his life was devoted to the study of the Bible and the Church fathers and to an effective and heart-moving preaching of the gospel. He was exiled; he had to flee to England, Germany, and Switzerland; but as soon as he was able to do so, he returned to the country of his youth; and in Rysel, Doornik and Valenciennes the Word of God was heard from his lips in tile houses, in the fields, and sometimes in churches.

The emblem of John Calvin was the burning heart.

Guido de Bres had such a burning heart.

He had a presentiment of his martyr’s death. The Confession of Faith, which in the night of the first day of November 1561, was thrown over the walls of the eastle of Doornik (Tournay), was accompanied by a letter to the Sovereign of the Low Countries, Philip II. In that letter de Bres stated that this Confession did not speak in the name of one man, but “in your Netherlands are more than a hundred thousand men, who maintain and follow the Religion, the Confession of which we now transmit to you.” But the man who drafted that Confession says that he is “prepared and ready, if it is necessary, to seal it with his own blood.”5

Some years later de Bres writes a letter to the consistory of Antwerp. Also in that letter he seems to allude to a possible death through martyrdom, in these words: “I bear all of you in my heart and take care of you as much as possible, as long as the Lord leaves me this poor life” (1565). That same year he published the record of the martyr’s death in Antwerp of the minister of that city, Fabri, and the Heidelberg professor Bock, and on the title-page he writes these words:

Ne craignez les mortels qui font leur corps mourir, Mais Dieu qui les peut faire, et les ames, perir.6

(Don’t fear the mortals who cannot kill the whole, But God who can destroy both body and soul.)

De Bres went his way from one place to the other, from one danger to the other, without fear, because he knew he was walking in the way of the Lord. He knew himself to be always in the hands of his sovereign Savior, and had no fear except the fear of sin; and that is true Calvinism. The staff on which he always leaned was the Word of God.

He wrote a book by that name, “Staff of the Faith” (Le baston de Ia fay chrestienne), in which he exposes the errors of the church of Rome. In that book he exhibits a remarkable knowledge of the Church fathers and the old councils of the Church, but above all a great versatility in the interpretation of several passages of the Bible. And when at the end of his life he sits in his prison, he says: “The cause for which I am treated in this way is the Word of God.”7

De Bres was the man of the fear of God and of the Word of God; therefore he was a man of God, a theocentric man. His confession has been characterized as a theocentric and therefore in a special sense a Calvinistic confession. Not only does the first article speak of Him who is the overflowing fountain of all good, but also the mercy and the justice of God in his eternal election are confessed in clear words (art. XVI) and the last article speaks of the coming kingdom, not made by man but by God, who will be all in all.

De Bres’ Calvinism is beyond dispute.

Does it follow that he was a hard man, a radical, irreconcilable die-hard?

There will be some who connect all these and similar connotations with the word “Calvinist,” but they are wrong.

De Bres was a man of deep convictions but at the same time one who was very moderate in his views. Or, perhaps I may put it in this way: he was a man of strong convictions and therefore a very moderate man.

The famous Dutch church-historian, F. L. Rutgers, in writing on de Bres gave the following paradoxical judgment: “The Reformed Confession implied that the most precise one, provided he put his heart into it and was consistent, could practise the greatest tolerance toward the Lutheran brethren:’8 The most precise one could practise the most tolerance! How is that possible? Because that most precise one, in this case Guido de Bres, knew his own principles so well that he was not at all afraid that he would lose them; and because one of these principles was the unity, not of a small group of like-minded Christians, but of all the members of the body of Christ, who were found also outside of the Calvinistic churches.

Therefore John Calvin always did his utmost for a better understanding and an eventual union with the Lutherans.

And his adherent de Bres did the same.

In the year 1564 he attended a conference in Brussels, where the prince of Orange was present. The result of this conference was that the next year de Bres wrote a letter to the consistory of Antwerp, in which he stressed the necessity of a union with the Lutherans. He wrote of “an agreement with the Germans by means of the same confession of the essentials (une meme Confession de la chose principale),” and he was convinced that the Wittenberg Concord of 1536, made by Calvin’s friend Bucer, might be understood in such a sense that both parties could subscribe to it.9 The effect would be, according to his letter, that nobody would attack the Dutch Protestants without attacking at the same time their brothers in Germany, and that was especially the purpose of William of Orange and his brother Louis.

Of course de Bres was not a Lutheran and everybody knew that. But he could wholeheartedly call the Lutherans his brothers and he wanted to cooperate with them as far as possible.

The same moderation is evident when the “chanteries” begin in Tournai in 1561. These chanteries (song-fests) were public exercises by the Calvinists of that city who, between 8 and 10 o’clock p.m., organized a kind of psalm-singing processions, which provoked cruel reactions by the Roman Catholic Government. They were the precursors of the much more revolutionary agitation, which some years later manifested itself in the iconoclastic riots, in which some radicals wanted the ministers to take the lead. But de Bres refused. He warned against these unnecessary excesses. And he prophesied that evil things would result, which was seen to be true, when 53 inhabitants of the city were taken captive, tortured, and plundered while some of them were executed. And the ministers had to flee from the city.

This kind of moderation was also learned by de Bres in the school of Calvin, who always forbade every kind of revolution by private persons. and permitted only the lower magistrate to offer a certain measure of resistance.10

In spite of his unimpaired obedience to the government de Bres ended his life as a martyr. In the summer of 1566 he was called to Valenciennes. and in a very short time the majority of this city was Calvinistic. A request was presented to Margareth. the governess of the country. by deputies of several cities, for freedom of religion. But unfortunately at that same time the iconoclastic riots started and spread as a Bash of lightning through the country. Also in Valenciennes the images of the saints were destroyed. Thereupon the army of the governess besieged the city. and in the spring of 1567 the gates were opened for Noircarmes and his soldiers. The ministers de Bres and La Grange fled, but were taken captive in an inn.

We are deeply impressed with the perseverance of these ministers in the faith. In his Confession of Faith de Bres had written these words in the last article; “Their cause (of the faithful and the elect) which is now condemned by many judges and magistrates as heretical and impious will then (in the last judgment) be known to be the cause of the Son of God.” This was de Bres’ unshakable conviction even when he languished in the miserable prisons into which he was thrown. He defended the truth against all who attacked it; and he wrote his mother these unforgettable words: “Jesus is here imprisoned with me. I see Him as it were closed in and fettered in my irons and shackles. I see Him with the eyes of my spirit locked in in my somber and dark prison, because He has promised me in the Word of His truth to be with me all my days until the end of the world.”

Standing on the scaffold he still exhorted the people to be obedient to the magistrate and to persevere in the doctrine which he had taught, because he had preached only the truth of God. Then the ladder was pushed away from under his feet and he died.

“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them” (Rev. 14:13).

1. E.M. Broekman, Guido de Bres I, 1960, p. 161. 2. The best work is still the dissertation of L.A. van Langeraad (1884). A survey of about 30 biographies and biographical sketches is to be found in the above mentioned work of Broekman, p. 5–9. 3. The mother prayed while listening to a preacher on the market. De Bres’ memory played him a trick, when he called this man a Jesuit. He was born in 1522, and the order of the Jesuits was not founded till 1534. It is more likely that the man was Dominican. 4. Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandia, ed. F. Pijper, VIII, p. 629. 5. Epishe au Roy, in J.N. Bakhuizen van den Brink, De Ned, Belijdenisgeschriften, p. 50ff. 6. Broekman, o.c., p. 217. 7. Broekman, o.c., p. 259. 8. F.L. Rutgers, Calvijns invloed op de Reformatie in de Nederlanden (1899), p. 207. 9. Broekman, o.c., p. 197. 10. Inst. IV, 20, 31.