Just prior to mounting the scaffolding to be hung for the crime of ‘sedition’ by the Spanish Inquisition, Guido de Brès voiced the following words:
“My brothers, I am condemned to death today for the doctrine of the Son of God, praise be to Him. I would never have thought that God would have given me such an honor. I feel the grace of God flowing in me more and more. It strengthens me from moment to moment, and my heart leaps within me for joy.”
The story of this martyr for the faith contains many lessons for today, especially in light of discussions as to how the words ‘the Son of God’ might be altered in translation for Muslim audiences.
In 1522, just 5 years after Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses at Wittenberg which sparked the Reformation there, a new Emperor came to be the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. His name was Charles V, and his threat to put to death “any layman who discussed the Christian faith” was no idle talk. In fact at least 2,000 non-Catholics from the Lowlands—as parts of Holland and Belgium were then called, were burned at the stake between 1523 and 1555, and 10’s of thousands more endured cruel persecution to the point of death.
It was in the same year that Guido [also known as Guy] de Brès was born into a Catholic family. Eventually he became a Christian and had a hunger to learn the Church Fathers, and the Bible in Greek and Hebrew. Due to the persecutions he spent time in England, later in Geneva, and in France and became a pastor. He served in number of churches in the Lowlands, including a church in Doornik (which is Flemish for present day Tournay in Belgium) where the former pastor Pierre Brully was martyred in February 1545 in March of 1556, a father, mother, and two sons from his church were captured and suffered the same fate. In this context de Brès assumed disguises as he traveled from group to group of believers who were essentially an underground church.
“Unity makes strength”
In his language, there was a rhyme which read “”Eendracht Maakt Macht” and it means “unity makes for strength.” With this in mind, de Brès decided to follow the example of some other Reformers and he worked on a confession of faith which would serve two purposes. The first was to unify the believers as to what the Bible systematically taught and secondly to show the emperor Philip II of Spain that Christians were actually law abiding, respectful of authority citizens. It was Philip who wrote the pope at the time: “Rather than suffer the least damage to religion and the service of God, I would lose all my states and a hundred lives, if I had them: for I do not propose to be ruler of heretics [that is Protestants and non-Catholics].”
The confession which became known as the Belgic Confession or literally from the French original: “The confession of Faith of the Reformed churches of Wallonia [a French speaking part of Belgium] and of the Flemish speakers of Belgium and Holland.”
The work was done with consultation by pastors and theological teachers and so its preface in the letter to Phillip II read “”A Confession of the Faith generally and unanimously maintained by the Believers dispersed throughout the Low Countries, who desire to live according to the purity of the holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It was not just appreciation for the Bible, but the common understanding of what the Bible teaches in its entirety that bound the believers together.
By 1562 there were 4 French printings by printers who could not even put the place of origin on the text for fear of reprisal. Quickly it was adopted as a doctrinal standard in many of the “churches of the cross” in Lowlands which were growing very rapidly and by 1566 there were 4 Dutch editions.
Boldness to the point of death:
The confession contained 37 articles arranged around the doctrines of God (1-2, 8-13), Scripture (3-7), humanity (14), sin (15), Christ (18-21), salvation (16-17, 22-26), the Church (27-36), and the end times (37). Many of them were introduced by the words “we believe.”
These words were enough to get one killed in that context. Yet the believers showed a fearlessness which is remarkable. In the same letter of 1561-2 introducing the confession to the Philip II, the believers wrote that they would rather “offer their backs to stripes, their tongues to knives, their mouths to gags, and their whole bodies to the fire, well knowing that those who follow Christ must take His cross and deny themselves,” than deny its contents. Boldly they told him:
“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.”
A sample article of faith concerning Jesus the Son of God
Belief concerning the person of Christ, as we will shortly see in de Brès’ letter to his wife just prior to his death, was the center of gravity of his life. It was this belief that helped him encourage his fellow prisoners on the day of his execution with the words “… my soul will have wings to soar to heaven where it is going today to the marriage feast of my Lord, the Son of my God.”
Thus Article 10 reads:
Jesus Christ Is True and Eternal God We believe that Jesus Christ according to His divine nature is the only begotten Son of God begotten from eternity, not made, nor created (for then He would be a creature), but co-essential and co-eternal with the Father, the very image of His substance and the effulgence of His glory, equal unto Him in all things. He is the Son of God, not only from the time He assumed our nature but from all eternity, as these testimonies, when compared together, teach us.
Moses says that God created the world; and St. John says that all things were made by that Word which he calls God. The apostle says that God made the world by His Son; likewise, that God created all things by Jesus Christ. Therefore it must needs follow that He who is called God, the Word, the Son, and Jesus Christ, did exist at that time when all things were created by Him. Therefore the prophet Micah says: His goings forth are from of old, from everlasting. And the apostle: He hath neither beginning of days nor end of life. He therefore is that true, eternal, and Almighty God whom we invoke, worship and serve.
Scripture proofs: (1) Mr 17:5; Jn 1:14, 18; 3:16; 14:1-14; 20:17,31; Rom 1:4; Gal 4:4; Heb 1:2; (2) Jn 5:18,23, 10:30, 14:9, 20:28; Rom 9:5; Php2:6; Col 1:15; Tit 2:13; (3) Jn 8:58, 17:5; Heb 13:8; (4)Gen 1:1; (5) Jn 1:1-3; (6) Heb 1:2; (7) 1Cor 8:6; Col 1:16
This article does not consist in theological novelties, but gives a synopsis of the first Christian Creeds, which also stood on the same scriptural proofs that were used here. The overarching stress on the Eternal Deity of the Son of God is unmistakable. This is done by appeal to the entire scope of Biblical revelation as well.
After the death of Guido de Brès and another prominent pastor on May 31, 1567 a letter detailing their last days and courageous faith in prison was circulated to encourage the flock. It was entitled… “In which is fully related how Guy de Brès and Peregrin De la Grange, faithful ministers at Valenciennes, signed with their blood the doctrine of the Gospel which they proclaimed truly: also the last attacks and disputes held against certain apostates and enemies of the cross and of the truth of the Son of God WITH the happy end of other notable personages who for the same true faith suffered death, 1568.”
What is obvious from the title and the statements of de Brès is that the words “Son of God” were frequently on their lips and in their hearts. This is also true of the touching letter which de Brès wrote to his wife Catharine. In his own words:
Letter of Comfort from Guido de Brès to His Wife
The grace and mercy of our good God and heavenly Father, and the love of His Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, be with you, my dearly beloved.
….This is not the place of our habitation – that is in heaven. This is only the place of our journey. That is why we long for our true country, which is heaven. We desire to be received in the home of our Heavenly Father, to see our Brother, Head, and Savior Jesus Christ, to see the noble company of the patriarchs, prophets, apostles and many thousands of martyrs, into whose company I hope to be received when I have finished the course of my work which I received from my Lord Jesus Christ.
….Our Lord permits me on the one hand to feel my weakness and my smallness, that I am but a small vessel on the earth, very fragile, to the end that he would humble me, so that all the glory of the victory may be given to him. On the other hand, he fortifies me and consoles me in an unbelievable way. I have more comfort than the enemies of the gospel. I eat, drink and rest better than they do. I am held in a very strong prison, very bleak, obscure and dark. The prison is known by the obscure name “Brunain.” The air is poor and it stinks. On my feet and hands I have irons, big and heavy. They are a continual hell, hollowing my limbs up to my poor bones.
….I pray you, my dearly beloved, to console yourself with meditation on these things. Consider the honour that God has done you, in giving you a husband who was not only a minister of the Son of God, but so esteemed of God that he allowed him to have the crown of martyrs. It is an honor the like of which God has never even given to the angels.
….Since such things have happened, my dear sister and faithful wife, I implore you to find comfort from the Lord in your afflictions and to place your troubles with him. He is the husband of believing widows and the father of poor orphans. He will never leave you – of that I can assure you. Conduct yourself as a Christian woman, faithful in the fear of God, as you always have been, honoring by your good life and conversation the doctrine of the Son of God, which your husband has preached.
As you have always loved me with great affection, I pray that you will continue this love toward our little children, instructing them in the knowledge of the true God and of his Son Jesus Christ.
At the prison, April 12, 1567.
Your faithful husband, Guy de Brès, minister of the Word of God at Valenciennes, and presently prisoner for the Son of God at the aforesaid place.
Imagine if Guido de Brès heard the present day justifications for the tinkering with filial [having to do with the Son of God] and familial [having to do with the relationship of the Father and Son and by extension Christians as adopted children of God] language. Imagine if some supposedly well-meaning arm-chair theologian came to him with some good advice in this area to his cell in his area of the prison where the sewage collected. Imagine what he might respond. I think it would be “you simply do not believe.”
Yet, it is this familial and filial language that gave him the courage to stand tall in the face of crushing persecution. It was this language that he used to encourage his fellow prisoners and his wife. It is this same language that hundreds have attested to in the Biblical Missiology petition as the “glue” that has held their Christian lives together.
Finally, the confession was said to be “unanimously maintained” or accepted by the churches “under the cross.” Its enduring quality stands as a testimony to its adherence to the whole counsel of God, the humility of its main author to submit to other churches, and its freedom from novelty for the sake of avoidance of persecution. Would that present day translations be “unanimously maintained” and have the input of the recipient churches.
For further reading:
William Boekestein. Faithfulness under fire: The story of Guido de Brès. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage Books, ©2010)
C. Bouwman, “’Notes’ to the Belgic Confession,” http://www.spindleworks.com/library/bouwman/belgic/ART01A.htm
W.L. Bredenhof, “The Martyrdom of Guido de Brès” http://archive.org/stream/BredenhofArticles1/TheMartyrdomOfGuidoDeBres_djvu.txt
W.L. Bredenhof, “A Reformation Martyr Comforts His Wife” http://ia700409.us.archive.org/31/items/BredenhofArticles1/AReformationMartyrComfortsHisWife.pdf
N. H. Gootjes. The Belgic Confession: Its History and Sources (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)
Marvin Kamps (translator), “Guido De Brès’ Letter to Philip II of Spain Appended to the Belgic Confession” http://www.cprf.co.uk/quotes/debresletter.htm
Philip Schaff, The “Confessio Belgica” [in French and English] in his Creeds of the Evangelical Protestant Churches. (1878) http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds3.iv.viii.html
Cornelius Venema, “The Belgic Confession” http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/belgic-confession/