On May 31, 1567 Guido de Bres was martyred for the Christian faith. Furthermore, as noted before here, this year marks the 450th birthday of the Confession he penned. As part of our ongoing celebration of this milestone in Reformed confessional history, let me share with you a little known fact about the author of the Belgic Confession. He believed in purgatory.
This came out when he was in prison in Tournai. He and another Reformed pastor (Peregrin de la Grange) were initially imprisoned there and then shortly afterwards transferred to Valenciennes. While awaiting transfer, de Bres and de la Grange were visited by many people. He had become a celebrity. He wrote, “…I was visited by a large number of gentlemen, women, and young girls, who said that they wanted to see me because they had heard so much of Guy de Bres, and had never seen him before.”
Among those visitors was Monsieur de Moulbay, the commander of the Tournai castle where de Bres was imprisoned. He came looking to debate points of theology with the pastor. They first tried to argue with de Bres about the invocation of Mary and other saints. De Bres stumped them with quotations from Scripture and Augustine. Their next attack came with the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, Jesus’ mother. De Bres affirmed that he believed that she was always and still is a virgin — not an uncommon position among sixteenth century Reformers. The answer surprised his accusers.
Then de Moulbay alleged that de Bres did not believe in purgatory. This was his response and the follow-up:
Pardon me, sir, I do not belong to those who deny a purgatory. For I hold the blood of the Son of God to be the purgatory of the sins of those who repent and embrace this benefit by faith. But I do not recognize the burning and roasting of souls as held by the fables of the priests. Then he answered me in anger, saying that I might as well deny that there is a hell. But I said that I held that there is a hell for the sinful and wicked, just as the Word of God teaches us, but that I did not hold to such a purgatory as the priests had invented because the Scriptures teach us nothing about it. Then they said that I should find out if there is a hell, when I would be damned. To which I responded to him that I have my Judge in heaven and he would judge altogether different — and concerning that I was confident because of his Word.
We read nothing of anything further between de Bres and de Moulbay. Immediately after this, de Bres and de la Grange were shipped out of Tournai on their way to Valenciennes.
I got to thinking about de Bres and his “belief in purgatory,” as I was reading a late medieval letter. Wessel Gansfort was a Dutch theologian who lived about a century before de Bres. He was writing to Jacob Hoeck, another theologian. They had been arguing about the role of tradition and Scripture, specifically with regard to the issue of indulgences. Hoeck had asserted that the Bible said nothing for or against indulgences. Gansfort completely disagreed. He wrote,
In my opinion it was not the first Pope, Peter, but the Holy Spirit through Peter who issued the one and only permanent bull of indulgence. Peter testifies that this bull is permanent because it provides ample entrance into the kingdom of God and of our Saviour Jesus Christ. And Peter further testifies that the bull is the only one and adds, ‘Whoever lacks these things [the ten things enumerated in 2 Peter 1] is blind and feeling his way by hand and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins.’ Therefore no other bull is to received or authorized which does not include this. Every other bull is superfluous and, therefore, Scripture does speak about indulgences, because it refers to ample entrance into the kingdom. (Forerunners of the Reformation, ed. Heiko Oberman, 103).
Gansfort was speaking about a different issue, but yet we find him using the same method as de Bres about a hundred years later: co-opting your opponent’s terminology. Had de Bres read Gansfort? It’s impossible to say. More likely, both Gansfort and de Bres were using a method of argument that had been developed by someone else in an earlier period. Who that might be is something I’ll have to research further.