Category Archives: Confessions

De Brès, the Belgic Confession, and Persecution

The hanging of Guy de Brès and Peregrin de la Grange on 31st of May, 1567.

Did you know the Belgic Confession is the only officially adopted Reformed confession written by a martyr?  True, other confessions were written by martyrs.  The most notable is the Guanabara Confession.  It was written in 1557 by three Huguenot martyrs in Brazil – it bears the distinction of being the first Reformed confession written in the Americas.  Yet, unlike our Belgic, the Guanabara Confession was never adopted by any church.  The Belgic Confession stands alone.

If we closely survey the Belgic Confession, we’ll find the themes of martyrdom and persecution pervading it.  It’s common knowledge that Guido de Brès borrowed heavily from the French Confession of 1559.  However, one of the significant differences between the French Confession and the Belgic is the emphasis in the Belgic on persecution and martyrdom.  In fact, there is no European Reformation confession as oriented to this subject as the Belgic.

De Brès — A Life on the Run

This is owing to the life and times of its author.  After his conversion to the biblical, Reformed faith in 1547, the life of de Brès was marked by persecution.  He lived in the Low Countries, which William Monter called the “epicentre of heresy executions in Europe.”  Because of persecution, de Brès had to flee to England in 1548, one year after his conversion.  There he received some theological training.

After things started to become difficult in England too, he returned to the Low Countries in 1552.  He became a pastor in Lille, a city where many believers had been martyred by the Spanish authorities.  Several members of his church in Lille were martyred during his time as their pastor too.  Soon, de Brès himself had to flee again, first to Frankfurt, and then later to Lausanne.

By 1559, there was more religious freedom for the Reformed in the Low Countries and so de Brès returned.  He became pastor of the church at Tournai.  There he enjoyed relative peace for about two years.  Things took a turn for the worse in 1561.  The Spanish authorities again cracked down on Reformed believers and de Brès was again forced to run for his life.  Shortly before this, he wrote the Belgic Confession for the Reformed churches.

The Belgic Confession and Persecution

As mentioned earlier, the Confession was penned in the context of blood and death.  It shows throughout.  Our English edition today contains a brief introduction.  That introduction is, of course, fairly recent.  The original Belgic Confession had different introductory material.  It was published as a small booklet.  After the title page, there was a poem, likely written by de Brès.  It pleads for the ruling authorities to give the Reformed believers a fair hearing.  The possibility of another kind of verdict looms in the background.

Then follows the Dedicatory Epistle to Philip II, the Spanish ruler.  The theme of persecution and martyrdom permeates this epistle like no other writing of de Brès.  This writing is not often quoted, but when it is, usually it is this remarkable passage:

The banishments, prisons, racks, exiles, tortures and countless other persecutions plainly demonstrate that our desire and conviction is not carnal, for we would lead a far easier life if we did not embrace and maintain this doctrine.  But having the fear of God before our eyes, and being in dread of the warning of Jesus Christ, who tells us that he shall forsake us before God and his Father if we deny him before men, we suffer our backs to be beaten, our tongues to be cut, our mouths to be gagged and our whole body to be burnt, for we know that he who would follow Christ must take up his cross and deny himself.

That passage speaks powerfully of the determination of de Brès and his fellow Reformed believers.

Right before the actual body of the Belgic Confession, de Brès included “Some passages of the New Testament in which the faithful are exhorted to render confession of their faith before men.”  Four of the six passages quoted come from a biblical context of persecution, suffering, and martyrdom.

Then throughout the Confession itself we find references to enemies, persecution, and martyrdom.  In article 12, we read about the devils and evil spirits who “lie in wait like murderers to ruin the church and all its members…” They wait “to destroy everything by their wicked devices.”  In article 13, concerning the providence of God, de Brès writes about the consolation this doctrine provides:  “In this we trust, because we know that he holds in check the devil and all our enemies so that they cannot hurt us without his permission and will.” Article 27 is perhaps the most pointed.  De Brès writes of how God preserves the church “against the fury of the whole world.”  He makes a reference to the reign of Ahab during which “the Lord kept for himself seven thousand persons who had not bowed their knees to Baal.” Article 28 continues the theme when it speaks of believers joining the assembly of the church “wherever God has established it.  They should do so even though the rulers and edicts of princes were against it, and death or physical punishment might follow.” In article 29, de Brès mentions the characteristics of the false church.  Among these is the fact that “It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God.”  Finally, in the last article, de Brès writes about the last judgment.  He says the righteous will be vindicated:  “Their innocence will be known to all and they will see the terrible vengeance that God will bring upon the wicked who persecuted, oppressed, and tormented them in this world.”

The booklet containing the Confession was concluded with a remonstrance addressed to the magistrates of the Low Countries.  In this remonstrance, de Brès called for them to carry out their God-given task of delivering justice.  Not unexpectedly, this document also contains the themes of persecution and martyrdom.

The Enduring Testimony of Pastor Guido de Brès

Eventually, de Brès himself faced the gallows.  After Tournai, he fled south to France where he served the Reformed churches from 1561 to 1566.  De Brès returned north to his homeland in July of 1566, but the following year Spanish repression resumed.  De Brès escaped for a time, but eventually was betrayed and captured.  On May 31, 1567 he was hung for ostensibly celebrating the Lord’s Supper contrary to the commandment of the magistrates.

De Brès left us a beautiful gift with his Belgic Confession.  Yet it’s also important to remember he was a pastor and as such, he soundly blessed those under his ministry.  In his Histoire des Martyrs, Jean Crespin writes of an entire Reformed family that was martyred by the Spanish.  The Ogviers were put to death in Lille in 1556.  The family consisted of Robert, his wife Jeanne, their son Martin, and their daughter Baudechon.  Their pastor had been none other than Guido de Brès.

While they were in prison, Martin Ogvier wrote several letters and Crespin reproduces them, some in full and some in parts.  At a certain point Ogvier mentions his pastor:

Flee from those who teach you the wide road, and hold in reverence those who teach the straight way, for it will take you to salvation.  This is what our brother G. (whom you well know) has up till the present very faithfully and with exceptional diligence proclaimed to you…

“Brother G.” here is a reference to Guido de Brès.

Before he went to be with the Lord, Martin Ogvier spoke to his fellow prisoners and again he mentioned his pastor Guy (Guido) de Brès:

Lift up your hearts, my brothers, take courage, it’s done:  I’ve endured the last assault.  I pray you, don’t forget the holy doctrine of the Gospel and all the good teachings which you have heard from our brother Guy.  Show that you have received them in your hearts and not only in your ears.  Follow us, we’re going on ahead, and do not fear, for God will certainly not forsake you.  Good bye, my brothers.

I think that’s what every pastor would want to hear if his people were about to face the same death:  remember what he preached!

These days we might sometimes wonder whether we’re heading into a time of persecution, or maybe even martyrdom.  Certainly there is much more anti-Christian sentiment today than, say 25 years ago.  Whether intense persecution is on the horizon or not, we like Martin Ogvier, must learn to imitate the boldness of men like Guido de Brès.  We can treasure and hold forth our Belgic Confession, a faithful biblical summary, but also a testimony reminding us that the blood of the martyrs is always seed.


Pastoral Q & A: Is Catechism Preaching Biblical?

Reformed churches have historically practiced catechism preaching, typically in the afternoon or evening service.  This practice dates back to the Reformation.  However, in today’s milieu the practice is under threat.  Some Reformed churches have long abandoned catechism preaching while others are heading in that direction.  Sadly, even in churches that maintain it (like the Canadian Reformed and Free Reformed of Australia), there are members who not only question it, but actively repudiate it.

One of the chief objections often raised against catechism preaching is that it isn’t preaching on the Word of God.  Instead, churches doing this are preaching on a human document.  In so doing they’re actually repudiating the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura.  The infallible Bible alone should be our “text,” and yet Reformed churches are preaching on a fallible Catechism.

Such an objection arises either from a caricature of catechism preaching or a misunderstanding of it.  The caricature portrays a Reformed pastor who dryly exegetes the Catechism, perhaps even referring at length to the original German vocabulary and grammar, but who fails to open the Bible or even mention the Bible.  In this caricature, the Catechism has indeed replaced the Bible.  I say this is a caricature because I’ve never once encountered this type of “catechism preaching,” nor have I heard of it anecdotally.  I doubt it exists.  If it does, may it soon become extinct.

The common misunderstanding relates to the notion of what biblical preaching is.  Nowhere does the Bible indicate that preaching must be on one isolated text, a verse or perhaps a series of verses.  There’s no reason to conclude that preaching can’t exposit or explain the doctrine found in a number of Bible passages.  In expository preaching, the preacher focusses on one isolated passage (naturally taking context into account as well) of Scripture.  In catechism preaching, the preacher teaches the “whole counsel of God” on a doctrine while taking the whole Bible into account.  If there ever is such a thing, catechism preaching that doesn’t work with the Scriptures is not worthy of the name “preaching,” and it isn’t biblical.   However, done properly it too is the preaching of the Word of God.

In a lecture several years ago at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, I heard Dr. Jason Van Vliet suggest we think of the relationship between regular Bible-text preaching and catechism preaching in terms of nouns, verbs, and adverbs:

The nouns are the same — if done properly, in both instances our subject material is the Word of God.

The verbs are the same — if done properly, in both instances we are preaching the Word of God.

The adverbs are different — in the first instance we are preaching from a single text of Scripture (in what I would call an expository manner); in the second instance we are preaching catechetically from a broader range of God’s revelation in Scripture.

When things are put in this manner, no one should have a difficulty in agreeing that catechism preaching can and should be biblical preaching.

Hosea 4:6 says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…”  Lack of knowledge, including knowledge of the doctrines of Scripture, is destructive.  Catechism preaching aims to build up God’s people in their knowledge of what his Word teaches.  Catechism preaching is constructive — and so why wouldn’t any Reformed believer cherish it?

(Adapted from chapter 13 of my forthcoming book Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship)


CanRC General Synod Edmonton 2019 (3)

We now have some provisional Acts to survey.  For those interested in the details, the Acts can be found here at the CanRC website.  Let me just mention a few of the highlights from the last few days.

In article 23, the synod considered a request to update the Lord’s Supper forms.  This is in regard to the use of masculine pronouns.  The synod decided to mandate the Standing Committee for the Book of Praise (SCBP) to study the matter and propose any linguistic changes they might think necessary.  From my point of view, that’s a good development.  The use of the masculine pronoun in the Lord’s Supper forms grates on me (along with other infelicities in the forms).  However, I will be interested to see how the SCBP will work around this.  An easy way to fix it would be to switch it all to first or second person:  “Let us all consider our sins and accursedness that we may humble ourselves before God” or “All of you ought to consider your sins and accursedness so that you may humble yourselves before God.”  It shouldn’t be difficult to fix.

In article 41 we find the decision about the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  I’ve already commented in general about that decision.  Now that we have the full text, I find the following consideration noteworthy:

Ecclesiastical Fellowship is extended to churches where we find the marks of the true church (Article 29, Belgic Confession).  The presence of the marks of the church are premised on a given church accepting the authority of the Word of God.  Now that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands approve of developments contrary to the Lord’s instruction in his Word, the marks of the true church cannot with confidence be said to be consistently present in these churches.

This is well-worded.  It doesn’t go to the extreme of saying that the RCN are a federation of false churches.

Last of all, I would note the synod’s discussion of an item from the Blessings Christian Church in Hamilton, ON.  This is in article 64.  Blessings sent a “request for revision” of a decision made by Synod 1983 regarding the forms for baptism and public profession of faith.  They asked Synod 2019 to judge that Synod 1983 erred in inserting “confessions” into the questions where once stood “articles of the Christian faith.”  Synod 2019 decided that this request had come improperly — Blessings has to go back and follow the ecclesiastical route of presenting a proposal via classis and regional synod.  The proper process needs to be followed.  Now I have to say that I don’t have the “request for revision” from Blessings in front of me — I haven’t seen it.  All I have is what we find in the Acts.  The quoted summary in 3.2 of article 64 reads:

In light of new research, the emergence of a new ecumenical landscape, and the conviction that previous appeals to synods (1986, 1989, 1992) were inadequately considered and therefore unjustly denied, the Blessings Christian Church requests a revision of the 1983 (Cloverdale) General Synod’s decision to modify the questions in the liturgical forms for Baptism and Profession of Faith by replacing the phrase “articles of the Christian faith” (or the tentatively approved “Apostles’ Creed”) with the term “confessions.”

I would be curious to know what this “new research” is, as well as details on how we now have a “new ecumenical landscape,” to say nothing of how previous synod decisions fell short.  Previous synods decided that “confessions” is a linguistic revision (improvement) upon “articles of the Christian faith.”  It clarifies what was meant by “articles of the Christian faith.”  Because of the use of a similar expression in Lord’s Day 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism, it could have given the impression that CanRC members only commit to the Apostles’ Creed.  So why would anyone want to go back to the ambiguous expression?   Clarity is always better.  What we read in the Acts of Synod 2019 could give the impression that Blessings wants to move the CanRC away from confessional membership, i.e. the communicant members commit to the Three Forms of Unity.  I’m glad that it didn’t go anywhere this time and I pray it never will.


Book Review: Children at the Lord’s Table?

NOTEI originally wrote this review in 2009.  However, ten years later, I’ve been hearing more about paedocommunion again.  This book remains a valuable resource for combating this error.

Children at the Lord’s Table?  Assessing the Case for Paedocommunion, Cornelis P. Venema, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009.  Hardcover, 199 pages, $25.00 USD.

Paedocommunion is a word that we’re hearing more often these days, mostly because of its connection with many of the figures associated with the Federal Vision movement.  A few years back, one of those figures pointed out to me that no one has ever really written a book presenting a solid case against admitting children to the Lord’s Supper.  He may have been right then, but I don’t believe he’s right any longer.

Cornelis Venema is well-known as a professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary and a United Reformed minister.  In this book, he first outlines the arguments of Tim Gallant and others like him for the practice of paedocommunion.  These arguments are primarily from Scripture, but there are also historical considerations.

In the chapters following, Venema considers these arguments.  He examines the historical evidence and finds it to be inconclusive at best.  He also adds a chapter looking at “Paedocommunion and the Reformed Confessions.”  Several years ago, there was a case in the United Reformed Churches dealing with whether the Three Forms of Unity allow the teaching of paedocommunion.  The answer was negative.  Although Venema does not mention that particular case, he affirms the answer.  However, most important of all is the Scriptural evidence.  Venema examines the relationship between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper and points out that it is not as straightforward as many have made it out to be.  In fact, there is a stronger connection between the Lord’s Supper and the covenant renewal meal in Exodus 24.  Venema also gives an entire chapter to the crucial passage of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, concluding that the Biblical way to the Lord’s Table is through public profession of faith.

In the last chapter, the author also considers the relationship between covenant theology and paedocommunion, especially in view of the Federal Vision movement.  Given these current issues, this is a helpful discussion.  Equally helpful is the appendix dealing with covenant theology and baptism.  Venema correctly outlines the promise and obligations of the covenant.  Like Klaas Schilder, he distinguishes between two different aspects of the covenant of grace.  There’s also a good section on whether the covenant is conditional or unconditional – though  I do think that more explicit reference to union with Christ could have sharpened the argument here.

This is an excellent and timely book dealing with an important issue.  It would be worthwhile to have it on hand in family and church libraries for when questions arise about paedocommunion.  It’s also highly recommended for those who need to have a good understanding of this issue, i.e. pastors and elders.


Book Review of Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated Against Dr. Abraham Kuyper

Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated Against Dr. Abraham Kuyper: A Critique of His Series on Church and State in Common Grace, Dr. P.J. Hoedemaker, trans. Ruben Alvarado.  Aalten: Wordbridge Publishing, 2019.

Anyone who has ever studied the Belgic Confession, even on a superficial level, is aware of an oddity in article 36. This is the only place in the Three Forms of Unity where we find a footnote in most versions of the Confession. Whether it is the United ReformedCanadian Reformed, or Protestant Reformed Churches in North America, or the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, all have an additional footnote.

Article 36 is titled “The Civil Government” or sometimes “Of Magistrates” and addresses what we confess about the role of the government. The relevant text in the body of the confession originally read:

[The government’s] task of restraining [evil] and sustaining [good] is not limited to the public order but includes the protection of the church and its ministry in order that all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed, the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honoured and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word. (Italics added)

But the clauses above that I’ve italicized were moved from the body, and relegated to footnote status a century ago, as is explained in the Canadian Reformed edition here:

The following words were deleted here by the General Synod 1905 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland): all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed.

I’ve been a pastor in both the Canadian Reformed Churches, and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, and to my knowledge, neither federation has ever made an official decision about the status of this footnote. Do we confess this or not? It is an odd ambiguity in our Three Forms of Unity.  It is something I addressed briefly in my doctoral dissertation – you can read the relevant section here.

This little book comes from the controversy which led to the words being deleted in 1905.  It provides some of the historical background, illustrating that the deletion was not without its opponents.  This book also provides an occasion to reflect on whether it may be time to revisit the matter in an official, ecclesiastical way.

Philippus Jacobus Hoedemaker (1839-1910) was a curious figure.  While he grew up in a family with roots in the 1834 Secession (Afscheiding), he himself became a minister in the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk (NHK), the Dutch national church.  At one point, he was a professor at Abraham Kuyper’s Free University in Amsterdam, but after the Doleantie of 1886, their relationship deteriorated.  Hoedemaker was an opponent of the Doleantie – the movement out of the Dutch national church led by Kuyper and others.  However, unlike so many others in the NHK, Hoedemaker was a conservative and confessionally Reformed.

This book is a response to a series of articles written by Abraham Kuyper in his newspaper De Heraut (The Herald) in 1899-1900.  In these articles, Kuyper argued against the wording of article 36 about the responsibility of the civil government with regard to idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of the antichrist.  In 1896, Kuyper went a step further.  Together with other notable theologians in the Gereformeerde Kerken (Reformed Churches), including Herman Bavinck, Kuyper put forward a gravamen against article 36.  A “gravamen” is an official objection to a point of doctrine.  These eight ministers alleged that article 36 did not conform to the Word of God and they asked the Synod of 1896 to make a judgment on the matter.  The Synod decided to appoint a committee to study the matter, a committee which bizarrely included Bavinck and Kuyper (!).  It was the work of this committee which would later result in Synod 1905 deleting the allegedly unbiblical words.

In this book, Hoedemaker argues for the original form of article 36.  More accurately, he argues against Kuyper’s objections to the original form of article 36.  He maintains that Kuyper was inconsistent.  On the one hand, he wants to honour King Jesus as the Lord of all of life.  But on the other hand, King Jesus has no crown rights over the responsibility of the civil government with regard to idolatry, false worship, and the kingdom of antichrist.  Hoedemaker alleges that this inconsistency is owing to political expediency.  Abraham Kuyper was getting into politics and BC 36 was an embarrassment in trying to build bridges with Roman Catholic politicians.

Hoedemaker makes two points I find especially compelling.  One is mentioned early in the book.  He alleges that the discovery of “the fatal defect” in article 36 is “not the result of the ongoing investigation of the Scripture; but exclusively causes which lie in the times, and in apostasy from the living God” (p.5).  He states repeatedly that Kuyper and others were not arguing from exegesis, but from pragmatic considerations and false inferences.  The pragmatic considerations had to do with Dutch politics.  The false inferences were along the lines of the Confession requiring the civil magistrate to persecute unbelievers and false believers.  Hoedemaker is especially persuasive in addressing that notion.

The other point is a procedural one.  Hoedemaker states that there is a dualism between Kuyper’s political theory and his theology.  Then he remarks:  “It allows him to lodge all manner of objections to the Confession without being called to account” (p.69).  This makes me wonder if Kuyper had ever lodged his disagreement with BC 36 with his consistory.  I have been unable to find an answer to that question.  It seems odd, from a Reformed church polity perspective, that Kuyper and seven other theologians could launch a gravamen at a synod without having discussed the matter with their consistories first.  If they had discussed it with their consistories, would not their consistories bring forward the matter for judgment?  I find it perplexing.

Now there are a few places where Hoedemaker has his own issues.  This book is not entirely about BC 36 – this book is something of a polemic against the Doleantie too.  Hoedemaker writes, “The first step on the road to Reformation is the recovery of the normal relations of church and state” (p.119).  He wants to undo the Doleantie and bring all Reformed believers back into the national church, despite its waywardness.  Elsewhere, Hoedemaker argues that BC 36 is not about the church strictly speaking, but about religion (p.30).  However, the text of the confession itself speaks about the church.  By the way, here Hoedemaker also seems to be ignorant of the textual history of article 36.  The original 1561 Belgic Confession had “things ecclesiastical,” a revision in 1566 adopted the expression “the sacred ministry.”  Either way, the Confession is speaking about the church.

Let me make a few comments about the translation.  There are a few idiosyncrasies that readers should be aware of.  Hoedemaker refers several times to the Heidelberg Catechism and various Lord’s Days.  The translator literally renders them “Sundays.”  Instead of the Secession of 1834 (Afscheiding), he uses the term “Separation.”  Elsewhere he uses the term “Nonconformity,” and I believe he is translating the term Doleantie.  Aside from those sorts of minor things, the book reads quite well in English.

Who should read this book?  I would especially commend it to those with an interest in politics.  When we have so little in our Three Forms of Unity about politics, what little there is should get our attention.  Is it time to revisit the formulation of article 36?  This is where I believe office bearers and especially ministers would do well to give this book a read too.  Perhaps we need a proposal to a synod to clarify the status of the footnote and perhaps even to restore it.  Note well:  we are not talking about changing the Confession or adding something to the Confession that was never there to begin with.  This is something completely different.  In a 1979 article for Clarion, Dr. J. Faber argued for completely rewriting that part of article 36.  That is a possibility.  But if the footnote can be re-examined from a biblical standpoint, perhaps it would be as simple as cutting and pasting the text back into place.