Tag Archives: Philip II

The Reformation in the Netherlands

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

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

This year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation.   In today’s post, I want to look briefly at the history of the Reformation in the Low Countries (or Netherlands).  Somehow the movement Luther was instrumental in igniting also came to the Dutch dykes and polders.  But how?

When we look at the Reformation in the Netherlands, we have to realize that we’re confronted with a complicated political situation.  The Netherlands was in this time made up of seventeen distinct provinces, covering the present-day Netherlands as well as Belgium and small parts of France and Germany.  You could almost say that these seventeen provinces were countries.  Each province had its own unique history.  They saw themselves as more or less independent.  They each had distinctive forms of government.  Moreover, there were different languages:  Frisian, Dutch, and French – plus a host of dialects of Dutch and French.  Geographically, rivers made it difficult for travel between the different areas.  All this makes it difficult to treat the Netherlands as a unified region.

At the beginning of the Reformation-era, the Netherlands were under the Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire.  This was not an independent region.  There was a foreign government ultimately in control and this government was fanatically committed to the faith of Rome.

Unlike in Germany and Switzerland, the Reformation in the Low Countries began with blood.  There were connections with Germany through various trade routes and along these routes, ideas travelled just as much as goods.  Already in 1519, an Augustinian monk named Jakob Propst was advocating the teachings of Luther in Antwerp.  Luther’s writings were being distributed in the Low Countries as early as 1518.  By 1525, there were more than 80 editions and translations of Luther’s works.

It did not take long for the Habsburg Empire to take note.  They quickly made efforts to suppress those promoting Luther’s ideas.  In July 1523, Heinrich Voes and Johann Esch were burned at the stake in Brussels.  In the northern regions of the Netherlands, persecution was not as common.  People, especially local magistrates, were more inclined to religious tolerance, probably owing to the influence of humanists such as Erasmus.  As a result, martyrdom was quite rare in the north.  In the south, however, things were very different.  There was an inquisitor named Pieter Titelmans.  He worked in various southern regions of the Netherlands between 1545 and 1566.  Titelmans was zealous for his work.  Under his oversight, an average of one hundred heresy cases per year were prosecuted.  Government edicts often forced the fledgling Reformed movement underground.  Believers would secretly meet in houses, fields, and even local taverns in order to do Bible study, give and receive doctrinal instruction, and sit under biblical preaching.

The Reformed faith appears in the Low Countries in the 1540s.  It spread directly from Germany and also from France.  In fact, the history of the Reformed churches in the Low Countries is very much intertwined with the Huguenot churches.  In this period, borders were quite fluid and porous.  Especially since they shared their language with the southern Netherlands, the French Reformed strongly influenced the doctrine and organization of the Reformed churches in the Low Countries.

The Reformed faith took hold in both large towns and cities throughout the Netherlands.  There were two centers:  Antwerp in the south and Emden in the north.  True, Emden is technically a German town, but it is located right across the border from the Netherlands and was a strategic location for the Reformed churches.  The Reformed movement grew quickly in these areas.  It appealed to a broad cross-section of society including artisans, labourers, merchants, and men of learning.  However, as I mentioned, there was heavy persecution, especially in the south.  This persecution forced many to choose between exile and martyrdom.  Most people chose for exile.  Dutch Reformed refugees fled to several key places where they gathered in refugee congregations.  This happened in London and Sandwich, in England and Emden and Wesel in Germany.  Those who remained behind were forced into a life of always looking over the shoulder.  It should be noted that there was a debate about exile versus persecution in the churches.  Some Reformed leaders argued that the believers should stand up and take a public stance against the Spanish regime.  They argued that persecution was only facilitated by secrecy and running away.  They argued that it would be difficult (and maybe ultimately impossible) for the Spanish authorities to intervene with or restrain a Reformed church community which carried out its affairs in public.  However, others had a more pragmatic approach.  They feared for their lives, they hated the thought of persecution for themselves and their families, and they felt they had no choice but to worship secretly and, if necessary and possible, go into exile until the troubled times were past.

These were troubled times.  If there is a theme running through the Reformation in the Netherlands, it is persecution.  For much of the period between 1520 and 1570, Protestantism in the Netherlands was under attack.

It really began to escalate, however, in the 1550s.  Up until the 1550s, it looked like the Habsburgs had things under control in the Low Countries.  There was increasing unity, an apparatus for central government was being refined, and Protestantism was being at least contained by the Inquisition.  Things shifted dramatically beginning in 1550.  Charles V issued an edict which threatened death for promoting Protestantism.  In fact, one could be executed merely for possessing heretical books.  Despite this edict, the Reformed faith continued to gain ground.  While kings and emperors in far-off lands made their decrees, popular opinion in the Netherlands was going in a more tolerant direction.  As mentioned earlier, local magistrates were also often reluctant to enforce royal edicts.

Philip II took over the rule of the Netherlands in 1555.  Philip was the King of Spain.  The Netherlands therefore fell under Spanish control.  Unfortunately for Philip, he was out of touch with the Dutch.  The Dutch hated the Spanish and Philip even more.  He didn’t speak their languages and many Dutch perceived him to be a foreign tyrant.  Philip perceived himself to be a pillar of the church on a divine mission to eradicate heresy. Philip insisted on strict enforcement of his policy of persecution.  This led to the Dutch Revolt.  While the Revolt is not really part of church history, it is an important part of the background to the Dutch Reformation.  It’s one of these events where world history gets wrapped up together with church history.

The Dutch Revolt began with the disobedience of several local governors – they refused to cooperate with the Inquisition and Spanish persecution of Reformed believers.  Margaret of Parma was the sister of Philip II, and in 1559 she was appointed to be the governess-general of the Netherlands.  In the spring of 1566, a large group of lesser nobility approached her with a petition asking that the persecution of Reformed believers stop.  With the help of some political intrigue on the part of some territorial governors (including William of Orange), Margaret granted a reprieve and leniency towards “heretics” was authorized.

For a time the situation improved for the Reformed churches.  Exiled men and women returned to their homes, open-air preaching took place, and the Reformed could better organize their churches.  But these new freedoms also had a dark side.  There was widespread iconoclasm and other provocative behaviour.  One of the most well-known was the public singing of Psalms — in French they called them chanteries.  The singing was loud and the Psalms were selected to offend any Roman Catholics who might hear.  One of the favourites was Psalm 68, sometimes described as the war song of the Reformation.  Of course, these psalms were sung with the Genevan tunes of John Calvin.  Other provocative behaviour included coming to the huge open-air meetings bearing arms.  It looked as if these Reformed believers were heading to war.  Their songs spoke of war, and the fact that they carried weapons didn’t help matters.

All of this was bound to provoke a reaction from Margaret and soon enough it did.  She demanded a focussed and aggressive response to the crowds, but the governors refused unless she would promise freedom for preaching.  In August of 1566, she made that promise and order was restored in most places.  However, Margaret was not finished with the rebels and heretics.  The chanteries continued and these aggravated the situation.  Margaret finally had enough and she sent Spanish forces to lay siege to the city of Valenciennes.  The city fell in March of 1567 and Margaret was able again to enforce the ban on Reformed preaching everywhere in the Netherlands.  Persecution resumed in full force.  Shortly afterwards, Philip appointed the Duke of Alva (Fernando Alvarez de Toledo) to be governor of the Netherlands.  The Duke of Alva was a brutal warlord and he was passionate about the eradication of heresy.  He pursued everyone he could for their role in the Revolt, including Roman Catholic civil leaders who were soft on the question of tolerance.  He convened a meeting which he called the Council of Troubles.  The Dutch called it the Court of Blood.  Many died accused of heresy or assisting heretics.

The Dutch Revolt continued until 1581.  At the end, the southern Netherlands was lost to the Roman Catholics.   This is basically present-day Belgium.  Almost all Reformed believers from the south then fled to the north, which was free from Spanish control and where the Reformed faith enjoyed official recognition.  There is a lot more that could be said about the history of the Reformation in the Netherlands.  But the most important thing here is to recognize the heavy persecution that the Reformed churches endured right from the very beginning.  Philip II, Margaret of Parma, and the Duke of Alva hated the gospel with a passion and they were not afraid to shed blood to prevent the Reformation from gaining ground.  However, they could not stand in the way of Christ gathering, defending, and preserving his church even through this storm.


Outward Looking Church: Current Craze or Christ’s Commission? (2)

Revised from a presentation for the Spring Office Bearers Conference held March 22, 2014 in Burlington, ON.  See here for part 1.

How Do Our Confessions Answer?

Since I phrased my thesis in terms of the confessions, it makes sense to start there.  There is a lot that could be said.  Appeal could be made to Lord’s Day 12 of the Catechism and how it speaks of the three-fold office of Christians.  As prophets we are to confess the name of Christ.  Who are we to confess the name of Christ to?  This obviously has an outward looking orientation.  We could go on and think of Lord’s Day 32 and how winning our neighbours for Christ by our godly walk of life is part of the reason we must do good works.  There again at least part of the perspective is looking outward.  Or we could spend some time on Lord’s Day 48, dealing with the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come.”  We confess that this includes asking our heavenly Father to “preserve and increase” his church.  The word “increase” there refers to numerical increase and that implies a certain orientation among those who pray along the lines of this petition.

We could move on from the Catechism to the Canons of Dort and the same perspective is in evidence there.  It comes in connection with the doctrine of election.  There are those who say that election knocks the motivation out of outreach.  Maybe you’ve heard Reformed churches mockingly referred to as “the frozen chosen.”  But that can only be true if we don’t take our own confession seriously.  We believe and confess that God uses his church and her witness to draw in the elect.  Election becomes evident (or comes to expression in history) through evangelism.  Article 5 of chapter 2 of the Canons of Dort is clear enough on this point:

The promise of the gospel is that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life.  This promise ought to be announced and proclaimed universally and without discrimination to all peoples and to all men, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel, together with the command to repent and believe.

Our confession says that we have a gospel promise which we are obligated to announce universally, to all peoples, all men.  The language is undeniably clear.  So also if we take the Canons of Dort seriously, they should produce an outward looking orientation in the church.

Indeed, we could spend a lot of time on what the Canons and Catechism have to say about this.  But I want to focus our attention on the Belgic Confession this morning.  Let me first explain the rationale for doing that.  The period of about 1950 to 1990 was one of widespread deconfessionalization in the Christian Reformed Church.  For many CRC members (but by no means all), the confessions became museum artifacts, pieces of CRC history and heritage, rather than a living expression of the biblical faith of the church.  In that 40 year period, many claimed that the CRC had basically become a Dutch ghetto.  The perception was that the church was turned in on itself, too often only inward looking.  Discussions took place at various levels and in various venues about why this was.  Blame was often assigned to the Three Forms of Unity and especially the Belgic Confession.  One CRC seminary professor (Robert Recker) wrote that with the Belgic Confession we’re faced with a church “talking with itself rather than a church before the world.”  Influential figures in the CRC agreed with Recker.  So, in other words, if you want to know why the CRC became a Dutch ghetto turned in on itself, look no further than the Belgic Confession.  Then the solution also begins to suggest itself: we can hold on to the Confession as a museum artifact, something that shows something of our history and where we came from, but for today we need a new confession which will really help us be an outward looking church.  That partly accounts for the development of the “Contemporary Testimony: Our World Belongs to God.”  This new confession in the CRC was adopted in 1986 and its history is rooted in dissatisfaction with the Three Forms of Unity on certain points.  That included a perception that the Belgic Confession is an exercise in ecclesiastical navel-gazing.  That historical episode puts the question squarely before us this morning:  what orientation does the Confession provide for the church?

When we think of the Belgic Confession today, we typically think of a section at the back of our Book of Praise.  This is true of all our confessions.  For us, they’re embedded in a rather large book.  However, around the world, in different places, these confessions are being printed separately in convenient, cost-effective formats.  For example, there is the Heidelberg Catechism in Spanish produced by CLIR in Costa Rica.  There is also the Belgic Confession in Russian, produced by the Evangelical Reformed Church in Ukraine.  Both are in a convenient and cost-effective format so that believers can share them with others.  There’s an outward looking, evangelistic intention here.  They didn’t make these booklets for church members, but so that church members could share their faith with outsiders.  That fits precisely with the history and original intentions of these documents, especially the Belgic Confession.

When the Belgic Confession was first published in 1561, it didn’t appear as part of a Book of Praise.  It was published as a booklet in a convenient, cost-effective format.  It was designed for mass distribution, not just amongst Reformed believers, but also with their friends, family, and neighbours.  We know of two printings of the Confession in 1561, from two different Huguenot cities in France, Rouen and Lyons.  Only one copy remains of each of those printings.  We might ask why.  We don’t know how many copies were involved in those first printings – it’s impossible to tell.  We do know that the printing from Rouen included at least 200 copies.  We know that because there is a report from the Spanish authorities saying that they found some 200 copies in the library of Guido de Bres.  The Spanish authorities burned those.  But other copies were circulating; we just have no idea of how many.  We do know they were printed cheaply and quickly.  There are a couple of possibilities to explain why we only have one copy from each of the two printings in 1561.  One would be that the Spanish destroyed most of them.  Another might be that they were so widely used and distributed that they fell apart and didn’t fare well over the following decades and centuries.  It could be a combination of both and maybe there are other factors besides.  What is clear is that, from the beginning, it was designed as a document with an outward orientation.  The format speaks to that.

Early printings of the Belgic Confession included this page of Scripture passage encouraging believers to profess their faith before men.

Early printings of the Belgic Confession included these two pages of Scripture passages encouraging believers to profess their faith before men.

This is confirmed when we look closer at the Confession as it first came off the press.  On two of the first pages of the booklet, we find a collection of Scripture passages.  Over these passages were these words, “Some passages of the New Testament in which the faithful are exhorted to render confession of their faith before men.”  Then followed Scripture passages:  Matthew 10:32-33, Mark 8:38, Luke 9:26, 1 Peter 3:15, Romans 10:10, and 2 Timothy 2:12b.  Each of these passages has an outward perspective.  The point being made is that confession of faith is inherently an outward action.  We confess our faith “before men,” to the world.

Oftentimes when we think of the Belgic Confession, we think of it merely as an effort to gain tolerance for the Reformed faith.  The Reformed Churches in the Low Countries were persecuted by the Spanish led by Philip II, and they wanted to reassure the authorities that they were not rebellious.  Instead, they were simply God-fearing people who believed what the Bible teaches.  In this understanding, the Confession is simply a defense.  But this understanding doesn’t do full justice to the original intent of the Confession.  It was not simply to gain tolerance that the Confession was written, it was also to win converts.  There was an acute self-awareness that the Reformed churches existed in the midst of unbelief and their confession was addressed to that lost world in darkness.  Throughout the Confession, you find the words “we believe,” and those very words signify that there is a body of believers confessing together, confessing together to a pagan world in need of the gospel.  Whenever you see a believing “we” in the Confession, you should also think of the lost “them.”

Based on these general considerations, P. Y. DeJong was exactly right when he wrote a commentary on the Belgic Confession and entitled it The Church’s Witness to the World.  Earlier I mentioned the deconfessionalizing of the CRC, but you may remember that I was careful not to paint everyone in the CRC black.  In that forty year period, there were men like P. Y. DeJong who stoutly resisted the deconfessionalization of the church.  They argued that the Confessions were misunderstood and undervalued.  Later, men like P. Y. DeJong would become founding fathers of the United Reformed Churches.  Having been through a struggle in the CRC, they maintained that the Confessions, when they’re rightly understood, do not produce ecclesiastical scoliosis, a dysfunction where the church is curved in on itself.

But that’s about the broad nature and historical intent of the Confession, what about the actual content of the Belgic Confession?  Does that say anything to the question before us this morning?  Since we’re speaking about the church, let’s just focus on the ecclesiological articles of the Confession, articles 27-32.

Click here to continue reading part 3…

Bibliographical note:  the quote from Robert Recker comes from his article, “An Analysis of the Belgic Confession As To Its Mission Focus,” Calvin Theological Journal 7.2 (November 1972): 179.