The Reformation of Purgatory
One of the most important Reformers in the Low Countries was Guido (or Guy) de Brès. Martyred in 1567, we remember him primarily as the author of the 1561 Belgic Confession. Today let me share with you a little known fact about de Brès: he reformed the doctrine of 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 Brès 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 Brès, and had never seen him before.”
Among those visitors was Monsieur de Moulbay, the commander of the Tournai castle where de Brès was imprisoned. He came looking to debate points of theology with the pastor. They first tried to argue with de Brès about the invocation of Mary and other saints. De Brès stumped them with quotations from Scripture and Augustine. Their next attack came with the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, Jesus’ mother. De Brès 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 Brès did not believe in purgatory. By that, he meant the Romanist idea that most believers, after they die, would have to go to a place of fiery cleansing. Purgatory was an unpleasant experience necessitated by the fact that most believers were going to die with unconfessed and unforgiven sin. De Moulbay thought that de Brès rejected this teaching. This was the response of de Brès 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 Brès and de Moulbay. Immediately after this, de Brès and de la Grange were shipped out of Tournai on their way to Valenciennes.
It is possible that de Brès’ thinking about purgatory was influenced by John Calvin. In Institutes 3.5.6, Calvin wrote:
For what means this purgatory of theirs but that satisfaction of sins is paid by the souls of the dead after their death? Hence, when the notion of satisfaction is destroyed, purgatory itself is straightway torn up by the very roots. But if it is perfectly clear from our preceding discourse that the blood of Christ is the sole satisfaction for the sins of believers, the sole expiation, the sole purgation, what remains but to say that purgatory is simply a dreadful blasphemy against Christ?
Notice how Calvin speaks about Christ’s blood as “the sole purgation” (or the only cleansing). That’s similar to how de Brès answered de Moulbay.
However, there is a late medieval letter which may be an earlier influence. Wessel Gansfort was a Dutch theologian who lived about a century before de Brès. 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. Indulgences were the church’s means for reducing the believer’s time in purgatory. 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 (but related) issue, yet we find him using the same polemical method as de Brès about a hundred years later: co-opting your opponent’s terminology. Had de Brès read Gansfort? It’s impossible to say. More likely, both Gansfort and de Brès were using a method of argument that had been developed by someone else in an earlier period. Regardless of where it came from, de Brès rejected the Romanist doctrine of purgatory and insisted that, if we are going to speak about the purging of sin, it must be done only in connection with the blood of Christ shed on the cross. That’s the only way to reform purgatory.