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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 13 — From Rise of Protestantism in France (1510) to Publication of the Institutes (1536)

Chapter 1 — The doctor of Etaples, the first Protestant teacher in France

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Arrival of a New Actor – Central Position of France – Genius of its People – Tragic Interest of its Protestantism – Louis XII. – Perdam Babylonis Nomen, – The Councils of Pisa and the Lateran Francis I. and Leo X. – Jacques Lefevre – His Birth and Education Appointed to a Chair in the Sorbonne – His Devotions – His Lives of the Saints – A Discovery – A Free Justification – Teaches this Doctrine in the Sorbonne – Agitation among the Professors – A Tempest gathering.

THE area of the Reformation – that great movement which, wherever it comes, makes all things new is about to undergo enlargement. The stage, already crowded with great actors – England, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark – is to receive another accession. The plot is deepening, the parts are multiplying, and the issues give promise of being rich and grand beyond conception. It is no mean actor that is now to step upon that stage on which the nations do battle, and where, if victorious, they shall reap a future of happiness and glory; but if vanquished, there await them decadence, and shame, and ruin. The new nationality which has come to mingle in this great drama is France.

At the opening of the sixteenth century, France held a foremost place among the countries of Europe. It might not unworthy aspire to lead in a great movement of the nations. Placed in the center of the civilized West, it touched the other kingdoms of Christendom at a great many points. On its south and south-east was Switzerland; on its east and north-east were Germany and the Low Countries; on its north, parted from it only by the narrow sea, was England At all its gates, save those that looked towards Italy and Spain, was the Reformation waiting for admission. Will France open, and heartily welcome it? Elevated on this central and commanding site, the beacon-lights of Protestantism will shed their effulgence all around, making the day clearer where the light has already dawned, and the night less dark where the shades still linger.

The rich endowments of the people made it at once desirable and probable that France would embrace the Reformation. The French genius is one of marvelous adaptability. Quick, playful, trenchant, subtle, it is able alike to concentrate itself in analytical investigations, and to spread itself out in creations of poetic beauty and intellectual sublimity. There is no branch of literature in which the French people have not excelled. They have shone equally in the drama, in philosophy, in history, in mathematics, and in metaphysics. Grafted on a genius so elegant and yet so robust, so playful and yet so Penetrating – in short, so many sided – Protestantism will display itself under a variety of new and beautiful lights, which will win converts in quarters where the movement has not been regarded hitherto as having many attractions to recommend it – nay, rather where, it has been contemned as "a root out of a dry ground."

We are entering on one of the grandest yet most tragic of all the pages of our history. The movement which we now behold entering France is to divide – deeply and fiercely divide the nation; for it is a characteristic of the French people that whatever, cause they embrace, they embrace with enthusiasm; and whatever cause they oppose, they oppose with an equal enthusiasm. As we pass on the scenes will be continually shifting, and the quick alternations of hope and fear will never cease to agitate us. It is, so to speak, a superb gallery we are to traverse; colossal forms look down upon us as we pass along. On this hand stand men of gigantic wickedness, on that men of equally gigantic virtue – men whose souls, sublimed by piety and trust in God, have attained to the highest pitch of endurance, of self-sacrifice, of heroism. And then the lesson at the close, so distinct, so solemn. For we are justified in affirming that in a sense France has glorified Protestantism more by rejecting it than other countries have done by accepting it.

We lift the curtain at the year 1510. On its rising we find the throne of France occupied by Louis XII., the wisest sovereign of his time. He has just assembled a Parliament at Tours to resolve for him the question whether it is lawful to go to war with the Pope, who violates treaties, and sustains his injustice by levying soldiers and fighting battles? [1] The warlike Julius II. then occupied the chair which a Borgia had recently filled.

Ignorant of theology, with no inclination, and just as little capacity, for the spiritual duties of his see, Julius II. passed his whole time in camps and on battle-fields. With so bellicose a priest at its center, Christendom had but little rest. Among others whom the Pope disquieted was the meek and upright Louis of France; hence the question which he put to his Parliament. The answer of that assembly marks the moral decadence of the Papacy, and the contempt in which the thunderbolts of the Vatican were beginning to be held. "It is lawful for the king," said they, "not only to act defensively but offensively against such a man" [2] Fortified by the advice of his Parliament, Louis gave the command to his armies to march, and two years later he indicated sufficiently his own opinion of the Papacy and its crowned chief, when he caused a coin to be struck at Naples bearing the words, Perdan Babylonis nomen [3] These symptoms announced the near approach of the new times.

Other things were then being transacted which also gave plain indication that the old age was about to close and a new age to open. Weary of a Pope who made it his sole vocation to marshal armies and conquer cities and provinces, who went in person to the battle-field, but never

once appeared in the pulpit, the Emperor Maximilian I. and Louis of France agreed to convoke a Council [4] for "the Reformation of the Church in its head and members." That Council was now sitting at Pisa. It summoned the Pope to its bar, and when Julius II. failed to appear, the Council suspended him from his office, and forbade all people to obey him. [5] The Pope treated the decree of the Fathers with the same contempt which he had shown to their summons. He convoked another Council at the Lateran, made void that of Pisa, with all its decrees, fulminated excommunication against Louis, [6] suspended Divine worship in France, and delivered the kingdom to whomsoever had the will and the power to seize upon it. [7]

Thus Council met Council, and the project of the two sovereigns for a Reformation came to nothing, as later and similar attempts were destined to do.

For the many evils that pressed upon the world, a Council was the only remedy that the age knew, and at every crisis it betook itself to this device. God was about to plant in society a new principle, which would become the germ of its regeneration.

Julius II. was busied with his Council of the Lateran when (1513) he died, and was succeeded in the Papal chair by Cardinal John de Medici, Leo X.

With the new Pope came new manners at Rome. Underneath, the stream of corruption continued steadily to flow, but on the surface things were changed. The Vatican no longer rang with the clang of arms. Instead of soldiers, troops of artists and musicians, crowds of masqueraders and buffoons now filled the palace of the Pope. The talk was no longer of battles, but of, pictures and statues and dancers. Soon Louis of France followed his former opponent, Julius II., to the grave. He died on the 1st January, 1515, and was succeeded by his nephew, Francis I.

The new Pope and the new king were not unlike in character. The Renaissance had touched both, communicating to them that refinement of outward manners, and that aesthetical rather than cultivated taste, which it never failed to impart to all who came under its influence. The strong, wayward, and selfish passions of the men it had failed to correct. Both loved to surround themselves with pomps. Francis was greedy of fame, Leo was greedy of money, and both were greedy of pleasure, and the characteristic passions of each became in the hand of an overruling Providence the means of furthering the great movement which now presents itself on the scene.

The river which waters great kingdoms, and bears on its bosom the commerce of many nations, may be traced up to some solitary fountain among the far-off hills. So was it with that river of the Water of Life that was now to go forth to refresh France. It had its first rise in a single soul. It is the year 1510, and the good Louis XII. is still upon the throne. A stranger visiting Paris at that day, more especially if of a devout turn, would hardly have failed to mark an old man, small of stature and simple in manners, going his round of the churches and, prostrate before their images, devoutly "repeating his hours:" This man was destined to be, on a small scale, to the realm of France what Wicliffe had been, on a large, to England and the world – "the morning star of the Reformation." His name was Jacques Lefevre. He was born at Etaples, a village of Picardy, [8] about the middle of the previous century, and was now verging on seventy, but still hale and vigorous. Lefevre had all his days been a devout Papist, and even to this hour the shadow of Popery was still around him, and the eclipse of superstition had not yet wholly passed from off his soul. But the promise was to be fulfilled to him, "At evening time it shall be light." He had all along had a presentiment that a new day was rising on the world, and that he should not depart till his eyes had seen its light.

The man who was the first to emerge from the darkness that covered his native land is entitled to a prominent share of our attention. Lefevre was in all points a remarkable man. Endowed with an inquisitive and capacious intellect, hardly was there a field of study open to those ages which he had not entered, and in which he had not made great proficiency. The ancient languages, the belles lettres, history, mathematics, philosophy, theology; – he had studied them all. His thirst for knowledge tempted him to try what he might be able to learn from other lands besides France. He had visited Asia and Africa, and seen all that the end of the fifteenth century had to show. Returning to France he was appointed to a chair in the Sorbonne, or Theological Hall of the great Paris University, and soon he drew around him a crowd of admiring disciples. He was the first luminary, Erasmus tells us, in that constellation of lights; but he was withal so meek, so amiable, so candid, and so full of loving-kindness, that all who knew him loved him. But there were those among his fellow-professors who envied him the admiration of which he was the object, and insinuated that the man who had visited so many countries, and had made himself familiar with so many subjects, and some of them so questionable, could hardly have escaped some taint of heresy, and could not be wholly loyal to Mother Church.

They set to watching him; but no one of them all was so punctual and exemplary in his devotions. never was he absent from mass; never was his place empty at the procession, and no one remained so long as Lefevre on his knees before the

saints. Nay, often might this man, the most distinguished of all the professors of the Sorbonne, be seen decking the statues of Mary with flowers. [9] No flaw could his enemies find in his armor.

Lefevre, thinking to crown the saints with a fairer and more lasting garland than the perishable flowers he had offered to their images, formed the idea of collecting and re-writing their lives: He had already made some progress in his task when the thought struck him that he might find in the Bible materials or hints that would be useful to him in his work. To the Bible – the original languages of which he had studied – he accordingly turned. He had unwittingly opened to himself the portals of a new world. Saints of another sort than those that had till this moment engaged his attention now stood before him – men who had received a higher canonisation than that of Rome, and whose images the pen of inspiration itself had drawn. The virtues of the real saints dimmed in his eyes the glories of the legendary ones. The pen dropped from his hand, and he could proceed no farther in the task on which till now he had labored with a zeal so genial, and a perseverance so untiring.

Having opened the Bible, Lefevre was in no haste to shut it. He saw that not only were the saints of the Bible unlike the saints of the Roman Calendar, but that the Church of the Bible was unlike the Roman Church. From the images of Paul and Peter, the doctor of Etaples now turned to the Epistles of Paul and Peter, from the voice of the Church to the voice of God. The plan of a free justification stood revealed to him. It came like a sudden revelation – like the breaking of the day. In 1512 he published a commentary, of which a copy is extant in the Bibliotheque Royale of Paris, on the Epistles of Paul. In that work he says, "It is God who gives us, by faith, that righteousness which by grace alone justifies to eternal life." [10]

The day has broken. This utterance of Lefevre assures us of that. It is but a single ray, it is true; but it comes from Heaven, it is light Divine, and will yet scatter the darkness that broods over France. It has already banished the gloom of monkery from the soul of Lefevre; it will do the same for his pupils – for his countrymen, and he knows that he has not received the light to put it under a bushel. Of all places, the Sorbonne was the most dangerous in which to proclaim the new doctrine. For centuries no one but the schoolmen had spoken there, and now to proclaim in the citadel and sanctuary of scholasticism a doctrine that would explode what had received the reverence, as it had been the labor, of ages, and promised, as was thought, eternal fame to its authors, was enough to make the very stones cry out from the venerable walls, and was sure to draw down a tempest of scholastic ire on the head of the adventurous innovator. Lefevre had attained an age which is proverbially wary, if not timid; he knew well the risks to which he was exposing himself, nevertheless he went on to teach the doctrine of salvation by grace. There rose a great commotion round the chair whence proceeded these unwonted sounds. With very different feelings did the pupils of the venerable man listen to the new teaching. The faces of some testified to the delight which his doctrine gave them. They looked like men to whose eyes some glorious vista had been suddenly opened, or who had unexpectedly lighted upon what they had long but vainly sought. Astonishment or doubt was plainly written on the faces of others, while the knitted brows and flashing eyes of some as plainly bespoke the anger that inflamed them against the man who was razing, as they thought, the very foundations of morality.

The agitation in the class-room of Lefevre quickly communicated itself to the whole university. The doctors were in a flutter. Reasonings and objections were heard on every side, frivolous in some cases, in others the fruit of blind prejudice, or dislike of the doctrine. But some few were honest, and these Lefever made it his business to answer, being desirous to show that his doctrine did not give a license to sin, and that it was not new, but old; that he was not the first preacher of it in France, that it had been taught by Irenaeus in early times, long before the scholastic theology was heard of; and especially that this doctrine was not his, not Irenaeus', but God's, who had revealed it to men in his Word.

Mutterings began to be heard of the tempest that was gathering in the distance; but as yet it did not burst, and meanwhile Lefevre, within whose soul the light was growing clearer day by day, went on with his work.

It is important to mark that these occurrences took place in 1512. Not yet, nor till five years later, was the name of Luther heard of in France. The monk of Wittemberg had not yet nailed his Theses against indulgences to the doors of the Schloss-kirk. From Germany then, most manifest it is, the Reformation which we now see springing up on French soil did not come.

Even before the strokes of Luther's hammer in Wittemberg are heard ringing the knell of the old times, the voice of Lefevre is proclaiming beneath the vaulted roof of the Sorbonne in Paris the advent of the new age. The Reformation of France came out of the Bible as really as the light which kindles mountain and plain at daybreak comes out of heaven. And as it was in France so was it in all the countries of the

Reform. The Word of God, like God himself, is light; and from that enduring and inexhaustible source came forth that welcome clay which, after a long and protracted night, broke upon the nations in the morning of the sixteenth century.


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Monday, May 29th, 2017
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