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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 25 — Calvin's appeal to Francis I

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Enthusiasm evoked by the appearance of the Institutes—Marshals the Reformed into One Host — Beauty of the Style of the Institutes—Opinions expressed on it by Scaliger, Sir William Hamilton, Principal Cunningham, M. Nisard — The Institutes an Apology for the Reformed — In scathing Indignation comparable to Tacitus — Home-thrusts — He Addresses the King of France — Pleads for his Brethren — They Suffer for the Gospel — Cannot Abandon it — Offer themselves to Death — A Warning — Grandeur of the Appeal — Did Francis ever Read this Appeal?

THUS did a strong arm uplift before the eyes of all Europe, and throw loose upon the winds, a banner round which the children of the Reformation might rally. Its appearance at that hour greatly inspirited them. It showed them that they had a righteous cause, an energetic and courageous leader, and that they were no longer a mere multitude, but a marshalled host, whose appointed march was over a terrible battle-field, but to whom there was also appointed a triumph worthy of their cause and of the kingly spirit who had arisen to lead them. "Spreading," says Felice, "widely in the schools, in the castles of the gentry, the homes of the citizens, and the workshops of the common people, the Institutes became the most powerful of preachers." [1]

The style of the work was not less fitted to arrest attention than the contents. It seemed as if produced for the occasion. In flexibility, transparency, and power, it was akin to the beauty of the truths that were entrusted to it, and of which it was made the vehicle. Yet Calvin had not thought of style. The great doctrines he was enunciating engrossed him entirely; and the free and majestic march of his thoughts summoned up words of fitting simplicity and grandeur, and without conscious effort on his part marshalled them in the most effective order, and arranged them in the most harmonious periods. In giving France a religion, Calvin at the same time gave France a language.

Men who have had but little sympathy with his theology have been loud in their praises of his genius. Scaliger said of him, three hundred years ago, "Calvin is alone among theologians; there is no ancient to compare with him." Sir William Hamilton in our own day has indorsed this judgment.

"Looking merely to his learning and ability," said this distinguished metaphysician, "Calvin was superior to all modern, perhaps to all ancient, divines. Succeeding ages have certainly not exhibited his equal." Dr. Cunningham, a most competent judge, says: "The Institutes of Calvin is the most important work in the history of theological science ..... It may be said to occupy, in the science of theology, the place which it requires both the Novum Organum of Bacon and the Principia of Newton to fill up in physical science." [2] "Less learned," says Paul Lacroix of his style, "elaborate, and ornate than that of Rabelais, but more ready, flexible, and skillful in expressing all the shades of thought and feeling. Less ingenious, agreeable, and rich than that of Amyot, but keener and more imposing.

Less highly coloured and engaging than that of Montaigne, but more concise and serious and more French. [3] Another French writer of our day, who does not belong to the Protestant Church, but who is a profound thinker, has characterised the Institutes as "the first work in the French tongue which offers a methodical plan, well-arranged matter, and exact composition. Calvin," he says, "not only perfected the language by enriching it, he created a peculiar form of language, the most conformable to the genius of our country." And of Calvin himself he says: "He treats every question of Christian philosophy as a great writer. He equals the most sublime in his grand thoughts upon God, the expression of which was equalled but not surpassed by Bossuet." [4]

A scheme of doctrine, a code of government, a plan of Church organisation, the Institutes was at the same time an apology, a defense of the persecuted, an appeal to the conscience of the persecutor. It was dedicated to Francis I. [5] But the dedication did not run in the usual form. Calvin did not approach the monarch to bow and gloze, to recount his virtues and extol his greatness, he spoke as it becomes one to speak who pleads for the innocent condemned at unrighteous tribunals, and for truth overborne by bloody violence. His dedication was a noble, most affecting and thrilling intercession for his brethren in France, many of whom were at that moment languishing in prison or perishing at the stake.

With a nobler indignation than even that which burns on the pages of Tacitus, and in a style scarcely inferior in its rapid and scathing power to that of the renowned historian, does Calvin proceed to refute, rapidly yet conclusively, the leading charges which had been advanced against the disciples of the Reformation, and to denounce the terrible array of banishments, proscriptions, fines, dungeons, torturing, and blazing piles, with which it was sought to root them out. [6] "Your doctrine is new," it was said. "Yes," Calvin makes answer, "for those to whom the Gospel is new." "By what miracle do you confirm it?" it had been asked. Calvin, glancing contemptuously at the sort of miracles which the priests sometimes employed to confirm the Romish doctrine, replies, "By those miracles which in the early age so abundantly attested the divinity of the Gospel — the holy lives of its disciples." "You contradict the Fathers," it had been farther urged. The Reformer twits his accusers with "adoring the slips and errors" of the Fathers; but "when they speak well they either do not hear, or they misinterpret or corrupt what they say." That is a very extraordinary way of showing respect for the Fathers. "Despise the Fathers!" "Why, the Fathers are our best friends." He was a

Father, Epiphanius, who said that it was an abomination to set up an image in a Christian temple. He was a Father, Pope Gelasius, who maintained that the bread and wine remain unchanged in the Eucharist. He was a Father, Augustine, who affirmed that it was rash to assert any doctrine which did not rest on the clear testimony of Scripture. But the Fathers come faster than Calvin can receive their evidence, and so a crowd of names are thrown into the margin, who all with "one heart and one mouth" execrated and condemned "the sophistical reasonings and scholastic wranglings" with which the Word of God had been made void. [7]

Turning round on his accusers and waxing a little warm, Calvin demands who they are who "make war with such savage cruelty in behalf of the mass, of purgatory, of pilgrimages, and of similar follies," and why it is that they display a zeal in behalf of these things which they have never shown for the Gospel? "Why?" he replies, "but because their God is their belly, and their religion the kitchen." [8] —a rejoinder of which it is easier to condemn the coarseness than to impugn the truth.

If their cause were unjust, or if their lives had been wicked, they refused not to die; but the Reformer complains that the most atrocious calumnies had been poured into the ears of the king to make their tenets appear odious, and their persons hateful. "They plotted," it was said, "to pluck the scepter from his hand, to overturn his tribunals, to abolish all laws, to make a spoil of lordships and heritages, to remove all the landmarks of order, and to plunge all peoples and states in war, anarchy, and ruin." [9] Had the accusation been true, Calvin would have been dumb; he would have been covered with shame and confusion before the king. But raising his head, he says, "I turn to you, Sire . . Is it possible that we, from whom a seditious word was never heard when we lived under you, should plot the subversion of kingdoms? And, what is more, who now, after being expelled from our houses, cease not nevertheless to pray to God for your prosperity, and that of your kingdom." As regards their cause, so defamed by enemies, it was simply the Gospel of Jesus Christ. their only crime was that they believed the Gospel. They who were maintaining it were a poor, despicable people — nay, if the king liked it, "the scum of the earth;" but though its confessors were weak, the cause was great; "it is exalted far above all the power and glory of the world; for it is not ours, but that of the living God and his Christ, whom God has made King to rule from sea to sea, and from the rivers unto the ends of the earth." he had not come before the king to beg toleration for that cause — the men of those days could no more conceive of a government tolerating two opposing religions than of a judge deciding in favor of two rival claimants — what Calvin demanded was that their cause should receive that submission which is the right of truth; that the king should embrace, not tolerate.

But if this may not be, Calvin says in effect, if injustice shall still be meted out to us, be it known unto you, O king, that we will not abandon the truth, or bow down to the gods that Rome has set up. As sheep appointed unto the slaughter, we shall take meekly whatever sufferings you are pleased to inflict upon us. We offer our persons to your prisons, our limbs to your racks, our necks to your axes, and our bodies to your fires; but know that there is One in whose sight our blood is precious, and in shedding it you are removing the firmest defenders of your throne and of your laws, and preparing for your house and realm a terrible overthrow.

The years will quickly revolve; the cup will be filled up; and then — but let us quote the very words in which the young Reformer closes this appeal to the great monarch: "I have set before you the iniquity of our calumniators. I have desired to soften your heart to the end that you would give our cause: a hearing. I hope we shall be able to regain your favor, if you should be pleased to read without anger this confession, which is our defense before your Majesty. But if malevolent persons stop your ears; if the accused have not an opportunity of defending themselves; if impetuous furies, unrestrained by your order, still exercise their cruelty by imprisonments and by scourging, by tortures, mutilation, and the stake .... verily, as sheep given up to slaughter, we shall be reduced to the last extremity. Yet even then we shall possess our souls in patience, and shall wait for the strong hand of the Lord. Doubtless, it will be stretched forth in due season. It will appear armed to deliver the poor from their afflictions, and to punish the despisers who are now making merry so boldly.

"May the Lord, the King of kings, establish your throne in righteousness and your seat in equity." [10]

In penning this appeal Calvin occupied one of the sublimest positions in all history. He stood at a great bar — the throne of France. He pleaded before a vast assembly — all Christendom; nay, all ages; and as regards the cause which he sustained at this august bar, and in presence of this immense concourse of nations and ages, it was the greatest in the world, inasmuch as it was that of the Gospel and of the rights of conscience. With what feelings, one naturally asks, did Francis I. read this appeal? Or rather did he read it at all? It is commonly thought that

he did not. His heart hardened by pleasure, and his ears preoccupied with evil counsellors, this cry of a suffering Church could find no audience; it swept past the throne of France, and mounted to the throne of heaven.

But before the "strong arm" to which Calvin had alluded should be "stretched forth" more than two centuries were to pass away. These martyrs had to wait till "their brethren" also should be slain as they had been. But meanwhile there were given unto them the "white robes" of this triumphant vindication; for scarcely were their ashes cold when this eloquent and touching appeal was pleading for them in many of the tongues of Europe, thrilling every heart with the story of their wrongs, and inspiring thousands and tens of thousands to brave the tyrant's fury, and at the risk of torture and death to confess the Gospel. This was their "first resurrection." What they had sown in weakness at the stake rose in power in the Institutes. Calvin, gathering as it were all their martyr-piles into one blazing torch, and holding it aloft, made the splendor of their cause and of their names to shine from the east even unto the west of Christendom.

The publication of the Institutes placed Calvin in the van of the Reformed hosts, he was henceforward the recognised chief of the Reformation. His retreat was now known, and this city on the edge of the Black Forest, on the banks of the Rhine, could no longer afford him the privacy he sought. Men from every country were beginning to seek him out, and gather round him. Rising up, he hastily quitted Basle, and crossing "Italy's snowy wall" (by what route is not known), and holding on his way across the plain of Lombardy till he reached the banks of the Po, he found an asylum at the court of Renee, daughter of Louis XII. of France, and Duchess of Ferrara, who, like Margaret of Valois, had opened her heart to the doctrines of the Reformation. Calvin disappears for awhile from the scene.


Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, September 19th, 2018
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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