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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 7 — Calvin's conversion

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Calvin in the Montaigu – His Devotions and Studies – Auguries of his Teachers – Calvin still in Darkness – Trebly Armed – Olivetan – Discussions between Olivetan and Calvin – Doubts Awakened – Great Struggles of Soul – The Priests Advise him to Confess – Olivetan sends him to the Bible – Opens the Book – Sees the Cross – Another Obstacle – The "Church" – Sees the Spiritual Glory of the True Church – The Glory of the False Church Vanishes – One of the Great Battles of the World – Victory and its Fruits.

ON crossing the threshold of La Montaigu, Calvin felt himself in a new but not a better atmosphere. Unlike that of La Marche, which was sunny with the free ideas of Republican Rome, the air of Montaigu was musty with the dogmas of the school-men. But as yet Calvin could breathe that air. The student with the pale face, and the grave and serious deportment, did not fail to satisfy the most scholastic and churchy of the professors at whose feet he now sat. His place was never empty at mass; no first did he ever profane by tasting forbidden dish; and no saint did he ever affront by failing to do due honor to his or her fete-day.

The young student; was not more punctual in his devotions than assiduous in his studies. So ardent was he in the pursuit of knowledge that often the hours of meal passed without his eating. Long after others were locked in sleep he was still awake; he would keep poring over the page of schoolman or Father till far into the morning. The inhabitants of that quarter of Paris were wont to watch a tiny ray that might be seen streaming from a certain window of a certain chamber – Calvin's – of the college after every other light had been extinguished, and long after the midnight hour had passed. His teachers formed the highest hopes of him.

A youth of so fine parts, of an industry so unflagging, and who was withal so pious, was sure, they said, to rise high in the Church. They prognosticated for him no mere country curacy or rectorship, no mere city diocese, nothing less was in store for such a scholar than the purple of a cardinal. He who was now the pride of their college, was sure in time to become one of the lights of Christendom. Yes! one of the lights of Christendom, the student with the pale face and the burning eye was fated to become. Wide around was his light to beam; nor was it the nations of Europe only, sitting meanwhile in the shadow of Rome, that Calvin was to enlighten, but tribes and peoples afar off, inhabiting islands and continents which no eye of explorer had yet discovered, and no keel of navigator had yet touched, and of which the Christendom of that hour knew nothing.

But the man who had been chosen as the instrument to lead the nations out of their prison-house was meanwhile shut up in the same doleful captivity, and needed, first of all, to be himself brought out of the darkness. The story of his emancipation – his struggles to break his chain – is instructive as it is touching. Calvin is made to feel what Scripture so emphatically terms "the power of darkness," the strength of the fetter, and the helplessness of the poor captive, that "remembering the gall and the wormwood" he may be touched with pity for the miseries of those he is called to liberate, and may continue to toil in patience and faith till their fetters are broken.

The Reformation was in the air, and the young student could hardly breathe without inhaling somewhat of the new life; and yet he seemed tolerably secure against catching the infection. He was doubly, trebly armed. In the first place, he lived in the orthodox atmosphere of the Montaigu; he was not likely to hear anything there to corrupt his faith: secondly, his head had been shorn; thus he stood at the plough of Rome, and would he now turn back? Then, again, his daily food were the schoolmen, the soundly nutritious qualities of whose doctrines no one in the Montaigu questioned. Over and above his daily and hourly lessons, the young scholar fortified himself against the approaches of heresy by the rigid observance of all outward rites. True, he had a mind singularly keen, penetrating, and inquisitive; but this did not much help the matter; for when a mind of that caste takes hold of a system like the Papacy, it is with a tenacity that refuses again to let it go; the intellect finds both pleasure and pride in the congenial work of framing arguments for the defense of error, till at last it becomes the dupe of its own subtlety. This was the issue to which the young Calvin was now tending. Every day his mind was becoming more one-sided; every day he contemplated the Papacy more and more, not as it was in fact, but as idealised and fashioned in his own mind; a few years more and his whole thinking, reasoning, and feeling would have been intertwined and identified with the system, every avenue would have been closed and barred against light, and Calvin would have become the ablest champion that ever enrolled himself in the ranks of the Roman Church. We should, at this day, have heard much more of Calvin than of Bellarmine.

But God had provided an opening for the arrow to enter in the triple armor in which the young student was encasing himself. Calvin's cousin, Olivetan, a disciple of Lefevre's, now came to Paris. Living in the same city, the cousins were frequently in each other's company, and the new opinions, which were agitating Paris, and beginning to find confessors in the Place de Greve, became a topic of frequent converse between them. [1]

Nay, it is highly probable that Calvin had witnessed some of the martyrdoms we have narrated in a previous chapter. The great bell of Notre Dame had summoned all Paris – and why not Calvin? – to see how the young Pavane and the hermit of Livry could stand with looks undismayed at the stake. Olivetan and Calvin are not of one mind on the point, and the debates wax warm. Olivetan boldly assails, and Calvin as boldly defends, the dogmas of the Church. In this closet there is a great battlefield. There are but two combatants before us, it is true; but on the conflict there hang issues far more momentous than have depended on many great battles in which numerous hosts have been engaged. In this humble apartment the Old and the New Times have met. They struggle the one with the other, and as victory shall incline so will the New Day rise or fade on Christendom. If Olivetan shall be worsted and bound again to the chariot-wheel of an infallible Church, the world will never see that beautiful version of the New Testament in the vernacular of France, which is destined to accomplish so much in the way of diffusing the light. But if Calvin shall lower his sword before his cousin, and yield himself up to the arguments of Lefevre's disciple, what a blow to Rome! The scholar on whose sharp dialectic weapon her representatives in Paris have begun to lean in prospect of coming conflict, will pass over to the camp of the enemy, to lay his brilliant genius and vast acquirements at the feet of Protestantism.

The contest between the two cousins is renewed day by day. These are the battles that change the world – not those noisy affairs that are fought with cannons and sabres, but those in which souls wrestle to establish or overthrow great principles. "There are but two religions in the world," we hear Olivetan saying. "The one class of religions are those which men have invented, in all of which man saves himself by ceremonies and good works; the other is that one religion which is revealed in the Bible, and which teaches man to look for salvation solely from the free grace of God." "I will have none of your new doctrines," Calvin sharply rejoins; "think you that I have lived in error all my days?" But Calvin is not so sure of the matter as he looks. The words of his cousin have gone deeper into his heart than he is willing to admit even to himself; and when Olivetan has taken farewell for the day, scarce has the door been closed behind him when Calvin, bursting into tears, falls upon his knees, and gives vent in prayer to the doubts and anxieties that agitate him.

The doubts by which his soul was now shaken grew in strength with each renewed discussion. What shall he do? Shall he forsake the Church? That seems to him like casting himself into the gulf of perdition. And yet can the Church save him? There is a new light breaking in upon him, in which her dogmas are melting away; the ground beneath him is sinking. To what shall he cling? His agitation grew anon into a great tempest. He felt within him "the sorrows of death," and his closet resounded with sighs and groans, as did Luther's at Erfurt. This tempest was not in the intellect, although doubtless the darkness of his understanding had to do with it; its seat was the soul – the conscience. It consisted in a sense of guilt, a consciousness of vileness, and a shuddering apprehension of wrath. So long as he had to do merely with the saints, creatures like himself, only a little holier it might be, it was all well. But now he was standing in the presence of that infinitely Holy One, with whom evil cannot dwell. He was standing there, the blackness and vileness of his sin shown in the clear light of the Divine purity; he was standing there, the transgressor of a law that says, "The soul that sinneth shall die" – that death how awful, yet that award how righteous! – he was standing there, with all in which he had formerly trusted – saints, rites, good works – swept clean away, with nothing to protect him from the arm of the Lawgiver. He had come to a Judge without an advocate. It did not occur to him before that he needed an advocate, at least other than Rome provides, because before he saw neither God's holiness nor his own guilt; but now he saw both.

The struggle of Calvin was not the perplexity of the skeptic unable to make up his mind among conflicting systems, it was the agony of a soul fleeing from death, but seeing as yet no way of escape. It was not the conflict of the intellect which has broken loose from truth, and is tossed on the billows of doubt and unbelief a painful spectacle, and one of not infrequent occurrence in our century; Calvin's struggle was not of this sort; it was the strong wrestlings of a man who had firm hold of the great truths of Divine revelation, although not as yet of all these truths, and who saw the terrible realities which they brought him face to face with, and who comprehended the dreadful state of his case, fixed for him by his own transgressions on the one hand, and the irrevocable laws of the Divine character and government on the other. [2] A struggle this of a much more terrific kind than any mere intellectual one, and of this latter sort was the earnestness of the sixteenth century. Not knowing as yet that "there is forgiveness with God," because as yet he did not believe in the "atonement," through which there cometh a free forgiveness, Calvin at this hour stood looking into the blackness

of eternal darkness. Had he doubted, that doubt would have mitigated his pain; but he did not and could not doubt; he saw too surely the terrible reality, and knew not how it was to be avoided. Here was himself, a transgressor; there was the law, awarding death, and there was the Judge ready – nay, bound – to inflict it: so Calvin felt.

The severity of Calvin's struggle was in proportion to the strength of his self-righteousness. That principle had been growing within him from his youth upwards. The very blamelessness of his life, and the punctuality with which he discharged all the acts of devotion, had helped to nourish it into rigor and strength; and now nothing but a tempest of surpassing force could have beaten down and laid in the dust a pride which had been waxing higher and stronger with every rite he performed, and every year that passed over him. And till his pride had been laid in the dust it was impossible that he could throw himself at the feet of the Great Physician.

But meanwhile, like King Joram, he went to physicians "who could not heal him of his disease;" mere empirics they were, who, gave him beads to count and relics to kiss, instead of the "death" that atones and the "blood" that cleanses. "Confess!" [3] cried the doctors of the Montaigu, who could read in his dimmed eye and wasting form the agony that was raging in his soul, and too surely divined its cause. "Confess, confess!" cried they, in alarm, for they saw that they were on the point of losing their most promising pupil, on whom they had built so many hopes. Calvin went to his confessor; he told him – not all – but as much as he durst, and the Father gave him kindly a few anodynes from the Church's pharmacopoeia to relieve his pain. The patient strove to persuade himself that his trouble was somewhat assuaged, and then he would turn again to the schoolmen, if haply he might forget, in the interest awakened by their subtleties and speculations, the great realities that had engrossed him. But soon there would descend on him another and fiercer burst of the tempest, and then groans louder even than before would echo through his chamber, and tears more copious than he had yet shed would water his couch. [4]

One day, while the young scholar of the Montaigu was passing through these struggles, he chanced to visit the Place de Greve, where he found a great crowd of priests, soldiers, and citizens gathered round a stake at which a disciple of the new doctrines was calmly yielding up his life. He stood till the fire had done its work, and a stake, an iron collar and chain, and a heap of ashes were the only memorials of the tragedy he had witnessed. What he had seen awakened a train of thoughts within him.

"These men," said he to himself, "have a peace which I do not possess. They endure the fire with a rare courage. I, too, could brave the fire, but were death to come to me, as it comes to them, with the sting of the Church's anathema in it, could I face that as calmly as they do? Why is it that they are so courageous in the midst of terrors that are as real as they are dreadful, while I am oppressed and tremble before apprehensions and forebodings? Yes, I will take my cousin Olivetan's advice, and search the Bible, if haply I may find that 'new way' of which he speaks, and which these men who go so bravely through the fire seem to have found." He opened the Book which no one, says Rome, should open unless the Church be by to interpret. He began to read, but the first effect was a sharper terror. His sins had never appeared so great, nor himself so vile as now. [5]

He would have shut the Book, but to what other quarter could he turn? On every side of him abysses appeared to be opening. So he continued to read, and by-and-by he thought he could discern dimly and afar off what seemed a cross, and One hanging upon it, and his form was like the Son of God. He looked again, and the vision was clearer for now he thought he could read the inscription over the head of the Sufferer: "He was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our transgressions; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed." A ray now shone through his darkness; he thought he could see a way of escape – a shelter where the black tempest that lowered over him would no longer beat upon his head; already the great burden that pressed upon him was less heavy, it seemed as if about to fall off, and now it rolled down as he kept gazing at the "Crucified." "O Father," he burst out – it was no longer the Judge, the Avenger – "O Father, his sacrifice has appeased thy wrath; his blood has washed away my impurities; his cross has borne my curse; his death has atoned for me!" In the midst of the great billows his feet had touched the bottom: he found the ground to be good: he was upon a rock.

Calvin, however, was not yet safe on shore and past all danger. One formidable obstacle he had yet to surmount, and one word expresses it – the Church. Christ had said, "Lo, I am with you alway." The Church, then, was the temple of Christ, and this made unity – unity in all ages and in all lands – one of her essential attributes. The Fathers had claimed this as a mark of the true Church. She must be one, they had said.

Precisely so; but is this unity outward and

visible, or inward and spiritual? The "Quod semper, quod ubique et ab omnibus," if sought in an outward, realization, can be found only in the Church of Rome. How many have fallen over this stumbling-block and never risen again; how many even in our own age have made shipwreck here! This was the rock on which Calvin was now in danger of shipwreck. The Church rose before his eyes, a venerable and holy society; he saw her coming down from ancient times, covering all lands, embracing in her ranks the martyrs and confessors of primitive times, and the great doctors of the Middle Ages, with the Pope at their head, the Vicar of Jesus Christ. This seemed truly a temple of God's own building. With all its faults it yet was a glorious Church, Divine and heavenly. Must he leave this august society and join himself to a few despised disciples of the new opinions? This seemed like a razing of his name from the Book of Life. This was to invoke excommunication upon his own head, and write against himself a sentence of exclusion from the family of God – nay, from God himself! This was the great battle that Calvin had yet to fight.

How many have commenced this battle only to lose it! They have been beaten back and beaten down by the pretended Divine authority of "the Church," by the array of her great names and her great Councils, and though last, not least, by the terror of her anathemas. It is not possible for even the strongest minds, all at once, to throw off the spell of the great Enchantress Nor would even Calvin have conquered in this sore battle had he not had recourse to the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Ever and anon he came back to the Bible; he sought for the Church as she is there shown – a spiritual society, Christ her Head, the Holy Spirit her life, truth her foundation, and believers her members – and in proportion as this Church disclosed her beauty to him, the fictitious splendor and earthly magnificence which shone around the Church of Rome waned, and at last vanished outright.

"There can be no Church," we hear Calvin saying to himself, "where the truth is not. Here, in the Roman Communion, I can find only fables, silly inventions, manifest falsehoods, and idolatrous ceremonies. The society that is founded on these things cannot be the Church. If I shall come back to the truth, as contained in the Scriptures, will I not come back to the Church? and will I not be joined to the holy company of prophets and apostles, of saints and martyrs? And as regards the Pope, the Vicar of Jesus Christ, let me not be awed by a big word. If without warrant from the Bible, or the call of the Christian people, and lacking the holiness and humility of Christ, the Pope place himself above the Church, and surround himself with worldly pomps, and arrogate lordship over the faith and consciences of men, is he therefore entitled to homage, and must I bow down and do obeisance? The Pope," concluded Calvin, "is but a scarecrow, dressed out in magnificences and fulminations. I will go on my way without minding him."

In fine, Calvin concluded that the term "Church" could not make the society that monopolized the term really "the Church." High-sounding titles and lofty assumptions could give neither unity nor authority; these could come from the Truth alone; and so he abandoned "the Church" that he might enter the Church – the Church of the Bible.

The victory was now complete. The last link of Rome's chain had been rent from his soul; the huge phantasmagoria which had awed and terrified him had been dissolved, and he stood up in the liberty wherewith Christ had made him free. Here truly was rest after a great fight – a sweet and blessed dawn after a night of thick darkness and tempest.

Thus was fought one of the great battles of the world. When one thinks of what was won for mankind upon this field, one feels its issues important beyond all calculation, and would rather have conquered upon it than have won all the victories and worn all the laurels of Caesar and Alexander. The day of Calvin's conversion is not known, but the historian D'Aubigne, to whose research the world is indebted for its full and exact knowledge of the event, has determined the year, 1527; and the place, Paris – that city where some of the saints of God had already been put to death, and where, in years to come, their blood was to be poured out like water. The day of Calvin's conversion is one of the memorable days of time.


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Thursday, December 13th, 2018
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