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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 8 — Calvin becomes a student of law

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Gate of the New Kingdom – Crowds Pressing to Enter – The Few only Able to do so – Lefevre and Farel Sighing for the Conversion of Francis I. – A Greater Conversion – Calvin Refuses to be made a Priest – Chooses the Profession of Law – Goes to Orleans – Pierre de l'Etoile – Calvin becomes his Scholar – Teaching of Etoile on the Duty of the State to Punish Heterodoxy – Calvin among his College Companions – A Victory – Calvin Studies Greek – Melchior Wolmar – Calvin Prepared for his Work as a Commentator – His Last Mental Struggle.

THE Reformation has come, and is setting up anew the kingdom of the Gospel upon the earth. Flinging wide open its portals, and stationing no sentinel on the threshold, nor putting price upon its blessings, it bids all enter. We see great multitudes coming up to the gate, and making as if they would press in and become citizens of this new State. Great scholars and erudite divines are groping around the door, but they are not able to become as little children, and so they cannot find the gate. We see ecclesiastics of every grade crowding to that portal; there stands the purple cardinal, and there too is the frocked friar, all eagerly inquiring what they may do that they may inherit eternal life; but they cannot part with their sins or with their self-righteousness, and so they cannot enter at a gate which, however wide to the poor in spirit, is strait to them. Puissant kings, illustrious statesmen, and powerful nations come marching up, intent seemingly on enrolling themselves among the citizens of this new society. They stand on the very threshold; another step and all will be well; but, alas! they hesitate; they falter; it is a moment of terrible suspense. What blinds them so that they cannot see the entrance? It is a little word, a potent spell, which has called up before them all imposing image that looks the impersonation of all the ages, and the embodiment of all apostolic virtues and blessings – "the Church." Dazzled by this apparition, they pause – they reel backwards – the golden moment passes; and from the very gates of evangelical light, they take the downward road into the old darkness. The broad pathway is filled from side to side by men whose feet have touched the very threshold of the kingdom, but who are now returning, some offended by the simplicity of the infant Church; others scared by the scaffold and the stake; others held back by their love of ease or their love of sin. A few only are able to enter in and earn the crown, and even these, enter only after sore rightings and great agonies of soul. It was here that the Reformation had its beginning – not in the high places of the world, amid the ambitions of thrones and the councils of cabinets. It struggled into birth in the low places of society, in closets, and the bosoms of the penitent, amid tears and strong cries and many groans.

Paris was not one of those cities that were destined to be glorified by the light of Protestantism, nevertheless it pleased God, as narrated in the last chapter, to make it the scene of a great conversion. [1] Lefevre and Farel were sighing to enrol among the disciples of the Gospel a great potentate, Francis I. If, thought they, the throne can be gained, will not the preponderance of power on the side of the Gospel infallibly assure its triumph in France? But God, whose thoughts are not as man's thoughts, was meanwhile working for a far greater issue, the conversion even of a pale-faced student in the College of Montaigu, whose name neither Lefevre nor Farel had ever happened to hear, and whose very existence was then unknown to them. They little dreamed what a conflict was at that very hour going on so near to them in a small chamber in an obscure quarter of Paris. And, although they had known it, they could as little have conjectured that when that young scholar had bowed to the force of the truth, a mightier power would have taken its place at the side of the Gospel than if Francis and all his court had become its patrons and champions. Light cannot be spread by edict of king, or by sword of soldier. It is the Bible, preached by the evangelist, and testified to by the martyr, that is to bid the Gospel, like the day, shine forth and bless the earth.

From the hour of Calvin's conversion he became the center of the Reformation in France, and by-and-by the center of the Reformation in Christendom: consequently in tracing the several stages of his career we are chronicling the successive developments of the great movement of Protestantism. His eyes were opened, and he saw the Church of Rome disenchanted of that illusive splendor – that pseudo-Divine authority – which had aforetime dazzled and subdued him. Where formerly there stood a spiritual building, the House of God, the abode of truth, as he believed, there now rose a temple of idols. How could he minister at her altars? True, his head had been shorn, but he had not yet received that indelible character which is stamped on all who enter the priesthood, and so it was not imperative that he should proceed farther in that path. He resolved to devote himself to the profession of law. This mode of retreat from the clerical ranks would awaken no suspicion.

It is somewhat remarkable that his father had come, at about the same time, to the same resolution touching the future profession of his son, and thus the young Calvin had his parent's full consent to his new choice – a coincidence which Beza has pointed out as a somewhat striking one. The path on which

Gerard Chauvin saw his son now entering was one in which many and brilliant honors were to be won: and not one of those prizes was there which the marvelous intellect and the rare application of that son did not bid fair to gain. Already Gerard in fancy saw him standing at the foot of the throne, and guiding the destinies of France. Has Calvin then bidden a final adieu to theology, and are the courts of law and the offices of State henceforth to claim him as their own? No! he has turned aside but for a little while, that by varying the exercise of his intellect he may bring to the great work that lies before him a versatility of power, all amplitude of knowledge, and a range of sympathy not otherwise attainable. Of that work he did not at this hour so much as dream, but He who had "called him from the womb, and ordained him a prophet to the nations," was leading him by a way he knew not.

The young student – his face still pale, but beaming with that lofty peace that succeeds such tempests as those which had beat upon him – crosses for the last time the portal of the Montaigu, and, leaving Paris behind him, directs his steps to Orleans, the city on the banks of the Loire which dates from the days of Aurelian, its founder. In that city was a famous university, and in that university was a famous professor of law, Pierre de l'Etoile, styled the Prince of Jurists. [2] It was the light of this; "star" that attracted the young Calvin to Orleans.

The science of jurisprudence now became his study. And one of the maxims to which he was at times called to listen, as he sat on the benches of the class-room, enables us to measure the progress which the theory of liberty had made in those days. "It is the magistrate's duty," would "Peter of the Star" say to his scholars, "to punish offenses against religion as well as crimes against the State." "What!" he would exclaim, with the air of a man who was propounding an incontrovertible truth, "What! shall we hang a thief who robs us of our purse, and not burn a heretic who steals from us heaven!" So ill understood was then the distinction between the civil and the spiritual jurisdictions, and the acts falling under their respective cognisance. Under this code of jurisprudence were Calvin and that whole generation of Frenchmen reared. It had passed in Christendom for a thousand years as indisputably sound, serving as the cornerstone of the Inquisition, and yielding its legitimate fruit in those baleful fires which mingled their lurid glare with the dawn of the New Times. Under no other maxim was it then deemed possible for nations to flourish or piety to be preserved; nor was it till a century and a half after Calvin's time that this maxim was exploded, for of all fetters those are the hardest to be rent which have been forged by what wears the guise of justice, and have been imposed to protect what professes to be religion.

The future Reformer now sits at the feet of the famous jurist of Orleans, and, by the study of the law, whets that wonderful intellect which in days to come was to unravel so many mysteries, and dissolve the force of so many spells which had enchained the soul. What manner of man, we ask, was Calvin at Orleans? He had parted company with the schoolmen; he had bidden the Fathers of the Montaigu adieu, and he had turned his face, as he believed, towards the high places of the world. Did his impressions of Divine things pass away, or did the grandeurs of time dim to his eye those of eternity? No; but if his seriousness did not disappear, his shyness somewhat did. His loving sympathies and rich genialities of heart, like a secret gravitation for they were not much expressed in words – drew companions around him, and his superiority of intellect gave him, without his seeking it, the lead amongst them. His fellow-students were a noisy, pleasure-loving set, and their revels and quarrels woke up, rather rudely at times, the echoes of the academic hall, and broke in upon the quiet of the streets; but the high-souled honor and purity of Calvin, untouched by soil or stain amidst the pastimes and Bacchanalian riots that went on around him, joined to his lofty genius, made him the admiration of his comrades.

The nation of Picardy – for the students were classified into nations according to the provinces they came from – elected the young Calvin as their proctor, and in this capacity he was able, by his legal knowledge, to recover for his nation certain privileges of which they had been deprived.

There have been more brilliant affairs than this triumph over the local authority who had trenched upon academic rights, but it was noisily applauded by those for whom it was won, and to the young victor this petty warfare was all earnest of greater battles to be fought on a wider arena, and of prouder victories to be won over greater opponents. The future Chancellor of the Kingdom of France – for no inferior position had Gerard Chauvin elected for his son to fill – had taken his first step on the road which would most surely conduct him to this high dignity. Step after step – to his genius how easy! – would bring him to it; and there having passed life in honorable labor, he would leave his name inscribed among those of the legislators and philosophers of France, while his bust would adorn the Louvre, or the Hall of Justice, and his bones, inurned in marble, would sleep in some cathedral aisle of Paris. Such was the prospect that opened out before the eye of his father, and, it is

possible, before his own also at this period of his life. Very grand it was, but not nearly so grand as that which ended in a simple grave by the Rhone, marked only by a pine-tree, with a name like the brightness of the firmament, that needed no chiselled bust and no marble cenotaph to keep it in remembrance. Calvin next went to Bourges. He was attracted to this city by the fame of Alciati of Milan, who was lecturing on law in its university. The Italian loved a good table, and a well-filled purse, but he had the gift of eloquence, and a rare genius for jurisprudence. "Andrew Alciat," says Beza, "was esteemed the most learned and eloquent of all the jurisconsults of his time." [3] The eloquence of Alciati kindled anew Calvin's enthusiasm for the study of law. The hours were then early; but Calvin, Beza informs us, sat up till midnight, and, on awakening in the morning, spent an hour in bed recalling to memory what he had learned the evening previous. At Bourges was another distinguished man, learned in a wisdom that Alciati knew not, and whose prelections, if less brilliant, were more useful to the young student. Melchior Wolmar, a German, taught the Greek of Homer, Demosthenes, or Sophocles, "but less publicly," says Bungener, "though with small attempts at concealment, the Greek of another book far mightier and more important." [4]

When Calvin arrived in Bourges he knew nothing of Greek. His Latinity he had received at Paris from Mathurin Cordier, whose memory he ever most affectionately cherished; but now he was to be initiated into the tongue of ancient Greece. This service was rendered him by Melchior Wolmar, [5] who had been a pupil of the celebrated Budaeus.

Calvin now had access to the Oracles of God in the very words in which inspired men had written them – an indispensable qualification surely in one who was to be the first great interpreter, in modern times, of the New Testament. He could more exactly know the mind of the Spirit speaking in the Word, and more fully make known to men the glory of Divine mysteries; said the commentaries of Calvin are perhaps unsurpassed to this day in the combined qualities of clearness, accuracy, and depth. They were in a sort a second giving of the Oracles of God to men. Their publication was as when, in the Apocalypse, "the temple of God was opened in heaven, and there was seen in his temple the ark of his testament."

Before leaving Orleans his spiritual equipment for his great work had been completed. The agony he had endured in Paris returned in part. He may have contracted from his law studies some of the dross of earth, and he was sent back to the furnace for the last time. Doubts regarding his salvation began again to agitate him; the "Church" rose up again before him in all her huge fascination and enchantment. These were the very foes he had already vanquished, and left dead, as he believed, on the battle-field.

Again they stood like menacing spectres in his path, and he had to recommence the fight, and as at Paris, so again in Orleans he had to wage it in the sweat of his face, in the sweat of his heart. "I am in a continual battle," he writes; "I am assaulted and shaken, as when an armed man is forced by a violent blow to stagger a few steps backward." [6] Grasping once more the sword of the Spirit, he put his foes to flight, and when the conflict was over Calvin found himself walking in a clearer light than he had ever before enjoyed; and that light continued all the way even to his life's end. There gathered often around him in after-days the darkness of outward trial, but nevermore was there darkness in his soul.


Lectionary Calendar
Monday, June 25th, 2018
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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