John Calvin and the French Reformation

Calvin Studies Law

Calvin had been destined to become a minister at the altar of Rome but following his conversion “he resolved to devote himself to the profession of law. This mode of retreat from the clerical ranks would awaken no suspicion.” History of Protestantism, book 13, 156.

Calvin and many law students both before and after him were trained under the maxim that it was necessary for the state to punish crimes both civil and religious. This theory had been propounded as an incontrovertible truth and “had passed in Christendom for a thousand years as indisputably sound, serving as the corner-stone of the Inquisition . . . 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.” Ibid.

One useful aspect of his education at this time was that he found a scholar who taught him the Greek of the New Testament. Now he could study the New Testament in its original language which was a very useful ability as he would, in a few years, begin to write his “Institutes” which were very helpful documents to the cause of the Reformation.

The Martyrdom of Berquin

Calvin traveled to Paris in 1529 and was present to witness the martyrdom of Louis de Berquin, of whom the historian Beza wrote: “Berquin would have been a second Luther had he found in Francis I a second elector.” Ibid., 159. Berquin was a nobleman and a knight who was devoted to study and loved reading. With polished manners and high morals, frank, courteous, and full of alms giving, he was much loved and was often seen at court. He had been a great papist and despiser of Lutheranism but God had opened his eyes.

The Sorbonne was angry and with authority from Parliament they imprisoned him three times between 1523 and 1526. Each time the king set him free.

From the writings of the Sorbonnist Berquin extracted twelve propositions which he presented to the king and charged them to be contrary to the Bible and therefore, heretical. His enemies were confounded and more so by the king’s request that they disprove them from the Bible. This might have proved a very hard task for the Sorbonnist but at that time an image of the Virgin was mutilated. “‘These are the fruits of the doctrines of Berquin,” it was exclaimed; ” all is about to be overthrown—religion, the laws, the throne itself—by this Lutheran conspiracy.’ War to the knife was demanded against the iconoclast: the people and the monarch were frightened; and the issue was that Berquin was apprehended (March, 1529) and consigned to the Conciergerie.” Ibid., 160.

His trial ended in a sentence of the stake and not a day’s delay was allowed least the king send a pardon. Berquin was radiant and wore his finest clothes as he was escorted through streets thronged by spectators to the Place de Greve. Dreading the effect of his dying words the monks gave a signal and “instantly the shout of voices, and the clash of arms, drowned the accents of the martyr. ‘Thus,’ says Felice, ‘the Sorbonne of 1529 set the populace of 1793 the base example of stifling on the scaffold the sacred words of the dying.’” Ibid., 162. When the fire had done its work the Sorbonnists were overjoyed: the Protestants were bowed down with sorrow. But in a way Berquin’s stake was a candle that shone all through France.

Paris Hears the Gospel a Second Time

There followed three years of relative peace in France. Calvin stayed on in Paris and continued to work in the homes of the people, going from home to home instructing the families in the Gospel. While many students were ever ready to do verbal battle on religious topics, Calvin was coming from daily prayer and perusal of the scriptures to devote his time to evangelization rather than debate. He was not just silencing opponents but enlightening minds.

Francis, the king, in a political move against his opponent, Charles V, made some attempts to league with the Protestants of Germany. The king’s sister Margaret, Queen of Navarre, saw this as her chance to promote Protestantism in France. She arranged for her pastor Roussel to preach in the Louvre. Five thousand gathered daily. “Nobles, lawyers, men of letters, and wealthy merchants were mingled in the stream of bourgeoisie and artisans that each day, at the appointed hour, flowed in at the royal gates, and devoutly listened under the gorgeous roof of the Louvre to the preaching so unwonted.” Francis granted his sister’s request for possession of two churches and she placed Courault and Berthaud, both Augustinian monks to preach in them. She was delighted with the effect and Paris was full of signs of reformation.

The Sorbonnists were anxious to burn Roussel. The king would not grant them permission and neither the chancellor nor the archbishop would help so they turned to the populace. They sent their preachers into the pulpits and with “shouting and gesticulating these men awoke, now the anger, now the horror of their fanatical hearers, by the odious epithets and terrible denunciations which they hurled against Lutheranism.” Ibid., 171. They sent mendicants into the homes to drop seditious hints that the Pope was above the king and that Francis would not long be king. Processions of many days duration were organized in the streets with penitents imploring the saints to smite this heresy.

“Nor did the doctors of the Sorbonne agitate in vain. The excitable populace were catching fire. Fanatical crowds, uttering revolutionary cries, paraded the streets, and the Queen of Navarre and her Protestant coadjutors, seeing the matter growing serious, sent to tell the king the state of the capital.” Ibid. He ordered Beda sent into banishment but the excitement did not quickly cool. Fiery placards were posted on the houses and ballads were sung demanding the stake for Protestants. The Protestant sermons continued and there were conversions but the masses remained with Rome. Twice now France had been given the gospel and twice they had turned away from it.

Alexander’s Martyrdom

The year 1533 saw the Sorbonnists choosing another victim for their fires. They dared not choose Margaret’s preacher Roussel so they arrested a former Dominican friar who called himself Alexander. He had first heard the Gospel in Paris and had thrown off his monkish name and garments and fled to Geneva where he was taught by Farel. He was eloquent and burned with zeal. He began his work in Switzerland but feeling a desire for the French he made his way to Lyons and fanned the flames of the ancient faith of the in that city. He was pursued but he escaped repeatedly. Finally he was arrested and taken to Paris. He succeeded in converting the captain of the company who escorted him and he was allowed to preach all along the way. At his appearance before the Parliament he confessed his Reformed faith and he was tortured cruelly and left a cripple. He was straightway condemned to the flames, underwent the ceremony of degradation and carted in a rubbish wagon to the stake. All along the way he preached to the crowds. The people were astonished and many cried for his release. He was joyful even chained to the pile and extolled the Savior to all around. There were many tears and much wailing that this man was not worthy of death but he met his end with confidence in his future. In 1534 the churches of Paris were closed and 300 Lutherans were imprisoned. The burnings resumed shortly thereafter.

Calvin Escapes Paris

Calvin made his escape from Paris just before the storm broke. He and his good friend Nicholas Cop, Rector of the Sorbonne devised a plan to preach the Gospel in the University itself. Cop was to give an address for the inaugural of a new session and he agreed to read an oration written by Calvin. The monks saw this as an act of treason and both Cop and Calvin narrowly escaped. Calvin found refuge in the mansion of the Du Tillets where he spent six months studying in their excellent library. “Nights without sleep, and whole days during which he scarcely tasted food, would Calvin pass in this library, so athirst was he for knowledge.” Ibid., 177. Here he planned his Institutes which were “composed on the model of those apologies which the early Fathers presented to the Roman emperors on behalf of the primitive martyrs. Again were men dying at the stake for the Gospel. Calvin felt that it became him to raise his voice in their defense. . . He prepared himself by reading, by much meditation, and by earnest prayer.” Ibid.

“Parliament, in the beginning of 1534, at the instigation of Beda, passed a law announcing death by burning against those who should be convicted of holding the new opinions on the testimony of two witnesses.” Ibid., 201. Despite the new law in France, Calvin made another short visit in Paris, attended by the young Du Tillet, where he ministered to the church there which was outwardly composed of mostly humble common men. Calvin went from home to home teaching. Here he found that there were elements attempting to enter the young church. Some came bringing pantheistic and atheistic doctrines to deform the church. Calvin knew that his work would be to resist these frightful doctrines as well as the errors of Rome.

Francis Tries to Embrace Both Rome and the Reformation

Francis I, ever plotting against his bitter enemy Charles V, proposed a plan to Pope Clement to join their houses by marriage between his second son and Clements niece. Catherine de Medici was a lovely girl of fifteen when the marriage took place but she would become a power in the royal family. She became noted for “an inordinate love of power. Whoever occupied the throne, Catherine was the real ruler of France.” Her husband’s and sons’ reigns were blackened by her scheming. “Her will must be done, and whatever cause or person stood in her way must take the consequences by the dungeon or the stake, by the poignard or the poison-cup.” Ibid., 186.

After arranging this fateful marriage Francis startled the members of his council by announcing his intent to seek union with the Protestants of Germany. He wanted to be on both sides at once. Francis thought to cause Charles more discomfort by uniting Rome and the Reformation. He met with Phillip of Hesse and offered to help finance the armies of the league. He asked Melancthon, Bucer and Hedio to send proposals to his council. Melancthon proposed a scheme in which the Reformation would bring its doctrine and Rome would bring its hierachy to form the new church. This would never have worked for new wine in an old bottle was not the solution. But the Reformation was saved from this union which would have brought a respite but no real Reformation. An unexpected event took place which changed the king’s course and ended his vacillation.

The Posting of the Placards

There were two parties in the young Church in France. One was inclined to wait on the outcome of the king’s council and trust in these men of power to make reforms. The other was very distrusting of the king’s ways for he embraced the Pope one day and the Protestants the next. He sent a Romanist to prison and followed this with the burning of a Reformer. They wanted to see a bold policy put into action that would lead to the overthrow of the Papacy in France. These two parties sought advice from the French Reformer, Farel, in Switzerland.

They sent a messenger who found Switzerland a very different place from Paris. There altars and images were being torn down and the Reformed worship being set up. The Swiss Reformers “assembled, heard the messenger, and gave their voices that the Protestants of France should halt no longer; that they should boldly advance; and that they should notify their forward movement by a vigorous blow at that which was the citadel of the Papal Empire of bondage—the root of that evil tree that overshadowed Christendom—the mass.” Ibid., 206. It was proposed that a paper be published and posted all over France. It would be composed in Switzerland and Farel is generally believed to be its author. “It was no logical thesis, no dogmatic refutation; it was a torrent of scathing fire; a thunderburst . . . But the author who wrote, and the other pastors who approved, did not sufficiently consider that this terrible manifesto was not to be published in Switzerland, but in France, where a powerful court and a haughty priesthood were united to combat the Reformation.” Ibid., 207. The messenger was sent back with their advice and the proposed publication.

Immediately the members of the little Church met to deliberate about the placard. There were many present who thought that gentler words would go deeper. But the majority were impatient of delay. France was behind other countries in the advance of the Reformation, and they voted to publish. They chose the night of October 24, 1534 to post the placard all over France. “They displayed them on the walls of the Louvre, at the gates of the Sorbonne, and on the doors of the churches.” Ibid., 208.

At an early hour Montmorency and the Cardinal de Tournon knocked at the king’s closet door to tell him of the dreadful night. As they entered they took down a copy of the placard which had been hung there and handed it to the king who had his courtiers read it. “He stood pallid and speechless a little while; but at length his wrath found vent in terrible words: ‘Let all be seized, and let Lutheranism be totally exterminated.’” Ibid., 208. The king summoned Parliament to meet, and execute strict justice in the affair and he commanded his lieutenant-criminal, Jean Morin, to swiftly bring all to justice who had played a part in the matter.

Morin knew the man whose job it was to call the Protestants from their homes to meetings and with threats caused him to join in a plan to capture all of the offenders. The betrayer walked before a priest bearing the Host in a procession that was called to do expiation for the affront to the “Holy Sacrament.” As they went through the street the betrayer pointed out the houses of the Protestants and the family was dragged out and manacled. “Morin made no distinction among those suspected: his rage fell equally on those who had opposed and those who had favored the posting of the placards. Persons of both sexes, and of various nationalities, were included among the multitude now lodged in prison. . . Every scaffold would be a holy alter, every victim a grateful sacrifice, to purify a land doubly polluted by the blasphemous placard. And above all, they must maintain the popular indignation at a white heat. The most alarming rumours began to circulate through Paris. To the Lutherans were attributed the most atrocious designs. They had conspired, it was said, to fire all the public buildings, and massacre all the Catholics . . . These terrible rumours were greedily listened to, and the mob shouted, ‘Death, death to the heretics!’” Ibid., 209.

There were many scaffolds and all Paris was to be able to see what kind of men these were for they witnessed bravely through the tortures that Francis ordered. The indiscriminate vengeance caused many who had been sympathetic to the Gospel to fear and they rose up and fled. Within a few days there were many blanks in the society of Paris and each one represented a convert to the Gospel. These were the first of what was to be a long train who would flee in the years to come and carry with them “The intelligence, the arts, the industry, the order, in which, as a rule they pre-eminently excelled, to enrich the lands in which they found an asylum.” Ibid., 213. Among those who fled was Margaret, the king’s sister. She went to her little realm and Bearn became a refuge to the persecuted.

On January 21, 1535, the king marched in a procession that drew all of Paris. He was doing penance for the crime of his Protestant subjects. Following the procession he gave a speech—eloquent and touching—urging all to become participants in purging their country of this perverse sect by informing on their friends and relatives and declaring that he would not spare even his own child. He wept and the crowd wept with him. He swore to make war on heresy and the spectators declared. “We will live and die for the Catholic religion!” Ibid., 218. “When Francis I re-entered his palace and reviewed his day’s work, he was well pleased to think that he had made propitiation for the affront offered to God in the Sacrament, and that the cloud of vengeance which had lowered above his throne and his kingdom was rolled away. . . The populace of the capital were overjoyed; they had tasted of blood and were not soon to forego their relish for it, nor to care much in the after-times at whose expense they gratified it.” Ibid. Francis’ war on Protestantism even included a ban on printing. How strange this act from one who claimed to be a promoter of learning. “It is one among a hundred proofs that literary culture is no security against the spirit of persecution.” Ibid., 220.

Calvin and the Institutes

Just a little before the storm, Calvin had left Paris and traveled to Strasburg and then to Basle. He had a chance to visit with some of the leaders of the Reformation in these cities. In Basle word reached him of the atrocities in Paris. “He knew the men who had endured these cruel deaths. They were his brethren. He had lived in their houses; he had sat at their tables. . . He knew them to be men of whom the world was not worthy; and yet they were accounted as the off-scouring of all things, and as sheep appointed to the slaughter were killed all day long. Could he be silent when his brethren were being condemned and drawn to death?. . He had a pen, and he would employ it in vindicating his brethren in the face of Christendom. . . He could vindicate these martyrs effectually not otherwise than by vindicating their cause.” Ibid., 225.

Calvin set to work writing the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Which was “a confession of faith, a system of exegesis, a body of polemics and apologetics, and an exhibition of the rich practical effects which flow from Christianity—it was all four in one.” Ibid., 227. It was dedicated to Francis I, declaring the cause of the truth so defamed by its enemies as simply the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the only crime of the martyrs as that of believing the Gospel. He called for Francis to embrace this truth. It is doubtful Francis ever read it.

The Institutes set forth in a systematic way the beliefs of the Reformation. This work was adopted by the Reformed Church, and published in later years into most languages of Christendom. As it spread through many lands it became a powerful preacher to many.

It contained his views on predestination which were called into question even in his day. “The Reformer abhorred and repudiated the idea that God was the Author of sin, and he denied, too, with the same emphasis, that any constraint or force was put by the decree upon the will of man, or any restraint upon his actions; but that, on the contrary, all men enjoyed that spontaneity of will and freedom of action which are essential to moral accountability. . . Calvin freely admitted that he could not reconcile God’s absolute sovereignty with man’s free will; but he felt himself obliged to admit and believe both.” Ibid., 232.

(Note: The ultimate effect of the error of Calvin’s doctrine on predestination is seen today as Satan has succeeded in using it to present God as having Satan’s character. Calvin’s followers have carried the idea to its lengths and made a satanic god to present to Christianity. Adventism has also been infected. The Reformers were not free of error but we are to examine the historical evidence and cast away the dross while learning from their examples of courage.)