WE make a brief pause in our narrative in beginning this chapter to glance at what was then taking place in Paris. The sun of the gospel had indeed risen in France, and devouted men were preaching with much success; but France had not given the same heartiness of welcome to the truth that had been accorded by Germany. God deals with nations as with individuals: any measure of rejection of light is followed by a judicial withdrawal of the measure of light given. While Luther was saying “No” to the pope and the papacy in Germany, France was preparing to say “No” to the gospel; and she has never ceased to reap the fruit of that denial.
Among the diligent teachers of the truth in Paris at this time were Lefevre and Farel. Their great desire and hope were that Francis I., the French king, should place his influence on the side of the Reformation. A good desire, in itself; but God had higher thoughts than theirs. While they were praying for the conversion of Francis, God was bringing to pass the conversion of a young student of whose existence they were ignorant. This student was to wield a mightier influence than could have been exercised even by the throne of France. The Bible, the gospel, the truth, the prison, the martyrfire; these were what God was about to use in preference to the power of a throne, the smiles of a court, the sunlight of royal protection.
Two very important facts now present themselves to our attention, intended by God to exert an influence over the whole future of the Reformer’s life. These are, first, a storm of doubts in his mind as to the “church”; and, second, his father’s desire that his studies should henceforth be with a view to follow the law and forsake the priesthood. It is not a little remarkable that Luther’s father also intended his son for the law. God’s purpose in the case of Luther and in the case of Calvin, and in the cases of many obscurer servants of His since their day, was infinitely higher and better than theirs.
With regard to the first of these facts, we must remember that every exercise of Calvin’s mind must be subjected to the most rigorous examination of his subtle intellect. He could accept nothing without being convinced of its logical consistency with truth. He therefore could not renounce his faith in the Romish church without first finding a better faith and a better church. Not rashly, therefore, for his mental disposition was timid and retiring, did he cast himself into a path of conflict with his native opinions. His predilections were all on the side of quiet study and repose.
But he had begun to inquire and to seek for truth, and could not rest short of finding it. The one thing he wanted was to know what was truth. Could he find that, he would be content to follow wherever it might lead him. He cared little for man’s judgment.
Two powers now strove for victory. On the one hand, he began to give hesitating heed to the suggestion: “Would it not be better to renounce these enquiries, and remain in the old stream of thought, believing as others do? Wherefore cast myself into this agony, at the risk of gaining nought but persecution?” On the other hand, he was impelled by the motive implanted in him when he passed out of death into life.” This power, this motive, this voice, in the end gained the victory, because eternal life was at its root: He continued to study the Bible, possibly the translation into French which Olivetan was then making.
The second fact was his father’s desire for Calvin to study law. His own account of this is so beautiful as a piece of autobiography, and so characteristic of the writer, that I quote it in full. It occurs in his Preface to the Commentary on the Psalms. “But as he [David] was taken from the sheepfold, and elevated to the rank of supreme authority; so God having taken me from my originally obscure and humble condition, has reckoned me worthy of being invested with the honorable office of a preacher and minister of the Gospel. When I was as yet a very little boy, my father had destined me for the study of theology. But afterwards, when he considered that the legal profession commonly raised those who followed it to wealth, this prospect induced him suddenly to change his purpose. Thus it came to pass, that I was withdrawn from the study of philosophy, and put to the study of law. To this pursuit I endeavored faithfully to apply myself, in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by the secret guidance of His providence, at length gave a different direction to my course.
And first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of popery to be easily extricated from so profound a depth of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from me at my early period of life.
Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor. “I was quite surprised to find that before a year had elapsed, all who had any desire after purer doctrine were continually coming to me to learn, although I myself was as yet but a mere novice and tyro.”
We therefore now view the Reformer as for a time drawn aside from the pursuit of truth through the study of the Word to the pursuit of worldly advancement by the study of the law. “The design of making him a priest, says Beza, “was interrupted by a change in the views of both father and son. In the former, because he saw that the law was a surer road to wealth and honor; in the latter, because having become acquainted with the reformed faith, he had begun to devote himself to the study of Holy Scripture; and from an abhorrence of all kinds of superstition to discontinue his attendances on the public services of the church.”
He therefore proceeded to Orleans, to study law under Pierre de l’Etoile, one of the first French lawyers of that period. Here he made rapid progress. The historian Raemond tells us that he distinguished himself by “an active mind and a strong memory, with great dexterity and promptness in gathering up the lessons and sayings which fell from his master’s lips, noting them down afterwards with marvelous facility and beauty of language.” To this Beza adds: “At the end of a year, he was no longer considered as a scholar, but as a teacher.” In fact, he was more than once asked to supply his master’s place.
But the digression was not yet at an end. A jurist of repute at Milan, Andrew Alciati, had been summoned by Francis I. to the academy at Bourges, and had received much honor. Attracted by his reputation, Calvin went to Bourges, to sit at the feet of Alciati. Here he studied as few had done before him, giving the closest application to his master’s lectures each evening, and committing them to memory and to writing on the following mornings.
While thus laboriously learning law at Bourges, the Reformer met another teacher, Melchior Wolmar, who was to lead him back into the path he had left.
Wolmar was a professor of Greek; and while openly teaching Homer, he did not hesitate to teach the Greek of another Book, which he had brought from Germany. “In this book,” he would say, “is the answer to every problem, the remedy for every abuse, the rest of every heavy-laden soul.”
It was under this influence while at Bourges that Calvin began to preach the gospel of Christ. Those who heard the young man expound the Scriptures “heard him gladly,” and entreated him to become their minister.
He replied, “I have hardly learned the gospel myself, and lo! I am called to teach it to others.”
His first attempts were made in the town of Bourges, and thence carried to the surrounding villages, especially one named Lignieres, where he was much encouraged by a wealthy man and his lady. His method was to go from house to house, and, opening the Bible, to explain its messages in the simplest manner to his hearers. His teaching thus dropped like rain and distilled as the dew. His pure doctrine, thus issuing fresh from the very fountain of life, was most refreshing to his thirsty hearers. His manner was gentle and sweet, so that all were attracted by this youthful preacher of the “new doctrine.”
While thus pursuing his gospel labors, a message from Noyon, informing him of the death of his father, called him from them. But having planted, another was raised up to water, named Michel Simon.
In his journey to Noyon, the Reformer “must needs go through” Paris.
God had there something for him to see and to ponder. One of the noblest sons of France was about to lay down his life for the testimony of Jesus Christ; and it was necessary for Calvin to be a witness to his death. It was a further lesson in the school of truth.
Louis de Berquin belonged to a noble family of Artois. He was devoted to study, beloved by all, and a favorite at court. But, having a dispute with one of the Sorbonne doctors on a point of theology, he went to the Bible, and found what he had not expected. He found that the “new” doctrine was the true doctrine. His conversion was marked; and from that hour his eloquence and zeal were devoted to the gospel. This drew upon him the malice of his associates. As they could not silence him by argument, they tried to silence him in another way. Three times was he apprehended; and on each occasion liberated by order of Francis.
At length an incident occurred that brought him within their power. An image of the Virgin at a street-corner was so helpless to defend itself as to be mutilated; and this was charged upon Berquin’s teaching. He was arrested, imprisoned, tried, and sentenced to death; and in the absence of the king, to whom he had appealed, the doctors hurried the execution of their sentence. At noon on April 22nd, 1529, Berquin was led forth to die.
Arrived at the Place de Greve, he stood beside the stake, and asked permission to speak to the people. But the monks denied his request, and at a signal given by them the martyr’s voice was drowned by clash of arms. “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.” God never forgets.
The little heap of the ashes of Berquin appeared, to the eyes of foes and friends, the grave-mound of the Reformation in France. But the purposes of God survive many deaths; and are never buried except to rise again.