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Title: History of the Reformation - Calvin’s First Relations with the Libertines and Servetus.
Author: John Calvin
Language: English

12 00005-0011 Calvin's First Relations with the Libertines and Servetus. (011) 
(Summer 1534.)

DE LA FORGE willingly received all pious strangers visiting Paris. One day Calvin saw at his friend’s table certain individuals who, he fancied, had something singular about them. His eyes were fixed on them and he tried to make them out. One of them, named Coppin, from Lille, a man of the people and of no education, but with boldness greater than his ignorance, raised his voice, affected a sententious style, and spoke like an oracle. ‘Verily,’ said Calvin, ‘a feel never has ally doubts.’ A little farther on sat Quintin from Hainault, who seemed to have more education, and certainly more cunning. He assumed airs of superiority, an imposing tone of voice, and expressing himself ambiguously, gave himself the air of a prophet. ‘The latter seems to me a big rogue,’ said Calvin of him. Quintin was usually accompanied by a few disciples, ignorant and fanatical persons who repeated all he said; they were Bertrand des Moulins, Claude Perceval, and others. These bold and adventurous sectarians having nothing and never working, looked out wherever they went for some goodnatured person who would keep them in their idleness by supplying them with victuals and drink. They crept into the house by meek enticing ways, making no display at first of their particular doctrines, reserving these for the initiated only. They strove to win over all who listened to them, and to that end spoke continually of the Holy Ghost, and tried to make men believe that they were His apostles. Simple souls allowed themselves to be caught. They would have believed they had committed the unpardonable sin, if they had not looked upon these people as saints.

One day, when there was a large party at De la Forge’s, Quintin began to publish his doctrines. Whatever was the subject of conversation, the spirit immediately appeared. Calvin lost all patience: ‘You are like those country priests,’ he said, ‘who, having but one image in their church, make it serve for five or six saints. He is either St. James, or St. Francis, or St. Basil, and the priest, receives as many offerings as there are saints.’ Sometimes, however, these ‘spirituals,’ as they were called, betrayed themselves, and let their fanatical opinions slip out. ‘There are not many spirits,’ said Quintin, ‘there is only one spirit of God, who is and lives in all creatures.

It is this sole spirit which does everything; man has no will, no more than if he were a stone.’ Such language surprised Calvin. He examined the strange prophets, and discovered several capital errors in them. ‘The Holy Spirit is our reason,’ said some, ‘and that spirit teaches us that there is neither condemnation nor hell.’ — ‘The soul,’ said others, ‘is material and mortal.’ — ‘God is everything,’ said Quintin, ‘and everything is God.’ Immoral doctrines were combined with this system. Calvin’s conscience was terrified: he had risen up for the purpose of destroying a worm-eaten framework that men had built round the temple of God, and now rash hands were presuming to destroy the temple itself. He wished to destroy the superstitious traditions of so many ages, only to set the Divine truths of the apostolic times in their place; and all of a sudden he found himself face to face with men who desired no other God but nature, and would change the world into a vast wilderness. Calvin did not separate from Rome in order to be less christian, but to be more so. He resolved, therefore, to attack those who under the cloak of Protestantism suppress the mysteries of faith; to combat with the same severity both pope and sectarians, and if he undertook to destroy the fables of men, he would try still more to preserve the revelations of God. Had not Luther cried out when speaking of these would-be spirituals: ‘It is the devil who seeks to turn you aside from the truth… Turn your backs upon the drivellers!’ Various circumstances which were then taking place under Calvin’s eyes, made him understand more clearly the necessity of opposing these threatening doctrines with the utmost energy.

One day a man had been murdered in the streets of Paris; a great crowd gathered round his body, and a pious Christian exclaimed: ‘Alas! who has committed this crime?’ Quintin, who was there also, made answer immediately, in his Picard patois : ‘Since you want to know, it was me!’

The other said to him with surprise: ‘What! could you be such a coward?’ ‘It was not me, it was God.’ ‘What, exclaimed the man, ‘you impute to God a crime which He punishes?’ Then the wretched man, ‘discharging his poison more copiously,’ continued: ‘Yes, it’s thee, it’s me, it’s God; for what thee or me does, it is God who does it; and what God does, we do.’ Another analogous circumstance occurred in the house of Calvin’s friend. De la Forge had a servant to whom he paid high wages; this man robbed his master, and ran away with the money. A shoemaker of the neighborhood, who held Quintin’s opinions, having gone to the shop the same day, found the tradesman very uneasy: ‘The man who has committed such a base action,’ he said, ‘might easily take advantage of my credit, and borrow in my name.’ Whereupon, as Calvin relates, the shoemaker immediately began to flap his wings, and was up into the clouds, exclaiming: ‘It is blaspheming God to call this action base;… seeing that God does everything, we ought to reckon nothing bad.’ Some days later, this philosopher was himself robbed by a servant. Immediately forgetting all his spiritual knowledge, he rushed out of his house ‘like a madman,’ to search after the thief and on reaching De la Forge’s, was lavish of his abuse against the culprit. De la Forge ironically repeated to him his own words: ‘But you accuse God,’ he said, ‘since it is He who did it.’ The shoemaker sneaked off abashed, ‘like a dog with his tail between his legs.’ Calvin began the contest. It was not with philosophy, or speculation, or apologetics, that he fought these pretended spiritualists. ‘God,’ said he, ‘enlightens us sufficiently in Scripture; it is our want of knowing them thoroughly that is the cause and source of all errors.’ He attacked Quintin and pressed him hard. He quoted the commandments of God against theft and murder: ‘You call God impure,’ he said, ‘a thief and a robber, and you add that there is no harm in it. Who, I pray, has condemned impurity, theft, murder, if God has not?’… Quintin, who was generally very liberal with passages from Scripture, answered with a smile: ‘We are not subject to the letter which killeth, but to the Spirit which giveth life… The Bible contains allegories, myths which the Holy Spirit explains to us.’ ‘You make your Scripture a nose of wax,’ said Calvin, ‘and play with it, as if it were a ball.’ — ‘You find fault with my language because you do not understand it,’ said Quintin. — ‘I understand it a little better than you do yourself,’ retorted Calvin; ‘and I see pretty plainly that you desire to mislead (embabouiner ) the world by absurd and dangerous trifling.’

The ‘spirituals’ were by turns protestant or catholics as suited them.

Their manner of seeing accorded very well with their pantheism, and they would have been quite as much at their ease among the Hindoos and the Turks. This broadness, which misled the moderate party, offended Calvin.

One day, when Quintin said with unction: ‘I am just come from a solemn mass, celebrated by a cardinal... I have seen the glory of God,’ — ‘I understand you,’ said Calvin, rather coarsely; ‘in your opinion, a canon ought to continue in his luxury, and a monk in his convent, like a pig in a sty.’ The pantheists made proselytes. ‘By dint of intrigue and flattery, they attracted the simple ignorant poor, whom they made as lazy as themselves.’ They tried to make way with the learned and the great, and even to creep into the hearts of princes. Their high pretensions to spirituality staggered weak minds, and the convenient principle by which every man ought to remain in the Church to which he belonged, even were it sunk in error, made timid and irresolute characters lean to their side. A priest, who had become Quintin’s head champion, succeeded in deceiving the excellent Bucer by means of the false appearance he put on; and ten years later, an elect soul, Margaret, was dazzled and deceived by their hypocritical spirituality. About 4,000 were led astray in France.

Calvin was not one of those individuals ‘who remain in doubt and suspense;’ from the very first he detected pantheism and materialism under the veils with which these men sought from time to time to conceal their errors, and boldly pointed them out. His uprightness and frankness presented a very striking contrast to their dissimulation and cunning. ‘They turn their cloak inside out at every moment,’ he said, ‘so that you do not know where to hold them. One of the principal articles of their creed is that men ought to counterfeit, whilst even the heathens have said “that it is better to be a lion than a fox.”’ He found that their doctrines were impious and revolutionary. To confound God with the world was (he thought) to take from the world the living personal God who is present in the midst of us; and consequently to expose not only the Reformation and Christianity but the whole social system to utter ruin. The conduct of these pretended ‘spirituals’ was already sufficient in his eyes to characterize and condemn their system. ‘What has metamorphosed Quintin and his companions from tailors into teachers,’ said Calvin, ‘is that, preferring to be well fed and at their ease to working, they find it convenient to gain their living by prating, as priests and monks do by chanting.’ It was not until later that Calvin wrote his excellent treatise against the libertines; but, says Theodore Beza, ‘it was then (during his stay in Paris) that he first encountered those teachers who revived in our times the detestable sect of the Carpocratians, abolishing all difference between good and evil.’ He encountered a probably still more dangerous doctrine.

About that time a stranger, whose proceedings were rather mysterious, used to appear at rare intervals in the little circles of Paris. Many persons spoke highly of him. They said, he could not be reproached with any immoral tendencies, while his subtle understanding, his brilliant genius, his profound knowledge of natural science, and his fiery imagination, seemed as if they would make him one of the most surprising and influential leaders of the epoch. This was Michael Servetus, a man of the same age as Calvin. Born at Villenueva in Arragon, he had studied the law at Toulouse, and afterwards published a daring work entitled, On the Errors of the Trinity. He put himself forward as a teacher of truth and a thorough reformer. The great mysteries of faith were to give way to a certain pantheism, enveloped in mystical and Sabellian forms. It was not Romancatholicism alone which he desired to reform, but the evangelical reformation also, substituting for its scriptural and practical character a philosophic and rationalistic tendency.

In order to accomplish this transformation of protestantism, Servetus began by associating with the reformers of German Switzerland and of Germany. Ecolampadius, having examined him, declared that he could not count him a christian unless he acknowledged the Son as partaking through all eternity of the real Godhead of the Father. Melanchthon was alarmed at hearing his doctrines: ‘His imagination is confused,’ he said; ‘his ideas are obscure. He possesses many marks of a fanatical spirit. He raves on the subjects of Justification and the Trinity… O God! what tragedies this question will occasion among our posterity!’ We may easily understand the painful impression Servetus made on these two men, the most tolerant of the sixteenth century. He was, as we have said, a mystic rationalist; but rationalism and protestantism, which many persons confound together, are two opposite poles. Nothing excited the indignation of the reformers more than this pride of human reason which pretends unaided to explain God, and to accomplish without his help the moral renovation of man. The Spanish doctor, finding himself thus rejected by the German divines, quitted those parts sore vexed and exclaiming: ‘May the Lord confound all the tyrants of the Church! Amen.’ He went to Paris under the name of Michael de Villeneuve.

Servetus had an object in going to France. If he succeeded in planting his standard in that mighty country, near that university which had been for so many ages the queen of intelligence, his triumph (he thought) would be secure. He willingly left Germany to the Germans. That French nation which has the prerogative of universality, which succeeds in everything, which is so intelligent, so frank, so communicative, so practical and so active — he will select to be the organ of the second Reformation. Servetus thought the French reformers more daring than those of Saxony. He had heard of a young doctor of great ability, who desired to carry the reform farther than Luther, and he thought he had found his man. But he was mistaken; that man was far above his empty theories.

Calvin could not and would not have any other God than Him who gives us life, who has ransomed us, and who sanctifies us — the Father, God above us; the Son, God for us; the Holy Ghost, God in us. This threefold relation with God, which Scripture revealed to him and which entirely satisfied :his inward longings, forced him to recognize a difference in God; but on the other hand, unity being essential to the Deity, he was bound to maintain it at any cost, and he thus felt himself constrained to embrace the idea of a divine Trinity. Against this doctrine Servetus leveled his bitterest sarcasms. The Spaniard rejected what he denominated an ‘imaginary Trinity;’ he called those who believed in it ‘tritheists,’ or even atheists, and abused them in coarse language. ‘Jesus is man,’ he said; ‘the Godhead was communicated to Him by grace, but He is not God by nature. The Father alone is God in that sense.’ He invited Calvin to a conference; puffed up and charmed with his own system, he fancied himself certain to convince the reformer, and flattered himself with the hope of making him his fellow-laborer.

The task was not an easy one. The object of the Reformation was to raise a spiritual temple, wherein troubled souls might find a refuge; and Calvin saw rash hands presuming to make it a receptacle for every error, and, in his own energetic language, ‘a den for murdering souls.’ He stood forth, therefore, to maintain the apostolic doctrine, and contended that Christ, who called himself the only Son of God, was a son, not like believers, in consequence of adoption; not like the angels, because of their communion with the Lord; but in the proper sense: and that if the son of a man has the nature of a man like his father, Jesus, the only Son of God, has in like manner the nature of God.

It was a question that seriously occupied many minds at this period.

Servetus did not stand alone; other doctors, as Hetzer, Denek, Campanus, and Joris, had professed analogous errors. One universal cry was heard among the reformers when they saw Christ’s divinity attacked. Luther had declared that ‘this little spark would cause a great conflagration;’ Zwingle had demanded that ‘this false, wicked, and pernicious doctrine’ should be opposed by every means; and even the moderate Bucer, forgetting his christian gentleness, had gone so far as to declare from the pulpit that ‘a man like Servetus deserved to have his bowels plucked out and his body torn to pieces.’ Calvin resolved to accept Servetus’s invitation. These two young men, born in the same year, gifted each of them with marvelous genius, unshakeable in their convictions, are about to enter the lists. What blows they will deal each other! What a struggle!

Which will come off conqueror? If Luther, Zwingle, and Bucer are so animated, what will Calvin be? He was the one who showed the most moderate sentiments with rogard to Servetus. Alas! why did he not continue so to the last? ‘ I will do all in my power to cure Servetus,’ he said. ‘If I show myself in public, I know that I expose my life; but I will spare no pains to bring him to such sentiments, that all pious men may be able to take him affectionately by the hand.’ Justice requires that we should take account of these feelings of Calvin with regard to Servetus.

The discussion was therefore resolved upon, and a certain number of friends were invited to be present. The time and place were settled, and when the day arrived, Calvin quitted De la Forge’s house, and, proceeding down the Rue St. Martin to the Rue St. Antoine, found himself at the appointed hour at a house in this latter street, which had been selected for the colloquy. Servetus had not come, and Calvin waited for him; still the Spaniard did not appear, and the Frenchman was patient. What was the cause of his delay? Had Lieutenant-criminal Morin obtained information of the meeting, and was he preparing to catch the two young leaders by one cast of his net? After waiting for some time to no purpose, Calvin withdrew. Servetus, who lived as a catholic in the midst of catholics, and made no scruple of taking part in the worship of the Roman church, probably feared that a public discussion with Calvin would make him known, and expose him to serious danger. Servetus’s challenge was not however without consequences. He had called Calvin into the lists, he had made him the champion of the doctrine of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; the opportunity of answering this challenge occurred twenty years later at Geneva. If the struggle had then been confined to a learned discussion between these two great minds, it would hare been right enough; Servetus himself had challenged it. But the ideas of the times, from which Calvin (even while seeking a relaxation’ in the form)could not free himself, led to one of those distressing calamities, so frequent during a long series of ages in the annals of Rome, but of which God be thanked! there is only this one instance in those of the Reformation.

Calvin did not fight only with the tongue: he was then hurrying on the printing of his first theological work. It was the book written against those who said ‘that the soul was only the motion of the lungs, and that if it had been endowed with immortality at the creation, it had been deprived of it by the fall.’ ‘Let us put down those people,’ he said, ‘who murder souls without appearing to inflict any wounds:’ and with this view He had composed a work on the Immortality of the Soul, the title given it in a letter he wrote to Fabri. It is to be regretted that he afterwards substituted the rather awkward one of Psychopannychia, ‘the night or sleep of the soul;’ as the first indicates the subject more clearly. At the same time also he combated the opinion of those ‘good men,’ as he calls them, who believed that the soul slept until the judgment-day. The first edition of this work, which bears the date of Paris 1534, came out probably immediately after Calvin had left that city or shortly before his departure.

This work gave him a place apart in the ranks of the reformers. In this his earliest theological treatise he displayed the character that distinguished him, and which those who surrounded him had already been able to recognize in his conversations. His theology would not be negative, but on the contrary exceedingly positive. His first work does not combat the errors of Rome. He stands forth as the defender of the soul, the advocate of christian spiritualism. He will be, as a great historian has said, ‘the man called to build the Lord’s citadel, of which Luther had laid the foundation.’ The force of conviction, the weight of proof, the power with which he employed the Scriptures, the simplicity and clearness of style, struck every reader. We shall not speak here of Calvin as a writer: we have done so elsewhere. There might, however, be discerned in this work a defect of which Calvin never entirely cured himself: it contained energetic disdain and bitter invective. He saw this himself.; he did more, he moderated these expressions in a second edition. ‘I said certain things in it,’ he wrote, referring to the first, ‘with a bitterness and severity which may have offended certain delicate ears. I have therefore struck out some passages, added others, and changed many.’ This did not prevent his falling into the same fault again, which, it must be acknowledged, was that of the age.

In spite of his frequent discussions, Calvin was happy in the house of De la Forge. Accustomed to a frugal life, he was little affected by the abundance of all sorts of good things by which he was surrounded; but the piety of the family delighted him much. He loved to see the master distributing the Gospel, relieving the poor, and listening to the interpretation of God’s word, and took pleasure in his christian conversation. ‘Most assuredly,’ he said, ‘true happiness is not circumscribed within the narrow limits of this frail life, .and yet God promises also to believers a happy life, even in this pilgrimage and earthly dwelling-place, so far as the state of the world permits.’ But the happiness of this blessed household was not to be of long duration.

Lieutenant-criminal Morin was ere long to enter it, throw the wife into prison, lead the husband to the scaffold, and change the happiness of a peaceful christian family into sorrow, groans, and tears.

Would De la Forge be the only victim? Would the first blows be aimed at him? Would they not be aimed at Calvin, the author of that bold address which had thrown both city and university into confusion? Could the friend of Rector Cop long remain in the capital without once more exciting the attention of his enemies? A great persecution was about to burst forth, and if Calvin had been living in the Rue St. Martin at that time, he would doubtless have been seized along with the pious tradesman, burnt like the other martyrs, and the history of his life would have shrunk to a paragraph in the simple annals of Crespin’s Martyrs. But the Father in heaven did not permit that this sparrow should then fall to the ground. Calvin had powerful motives which urged him to leave France. His time in Paris was so taken up with visits, interviews, and other business, that he sank under the burden, without being able to discharge what he looked upon as his first duty. He was called to be a teacher rather than a mere preacher of the Gospel. To accomplish the great task he had set himself, he needed repose, leisure, and study, besides interviews and conferences with other theologians. He adopted a great resolution. ‘I shall leave France,’ he said, ‘and go to Germany in order to find in some obscure corner the quiet refused to me elsewhere.’ Du Tillet had determined to accompany him. The two friends made their preparations; they procured two horses and two servants; and one day towards the end of July Calvin bade farewell to the pious tradesman who had been as a brother to him. Their clothes were packed away in portmanteaus, in one of which they hid their money, and then they were fastened on the crupper; and so the travelers departed, the masters on horseback, the servants on foot. ‘On reaching the frontier,’ says a catholic historian, ‘Calvin could not restrain his emotion; he lifted up his voice in distress that France rejected the men whom God sent her, and even tried to murder them.’ This exclamation appears rather doubtful, and the historian who reports it is not always accurate. Still it is possible and not unnatural.

The travelers having entered Lorraine, stopped at Delme near Nancy, where they halted and walked about the town. During this time one of their servants, who knew where the money had been hidden, took advantage of their absence, placed the valise on the best of the two horses, and rode away as fast as he could. When Calvin and Du Tiller returned, they discovered the robbery. They wished to pursue the thief, but could not catch him. The two friends were greatly embarrassed, when the other servant approached and offered them ten crowns which he had with him. They accepted his offer and were able to reach Strasburg.

If Calvin had remained in his own country, he would never have been able to fulfill the career to which he was called; he had no other prospect but the stake. And yet, he will indeed be her reformer… True, he quitted her, but a divine hand fixed him as near as possible to that land of his affections and of his sorrows. From the picturesque valley, whence the Rhone continually pours its waves into France, God was about to scatter by Calvin’s means, throughout all the provinces of that great kingdom, the living waters of the Gospel of Christ.