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Title: History of the Reformation - Calvin at Strasburg, with Erasmus, and at Basle.
Author: John Calvin
Language: English

17 00005-0016 Calvin at Strasburg, with Erasmus, and at Basle
(Summer and Autumn, 1534.)

WHILE evangelical light seemed on the point of extinction in France, one of her sons was going to kindle a torch on the banks of the Rhine, and afterwards on those of the Rhone, which would spread its bright rays far and wide. Calvin had arrived at Strasburg. He who was to be the true doctor of the Reformation, its great captain, was then in search of knowledge and of arms in order to teach and to fight: this, as we have said, was the principal motive that induced him to leave France. Like all noble characters who have played an important part in history, Calvin felt his vocation. He wished to labor at the renewal of the Church; and in order to do this, he must interpret Holy Scripture, and explain the body of christian doctrine. Hitherto he had preached the Gospel like an ordinary believer; he had sown the Word in a few insulated fields — at Orleans, Bourges, Angouleme, Noyon, and Paris; now (without his being conscious of it) a wider sphere was opening before him; and he was going to learn the truth of Christ’s declaration: the field is the world. There was a void space in Christendom, and God called him to fill it. He was to create the new, the living theology of modern times. France, where scholasticism was the only theological science, did not suffice him; he was going towards Germany and Switzerland, where the love and study of holy learning had arisen with power. He saw from afar the lights that sparkled on the banks of the Rhine, and on the plains of Saxony; and, like a traveler who catches sight of a beacon in the midst of the darkness, he hurried towards the places whence those distant rays reached his eye. A child of light, he was seeking the light.

The free city of Strasburg possessed an intelligent middle-class and wise magistrates. The revival of learning had begun there in the fifteenth century; shortly after Luther had published his theses, at Wittemberg, the echo of the great reformer’s voice was heard in that city of the Rhine.

Elementary schools were immediately established; monks who had left their convents, and priests who were disenchanted from their ancient superstitions, aided by pious and devout artizans, undertook the education of the children. A Latin college was founded in 1524, where the canons of St. Thomas and other learned christians had begun a superior kind of instruction. The new life then spreading through the Church, circulated vigorously in Strasburg; it fermented in a more especial manner in Capito, Bucer, and Hedio. They conversed together, communicating to each other the faith by which they were animated: it was the spring sap pushing forth blossoms and giving promise of fruit. Capito eloquently expounded the books of the Old Testament; Bucer explained those of the New with much wisdom; Hedio taught history and theology; Caselius, Hebrew; and Herlin, the art of speaking. Professor John Sturm, then at Paris, and the friend of Melanchthon, was about to be put at the head of the educational work in his native city. There was a pious man at Strasburg, whose house was known to all christian travelers, and especially to the exiles. He was Matthew Zell, pastor of the church of St. Lawrence. When Calvin and Du Tillet arrived in the capital of Alsace, they were in great distress, having been robbed of their money as we have seen. In this imperial city with all its beautiful buildings, over which soars the magnificent cathedral, they knew not where to go. The name of Zell was familiar to Calvin, as well as his generous hospitality; he knocked at his door, we are told, and was cordially received. Calvin and Zell were very different characters; but they appreciated each other, and when the reformer was settled at Geneva, he did not neglect to salute Zell in his letters to Bucer. Zell was a man of practical and conciliatory spirit, and did not trouble himself much with theological discussions; he cared only for his dear parishioners, and was very popular. Bucer thought even too much so. ‘Matthew alone has the people with him,’ he said. To this day his name is mentioned with affection in Alsace.

As early as 1521 he preached the Gospel at Strasburg, and with such unction and zeal, that an immense crowd surrounded his pulpit. Being a man of generous disposition, he boldly defended those who were called heretics: ‘Do you know why they are attacked?’ he said, ‘because their enemies are afraid that the indulgences and purgatory which they condemn will bring them in no more money.’ Prosecuted by his bishop in 1523, he defended himself with spirit, and escaped with losing his post of confessor to the prelate.

Calvin and Du Tillet soon noticed his partner, Catherine Schulz, daughter of a carpenter in the city, a clever, intelligent, active, firm woman, who had managed to obtain the ascendant over every one, and a little too much so over her husband. The young reformer saw in her one of the types of the christian woman, who cumbereth herself, who receiveth the prophets honorably, but who, while doing good, sometimes values herself more highly than she does others. Catherine’s soul was troubled for a long time; she doubted of her salvation. At last the voice of Luther reached her, and brought her peace. ‘He persuades me so thoroughly of the ineffable goodness of Jesus Christ,’ she exclaimed, ‘that I feel as if I were dragged from the depths of hell, and transported into the kingdom of heavens, Day and night I will now tread the path of truth.’ From that hour Catherine resolutely dedicated herself to the practice of good works. The pastor of St. Lawrence often had a large number of persecuted christians seated round his table, and kept them in his house for many weeks. One night he received 150 pious men from a little town of Brisgau, who, having left their homes in the middle of the night, had arrived in great distress at Strasburg. Catherine found means to lodge fourscore of them in the parsonage, and for a month had fifty or sixty of them daily at her table. Even when her house was full, she displayed the most unceasing activity abroad. Caring neither for dress nor worldly recreations, the pastor’s wife visited the houses of the poor, nursed the sick, wrapped the dead in their grave-clothes, comforted the prisoners, and organized collections in favor of the refugees. She was never weary in welldoing.

In the midst of her zeal, however, she took too much credit to herself. One day, recounting her merits, she said: ‘I have conscientiously assisted my beloved Matthew in his ministry and in the management of his house. I have loved the company of the learned. I have embraced the interests of the Lord’s Church. Hence all the pastors and a great number of distinguished men testify their affection and respect for reef Catherine did not, know all that these ‘distinguished men’ thought of her; the color would have mounted to her cheeks could she have seen a certain letter from Bucer to Blaurer, of the 16th November 1533, in which that celebrated Strasburg doctor complains of Zell’s wife, ‘who is so over head and ears in love with herself;’ or if that letter of the 3rd of February had been brought to her, in which her husband’s friend wrote of her: ‘Catherine, like all of us, is too fond of herself.’ At the time of Calvin’s arrival in Strasburg, Bucer was much tormented by Catherine’s spirit of domination; per, haps he should have understood that her defects were but the exaggeration of her good qualities. He complained of her influence over her husband: ‘Matthew Zell is certainly pious,’ he said, ‘but… he is ruled by his wife.’ Another time he said: ‘He ought to preach faith more fully, more earnestly, but... his wife drives him to care for nothing but works.’ The zealous Bucer, who was so often journeying to reconcile Christians and Churches, could not endure that Zell should think only of his parish, should see nothing but his dear Strasburg, and ascribed even that to Catherine. ‘Oh,’ said he, ‘if Matthew were but more zealous for the unity of the Church!’ And yet Bucer esteemed him highly, and called him ‘a God-seeking man, and of upright heart.’ Zell and Catherine were in those Reformation times a Christian pair, worthy to figure in history, notwithstanding their failings. Perhaps, however, Calvin recollected Catherine’s character when he reckoned patience and gentleness among the foremost qualities he should look for in a wife. Calvin already knew by reputation the eminent men who were living in Strasburg. He was never tired of seeing and hearing them, both at their own houses and at Matthew Zell’s. He admired in Bucer, with whom he had corresponded, and whom he afterwards called his father, a noble heart, a peaceful spirit, a penetrating mind, and an untiring activity. Capito was not less attractive to him. Calvin knew that, disgusted with the intrigues of the court, he had left the elector of Mentz, and in 1532 had gone to Strasburg in search of evangelical liberty, and from that hour had watched with interest the movements of the Gospel in France. He was, therefore, impatient to see a man who, by the extent of his learning and the nobility of his character, held the first rank in the learned city where he resided; and fortunately Capito, who went to Wisbaden towards the end of August 1534, was still at Strasburg when the reformer passed through it. All these doctors joyfully saw France bringing her tribute at last to the work of christian instruction. They were struck with Calvin’s seriousness, with the greatness of his character, the depth of his thoughts, and the liveliness of his faith; and the young doctor, for his part, drank in with delight that perfume of learning and piety, which exhaled from the conversation and life of these men of God.

One thing, however, checked him: in his opinion the Strasburg reformers observed too strict a middle path, and sometimes sacrificed truth to prudence. Calvin was troubled at this; by not breaking completely with Rome, were they not preparing the way to return to it? He was all the more alarmed, as the young canon of Angouleme had a great inclination for this middle way. Calvin, who would have desired to put Du Tillet in connection with decided reformers, saw the three doctors of Strasburg, and especially Bucer, holding out their hands to Melanchthon to reunite popery and the Reformation. Could he have led him into a snare?… ‘I find learning and piety in Bucer and Capito,’ he said one day, ‘but they force me to desire in them firmness and constancy. We must be liberal, no doubt, but not so as to spend the wealth of another. And what precautions ought we not to take, when it is a question of spending God’s truth?… He did not give it us that we should contract it in any way.’ True, these words are found in a document of later date; but already the wavering Du Tillet was approaching the gulf into which he was to fall.

Calvin made up for his disappointments by devoting himself lovingly to the French refugees at Strasburg. He consoled them, succored them, and gave them very trusty counsel. To strengthen his exiled fellowcountrymen was the work of his whole life. ‘We must be strangers in this world,’ he said, ‘even if we do not quit the nest. But blessed are those who, rather than fall away from the faith, freely forsake their homes, and leave their earthly comforts to dwell with Christ.’ Calvin did not remain long at Strasburg. Did he fear the influence of that city upon his friend? or did he find too many occupations and disturbances which prevented his giving all his time to the work to which he wished to dedicate himself? I think so, but there was something else. He understood that instead of receiving knowledge from the hand of others, he must personally work the mine of Scripture and dig up the precious gems that it contained. He wished, like the bee, to extract a store of the purest honey from the abundance of the flowers of the divine Word. He had had enough of traveling, of disagreements, of struggles, and of persecution... his soul longed for solitude and quiet study. ‘O God,’ said he, ‘hide me in some obscure corner, where I may at last enjoy the repose so long denied me.’ Calvin departed for Basle.

Erasmus, as we know, had long resided in that city. Calvin desired to see him. He was beyond all doubt much more a man of compromises than Bucer; and from timidity, rather than principle, he inclined to the side of the papacy. He was, however, a great scholar; had he not published the New Testament in Greek? Having left Basle, at the moment of the triumph of the Reformation there, he happened just at this time to be at Friburg in Brisgau, on the road from Strasburg to Switzerland. Could Calvin pass so near the town where he lived who had ‘laid the egg’ of the Reformation, and not try to see him? A writer of the sixteenth century has given an account of the interview between the two men who — one in the department of letters, the other in that of faith — were the greatest personages of the day.

Bucer desired to accompany Calvin and introduce him to Erasmus. The precaution was almost necessary: the old doctor was ratting, wishing to die in peace with Rome. Paul III. had hardly been proclaimed pope, when he who had had kindled the fire offered his good services to him, in order to maintain the faith and restore peace to the Church. His letter quite charmed the crafty pontiff, ‘I know,’ Paul answered, ‘how useful your excellent learning, combined with your admirable eloquence, may be to me in rescuing many minds from these new errors.’ The pope even had some idea of sending Erasmus a cardinal’s hat.

Calvin had not chosen his time well, yet Erasmus received him, though not without some little embarrassment. The young reformer, impatient to hear the oracle of the age, began to ask him numerous questions on difficult points. Erasmus, fearing to commit himself, was reserved, and gave only vague answers. His interlocutor was not discouraged. Had not the scholar of Rotterdam said that the only remedy for the evils of the Church was the intervention of Christ himself? That was precisely Calvin’s idea, and therefore following it up, he explained his convictions with considerable energy. Erasmus listened with astonishment, he perceived at last that the young man would not only go farther than himself but even than Luther, and would wage a merciless war against all human traditions.

The scholar to whom the pope had offered the Roman purple became alarmed; he looked at Calvin with astonishment, put an end to the conversation, and approaching Bucer, whispered in his ear: Video magnam pestem oriri in Ecclesia contra Ecclesiam. Erasmus broke with the French reformer as he had broken with the German reformer. The two visitors withdrew. We believe the account of this interview to be authentic, in opposition to Bayle who carries his skeptical spirit everywhere. Calvin might have been proud of this opinion of Erasmus. His censure might appear to him praise, and his praise censure, as the poet says. Luther had said: ‘O pope, I will be thy pestilence and death!’

Calvin and Du Tillet arrived at Basle.

That city possessed a university with distinguished scholars, good theologians, and celebrated printers; but Calvin did not knock at any of their doors. In a bye-street there lived one Catherine Klein, a pious woman, who took delight in serving God, and loved to wash the feet of the saints, as the Gospel says. It was her house the young doctor sought.

Coming to the banks of the Rhine, the two friends crossed the famous bridge which unites Little Basle to the old City, and knocked at this pious woman’s door. Here Calvin found ‘the obscure corner’ he had so longed for. Catherine received him with frankness and soon learnt the worth of the man she had in her house. She was not one of those women who from vanity ‘toy and coquet,’ to use Calvin’s own words; but of those who having the fear of God before their eyes, are honest and chaste in their appearance. Distinguished by her virtues and piety, she loved to listen to Calvin, and never grew weary of admiring the beauty of his genius, the holiness of his life, the integrity of his doctrines, and the zeal with which he applied, day and night, to study Calvin seemed like a lighted candle in her house; and thirty years later, receiving as a lodger a man who was to be one of the victims of the St. Bartholomew — Peter Ramus — this estimable woman took pleasure in describing to him the reformer’s mode of life. The illustrious philosopher, uniting his voice with that of the aged Catherine, and standing in the very chamber that Calvin had occupied, apostrophized the reformer, as ‘the light of France, the light of the Christian Church all over the world.’ In the early part of his stay at Basil, Calvin appears to have seen nobody but his hostess and his inseparable friend Louis du Tillet. He avoided all acquaintanceships that might have led to his being recognized, and he went out but seldom. Sometimes, however, he and his friend would climb the hills which rise above the Rhine, and contemplate the magnificence of that calm and mighty river, whose waters are ever flowing onwards, with nothing to interrupt their majestic course. Labitur et labetur in omne volubilis oevum. It was not fear of persecution that led Calvin to hide himself; he was in a free city. But he had need to put himself out of the reach of the strange winds of doctrine that were then rushing over the world, and of all the sensations of one of the most troubled periods of history. He wished to withdraw himself from earthly noises, and hear only the voice of God and the music of heaven. Rapid emotions, now sorrowful, now joyful, continually repeated, as he had so often felt in Paris, neutralized each other and left nothing in his heart. He wished to fix his looks on high, and give the thoughts which descended to him from heaven the time to lay firm hold upon his mind, and become transformed into a strong and unchangeable affection, which would become the soul of his whole life. He had already learnt much; but it was not sufficient for him to learn, he must create: that was the vocation he had received from his Master, and to that end he must concentrate all the strength of his intelligence and of his heart.

When God desires to form the ripe ear of corn, he proceeds slowly and silently, but powerfully. The little seed is hardly thrown into the ground when the manifold forces of different agents combine to fecundate the germ. During the coolness of the night or the heat of the day, the earth imparts her juices, the rain enriches it, and the sun warms it... Such was the inner process then going on in the reformer. Divine and human forces were combining to bring to maturity all the germs of beauty and strength that God had deposited in his heart, will, and understanding, and to render his genius capable of undertaking and accomplishing a great work in the world. Calvin felt that he needed silence and concentration. Destined to become one of God’s mightiest instruments for his age and all ages to come, it was necessary for him to live alone with God, that he should have God in him, and that the divine warmth should so melt and purify all his natural energies, as to fit him for the accomplishment of his immense task. ‘Ah!’ said he without thinking of himself, ‘God wishing to publish his law by Moses, led him to Sinai and took him into his heavenly closet.’ Many of God’s ministers have, after Moses, been thus prepared for the work of their office. Luther had been carried away to the Wartburg: Basle was Calvin’s Wartburg, still more than Angouleme.

He had, however, one acquaintance, or rather an intimate friend in that city. This was Nicholas Cop, ex-rector of the university of Paris, and now a refugee at Basle. How could Calvin, who had been the innocent cause of his exile, remain long within the same walls without seeing him? While preserving his incognito with respect to the public, he called upon his dear fellow-soldier, and the latter saw that pale familiar face enter his room.

The friends now visited each other and conversed together; but mystery for some time longer shrouded the person of the young reformer. One day, however, Calvin spoke to Cop of an eminent man then in Basle. This was Simon Grynaeus, Melanchthon’s schoolfellow, who in 1529 had escaped with difficulty from the violent attacks of the papists of Spire, and had been invited to Basle to take Erasmus’s place. ‘Well versed in Latin, Greek, philosophy, and mathematics,’ said Melanchthon, ‘he possessed a mildness of temper that was never put out, and an almost excessive bashfulness.’ And yet he has been compared ‘to the splendor of the sun that overpowers the light of the stars.’ Calvin knew Grynaeus by repute; he met him, and was captivated by his amiable and gentle disposition. Grynaeus, on his side, loved Calvin, and the two scholars often shut themselves up together in their room. ‘I remember well,’ wrote Calvin to Grynaeus in after years, ‘how we used to talk in private on the best mode of interpreting Scripture.’ — ‘The chief merit in an interpreter,’ said the Basle professor, ‘is an easy brevity without obscurity.’ It is the rule Calvin followed. At this time, under the direction of Grynaeus, he studied Hebrew literature more thoroughly. Calvin’s residence at Basle soon became known, even to strangers, and the unseasonable visits which interfered with his studies and which he so much dreaded began again. One day a total stranger called upon him. He came (he said) on the part of one Christopher Libertet, surnamed Fabri, a student of Montpelier, who had quitted medicine for the ministry, and whom we shall meet again in Switzerland as Farel’s fellow-laborer. ‘Fabri has desired me to inform you,’ said the unknown, ‘that he does not entirely approve of certain passages in your book on the Immortality of the Soul.’ This message from a student, delivered by a stranger, might have offended Calvin. His work was a great success. The power of conviction stamped on it, the weight of the proofs, the force of the arguments drawn from Scripture, its lucidity of style, its richness of thought, the glow of light that shone round every word of the author — all these things subjugated its readers. But the enthusiasm of some of his friends did not blind the author to the imperfections of his work. With touching humility he answered Fabri, who had not long left school: ‘Far from being displeased at your opinion, your simplicity and candor have delighted me much. My temper is not so crabbed as to refuse to others the liberty I enjoy myself. You must know, then, that I have almost entirely rewritten my book.’ This letter is signed Martinus Lucianus, the name probably that Calvin went by at Basle. The date, Basle, 11th September (the contents show that the year must be 1534), is an important mark in the reformer’s life.

Visits were not the only troubles that disturbed Calvin’s solitude. His incognito had hardly ceased before he was attacked by anxieties from every quarter. The discords which broke out in France and Switzerland filled him with sorrow. ‘I exhort you with all my soul, you and the brethren, to keep the peace,’ he wrote to Fabri. ‘In order to maintain it, let us make all the greater efforts, the more Satan endeavors to destroy it. I have been filled with indignation at hearing of the new troubles stirred up by a man from whom I should have suspected nothing of the sort. He has vomited the poison with which he was swollen during a long period of dissimulation; and after darting his sting, he has run await like a viper.’

Was this man Caroli? — I can not say.

In his retirement on the Wartburg, Luther had translated the New Testament. Calvin engaged in a similar task at Basle. On March 27th, 1534, a translation was published by Pierre de Wingle at Neuchatel: it was a small folio, printed in double columns, and was from the pen of Lefevre of Etaples, but had undergone a revision with regard to certain expressions which still retained a Romish coloring. It would appear that this edition was suppressed, either because it had been made without resorting to the original texts, or because Wingle himself was dissatisfied with it. He was soon to publish a more perfect version, in which Calvin assisted while at Basle. We shall have occasion to speak of this in connection with Calvin’s cousin, Olivetan, the principal translator. Another work — which was to be the great work of his life — soon occupied the young reformer.