d’Étaples: Pioneer of French Reform
Rev. Angus Stewart
As his name indicates
Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (c. 1455-1536) was a Frenchman
from Étaples, a coastal town south of Calais, in Picardy.
His surname is sometimes given as Fabry or Fabri, and he is
also known by the Latin form of his name: Jacobus Faber
Stapulensis, often simply going by Faber. Although this
sounds complicated, it is worth bearing in mind if you look
him up on-line or in books and articles dealing with the
Reformation, and the men and ideas that prepared the way for
Unlike the two greatest
pre-Reformers, the English theologian, John Wycliff, and the
Czech martyr, Jan Hus, Jacques Lefèvre lived to see the
sixteenth-century Reformation. However, unlike the
Waldensians and the Hussites, the followers of Hus, Lefèvre
did not join the Reformation. Indeed, he died in the Roman
Catholic Church in France. This makes him somewhat harder
for us to categorize and understand.
A fundamental difficulty
for English-speakers is that the primary sources, Lefèvre's
own writings, are in Latin and French, and have not been
translated into our native tongue. Moreover, much of the
secondary literature is not in English either.
A second issue is the
different modern evaluations of the French scholar. Writing
in 1892, in his eight-volume History of the Christian
Church, Philip Schaff
[The Reformer, William
Farel's] principal teacher [at the University of Paris],
Jacques Le Fèvre d’Étaples (Faber Stapulensis, 1455-1536),
the pioneer of the Reformation in France and translator of
the Scriptures, introduced him into the knowledge of Paul's
Epistles and the doctrine of justification by faith, and
prophetically told him, already in 1512: “My son, God will
renew the world, and you will witness it” … The influence of
Le Fèvre and the study of the Bible brought him [i.e.,
Farel] gradually to the conviction that salvation can be
found only in Christ, that the word of God is the only rule
of faith, and that the Roman traditions and rites are
inventions of man.
In 1878, a few years before
Schaff, J. A. Wylie, in his History of
Lefèvre “the first Protestant teacher in France.”
In the next year, after an introductory chapter on France in
the late Middle Ages, Henry M. Baird began his
History of the Rise of the Huguenots
with a chapter mostly on Lefèvre, “the Picard doctor,” who
like “a new sun” came from the coast “to dissipate the fogs
and darkness investing his native land and pour upon its
youth the full beams of a purer teaching.”
This view of Lefèvre as
a precursor or pioneer of the Reformation espoused by these
three late nineteenth-century histories of Christianity,
Protestantism and the French Reformed, respectively, is
representative of historic Protestant evaluations. Yet, in
recent decades, the Picard scholar's Reformed teaching and
influence has been downplayed by some in the Protestant
tradition. Likewise, as Romanism becomes more ecumenical,
Roman Catholic authorities speak less of what they used to
refer to as his “heresies.” Instead, they tone down his
doctrines and applaud his efforts towards “renewal” within
However, the fullest
portrait in English, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes' highly
readable, 224-page, 1984 work Lefèvre: Pioneer of
Ecclesiastical Renewal in France,
bucks the recent trend.
Hughes traces the intellectual and spiritual development of
this many-sided priest, university lecturer and author from
his earlier studies in philosophy and mysticism (pp. 1-51)
to his later work as a Bible translator, Scripture
commentator and reforming theologian (pp. 53-197).
Both in the eyes of
others and himself, 1509 marked a turning point in Lefèvre's career, for that
year saw the publication of his Fivefold Psalter
and marked the beginning of his major biblical and
theological studies (pp. xiii, 53-54).
This work contained five different Latin versions of the
Psalms in separate columns, with the last being Lefèvre's
own revision of the Vulgate by comparing it with the Hebrew
original. Since the Vulgate was sacrosanct in Roman Catholic
eyes and would even be decreed as the “authentic” Bible text
by the Council of Trent (1543-1565) (p. 73), this was a
risky venture (pp. 71-73, 104-110, 117-118, 158).
Lefèvre speaks of his
fresh, personal experience of tasting the “sacred
utterances” from “the mouth of God” as “the true food of the
soul.” The inspired Word, he declares, is “majestic” and
“wonderful” in its “light” and “sweetness” (p. 54).
His skills in
introducing, translating, paraphrasing and commenting on
philosophical, ethical, mathematical, musical, mystical,
religious and historical texts, both relatively recent and
(especially) ancient, allied with his new-found love and
reverence for Holy Scripture, led him to disregard the
long-received fourfold method of interpreting the Bible as
artificial and stale.
Gone were the allegorical, tropological and anagogical
understandings of scholastic traditionalism. The literal
meaning was now primary and it was understood in the light
of “the harmony of the Scriptures” (p. 56) with Jesus Christ
being the focus of God's Word (pp. 58-59).
studies in the Scriptures led him to publish in 1518 a work
contradicting the then popular idea that Mary Magdalene, out
of whom Christ cast seven demons (Luke 8:2), was the same
person as the Mary of Bethany, Lazarus' sister, in John 11,
and the woman who wiped Christ's feet with her hair (Luke
7:36-50) (pp. 118-119). A few months later, he opposed the
tradition that St. Anne (the alleged mother of the virgin
Mary) “had had three children in succession, one from each
husband, each of them called Mary” (p. 120). A great
controversy ensued over these works (pp. 121-128), as
Lefèvre endeavoured, as Hughes puts it, “to give first place
to the gospel, for the Word and the Spirit of God came
before the word and opinions of men” (p. 122; cf. p. 139).
Even though Lefèvre held
to Mary's perpetual virginity and immaculate conception, and
even that of her supposed mother Anne (pp. 121, 128), he
came to reject prayers to the mother of our Lord (p. 128)
or, indeed, to any of the saints (pp. 96, 127, 165). Hughes
states, “In 1523 Lefèvre had rejected the cult of the saints
but not yet the belief in purgatory; by 1525, however, he
had turned away from the doctrine of purgatory,” for it too
was unscriptural (p. 137; cf. pp. 82-84).
Included in his
confession of sola Scriptura, the truth that the
Bible alone is the supreme authority over all human beings,
ecclesiastical writings and church councils (Belgic
Confession 7), is Lefèvre's conviction of the
sufficiency of Scripture: “The word of God is sufficient;
this alone is enough for the discovery of the life which
knows no end; this rule alone is the guide to eternal life;
all else on which the word of God does not shine is as
unnecessary as it is superfluous” (p. 155).
Listen to the French
scholar's exhortation: “Know that men and their doctrines
are worth nothing, unless they be confirmed and supported by
the Word of God. And Jesus Christ is everything; He is
wholly human and wholly divine; and no man is worth anything
without Him; and no word of man has any value, except in His
Thus Lefèvre warns
against trusting in Lenten fasts, paying church dues and
monkish cowls: “Such things are not commanded by Christ's
teaching, which teaches that we should give heed for our
salvation to the grace and mercy of God, and not to many
other things which may be more superstitious than religious”
In keeping with his
strong and growing conviction of the supremacy of God's
Word, Lefèvre laboured at commentating on the New Testament
in Latin, publishing works on the Pauline Epistles (1512),
the four gospels (1522) and the catholic epistles (1527).
Since he desired the
common man to have access to the Word of God, the Picard
scholar translated into French the four gospels (1523), the
rest of the New Testament (1523) and the Psalms (1524). The
remainder of the Old Testament was included in Lefèvre's
1530 French version of the whole Bible.
Along with the
Scriptures in their native tongue, Lefèvre and his
colleagues realized that the Word must also be preached in
French. To this end, they published The Epistles and
Gospels for the Fifty-Two Sundays of the Year in 1525.
This was designed for regular use in the parish ministry in
the diocese of Meaux, twenty miles east of Paris, where
Lefèvre and his disciples were engaging in reformatory
labours. These homilies and exhortations, explains Hughes,
were “brief, simple, practical, and evangelical in tone” (p.
This was Lefèvre's goal:
Who, then, is the person
who will not reckon it a thing right and consistent with
salvation to have this New Testament in the language of the
people? What is more necessary for life—not the life of this
world, but the life everlasting? … It is, indeed, essential
to have it, to read it, to treat it with reverence, to have
it in one's heart, and to hear it, not just once, but
regularly in the assemblies of Jesus Christ, which are the
churches where all the people, both simple and learned,
should gather to hear and honor the holy word of God (p.
In his doctrine and
experience of sola Scriptura, his hermeneutics, his
labours as a Bible commentator and translator, and his
promotion of expository preaching through producing a
postil, there is considerable similarity with the Protestant
Reformers, especially Martin Luther.
Flowing from his
confession of the truth of Scripture alone, the French
theologian confessed salvation and justification by faith
alone in Christ alone through grace alone to the glory of
God alone—the remaining four “solas” or “onlys” of the
Reformation. But before we come to these four “alones,” we
must first examine Lefèvre's teaching on justification.
In his commentary on
Romans 3:19-20, Lefèvre summarizes the gospel truths of sin
Let every mouth be
stopped; let neither Jew nor Gentile boast that he has been
justified by himself or by his own works. For none are
justified by the works of the law, neither the Gentiles by
the implanted law of nature nor the Jews by the works of the
written law; but both Gentiles and Jews are justified by the
grace and mercy of God …. Since all, whether Jews or
Gentiles, are found guilty in their works before God, no
flesh will be justified in his sight by the works of the law
…. for it is God alone who provides this righteousness
through faith and who justifies by grace alone [sola
gratia] unto life eternal (p. 74).
Lefèvre is very clear
that we cannot “earn” or “merit” with God so as to make Him
our “debtor” who must “pay” us “wages” as something “owed”
to us (pp. 78-79, 85; cf. p. 96). Moreover, the works he
excludes from justification, both above and in the other
sources I have consulted, appear to be works respecting
God's moral law and not merely the Old Testament ceremonial
law, which is the heretical gloss of the Church of Rome.
The penitent thief, writes
Lefèvre, “was justified by faith alone [sola fide]”
(p. 75). But what does he mean by justification or
justifying righteousness? The French theologian helpfully
distinguishes between two types of righteousness: “The
former righteousness is called the righteousness of the law,
the latter the righteousness of faith; the former is of
works, the latter of grace; the former is human, the latter
divine; of the former man is the author, of the latter God”
In expounding I John 1:8-9,
a passage which itself does not use the term, Lefèvre speaks
of the non-imputation of transgressions (“by the grace of
God our sins are not imputed to us”) and our justification
in Christ (“when we are justified we look not to ourselves
but to Christ and his grace”) (pp. 80, 81) but it is highly
doubtful if he grasped or stated the Reformation truth that
justification is purely legal or forensic.
A related question is
whether Lefèvre identified justifying righteousness or “the
righteousness of God,” a key Pauline phrase (Rom. 1:17;
3:21-22; 10:3; II Cor. 5:21), as consisting in the obedience
of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for us. For various
reasons, especially because such a massive theological
breakthrough could hardly have gone unnoticed, it would
appear that the answer is no.
Yet this much is certain: the French scholar clearly
confessed that the “righteousness by which we are saved” is
to be attributed “solely to God's grace [soli
gratiae Dei]” (p. 85).
Probably Rome's number 1
argument against gracious justification by faith alone is
its misinterpretation of the second half of James 2. But the
Picard theologian gives the correct and Protestant
Formerly there were two
sects: the one consisted of those who trusted in works as,
in their judgment, sufficing for justification [i.e., the
Judaizers, with Rome holding a form of this heresy]; the
other consisted of those who trusted in faith, without
having any concern for works [i.e., the antinomians]. The
latter the Apostle James refutes, the former the Apostle
Paul. And you (if you have spiritual understanding) trust
neither in faith nor in works, but in God, and, following
Paul, attribute to faith the first place in obtaining
salvation from God, and then, following James, add the works
of faith, for they are the sign of a living and fruitful
faith. But the absence of works is the sign of a useless and
dead faith (p. 77; cf. p. 78).
Though the French
theologian did not come as far regarding the truth of
justification and its crucial significance as did Martin
Luther (1483-1546), nor did he state it as boldly and
forcefully, he definitely made major advances and, on the
basis of Rome's false gospel of justification by faith and
works, the Sorbonne necessarily identified Lefèvre's
teaching as “heretical” (p. 164).
antithetically that it is by “faith” in “Christ alone,” the
“sole Lord,” and by His “grace,” not “through his works or
through any creature,” that man is saved:
Whoever looks for true
salvation through his works or through any creature
otherwise than through Jesus Christ alone is saying, “Jesus
is anathema,” which is to call him accursed, and does not
have the Holy Spirit. For the Spirit gives a man a living
and sure knowledge through faith that Jesus Christ is his
sole Lord, and that man gratefully acknowledges that it is
through his grace that he has everything he has in this
world and everything he will have in the world to come (pp.
This last sentence
contradicts Rome's view of the nature of faith and
assurance, and agrees with our Heidelberg
Catechism which teaches
that “true faith” is a “certain knowledge” and an “assured
confidence” of personal salvation, “which the Holy Ghost
works by the gospel in my heart” (A. 21).
Philip Hughes summarizes
the French theologian's fine teaching on assurance by
quoting from his own words:
“the forgiveness of our
sins, our adoption as children of God, the assurance and
certainty of life eternal, proceed solely from the goodness
of God” through faith in “our blessed Saviour and Redeemer
Jesus,” and [so] thanks to God's love “we have complete
confidence in him and the certainty of the forgiveness of
our sins and of eternal life, and we have no fear of the day
of judgment or of being condemned for our sins” (pp.
Since we are “saved” and
“justified” by “faith” through “grace alone,” with both
“grace” and “faith” being “God's gift” to us, all “glory”
belongs to “God's grace and mercy alone” and not to
“ourselves” or our “works.” Thus Lefèvre comments on
Christ truly forgives our
sins, setting us free from them in this life's pilgrimage ….
But he who trusts in works trusts in himself and leans on a
cane which breaks of itself …. By grace alone [per
solam gratiam] can we
be saved …. For we are saved by his grace through
faith—saved not because of ourselves, but by God's grace.
For grace is a gift, not a work. And lest we should think
that the faith by means of which we are justified is ours,
even this is God's gift. Therefore we should attribute
everything to God and nothing to ourselves, and so we should
glory neither in ourselves nor in works, but in God's grace
and mercy alone (p. 85).
One would like to know
if Lefèvre rooted our salvation by grace alone to God's
glory alone in His sovereign election but neither Philip
Hughes nor any other secondary sources available to me
addresses this. The French scholar's commentary on Paul's
epistles, especially Romans 8, 9 and 11, and Ephesians 1,
would be the key resource in this regard.
All “glory” is due to
“God alone” for on Christ “alone” was laid “the iniquity of
us all” and so “righteousness and justification” are “of
faith and grace” and not from one's “own works,” as we hear
Lefèvre teaching the gospel of “pardon” and “peace”:
For he is our peace, so
that when we have faith that we are redeemed through his
blood he manifests his righteousness, the righteousness
namely, of faith and grace, by forgiving us our sins which
we committed before we came to faith. Indeed, if we who have
faith fall into serious error, our sins are not forgiven
except through that propitiation set before God and
interceding on our behalf by the blood of redemption, which
was shed in the great sacrifice on the wooden altar. All
these things are given to us freely: it was he alone who
trod the winepress. And thus Isaiah says: “He bore our
griefs and he carried our sorrows; the Lord laid on him the
iniquity of us all; the chastisement of our peace was upon
him; and by his bruising we have been healed” [Isa. 53:4-5].
And who is the sinner that, turning to the contemplation and
heartfelt invocation of such great goodness of God, does
not, with so great a Mediator, find pardon? And when the
Apostle speaks of God as justifying him who has faith in
Jesus he shows that this righteousness and justification are
from God and not from men. Therefore no one should glory in
himself and in his own works as though he could be saved by
them; for there is no cause of glory save in God alone, in
the wounds of Christ, and in his blood (p. 76).
The Picard scholar is
very explicit regarding the pardon of all our sins both
before and after “we come to faith” (p. 76): “all the sins
of all who have faith, past, present, and future, have been
forgiven, because by this sacrifice [of Christ] the Father
of mercies has forgiven all believers their sins” (p. 81;
cf. p. 82).
The French theologian
draws out the implications of this for Rome's sacrament of
Those persons, then, who
believe and trust in their own sufferings, which they call
penances, neither believe nor trust that their sins
are forgiven by the one sole true sacrifice, which alone is
acceptable to God; and they make their own penitence in
their own estimation superior to and more powerful than the
Son of God and his passion, which is irrational and stupid;
nor do they understand what it is for repentance to be
preached in his name for the remission of sins [Luke 24:47].
Therefore when we call to repentance it is only to this
faith that we call …. His cross is powerful to save; yours
is powerless (p. 81; italics mine).
Thus Hughes states that, as
Lefèvre grew in his understanding of biblical gospel, he
“decisively rejected any notion that the performance of
penances possessed meritorious efficacy for the canceling or
expiation of sins committed by baptized persons” (p. 82).
Lefèvre also teaches
that the good works performed by God's people are wholly of
divine grace (Phil. 2:13) and that true believers “persevere
to the end” (Phil. 1:6; cf. Canons of Dordt V):
The apostle teaches us that
we must look to God for the accomplishment of every good
work that has been started, saying that it is for him to
complete the work he has started …. Accordingly, we can
readily understand that of himself man can do no good thing,
and that all who boast of their ability are in error and
blaspheme against God when they attribute to themselves what
belongs properly to God, from whom comes our ability to do
any good thing …. The apostle was quite right to be
confident concerning the Philippians that God would grant
them this grace to enable them to persevere to the end ….
Here, then, St. Paul causes us to understand how good work
in its entirety, from beginning to end, should be attributed
to God (p. 86; cf. p. 192).
The Picard theologian's
statement that “of himself man can do no good thing” (John
15:5; Rom. 3:12) (p. 86), along with his earlier assertion
that “faith” is “God's gift” (p. 84), his teaching that
“everything which is not of faith is sin [Rom. 14:23]” (p.
78) and his repeated references to man's blindness (e.g., p.
158), point to a strong doctrine of total depravity. He even
declares that “works which do not spring from faith, even
those performed through love, human love however—the works,
according to the philosophers, of moral virtues—even though
they seem to be good, are really not good” (p. 78; cf.
Westminster Confession 16:7). One would have liked to
know Lefèvre's thoughts on the great Reformation battle
between Erasmus' book advocating free will (1524) and
Luther's response in The Bondage of the Will (1525).
It is evident from
Lefèvre's teaching on justification, the five “solas” of the
Reformation and many other doctrinal and practical issues
raised so far in this article that his views had
wide-ranging implications concerning the church and its need
of reform. Though we could hardly expect him to have held
the later, developed Reformed ecclesiology of, say, book 4
of Calvin's Institutes or Belgic Confession
27-35, Hughes' summary of his thought does indicate positive
developments away from Rome and towards a Protestant
doctrine of the church.
First, what is the rock
or basis or foundation on which God builds His church? Rome
claims that Matthew 16:18 identifies the rock as Peter but
Lefèvre states that is was Peter's confession of Jesus as
the promised Messiah and the Son of the living God (p. 93).
Second, who holds the
keys of the kingdom which determine who is in or out of
God's church (Matt. 16:19)? Rome boasts that they were given
to Peter and in him to the papacy (pp. 93-94). But instead
of “the pontifical power of binding and loosing,” Lefèvre
the keys of faith, and
the authority they convey is essentially the authority of
the doctrine learned form Christ, who is the giver of the
keys. Therefore Peter did not bind or loose by his own
authority, but by the authority of Christ whose will is
superlatively good and can never err. Nor did Peter alone
receive them from the Lord, but all others also who have
been built as the Church in faith on Christ, in accordance
with the will of Christ the Lord (p. 94; cf. p. 158).
Third, Rome declares
that the mass, which it holds to be the greatest sacrament
and highest worship, is a true sacrifice for sin and that
all who physically partake of it actually receive the body
of Christ. But Lefèvre's “Christ alone” leads him to oppose
Roman sacerdotalism (pp. 87-92, 138-140). Instead, the
Frenchman teaches, as do the Reformed, that Christ “made
satisfaction once for all” (p. 87) and that He is present at
the Lord's Supper “in a sacramental and spiritual mode” (p.
89). Thus people partake of the Christ “sacramentally” and
“spiritually,” and so must engage in self-examination, lest
the sacrament be to them a means of condemnation (I Cor.
11:27-34) (p. 90).
This principle Lefèvre also applies to the first Christian
sacrament, for it is not “enough to have been baptized or
sacramentally to have received the body of Christ [at the
Lord's Supper]” since God-given faith is necessary (p. 91).
Fourth, moving from
Lefèvre's reformatory views on the two biblical sacraments
(baptism and the Lord's Supper), we come to the last of
Rome's five false sacraments: extreme unction or the last
rites. Because of the gospel of faith in Christ, Lefèvre
opposes Rome's exegesis of James 5:14-15 used to support its
priestly anointing of the dying (p. 92). Instead, the French
theologian advocates the Protestant position that those who
confess their sins to God should confess their iniquities to
their fellow Christians when this is necessary to reconcile
their offended brethren (James 5:16) (p. 93).
Fifth, contrary to
Rome's teaching (but not practice) of clerical celibacy,
Lefèvre approved of a document that affirmed the freedom of
all, including church officers, to marry and called the
contrary position a doctrine of demons that is inspired by
seducing spirits (I Tim. 4:1-3) (p. 141). Luther and all the
Reformers would have approved (Heb. 13:4). Thus in this
article we have seen Lefèvre critique six of Rome's seven
sacraments: baptism, the mass, penance, the last rites,
matrimony and (so) holy orders.
Sixth, with the
Reformers and against Rome, Lefèvre taught the priesthood of
All who come to Christ
are anointed with the oil of the Spirit so that they may be
Christ indeed is both king and priest. We are anointed with
that true oil so that we may all partake of Christ, who
receives this name from chrismation .… He is Christ in the
absolute sense, we by participation of Christ; and we have
all been anointed with the internal and spiritual unction so
that we may all become spiritual kings and priests with an
anointing so much more real than that with which the kings
and priests of the old law used formerly to be anointed .… O
the wonderful dignity of Christians in Christ! (pp.
The implementation of
these six ecclesiastical points would have grievously
wounded the Church of Rome. The widespread proclamation in
its assemblies of Lefèvre's gospel of justification by faith
alone in Christ alone through grace alone according to
Scripture alone to the glory of God alone, along with other
related truths, would have slain the Roman beast!
It was no wonder that
die-hard Romanists, such as Noël Béda and the Sorbonnists,
condemned and persecuted Lefèvre, and burned his books
(e.g., pp. 163-165). Scholastic traditionalists denounced
him as “an antichrist” (p. 130). Some even called him one of
the four precursors of the Antichrist (presumably Luther) or
one of the four antichrists then on earth (along with
Luther) (p. 131).
Hughes summarizes, under
four heads, the forty-eight charges of the Roman Catholic
theologians of the Sorbonne or the University of Paris
against Lefèvre and his disciples in 1525, which they
variously denounced as the errors of the “Waldensians,” the
“Wycliffites,” the “Bohemians” (or Hussites) and especially
(1) The sinner is
justified by faith in Jesus Christ and good works do not in
any way contribute to his salvation.
(2) Salvation does not
rest within our power, but comes to us by the grace and
goodness of God alone.
(3) Jesus Christ is the
sole mediator between God and men, and therefore it is
futile to invoke angels or saints to intercede for us.
(4) Anything other than
the word of God in Holy Scripture is not to be preached,
taught, or believed in the church (p. 164).
Not only did Lefèvre's teaching on
gracious justification help prepare the way for the
reception of Martin Luther's great doctrinal breakthrough
but also the Frenchman had a significant hermeneutical
influence on the German Reformer, as Hughes explains,
One of the first to
discover and appropriate Lefèvre's hermeneutical principles
was Martin Luther (1483-1546), while he was still an unknown
monk. In 1885 a copy of the first edition of the Fivefold Psalter
was found in the library of Dresden with its margins
profusely annotated in the handwriting of Luther. Obviously
the young German scholar had studied it with great care.
Luther's expository writings give abundant evidence of the
influence exerted by Lefèvre on his method of scriptural
interpretation. In his subsequent labors as preacher and
commentator Luther would assign a place of central
importance to the christological significance of the text.
Like Lefèvre, he devoted his first endeavors in biblical
exegesis to the book of Psalms; and from Lefèvre he learned
the primary importance of the literal sense and the twofold
distinction within that sense. In expounding the Psalter he,
too, sought to bring out the native sense—that, namely,
intended by both divine and human authors, which he
described as the “prophetic” literal sense, and which, as
distinguished from the bare “historic” literal sense,
pointed to and was fulfilled in the person and work of
Christ. For Luther, as for Lefèvre, Christ was the key to
the Psalter and to the Scriptures in their entirety (p. 60).
Out of all the Reformers,
it is especially the Frenchman William Farel (1489-1565), a
founder of the Reformed churches in the cantons of
Neuchâtel, Berne, Geneva and Vaud in Switzerland who was
most influenced by Lefèvre. In a letter of 1527, Farel
But when God our most
merciful Father … made himself known to me through the
gentle guidance of a saintly brother [i.e., Lefèvre] and
showed me that he is the only God, who alone is to be
worshipped and loved, and that there is no other who can
save or bless us—that he alone can blot out our sins for his
own sake, through Christ our Mediator and Advocate, the
propitiation for sins, since all are washed away by his
blood—to him, after being driven hither and thither, my
soul, once it had reached the haven, clung, and to him
alone. Now things took on a new appearance; Scripture began
to be full of meaning, the Prophets plain, the Apostles
clear, the voice of the Shepherd, Master, and Teacher Christ
recognized, asserting that “there is no access to the Father
except through Jesus” [John 14:6], so that anyone who puts
his whole trust in him, fully persuaded and believing that
he is wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption
[1 Cor. 1:30] has eternal life—so much so that in
thanksgiving for the salvation provided through Christ he
loved God for himself and in himself and his neighbor for
God and in God (pp. 95-96).
However, Lefèvre would
later be surpassed in his grasp of biblical and Reformation
principles by his younger, bolder countryman.
Through his work of
translating the Scriptures, Lefèvre had a massive influence
on the French Bible produced by his student, Pierre Robert
Olivétan (c. 1506-1538), who translated the Scriptures from
the Hebrew and Greek originals. The Olivétan Bible was published in 1535 in Neuchâtel with a
Latin preface by Pierre's cousin, John Calvin (1509-1564).
Since the Olivétan Bible is foundational to subsequent
French translations and was essentially a revision of
Lefèvre's work (p. 196), the scholar from Étaples occupies a
similar place regarding the French Bible to that of William
Tyndale (c. 1494-1536) and the English Bible.
Calvin was also aware of
Lefèvre's Latin translation of the New Testament (p. 73) and
even visited the aged scholar in 1534 (pp. 196-197).
According to Theodore Beza (1519-1605) in his life of
Calvin, the old Picard from Étaples told the young Picard
from Noyon that he would be used of God as an instrument in
establishing Christ's kingdom in France (p. 196).
his teaching of Farel and Olivétan, and Calvin's visit to
him, Lefèvre visited Martin Bucer (1491-1551) in Strasbourg,
staying there with German Reformer, Wolfgang Capito
(1478-1541) (pp. 171-172), who spoke of the Picard scholar
as a “lovable, learned, and pious old man … whose earnest
spirit, tempered by a geniality appropriate to his age,
expounds with grace and charm the mysteries of our faith”
(p. 177). Likewise, Bucer refers to him as “the most pious
and learned old man Jacques Lefèvre” (p. 177).
Lefèvre's flight to
Strasbourg was occasioned by persecution from the Sorbonne.
When this died down, he chose to return to France via Basel
in order to meet Erasmus (1466-1536), the Dutch humanist,
and John Oecolampadius (1482-1531), the German Reformer.
Lefèvre wrote that, “the whole world is indebted [to
Oecolampadius] as one who, faithful to his name, truly
shines in the house, and not just a private house, but the
whole Church of God” (p. 137).
It will come as no
surprise that amongst the humanists and Reformers with whom
Lefèvre corresponded were Oecolampadius and, especially,
Farel (pp. 130, 136-137, 139). In his letters to his former
pupils, Beatus Rhenanus (1485-1547), a German humanist, and
Farel, when they were in Basel, in 1519 and 1524,
respectively, Lefèvre asks them to pass on his regards to
various worthies in their company, including Capito and
Oecolampadius, and “also Luther, if ever he comes your way.”
He calls these men “brethren and friends dearest of all to
me in Christ” and ones “whom I love dearly in Christ” (p.
130). Lefèvre's affection for Luther is remarked upon by
Glareanus (1488-1563), a Swiss humanist, who said that the
French theologian left Paris for Meaux in 1521 because he
“cannot bear to listen to the slanders against Luther” (p.
Further proof, if it is
needed, of Lefèvre's interest in, and support of, the
Reformation is seen in a 1524 letter to Farel, then in
Basel: “O gracious God, how great is my joy to see this
grace of the pure knowledge of Christ now spreading through
so much of Europe!” (p. 136).
Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church
(Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), vol. 8, pp.
J. A. Wylie, The History of Protestantism
(Kilkeel, N. Ireland: Mourne Missionary Trust, 1985),
vol. 1, p. 123.
Henry M. Baird, The History of the Rise of the
(Stoke-on-Trent, England: Tentmaker Publications, 2007),
vol. 1, p. 68. Baird is here echoing the sentiments of a
sixteenth-century eulogy, adding that it is “not
exaggerated” (p. 68).
Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Lefèvre: Pioneer
of Ecclesiastical Renewal in France
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984). Hereafter,
unattributed page numbers in this article refer to this
book. Hughes is not alone among modern authors in this regard, as quotes
from Diarmaid MacCulloch and A. G. Dickens, later in this article,
Thus Carlos M. N.
Eire writes that a new phase in the life of the Picard
scholar “begins with the publication of the Quincuplex psalter
in 1509. From this time forward the study of Scripture
became the dominant interest in Lefèvre's life:
It occupied the center of his attention and gave shape
to his reform programme” (War Against the
Idols: The Reformation of Worship From Erasmus to Calvin
[New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986], p. 170).
Hughes helpfully lists Lefèvre's publications
in chronological order in his index (pp. 207-208).
Quoted in Eire, War Against the Idols, p.
Diarmaid MacCulloch points out that “in his
commentaries on Paul's Epistles in 1512, Lefèvre said
many things about the text that Luther said later in the
same decade” (Reformation: Europe's House Divided
1490-1700 [London: Penguin Books, 2004], p. 93).
Hughes mentions some other weaknesses or imperfect
formulations regarding aspects of Lefèvre's teaching on
justification (pp. 74-75, 77).
Irena Backus does not prove that Lefèvre's
idiosyncratic and seriously erroneous exegesis of Romans
5:12 on original sin overthrows his many fine statements
regarding justification by faith alone in Christ alone
through grace alone to the glory of God alone (“Jacques
Lefèvre d'Etaples: A Humanist or a Reformist View of
Paul?” in R. Ward Holder [ed.], A Companion to
Paul in the Reformation [Leiden: Brill, 2009], pp.
Hughes quotes a lot more of
Lefèvre's teaching on Christ alone (e.g., pp. 77, 139-140, 155-157).
Diarmaid MacCulloch observes that when “Jacques
Lefèvre d’Étaples published his pioneering commentaries
on Paul's Epistles in 1512, he stressed the total
irrelevance of human works in God's salvation of
humanity: this was five years before Luther began
publishing the same views” (Reformation, p. 111).
A. G. Dickens states that the French theologian's
commentary on Paul's letters “anticipated not only the
Scriptural aspirations of Erasmus but also in
considerable measure the stress which Luther was to
place upon salvation through faith as opposed to good
works and penances” (The Age of Humanism and
Reformation: Europe in the Fourteenth, Fifteenth and
Sixteenth Centuries [London: Prentice-Hall
International, 1977], p. 138).
Whereas in some areas, Lefèvre helped prepare the
way for Reformation ideas, in others the Reformers
assisted his theology. Eire points out that the Picard's
“critique of the [Roman] Catholic eucharist is of
doubtful influence, however. It appears he himself was
affected by the opinions of Swiss and German
sacramentarians [i.e., opponents of the papal mass], not
vice versa” (War Against the Idols, p. 177).
Hughes points out that christiformity
or conformity to Christ internally and externally is a
distinctive emphasis of Lefèvre (pp. 44,
192-196) and that he may have derived this, “at least in
part, from Nicholas of Cusa” (p. 47; cf. p. 46).
Wilhelm Pauck is another who points out Luther's use of
Lefèvre's Bible translations, commentaries and exegetical method
(Wilhelm Pauck [ed. & trans.], Luther: Lectures on Romans, The
Library of Christian Classics, vol. XV [Philadelphia,
PA: The Westminster Press, 1961], pp. xiv, xxiv, xxvii,
xxx-xxxiii, xxxix, xlii). The Frenchman was one
of the Reformer's “chief authorities” in his exposition
of the Psalms and his “lectures on Romans show how
greatly Luther was indebted to him” (p. xxx). “In his
lectures on the Psalms, Luther was so strongly under the
influence of these [hermeneutical] ideas that Faber's
mentality was reflected not only in his thoughts but
also in his vocabulary” (p. xxxi). Cf. Martin Brecht,
Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521,
trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press,
1985), pp. 129-130.
The quote from Schaff earlier also indicated
Lefèvre's major role in Farel's conversion to the Reformed faith.
Eire explains the strengths and limitations of the ideas of the
Fabrician reform, noting how they were (rightly)
developed into the full Reformed position by some,
including Farel, while others regressed, such as Gerard
Roussel (War Against the Idols, pp. 168-195).
In his famous Icones
or Contemporary Portraits of Reformers of Religion and
Letters, Beza praised “the providence of God” in sending Lefèvre: “For
who would have imagined that a single individual, not
particularly impressive to look at, would have succeeded
in chasing barbarism from the world's most famous
university where over a period of many years it had been
firmly entrenched? Yet such is Jacques Lefèvre, a person of humble
background and from a place of little repute … but
nonetheless one of the earth's noblest of men, if one
takes into account his erudition, his piety, his
magnanimity, and, most notable of all, the fact that he
himself was brought up in the midst of this same
barbarism—this man, I say, successfully carried through
this lofty undertaking and put ignorance to flight”
(quoted in Hughes, p. xi).
Oecolampadius is a Latinized transliteration of
the Greek words for house and lamp, the equivalent of a
modification of his German name.