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Jacques Lefèvre 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 it.

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 states,

[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.1

In 1878, a few years before Schaff, J. A. Wylie, in his History of Protestantism, called Lefèvre “the first Protestant teacher in France.”2 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.”3

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 their institution.

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.4 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).


Sola Scriptura

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).5 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.6 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).

Lefèvre's further 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 Word.”7

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” (p. 97).

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).8

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. 164).

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. 159).

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 and justification:

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” (p. 74).

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.9 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 understanding:

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).10


Other “Solas”

Lefèvre proclaims 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. 85-86).11

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. 191-192).

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 Ephesians 2:8-10:

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).12

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 penance:

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).13

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 states,

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).14 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 believers:

All who come to Christ are anointed with the oil of the Spirit so that they may be christiform.15 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. 194-195).

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).


Influence on Reformers

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 the “Lutherans”:

(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).16

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 explains,

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).17

However, Lefèvre would later be surpassed in his grasp of biblical and Reformation principles by his younger, bolder countryman.18

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).19

Beside 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).20

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. 130).

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).


1 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), vol. 8, pp. 239, 240.
2 J. A. Wylie, The History of Protestantism (Kilkeel, N. Ireland: Mourne Missionary Trust, 1985), vol. 1, p. 123.
3 Henry M. Baird, The History of the Rise of the Huguenots (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).
4 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, will demonstrate.
5 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).
6 Hughes helpfully lists Lefèvre's publications in chronological order in his index (pp. 207-208).
7 Quoted in Eire, War Against the Idols, p. 173.
8 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).
9 Hughes mentions some other weaknesses or imperfect formulations regarding aspects of Lefèvre's teaching on justification (pp. 74-75, 77).
10 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. 81-85, 89-90).
11 Hughes quotes a lot more of Lefèvre's teaching on Christ alone (e.g., pp. 77, 139-140, 155-157).
12 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).
13 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).
14 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).
15 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).
16 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.
17 The quote from Schaff earlier also indicated Lefèvre's major role in Farel's conversion to the Reformed faith.
18 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).
19 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).
20 Oecolampadius is a Latinized transliteration of the Greek words for house and lamp, the equivalent of a modification of his German name.