d’Étaples: Pioneer of French Reform
Rev. Angus Stewart
As his name would
indicate, 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. 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 other
individuals treated in this special Reformation Day issue of
the SB (the Saxon monk, Gottschalk; the English
theologians, Thomas Bradwardine and John Wycliff; and the
Czech martyr, John Hus), Jacques Lefèvre lived to see the
sixteenth-century Reformation. However, unlike the
Waldensians, the other party treated in this issue, and the
Hussites, the followers of John 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. So why is he included in this
special edition of the SB? Read on!
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.”
This view of Lefèvre as
a precursor or pioneer of the Reformation is representative
of historic Protestant evaluations. However, 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” and, instead, they tone down his
doctrines and applaud his efforts towards “renewal” within
However, the fullest
portrait in English, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes'
Lefèvre: Pioneer of Ecclesiastical Renewal in France
(1984), 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 Latin Fivefold Psalter
and marked the beginning of his major biblical and
theological studies (pp. xiii, 53-54). In connection with
this key work, 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).
allegorical, tropological and anagogical understandings of
scholastic traditionalism, for Lefèvre 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).
For him, the
all-sufficient Bible is the supreme authority over all human
beings, ecclesiastical writings and church councils (p. 155;
cf. Belgic Confession 7). In keeping with his conviction of the supremacy of God's
Word, Lefèvre commented on most of the New Testament in
Latin. Since he desired the common man to have access to the
Word of God, the Picard scholar also translated into French
first various parts and then the whole of the 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, 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.
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 other 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
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.
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
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).
For Lefèvre, all “glory”
is due to “God alone” for on Christ “alone” was laid “the
iniquity of us all,” so that “righteousness and
justification,” “pardon” and “peace,” are “of faith and
grace” and not from one's “own works” (p. 76). Opposing
Rome's number 1 argument against justification by faith
alone by its misinterpretation of the second half of James
2, the Picard theologian gives the correct and Protestant
understanding of the relationship between Paul and James (p.
77; cf. p. 78). Lefèvre also teaches that the good works
performed by God's people are wholly of divine grace (Phil.
2:13) and that believers “persevere to the end” (Phil. 1:6)
(p. 86; cf. p. 192).
It was no wonder that
die-hard Romanists in France condemned and persecuted
Lefèvre, burned his books (e.g., pp. 163-165) and 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
Whether or not Lefèvre was
a cowardly and overly optimistic Nicodemite in staying in
the early sixteenth-century Roman Church in France in the
hopes of reforming it—a proper examination of this would
involve too many historical factors for one SB
article—we can acknowledge his role as a pioneer in French
reform, both in terms of doctrinal progress and influence on
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 (p.
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 (cf. 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 of his student, Pierre Robert Olivétan
(c. 1506-1538), who also translated the Scriptures from the
Hebrew and Greek originals. The Olivétan Bible was published
in 1535 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
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).
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). Those were wonderful days and,
in God's providence, Lefèvre's work helped usher them in!
Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church
(Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), vol. 8, p.
Philip Edgcumbe Hughes,
of Ecclesiastical Renewal in France
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984). Hereafter, page
numbers in this article refer to this book.