This article first appeared in the November 1, 2020 special Reformation issue of the Standard Bearer (Vol.97, #3) and was written by Prof. R. Dykstra. This issue was devoted to the subject of the French Reformation.
The Reformation is the work of God, not man. God reforms His church. God raises up men of understanding, courage, and strength for the purpose of using these men for church reformation, just as God raised up judges in the Old Testament. But even then, reformation begins in the heart of such men. The Spirit works a personal conviction of sin and unworthiness, a strong faith in Christ, and the assurance of salvation. The Spirit works in these men godliness and integrity. And God uses them in His time and way. No reformer sets out thinking that he is God’s instrument who will lead the reformation. When Moses thought that, God sent him to the wilderness to tend sheep for forty years. In most instances, reformers are most reluctant men whom God virtually drags into the conflict. That was the experience of Martin Luther and John Calvin. But use them God does, as He graciously reforms His church.
The great sixteenth-century Reformation in France confirms the reality that church reformation is God’s work. From a human point of view, reform was impossible. In the early 1500s, France was a staunch supporter of the church of Rome. The French nobility and many church offices—bishops and archbishops—were intertwined. It was not unusual that an archbishop, himself from an aristocratic family, passed his office on either to the highest bidder, to a relative, or to both. Historically, France had close links with the papacy. For seventy years in the fourteenth century seven popes forsook the city of Rome and sat on the papal throne in the French city of Avignon, which city was yet in the sixteenth century a center of financial power and dreadful corruption in the church. In 1516, the pope and the French king struck an agreement (Concordat of Bologna) that gave to the king the right to appoint bishops in France and granted to the crown a portion of the church’s income in France. Clearly, there was little incentive for the king of France to support the Reformation.
In addition, the leading theological university in Europe was the Sorbonne in Paris. When a significant theological conflict arose, the Sorbonne was considered the authority. The Sorbonne condemned Luther in 1521 as an enemy of the church of Christ who “vomited up a doctrine of pestilence.”
And finally, the dreaded Inquisition had been well used by church officials and kings to remove “heretics” in France and to gain the wealth of the condemned.
That the Reformation could in any way gain a foothold in France is due to the sovereign grace of God that changes hearts.
A second lesson from the history in France is that God’s providence serves the good of reformation. From a negative viewpoint this is seen in the kings of France. Their quarrels with other Catholic rulers (especially Charles V) prevented them, at times, from concentrating on the eradication of Protestants from France. Other times, God removed violent persecutors from the throne (such as Henry II, who died from a wound suffered in a jousting match), which left only young sons to rule—sons who clearly could not exercise full power for a time, allowing some breathing room for the Protestants in France.
On the positive side, God converted particular individuals in France who, because of their position or extraordinary abilities, served the cause of the Reformation. Once such individual was Marguerite of Angouleme. Marguerite was the sister of the king (Francis I) and queen of the region of Navarre. A convert to Protestantism, she was able to give aid and protection to many Protestants.
And then there were the notable French ministers— William Farel, John Calvin, and Theodore Beza, to name but a few. These men expended tremendous efforts for the Reformation in France. And though persecution in France drove them to Switzerland, they retained a keen interest in the churches in France and did all they could to promote the cause. Calvin wrote more letters to French Protestants than to any other group. His 1526 Institutes of the Christian Religion—and every edition thereafter—included a masterful letter addressed to Francis I, demonstrating that the Protestants were loyal subjects who maintained the doctrines of Scripture. Calvin dedicated his commentary on Daniel “To all the pious worshippers of God who desire the kingdom of Christ to be rightly constituted in France.” His concern for the Reformation there is obvious (see box). God also used Theodore Beza to strengthen the Reformation in France. Beza made numerous trips to France to help guide the churches.
The third lesson is that the French churches understood the importance of proper church government. They looked to Theodore Beza for personal help and adopted a church order modeled after the church ordinances written by John Calvin for Geneva. The churches understood the need to be unified, not independent; to be governed by elders, not bishops and popes. By the year 1559, the French Reformed churches held their first national synod.
The fourth characteristic of note is that the French Reformation was confessional. The churches adopted the French Confession of Faith written by John Calvin. Later, when the Dutch churches were torn apart by the Arminian controversy, Pierre du Moulin was a staunch defender of the Reformed doctrine of sovereign grace and of the Canons of Dordrecht. (See Rev. M. DeBoer’s article for more on this, page 63.)
And fifth, the Reformed churches in France understood the importance of education. They maintained Christians schools for children, universities for higher education, and seminaries for training pastors. Their Romish opponents also understood their value, for one of the first restrictions placed on the French Huguenots was the outlawing of their schools.
On the negative side, three warnings sound out from the Reformation in France. Exactly because God uses men and because all the members of the church are sinners, mistakes and failures happen, some of which are costly, some deadly.
First, rash activities can hurt the cause of the truth. Such was “the affair of the placards” in 1534. In Paris and other major cities, men took it upon themselves to post placards against “the horrible abuse of the papal mass.” One such placard was attached even to the door of the bed chamber of King Francis. Up to this point, the king had indicated that he was not in favor of the Reformation, but he was not actively persecuting Protestants. This rash act, however, led him to initiate violent persecution against them. Boldness for truth does not mean foolish, rash acts that simply infuriate the enemy with little profit, as did attaching the placard to the bedroom door of the king.
Wrong response to persecution
Like most other Protestants in that age, French Huguenots experienced persecution for their faith. The Lord told His church to expect this, and His Word tells His people how to respond to persecution, namely, to endure it patiently. Surely, thousands of Huguenots did endure patiently the loss of possessions, liberty, and even life. But many responded improperly. In this history are two wrong responses. The first was to hide their faith. Though they secretly confessed the Reformed truths, these believers continued to attend worship services in the Romish church. They gained the name “Nicodemites.” John Calvin wrote much in opposition to this response to persecution. (See more on this in the article on “Calvin and the Nicodemites,” page 67.)
The other wrong response was taking up arms. The French Reformation was irreparably damaged by the taking up of the sword. The opposition to the Reformation and even violent persecution of Protestants did not accomplish what the Roman Catholics hoped. For several decades, the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. The movement grew and spread throughout France until there were over 2,000 congregations. But then, in the late 1550s Huguenots opted for resistance, resulting in religious wars between Protestants and Roman Catholics. When the Huguenots took up arms, they lost the status of a persecuted church. When subsequently they turned to English Protestants for help, more Frenchmen turned against them.
But the real issue and lesson is that the cause of Christ is not advanced by force of arms. So long as the Protestants promoted the Reformation by means of preaching and teaching, the church flourished, in spite of fierce persecution. But when the church involved itself in politics and war, its growth ceased and the church declined. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit; saith the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6).
Two needed lessons for us today. The church is not called to arm herself for self-defense against persecution. The authorities who come to arrest believers must not be met with gunfire. Nor may we try to blend in with the world or the false church, so as to escape notice, and thus to avoid persecution.
The final lesson to be learned is how important it is that the church vigorously maintains the truth. This latter warning arises from the period when there was some relief from persecution because of the Edict of Nantes. In this period, a theologian of the Reformed churches named Moïse Amyraut began to spread his doctrine of hypothetical universalism. This is a form of Arminianism, though Amyraut insisted that he rejected Arminian theology. Perhaps one could say that it was an attempt to find a position between Arminianism and the Calvinism set forth in the Canons of Dordt, which then is a compromise of the doctrines of grace. Amyraut insisted that he was maintaining election and the efficacy of grace. But he taught a universal love of God, a general grace to all, a gracious offer of salvation in the preaching, and a death of Christ that was for all but only effective in those who believe. This teaching has much similarity to the conditional covenant idea, in which God promises salvation to every baptized child, on the condition of faith.
Many ministers issued strong protests against Amyraut’s teaching, but three different synods failed to condemn his views. One expert on the controversy maintains that by 1650 “Amyraldian theology had won the day in France” except for small pockets of resistance.1
The sad result of the wars of religion and the departure from the Reformed truth was that the Reformed faith virtually disappeared in France. Particularly, the departure from the truth brings God’s judgment on the church. The church that does not defend the truth over against the lie soon loses the right to exist.
We must learn from the Reformation in France. The church is the pillar and ground of the truth (I Tim. 3:15). The church exists to promote, defend, and proclaim the truth of the Bible. For a time, that truth shone brightly in France. The Huguenots practiced biblical church polity, had a thoroughly Reformed confession, and maintained Christian schools. The Reformation in France is a call to be diligent in maintaining these Reformed practices, but above all, to uphold the truth.
1 Brian G. Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), 7. For more on this heresy and its effect, see the article on Amyraut on page 64.
Prof. Russell Dykstra (Wife: Carol)
Ordained: September 1986
Pastorates: Doon, IA - 1986; Hope, Walker, MI - 1995; PR Seminary - 1996-2022; Byron Center PRC, June, 2021Website: www.prca.org/missions/domestic/byron-center-prc
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