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Lefèvre's commentary on the Pauline Epistles



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Lefèvre's commentary on the Pauline Epistles.

But the enthusiastic devotion of Lefèvre and his more impetuous disciple

to the tenets of the Roman church was to be shaken by a closer study of

the Scriptures. In 1508 Lefèvre completed a Latin commentary upon the

Psalms.1 In 1512 he published a commentary in the same language on

the Pauline Epistles--a work which may indeed fall short of the standard

of criticism established by a subsequent age, but yet contains a clear

enunciation of the doctrine of justification by faith, the cardinal

doctrine of the Reformation.2
Foresees the coming reformation.

Thus, five years before Luther posted his theses on the doors of the

church at Wittemberg, Jacques Lefèvre had proclaimed, in no equivocal

terms, his belief in the same great principles. But Lefèvre's lectures

in the college and his written commentary were addressed to the learned.

Consequently they produced no such immediate and startling effect as the

ninety-five propositions of the Saxon monk. Lefèvre was not himself to

be an active instrument in the French reformation. His office was rather

to prepare the way for others--not, perhaps, more sincere, but certainly

more courageous--to enter upon the hazardous undertaking of attempting

to renovate the church. His faithful disciple, indeed, has preserved for

us a remarkable prophecy, uttered by Lefèvre at the very time when he

was still assiduous in his devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints.

Grasping Farel by the hand, the venerable doctor more than once

addressed to him the significant words, which made a deep impression on

the hearer's mind: "Guillaume, the world is going to be renewed, and you

will behold it!"3


1 Herminjard, Correspondance des Réformateurs, i. 4, 481.

2 See the dedication, dated Dec. 15, 1512, Herminjard, Correspondance des Réformateurs, i. 2-9.

3 Letter of Farel to Pellican (1556), Herminjard, Correspondance des Réformateurs, i. 481:
"Pius senex, Jacobus Faber, quem tu novisti, ante annos plus minus quadraginta, me manu
apprehensum, ita alloquebatur: 'Gulielme, oportet orbem mutari, et tu videbis'

dicebat." So in the "Epistre à tous Seigneurs et Peuples" (Ed. Fick),170: "Souventefois me disoit


que Dieu renouvelleroit le monde, et que je le verroye." A few years later, at Strasbourg, the
reformer reminded his former master of his prediction: "Voicy par la grace de Dieu, le

commencement de ce qu'autrefois m'avez dit du renouvellement du monde,"

and Lefèvre, then in exile, blessed God, and begged Him to perfect what

he had then seen begun at Strasbourg. Ibid., 171. These statements are

confirmed by a passage in the Commentary on St. Paul's Epistles, in

which, after deploring the corruption of the church, Lefèvre observes:

"Yet the signs of the times announce that a renewal is near, and while

God is opening new ways for the preaching of the Gospel, by the

discoveries and conquests of the Portuguese and Spaniards in all parts

of the world, we must hope that He will visit His church and raise it

from the degradation into which it is fallen." Herminjard, i. 5.

Controversy with Beda.

The Sorbonne's declaration.

Lefèvre did not intermit his biblical studies. In 1518 he published a

short treatise on "the three Marys," to prove that Mary the sister of

Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, and "the woman which was a sinner," were not

one and the same person, according to the common belief of the time.

Unfortunately, the Roman church, by the lessons set down for the

feast-days, had given its sanction to the prevalent error. Now, the

fears and suspicions of the theologians of the Sorbonne had, during the

past year, been aroused by the fame of Martin Luther's "heresy," and

they were ready to resent any attempt at innovation, however slight,

either in doctrine or in practice, as evidence of heretical

proclivities. Natalis Beda, the ignorant but pedantic syndic of the

theological faculty, entered the lists as Lefèvre's opponent, and an

animated dispute was waged between the friends of the two combatants. Of

so great moment was the decision regarded by Poncher, Bishop of Paris,

that he induced Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, to write an essay in

refutation of the views of Lefèvre.1 But the Sorbonne, not content

with this, on the ninth of November, 1521, declared that he was a

heretic who should presume to maintain the truth of Lefèvre's

proposition. Lefèvre himself would probably have experienced even

greater indignities at the hands of parliament--whose members were

accustomed


1 Scævolæ Sammarthani, Elogia doctorum in Gallia virorum,

lib. i. (Jenæ, 1696); Bayle, s. v. Fèvre and Farel; Tabaraud, Biographie

univ., art. Lefèvre; C. Schmidt, Wilhelm Farel, in Leben und ausgew.

Schriften d. Väter d. ref. Kirche; C. Chenevière, Farel, Froment, Viret

(Genève, 1835).
to show excessive respect to the fanatical demands of the

faculty--had not Guillaume Petit, the king's confessor, induced Francis

to interfere in behalf of the Picard professor.1
Briçonnet, Bishop of Meauz.

To these two actors in the drama of the French reformation a third must

now be added. Guillanme Briçonnet, Bishop of Meaux, stood in the front

rank of aspiring and fortunate churchmen. His father, commonly known as

the Cardinal of St. Malo, had passed from the civil administration into

the hierarchy of the Gallican Church. Rewarded for services rendered to

Louis the Eleventh and Charles the Eighth by the gift of the rich abbey

of St. Germain-des-Prés and the archbishopric of Rheims, he had, in

virtue of his possession of the latter dignity, anointed Louis the

Twelfth at his coronation. As cardinal, he had headed the French party

in the papal consistory, and, more obedient to his sovereign than to the

pontiff, when Louis demanded the convocation of a council at Pisa to

resist the encroachments of Julius the Second, the elder Briçonnet left

Rome to join in its deliberations, and to face the dangers attending an

open rupture with the Pope. The cardinal was now dead, having left to

Guillaume, born previously to his father's entrance into orders, a good

measure of the royal favor he had himself enjoyed. The younger Briçonnet

had been successively created Archdeacon of Rheims and Avignon, Abbot of

St. Germain-des-Prés, and Bishop of Lodève and Meaux. His title of Count

of Montbrun gave him, moreover, a place in the nobility.2 Meantime a

reformatory tendency had early revealed itself in the efforts


1 Gaillard, Histoire de François premier (Paris, 1769), vi.

397. It was the unpardonable offence of Lefèvre in the eyes of his

critic that he, a simple master of arts, had dared to investigate

matters that fell to the province of doctors of theology alone. Letter

of H. C. Agrippa (1519), in Herminjard, Correspondance des Réformateurs,

i. 51: "Tantum virum semel atque iterum ... vocarunt hominem stultum,

insanum fidei, Sacrarum Literarum indoctum et ignarum, et qui, duntaxat

humanarum artium Magister, præsumptuose se ingerat iis quæ spectant ad

Theologos." As it clearly appears that Lefèvre was not a doctor of the

Sorbonne, Professor Soldan is mistaken in saying: "Seit 1493 lebte er

als Doctor der Theologie zu Paris, u. s. w." The error is of long standing.

2 See Alphonse de Beauchamp's sketches of the lives of the

two Briçonnets, in the Biographie universelle.


made by the young ecclesiastic to enforce the observance of canonical
discipline by the luxurious friars of the monastery of St. Germain. Here,
too, he had tasted the first fruits of the opposition which was before long
to test his firmness and constancy.

Briçonnet had been appointed Bishop of Meaux (March 19, 1516) about the

same time that Francis the First despatched him as special envoy to

treat with the Pope. It would seem that the intimate acquaintance with

the papal court gained on this occasion, confirming the impressions made

by a previous diplomatic mission in the time of Louis the Twelfth,

convinced Briçonnet that the church stood in urgent need of reform; and

he resolved to begin the work in his own diocese.


Lefèvre and Farel invited to Meaux.

Weary of the annoyance and peril arising from the ignorance and malice

of his enemies, the theologians of the Sorbonne, Lefèvre d'Étaples

longed for a more quiet home, where he might reasonably hope to

contribute his share to the great renovation descried long since by his

prophetic glance. He was now invited by Briçonnet, to whom his learning

and zeal were well known, to accompany him to Meaux, where, at the

distance of a little more than a score of miles from the capital, he

would at least be rid of the perpetual clamor against Luther and his

doctrines that assailed his ears in Paris.1 He was accompanied, or

followed, to Meaux by his pupil, Farel. Over the views of the latter a

signal change had come since he entered the university, full of

veneration for the saints, and an enthusiastic supporter of the mass, of

the papal hierarchy, and of every institution authorized by

ecclesiastical tradition. After a painful mental struggle, of which he

has himself given us a graphic account,2 Farel had been reluctantly

brought to the startling conviction that the system of which he had been

an enthusiastic advocate was a tissue of falsehoods and an abomination

in God's sight. It required no
1 According to a contemporary letter, this was the sole

cause of Lefèvre's departure. "Faber Stapulensis ab urbe longe abest ad

XX. lapidem, neque ullam ob causam quam quod convitia in Lutherum audire

non potest." Glareanus to Zwingle, Paris, July 4, 1521, Herminjard, i. 71.



2 Epistre à tous Seigneurs et Peuples, 168-175.

more than this to bring a man of so resolute a character to a


decision. Partly by his own assiduous application to study, especially
of the Greek and Hebrew languages and of the Church Fathers,
partly through the influence of Lefèvre, he had become professor
of philosophy in the college of the Cardinal Le Moine. This
advantageous position he resigned, in order that he might be able

to second the labors of Lefèvre in the new field which Bishop Briçonnet

had thrown open to him. Other pupils or friends of the Picard doctor

followed--Michel d'Arande, Gérard Roussel, and others, all more or less

thoroughly imbued with the same sentiments.
The king's mother and sister encourage the preaching of the reformers.

A new era had now dawned upon the neglected diocese of Meaux. Bishop

Briçonnet was fully possessed by his new-born zeal. The king's mother

and his only sister had honored him with a visit not long after

Lefèvre's arrival,1 and had left him confident that in his projected

reforms, and especially in the introduction of the preaching of the Word

of God, he might count upon their powerful support. "I assure you,"

Margaret of Angoulême wrote him a month later, "that the king and madame

are entirely decided to let it be understood that the truth of God is

not heresy."2 And a few weeks later the same princely correspondent

declared that her mother and brother were "more intent than ever upon

the reformation of the church."3 With such flattering prospects the

reformation opened at Meaux.
Immediate results.

From the year 1521, when the ardent friends of religious progress made

their appearance in the city, the pulpits, rarely entered by the curates or by
the mendicant monks unless to demand a fresh contribution of money, were


1 In October, 1521. Herminjard, i. 76.

2 "Vous asseurant que le Roy et Madame ont bien delibéré de

donner à congnoistre que la vérité de Dieu n'est point hérésie."

Margaret of Angoulême to Briçonnet, Nov., 1521, MSS. National Lib.,

Herminjard, i. 78; Génin, ii. 273.



3 "Vos piteulx desirs de la reformacion de l'Eglise, où

plus que jamais le Roy et Madame sont affectionnés." Same to same, Dec,

1521, Ibid., Herminjard, i. 84; Génin, ii. 274. Compare Louise de

Savoie's own entry in her journal, in December, 1522, a year later, to

which reference has already been made.

filled with zealous preachers. The latter expounded the

Gospel, in place of rehearsing the stories of the "Golden Legend;" and

the people, at first attracted by the novelty of the sound, were soon

enamored of the doctrines proclaimed. These doctrines stood, indeed, in

signal opposition to those of the Roman church. By slow but sure steps

the advocates of the Reformation had come to assume a position scarcely

less unequivocal than that of Luther in Germany. In 1514, two years

after the publication of the commentary in which he had clearly

enunciated the Protestant doctrine on one cardinal point, Lefèvre would

seem still to have been unsurpassed in his devotion to pictures and

images.1 Two years later he was regarded by Luther as strangely

deficient in a clear apprehension of spiritual truths which,

nevertheless, he fully exemplified in a life of singular spirituality

and sincerity.2 And it was not until 1519 that, by the arguments of

his own pupil, Farel, he was convinced of the impropriety of

saint-worship and of prayers for the dead.3 But now there could be

no doubt respecting Lefèvre's attitude. Placed by Bishop Briçonnet in

charge of the "Léproserie," and subsequently entrusted with the powers

of vicar-general over the entire diocese,4 he exerted an influence

not hard to trace. A contemporary, when chronicling, a few years later,

that "the greater part of Meaux was infected with the false doctrines of

Luther," made the cause of all the trouble to be one Fabry (Lefèvre), a

priest and scholar, who rejected pictures from the churches, forbade the

use of holy water for the dead, and denied the existence of

purgatory.5


Gérard Roussel and Mazurier.

The mystic Gérard Roussel, an eloquent speaker, whom the bishop

appointed curate of St. Saintin, and subsequently treasurer and canon of

the cathedral, was prominent among the new preachers, but was surpassed

in exuberant display of zeal by Martial Mazurier, Principal of the
1 See the valuable remarks of M. Herminjard (i. 289, note)

respecting the date of the "manifestation of the Gospel" in France.



2 Luther to Spalatin, Oct. 19, 1516, Herminjard, i. 26.

3 Herminjard, i. 41, 205, 206.

4 Lefèvre was placed in charge of the Léproserie, Aug.

11, 1521, and was appointed vicar-general au spirituel, May 1, 1523.

Herminjard, i. 71 and 157.

5 Journal d'un bourgeois de Paris, 277, under date of 1526.

Collége de St. Michel in Paris, who now fulfilled the functions of

curate of the church of St. Martin at Meaux.
Apprehension of the monks aroused. De Roma's threat.

It was not long before the apprehension of the monastic orders was

aroused by the great popularity of the new teachers. The wool-carders,

weavers, and fullers accepted the novel doctrine with delight as meeting

a want which they had discovered in spite of poverty and ignorance. The

day-laborers frequenting the neighborhood of Meaux, to aid the farmers

in harvest-time, carried back to their more secluded districts the

convictions they had obtained, and themselves became efficient agents in

the promulgation of the faith elsewhere. If the anticipations of a

speedy spread of the reformation throughout France were brilliant in the

minds of its early apostles, the determination of its opponents was

equally fixed. An incident occurred about this time which might almost

be regarded as of prophetic import. Farel, who was present, is our sole

informant. On one occasion Lefèvre and a few friends were engaged in

conversation with some warm partisans of the old abuses, when the old

doctor, warming at the prospect he seemed to behold, exclaimed, "Already

the Gospel is winning the hearts of the nobles and of the common people

alike! Soon it will spread over all France, and cast down the inventions

which the hand of man has set up." "Then," angrily retorted one De Roma,

a Dominican monk, "Then I, and others like me, will join in preaching a

crusade; and should the king tolerate the proclamation of the Gospel, we

shall drive him from his kingdom by means of his own subjects!"1

The Dominican friar stood forth at that moment the embodiment of the

monastic spirit speaking defiance to the nascent reform. The church of

the state, with its rich abbeys and priories, its glorious old cathedrals, and boundless possessions of lands and houses, was not to be resigned without a struggle so terrific as to shake the foundations of the throne itself. The germ

of the Guises and the League, with Jacques Clément and




1 "Moy et autres comme moy, lèverons une cruciade de gens,

et ferons chasser le Roy de son Royaume par ses subjectz propres, s'il

permet que l'Évangile soit presché." Farel au Duc de Lorraine,

Herminjard, i. 483.

Ravaillac, was already formed, and possessed a prodigious

latent vitality.


Briçonnet's activity.

Bishop Briçonnet was himself active in promoting the evangelical work,

preaching against the most flagrant abuses, and commending to the

confidence of his flock the more eloquent preachers whom he had

introduced. The incredible rumor even gained currency that the

hot-headed prelate went through his diocese casting down the images and

sparing no object of idolatrous worship in the churches.1 But,

however improbable it may be that Briçonnet ever engaged in any such

iconoclastic demonstrations, it is a strong Roman Catholic partisan who

has preserved the record of this significant warning given by the

prelate to his flock, and elicited either by the consciousness of his

own moral feebleness, or by a certain vague premonition of danger: "Even

should I, your bishop, change my speech and teaching, beware that you

change not with me!"2


Lefèvre translates the New Testament.

Under Briçonnet's protection Jacques Lefèvre assumed a task less

restricted in its influence than preaching, in which he probably took a

less active part than his coadjutors. The Bible was a closed book to the

common people in France. The learned might familiarize themselves with

its contents by a perusal of the Latin Vulgate; but readers acquainted

with their mother tongue alone were reduced to the necessity of using a

rude version wherein text and gloss were mingled in inextricable

confusion, and the Scriptures were made


1 Pierre de Sébeville au Chevalier Coct, Grenoble, Dec. 28,

1524: "Je te notifie que l'évesque de Meaulx en Brie, près Paris, cum

Jacobo Fabro Stapulensi, depuis trois moys en visitant l'evesché, ont

bruslé actu tous les imaiges, réservé le crucifix, et sont

personellement ajournés a Paris, à ce moys de Mars venant, coram suprema

curia, et universitate erucarum parrhissiensium, quare id factum est."

Herminjard, i. 315.

2 Fontaine, Histoire catholique, apud Merle d'Aubigné,

Hist. de la Réform., liv. xii. The earliest Protestant chronicle, by

Antoine Froment, of which there is a MS. fragment in the Library of

Geneva, gives a slightly different form to Briçonnet's caution:

"Autrefois, en leur preschant l'Évangile, il leur avoit dit, comme

Sainct Paul escript au Gallates, que sy luy-mesme ou un Ange du ciel

leur preschoit autre doctrine que celle qu'il leur preschoit, qu'ils ne

[le] receussent pas." Herminjard, i. 158.

to countenance the most absurd abuses.1 The best furnished
libraries rarely contained more than a few detached books of
the Bible, and these intended for ornament rather than use.2
Lefèvre resolved, therefore, to apply himself to the translation
of the Sacred Scriptures from the Latin Vulgate into the

French language. In June, 1523, he published a version of the four

gospels, and in the autumn of the same year he gave to the world the

rest of the New Testament. Five years later he added a translation of

the Old Testament. It was a magnificent undertaking, prompted by a

fervent desire to promote the spiritual interests of his countrymen. In

its execution, the inaccuracies incident to so novel an enterprise, and

the comparative harshness of the style, can readily be forgiven. For,

aside from its own merits, the version of Lefèvre d'Étaples formed the

basis for the subsequent version of Robert Olivetanus, itself the

groundwork of many later translations.
The translation eagerly bought. Delight of Lefèvre.

Lefèvre and his associates had not erred in anticipating remarkable

results from the publication of the Scriptures in the language of the

people. The copies of the New Testament no




1 Nisard, Histoire de la littérature française, i. 275. The only printed work in favor
of which the claim of Lefèvre's translation to be the oldest in the French language
could be disputed is the "Bible" of Guyars des Moulins, finished in 1297, and printed
by order of Charles VIII. in 1487; but the greater part of this is a free translation,
not of the Scriptures themselves, but of a summary--the "Historia

scholastica" of Pierre le Mengeur (latinized "Comestor")--and is

consequently no bible at all. See M. Charles Read, in Bulletin, i. 76,

who remarks that, "everything considered, it may therefore be asserted

that the translations of Lefèvre d'Étaples and of Olivetanus are the

first versions without embellishment or gloss (non historiées et non

glossées), and that thus the first two versions of the Bible into the

language of the people are Protestant."



2 The inventory of the library of the Count of Angoulême, father of Margaret and

Francis I., consisting of nearly two hundred volumes, contains the title "Les


Paraboles de Salomon, les Espistres Saint Jehan, les Espistres Saint Pol et l'Apocalipse,
le tout en ung volume, escript en parchemin et à la main, et en françoys, couvert

de velous changeant et a deux fermoeres, l'un aux armes de mon diet

Seigneur, et l'autre aux armes de ma dicte dame." Aristotle, Boethius,

Boccaccio, and Dante figure in the list, the latter both in Italian and

in French. The inventory is printed in an appendix to the edition of the

Heptameron of Margaret of Angoulême published by the Soc. dea

bibliophiles français (Paris, 1853), a work enriched with many original

documents of considerable value.

sooner left the press than they were eagerly bought. They penetrated into
obscure hamlets to which no missionary of the "new doctrines" could find
access. By the wool-carders of Meaux the prize thus unexpectedly placed
within reach was particularly valued. The liberality of Bishop Briçonnet is
said to have freely supplied copies to those who were too poor to afford the

purchase-money. The prelate introduced the French Scriptures into the

churches of Meaux, where the unparalleled innovation of reading the

lessons in an intelligible tongue struck the people with amazement. "You

can scarcely imagine," wrote the delighted Lefèvre to a distant

friend,1 "with what ardor God is moving the minds of the simple, in

some places, to embrace His word since the books of the New Testament

have been published in French, though you will justly lament that they

have not been scattered more widely among the people. The attempt has

been made to hinder the work, under cover of the authority of

parliament; but our most generous king has become in this matter the

defender of Christ's cause, declaring it to be his pleasure that his

kingdom shall hear the word of God freely and without hinderance in the

language which it understands. At present, throughout our entire

diocese, on feast-days, and especially on Sunday, both the epistle and

gospel are read to the people in the vernacular tongue, and the parish

priest adds a word of exhortation to the epistle or gospel, or both, at

his discretion."

There did, indeed, seem to be amply sufficient ground for the

"exultation" expressed by the worthy Picard at the rapid progress of the

Reformation throughout Europe and the flattering prospects offered in

France itself.2 Everything seemed for a time to promise success at

Meaux. Bishop Briçonnet received with delight the advice of the Swiss

and German reformers.




1 This important letter of Lefèvre to Farel, July 6, 1524,

first published in part from the MS. in the Geneva Library, in the

Bulletin de l'hist. du prot. franç., xi. (1862), 212, is given in full

by Herminjard, i. 220, etc.



2 "O bone Deus, quanto exulto gaudio, cum percipio hanc

pure agnoscendi Christum gratiam, jam bonam partem pervasisse Europæ! Et

spero Christum tandem nostras Gallias hac benedictione invisurum."

The letters of Œcolampadius, from Basle, in particular so deeply


impressed him, that he commissioned Gérard Roussel to read in
the French language and explain the meaning of the Pauline

Epistles every morning to a promiscuous gathering of persons of both

sexes, and chose out the most evangelical preachers to perform similar

duty in all the more important places in his diocese.1




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