Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Calvin, Farel, and the Anabaptists: On the Origins of the Brieve Instruction of 1544

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Calvin, Farel, and the Anabaptists: On the Origins of the Brieve Instruction of 1544

Article excerpt

Abstract: The fact that both Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin felt compelled to write a refutation of the Schleitheim Articles of 1527, and to do so only seventeen years apart, establishes the importance of these texts, not only for Anabaptism but also for the history of the emerging Reformed tradition. Through a fresh reading of the primary sources, the following essay illuminates for the first time: 1) the steps leading up to Calvin's Brieve Instruction of 1544 within the larger context of the theology of John Calvin and William Farel; 2) details regarding the Anabaptist movement in French-speaking Switzerland, which has not yet been adequately studied; and 3) the context surrounding the publication of the 1543 French version of the Schleitheim Articles, which is no longer extant.

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

In his Vita Calvini of 1564, Theodor Beza fervently affirmed the rhetorical abilities of his friend and predecessor, John Calvin: "I believe there is no old, warmed-over, or newly-invented heresy that he did not destroy at its very foundations."(1) The spectrum of theological controversies that the theologian from Geneva engaged is broad indeed. On the right, Calvin attacked the theologians of the papacy from Paris to Trent along with the religious politics of the emperor (1536-1550). In the center, he called on those who were indecisive--known as Nicodemites--to declare themselves (1537-1562). And on the left, he distinguished himself firmly over against those whom he identified in his writings 152 times as "anabaptistes" and five more times as "catabaptistes," though he hardly ever bothered to provide a coherent definition of these terms.(2) According to Karl H. Wyneken, Calvin used these labels to characterize "radicals" in genera1, (3) even though, as George H. Williams has made clear, the terms did not provide a clear profile of his opponents. In the words of Williams, "the Radical Reformation was a loosely interrelated congeries of reformations and restitutions which, besides the Anabaptists of various types, included Spiritualists and spiritualizers of varying tendencies, and the Evangelical Rationalists, largely Italian in origin."(4)

Although Anabaptism was rarely a uniform movement anywhere, it was least uniform in French-speaking regions where, according to Lucien Febvre, the pre-confessional Reformation movement expressed itself as "a long period of grand religious anarchy."(6) For Calvin, whose life work was ultimately characterized by a focus on "church" [ecclesia] and "society" [civitas], it was precisely this chaotic character that irritated him about the Anabaptists. Their teachings appeared to him as "an abyss from which I would never escape," "a whole sea of insane views," and "a forest from which no one should ever emerge."(7) That Calvin classified the "Anabaptists" absolutely as heretics is not nearly as surprising as the fact that he did this so early. Already in a letter of dedication to Francis I in the first edition of the Institutes in 1536, Calvin--who was then barely 25 years old and writing in the context of persecution--assured the king that the current confusion and obscuring of the Gospel was not the fault of the Reformers, but of Satan himself "through his Anabaptists [catabaptistes] and people of their type."(8) Once Calvin had settled on this judgment, he would never again revise it.

Scholars have not yet explored the influence of contemporary anti-Anabaptist writings on Calvin. He likely was aware of the early polemical writings of Zwingli and Bullinger, at least those in Latin, since he did not understand German.(9) This is evident, in any case, by the fact that his rebuttal of Anabaptist views on the sacraments and civil government in the 1536 edition of the Institutes corresponds to a large extent with Articles I and VI of the Schleitheim Confession, in the same way that Zwingli cited and rejected them in his own polemic, In Catabaptistarum Strophas Elenchus (Against the Schemes of the Anabaptists) of 1527. …

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