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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 124. Calvin and the Nicodemites. 1544.


Calvin: Petit traicté monstrant que c’est que doit faire un homme fidele, cognoissant la verité de l’Evangile quand il est entre les papistes, 1543. Excuse de Iehan Calvin à Messieurs les Nico_ites, sur la complaincte qu’il font de so trop grand rigueur. Excusatio ad Pseudo-Nicodemitas.) 1544. Embodied in the tractsDe vitandis superstitionibus quae cum sincera fidei confessione pugnant. Genevae, 1549, 1550, and 1551. This collection contains also the opinions of Melanchthon, Bucer, and Peter Martyr on the question raised by the Nicodemites. Reprinted inOpera, VI. 537–644. A German translation appeared at Herborn, 1588; an English translation by R. Golding, London, 1548. See the bibliographical notes in Henry, III.; Beilage, 208 sq.; Proleg. toOpera, VI. pp. xxx–xxxiv; an La France Protest., III. 584 sq.Dyer, 187 sqq. Stähelin, I. 542 sqq.


A great practical difficulty presented itself to the Protestants in France, where they were in constant danger of persecution. They could not emigrate en masse, nor live in peace at home, without concealing or denying their convictions. A large number were Protestants at heart, but outwardly conformed to the Roman Church. They excused their conduct by the example of Nicodemus, the Jewish Rabbi, who came to Jesus by night.

Calvin, therefore, called them "Nicodemites," but with this difference, that Nicodemus only buried the body of Christ, after anointing it with precious aromatics; while they bury both his soul and body, his divinity and humanity, and that, too, without honor. Nicodemus interred Christ when dead, but the Nicodemites thrust him into the earth after he has risen. Nicodemus displayed a hundred times more courage at the death of Christ than all the Nicodemites after his resurrection. Calvin confronted them with the alternative of Elijah:, How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow him: if Baal, then follow him "(1 Kings 18:21). He advised them either to leave their country for some place of liberty, or to absent themselves from idolatrous worship, even at the risk of their lives. The glory of God should be much dearer to us than this transitory life, which is only a shadow.

He distinguished several classes of Nicodemites: first, false preachers of the gospel, who adopt some evangelical doctrines (meaning probably Gérard le Roux or Roussel, for whom Margaret of Navarre had procured the bishopric of Oléron); next, worldly people, courtiers, and refined ladies, who are used to flattery and hate austerity; then, scholars and literary men, who love their ease and hope for gradual improvement with the spread of education and intelligence; lastly, merchants and citizens, who do not wish to be interrupted in their avocations. Yet he was far from disowning them as brethren because of their weakness. Owing to their great danger they could better expect pardon if they should fall, than he himself who lived in comparative security.

The Nicodemites charged Calvin with immoderate austerity. "Away with this Calvin! he is too impolite. He would reduce us to beggary, and lead us directly to the stake. Let him content himself with his own lot, and leave us in peace; or, let him come to us and show us how to behave. He resembles the leader of an army who incites the common soldiers to the attack, but himself keeps out of the reach of danger." To this charge he replied (in substance): "If you compare me with a captain, you should not blame me for doing my duty. The question is not, what I would do in your condition, but what is our present duty—yours and mine. If my life differs from my teaching, then woe to me. God is my witness that my heart bleeds when I think of your temptations and dangers, and that I cease not to pray with tears that you may be delivered. Nor do I condemn always the persons when I condemn the thing. I will not boast of superior courage, but it is not my fault, if I am not more frequently in danger. I am not far from the shot of the enemy. Secure to-day, I do not know what shall be to-morrow. I am prepared for every event, and I hope that God will give me grace to glorify him with my blood as well as with my tongue and pen. I shall lay down my life with no more sadness than I now write down these words."

The French Protestants were under the impression that Luther and Melanchthon had milder and more practicable views on this subject, and requested Calvin to proceed to Saxony for a personal conference. This he declined from want of time, since it would take at least forty days for the journey from Geneva to Wittenberg and back. Nor had he the means. "Even in favorable seasons," he wrote to an unknown friend in France,891891    Bonnet (I. 418, note) conjectures that it was Louis du Chemin, or Francois Daniel. "my income barely suffices to meet expenses, and from the scarcity with which we had to struggle during the last two years, I was compelled to run into debt." He added that "the season was unfavorable for consulting Luther, who has hardly had time to cool from the heat of controversy." He thus missed the only opportunity of a personal interview with Luther, who died a year later. It is doubtful whether it would have been satisfactory. The old hero was then discontented with the state of the world and the Church, and longing for departure.

But Calvin prevailed on a young gentleman of tolerable learning to undertake the journey for him. He gave him a literal Latin translation of his tracts against the Nicodemites, together with letters to Luther and Melanchthon (Jan. 20, 1545). He asked the latter to act as mediator according to his best judgment. The letter to Luther is very respectful and modest. After explaining the case, and requesting him to give it a cursory examination and to return his opinion in a few words, Calvin thus concludes this, his only, letter to the great German Reformer: —


"I am unwilling to give you this trouble in the midst of so many weighty and various employments; but such is your sense of justice that you cannot suppose me to have done this unless compelled by the necessity of the case; I therefore trust that you will pardon me. Would that I could fly to you, that I might even for a few hours enjoy the happiness of your society; for I would prefer, and it would be far better, not only upon this question, but also about others, to converse personally with yourself; but seeing that it is not granted to us on earth, I hope that shortly it will come to pass in the kingdom of God. Adieu, most renowned sir, most distinguished minister of Christ, and my ever-honored father. The Lord himself rule and direct you by His own Spirit, that you may persevere even unto the end, for the common benefit and good of His own Church."


Luther was still so excited by his last eucharistic controversy with the Swiss, and so suspicious, that Melanchthon deemed it inexpedient to lay the documents before him.892892    Opera, XII. 61.


"I have not shown your letter to Dr. Martin," he replied to Calvin, April 17, 1545, "for he takes many things suspiciously, and does not like his answers to questions of the kind you have proposed to him, to be carried round and handed from one to another .... At present I am looking forward to exile and other sorrows. Farewell! On the day on which, thirty-eight hundred and forty-six years ago, Noah entered into the ark, by which God gave testimony of his purpose never to forsake his Church, even when she quivers under the shock of the billows of the great sea."


He gave, however, his own opinion; and this, as well as the opinions of Bucer and Peter Martyr, and Calvin’s conclusion, were published, as an appendix to the tracts on avoiding superstition, at Geneva in 1549.893893    Opera, VI. 617-644. Melanchthon substantially agreed with Calvin; he asserts the duty of the Christian to worship God alone (Matt. 4:10), to flee from idols (1 John 5:21), and to profess Christ openly before men (Matt. 10:33); but he took a somewhat milder view as regards compliance with mere ceremonies and non-essentials. Bucer and Peter Martyr agreed with this opinion. The latter refers to the conduct of the early disciples, who, while holding worship in private houses, still continued to visit the temple until they were driven out.

We now proceed to Calvin’s controversies with Protestant opponents.



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