Because Roman Catholicism dominated the French religious landscape in the sixteenth century, it is easy to forget that some of the most prominent theologians of the Reformed movement were French. Persecuted at home, many of these theologians fled to Switzerland, Germany, or the Netherlands, but they wrote with their beseiged French brethren in mind.

Stirrings of reform

French Reformed thinking can be traced back to Jacques Lefèvre d'étaples (d. 1536), who, in his 1512 commentary on the Pauline epistles, argued for justification by faith. Lefèvre distinguished between a man-centered form of righteousness based on works and a God-centered form based on God's grace through Christ. He also anticipated the foundational doctrine of sola Scriptura, arguing that the Bible is sufficient in matters related to salvation.

Lefèvre emphasized the literal sense of Scripture over the medieval fourfold approach, which emphasized the allegorical interpretation. Also, like Martin Luther, he made great use of the Psalms as prophecies of the ministry and work of Christ. Lefèvre wrote in the preface to his Quincuplex Psalterium, "I have tried to write a short exposition of the Psalms with the assistance of Christ, who is the key to the understanding of David. He is the one about whom David spoke."

In spite of all these ideas that anticipated and predated the Reformation, most scholars do not consider Lefèvre a Protestant. He did, however, set the stage for others.

Some of Lefèvre's students, such as Bishop Briçonnet of Meaux, stayed loyal to the Roman Catholic Church and tried to reform it from within. Briçonnet encouraged everyone in his diocese to read the Scriptures and even financed a new French translation of the Greek Bible. These actions pitted Briçonnet against the Sorbonne, a guardian of Catholic orthodoxy, but King Francis I shielded the bishop from harsh punishments. Ultimately the bishop proved to be more a humanist than a reformer.

Many of Lefèvre's students, however, broke with the Catholic Church and had to flee the country. Lefèvre left after the Sorbonne and the Parlement of Paris broke up Briçonnet's reform-minded circle in 1525. Melchior Wolmar, a professor of Greek at Bourges who taught John Calvin, fled to Germany. The famous poet Clement Marot, who authored the French Psalter, spent time in Navarre. Other refugees included Pierre Viret and Theodore Beza, who fled to Lausanne, and Guillaume Farel and Calvin, who settled in Geneva.

From Calvin to Calvinism

The impact of Calvin's thought and example among the Huguenots cannot be overemphasized. His Institutes of the Christian Religion was translated into French by 1541 and became the standard for French Protestant thought, which did not follow the Lutheran but the Calvinist ideal. The French Reformed Church also followed Calvin's lead in its organizational pattern, instituting the offices of pastor, elder, teacher, and deacon as Calvin set forth in his Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541). The Academy of Geneva, founded by Calvin, served as a training ground for French pastors.

Scholars view Beza as a transitional figure between the era of Calvin and that of Calvinism. He continued Calvin's ministry in Geneva and wrote extensively on a number of topics, notably the doctrine of predestination. His treatise on the subject, The Sum of All Christianity (1555), defended Calvin against the attacks of Jerome Bolsec (1524-1574), a former Carmelite monk who accused Calvin of making God the author of sin. Beza argued for a strict "double predestination," whereby God decrees some to be destined for heaven and the rest of humanity to damnation.

Antoine de la Roche Chandieu (1534-1591), another second-generation Reformed theologian, studied with Calvin in Geneva, then took Calvin's ideas in a more formal direction. His scholastic method, refined while he taught at the Reformed Academy, became a central principle for future Reformed theologians throughout Europe.

Chandieu employed syllogistic reasoning to articulate a Protestant response to sophisticated Roman Catholic attacks on the doctrine of sola Scriptura. He offered this argument for the sufficiency of the Bible: "Whatever is the Word of God, divinely inspired and written by the prophets, apostles, and evangelists by the breath of God's Spirit, contains all the doctrines necessary for Christian faith. But Holy Scripture is the word of God and is divinely inspired. Therefore, Holy Scripture contains all the doctrines necessary for the Christian faith."

We believe

Foundational Huguenot beliefs are spelled out most directly in the French Confession of Faith (1559), which was drawn up at a synod of the French Reformed churches in Paris during a lull in the persecution. It was based largely on a Genevan draft, probably revised by Chandieu, and included a prefatory plea to the French King Francis II to stop the oppression of the Huguenots.

The confession contains a clear expression of the doctrine of justification by faith and the completed work of Christ on the cross to blot out all of our sins. It does not include a developed doctrine of double predestination, though it does state that God calls some to salvation and leaves the rest in condemnation: "We believe that from this corruption and general condemnation in which all men are plunged, God, according to his eternal and immutable counsel, calls those whom he has chosen by his goodness and mercy alone in our Lord Jesus Christ, without consideration of their works, to display in them the riches of his mercy; leaving the rest in this same corruption and condemnation to show in them his justice."

The confession specifically rejects such Roman Catholic practices as prayers to the saints, calling "all imaginations of men concerning the intercession of dead saints … an abuse and a device of Satan to lead men from the right way of worship." It also condemns "monastic vows, pilgrimages, the prohibition of marriage and of eating meat, the ceremonial observance of days, auricular confession, indulgences, and all such things by which [Catholics] hope to merit forgiveness and salvation."

Huguenots recognized only two sacraments: baptism and the Lord's Supper. While Catholics believed that sacraments play a role in salvation, for Huguenots they were "outward signs through which God operates by his Spirit, so that he may not signify any thing to us in vain."

Though Huguenots regarded baptism as a sign of God's inward work, they encouraged infant baptism: "Nevertheless, although it is a sacrament of faith and penitence, yet as God receives little children into the Church with their fathers, we say, upon the authority of Jesus Christ, that the children of believing parents should be baptized."

Regarding rebaptism of Catholic converts, the Huguenot confession admits an uneasy relationship with Rome: "Nevertheless, as some trace of the Church is left in the papacy, and the virtue and substance of baptism remain, and as the efficacy of baptism does not depend upon the person who administers it, we confess that those baptized in it do not need a second baptism. But, on account of its corruptions, we cannot present children to be baptized in it without incurring pollution."

In its descriptions of the Lord's Supper, the confession veers more sharply from Rome, though it stops short of stripping the elements of all supernatural significance. It states, "Thus we hold … that the bread and wine given to us in the sacrament serve to our spiritual nourishment, inasmuch as they show, as to our sight, that the body of Christ is our meat, and his blood our drink. And we reject the Enthusiasts and Sacramentarians who will not receive such signs and marks, although our Savior said: 'This is my body, and this cup is my blood.'"

The last two articles of the confession deal with the relationship between church and state. They affirm the right of the magistrate to wield the power of the sword to suppress criminal acts and to protect God's commands, and they specifically condemn motions to overthrow divinely appointed kings, "even if they are unbelievers." As persecution increased, though, Huguenot thinkers explored the limits of godly obedience and the legitimacy of armed resistance.

Political theology

Calvin was reluctant to support violent insurrection because of Paul's clear command in Romans 13 to obey governmental authorities. However, the German Lutherans of the Schmalkaldic League had proposed a way out of the Romans 13 dilemma. If one could show that a tyrannical king had violated the rights of local magistrates to govern, then local government officials would have the right to protect their subjects against the monarch.

After the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572, French Reformed theologians allowed more and more room for armed resistance against the crown. Francis Hotman penned the Franco Gallia, in which he argued that the influx of the Roman ideas had led to the absolutist tendencies of the monarchy. Based on ancient Gallic law, the monarchy should be constitutional, and any violation of the rights of the French people could result in rebellion.

The Vindiciae Contra Tyrranos, by Philippe du Plessis Mornay, pointed to the abrogation of the compact between the king and the people, with the result that the people were free to resist their tyrannical ruler.

Beza developed the theological support for resistance against tyranny in his monumental treatise Du droit des magistrats (1573). He also argued, in The Grounds and Principles of Christian Religion (1591), "As often as the Magistrate commands anything that is repugnant either to the worship which we owe unto God, or to the love which we owe unto our neighbor, we cannot yield obedience thereunto with a safe conscience. For as often as the commandment of God and men are directly opposed one against another, this rule is to be perpetually observed; that it is better to obey God than men."

Political quandaries lost some immediacy in 1598 when King Henri IV issued the Edict of Nantes, giving Huguenots legal recognition. Soon afterward Reformed thinkers were faced with a new challenge, as one of Beza's students, Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), questioned such fundamental Calvinist doctrines as predestination. But while the locus of debate shifted, the situation was hardly unique. Reformed theologians had been fighting for their ideals, as well as their lives, from the beginning.

Martin I. Klauber is visiting professor of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.