In 1534, John Calvin embraced the Reformation and experienced salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone. In response to rising persecution, Calvin fled France and sought refuge in Basel, Switzerland, arriving in January 1535.
While in Basel, Calvin took on a pseudonym and sought out other French reformers. It is very likely that he met his cousin Pierre Robert Olivétan. Olivétan was translating the first French Bible to be used by the Protestants, a project initiated and overseen by two other reformers, Guillaume Farrell and Pierre Viret.
It is possible that Calvin met all three of these reformers while in Basel. Regardless of who exactly he met, Calvin was asked to assist with the project by writing two prefaces for the Bible.
In this post, I would like to introduce you to Calvin’s first preface. It was written in Latin and defended the French Bible against various objections of the day. Calvin also used the preface to publicly align himself with the Reformation by defending translation and those involved in the endeavor.
‘John Calvin to all Emperors, …’
It is noteworthy that the first two words of the French Bible, after the title page, are Joannes Caluinus “John Calvin.” Calvin was in hiding, moving around Basel under the pseudonym of Martinus Lucianus.
Yet in the French Bible, he wanted his actual name to be seen. He wanted to address, by name, the emperors, kings, princes, and religious leaders who would open the Bible. He was publicly announcing his adherence to the Reformation.
Permission to Publish
After the initial greeting, Calvin launches into a discussion of granting permission to print books. Calvin was, no doubt, aware that the French Bible was being printed by Pierre de Vingle. De Vingle had printed numerous books and Scripture in support of the Reformation, usually without any official approval. In fact, he printed the French Bible of 1535 outside Neuchâtel, in the neighboring hamlet of Serrières, after failing to receive permission to print in Geneva and being exiled from Bern.
After noting the practice of granting permission to print a book, Calvin briefly admits that it has some benefits. However, he proceeds to argue that such regulations do not apply to Scripture. Given that the Scriptures are the truth and oracles of God, God is then the “guarantor of the privileges” to publish Scripture. It also follows for Calvin that the Scriptures should be “publicly and privately received with the highest reverence by all peoples, …”
Translations Are Not for All
Calvin then turns to the first of three objections against translating and disseminating the Word of God. He notes that some “ungodly voices” object to allowing “the simple common people” to have access to the Bible. Calvin boldly states that his only desire is that “the faithful people be permitted to hear their God speaking and to learn from [Him] teaching.”
He then notes the example of Jesus Christ, who taught the common people and was pleased that God revealed truth to children (Matthew 11:25). Calvin also mentions that Jesus was pleased that the gospel was preached to all, including the poor (Matthew 11:5).
Calvin then reminds the reader of several church fathers who urged the common people to read the Scriptures. For instance, he notes that Chrysostom argued that it was more important for the average person in church to read the Scriptures than it was for the monks.
Calvin suggests that there was a decline over the centuries in the reading the Scriptures on the part of the laity in the church. But he contends that it is cruelty on the part of pastors, who are called to feed their sheep, to “snatch the fodder of life” from those in their spiritual care.
Translations Lead to Error
Calvin then turns to the claim that those who read the Bible in their own language fall into error because they are not well instructed. He responds by reminding the reader that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who believer (1 Corinthians 1:18, 24). He also notes that Jesus Christ is both eternal life (John 14:6) and a stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:23).
He then notes the example of the church fathers, specifically Chrysostom and Augustine. He states that they urged their congregations to study the Scriptures and doctrine in order to be strengthened against heresy.
For Calvin, reading the Scriptures is the means to fortify believers and give them the resources they need to discern truth from error. It is the remedy for error, not the source of error.
Translations Lead to Pride
Calvin then takes up a third objection. Some religious leaders claimed that those who read the Scriptures become proud and easily angered. At this point, Calvin clearly reveals the target of his criticism. He notes that it is “the Roman Pontiff and his priestlings” who are set on maintaining their power. They want to keep people in darkness so that they can profit from their ignorance.
Calvin does not muster a scriptural response to this topic or cite the church fathers. He simply states that it is better for the erroneous practices of the Roman Church to be exposed and ridiculed.
Latin Should Satisfy All
After responding to three objections to the Scriptures in translation being available to the people, Calvin turns to another point. Some were suggesting that a French translation was not necessary because the Latin Bible, the Vulgate, should be adequate.
Calvin responds by asserting that the Vulgate is not easily understood, except by the most learned, and that it is not an accurate translation. Calvin then proposes that a right view and respect for the Holy Spirit should lead us to recognize the importance of having language that everyone understands and, as a result, leads to the edification of the church (1 Corinthians 12:10).
Commending His Cousin
Calvin concludes the preface with a few words of commendation for the translator. He notes that he is related to Pierre Robert Olivétan and that they have “an old friendship.” He says that Olivétan was highly educated and intelligent, and he has gained the highest trust as a translator. He asks the readers not to be too critical or “ungrateful to our Robert.”
Calvin then shares that Robert was so modest that he did not want to undertake the translation project, but the reformers Guillaume Farrell and Pierre Viret eventually persuaded him.
Calvin finishes this section by warning against criticizing the work and slandering the translator. He notes, “Men are ready to criticize everything, but not to strive to excel the same.”
With that ample quote, Calvin ends with an abrupt, “Farewell.”
John Calvin’s Latin preface is significant because the young reformer, hiding in Basel, used this writing as an opportunity to publicly announce to the French-speaking world that he had joined the Reformation.
And with the same strokes of the pen, he publicly supports his fellow reformers involved in the project, especially Olivétan.
He defends the importance of having the Bible in French and, in the process, clearly condemns the Pope and the religious leaders for the darkness in the church and the lack of spiritual food for the sheep.
It is also noteworthy that Calvin speaks more personally in this preface, giving names of fellow reformers and sharing about their personal struggles. By contrast, the second French preface has a more impersonal tone but overflows with praise of Christ.
In keeping with his public support of the Reformation, Calvin has a more polemic and pointed tone, referring to the religious leaders as “ungodly” and snatching the spiritual food from the laity. Furthermore, he focuses his comments on these religious leaders. By contrast, in the second preface, he addresses the common Christians at greater length. When he does address the religious leaders in the second preface, it is more respectful.
This Latin preface was a bold, public statement by Calvin, yet its relevance waned over time. It is not surprising that it did not appear in later editions of the French Bible.
Regardless of how often Calvin’s declaration appeared in print, it was a significant step for him and stands as a reminder and challenge for each of us. We must always be ready to publicly declare our faith in Christ.