Reformation on All Saints Day: Calvin in Paris

There is a twofold occasion for this post. The first occasion has to do with the date of this post. The 31th of October is a special date in the history of the Church. At this very date in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his theseCollège de Fortets at the doors of Wittenberg’s Castle Church. While intending to start an academic debate, Luther did in fact inaugurate the Reformation. While this date is very well known, All Saints Day, 1 November, is not generally associated with the Reformation. But in fact, a good case can be made for that. In order to see why, we need to go to Paris. That brings me to the other occasion to write this post. Last week I spent a few days in Paris, attending a very inspiring conference. I stayed in a hotel in the surroundings of the most famous and oldest university of Paris, the Sorbonne. Those acquainted with Calvin’s writings know that he can be very vehement in his polemics with the theologians of the Sorbonne. In fact, as he writes pejoratively about ‘the scholastics’, it’s them he almost always has in mind.

The buildings of the Sorbonne are located in the Latin Quarter (Quartier Latin). It was, and still is, a district in Paris that has largely been populated with students. In the early sixteenth century Calvin was one of them. In fact, he stayed in Paris several times. In the 1520’s he studied at the (in)famous Collège de Montaigu. But it is very hard to determine with whom he studied (John Major?), let alone what the content of his studies included. However, in the early 1530’s he is back in Paris, after studies in Orléans and Bourges. He takes his residence in the Collège de Fortet, near the Collège de Montaigu, in the Latin Quarter. He became an ‘auditor’ at the recently founded Collège Royal of Guillaume Budé. Besides, Calvin worked hard at his commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia. It was finished in February 1532 and printed in Paris two months later. Calvin aimed for a scholarly career and this book has to be regarded as a very important step in that intended career. However, things would turn out differently.

In his biography on John Calvin Yale professor Bruce Gordon writes:

A zephyr of humanist and evangelical ideas blew through Paris during the early years of the 1530’s, and it was felt by Calvin. Fifteen-thirty-two brought the publication of François Rabelais’ Pantagruel, under a pseudonym, in which the doctors of the Sorbonne were mocked. In a long and newsy letter from October 1533, the conversion year, Calvin recounts to Daniel Lambert the events surrounding the performance of a scandalous play by students that led officials to launch an inquiry. He moves to the disastrous story of the theological faculty’s condemnation of a work entitled The Mirror of the Sinful Soul, a volume of devotional verse published in Alençon in 1531 and in Paris two years later which turned out to be by none other than Marguerite of Navarre herself, who promptly complained to her brother, the king. (…) Humiliated, the theological faculty was forced to retreat (Bruce Gordon, Calvin, p.36-37).

What does all this point to? It points to increasing tensions between the doctors of the Sorbonne on the one hand and the upcoming humanist and evangelical ideas on the other hand. At this point, Nicolas Cop, the new rector of the university had to deliver his inaugural adress on All Saints Day 1533 in the Church of the Mathurins. Calvin was befriended with Cop and his family. It has been a matter of considerable debate whether Calvin was (partly) the author of Cop’s words. French Calvin-biographer Bernard Cottret for example is very decided in his dismissal of the possibility Calvin’s authorship. Bruce Gordon on the other hand is more willing to consider Calvin’s influence on Cop, up to the point of a shared authorship. It depends not only on questions whether it is likely or probable that Calvin wrote (parts of) this speech, it depends on our view on Calvin’s conversion as well. That is another complicated question, with a lot of different opinions. How this all may be, the only point I want to make here, is that the adress ‘was an Erasmian account of scripture with unmistakably Lutheran overtones, particularly on Law and Gospel’ (Gordon, Calvin, p.37). When you read these words with the background of the vexed atmosphere of Paris in mind, you can easily understand why this speech roused quite a stir. Cop contrasted the Law with the Gospel. He spoke of God who wakes us up from our sleep in darkness. He told his audience that de forgiveness of sins and God’s love the only remedy is for a troubled conscience.

SorbonneNo wonder then, that the theologians of the Sorbonne were furious. They saw an opportunity for rehabilitation and suggested immediate action to the authorities. Cop had to flee from Paris, warned by a friend that he was sought after. And Calvin made a rapid departure from Paris as well. What does that mean? Although, it can’t be a decisive clue for an answer to the question of the authorship of Cop’s adress, it strongly suggest that by this time Calvin felt himself deeply associated with, if not committed to the kind of interpretation of the Gospel Cop had given. But we must make one more step. By the fact that Calvin fled from Paris, he practically had made a decision. It was not irreversable, to be sure. Nicolas Cop himself could later return to Paris. My point is this: if we grant that Calvin was at least partly involved in the draft of Cop’s speech, then this event is not incomparable with Luther’s nailing of the theses at the doors in 1517. Remember that Luther did not intend a Reformation at that point in history. Nor did Calvin plan to be a reformer in 1533. But by acting the way they did, they choosed a path that led them to speak out more clearly and in public the cause of the Gospel.

It is fairly arbitrary to point to one date in history as the starting point of the Reformation, be it the 31th of October (as for Luther) or be it All Saints Day (as for Calvin). In both cases the events on these dates were just one moment in a string of many decisive moments. However, what happened on these very dates was in one sense very important and decisive. It was for both men the first time they came to the fore with evangelical opinions. They would both have been surprised by the events caused by their action. But they both didn’t want to retrace their steps. They had become advocates of Reformation.

Triple John

The early years of John Calvin have attracted a lot of attention. One reason for that fact is the lack of hard evidence. We know, for example, hardly anything of value about Calvin’s education. Yes, we know that he studied at Collège Montaigu in Paris. But what was his curriculum? And who were his teachers? We don’t know.

But we’d like to know it for sure. So, there are quite a lot of hypotheses. One persistent hypothesis is the one that describes a considerable influence to John Maior (or Maïr). This hypothesis has been en vogue during a couple of decades. It has been supported by François Wendel, Willem Dankbaar, but above all by Karl Reuter. Reuter made a case for it in his book Das Grundverständnis der Theology Calvins (1963). He claimed that Major’s influence upon Calvin could be proved by several key doctrinal positions of the latter, such as his doctrine of divine providence, his doctrine of sin and justification, but above all his ‘anti-pelagian’ doctrine of God. Behind the back of John Major he discerned several theologians and philosophers: Thomas Bradwardine and Gregory of Rimini. Major’s influence on Calvin is said to be ‘ockhamistic’, but also ‘scotistic’. Indeed, that’s the third John: John Duns Scotus. The supposed influence of John Duns Scotus, via John Major, on John Calvin has been widespread. Even the famous scholar Heiko A. Oberman was convinced of a fundamental connection between Duns and Calvin.

Is there evidence for this connection? Bruce Gordon is very obvious in his biography of John Calvin (2009):

“It has been suggested that he studied Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Gregory of Rimini and other key luminaries of medieval theology, but again nothing can be established with certainty. It is not even known whether he studied theology in Paris” (p.8).

And T.H.L. Parker says in his biography of Calvin (1975):

“It is further conjectured that the Scottish theologian, John Major, who was a regent (i.e. professor) at Montaigu between 1525 and 1531, taught the young Calvin. One or two writers even go so far as to assert that Major taught Calvin theology. The only foundation for the notion is that Major and Calvin were contemporary at Montaigu (…)”. (p.13).

The definitive verdict had been spoken nearly a decade before Parker wrote his book. In his book Le Jeune Calvin (1966; transl. The Young Calvin) Alexandre Ganoczy investigated all of Calvin’s early writings. But he didn’t find any traces of John Major, not to mention John Duns Scotus or other medieval theologians, except two of them: Gratianus and Petrus Lombardus. Both of them wrote a textbook on canon law resp. theology. Calvin knew these books and quoted them extensively in his 1536 Institutio. In short, John Major’s influence on John Calvin seems to be very limited. And as far as the influence of Duns is concerned, it seems quite certain that Calvin didn’t read him up to 1536. Maybe, he read him later. But that’s another question.