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The French Connection

By Roger Salter
May 29, 2017

Whether the supposed traits of various national types can be accurately and objectively ascertained or not there is a popular impression that the French as a nation display great charm, elegance, and finesse. There is much that is base in the culture and history of France as there is any country entirely populated by those corrupted in consequence of Adam's sin, and to that condition there are no human exceptions. But the aim of French effort in any enterprise seems to be to strive toward that which is either exquisite in form or highly efficient in execution. There is a certain delicacy of taste and touch which is meant to guarantee the appraisal "Tres bon!" after any important achievement. Satisfaction is the quest. Those less bothered with the pursuit of the beau ideal are apt to conclude that French insistence on excellence and decorum is merely irritating fussiness.

In spite of centuries of rivalry and rancor between the French and the English something of the exotic French religious influence has been transfused into the bloodstream of the Anglican body and contributed to its constitution.

The great Genevan Jean Calvin (son of Gerard Cauvin) was French. Calvin was a man of French sensibilities. The majority of his readership is, most likely, English speaking. Because of his origins, mindset, and temperament there is a sense in which Calvin must come across to us and be approached by us, through mental accommodation to these facts, as a surprisingly interesting "stranger", - not as one commonly known or familiar - his intellect conditioned by Gallic meticulousness and tinctured with the piquancy of French observation, insight, and interpretation. Ideas and facts are plain, but the presentation of these may possess intriguing nuances that add a certain spice to the message we are receiving. While truth must be clear it is no disadvantage to add charm and winsomeness. Ford Lewis Battles has opined that Calvin's prose was richly poetic. The sermons of John Donne capture this quality of comeliness. The gospel may be declared in a direct way because of the urgency of its appeal to the lost. The Word of God may be adorned with care and loveliness to stimulate reflection and to prompt prolonged meditation among believers (e.g. the sermons and writings of Bernard of Clairvaux).

Meditation is the lost art of our time. Haste and inattentiveness hold us hostage to shallowness, immaturity, and instability. The oft-time glib and habitual iteration of series of predictable, and often in-adequately expounded, texts as evangelical fare - in some instances - the clichetic remarks on Holy Scripture, and exhortative ejaculations without substantial content to muse upon, cheapen the power of the gospel among folk who eventually come to demote the word as lacking in true weight, worth, and pertinence.

Calvin claims our attention from a Scripture-resourced mind and a surrendered heart: "I offer to God my heart as a sacrifice". God is his sovereign, Christ is his adored Redeemer, the Spirit is his enlightener and enlivener. This theologian and expositor par excellence, without vast formal theological training or degree in divinity, was instrumental with others (mentors and colleagues - Luther, Bucer, Vermigli,) in consolidating the rediscoveries and gains of the Reformation. He was not perfect or infallible. He admitted his impurities which made his advocacy of sovereign grace utterly compelling. A Frenchman's sensitivity accompanied his diligence in searching into and sounding forth the Word. The meaning of Scripture was annunciated with much personal care, holy passion, and scholarly precision. Calvin rose to prominence as the principal voice of Reformed doctrine and his Institutes of the Christian Religion is the classic theological text of his century, the standard compendium of modern Augustinian thought that has given good guidance to several Protestant traditions (Baptist, Anglican, Congregational, Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian).

Calvin's influence is massive and Anglicanism is indebted to a) His teaching which gained the allegiance of the majority of the leadership of the national church for nigh on a century and then shaped the character of non-conformity for an ensuing further two centuries. b) His contact through correspondence with English bishops (e.g. Cranmer, Grindal), royalty (Edward VI - "that the poor flocks may not be destitute of pastors")) and other national dignitaries (e.g. Lord Protector Somerset). His counsel was pervasive and his encouragement fervent and wisely pastoral. His interest in England was keen and kindly, evoking the appreciation of Richard Hooker and even Lancelot Andrewes.

In delineating the character, campaign, and conduct of Calvin his enemies had the first word that has established a much distorted evaluation of the man, flawed as we all happen to be, but not infamous as many mistakenly claim. Determined, driven, dedicated, devoted in the cause of Christ in intensely difficult times Calvin had high goals to achieve and huge tensions to endure. This sensitive man was constrained to fulfill his unique calling in reliance upon the continual enduement of divine strength. He was deeply aware of his sinfulness and human insufficiency. But given all the problems of his pastoral and public leadership Jean Calvin was a beautiful, generous, well -rounded and human personality.

His work was his priority, and so it should have been. He was co-opted by Christ into his service. His tenderness was in evidence in his love and solicitous concern for his wife Idelette de Bure (a widowed woman of beauty and strong support in his multifaceted ministry), and his compassion was displayed in his personal concern for his parishioners, especially those in sickness and want. He identified with common folk. He ensured that the poor of Geneva had access to bread at a charitably regulated and affordable price. He won the affection and trust of his closest companions and colleagues. He enjoyed times of leisure and relaxed camaraderie with his nearest associates, Viret, Beza, and Farel, with whom humor, especially puns, and innocent pastimes were enjoyed. Calvin was not odious but attractively human.

Ill health, the strains and demands of his role, the cruel and insulting opposition he encountered from ecclesiastical and civil quarters, taxed his patience at times, but how many of us would be alarmed at close public scrutiny of our private behavior and inconsistencies when our tolerance wears thin through testing circumstances, weariness, and fluctuating conditions of health and wellbeing? Human fallenness and frailty besets us all. Yet Joseph Renan (1823-1892), historian of religion, who excited perturbation in the minds of Catholics and Protestants with his Life of Christ pronounced Calvin the greatest Christian of his century.

The name Servetus is often raised in reference to Calvin and popular estimation of him. Before any evaluation of Calvin is finalized it is best to have a reasonable knowledge of Servetus, his troublesome career and provocations that concerned the whole of 16th Century Christendom, Protestant and Catholic, and it is wise to note the outlook and legal customs of the times. Grave heresy was a capital offense throughout Europe. Every ecclesiastical authority was gunning for Miguel Servetus, Lutheran, Roman, and Reformed. His mischief and misleading views were audacious and spiritually dangerous and the man himself, though undeniably brilliant, was annoyingly pugnacious and given to irreverence and insult.

However, wrong the sentence of death leveled against errorists in the 16th Century may be from our perspective, it was, as some have said, a crime of the time. Calvin did not sentence Servetus to death. That was the decision of the Town Council. The religious leaders of Europe accorded universal assent to that verdict of guilt and its penalty. Even the mild -mannered Melancthon concurred. Calvin urged for a less violent and painful manner of execution for the unhappy Spaniard than consignment to the flames, and he visited Servetus in earnest quest of his change of heart toward Christ and the gospel.

England and Anglicanism were fortunate to be exposed to the thought and aid of Monsieur Jean Calvin. His successor Theodore Beza also won the confidence of English bishops, theologians, and clergy, and his correspondence with eminent persons had telling effect. Again, it was William Perkins who was the conduit for Bezan emphases in theology into the realm of Anglican thought.

From the outset of the Reformation in France and England there has always been a close bond between Huguenots, the disciples of Calvin, and English Evangelicals. Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Francis Walsingham were among the keen supporters of the promotion and preservation of the Reformed faith among the French people. Sir Francis Drake enjoyed fond friendship with Admiral Gaspard Coligny the martyred leader of the Calvinists in France and treasured the volume of the Psalms that Coligny had given him for use on his extensive voyages (Sir Francis, Puritan Anglican, arranged for the first Anglican Service of Holy Communion on American soil while his ship was anchored off the Californian coast).

Exiled Huguenots have enriched Anglican ministry and the gospel cause in England and Ireland, and the second greatest Church of England preacher (friend and colleague of Whitefield himself) of the 18th century Great Awakening was William Romaine a devout Scriptural and Reformed scholar whose efforts enlarged and established the proclamation of the name of Christ in the City of London and the provinces farther afield.

Religious bonds between French and English Christians are maintained in several ways symbolized perhaps by the beautiful French Church on the Oxford Street side of Soho Square and the little colony of French hostelry and apartments in the county of Kent. Those who are interested may read the two volume account of the Reformation in England by the French Protestant, Swiss born, church historian Jean M.H. D'Aubigne.

Calvin is credited with the excellent motto: God will win! If Anglicans thought more kindly and approvingly of Calvin and his teaching and moved to his side it might be progress in partaking of victory.

The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church

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