1902 Encyclopedia > France > 16th Century French Theologians

(Part 45)


16th Century Theologians

In France, as in all other countries, the Reformation was an essentially popular movement, though from special causes, such as the absence of political homogeneity, the nobles took a more active part both with pen and sword in it than was the case in England. But the great text book of the French Reformation was not the work of any noble. Calvin’s Institution of the Christian Religion is a book equally remearkable in matter and in form, in circumstances and in result. It is the first really great composition in argumentative French prose. Its severe logic and careful arrangement had as much influence on the manner of future thought, both in France and the other regions whither its widespread popularity carried it, as its style had on the expression of such thought. It was the work of a man of only seven-twenty, and it is impossible to exaggerate the originality of its manner when we remember that hardly any models of French prose then exited except tales and chronicles, which required and exhibited totally different qualities of style. It is indeed probable that had not the Institution been first written by its author in Latin, and afterwards translated by him, it might have had less dignity and vigour ; but it must at the same time be remembered that this process of composition was at least equally likely in the hands of any but a great genius to produced a heavy and pedantic style neither French nor Latin in character. Something like this result was actually produced in some of Calvin’s minor works, and still more in the works of many of his followers, whose lumbering language gained for itself, in allusions to their exile from France, the title of "style refuge." Nevertheless, the use of the vulgar tongue on the Protestant side, and the possession of a work of such importance written therein, gave the Reformers an immense advantage which their adversaries were more some time in neutralizing. Calvin was much helped by Pierre Viret (1511-1571), who wrote a large number of small theological and moral dialogues, and of satirical pamphlest, destined to captivate as well as to instruct the lower people. The more famous Beza (1519-1605) wrote chiefly in Latin, but be composed in French an ecclesiastical history of the Reformed churches and some translations of the Psalms. Marnix de St Aldegonde (1530-1593), a gentleman of Brabant, followed Viret as a satirical pamphleteer on the Protestant side. On the other hand, the Catholic champions at first affected to disdain the use of the vulgar tongue, and their pamphleteers, when they did attempt it, were unequal to the task. Towards the end of the century a more decent war was waged with Dud Plessis Mornay (1549-1623) on the Protestant side, whose work is at least as much directed against freethinkers and enemies of Christianity in general as against the dogmas and discipline of Rome. His adversary, the redoubtable Cardinal du Perron (1556-1618), who originally a Calvinist, went over to the other side, employed French most vigorously in controversial works, chiefly with reference to the eucharist. Du Perron was celebrated as the first controversialist of the time, and obtained dialectical victories over all comers. At the same time the bishop of Geneva, St Francis of Sales (1568-1622), supported the Catholic side, partly by controversial works, but still more by his devotional writings. The Introduction to a Devout Life, which, though actually published early in the next century, had been written sometimes previously, shares with Calvin’s Institution the position of the most important theological work of the period, and is in remarkable contrast with it in style and sentiment as well as in principles and plan. It has indeed been accused of a certain effeminacy, the appearance of which is in all probability mainly due to this very contrast. The 16th century does not, like the 17th, distinguish itself by literary exercises in the pulpit. The furious preachers of the League, and their equally violent opponents, have no literary value.

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