Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
God used more than one man to write that precious creed of the Reformed churches: The Heidelberg Catechism. Frederick III, elector of the Palatinate, ordered it written and supported the project, even offering suggestions from time to time. Zacharius Ursinus, professor of theology, was one of its authors. We have described the life and work of these two men in earlier articles. We have one more man to discuss: Caspar Olevianus.
History has not recorded for us what precise part each of the two authors of the Catechism played in its formation; and speculations on the subject by historians have proved fruitless. But it does seem to be a manifestation of God’s great wisdom when, in the formulation of this marvelous creed, God used both the theologian Ursinus and the preacher Olevianus. Not only is the Catechism an unsurpassed summary of the Christian faith- the touch of a theologian; but it is a confession eminently suitable to preach – the touch of a man who was himself a gifted and eloquent preacher.
Early Life and Training
Caspar Olevianus was born on August 10, 1536, two years after the birth of his colleague Ursinus. He was born in one of the most famous cities in Trans-Alpine Europe, the city of Trier, or, as it was sometimes called, Treves. The city was built on the banks of the Moselle River on the border of Germany and Luxembourg. It boasted of the fact that its history went back to the days before the birth of Christ, and it claimed to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest city north of the Alps. The Emperor Caesar Augustus had started the city in 15 B.C. and had made it an important city in an ocean of barbarians.
The city had the distinction of being briefly the home of the great church father Athanasius, when, because of his uncompromising defense of the truth of Christ’s divinity, he had been banished from his church in Alexandria in Egypt. That was back in the first half of the 4th century.
The prominence of the city in the Middle Ages was due in large measure to the fact that the cathedral in the city claimed to have in its possession the seamless robe of Christ over which the soldiers gambled at the cross. (This robe is still put on public display at 25-year intervals, and hundreds of thousands crowd the city to look at it.) Further, the abbey church in the city claimed to be the burial place of the apostle Matthew, the only apostle, so tradition said, to be buried north of the Alps.
Olevianus was born of Gerhard von der Olewig and Anna Sinzig. The name “Olewig,” which means “olive,” actually refers to a part of the city, perhaps even a small village annexed to the city, known by that name. “Olevianus” is the Latinized form of that name.
Caspar’s father was a merchant, relatively wealthy, and a prominent citizen of this historic place. He was a baker, a president of the Bakers’ Guild, a member of the city council, and treasurer of the city. He followed a family tradition of service to the city, for Caspar’s grandfather was president of the Butchers’ Guild and also a member of the council. These positions in the city were important, for Trier, because of its ancient and illustrious past, was a “free” city in Germany.
Caspar’s mother was a pious and godly woman who exerted great influence on her family and son. It is striking, if I may make here a somewhat parenthetical remark, that so many of those men who occupied places of great importance in the cause of God and of His church, had very godly and pious mothers. It is a fact of history that ought to give all covenant mothers pause: they never know what the effect of their piety and humble service of God will be upon their children and how God will use their godliness for His cause.
Trier was a Roman Catholic city. It remained such even though the Lutheran Reformation spread through much of Germany. It remained immune to Lutheran teachings. Caspar was brought up, therefore, in a Roman Catholic home and taught in a Roman Catholic school in Trier the first 14 years of his life.
Offsetting this Roman Catholic influence was one incident which made a deep impression on Casper during these years, an incident of which he himself later spoke. While Casper was at school, an aged but kindly and saintly priest planted a seed in his heart which was eventually to bear fruit. It was nothing more than a remark which the old priest made to him in the corridors of the school. Recognizing the abilities of the young boy, the priest put his arm over Caspar’s shoulder and said to him: “Never forget that salvation and comfort are to be found only in Christ’s perfect work.” Again and again, through those dark and dreary centuries when Roman Catholicism held sway over the minds and consciences of men, we find these isolated individuals who, in spite of Rome’s denial of Christ’s perfect sacrifice for sin, held to the truth that all our salvation is only in Christ. It must have been these lonely and scattered men who enabled the church of Christ to stay alive during those perilous times.
In 1550, at the age of 14, Caspar completed his studies in Trier. His grandfather stepped in and offered to support Caspar’s further education in France provided Caspar would study law. This was somewhat strange, for Trier had its own university; but it becomes a bit understandable when we remember that Trier was solidly Roman Catholic and its schools were steadily losing students, while the universities of other parts of Europe were becoming very popular because of openness to Renaissance and Reformation teachings.
It was in France that Caspar’s life took an extraordinary turn.
Conversion and Early Work
The years Olevianus spent in France were profitable, if for no other reason than that they led to his conversion to the Reformed faith.
Caspar attended the universities of Paris, Orleans, and Bourges, the same universities in which Calvin had received his training. Although he studied law, he came under the influence of leading thinkers in the universities who were more or less committed to Lutheranism; but more importantly, he came under the influence of Huguenot teaching. The Huguenots were French Calvinists who had been delivered from Roman Catholicism, but who were forced to meet secretly because they were severely persecuted by the king and the church. The shadow of the stake, the hangman’s noose, and the sword hung constantly over them and their families. Not only did Caspar come in contact with them, but he became persuaded of their position and even attended their secret meetings.
Especially one experience changed his life. While walking with a friend, a prince from Germany, along the river which ran by Bourges, Caspar and this friend were invited to cross the river in a boat in which were other students. Caspar refused because the students in the boat were drunk, but his friend took up the offer. In midstream the students began rocking the boat .and it overturned. Caspar dived into the water to save his friend, but was unable to do so because of the swift current. He was himself in danger of drowning. At that crucial point, Caspar promised that if God would spare his life he would preach the gospel in Trier. His friend’s valet, thinking Caspar was his master, hauled Caspar from the water, while the friend drowned. Although Caspar continued his studies in law, that promise, made in the cold waters of the river Auron, was not forgotten.
After completing his studies in France, Caspar returned to Trier – not yet to preach (for this he was untrained), but to practice law. His promise, however, sat heavily upon his soul, and he found no satisfaction in the legal niceties of 16th century law practice. In disgust and restlessness, Caspar traveled to Geneva for the express purpose of talking with Calvin.
The two years he spent in Switzerland were important ones. He not only met with and talked to Calvin, but had opportunity to spend many hours with Theodore Beza, Henry Bullinger, Peter Martyr, William Farel, and Peter Viret, all luminous stars in the Reformation heavens. The years were not spent, though, in idle chatter; he studied in Geneva under Calvin, learned Hebrew, mastered theology, was instructed in the art of preaching, and prepared himself for the ministry.
It must have been good instruction which he received in preaching because, along with the development of his native gifts, this instruction made Caspar one of the outstanding and most eloquent preachers of the times -and the times were blessed with many gifted preachers!
The year 1559 was an important one in the history of the Reformation. During this year French Protestants held their first Synod in Paris, John Knox returned to Scotland to establish the Presbyterian Church there, William the Silent made his vow to drive N the Spanish vermin” from the Netherlands, Elector Frederick III the Pious began his reign in Heidelberg, and Calvin opened his Academy in Geneva and published the last edition of his Institutes.
In June of this important year, at the urging of Farel- that firebrand of a Reformer who had been instrumental in keeping Calvin in Geneva – Olevianus returned to Trier.
Trier was still a Roman Catholic City, and Caspar’s presence as a minister of the truth of the Calvin Reformation would not have gone over very well there. But two men, Otto Seele and Peter Sierk, influential in the city, were known in Geneva to have some Calvinistic leanings. To them Calvin wrote to try to encourage them to work towards reformation in the city, and especially to bring Caspar Olevianus to the city to help.
It seems as if Caspar went without really revealing what his position on reformational matters was. He must have, for the time being, concealed his true purposes, for he had no difficulty, because of the reputation of his parents and grandparents, obtaining an appointment to teach philosophy in the school of a solidly Roman Catholic city. He chose to teach Melanchthon’s Dialectics. The instruction was in Latin, and Dialectics was rather boring to any but the most ardent students; so Olevianus could be of little influence. Here we shall leave him for a while, in his home town, in a sense flying under false colors, eager to keep a vow he had made long before, stuck in a philosophy class in a dying school.