As his name would indicate, Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (c. 1455-1536) was a Frenchman from Étaples, a coastal town south of Calais, in Picardy. His surname is sometimes given as Fabry or Fabri, and he is also known by the Latin form of his name: Jacobus Faber Stapulensis. Although this sounds complicated, it is worth bearing in mind if you look him up online or in books and articles dealing with the Reformation, along with the men and ideas that prepared the way for it.
Unlike the other individuals treated in this special Reformation Day issue of the SB, Jacques Lefèvre lived to see the sixteenth-century Reformation. However, unlike the Waldensians, the other party treated in this issue, and the Hussites, the followers of John Hus, Lefèvre did not join the Reformation. Indeed, he died in the Roman Catholic Church in France. This makes him somewhat harder for us to categorize and understand. So why is he included in this special edition of the SB? Read on!
The fundamental difficulty for English-speakers is that the primary sources, Lefèvre’s own writings, are in Latin and French, and have not been translated into our native tongue. Moreover, much of the secondary literature is not in English either.
A second issue is the different modern evaluations of the French scholar. Writing in 1892, in his eight-volume History of the Christian Church, Philip Schaff states,
[The Reformer, William Farel’s] principal teacher [at the University of Paris], Jacques Le Fèvre d’Étaples (Faber Stapulensis, 1455-1536), the pioneer of the Reformation in France and translator of the Scriptures, introduced him into the knowledge of Paul’s Epistles and the doctrine of justification by faith, and prophetically told him, already in 1512: “My son, God will renew the world, and you will witness it.”1
This view of Lefèvre as a precursor or pioneer of the Reformation is representative of historic Protestant evaluations. However, in recent decades the Picard scholar’s Reformed teaching and influence have been downplayed by some in the Protestant tradition. Likewise, as Romanism becomes more ecumenical, Roman Catholic authorities speak less of what they used to refer to as his “heresies” and, instead, they tone down his doctrines and applaud his efforts towards “renewal” within their institution.
However, the fullest portrait in English, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes’ Lefèvre: Pioneer of Ecclesiastical Renewal in France (1984), bucks the recent trend.2 Hughes traces the intellectual and spiritual development of this many-sided priest, university lecturer, and author from his earlier studies in philosophy and mysticism (1- 51) to his later work as a Bible translator, Scripture commentator, and reforming theologian (53-197).
Both in the eyes of others and himself, 1509 marked a turning point in Lefèvre’s career, for that year saw the publication of his Latin Fivefold Psalter, marking the beginning of his major biblical and theological studies (xiii, 53-54). In connection with this key work, Lefèvre speaks of his fresh, personal experience of tasting the “sacred utterances” from “the mouth of God” as “the true food of the soul.” The inspired Word, he declares, is “majestic” and “wonderful” in its “light” and “sweetness” (54).
Disregarding the allegorical, tropological, and anagogical understandings of scholastic traditionalism, Lefèvre held that the literal meaning was now primary, and that it was to be understood in the light of “the harmony of the Scriptures” (56), with Jesus Christ being the focus of God’s Word (58-59).
For him, the all-sufficient Bible is the supreme authority over all human beings, ecclesiastical writings, and church councils (155; cf. Belgic Confession, Art. 7). In keeping with his conviction of the supremacy of God’s Word, Lefèvre commented on most of the New Testament in Latin. Since he desired the common man to have access to the Word of God, the Picard scholar also translated into French first various parts of the Bible and, then, the whole of it.
At the same time, Lefèvre and his colleagues realized that the Word must also be preached in French. To this end, they published The Epistles and Gospels for the Fifty-Two Sundays of the Year in 1525, designed for regular use in the parish ministry in the diocese of Meaux, twenty miles east of Paris, where Lefèvre and his disciples were engaging in reformatory labors. These homilies and exhortations, explains Hughes, were “brief, simple, practical, and evangelical in tone” (164).
In Lefèvre’s doctrine and experience of sola Scriptura, his hermeneutics, his labors as a Bible commentator and translator, and his promotion of expository preaching through producing a postil, there is considerable similarity with other Reformers, especially Martin Luther.
Flowing from his confession of the truth of Scripture alone, the French theologian confessed salvation and justification by faith alone in Christ alone through grace alone to the glory of God alone—the remaining four “solas” or “onlys” of the Reformation.
Lefèvre proclaims antithetically that it is by “faith” in “Christ alone,” the “sole Lord,” and by His “grace,” not “through his works or through any creature,” that man is saved:
Whoever looks for true salvation through his works or through any creature otherwise than through Jesus Christ alone is saying, “Jesus is anathema,” which is to call him accursed, and does not have the Holy Spirit. For the Spirit gives a man a living and sure knowledge through faith that Jesus Christ is his sole Lord, and that man gratefully acknowledges that it is through his grace that he has everything he has in this world and everything he will have in the world to come (85-86).
Since we are saved and justified by faith through “grace alone,” with both grace and faith being “God’s gift” to us, all glory belongs to “God’s grace and mercy alone” and not to ourselves or our works. Thus Lefèvre comments on:
By grace alone [per solam gratiam] can we be saved…. For we are saved by his grace through faith—saved not because of ourselves, but by God’s grace. For grace is a gift, not a work. And lest we should think that the faith by means of which we are justified is ours, even this is God’s gift. Therefore we should attribute everything to God and nothing to ourselves, and so we should glory neither in ourselves nor in works, but in God’s grace and mercy alone (85).
For Lefèvre, all glory is due to “God alone” for on Christ alone was laid “the iniquity of us all,” so that “righteousness and justification,” pardon and peace, are “of faith and grace” and not from one’s own works (76). Opposing Rome’s number one argument against justification by faith alone by its misinterpretation of the second half of James 2, the Picard theologian gives the correct and Protestant understanding of the relationship between Paul and James (77; cf. 78). Lefèvre also teaches that the good works performed by God’s people are wholly of divine grace () and that believers “persevere to the end” ( ) (86; cf. 192).
It was no wonder that die-hard Romanists in France condemned and persecuted Lefèvre, burned his books (163-165) and denounced him as “an antichrist” (130). Some even called him one of the four precursors of the Antichrist (presumably Luther) or one of the four antichrists then on earth (along with Luther) (131).
Influence on Reformers
Whether or not Lefèvre was a cowardly and overly optimistic Nicodemite in staying in the early sixteenth-century Roman Church in France in the hopes of reforming it—a proper examination of this would involve too many historical factors for one article—we can acknowledge his role as a pioneer in French reform, both in terms of doctrinal progress and influence on the Reformers.
Not only did Lefèvre’s teaching on gracious justification help prepare the way for the reception of Martin Luther’s great doctrinal breakthrough, but the Frenchman also had a significant hermeneutical influence on the German Reformer, as Hughes explains:
One of the first to discover and appropriate Lefèvre’s hermeneutical principles was Martin Luther (1483-1546), while he was still an unknown monk. In 1885 a copy of the first edition of the Fivefold Psalter was found in the library of Dresden with its margins profusely annotated in the handwriting of Luther. Obviously the young German scholar had studied it with great care (60).
Out of all the Reformers, it is especially the Frenchman William Farel (1489-1565), a founder of the Reformed churches in the cantons of Neuchâtel, Berne, Geneva, and Vaud in Switzerland, who was most influenced by Lefèvre (95-96). However, Lefèvre would later be surpassed in his grasp of biblical and Reformation principles by his younger, bolder countryman, John Calvin.
Through his work of translating the Scriptures, Lefèvre had a massive influence on the French Bible of his student, Pierre Robert Olivétan (c. 1506-1538), who also translated the Scriptures from the Hebrew and Greek originals. The Olivétan Bible was published in 1535 with a Latin preface by Pierre’s cousin, John Calvin (1509-1564). Since the Olivétan Bible is foundational to subsequent French translations and was essentially a revision of Lefèvre’s work (196), the scholar from Étaples occupies a similar place regarding the French Bible to that of William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536) and the English Bible.
Calvin was also aware of Lefèvre’s Latin translation of the New Testament (73), and even visited the aged scholar in 1534 (196-197). According to Theodore Beza (1519-1605) in his life of Calvin, the old Picard from Étaples told the young Picard from Noyon that he would be used of God as an instrument in establishing Christ’s kingdom in France (196).
Further proof, if it is needed, of Lefèvre’s interest in and support of the Reformation is seen in a 1524 letter to Farel, then in Basel: “O gracious God, how great is my joy to see this grace of the pure knowledge of Christ now spreading through so much of Europe!” (136). Those were wonderful days and, in God’s providence, Lefèvre’s work helped usher them in!3
1 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), vol. 8, 239.
2 Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Lefèvre: Pioneer of Ecclesiastical Renewal in France (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984). Hereafter, page numbers in this article refer to this book.
3 A much longer form of this article is available on-line (www. cprf.co.uk/articles/lefevre.html).