A most important part of the Reformation was a vernacular translation of the Bible. Luther’s New Testament (1522) was reprinted at Basel with a glossary. In Zurich it was adapted to the Swiss dialect in 1524, and revised and improved in subsequent editions.
The characteristic difference between the two Reformers is in the general theory of the sacraments, and especially the Lord’s Supper. Zwingli regarded the sacraments as signs and seals of a grace already received rather than as means of a grace to be received. Yet both were equally earnest in their devotion to the Scriptures as the Word of God and the supreme rule of faith and practice.
The pioneer of Protestantism in Western Switzerland is William Farel. He was a traveling evangelist, a man of faith and fire, as bold and fearless as Luther. He is called the Elijah of the French Reformation. He had once been a devoted papist, but after he became a Protestant he only saw the prevailing corruptions and abuses of Romanism. He hated the pope as the veritable Antichrist, the mass as idolatry, pictures and relics as heathen idols that must be destroyed like the idols of the Canaanites. He never used violence himself, except in language. Persecution only motivated him to greater action.
Calvin arrived at Geneva in the summer of 1536 and was urged by Farel to assume the great task of building a new Church on the ruins of the old. He labored for a while as Calvin’s colleague, and with him was banished from Geneva because they demanded submission to a confession of faith and a rigorous discipline. Calvin went to Strasburg. Farel accepted a call as pastor to Neuchâtel in July of 1538, the city where he had labored before. For the remaining twenty-seven years of his life, Farel remained chief pastor at Neuchâtel, and built up the Protestant Church. He died peacefully, Sept. 13, 1565, seventy-six years old.
Farel was aided in his evangelistic efforts chiefly by Viret and Froment, who agreed with his views, but differed from his violent method. Peter Viret, the Reformer of Lausanne, was the only native Swiss among the pioneers of Protestantism in Western Switzerland; all others were fugitive Frenchmen. He shared the labors and trials of Farel and Froment in Geneva. An attempt was made to poison them; he alone ate of the poisoned dish, but recovered, yet with a permanent injury to his health. His chief work was done at Lausanne, where he labored as pastor, teacher and author for twenty-two years.
We now come to the life and work of John Calvin, who labored more than Farel, Viret and Froment. He was the chief founder and consolidator of the Reformed Church of France and French Switzerland. Revolution is followed by reconstruction and consolidation. For this task Calvin was providentially ordained.
Calvin was, first of all, a theologian. He was the ablest exegete among the Reformers, and his commentaries rank among the very best of ancient and modern times. His theology, therefore, is biblical rather than scholastic, and has all the freshness of enthusiastic devotion to the truths of God’s Word. He had a rare power of clear, strong, convincing statement. He built up a body of doctrines which is called after him, and which obtained symbolical authority through some of the leading Reformed Confessions of Faith. Calvinism is one of the great dogmatic systems of the Church. The Calvinistic system is popularly identified with the Augustinian system, and shares its merit as a profound exposition of the Pauline doctrines of sin and grace. Calvin did not grow before the public, like Luther and Melanchthon, who passed through many doctrinal changes and contradictions. He adhered to the religious views of his youth unto the end of his life. Calvin’s literary output is unsurpassed by any ecclesiastical writer, ancient or modern. It is amazing when we take into consideration the shortness of his life, the frailty of his health, and the multitude of his other labors as a teacher, preacher, church leader and correspondent.
The Reformation was carried to England and Scotland mainly as a result of John Knox. He has often been wrongly accused of being a mere “recording” of Calvin. He thought for himself and when his views differed from others, he did not hesitate to disagree openly – even with Tyndale or Calvin. His courage is unrivaled by any, except perhaps Farel. His power as a preacher is just simply unrivaled. On more than one occasion was the whole course of English history changed as a result of one sermon by John Knox.
His influence continued even into the next century. John Milton’s treatise justifying the putting to death of Charles I, leaned heavily on Knox. In 1683, when Charles II began to show that he was a Roman Catholic, commanded the works of Knox to be burned in public in Oxford. This accompanied a prohibition of the reading of Knox’s works. This was in 1683 – Knox died in 1572! Knox is behind the whole attitude of the Pilgrim Fathers toward the state. Thomas Carlyle is correct when he claims that Knox is the founder of American Puritanism. The Pilgrims, armed with Knox’s attitude toward the state and Calvin’s theology, headed to North America and built a society based upon these principles.