This episode is titled, The Ultimate Fighter; Reformation Edition.
The pioneer of Protestantism in the western Switzerland was William Farel. Some pronounce it FAIR-el, but we’ll go with the more traditional Fah – REL.
He began as an itinerate evangelist who was always in motion, seemingly tireless; full of faith and fire. He was bold as Luther but far more radical. He also lacked Luther’s genius.
He’s called the Elijah of the French Reformation & “the scourge of priests.”
Once an devoted RC who studied under pro-reform Catholics at the University of Paris, Farel became just as loyal a Protestant, who was able to see only what was wrong with the Catholicism of his past. Farel loathed the pope, branding him a veritable antichrist, as did many Protestants of that period. Of course, the popes returned the favor and labeled some of the Reformation leaders with the same title. Farel declared that all the statues, pictures & relics found in Roman churches were heathen idols which must be destroyed.
While Farel was never officially ordained, he thought himself divinely called, like a prophet of old, to break down idolatry and clear the way for the spiritual worship of God according to God’s Word. He was a born fighter & echoing Jesus, said he came, not to bring peace, but a sword. It’s true that he contended with priests who carried firearms & clubs under their frocks, and he fought them with the spiritual sword of the Scriptures. Once he was fired at, but the gun blew up. Turning to the man who’d tried to shoot him he said, “I am not afraid of your shots.” He never used violence himself, except in the verbal salvos he was fond of firing at his critics.
Farel was never discouraged or dissuaded by opposition. On the contrary, persecution stimulated him to even greater labor. His outward appearance gave no hint to his indomitable will: he was of short stature & looked frail. His pale complexion was usually sunburnt. His red beard was more often than not un-groomed & wild.
What his appearance lacked, his voice made up for. When he spoke, he used both gestures & language that commanded attention & produced conviction. His contemporaries referred to the thunders of his eloquence and of his earnest & moving prayers.
His sermons were extemporaneous & sadly haven’t been preserved. Their power lay in their delivery. Farel was the George Whitefield of the 16th C.
Farel’s strength ended up being his weakness. His lack of moderation and discretion unburdened him from second guessing himself, so he would speak his mind without the need to put a fine point on everything for fear of breaking a few eggs, so to speak. But his outspokenness got him into trouble again and again, not only with RC’s but with some of his Protestant peers.
He was an iconoclast. His violence provoked unnecessary opposition, and often did more harm than good. One Reformation leader of the time wrote Farel saying, “Your mission is to evangelize, not curse. Prove yourself to be an evangelist, not a tyrannical legislator. Men want to be led, not driven.” Shortly before his death, Zwingli exhorted Farel not to be so rash.
That may be a good way to see Farel’s contribution to the Reformation. His work was destructive rather than constructive. He could pull down, but not build up. He was a conqueror, not an organizer of his conquests; a man of action, not a man of letters; a preacher, not a theologian. In a large construction company, the first team that comes in is the demolition crew. They’re job is to clear away the old and prepare for the new.
Farel was a one-man demo squad; a religious wrecking crew.
The thing is, he knew it, & handed his work over to the genius of his younger friend John Calvin. You’ll remember it was William Farel who persuaded Calvin to help out in Geneva. In the spirit of genuine humility and self-denial, he was willing to decrease that Calvin might increase. This is the finest trait in his character.
William Farel, the oldest of 7 children of a noble but poor family, was born in 1489 at Gap. No, he wasn’t born in the changing room of a clothing store in the mall. Gap is a small town in the Alps of SE France, where the Waldensians once lived. He inherited the RC faith of his parents. While still young, he made a pilgrimage with them to a miracle-working cross believed to be taken from the original cross. He shared in the superstitious veneration of pictures and relics, and bowed before the authority of monks and priests. He was, as he said, more popish than the Pope.
At the same time he had a great thirst for knowledge, and was sent to Paris to further his education. There he studied ancient languages, philosophy, and theology. His main teacher, was Jacques LeFèvre, pioneer of the French Reformation and translator of the Scriptures who introduced Farel to Paul’s Epistles and the doctrine of justification by faith. LeFèvre told Farel in in 1512: “My son, God will renew the world, and you will witness it.” Farel acquired a Master of Arts in 1517 & was appointed teacher at the college of Cardinal Le Moine.
The influence of LeFèvre and the study of the Bible brought Farel to the conviction salvation can be found only in Christ, that the Word of God is the only rule of faith. He was amazed he could find in the NT no trace of the pope, a church hierarchy, indulgences, purgatory, the mass, the 7 sacraments, sacerdotal celibacy, or the worship of Mary & saints.
When LeFèvre, was charged with heresy in 1521 he retired but remained an advocate for reformation within the Catholic Church, without separation from Rome. We’ll talk about the Catholic Counter-Reformation in a later episode.
In retirement, LeFèvre translated the NT into French, & published it in 1523. This was virtually simultaneous w/Luther’s German NT. Farel and several other of LeFèvre’s students followed him & began preaching a Reformation message under his influence. But Farel proved too radical & was forbidden to preach.
He returned to his hometown of Gap & made some converts, including 4 of his brothers; but the people found his doctrine strange & drove him away. France became dangerous for him as the persecution of Protestants had begun there.
Farel fled to Basel, Switzerland. Since Reformation ideas were tolerated there, he held a public disputation in Latin on 13 issues, in which he affirmed the inspiration of the Scriptures, Christian liberty, the duty of pastors to preach the Gospel, the doctrine of justification by faith, and denounced images & celibacy. This speech led to the conversion of a Franciscan monk named Pellican, a distinguished Greek and Hebrew scholar, who became professor at Zurich. Farel delivered more public lectures and sermons. But as his popularity grew, so did his bombast, and Erasmus persuaded the town council to brand him a disturber of the peace and expel him.
After bouncing around for a few years as an itinerate preacher, he arrived in Neuchâtel in December, 1529 where he was instrumental in bringing the Reformation to the city.
Farel stopped at Geneva in early Oct. 1532. The day after he arrived he was visited by a number of distinguished citizens of the Protestant French Huguenots. Farel explained to them from an open Bible the Protestant doctrines that would complete and consolidate the political freedom they’d recently achieved. But rather than receive this with joy, they were troubled & demanded Farel and his friends leave! Farel refused. He said he wasn’t trying to create trouble; he was simply a preacher of truth, for which he was ready to die. He showed them letters of reference form several Reformation leaders which made quite an impression.
When the Roman clergy in Geneva began to harass Farel, this only further ingratiated him with the Protestants there. But the Catholics became so angry at Farel’s refusal to budge, the entire city of Geneva was set on edge. The Council demanded he leave immediately.
He barely escaped as the priests pursued him with clubs. He was covered with spit & bruises. Some of the Huguenots came to his defense, and accompanied him in a boat across Lake Geneva.
Since the Reformation in Geneva was gaining ground and the city was seen as key, the Catholics called for a Dominican doctor of Theology named Guy Furbity to come and refute the Protestants. He stirred the Catholics of Geneva into a violent mob. All preaching in the City had to be approved by him. You might imagine how Farel felt about that. He returned with a guarantee of protection from the city of Bern, and held another public disputation with Furbity on Jan. 29, 1534, in the presence of both the Great and Small Councils of Geneva and delegates from Bern. He could not answer all Furbity’s objections, but he denied the right of the Church to impose ordinances which were not authorized by the Scriptures, and defended the position that Christ was the only head of the Church. He used the occasion to explain the Protestant doctrines, and to attack the Roman hierarchy. Christ and the Holy Spirit, he said, are not with the pope, but with those whom he persecutes. The disputation lasted several days, and ended in a partial victory for Farel. Unable to argue from the Scriptures, Furbity confessed: “What I preach I cannot prove from the Bible; I have learned it from the Summa of St. Thomas.” Meaning of course Thomas Aquinas.
Farel continued to preach in private homes & tension grew in Western Switzerland between Protestants & Catholics. Farel was at the eye of the storm. As more and more Genevans embraced Reformation ideas, priests, monks, and nuns left the city, and the bishop transferred his See to another city.
In Aug. 27, 1535, the Genevan Council of 200 issued an edict of the Reformation, which was followed by another, May 21, 1536. The mass was abolished, images and relics were removed from churches. The citizens pledged themselves by an oath to live according to the precepts of the Gospel. A school was established for the religious education of the young. Out of it grew the academy of John Calvin. All shops were closed on Sunday. A strict discipline, which extended even to the head-dress of brides was introduced.
This was the first act in the history of the Reformation of Geneva. It was the work of Farel, but only preparatory to the more important work of Calvin. The people were anxious to get rid of the Catholic rule of the Duke of Savoy and the bishop, but had no conception of evangelical religion, and would not submit to discipline. They mistook freedom for license. They were in danger of falling into the opposite extreme of disorder and confusion.
This was the state of things when 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. Although 20 years older, he willingly assumed a subordinate position to Calvin. He labored for a while as Calvin’s colleague, and was banished with him from Geneva, because they demanded submission to a confession of faith and a rigorous discipline. Calvin went to Strasburg while Farel accepted a call as pastor to Neuchâtel where he’d worked before.
The remaining 27 years of his life, Farel remained the lead pastor at Neuchâtel.