When Evangelical Press first suggested I write a book for their series of Bitesize Biographies, I immediately thought of Renée of France, and that for several reasons. Mostly, I had recently written a semi-fictionalized biography of Olympia Morata (Weight of a Flame, the Passion of Olympia Morta, P&R 2012) and my research had left me longing to know more about Renée, a prominent character in that story.
Renée was, in some respect, far from the larger-than-life characters that populate many popular historical accounts. In many ways, she embodied the complexity of her times, struggling to consolidate her faith in a period of rapid and momentous upheaval. Her position as a noblewoman, daughter of Roman Catholic King Louis XII of France and wife of a vassal prince of the pope, Duke Ercole of Este, compounded her difficulties. Tied to the Reformer John Calvin by a strong bond of friendship, she communicated to him her uncertainties, doubts, and questions, to which he replied faithfully until his death.
I believed my readers could easily identify with Renée as she opened her heart to express a wide variety of emotions and perplexities. Mostly, I thought they would find, as I did, encouragement and comfort in the wealth of wisdom and compassion displayed by Calvin in his replies to her. Judging by the reviews, this has happened.
Some reactions, however, have caught me by surprise. While I had focused mostly on Renée’s personal trials and responses, some readers brought up some points of wider relevance – mostly the contemporary pervasiveness of the attitude of those Calvin called ‘Nicodemites.’ The name was coined after the story of Nicodemus, the teacher of the Jewish law who went to see Jesus ‘by night’ (John 3:2). Specifically, Calvin defines Nicodemism ‘pretending outwardly to consent to something which [somebody] knows in his conscience to be wrong and against God.’
Concealing – at least partially – their faith at a time of open persecution seemed quite permissible to some in Calvin’s day. As justification of their position, some had misconstrued Paul’s exhortations to consider those weaker in faith, as if pretending to go along with other people’s errors were a charitable gesture. Calvin reminded Renée that when Scriptures command us ‘to bear the infirmities of the weak, avoiding anything that can hurt or offend them, this concerns things of lesser importance, which are irrelevant and allowed according to our liberty.’ On the other hand, ‘there is no worse offence than when our example causes our Christian brother to stumble, falling into error and heading towards his ruin.’
Others had taken out of context Paul’s words in Romans 14:22, ‘The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God’ (ESV). To them, Calvin replied that ‘they who tear off faith from confession, take away from the sun its own heat.’ Far from supporting a platonic partition of body and soul, Calvin challenged the common refrain that ‘exterior things are not important, as long as the heart is right.’ ‘To this,’ he said, ‘our Lord replies that he wants to be glorified in our own body, which he has redeemed through his blood, and this requires our confession with our mouths and our absolute devotion to his honour.’
In Calvin’s day, Nicodemism was often a way to stay alive, to last a little longer in the hopes that the Church of Rome would change. For many others, it was a comfortable escape from the heat of the raging controversies of the day. ‘Speak with the many and think with the few,’ advised Celio Calcagnini, a well-respected humanist and scientist and a careful sympathizer of the Protestant Reformation. It was a popular notion. Many Italian preachers who had come to embrace the doctrines of sola fide had also learned to disguise them in their sermons by speaking in a “code” that only the initiated would understand.
It was in this environment that Renée faced her conflicting circumstances, torn between a natural loyalty to her French motherland, an acquired loyalty to her new role as Duchess of Ferrara, and a heart-felt loyalty to the gospel of Christ. She knew very well the risk of giving priority to this last loyalty, and Calvin knew what he was asking her to do when he exhorted her to ‘recognize the vocation to which [God] called [her].’ Martyrdom was a common reality in his day. The French students graduating from the Geneva Academy knew that their discharge to France as ministers of the gospel was very likely a death sentence. Fully aware of the risks, Calvin reminded Renée that her ‘inheritance and eternal rest are not down here.’
Two missionaries have recently pointed out to me the contemporary relevance of Renée’s story in relation to this compromising attitude. Jean-Claude Souillot, French pastor and missionary to Africa, believes that still, almost five hundred years after Calvin’s correspondence to Renée, ‘faith being seen as something private is a big issue’ in France.
Kenneth Wieske, missionary to Brazil, said something similar about his mission field. ‘The struggles of Renee of France resonate with many believers here in Brazil, which has a very strong Romanist background.’ Then he added something which struck closer to home. ‘The tension between faithful obedience to God and, at the same time, ties to family or community which may in many ways be unfaithful to God is something not only Romanists face, but also many believers in the countless unfaithful Protestant churches here.’
According to Wieske, in a country with the largest Roman Catholic population in the world, where about 22% of the people claim to be evangelical, ‘most of this “evangelical” Christianity is merely medieval works-righteousness Romanism in another dress.’ He listed several problems: an unbiblical understanding of the sacraments, a fascination with large building projects and real estate, and a rejection of Sola Scriptura (substituting for Rome’s tradition the unpredictable utterances of those prophesying ‘in the spirit’). From his observation, even in the most ‘basic questions settled by the ecumenical creeds, such as the Trinity and the person and work of Christ, many “evangelical” churches are further away from Scripture than Rome is.’
The encouraging side of this dim picture is that Christians are increasingly recognizing these problems. ‘After five hundred years of medieval Romanism and one hundred years of Pentecostalism,’ Wieske continued, ‘people are hungry for something more – something real, something which embraces all of life. This, however, leads to some tensions. Like Renée, many Brazilians have a hard time distinguishing between Christian charity with respect to divergent views on theology and practice on the one hand, and giving succour to outright heretics or supporting those who willfully reject the historical confessions. Further, as people become convinced of a more biblical theology, they’re often confronted with an unpleasant choice. If they continue to reform, and begin to teach, live, and worship according to their faith, they may just lose friends, status, influence, or (in the case of pastors) even their livelihood. Many are tempted to keep their convictions to themselves, as something personal.’
There are other situations where dissimulation is not only practiced but often promoted – for example, in Muslim countries, where so-called ‘Insider Movements’ have been teaching that Christians can continue to practise Islamic rituals as long as they have true faith in Christ in their hearts. To these people, this is the only way to survive and influence others. Rev. Subeno Sutjipto, of the Evangelical Reformed Church of Indonesia, disagrees sharply. ‘The Insider Movement compromises the Gospel and cannot bring many Muslims to the Church,’ he said. ‘Actually, the Muslims also hate this movement. They feel that it confuses issues about true and false Islam. They consider these people betrayers.’
While Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country, grants freedom of religion, there is still a great need for wisdom in evangelistic efforts. Still, wisdom doesn’t call for dissimulation. ‘We are honest in our approach,’ Rev. Sutjipto continues. ‘Muslims hate Christians who disguise evangelism with health care mission, social activities, or rock music performances. We normally preach very strong themes, such as Jesus as Only Savior, God as Trinity, etc. We preach the true Gospel, talk about sin, repentance, and redemption in Christ. Their leaders have commented that, when we are so open and honest, if there are Muslims who want to come to our rallies, it’s their responsibility.’
The Dangers of Nicodemism
We don’t have to go to Roman Catholic or Muslim countries to find this compromising attitude. Everywhere in the West there is a silent pressure to abandon historical confessions and conform to a more liberal interpretation of Scriptures and of the Christian life. Foundational doctrines like original sin, the atonement of Christ, the wrath of God, and the necessity of faith in Christ as the only way to salvation are becoming increasingly unpopular. There is then a strong temptation to soften our words and, like the Nicodemites of old, speak in ambiguous ways that blur our true convictions.
There is also a temptation to stay, for convenience’s sake, in a church where the gospel is not preached or where the doctrines or methods continue to violate our conscience. As the Nicodemites of old, some prefer to suffer silently in these situations, in the hopes that some good reform will be adopted.
While Calvin, in his answers to Renée, was mostly concerned (as we should be) about God’s honour and glory, a compromising attitude also erodes the fibre of our souls, as we can see in Renée’s life. Renée’s fall and difficult spiritual recovery were caused in more ways than one by this dangerous attitude.
Compromise often creates a vicious cycle, becoming both the effect and the cause of our actions. In 16th-century Italy, where the dangers were high and the temptation to compromise strong, many chose to codify their message and simulate compliance with the Church of Rome in order to save their lives (while justifying it as a concern for others). The result was stifling of the gospel and spiritual decay, which in turn robbed Christians of the courage and conviction they needed to uphold their faith.
In a mournful commentary of his times (Exhortation to Martyrdom), Italian Protestant preacher Giulio Della Rovere wrote, ‘The Christians of Italy are like dead and scattered members, without guidance and without a head, since the Italian churches are neither organized nor regulated according to the Word of God. […] The Gospel is banished among them, and they see little sense in suffering persecution when they do not feel the living Christ in their hearts. […] That the greater part of Italy is devoid even of a trace of the Church gives rise to this disorder, in which everyone thinks himself permitted to live as he pleases.’
In other words, seeing faith as a private matter brings a tendency to both compromise one’s convictions and to underestimate the importance of a biblical body of believers, faithful in the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments and godly discipline. This underestimation generates more subjectivism, and the cycle continues. In the words of Della Rovere, ‘If the Italians [substitute any nationality here] got together, if they were united into a body regulated according to the Word of God, they also would be inflamed by the faith.’
Simonetta Carr is the author of Renée of France, published by Evangelical Press as part of their Bitesize Biographies. Kenneth Wieske has recently requested permission to translate the book in Portuguese for distribution in Brazil.