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January 21, 2018

The Duchess and the Dogmatist

Credit: Wikipedia, Public Domain

Credit: Wikipedia, Public Domain

In the time of the Renaissance few names were as notorious as the Duchess of Ferrara, Lucrezia Borgia. But another Duchess, Lucrezia’s daughter-in-law was entirely the opposite. In fact Renee of France, the later Duchess of Ferrara, had a court full of Protestant sympathizers. An amazing array of characters passed through the castle of Ferrara in Northern Italy at the request of Renee. None of them were more famous than John Calvin (Fr. Jean Cauvin), the French humanist who became the leader of the Protestant Reformation from Geneva Switzerland.

A Renaissance Court

Renee was the daughter of the French King Louis XII. She was married to the Duke of Ferrara, Ercole d’Este II. Her marriage was mostly political and was far from blissful. As a result she kept a large ‘French’ court in Ferrara, which she oversaw with a great deal of independence. Her husband, Ercole permitted Renee to dabble with Protestantism, so long as the courtiers she brought to Ferrara added prestige to their duchy by their exploits as painters, poets, sculptors, musicians or writers.

Reformation in Italy

The Italian Reformation was typified by those who were sympathetic to Lutheran doctrines like, ‘justification by faith alone’, but who would not publicly renounce the Church of Rome. So Protestant sympathizers circulated throughout Northern Italy, but there were few signs of open Protestantism in the form of local churches or princes advancing Protestant causes as in Germany.

Among the Nicodemites

Renee was one of these ‘Nicodemites’ who were like Nicodemus seeking Jesus, but not in a demonstrably public way. She would vacillate between attending the Mass and denouncing it. At times she was pressured by her husband or officials from the Inquisition. She would go back to a grim attendance at Mass, performing the bare minimum required to relieve the pressure. Without the benefit of a local church or a consistent break with the church of Rome, Renee, like many other Italian Protestants lacked discernment in who she affirmed or associated with. Many people in the Renaissance rejected the Church of Rome and circulated among Protestants but their views were anti-trinitarian and unorthodox. Some of these types of courtiers passed through Ferrara adding confusion to the struggles of Protestants in Italy.

Calvin’s Charge to the Nicodemites

Calvin was not happy with the ‘Nicodemite’ trend. He wrote against it in a polemical way. But the dogmatist was also a caring pastoralist. He wrote to Renee repeatedly in order to encourage her to take a stand for the Reformation. Likely Calvin understood that if Renee was public then others in the nobility would have courage to identify publically with the gospel that they embraced privately.

Pursuing Clarity

It is no wonder that Calvin continued to revise his Institutes when so much of the Protestant thinking in Europe was confused. Dogma provided clarity for Christians. And Calvin cared enough for the ongoing discipleship of the Duchess that he sent a pastor to her court on a few occasions in order to bring more doctrinal clarity there.  Sometimes Renee would chafe at the actions of the consistory, or elders board, that called for church discipline among people in her employ. It became difficult for Renee to adjust from being a noblewoman and independent Protestant sympathizer , to a member of a local church who had to submit to the leadership of pastors. Even though she was the host to them all, she still had to find her new role in being an equal member of the local church.

The Duchess and the Dogmatist

Calvin and Renee corresponded throughout their lives. Their spheres were different, but each had their own place of responsibility with its own opportunities and challenges. Calvin sought to encourage Renee pastorally, and Renee attempted to help the Protestant cause socially and financially.

What can we learn from the Duchess and the Dogmatist?

1. Believing in the right doctrine, but not fellowshipping in a healthy church leads to confused thinking and living. Can you think of people who have a ‘Nicodemite’ way of thinking, being Christians, but not going to church?

2. Pastors, while not respecters of persons, need to recognize the distinct sphere in which each Christian resides. Theological exhortation applied to a person in a distinct sphere can have a powerful, strategic impact for the good of gospel proclamation. Can you think of the strategic spheres which each person occupies in your church?

3. People who are ‘public figures’ like the Duchess, have great opportunities for promoting the gospel, but also great difficulties in fulfilling their public role while being faithful to public identification with Christ. Can you think of public figures (politicans, athletes, actors, etc) who struggle in these ways?

Further Reading:

Letters of John Calvin

Renee of France by Simonetta Carr

About Clint Humfrey

Pastor of Calvary Grace Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I'm married with three sons. Views expressed on this blog are my own.