Along with Erasmus of Rotterdam and the Italian cardinal Gasparo Contarini, Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples is one of the more notable sixteenth-century humanist reformers that did not join the Protestant Reformation, but instead remained in communion with Rome. Like Erasmus and Contarini, Lefèvre was a humanist biblical scholar who shared many Protestant criticisms of the church of his day, yet he did not entirely support their theological views, even where sympathetic with them. Though he supported ecclesiastical, educational, monastic, and theological reform throughout his later career, the French intellectual never embraced Lutheran ideas such as justification by faith or the bondage of the will, let alone a rejection of papal primacy. Instead, Lefèvre remained a committed student of Aristotelian philosophy and medieval mysticism, which he filtered through his humanist sensibilities and used in service of reform at various stops in sixteenth-century Francophone Europe.
Known traditionally by his Latinized name, Faber Stapulensis, Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples was born in the French town ‘Etaples in the northern French province of Picardy sometime around 1455. After matriculating in the faculty of arts at the University of Paris, he became a bachelor of arts in 1479 and a master of arts in 1480. Thereafter, he taught the arts at the university’s Collège du Cardinal-Lemoine, where he would remain until 1508. In 1491 and 1492, Lefèvre made a trip to Italy that would prove significant for his personal development. During the course of those travels, he met the famous Florentine Platonist Marsilio Ficino, his fellow Florentine and Aristotelian-Platonist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and the Venetian Aristotelian Ermolao Barbaro. It was Barbaro who encouraged Lefèvre to ply his humanist linguistic wares in service of philosophy. In the years following, he and a team of scholars would publish original Greek texts of Aristotle’s works along with substantial commentary.
Despite his interest in Aristotelian philosophy, Lefèvre’s primary intellectual labor was reserved for religious concerns. Ordained as a priest, he attempted to join a religious order in 1491, but ill health and his dissatisfaction with the process led to his departure from the religious life before taking vows. He would nonetheless devote much of his early scholarly work to studying the hermetic writings of medieval mystics, as well as the negative mystical theology and Neoplatonic philosophy of Pseudo-Dionysius. In 1508, Lefèvre took a personal turn that would eventuate in far greater active support of religious and theological reform. That year he left the faculty at Collège du Cardinal-Lemoine to join an old confidant, Guillaume Briçonnet, at the monastery in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The new auspices afforded Lefèvre the opportunity to devote himself to biblical scholarship and other theologically-oriented humanist activities. A year later, in 1509, he published the Quincuplex Psalterium, a synoptic harmony of the Psalms divided into five columns, all with commentary. He had come to the belief that the double-literal interpretation of the Old Testament promoted by Nicholas of Lyra (1270–1349) had weakened biblical devotion amongst the religious, and he instead preferred a spiritualized interpretation of Scripture. He later published an important set of commentaries on the Pauline Epistles in 1512. By 1514, he and his team had also published a three-volume edition of the works of Nicholas of Cusa, a famous fifteenth-century cardinal and Neoplatonist.
Along the way, Lefèvre’s critical approach to Scripture led him to espouse many unpopular opinions. Conservative Parisian theologians at the Sorbonne objected strenuously to him, and in 1521 he opted to leave Paris for Meaux, where his good friend Briçonnet had been named bishop. This proved to be the most controversial period of Lefèvre’s career. Briçonnet was actively reforming the diocese and he brought his longtime friend and former pupil alongside him to assist in the task. Lefèvre continued his work as a biblical scholar at Meaux. He published a commentary on the Gospels in 1522 and he would lead a team of scholars in translating and publishing a French edition of the New Testament based on the Vulgate in 1523. The French New Testament raised immediate concern amongst ecclesiastical authorities, who had prohibited unauthorized vernacular translations of Scripture due to their suspicion of Protestant views. Lefèvre also participated in a preaching reform movement encouraged by Briçonnet. It featured a small coterie of reform-minded preachers delivering and publishing sermons, but when it ran afoul of both mendicant preachers and diocesan clergy, Briçonnet and his cohort came under scrutiny. It didn’t help that the movement had attracted some of the earliest radical reformers, leading to riots in the city. Ultimately, the Paris parliament, mendicants, and university faculty collaborated in the prosecution of Briçonnet, leading Lefèvre to flee for Strasbourg and its greater tolerance for reform.
Lefèvre would spend the next year in Strasbourg and become a close ally of the famed Swiss reformer, Martin Bucer (1491–1551). He stayed at Bucer’s home upon arrival and he joined a circle of humanist reformers and scholars there that included Wolfgang Capito (1478–1541). Despite his obvious sympathies with the Protestant reformers, it became clear that Lefèvre’s understanding of theology was much closer to Erasmus’s, despite a vigorous disagreement with Erasmus over Christology some years earlier. He never fully adopted the Wittenberg understanding of justification, nor did he come to revile the papacy or church authority in the way many other reformers had. His relationship with the Strasbourg reformers was collegial, but he did not accept their views wholesale or consider breaking communion with Rome.
In 1526, Lefèvre finally returned to France under the protection of Francis I, the French king, first as director of the royal library at Blois and later as tutor to the king’s children. During this time, he published his commentary on the Catholic Epistles (1527), which featured a moderated position on such disputed questions as justification. He also finally brought to completion the translation of the entire Vulgate with the publication of the French Old Testament in 1530. Shortly thereafter, he joined the residence of Francis’s sister, Marguerite d’Anglouême. Marquerite was queen of the independent Navarre, giving Lefèvre shelter from ongoing suspicions over his supposed Protestant ideas. Despite this freedom, his scholarly endeavors came to little during the next few years. He died sometime in 1536, in Nérac, Navarre. Lefèvre’s influence on the Reformation remained as ambiguous as his embrace of it. He without question contributed to the humanist study of Scripture and reform of the church in France, yet he did so without ever accepting the basic theological tenets of the Protestant Reformation or breaking with the sovereignty of the Roman church.