In his contribution to The Reformation and the Irrepressible Word of God, Scott Manetsch spends some time discussing a book by Jean Crespin. Crespin was a French Protestant who found refuge in Geneva where he set up a printing press around 1550. He printed all sorts of Reformation material, including commentaries, Bibles, catechisms, and so on. One of his more popular publications was something he penned himself: The Book of Martyrs. It was updated and published thirteen times until its final edition in 1570. As the title suggests, The Book of Martyrs is a compendium of stories about Protestants being killed for their faith during the Reformation.
We can learn a lot from Crespin’s book. One of the major things we can learn from The Book of Martyrs is, as Manetsch notes, that “for sixteenth-century Protestants, the Bible was the people’s book.” Manetsch gives several examples from Crespin’s book that highlight the centrality of Scripture in the Reformation. One specific example that stuck out for me was the story of Jean Rabec’s trial and martyrdom:
The trial of Jean Rabec provides a good example of how Protestant martyrs appealed to Scripture’s authority against their Catholic opponents. Rabec had once been a Franciscan monk who, having tasted evangelical teaching, renounced his monastic vows and relocated to Lausanne to study theology at the city’s Reformed academy. After completing his studies, he returned to the city of Angers as a missionary to share with his fellow countrymen ‘the inestimable treasure of the Lord’s grace’ and, if possible, to ‘rescue from the abyss of hell those who were perishing.’
In August of 1555, Rabec was arrested and imprisoned when he was caught reading aloud the first edition of Crespin’s martyrology to a group of onlookers. During the long trial that followed, Rabec was rigorously questioned by episcopal judges as to his views regarding the intercession of the saints, the Virgin Mary, purgatory, the pope, auricular confession, the Mass, transubstantiation, baptism, Catholic traditions, and monastic vows.
From his prison cell, Rabec wrote a precious letter describing his responses to his interrogation. When asked about praying to the saints, he responded that the practice was ‘not acceptable, inasmuch as it cannot be proven from Scripture.’ When asked about papal authority, he answered: ‘I do not believe that there is any other head of the Church than Jesus Christ, inasmuch as Scripture proposes no other.’ Regarding the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception, Rabec was even more direct: ‘You have as the foundation of your [belief] an explanation based in the human brain; as for me, I have the Word of God. Judge who is the most wise, God or you; and what is most certain, his judgment or yours?’ At one point in the trial, Rabec paraphrased the famous statement by Luther: ‘I would place more value in the words of a child who has the Word of God than the rest of the whole world who does not have it.’
After months of intense interrogations and cruel treatment, Rabec was finally excommunicated as a heretic, defrocked, and sentenced to death by burning….
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