Caspar OlevianusOlevianus, Caspar (1536-1587)

Caspar Olevianus one of the founders of the Reformed Church of Germany, the co-laborer of Ursinus, and one of the compilers of the Heidelberg Catechism, was born August 10, 1536, near Treves. His family name was derived from Olewig, his native village. His father was a baker, but a man highly esteemed by his contemporaries. Thus they honored him with the dignity of mayor and senator.

Caspar's early education was obtained in his native town. In his fifteenth year he was sent to Paris to study law. At the schools of that city and of Orleans and Bourges he spent seven years. In 1557 he obtained the degree of doctor of laws at Bourges. During his studies in France he became acquainted with the Reformed theology, and imbibed both its principles and spirit. In 1558 he went to Geneva to study theology, and while in Switzerland entered into intimate association with the celebrated Reformers Calvin, Beza, Farel, Bullinger, and Martyr, enjoying the privilege of sitting with them at the table; and, what was much more important to him, he became acquainted, by personal knowledge and experience, with the condition and workings of the Presbyterian Church at Geneva, then an extraordinarily flourishing state. He spoke warmly to his esteemed teacher, Calvin, concerning the quiet desire of many in Treves towards the Reformation, and induced Calvin, in 1558, to write to two members of the council, Otto Seele and Peter Sierk, who were known to be secretly well disposed towards the evangelical movement, to exhort and encourage them to take a more open and decided stand in favor of the spread of their faith, with heeding too much the unavoidable danger which such a course seemed necessarily to involve.

True to his former vow, the fiery youth, Olevianus, then only twenty-three years of age, returned to Treves, and commenced his ministry there early in the year 1559. He was greeted in the most friendly manner, and immediately received an appointment as teacher of Latin in a school which had at that time become almost extinct. His province was to explain the dialectics of Melancthon, then in vogue over the whole of Germany. In the course of his duties he took occasion frequently to make use of such examples as would serve quietly, and without awakening suspicion or prejudice, to instill evangelical truth into the minds of his pupils. Owing to the limited knowledge of his scholars, he could make but poor progress by teaching in Latin; but he began, with more success, in the German language to teach them from the catechism. Although not then an ecclesiastic, but only a layman, he ventured even publicly in his schoolroom to deliver an earnest and decidedly evangelical sermon on justification by faith alone, in which he indulged in strictures especially upon the prominence given to saints, and also in reference to the mass and processions. In this he met with the approbation of many in the town; yet there were also numerous and strong voices raised against it. He was immediately forbidden to preach in his school, but he nevertheless continued to preach in the Jacob's church, with ever increasing attendance upon his discourses; and before long nearly half the town declared themselves decidedly in favor of the Reformation.

The elector Frederick of the Palatinate, and the count palatine Wolfgang, of Zweibrucken, sent superintendent Freisberg, of Zweibrucken, to Tours for a short time to sustain Olevianus, and assist in carrying forward the quickly formed young congregation; but very soon the archbishop of Treves succeeded in forcing the inhabitants into submission. The Lutheran citizens, as they were called, were glad to escape punishment, in body and soul, as "seditious traitors, instigators of incendiary movements and murder," and to obtain permission to emigrate to the nearest evangelical Palatinate districts, Trarbach and Beldenz, on the Mosel. The twelve principal movers in reformatory interests, among them Olevianus, were sent to prison, from which they were only delivered, after a confinement of ten weeks, through the influence of the neighboring evangelical princes and the city of Strasburg, under the condition of a heavy fine and immediate banishment from the city. Still there were left in Treves, after the first emigration and banishment, three hundred evangelical Christians. These, however, refusing to recant, were also soon after driven from the town. Not until 1817 (consequently only after a space of 248 years) was an evangelical service held in Treves. Latterly its population has somewhat increased, though there is little probability that it will ever recover its ancient fame and importance.

Olevianus, of course, did not find it very difficult to occupy his time elsewhere. He was asked for from many quarters, but he preferred the university town of Heidelberg, whither he went as court preacher and professor of philosophy, and where he rendered, in 1560 and in the following years, great services to the Reformed theology. In connection with Ursinus, he prepared the Heidelberg Catechism, and afterwards the Palatinate Liturgy. Indeed, Olevianus labored with the greatest zeal for the complete organization of the Church in the Palatinate, entertaining well-grounded hopes that it might become a nursery for pure doctrine for the whole of Germany. He turned his attention especially to the calling of competent preachers and teachers, of whom there was yet a pressing need; and scarcely was he a quarter of a year in Heidelberg when he wrote to Calvin, requesting him to send over the Order and Discipline of the Church at Geneva, that he might lay them before the consistory for examination and adoption, which, in regard to Church government, favored his views. Calvin with great cheerfulness sent him the outlines of the Genevan Church polity, together with many valuable suggestions in regard to it. The Genevan Reformer especially recommended to Olevianus the temperate and prudent introduction of this Church order, because he as well as Beza feared the impetuosity of this spirited youth. Olevianus, however, did not at once succeed in introducing a fully self-sustaining order of discipline, entirely independent of the civil power. Rather, he had to be satisfied with constituting synods of ministers, without elders, and arranging matters so that--agreeably to the questions eighty-one to eighty-five of the Heidelberg Catechism, and in accordance with the Palatinate Church, of which he was, without doubt, the principal author--the necessity of ecclesiastical Christian discipline, to be administered by the congregation, or those ordained and authorized for that purpose, was meantime at least acknowledged; while as yet, however, no independent presbyters or boards of elders were actually established for the administration of discipline. The power of discipline, for the time being, remained entirely in the hands of the civil authorities, as a kind of politico-moral regulation. In 1567 a circumstance occurred which became the occasion of materially advancing into favor the views of Olevianus in regard to Church government. A man of the name of Withers, an Englishman, and a rigid Calvinist, excited a discussion about the necessity of the exercise of Church discipline by the ministry and presbytery, "even against the prince," and thus occasioned a vehement controversy on this vital question of the Reformed Church. In this discussion Olevianus took sides against his dear friend professor Erastus, a learned and pious Swiss physician, who adhered to the Zwinglian doctrine of the union of the Church and State. Still, after a while, the views and demands of Olevianus prevailed with the elector; and in 1570, though not without violent protest from the opposing party, the elector instituted presbyters in every congregation, intrusting to them expressly and independently the administration of the Church government and exercise of discipline, in which arrangement, however, the individual members of the presbytery, who, from their principal vocation, were called censors, were in no case to be elected by single congregations, but were appointed for life by the higher judicatories. Thus were the desires of Olevianus in regard to this important matter realized, and his labors crowned with success. The fruits which this arrangement yielded are thus stated in a funeral sermon by Tossanus: "Every one must acknowledge that there now exists in Heidelberg and in the entire Palatinate order, quietness, and a Christian-like state of things very different from what has been prevailing during several years past." After the death of the elector (1556), and the immediate reinstatement to the Palatinate, by force, of the Lutheran doctrine and customs by his son Ludwig, Olevianus was suspended from his office of pastor and professor, forbidden all conversation and correspondence with the learned, and prohibited from holding any private assemblies in his own house, and was put under arrest. The great reformer now removed to Berleburg, and in 1584 took up his abode at Herborn. Yet these years, spent away from the centers of theological controversy and discussion, were by no means years of recreation and rest to the hoary Christian. Most earnestly and zealously was he all these years occupied in the propagation of the Reformed doctrine, especially in Wittgenstein and Nassau, until death put an end to his labors of love, March 15, 1587. As a reformer, the efficiency of Olevianus consisted principally in his successful preaching, and in the excellent and well-adapted order and government which he introduced into the Church. His talents and his taste indicated that his vocation was rather in this sphere than in that of author, or even theological professor. It was his labor and influence that accomplished the introduction of the Presbyterian form of Church government and discipline into the Palatinate, first applied by Calvin to the Church in Geneva; extending and perfecting the system, however, so as to include the government of the Church by synods. Thus Olevianus exerted a most important influence in giving shape and character to the Reformation; receiving and introducing ideas of government which have not only since been widely adopted by Scotch, English, and Irish Presbyterians, but which have confessedly entered into the peculiar republican principles of our American civil government. What writings he has left belong principally to preparations for the Heidelberg Catechism, and such as were published in its defense or explanation. Around it, as in the case of Ursinus, his laurels will be perennially green; and, as being one of its authors, he will be longest and most gratefully remembered by the reformed Church.

See Sudhoff, Olevianus' und Ursinus' Leben und Schriften (Elberfeld, 1857); Adam, Vitae Germ. Theol. p. 596 sq.; Herzog, Real-Encyklopadie, x, 604; Harbaugh, Fathers of the German Ref. Ch. i, 246-261; Hagenbach, Vater u. Begunder der Ref.. Kirche, vol. viii (Eberf. 1857, 8vo); id. Kirchengesch, vol. viii; Amer. Presbyt. Rev. July, 1863, p. 375; Corwin, Man. Ref. Ch. p. 171 sq.; Schrockh, Kirchengesch. seit der Ref. v, 182 sq. (H.H.)

Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. Prepared by the Rev. John M'Clintock, D.D., and James Strong, S.T.D.; Harper & Brothers, New York, 1877; Vol. VII, pages 343-344.

Labelled with ICRAReturn to Creeds