Pierre Viret: The Forgotten Giant of the Reformation
Pierre Viret: A Forgotten Giant of the Reformation by Jean-Marc Berthoud
Usually it's wise not to judge a book by its cover; but in this case, the book's cover has something important to tell us about its subject.
Artist James Mathewuse, commissioned by the Pierre Viret Association (www.pierreviret.org), worked from centuries-old woodcuts and engravings to reconstruct the face and posture of Pierre Viret (1511-1571). The result is greater than the sum of its parts.
Look closely, and you'll see more than just a typical, grim, Reformation figure in black robes, black scholar's hat, and long, black beard. Look closely at Pierre Viret's portrait. Now can you see the twinkle in his eye? Can you see that he is just about to break into a smile? It's as if he has some pleasant thought in mind, which he is about to share.
The portrait is an excellent introduction to the word-portrait of Viret drawn up by Jean-Marc Berthoud in this handsomely produced little book (just 85 pages, not counting the appendix). Now open it and meet the man.
Bringing Him Back
First, why is Viret "forgotten"? Viret has been called "the Angel of the Reformation," but most Christians have never heard of him. Yet he was a great scholar and teacher with copious writings to his credit, who "brought the Reformation to Geneva and the rest of French Switzerland" and was one of John Calvin's dearest friends (p. viii).
The biggest problem is that Viret's works, more than 50 books, have not been translated into modern languages. The Pierre Viret Association has launched an ambitious program to rectify that.
Viret's books, according to the Association, "were penned in a style of French in some ways comparable to King James English. Because of the plethora of differences existing between sixteenth century and modern French, an expert in the French of that period must first edit Viret's works in order to annotate the text and explain the archaic language so as to render it accessible to present common usage. After this process is completed, the books may then be translated into English ... The work of translating Volume I [of Viret's Christian Instruction in the Doctrine of the Law and the Gospel] has been proceeding for well over a year. Andrew Muttitt of Scotland is currently employed with this work, and hopes to complete this first volume by the end of the year."1
In the meantime, Berthoud has written his book to introduce Viret to modern readers. That is his book's purpose, and he succeeds admirably: it makes us want to know more about Viret and his teaching.
A Winsome Style
"Pierre Viret was undoubtedly (with Martin Luther) one of the finest popularizers of the Christian faith in the sixteenth century," writes Berthoud (p. 23). Quoting Philip Schaff, "His sermons were more popular and impressive than those of Calvin, and better attended" (p. 16). Quoting from contemporaries of Viret, "His speech was so sweet that he would continually hold the attention and the interest of those who heard him. His style, which married strength to harmony, was so caressing to the ear and to the intelligence that even those of his hearers least interested in religious matters ... would hear him out without difficulty and even with pleasure." And, "By the power of his divine eloquence he would even cause those passing by to stop, listen and hear him out" (p. 20).
Calvin himself praised Viret for his "joyful and pleasant manner," and said of Viret's impact on his listeners, "in their very amusement they receive instruction" (p. 22). Of Viret's instructional dialogues, Calvin said, "the reader will both draw solid and excellent instruction, and find good occasion for laughter," and so on (pp. 22-23).
But Viret had more to offer than just a pleasant and humorous style. He was, says Berthoud, "the finest ethicist and the most acute apologist of the sixteenth century. His monumental Instruction chrètienne ... [Christian Instruction in the Doctrine of the Law and the Gospel and in True Christian Philosophy and Theology, Both Natural and Supernatural] is without a doubt his major theological work, and can well bear comparison, in its own domain, with Calvin's Institutes" (p. 24). Berthoud also cites a scholar who compares it to R. J. Rushdoony's Systematic Theology: "[I]t grapples theologically in a very concrete manner with the problems that contemporary men struggle with today" (p. 24).
Ironically, the fact that Viret wrote in the French of his own time, making his work accessible to any literate person of his day, is what has made him a "forgotten giant" to later ages. If only he had written in Latin! His works would have been translated into English long ago.
Berthoud devotes chapters to Viret as Reformer, ethicist, apologist, economist, and philosopher, demonstrating that Viret was all of those things and more.
Viret's Christian Instruction, writes Berthoud, includes "the finest exposition of the Law of God that it has been my privilege to read" (p. 27), comparing it to Rushdoony's The Institutes of Biblical Law in its "detailed application of God's Word to the practical problems of Christian living in every aspect of personal and social life" (p. 28). In Viret's own words:
"This Law stands far above all human legislation, whether past, present, or future, and is above all laws and statutes edicted by man ... This law, if it is rightly understood, will furnish us with true Ethics, Economics, and Politics" (pp. 28-29).
Viret, says Berthoud, was more thorough-going than Calvin in his application of Biblical law to every aspect of life. He provides intriguing selections of Viret's writing and reasoning: for instance, Viret's ability to relate counterfeiting money to the counterfeiting of God's Word itself (pp. 43-45). Viret chose to do this in the form of dialogues, a device that makes for fairly lively reading and must have been quite impressive when delivered in a sermon.
As an apologist and an observer of nature, "Viret reasons in a thoroughly Biblical way as a man who has not been intellectually and morally emasculated by what we can call epistemological surgery." Berthoud follows up with a trenchant observation of his own:
"Such mental impoverishment results from the common acceptance, first by the world and then by the Church, of the cultural domination of our whole culture by a purely mathematical model of the universe (the so-called scientific worldview, valid in fact only in its strictly limited domain, that of the measurable) as normative of every aspect of reality."
This is wisdom. We can hear echoes of it in C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. For instance: "You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word ‘real' ... The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are ‘real' while the spiritual elements are ‘subjective'; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist ... Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment."2
How much damage has been done, and how much unhappiness brewed up, by this paganish division of God's world into "matter versus spirit," "real versus unreal," or some such thing? Viret stands for the Biblical proposition that man, like the rest of God's creation, is an indivisible whole consisting of matter and spirit. Pierre Viret, C. S. Lewis, R. J. Rushdoony, and Jean-Marc Berthoud see and share in a much vaster reality than that allowed by so-called science, an alias for mere materialism. It's a "science" of only one aspect of reality, and hence no science at all. Dare we say, as Viret himself might say, that it's not real science?
"Pierre Viret's great respect for God's law endowed him with an extraordinary lucidity and discernment in the field of economic analysis," Berthoud writes, blending an understanding of economics "some two hundred years in advance of its time" with "theocentric conservatism" (p. 61). Viret wrote of "deformed Christians," not "reformed," who worshiped wealth and tried to use their new liberation from Rome as an excuse for amoral greed (p. 62). In his own words:
"The greatest evil that can be imagined is when the public purse is impoverished and individual men are wealthy. This is an evident sign that the commonwealth is in an unhealthy condition, that public policy is in weak and incapable hands and that the state is under the domination of thieves and bandits who make of it their prey" (pp. 63-64).
Does that sound familiar? In the driver's seat of the all-powerful state are thieves and bandits. Yes, it sounds depressingly familiar.
Viret addressed the theme of "the State's financial voracity, its desire to tax every aspect of human activity" (p. 67). "Since the beginning," wrote Viret, "this tyrannical system of universal taxation has never decreased but has rather constantly grown. For princes and nobility alike never consider the ordinary revenues and taxes at their disposal as a necessary limitation to their style of life, projects, and ambitions. Rather they only consider the fulfillment of the ambition they cherish, not examining whether their actual revenues are able to sustain such utopian dreams" (p. 71).
Are we sure he was born 500 years ago?
Berthoud concludes, "It is, in my modest view, high time that the Church (and through her teaching all our nations) comes once more to listen to what Viret has to say of God's immutable purposes for men and our present most distressing condition" (p. 85).
Berthoud has given us a taste of Viret's teaching and left us eager for more. We can't bring the man back to life, but at long last we can bring back his books, so that "he being dead, yet speaketh."
2. C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperCollins, 1996 edition), 167-169.
Lee Duigon is a Christian free-lance writer and contributing editor for Faith for All of Life. He has been a newspaper editor and reporter and is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels.