A Modern Swiss Reformer: The Life of Jean-Marc Berthoud
It is hard to describe Jean-Marc Berthoud, because his prolific and wide-ranging work of more than twenty books was done outside an official ministry or a professorship at a seminary, and he is not a professional writer living off the sale of his books and giving conferences. Most of his working life he was a porter in the train station in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and then a postal worker in a warehouse, but in the end, it was this separation from academia that enabled Jean-Marc to think deeply and independently on matters of vital importance to the life of the church. As a consequence, his books are unique in their sense of scope, having been written in response to various attacks on the church.
As a young man, I became nostalgic for the great witness of the Reformation when I thought about the cause of the gospel in Switzerland. “Is there nothing left of this spirit of spiritual warfare in my fatherland?” I asked myself. So, when I first met Jean-Marc in his bookshop in Lausanne more than ten years ago, I had no idea that God was continuing to preserve a faithful witness through the ministry of this remarkable man. The more I talked to him and read his books, the more I discovered the same passion as there was in Calvin, Zwingli, or Bullinger, brought into a modern context.
When God works to build up and strengthen His church, He takes time to make His servants ready. God often starts preparing someone long before he knows the nature of his ministry. Humanly speaking, the Reformation was the result of men who fought fierce personal battles and achieved solid scholarship in Biblical studies. In the case of Jean-Marc, he first had to go through a painful experience.
Family and Early Years
Jean-Marc was born in South Africa in 1939 into the missionary family of Alexandre and Madeleine Berthoud, originally from Neuchâtel in French-speaking Switzerland. He was the third of five children, and at the time of his birth his parents were leading a ministry in a village about three hundred miles south of Johannesburg.
Jean-Marc’s mother was a godly lady, the daughter of missionaries. His father, the son of a Salvation Army officer, was a devout minister. In the missionary station, for instance, he was director of the hospital and the small printing house. He organized funds for the mission in addition to his ordinary ministry of preaching. He was full of zeal for God’s work, but his devotion to his many duties unfortunately ruined his health and caused his untimely death in 1962 at the age of fifty-seven.
From his earliest days therefore, Jean-Marc saw what it meant to serve Christ. The faith of his parents was lived out through dedication to practical service, which left a lasting impression on his life. He saw that serving God came with a cost, such as leaving the comfort of Switzerland for missionary work in Africa, but this work was always done with joy.
He deeply respected his father, but in his early twenties he rebelled against the faith of his parents. It was a rebellion of indifference to God, but in God’s providence this rebellion served to prepare him for the work he eventually had to do.
Academic Career and Return to Europe
Academically speaking, Jean-Marc did very well. At the high school level, he was two years ahead of his peers. He graduated at age sixteen and at age twenty finished the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree at the university in South Africa. His academic brilliance earned him a scholarship to the University of Paris, Sorbonne, to study history.
Sadly, with academic success came pride as well. Leaving rural South Africa, he reveled in the cultured life of the prestigious center of Europe. At that time, he felt morally and intellectually superior to the common man.
Even though Paris seemed to fulfill his yearning for culture, he discovered the corruption within. The Janus face of Europe was made unequivocally clear to him when he studied the colonial history of the Congo basin under Belgian King Leopold II from 1880 to 1914 for his doctoral thesis. It has been estimated that around five million natives were killed as a direct result of Leopold’s greed and lust for power. “How could a Christian culture come to that?” was the perplexing question that Jean-Marc asked himself.
In a desperate attempt to understand this, he widened his initial research from a historical approach to include economic, ethical, and sociological aspects. His thesis derailed, and he returned to Switzerland in a troubled state of mind.
Salvation from Utter Nothingness
Back in Switzerland, he worked as a teacher in a high school to make ends meet because his South African diplomas were not recognized. His doctoral studies had destabilized him because he had found no answers to his most pressing questions.
It seemed to him that there were two civilizations in Europe: one of true being (the reality) and the other of mere appearance (the façade). The civilization that he so much admired—the one he found in Paris—had created a revulsion in him because it was ultimately an attractive veneer over a morally corrupt heart. This insight into the hollowness of a culture that expels God from its thinking was the motivation for his later apologetic work.
Though he longed for a simple life connected to reality, his pride didn’t yet allow him to acknowledge the necessity of the Bible for forming a society with true substance. In his desperation to make sense of life in a secular framework, he continued to live a life void of any meaning, apart from the passion of his emotions.
God finally intervened on a Sunday afternoon in 1965, when He revealed to Jean-Marc his true state. Waiting for a train in Neuchâtel, Jean-Marc suddenly felt his utter personal nothingness. It was not anything from the outside that triggered this, but physically and emotionally he felt like he ceased to exist. “I’m undone,” he said to his then girlfriend, who stared at him.
Back in his apartment, he read the following sentence in Calvin’s Treatise Concerning Scandals: “Whoever in distress cries out to God, God will in no way forsake him.” Having abandoned the faith of his childhood, he prayed, “God, if you really exist, reveal yourself to me.” He realized—as Pascal had long before—that he had nothing to lose if there was no God and everything to gain if there was.
A Slow Progression to the Light
This prayer did not result in his immediate return to normalcy. His thoughts in turmoil, he abandoned his dreams for a doctorate as he was unable to concentrate or to read for more than fifteen minutes at a time. As a consequence of this state of mind, he lost his job as teacher.
Unable to do intellectual work, he found a job as a gardener. Manual work was the best therapy for a troubled mind and so he worked as a gardener for five years. During this time he was able to think, to pray, and to read without the pressure he had felt as a student. He also learned to bear humiliation. Early on he came into contact with L’Abri and Francis Schaeffer, but in the end it was the abiding care of a French minister which helped bring him back to the faith.
During this time of hardship, God blessed him with a growing love for learning and truth. Working with his hands left his brain free to study good solid literature. Visiting Jean-Marc today, you would find a man with an apartment full of books. God blessed him also with a wonderful wife, Rose-Marie, a Christian nurse with many artistic talents who was the daughter of missionaries.
The beneficial effect of good manual work and the moral support of a loving wife and five believing children gave him the stability of mind to start fighting for the truth to which he had returned—and what a fight it was!
A Life of Service Begins
With the beginning of Jean-Marc’s marriage, a desire to do apologetic work started. In 1971, he became aware of the legalization of abortion in his home region of Neuchâtel. In reaction to this he wrote a letter to the local newspaper pointing out the cruelty of abortion. He was disturbed by the silence of Swiss churches on this issue, and in the hope of stirring up a response he sent two hundred letters to the clergymen in his area, each written individually. He reminded these men of their huge responsibility of keeping the flock of Christ (Ezek. 3:17–21). Already, through this first great effort to uphold God’s truth, Jean-Marc learned that the biggest enemy to truth is not open and explicit opposition, but silent indifference. His two hundred letters resulted in personal contact with only three of the recipients—an Evangelical pastor, a Reformed pastor, and a Catholic priest.
The meager response was not a cause for resignation, even though he was struggling on several fronts. By that time, Jean-Marc had begun working as a porter in Lausanne’s train station. For each piece of luggage carried he was only paid a little more than one Swiss franc!
Nevertheless, through God’s continuous provision, he was able to support his growing family. He used the time between arriving trains to read, meditate, and pray. His loving and humble manner led to many opportunities for witnessing, although at times he experienced opposition from his superiors and even physical aggression from one of his colleagues. God blessed his faithfulness, and at a very low point (when he was under the impression that he was wasting his life doing a low-level job) an old priest wisely reminded him, “All work done for Christ that doesn’t know the Cross is not worth much.”
Organizing the Christian Resistance to Godless Modernity
Jean-Marc came to understand that doctrinal weakness was one of the major causes for the shocking silence regarding abortion. To address doctrinal issues and promote a return to good Biblical scholarship he started a periodical called Christian Documents which ran from 1971 to 1978, supported mostly by donations. In these apologetic writings Jean-Marc dealt with the heresies of his day and the essays were sent to clergy free of charge.
As with many earlier reformers, however, his adherence to the truth was not always popular with Christian leaders. When he attacked such weak spots as the non-doctrinal Christianity of Billy Graham, or the problems of Dispensationalism, he lost many supporters and donors. This eventually forced the cessation of the periodical.
Work for a reformer never ceases, and as one battle draws to a close another breaks out elsewhere. Jean-Marc turned his attention to the families in his region. In 1978, together with conservative Roman Catholics, he founded the Association Vaudoise de Parents Chrétiens (Vaud Christian Parents’ Association, Vaud being the name of his canton). This association, still active today, works to strengthen families and schools against ideological attacks and to offer support on the teachings of the Bible and creation.
Next, Jean-Marc was instrumental in the formation of the Association for Creation, the Bible, and Science (active 1986–1994) which fought back against theistic and materialistic evolution. He also started a Christian apologetic review called Resist and Construct1 (1987–2005) to address various topics—theological, philosophical, historical, economic, etc.—from a Reformed and Biblical standpoint.
In all of these initiatives, Jean-Marc exposed many wrong teachings in the modern church, regardless of the cost to himself. His interest was not only to fight the consequences of bad thinking, but to get people back to the roots of their faith.
When asked once about the motivation of his apologetic work, he said, “My goal was to reflect on fundamental questions that were generally avoided by Christians, and to approach and try to clarify them.” But to attack the fundamental presuppositions of modernity is no light business, and he was generally considered “divisive” or “argumentative.” Banging the gong of resistance to modernity is a lonesome enterprise, but his often painful confrontations give weight to his writings and make them that much more valuable for the church. Here is no armchair theologian, but a scholar who also knows the hardship of implementing God’s truth in a hostile world.
Rebuilding the Church Through Books and True Fellowship
Until the beginning of the 1990s, Jean-Marc’s literary output was in the form of articles that he copied and distributed with the modest means at his disposal. The work was both labor-intensive and time-intensive.
Then, in 1992, he renewed an old friendship with Vladimir Dimitrijevic, a publisher in Lausanne of Serbian Orthodox heritage. They discovered a common interest in refuting Liberation Theology. They also shared a desire to provide solid Christian literature touching all aspects of life to a French-speaking public. Dimitrijevic graciously offered Jean-Marc the opportunity to publish a new Reformed book series under the name Messages through his publishing house, L’Âge d’Homme.
He also allowed Jean-Marc to rent a beautiful little bookshop in the historic center of Lausanne, which he did for twenty-two years. This bookshop became the meeting point and distribution center for Jean-Marc’s apologetic work. A practical man, he knew that only through genuine human interaction could the church be rebuilt and strengthened to bear witness for God’s truth in our society.
In his bookshop he offered many kinds of books—some Reformed or Evangelical, some Orthodox or secular—but all were true to the Bible’s teaching on creation because they took it seriously. They represented reality and not mere appearance.
Pierre Viret, the reformer of Lausanne and Jean Marc’s spiritual ancestor, said, “It is also necessary that this return to the Word of God would have an interaction with the reality of this world. Half of the time spent studying the Bible and the other half studying the world—nature, society, science and so on—in order to gain control over reality.” True reformation has all of God’s creation as its mission field. With this in mind, Jean-Marc strove to break pietistic Christians out of the constraints of their limited worldview.
A Life of Studying and Apologetic Battles for Truth Bears Fruit
In 2007, Jean-Marc was asked to teach Biblical Theology and Church History at the Bible College of Lausanne, newly founded by several Reformed Baptist congregations. These two courses were the basis of a profound work of scholarship, A History of the Covenant through the Scriptures, and his five-volume magnum opus, A Covenantal History of the Church in the World.
In these two major works, he delivers a comprehensive analysis of key moments and key theological and philosophical battles through the history of the church. From the Arian heresy, to the Nominalist/Realist controversy, to the false lights of Petrus Ramus and John Comenius, to the present-day non-doctrinal Christianity of Pope Francis—through it all he shows that modernity is the culmination of past heresies. And to resist bygone as well as current heresies, we do well to heed the cumulative witness of God’s faithful servants, such as Athanasius, John Calvin, Friedrich Stahl, Pierre Courthial, or R. J. Rushdoony, to name a few.
To this list I would submit the name of Jean-Marc Berthoud as a fitting addition.
The purpose of Jean-Marc’s writings, especially the major works, is to show the big picture of church history beyond mere dates and facts, and to point out the best sources for further study. As in Calvin, Jean-Marc exhibits an astonishing capacity to synthesize the best elements to respond to spiritual attacks. His writings are truly ecumenical because his research is not limited by confessional boundaries—he acknowledges truth where God has given it and brings it into harmony with the testimony of Scripture.
Jean-Marc once said, “The Word of God, all of it, is the truth, the truth about everything. Nothing useful, nothing fruitful, can be done outside this framework.” Such a broad synthesis is only possible, humanly speaking, because he adapts his method of inquiry to its object in the best tradition of Aristotelian methodology. As a consequence of a life of personal battles and his interest in all spheres of God’s creation, his writings lack the barrenness of so many academic works of similar scope.
As hard it was for me to describe Jean-Marc Berthoud in the beginning of this article, it is even harder for me to summarize his contribution to Christian thought in just a few words. He never wanted to establish an interesting new school of thought or develop idiosyncratic concepts about theological or philosophical problems. His ministry was the strengthening of the church by resisting all evil wherever it was found, and the rebuilding of a sane Christian culture, a culture grounded in absolute reality.
His books are therefore both enriching and encouraging to read, leading (as good books tend to be) to the discovery of many other invaluable books and authors that you wouldn’t hear of anywhere else.
There is a consistency of thought throughout his writings, and an infectious love for truth and for Christ. Here is a Christian soldier fighting a bankrupt modernity with all his being, a true modern Swiss reformer.
We appreciate and diligently read our fathers in the faith, but I also thank God for giving us men like Jean-Marc, a faithful brother acquainted with our current struggles and speaking to our generation. As the proverbial neglect of a prophet among his own grieves me, it is my prayer that his wisdom would not remain hidden in French and be forgotten, but that others would be inspired to make his writings available to the English-speaking world and beyond.
Selected Bibliography of Berthoud Works
Published in English
• Pierre Viret: A Forgotten Giant of the Reformation—the Apologetics, Ethics, and Economics of the Bible. Zurich Publishing, 2010. Available at https://www.zurichpublishing.o...
• In Defense of God’s Law. Zurich Publishing, forthcoming
Published in French
• L’histoire alliancelle de l’église dans le monde, tome 1 (Covenantal History of the Church in the World, Volume 1). Self-published through lulu.com, 2018. Available at http://www.lulu.com/shop/jean-...
• Création, Bible et Science (Creation, Bible and Science). Editions L’Âge d’Homme, 2010
• L’Alliance de Dieu à travers l’Écriture Sainte—Une Théologie biblique (The Covenant of God through Holy Scripture—A Biblical Theology). Editions L’Âge d’Homme, 2013
• L’Actualité de Jean Calvin (The Relevance of John Calvin). Editions L’Âge d’Homme, 2009
• L’école et Familie contre l’Utopie (The School and Family Against Utopia). Editions L’Âge d’Homme, 1997
1. All articles, mostly in French, can be accessed nder http://calvinisme.ch/index.php...
Topics: Biblical Commentary, Biblical Law, Biography, Christian Reconstruction, Church History, Church, The, Culture , Government, Justice, New Testament History, Old Testament History, Philosophy, Reformed Thought, Theology, World History