Pierre Viret and the Total Sovereignty of the Word of God

By Jean-Marc Berthoud
February 28, 2011

In this short article, I will examine the contribution to the ongoing growth of the Kingdom of God by a little-known French Swiss Reformer, Pierre Viret. I shall briefly endeavor to show his application of the Word of God over every aspect of reality.


Now Pierre Viret, Calvin's most intimate friend,1 known under the name of the Angel of the Reformation, was by no means a minor or insignificant figure, as most Reformed histories of the Reformation would lead us to imagine. In 1537 Viret founded the first truly Reformed Academy in Lausanne and gave much of his time to the teaching of theology to students who flocked from every corner of Europe. This Lausanne Academy (and not the Genevan, as is too often thought) became the model of all future Reformed academies. By the time of the expulsion of Viret in 1559, the Academy enrolled nearly a thousand students.

But this mild and gentle Christian, a man of the highest spiritual mettle, was also one of the great preachers of the Reformation.

Jean Barnaud writes:

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, those most impatient of other preachers, would hear him out without difficulty and even with pleasure.2

Melchior Adam remarks of his preaching:

In Lyon, preaching out in the open, he brought thousands to saving faith in Jesus Christ. By the power of his divine eloquence he would even cause those passing by to stop, listen and hear him out.3

But in addition to exercising such great gifts, Viret was in his own right a prolific writer, author of some fifty books.

He wrote a small number of treatises in Latin, but the immense majority of his books were written in French, in a familiar style and in the popular form of dialogues.

Pierre Viret was undoubtedly (with Martin Luther) one of the finest popularizers of the Christian faith in the sixteenth century. But his deep concern for the spiritual needs of the common people never led him (as is all too common today) to debase the content of his theological teaching. It is impossible, in the brief space assigned to this paper, to do proper justice to the astonishing achievements of this extraordinary Christian. If his good friend, John Calvin, was the consummate dogmatician and the prince of exegetes, Pierre Viret must be considered as the finest ethicist and the most acute apologist of the sixteenth century. His monumental Instruction Chrétienne En La Doctrine De La Loi Et De l'Evangile Et En La Vraie Philosophie Et Théologie, Tant Naturelle Que Supernaturelle Des Chrétiens4 (Christian Instruction in the Doctrine of the Law and the Gospel and in True Christian Philosophy and Theology, Both Natural and Supernatural) is without doubt his major theological work and can well bear comparison, in its own domain, with Calvin's Institutes.

Pages 249 through 674 constitute a complete treatise on the detailed application of the Ten Commandments to every aspect of reality. It is the finest exposition of the law of God that it has been my privilege to read. The only work I know that in any way bears comparison to this masterpiece is Rushdoony's The Institutes of Biblical Law.5 Not only do we find in Viret a detailed application of God's Word to the practical problems of Christian living in every aspect of personal and social life, but this is done with an admirable sense of theological balance.

In the preface Viret sets forth his central purpose with the utmost clarity.

Thus God has included in this Law every aspect of that moral doctrine by which men may live well. For in these Laws he has done infinitely better than the Philosophers and all their books, whether they deal with Ethics, Economics or Politics. This Law stands far above all human legislation, whether past, present or future and is above all laws and statutes edicted by men. It follows that whatever good men may put forward has previously been included in this Law, and whatever is contrary to it is of necessity evil ... This Law, if it is rightly understood, will furnish us with true Ethics, Economics and Politics.6

And Viret concludes his preface with these words:

For as it can only be God Himself who is able to give us such a perfect Law by which we are truly enabled to govern ourselves, likewise it is only He who can provide us with Princes and Magistrates, Pastors and Ministers gifted with the capacity of applying this Law.7

Viret's Political Thinking

Here of great value is Robert D. Linder's pathbreaking study on Viret's political thinking. After having described what for Viret was the normative rule of the Word of God for both ecclesiastical and theological matters, Linder defines his thinking in these terms:

The Scriptures also contained statements concerning the state and, insofar as they applied to secular government, they represented God's will for that institution. Thus the secular state was seen by Viret as a de facto creation derived directly from God himself but governed in harmony with the rules and precepts contained in the Holy Scriptures.8

For in Viret's eyes,

Viret felt that all laws affecting public morals and related to spiritual values should be drawn directly from the moral law of God. However, he believed that these absolute and eternal laws of God had to be geared to the times in which people lived and the national temperament of the country to which the laws were to be applied.9

Linder states, moreover:

Viret's notion that the prince was below the law is extremely interesting and very different from the absolutist theory placing the king above the law.10

Viret puts it this way:

For prince and magistrate must be subject to the laws of the land and conform their rule to them. For they are not rulers of the law but servants thereof, as they are servants of God from whom all good laws proceed.11

On the question of extent of the application of the detail of the Mosaic law to our present situation, Viret held a significantly different position from that of Calvin. This is how Linder defines this difference:

Viret, unlike Calvin, was ready to extend openly the authority of the Bible over the State.12

Viret's Economic Discernment

In a book on the nature of the study of history in the latter part of the sixteenth century, the Marxist historian, Claude-Gilbert Dubois, pays considerable attention to Viret's Biblical vision of history and in so doing brings to light the remarkable economic discernment of our Swiss Reformer. Dubois' analysis is concentrated on the study of Viret's masterpiece in apologetics, Le monde a l'empire et le monde de'moniacle. This book, says Dubois, could well be considered a treatise in economics written some two hundred years in advance of its time. Though in total disagreement with Viret's theocentric conservatism, Dubois was nonetheless outspoken in his admiration of our author's perception of contemporary economic currents. For Viret saw in the anarchical monopolistic capitalism developing before his indignant gaze a growing practical opposition to God's law and the rise of a thoroughly anti-Christian society. Viret saw in the progressive attachment of many of his contemporaries to material wealth (a fascination severed from all sense of stewardship and accountability to God for the use of one's riches) a particularly vile form of idolatry where the rapidity of growth in opulence was in direct proportion to the loss of religion and morality.

Dubois writes:

What is the true character of the social degradation Viret perceives in the history of his time? Its origin is theological in nature, linked as it is to human sin. It manifests itself immorally by the perversion of the created order. But it takes on the modern form of a specifically economic scandal: a perverted economic order, an unethical distribution of riches, provoked by the circulation of wealth in one direction only, its accumulation in the hands of a few. Such are the signs of the corruption that reigns in the world today.13

Viret writes:

The greatest evil that can be imagined is when the public purse is impoverished and individual men 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.14

For Viret, such an egotistical, cumulative concentration of wealth runs completely counter to the Biblical doctrines of stewardship, of charity, and of personal sacrifice. In itself it is a clear indication of the decadence of a society and calls forth future purifying social disasters and divine judgments. For the economic mechanisms that lead to such an unfruitful concentration of wealth in the hands of a financial oligarchy prepare the way for those social and political catastrophes that will inevitably destroy such an amoral and irresponsible ruling class.

Viret saw very clearly that this new oligarchy made abundant use of its monopolistic domination of the apparatus of the state to appropriate the riches of the whole nation by disrupting the natural circulation of wealth in the usual channels of production and exchange. For Viret, this stifling of the economic blood flow of industrial production and commercial exchange by a parasitical oligarchy must be broken if an equitable distribution of wealth is to be reestablished and the economic health of the society restored.

This is a brief evocation of the astonishing life and labors of Pierre Viret, that faithful servant of Almighty God who all his life labored to bring every thought of his contemporaries captive to the obedience of Jesus Christ and of His total Word.

1. Henri Meylan, "Une amitié au XVIe siècle: Farel, Viret, Calvin," in Silhouettes du XVIe siècle (Lausanne, 1943), 27-50.
2. Jean Barnaud, Pierre Viret, sa vie et son oeuvre (Saint-Amans, 1911), 539-540.
3. Ibid., 540.
4. Volume I; Volume II (Genève, 1564). The third volume was published apart with the title De la providence divine (Lyon, 1565).
5. R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1973).
6. Pierre Viret, Instruction chrétienne en la doctrine de la Loi et de l'Evangile (Genève, 1564), 255.
7. Ibid., 255-256.
8. Robert D. Linder, The Political Ideas of Pierre Viret (Geneva, 1964), 55.
9. Ibid., 58, n. 29.
10. Ibid., 59-60.
11. Pierre Viret, Le monde á l'empire et le monde démoniacle fait par dialogues, 91-92.
12. Linder, Political Ideas, 63.
13. Claude-Gilbert Dubois, op. cit., 453.
14. Viret, Le monde á l'empire et le monde démoniacle fait par dialogues, 156.

Topics: Biography, Church History, Reformed Thought

Jean-Marc Berthoud

Jean-Marc Berthoud was born in 1939 in South Africa from Swiss missionary parents and lives in Lausanne, Switzerland. He holds Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Arts with Honors degrees from the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is the editor of the review Résister et Construire, president of the Association Vaudoise de Parents chrétiens in Switzerland, and of the Association Création, Bible et Science, and is the author of numerous books.

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