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Pierre Viret: A Christian View of War

Viret’s observations, though over four centuries past, are as timely as if he were peering through a window to our modern age. His timeless and extraordinary wisdom unmask the accepted political corruption of the present day.

  • Robert D. Linder,
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The subject of political theory is a vast one, deserving of study and inspiring volumes. It is a discipline that the church has shaped throughout history and must continue to influence. Because political theory and its application have such a profound impact upon our human and social existence, it is critical that the church is always vigilant to speak the Word of God into this important realm.

The unquestionable command that civil government must be limited in its role and jurisdiction is made clear throughout Scripture from Moses to Paul. The socialist/collective experiment imposed by the intellectual and political class of the last century has been concentrated into two essential realms: the welfare state and the warfare state. Time has revealed that these two areas of this new order are the ones most easily corrupted and have led to the dehumanization of man and the bankruptcy of many national treasuries. While the evils of the welfare state have been addressed in recent years by churchmen and various conservative writers, very little has been written concerning the devastating effects of the warfare state.

The French-Swiss Reformer, Pierre Viret, brings his considerable theological wisdom to bear on the modern, inconsistent thinking on war.

Viret: The Forgotten Light

Pierre Viret (1511-1571), Calvin's closest associate, was a prolific writer. Many of his fifty-some books offer a well-developed theology in the issues of church and state, jurisdiction, the Christian duty of the magistrate, and the problem of war. The personal and ministerial experiences of Viret's life fostered his theological development of a comprehensive political theory.

Viret, with Guillaume Farel and Antoine Froment, was in Geneva (1534-1535) in the early days of the French-Swiss Reformation. Under the blessing of the Genevan councils, these three labored with great difficulty to bring the Reformation to this embattled republic.

Later, as the pastor of the Reformed church in Lausanne (1536-1559), Viret continually battled the overreaching arm of the Bernese lords. He spent much time and many trips to Bern dealing with the unwarranted intervention of the magistrates into the affairs of the churches of the Pays de Vaud.

Finally, in 1559 Bern had enough of Viret's resistance and exiled him from his home and church. Viret was never to return to Lausanne. After a brief stay in Geneva assisting Calvin, Viret spent the last ten years of his life pursuing a dynamic and fruitful ministry in France. Though of Swiss birth, upon entering France, Viret became the immediate leader of the French Reformed church-owing to his exemplary reputation. 

Nevertheless, his time in France was tumultuous and was further complicated by the circumstances of the French Civil War. Viret's political theory was molded by his observations and of the circumstances and what he believed to be the interventions of Providence. Thus, his theology of war did not come from his library but from his Bible, as he searched for answers to the political issues of his day.

Viret's observations, though over four centuries past, are as timely as if he were peering through a window to our modern age. His timeless and extraordinary wisdom unmasks the accepted political corruption of the present day. Because Viret's reference point is always the Word of God, his gifted insights are as relevant today as they were in his day.

Viret's View of War

Viret was a man who loved peace and hated violence. Viret said, "I have always loved peace and have always held in horror dissensions and troubles."1 He saw all war as bad and the worst of all possible blights. He described war as a "sickness" that plagues human society, and, from a purely utilitarian point of view, he felt that it generally hindered the spread of the gospel. Viret's letters from Lyon during the course of the first war of religion in France revealed how weary and heartsick he was over the fighting.2 His conclusion was that peace was always to be desired over war and that every consideration should be given to maintaining the peace, if at all possible.3 Viret declared, "I desire it to be well considered ... that every war is so exceedingly dangerous and full of hazard that there is nothing of which Christians must have a greater horror than of taking up arms; I mean not solely against Christians, but against all men of the earth; there is nothing which Christians should be more wary to employ nor which is less suited to their profession."4

Viret considered ambition, avarice, and covetousness to be the fundamental causes of most wars. Men fought other men in order to plunder, pillage, and seize what was not rightfully theirs. Viret denounced this sort of war and predicted divine judgment would take care of such international brigands. He was not willing to support any kind of politically oriented offensive war against other nations. Even the holy idealism that originally motivated the religious Crusades of the Middle Ages did not constitute a just reason for waging war in Viret's eyes.5

Viret did not desire to inspire men by the example of the conquest of Canaan by the Hebrews: "We are not in the same state that the people of Israel were in the land of Canaan. We have not the commandment, nor the leaders and magistrates ordained by God, to drive out and kill the papists and our enemies."6

Business of War

In general, Viret's attitude toward armies and things military was negative. He hated militarism and detested most mercenaries. He also denounced those who made their living manufacturing military equipment and munitions, because to Viret, profit by the shedding of human blood was particularly vile.7 Special targets for his wrath were those who manufactured and used artillery in warfare. He believed that the current instruments of war were horrible enough without resorting to a new and terrible weapon of destruction. He considered artillery an invention of diabolic origin and warned that it was a threat to the very existence of the entire human race. He censured those who would use it to ruin whole villages, killing and maiming human beings by the hundreds. He held that no true Christian prince would use so terrible and destructive a weapon.8 All in all, his long discussion of artillery sounds like a modern-day pacifist denouncing the atomic bomb. Still, he was confident that, in the end, spiritual arms are vastly superior to the dreadful artillery: "For spiritual arms are not only stronger than carnal arms without any comparison, but they are also completely invincible."9

In 1566, as Viret reflected on the first war of religion in France, he concluded that it was caused more by non-religious and semi-religious considerations than by genuinely spiritual issues. He observed that differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics had been nourished and deliberately augmented by hateful, ambitious, greedy people who hoped to profit from a war.

Politicians Who Use Religion

Viret said that certain "detestable, villainous" secular rulers and selfish people who "pretended the Christian religion" were exploiting religious differences for their own gain. He exclaimed that he could not understand how these people could "grieve and torment one another like they do over the goods of this miserable life which they should have renounced in order to become bourgeois and citizens of the kingdom of heaven."10 From what Viret wrote, it is clear that a number of secular leaders had joined the Reform for purely social and political reasons. To Viret, there was no room in the ranks of the Reformation for men such as these, especially because they set a bad example before the world of what true Christians were like and "greatly abused the name of God, the Gospel, and the Christian religion."11

Viret on the Just War

It is not that Viret failed to conceive of such a thing as a "just war." There were two conditions, in his view, under which a legitimate war might be waged.

The magistrate or prince could morally resist invasion of his territory as he intervened to stop aggressive violence. Further, and as a last resort, he was justified to engage in a war for defense and pacification.12 In the second instance, the prince or magistrate might engage in a just war over what Viret called "a good quarrel"-armed conflict in defense and in chastisement of the wicked.

Viret reasoned that if one magistrate or prince was called to defend one or several innocent people, or if the same were similarly called to punish one or several legitimate offenders, then why could not a group of magistrates or princes legitimately defend a thousand innocent people and punish a thousand wicked individuals? It would be better to take the sword than watch Christianity ruined, he argued.13 Still, even a "just war" produces undesirable results, Viret admitted, because the above conditions exist as a last resort only, and the taking up of arms remains a serious enterprise. In sum, all possible measures should be taken to avoid war, yet the pursuit of it-in behalf of a Christian duty against forces of evil-can be just.

Viret Was Critical of Corrupt Government

Viret wrote that the magistrate's office was ordained by God, but he was never afraid to criticize or defy unjust action.14 He was never timid in denouncing kings and princes when they were clearly in the wrong, and he sometimes got in trouble for this sort of thing. He bluntly stated that kings never have the right to steal from peasants, and if they do, they should be treated as a peasant who is caught robbing a king. He called princes who practiced rapine, brigandage, and fiscal corruption "the greatest of robbers." He laid the responsibility for dishonest public officials at the feet of those who appointed them. Viret was never awed by a prince merely because he bore a lofty title, but considered him to be a mortal man like himself, as prone to error and sin as any other human being.15 But, even when Viret was at odds with a group of magistrates, whether Bernese Protestants or French Catholics, the magistrates never lost their respect for him, because he was clearly a leader of men and he obviously spoke and argued based on his Christian convictions.16


The prolific writings of Pierre Viret encompass much more than political philosophy, and the reader is invited to explore them. Would that the modern church might study Pierre Viret and his cogent insights again. How revolutionary it might be if the modern evangelical church would embrace a philosophy of war more closely aligned with the well-articulated views of this forgotten Reformer. However, it is as though the modern church has been hypnotized by and has adopted the cheering of a Western war culture that creates enemies, engages in offensive wars, disposes of rulers and nations at will, and, under the guise of democracy, fabricates a worldwide military empire.

Only the church of Jesus Christ, courageously speaking from the authority of the Word of God, can truly address the evils of our modern-day culture of war.

1. Robert D. Linder, The Political Ideas of Pierre Viret (Geneva: Droz, 1964), 105.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Pierre Viret, Remonstrances aux Fidèles, 342-343.
5. Linder, Political Ideas, 105.
6. Viret, Remonstrances aux Fidèles, 239.
7. Linder, Political Ideas, 106.
8. Ibid., 107.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid., 109.
11. Ibid., 110.
12. Ibid., 105.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid., 112.
15. Ibid., 113.
16. Ibid.

  • Robert D. Linder

Robert D. Linder is University Distinguished Professor of Kansas State University where he teaches courses in Western Civilization, religious history, the history of baseball and graduate seminars in the History of Christianity. Linder earned his MA and PhD at the University of Iowa under the tutelage of Robert M. Kingdon. Linder has published seventeen books on various aspects of European, American and Australian religious and political history and authored numerous articles. He is currently working on a history of Evangelical Protestantism in Australia, a revision of his book Civil Religion and the Presidency and a biography of Pierre Viret, a sixteenth-century Protestant reformer. In addition, Linder has served two terms as mayor of his city of Manhattan and eight years on the city council.

More by Robert D. Linder