The Comprehensive Faith of Pierre Viret

Pierre Viret's vision, as derived from his Christian Instruction and faithful to the spirit of the Reformation, was to recover biblical foundations for our time, to help further the church in its task of advancing God's kingdom on earth and proclaiming the total sovereignty of God's Word.

Any commemoration of the Protestant Reformation can only be enriched by remembering Pierre Viret (1511-1571), the oft-forgotten reformer who contributed towards the development of a comprehensive Christian faith. The work of this leader of reform in French-speaking Europe was defined by its “comprehensive application of all of Scripture to all of life.”[1] And this meant that the Christian faith was no privatized faith, but rather normative and applicable for every area of life.

The Life of Viret

Viret, a native of Orbe, Switzerland, first pursued religious studies in Paris intending to enter the Catholic priesthood. Having been introduced to the teachings of Martin Luther during his education, he came to be convinced that Scripture alone must be the authority for all Christian doctrine. Viret’s conversion to Protestantism led to him fleeing France in fear of persecution from Catholic authorities. As he studied, his convictions grew stronger, and a burning desire was kindled in Viret to uncover the depths and riches of Scripture and its applicability to man and his every activity.

Viret began preaching in his hometown in 1531, at the age of twenty, with the support of William Farel. He would hold large services, often in the open air, as residents flocked to hear his powerful exposition of the Scriptures. As interest continued to grow, and as Viret became increasingly sensitive to the church’s mission to proclaim and apply the good news of God’s Word, he set out to other towns to proclaim this evangel. In some places, Viret was welcomed warmly and the people were receptive to the Protestant faith, but in other places, such as Payerne and Geneva (prior to John Calvin’s arrival), he suffered persecution. Twice he narrowly survived assassination attempts, by sword and poison.[2]

It was his faithful testimony in such suffering, however, that helped to win over the Genevan populace and that eventually provoked the expulsion of Roman Catholicism by the decision of the General Council of Geneva, leading to the adoption of the Protestant faith.[3] The persevering ministry of Viret and Farel were instrumental towards preparing Geneva for Calvin’s arrival; their collective work would help shape Geneva into a town which sought to order itself in accordance with the teachings of Scripture. Viret, Farel and Calvin would be the three primary reformers of French Switzerland.

Viret’s Contribution

Viret was a prolific writer, publishing more than fifty books in French and Latin, and one of the greatest spokespersons of the Protestant faith in the sixteenth century. He is regarded by historians as a scholar on par with Calvin, complementing his Reformational ministry. As the theologian Jean-Marc Berthoud has written, “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.”[4]

Viret’s contribution to the reformation movement can be found in his Christian Instruction in the Doctrine of the Law and the Gospel, a beautiful, comprehensive exposition and application of the Ten Commandments, and how they are applicable to every sphere of life. Viret’s Christian Instruction is now hailed by several scholars as a reformational masterpiece which has been recovered from history and sheds light on the early development of a comprehensive Christian faith. On the scope and extent of God’s law for human life, Viret writes:

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…. This Law, if it is rightly understood, will furnish us with true Ethics, Economics and Politics.[5]

In Christian Instruction, Viret makes clear the comprehensive scope of the Christian faith, resting on a confidence in the Lordship of Christ over all creation, and the enduring relevance and applicability of God’s revealed Word for man and every sphere of life. He advocates for a careful interpretation and application of biblical principles for the cultivation and realization of a true culture, in which there might be true ethics, economics, politics, etc. By ‘true culture,’ Viret means a culture that, as concerns its structure, is built upon the principles of Scripture, as well as directionally oriented towards the Creator as a form of worship.

Viret’s depiction of a comprehensive Christian faith is largely unrecognized today, since his work was in many respects neglected. There are several reasons for this, but one especially ironic reason is worth briefly mentioning. History shows that Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion overshadowed Viret’s work, and given the enduring popularity of the Institutes, Viret’s most defining publications were never prioritized for translation. As a result, to this day there is a lack of accessibility to much of Viret’s work.[6]

One of the natural consequences of this was the loss of a voice for a comprehensive faith, and in its place, a piecemeal Christian faith supplemented with unbiblical, apostate thought. This led to an unbiblical dualism between the ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ in the church’s perception of reality. As a late commentator wrote: “The great problem in the church’s interpretation of Scripture has been its ecclesiastical orientation, as though God speaks only to the church, and commands only the church.”[7] Viret’s work was a remedy to this truncation of the gospel scope. In recovering the full teaching of Scripture, he was calling the church back from its missional anemia, to fulfill her mission in the fullest sense. And we would do well to follow his direction of thought, for a comprehensive Christian faith is exactly what Scripture teaches.

The imagery used in Zechariah 5:1-4 of a flying scroll covering an entire city is an evocative portrayal of the all-encompassing scope of God’s Word. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes of the universal kingship of Jesus, that “he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet…” (1 Cor. 15:25-27). The flying scroll that covers the city, and the subjection of all things under Christ’s feet, teach us that God’s Word is authoritative for man in his spheres of family life, church, state, school, business, the arts, sciences, law, economics, politics and all else. All of reality is God’s created reality; there is nothing outside of Christ’s domain. Nothing is truly ‘secular’ or ‘neutral,’ all things are subject to King Jesus and his sovereign Word.

A privatized Christian faith would be unthinkable to Viret, for it is in many respects counter-reformational, but he would also see the opportunity for a course correction. Viret’s vision, as derived from his Christian Instruction and faithful to the spirit of the Reformation, was to recover biblical foundations for our time, to help further the church in its task of advancing God’s kingdom on earth and proclaiming the total sovereignty of God’s Word. We as Christians must uphold this vision, holding fast to God’s Word and applying his timeless truths to every area of life. In this way we may walk in obedience to our Lord in fulfillment of our calling, and remember the legacy of 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.”[8]

 

[1] Martin G. Selbrede, "Why all this Fuss about Pierre Viret?", Faith for all of Life: Proclaiming the Authority of God's Word Over Every Area of Life and Thought March-April (2011), 2.

[2] See R.A. Sheats, “Pierre Viret: The Unknown Reformer,” Faith for All of Life March/April (2011), 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jean-Marc Berthoud, “Pierre Viret and the Total Sovereignty of the Word of God,” Faith for All of Life March/April (2011), 12.

[5] Pierre Viret, Instruction chrétienne en la doctrine de la Loi et de l’Evangile (Genève, 1564), 255.

[6] The Pierre Viret Association has been working to translate and publish Viret’s works in English: http://www.pierreviret.org/index.php

[7] R.J. Rushdoony, Romans & Galatians (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1997), 1.

[8] Berthoud, “Pierre Viret,” 14.