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Viret and the Bernese

Author: Henri Vuilleumier1

Excerpt from Notre Pierre Viret (Lausanne, 1911), pp. 110-131

Upon reaching the moment of the recounting of Viret’s public activity in Lausanne and the Pays de Vaud, it would be best to clarify his relations with those who began to be called Their Excellencies of Bern, and the ministers of their capital. The entire ecclesiastical situation was then dominated by certain divergent views, which were intensified through the years between the political and religious leaders of the Bernese republic and a part of the Vaudoise pastoral body, of whom the first pastor of Lausanne was undisputably the most important member. . . .

First of all, it is important to note that the question [of the relationship between the Church and State] was not then posed in the terms in which it is asked today. It was not a question of whether the Church—within the Reformed cantons of the Swiss and their allies—should be united to or separate from the state. No more than the other Reformers did Viret dream of a “free Church” in the modern sense of the word. He never conceived of a Church separated from the State any more than he dreamed of a State neutral or indifferent to religion. In his eyes, as a rule, no antagonism existed between civil society and its powers on the one hand, and religious society and authority on the other. Only certain Anabaptists in those times supported such a theory. And those our Reformer treated as “poor spirits devoid of reason,” dreaming of I know not what “platonic republic.” A Christian people, according to Viret, must be one body, of whom the true Head is Jesus Christ. But—man being composed of a body and soul—God, in order to govern people, in order to establish His reign among men, instituted two types of ministers. He gave “particular charge” of souls to one; to the other, the body and goods. Ministers of the Word and ministers wielding the Sword, pastors and magistrates, must lend each other mutual aid. Both, each in its own particular sphere, had as its mission to lead all people under the obedience of their Head in all.2

This principle of a distinct but complementary action of powers instituted by God had already been expounded by Viret at the Lausanne Disputation.3 He was in perfect harmony with the views formulated at the Synod of Bern in 1532, in which the actions, sanctioned by the avoyer and Bern city councils, were incorporated into the State laws. But a principle is one thing; its translation into action is another. Difficulties and disagreements were not long in sprouting up when the theory passed into practice. The true question upon which all the controversy hinged was this: in this “Christian people”—in other words, in this national church—what fell to each jurisdiction, and who had the final word? To be even more precise, when dealing with the interests of the soul, that is, spiritual matters, which of the two powers held the upper hand?

The viewpoint espoused by the lords of Bern is well known. It was that of Zwingli. In the given historical circumstances, in the little republics existing in Switzerland, with their governmental customs and traditions, more democratic than some, more aristocratic than others, the most normal state of things, in the opinion of the Reformer of Zurich, was that the sovereign Council, the Christian magistrate, had the final word in matters of religion and morals no less than in matters concerning the body and goods. Did not the Church herself embrace in her realm the same territory and people as the State? And as to their respective functions, was it possible, in practice, to draw a clearly defined line of demarcation, when both possessed as their duty to fulfill here below, in both the national life and the individual existence, God’s will revealed in the Bible? But it was well understood that the government employed the Word of God as its rule of conduct in all things, and that whatever more particularly concerned the direction of the Church, it would call for the advice of the ministers, those being designed by their office to serve as expert advisors in this realm. Such was the plan inspired by the Zurich Reformer by his ideology of Christian patriotism.

Nowhere in Switzerland did this type of Zwinglian national Church—composed in the sense of a State Church—find a more complete expression and a more consistent application than at Bern and within Bernese territory. It could even be said, in more than one respect, that Bern displayed more Zwinglianism that Zwingli himself.

This system of bishop-magistrate marvelously adapted itself to the ancient Bernese traditions, which were those of a strongly constituted—almost militarily disciplined—bourgeoisie of aristocratic tendencies. Even before the Reformation the Councils of the republic were drawn to actively engage in religious affairs. They had already taken the initiative on certain ecclesiastical and moral reforms to which the competent authority—the diocesan bishop—cared not to put his hand. In organizing the Dispute of 1528—adhering to the Reform inaugurated at Zurich—they did no more than follow the same mode of conduct. The double fact that, from the beginning among the Bernese preachers no personality truly marked and popular, capable of taking head of the magistracy, had been found, and the almost daily dissensions between theologians at the introduction of the Reform on the banks of the Aar, consequently left all the more free hand to the guiding and stabilizing action of civil power. Moreover, supposing that the Bernese statesmen had felt some tinge of conscience at their meddling in the affairs of the spiritual order, these scruples vanished before the more than deferential attitude that the ecclesiastics on that unforgettable day had taken regarding the government. Had not these same “fathers” of the synod of 1532, who had so well distinguished in theory the respective attributions of the evangelical minister and the civil power, by a unanimous vote once and for all sanctioned the regime of the subordination—or rather the subjection—of the Church to the State?

Bern naturally bestowed this regime—working vigorously for nearly ten years in its Germanspeaking lands—upon its newly-acquired province. It does not appear that at the synod, which could be called constituent, of May 1537 in Lausanne, the project of ecclesiastical organization supplied by Megander from Bern had met with no opposition. On the other hand, the symptoms of discontent appeared at the synod of the following year, where for the first time the Classes were called to report upon the religious and moral state of the parishes of their districts. In traversing the correspondence of the time, no effort is necessary to perceive that within the heart of the Vaudoise pastoral body two divergent currents begin to appear. One young school, if it can be called by this name, begins to form, to which the “reasonable and Christian Reformation” of the lords of Bern does not appear to be the final word of wisdom. Opposite this Reformation after the fashion of Zwingli another begins to be erected, that which the French Calvin attempted—without much success for the moment—to introduce to Geneva. What distinguished it from the first is the principles of the spiritual autonomy of the Church and the Ministry in regard to the civil magistrate; in other words, the right of the Church and its instruments to govern itself, under the protection and with the support of the State, after its own laws in all that specifically relates to doctrine, worship, and morals.

This “reformation” was that which best fit the aspirations of Viret and a number of his colleagues. It was undoubtedly a great good that the lords of Bern had abolished the errors and abuses of papism. It was to their benefit, also, that the evangelical doctrine was preached according to Holy Scripture, worship celebrated in spirit and in truth, and the morals of their subjects seriously amended. But nevertheless for some time the independence of the Church in its own domain was not officially guaranteed, the “dignity” of the holy ministry and its spiritual authority was not better respected; in a word, as long as the public exercise of religion remained submitted to the good pleasure of the magistrate, “Christian” though it be, the reformation remained ineffectual. It was not “true and complete.” Whenever the interests of the Church were in play, it was the duty of the sovereign Council to defer judgment to the appointed interpreters of the Word of God. Its role must be restricted to providing the power of the law to the decision made by the legitimate instruments of the Church and, when needed, to come to their assistance.

During the first years after the establishment of the Reform in Vaud, the opposition to the ecclesiastical Bernese regime did not yet exist, so to speak, save in the latent state. It did not take on a tangible form, nor was it translated into action until the end of 1542, that is, after Viret’s return from Geneva.4 The ambition of the Lausanne pastor was to see the Church of his country endowed with a system similar to that which Master Calvin, his eminent colleague, was recently able to introduce, and which the Councils of Geneva successfully adopted, and which his old friend Farel had endeavored to make agreeable to the people of Neuchatel.

Viret certainly did not hide himself from the enormous difficulties which would meet him along his way. He saw them arise not only from Bern, but within his own inner circle, within the magistrates and bourgeois of Lausanne, indeed, even within some of his own colleagues. But he was full of courage because he doubted not the justness of his cause. It being, according to his personal conviction, that of the truth—indeed, of the Gospel itself—this cause had a future. More optimistic than Calvin, less informed than he of the spirit which drove his lords and masters, perhaps less perspicacious as well, he hoped that with time a sort of compromise could be achieved. He hoped in the interest of his country no less than in that of his Church.

Under his impulse and that of some colleagues sharing his views—pastor Jean de Tournay, at Aigle, and dean Francis Marthoret of Vevey—the Classe of Lausanne became an ever greater center of resistance to the ecclesiastical politics of the government; a resistance, always respectful, but firm—passive at times, but inexhaustible. Little by little the movement also spread to the Classes of Payerne and Thonon, which were particularly accessible to the influences of Geneva. Those of Yverdon, Morges, and Gex, on the other hand, for the majority remained subservient to the regimes of the “princes” of Bern.

The occasion awaited by the Calvinists of the Classe of Lausanne to take a stand and raise their flag was not long in coming. The government soon provided it by imposing in quick succession—throughout the course of 1542—diverse measures, in which Viret and his comrades-inarms could see nothing but infringements of the rights of the Church and her ministers. Spurred on by their faithful friend and vigilant counselor of Geneva, they knew with attentiveness the occasion offered them to express to the lords of Bern what weighed upon their heart. They did this first by writing, in a carefully prepared statement, then by the mouth of their official delegates, among whom Viret took the lead. From this first encounter the documents of the time lay out with precision all the essential points of their grievances. They are four in number. It is of even more interest to note here that they comprehended how the ideal of the ecclesiastical reformation of our Vaudois Calvinists differed from the order instituted by the Bernese Zwinglians, and that the majority of the conflicts which would be produced subsequently between Bern and Lausanne had their origin in one or other of these subjects of complaint.

The first grievance concerned the sale—which benefitted the State’s treasury—of a part of the goods proceeding from the old Church; a sale to which the lords of Bern proceeded from this very year. The principal grounds they set forth to justify this measure was that the profit would serve to rid the country of the burdensome mortgages laid upon it by the acts of the Duke of Savoy; this prevented them, they said, from levying a special impost for the purpose, whose burden would fall heaviest upon the “poor people.” They did not fail, moreover, to remark that a notable portion of these goods incorporated into the public property and tax were allocated to the needs of the new Church, public education, and hospitals. Quite contrary was the viewpoint taken by Viret and the Classe of Lausanne. They considered it beyond the government’s jurisdictional bounds to dispose of goods bestowed upon the Church, or formerly bequeathed to religious purposes, to its own liking. It was free to the government—if it deemed it fitting—to reserve the management of the funds, but under the condition of not confusing it with the rest of the public fortune, and of applying its full revenue to the objects for which it was given, that is: the maintenance of worship and ministers, the service of schools, Church pépinières, and the benefit of the poor and sick, the suffering members of the body of Christ. The preachers were not afraid to label as “sacrilegious persons” the keepers of these sorts of goods—indeed, they even likened them to Judas.5

The second point they would not accept was that the civil magistrate be permitted to take upon itself the “giving of the laws of religion,” to resolve on its own authority questions of doctrine and worship. The Council of Bern had but recently instituted this. Wearied by the perpetual disputes of its German clergy over the true significance of the Lord’s Supper, one theologian of the capital composed a formula of conciliation to be given to every minister within its territory, without beforehand securing the agreement of the ecclesiastical bodies. It contented itself with summoning the senior members of all the Classes, both French and German. The majority of them had the weakness to adhere to the formula, even though it was deemed insufficient by its own author. This was a precedent against which an energetic uprising was fitting, out of fear that a similar spiritual dictator would discharge force of legal custom. In what regards “the divine things,” said Viret, the prince, whoever he be, must also consult the ministers of God, “as David consulted Nathan the prophet.”

The third point dealt with the operation of the Church body. The Classe complained of the too rare convocation of the general synods. It had been four years since the last synod had met in the Romand country, even though these pastoral assemblies were supposed to meet every year. Bern looked with an unfavorable eye upon these periodic meetings of the preachers. They feared that the discussions would degenerate into irksome and unproductive disputes. They were also wary of them because they risked fueling the fire of this spirit of independence to which certain Welches were already too inclined. Viret, to the contrary, and those who shared his sentiments, were very eager about this institution: it was necessary to develop the spirit of brotherly interdependence, and to keep the consciousness alert within the pastoral body of both the holy obligations of the minister and his lawful authority. It made above all a happy balance to the division of the Romand Church in six Classes (or Chapters) meeting habitually separately, without an organized meeting-place, without cohesion between them.

Finally—and this was the essential point—the grievances of the Classe inspired and represented by Viret had for their object ecclesiastical discipline as exercised by the consistories instituted according to the German Swiss custom. Without mentioning the reprehensible negligence which the majority of these consistories brought to the exercise of their edifying mandate, and of their exceedingly insufficient number (there was then but one bailiwick), two things above all offended the consistent Calvinists. The first: these moral courts, instead of being instruments of the Church—the true Councils of the parishes, formed of pastor and chosen elders among the moral and religious elite of the community—were a sort of justices of the peace appointed by the grand bailiff (by the city Council at Lausanne), presided over by a judge more or less qualified for this office, and in which the ministers played no greater role than that of advisor. The second: the discipline employed by this body was restricted to admonitions and fines, and included neither an examination of faith and doctrine of the “ignorant,” nor the right to suspend or exclude from communion those deemed “unworthy” to participate. This is, above all, the defining mark of disciplinary jurisdiction, the ability to “separate the swine from the sheep,” which, in Viret’s eyes no less than Calvin’s, marked the “reformation of the lords of Bern” with the character of a truncated—not to say aborted—reformation. According to him, it prevented the ministers from truly administering the Holy sacrament “according to the Lord’s institution.”

. . .

As for the general synods, after turning a deaf ear to Viret’s repeated appeals, the Council finished, we have seen, by granting him one in 1549. But this was for some time the last. Having learned from experience, the Bernese ministers and magistrates agreed to convoke the same no more. (Regarding synods, the remainder were limited to authorizing the restricted assemblies, as rare as possible, to “members of the Classes.”) This was not all. Taking advantage of the controversies birthed within the heart of some colloquies, as well as the divisions which followed, Bern abolished this part of the weekly conferences among ministers of the same region as being detrimental to the peace of the Church. Only the Lausanne Colloquy was spared, under certain conditions, thanks to the indefatigable work of Viret and Theodore Beza.

Over these two other articles—that of the “misappropriation” or alienation of the Church goods and those of the consistorial discipline—the lords of Bern remained inflexible. Of the right of examination and excommunication, which Viret and his comrades held above all in the interest of the order and “power” of the Church, the lords of Bern desired that no mention of it should ever be made again. . . .

. . . Sooner or later, despite Viret’s high hopes, his conciliatory spirit and longsuffering, despite the diplomatic consideration of the lords of Bern and their occasional concessions, a breach was inevitable. It was only a matter of time. We have every reason to believe that if the perceptive and uncompromising Reformer of Geneva had been in the place of the pastor of Lausanne, matters would have erupted fifteen years earlier. It is a blessing for the Reformed Church of the Pays de Vaud that, thanks to the leniency of our compatriot and his affection for his native land, the painful conclusion was delayed as long as it was.

Author Bio:

Henri Vuilleumier was born in Basel, Switzerland on January 2nd, 1846. His educational studies included Latin-Greek in Lausanne, earning a license in theology in 1864 at the University of Lausanne and a doctorate in theology in 1869. He also received training in Gottingen and in Berlin between 1864 and 1866. He was a member of students’ Society Zofingue (1856-1860). He was president of the Society from 1858 till 1860. Vuilleumier pastured in Etivaz (1867 – 1868), and followed with professorship in Hebrews at the Cantonal Gymnasium of Lausanne between 1869 and 1904. Vuilleumier was named professor of theology the University of Lausanne in 1869 and taught there until 1923. He collaborated on the magazine of theology and philosophy, in Protestant France and the historical Vaudoise magazine, as well as in the Newspaper of Lausanne. He produced a very important historical work on the history of the Church published in four volumes in between 1927 and 1933.


[1] Translated by R. A. Sheats. Notes have been added for clarification, and do not appear in the original manuscript.
[2] See Pierre Viret, Dialogues de Désordre qui est à Présent au Monde . . . (Geneva, 1545)
[3] October 1-10, 1536; for Viret’s treatment of the role of the magistrates at the Lausanne Disputation, see Les Actes de la Dispute de Lausanne (Neuchatel, 1928), pages 298 ff.
[4] Viret was summoned from Lausanne to Geneva in 1540 to assume the position of pastor after Calvin’s banishment. Working tirelessly to restore the exiled pastor to his parish, Viret remained in Geneva some time after Calvin’s return—at Calvin’s special request—to assist the Reformer in his reentrance into the city.
[5] John 12:5 3-6

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