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Pierre Viret and a Reasonable Economy

by Jean-Marc Berthoud

Originally published in Christianity & Society VOL. XIX, NO. 2, WINTER 2009


IT is my pleasure to dedicate this brief evocation of the French Swiss Reformer, Pierre Viret, (Orbe/Vaud 1511– Nérac/Navarre 1571) to the eminent French Protestant historian, well known to the city of Séville, Pierre Chaunu, who with his wife Huguette, spent many years in your city engaged in pioneering research for his massive doctoral thesis, Séville and the Atlantic, 1504–1650.2 Not only did he bring the techniques of the school of the Annales to the history of Spain’s American Empire, but he did more. His research constitued a decisive step in the breaking down of the notorious “Black Legend” which has done so much to render Spanish culture and history incomprehensible to the Reformed civilisation of Northern Europe and North America.3

Nowhere has this cultural disinformation been so marked as in the history of the Spanish Reformation. Not only did the Inquisition do its utmost to wipe out the faintest traces of the great movement of a return to the Bible which marked so strongly the Renaissance of ancient learning in the Spain of the first half of the Sixteenth Century, but it effaced from the historical memory of our European Reformed Tradition most traces of this great movement of the Spirit of God in your country.

Who, today, knows Pierre Viret? Even in Lausanne, in his own country and where he exercised a very fruitful ministry for over twenty years, he is largely forgotten.

1. Brief life of Pierre Viret

Pierre Viret was born in 1511 in the ancient Roman and Burgundian town of Orbe at the foot of the Jura

mountains in what is today the canton of Vaud in French-speaking Switzerland. His parents were pious Roman Catholics and after attending the parochial school of his home town, they sent him to Paris in 1527, at the age of sixteen, to further his higher education with a view to his entering the priesthood. There he followed the strenuous academic discipline of Montaigu College, famous for such students as John Calvin and Ignatius of Loyola.

It was in this context of arduous study, lit up by the bonfires in which the first French martyrs of the Reformation were burnt at the stake, that Viret came to see the deadly errors of that Roman religion in which he had been brought up and his need for a personal Saviour to deliver him from that curse a holy God laid justly on his sins.

Persecution led Viret, seeking refuge, back to his native Orbe. And it was here that he was confronted by his vocation. For in the spring of 1531 Guilllaume Farel, that intrepid preacher of the Gospel and political agent of the newly reformed authorities of the Berne Republic, called Viret (as he was to do with Calvin a few years later) out of the tranquility of his studies into the battlefield of the reformation of the Church and the implantation in his country of God’s mighty Kingdom. At the age of twenty Viret thus became the pastor of the small evangelical congregation of Orbe where he had the privilege of seeing his parents’ conversion under his preaching of the Word of God. The following years saw him engaged in a growing itinerant ministry all over French-speaking Switzerland. In 1534, two years before Calvin’s dramatic call, we find Viret at Farel’s side breaking the ground for the free entrance of the Gospel in the city of Geneva. In 1536 the canton of Vaud was overrun by the Bernese army, ostensibly at war to defend Geneva from the threats of the Counts of Savoy, but effectively working for the aggrandisement of Bernese power. But these temporal ambitions, in God’s merciful hand, opened up the whole region to the preaching of the Gospel. After the famous Dispute de Lausanne in October of the same year, a public disputation where Viret bore the brunt of the debate, the young pastor, now aged 25, became the minister of the Cathedral Church. Apart from a brief period (1541–1542) where he assisted Calvin on his return to Geneva after his exile in Strasbourg, the twenty-three years between 1536 and 1559 saw Viret as the principal minister of the Reformed Church of the Vaud canton where he exercised the ministry of God’s Word under the heavy hand of the Bernese political and ecclesiastical power.

Between 1559 and 1561 Viret exercised a much appreciated ministry in Geneva at the side of his great friend Calvin, but his failing health forced him to seek a milder climate in the south of France. His health partly restored he was instrumental in bringing about a remarkable revival, first in Montpellier and Nîmes, then in the second city of the realm, Lyon. There he exercised a highly blessed ministry during the early years of the civil wars, ending a very fruitful and eventful life as Chief Pastor and Academic Superintendent of the Reformed Church of the Kingdom of Navarre, where he died at the end of March or the beginning of April 1571 at the age of sixty and was buried in Nérac. The Queen of Navarre, Jeanne d’Albret, wrote of his death: “Amongst the great losses I have suffered during and since the last wars, I count the most grievous to be that of Monsieur Pierre Viret, whom God has now taken to Himself.”

2. Pierre Viret’s place in the Reformation

Now Pierre Viret, Calvin’s most intimate friend known under the name of the angel of the reformation, was by no means the minor or insignificant figure which most Reformed histories of the Reformation lead us to imagine. He had, in 1537, founded in Lausanne the first Reformed Academy. He gave much of his time to the teaching of theology to students who flocked there 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 had up to a thousand theological students on its roll.

But this mild and gentle Christian, a man of the highest spiritual mettle, was also one of the great preachers of the Reformation. Of Calvin, Bèze wrote, “none have taught with greater authority”; of Farel, “none thundered more mightily”; but of Viret he said, “none has a more winsome charm when he speaks.”4

But in addition to exercising such great gifts Viret was in his own right a prolific writer, author of over forty books, some up to a thousand pages in length. The immense majority of his books were written in French, in a familiar style and in the popular form of dialogues between clearly differentiated and attractive personages designed to reach a public privileged with little formal instruction. But if the style is pleasant, the matter is profound, the knowledge of the Bible impeccable and the scholarship immense. The pattern of his dialogues : affirmations, objections, refutations, and finally the clear, authoritative and balanced doctrinal synthesis, harks clearly back, in Pierre Viret was undoubtedly (with Martin Luther) one of the finest popularisers 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. 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 Loy et de l’Évangile, “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.

3. Viret, the economic thinker

In this all too brief appreciation of one of the great figures in the history of the Church (often totally unknown to those who rightly consider themselves the heirs of the Reformation) I would now like to show how Pierre Viret’s great respect for God’s Law endowed him with an extraordinary lucidity and discernment in the field of economic analysis. In a book devoted to studying the writing of history in the latter part of the sixteenth century the French literary historian, Claude-Gilbert Dubois, pays close attention to Viret’s Biblical vision of the historical process. In so doing he brings to light the remarkable economic discernment of our Swiss Reformer.5 Dubois’ analysis is concentrated on the study of a masterpiece in Viretian apologetics, Le monde à l’empire et le monde démoniacle.6 This book, says Dubois, could well be considered a modern treatise in economics written some two hundred years in advance of its time. Though in total disagreement with Viret’s theocentric conservatism the marxist atheist Dubois is 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 of accountability to God for the use of one’s riches), a particularly vile form of idolatry where the rapidity of growth in opulence—an extreme form of unfettered liberalism—was in direct proportion to the loss of religion and morality, and all sense of social responsibility. This is how Dubois expresses Viret’s preoccupations: “Behind the official public laws which are supposed to govern society one can discern the existence of those hidden perverse principles of our fallen nature that have now come to be officially accepted by a society which imposes as the norm of its new morality the perverted rules of a chaotic nature.7

Viret’s polemic is not only directed at the unproductive accumulation of wealth by the Catholic Church but against those inconsistent evangelicals (i.e. Calvinists) of his time who saw in the process of the Reformation a liberation from the historical (moral and legal) constraints of a partly Christianised society and thus refused all submission to the social and economic disciplines implied by the Law of God. It was this Godless antinomianism, often to be seen in what he called deformed (rather than reformed ) Christians, that Viret attacked with biting irony. He saw an expression of this anti-social behaviour in the nouveaux riches who had been quick to forget their modest origins and who now arrogantly gloried in their recent prosperity, wealth often acquired at the expense of the poorer classes who had been impoverished by the new economic order founded largely on monopolistic speculation. Dubois writes:

Viret’s indignation has a theological base—these Christians have betrayed that spirit of poverty which characterised the apostles ; but it also bears a social character—this sterile and unproductive wealth provokes the economic enslavement of the poor to the newly enriched ruling class. What this sixteenth century economist reproaches the Roman Church for is that its accumulation of riches had the effect of freezing its wealth in unproductive activities rather than letting it circulate freely in the money market where eventually it would also have come to benefit the poorer classes.

and he asks,

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 system, an inethical 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.8

Viret writes:

The greatest evil that can be imagined is when the public purse is impoverished and individual men are 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.9

For the economic mechanisms which lead to such an unfruitful concentration of wealth in the hands of an unaccountable financial oligarchy prepare the way for those social and political catastrophes which will inevitably destroy such an amoral and irresponsible ruling class. For, in the eyes of Viret, this infernal cycle of economic injustice must of necessity breed revolution. Economic oppression has as its direct origin an inordinate desire for the accumulation of wealth but, in the long run, it must produce social unrest. And such a feeling of social frustration, when it becomes conscious, ends in revolt. Viret saw very clearly that this new oligarchy made abundant use of its monopolistic domination of the apparatus of the State to draw to itself 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 by the proper functioning of the market is to be re-established and the economic health of the society restored.10 If Viret sees all too well, in the outworking of the principles of evil the judgements of God towards a rebellious and ungrateful world, he on the other hand, shows us all the more clearly the blessings which flow from faithful obedience to God’s commandments.

I would now like to examine with you two aspects of Viret’s economic anaylsis which have an extraordinary bearing on our contemproary issues and problems : (a) The fabrication by the State of virtual money ex nihilo, out of nothing. (b) The invention of the State’s universal tax on every kind of sold object, the Value Added Tax (VAT).

4. The fabrication by the State of virtual money ex nihilo, out of nothing

Viret’s great friendship for John Calvin (his elder by only two years) in no way prevented him from, on occasion, expressing divergent theological views whilst, of course, sharing on all fundamental points of doctrine the same Reformed convictions. The Reformation thus gives us a striking example of the way basic doctrinal unity is in no way exclusive of a certain theological diversity. It is the mechanical conformism of an effeminate age which cannot stomach disagreements on secondary matters in the Church. Thus, on the question of the 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.”11

It is enlightening here to compare Viret’s and Calvin’s exegesis of specific texts. In his Sermons on Deuteronomy 12 for example, we often find that Calvin, while not ignoring the detailed practical implications of the Mosaic Law, nonetheless pays much less attention than Viret to their immediate meaning and to their application to the political, economic and social problems of his time. Let us briefly contrast these two different attitudes by showing how they apply to a specific biblical text.

Thou shalt not have in thy bag divers weights, a great and a small.
Thou shalt not have in thy house divers measures, a great and a small.
But thou shalt have a perfect and just weight, a perfect and just measure shalt thou have, that thy days may be lengthened in the land which the Lord thy God hath given thee.
For all that do such things, and all that do unrighteously, are an abomination unto the Lord thy God.

Deuteronomy 25: 13–16

Let us first look at Calvin’s comments on this text in his Sermons on Deuteronomy.

There are two things by which above all we offend our neighbour. For some abandon themselves to fraud and evil practises, whilst others proceed by aggressions and insults. However, with regard to hidden malice the worst means of all is that by which weights and measures are falsified. For just weights and just measures enable men to commerce with one another without dispute or harm. Without money with which to buy and to sell what confusion would ensue. Now goods are also often distributed by weight and measure. Thus when the falsification of money, weights or measurements occur it is the social bond itself between men which is broken. Men are then reduced to the state of cats and dogs whom it is imposible to approach without fear. We must thus not be surprised if our Lord manifests such detestation for the practise of falsifying weights and measures for he shows thereby that we deal here with the worst and the most detestable kind of robbery imaginable. For when a thief proposes to carry out some thieving knavery he only attacks one man. True he will go from one victim to another. But we know that a thief cannot multiply himself to such a degree as to enable him to rob the whole world at one go. But whoever establishes false weights and false measures is not particular as to whom he will rob. He indeed robs all and sundry alike. Thus he so perverts the common order of society that the bond of humanity is broken. When no integrity or loyalty remains in those things which should normally help men to maintain themselves in their condition, what then will become of law and justice?13

Calvin then goes on to apply this particular law to what he calls general doctrine. By this he means the application of the principle of integrity which stands behind this specific law to divers aspects of the Christian life. He speaks of loyalty in business dealings; of just prices in commerce; of compassion for the poor; of the hypocrisy of pretending to be a Christian and neglecting these practical duties towards one’s neigbour; of man’s innate corruption; and of the necessity for loyalty and integrity in human relationships. He concludes on the following note:

Let us all fear what has here been shown and may each of us walk in loyalty and integrity with regard to his neighbour. Let those engaged in commerce see that their balances and their measures be correct, that their merchandise be genuine, that they should falsify nothing and that all should use of such loyalty one to another that everyone recognise that there indeed exists a law which exercises its effective rule over our hearts.14

Pierre Viret proceeds in a very different manner. He devotes no less than fifty-five large folio pages of small print to a detailed exposition of the eighth commandment.15 On our particular text his comments cover six pages from page 581 to page 586. Instead of drawing general moral lessons from the particular statute as Calvin does, Viret takes great pains to study the various specific applications of this precise statute in a variety of aspects of commercial dealings. That is, he develops the case law of this particular biblical statute. He does this in such a way that, though his remarks are carefully adapted to the conditions of his time and culture, they nevertheless remain applicable today. His comments constitute in no way a distortion of the Mosaic significance of the particular law under consideration. Let us first look at the subdivisions into which he orders his material, divisions marked by the following headings:

  • Theft committed by the falsification of quantity and of weights and measures of things sold and distributed and how such theft is detestable in the sight of Holy Scripture.
  • Of the invention and usage of money, of counterfeiters and of the magnitude of the crime committed by the counterfeiting of money.
  • Of thieves and counterfeiters of the Word of God and of the thefts both of men’s souls and of their goods commited by such means.
  • Of those who clip coins and of those who consciously use false money and particularly of those responsible for the public treasury.
  • Of corruption by bribes and of merchants who sell and buy justice and of the effect of this on the poor.
  • Of thefts committed in the sale of foodstuffs by their falsification and the dangers which such corruptions produce.
  • Of the attention magistrates should give to the quality of foodstuffs.
  • Of the danger of falsification of medicines by doctors and druggists.
  • Of the importance of the law given by God on weights and measures and of his threats against those who falsify them

Speaking of the falsification of weights and measures Viret writes:

Such theft is frequent and very common for it is easier to rob men by this means than by the modification of the substance of the goods sold, such material falsifications being easier to notice. For in buying and selling we must for the most part trust the weights and measures of those with whom we have to do. For we cannot always have such measures with us. The iniquity is all the greater in that those who falsify weights and measures wickedly deceive those who put their trust in them. They are thus nothing else but public thieves and bandits.16

Viret aptly applies this statute to counterfeiters as in ancient times the inequality of the weight of coins made it necessary to weigh them in order to measure their exact worth.

Firstly counterfeiters are highly dangerous and very detrimental to society. For the invention of money and the technique for transforming gold, silver and other metals into coinage was discovered by men in order to assist them in their commerce and to facilitate their mutual exchange of various goods. For commerce is nothing else but an exchange of goods between men, exchange through which they take one thing in payment for another in proportion to the value of the goods exchanged. As the distant transportation of goods which could serve as means of exchange is cumbersome, sums of money are substituted for the goods in proportion to the value of the goods exchanged. For money is of easier transportation and is better adapted to commercial exchange than is the case for any other good. As God has given men such a means to facilitate mutual relations between men, those who pervert and confound this order provoke a great wound in the body politic and in the whole of human society. They are thus worthy of the most severe punishment particularly producing as they do the greatest possible confusion in society, for men cannot live without commerce. Thus whoever destroys the means of exchange resembles a public bandit, a cutthroat slitting the gizzard of the whole community. For through his fraud he destroys every kind of good faith and loyalty and without these human society can neither be maintained nor develop. For faith and loyalty being removed nothing certain remains. By this means men are greatly troubled and fall into an incomparable disorder.17

Today the counterfeiting of money has become the common practice of the banking system with what is called “fractional reserve banking” and, more particularly, that of our Central Banks who outrageously rob the community by their creation of fiat (“virtual”) money out of thin air, for such unbacked creation of means of exchange will inevitably lead to inflation.18 The result of such monetary creation is of course the uncontrolled expansion of every kind of public and private debt, the destruction of the productivity of society by the concentration of such capital in speculative transactions and the development of our modern boom/bust cycle of inflation and monetary restriction and the widespread expansion of totally unproductive speculation. Viret would have had much to say from a biblical perspective on our present monetary set up.19 He was fully aware of these problems as they manifested themselves in his own time. He goes on to write acidly of the sin of the State counterfeiting the means of exchange in the following sparkling dialogue:

Timothy: It would seem that one could quite justifiably add to the company of counterfeiters all those who clip coins and thus reduce their weight and who then make fully conscious use of such clipped coins (and not by ignorance as often happens) knowing that they are fraudulent and of incorrect weight. For though they act in a different manner to those whom we normally call counterfeiters their deeds tend to much the same end.

Daniel: You here touch a matter in which those who have the management of public funds are often deeply implicated. For when they receive money from the public they take great pains to count it correctly and to refuse outright all illegitimate or unacceptable coinage. But when it comes to opening the public purse and to paying those who have served either the Church or the public good, or to distribute something to the poor, God only then knows with what kind of loyalty and faithfulness they fulfill their obligations!

Timothy: I have known some who would take the greatest care never to make any payment to those who had to do with them, particularly to the poor, without robbing them outright of a part, either of the payment due to them or of the alms they were under the obligation to distribute; and to do this they used either counterfeit money, or coinage of incorrect weight and faulty appearance. And the poor who are the objects of such treatment are not even permitted to bemoan their wretched fate though they have plainly been robbed and pillaged.

Daniel: Such administrators are not only robbers and counterfeiters but thieves and public bandits far worse than those highwaymen who lay in wait on lonely travellers in the woods. For what more could they do to them if they robbed the poor of their very lives?

Timothy: Nevertheless when they collect what is their due they take the greatest pains to count, weigh and test whatever coins they receive in payment. But they act in a very different manner with those whom they have on their payroll and who have neither the means nor the boldness to resist their tyranny and rapacity.

Daniel: You can be sure of that.

5. The invention of the State’s universal tax on the sale of every kind of good produced by men’s activity: the Value Added Tax (VAT)

We shall now consider Viret’s reflexions on the predatory character of the modern State, and in particular on its desire to draw from every human industrial and commercial activity a source of its irresponsible wealth. His analysis, which combines a strict biblical framework (this is his “presuppositionalism”) with a profound understanding of the workings of the society of his time and of the historical processes which had brought the nations of Europe to their present condition (this is his “evidentialist” apologetic), is underpinned by two fundamental premisses constantly present in his thought. (1) All reality must be understood in the light of a thoroughly biblical perspective. (2) All reality is inherently structured, as God’s creation and the manifestation of his providential purposes, by the same theological and philosophical principles which we find in the Bible.

It is this basically theonomic and naturalist (i.e. creational) position that enabled him to analyse the economic structures and the sociological dynamics of society so skilfully and so successfully. He thus combines theological, moral, philosophical, sociological, economic, literary and historical analysis in an astonishingly unified and differentiated system of thought. He thus refuses all gnostic dualism, every kind of that binary opposition, so common today in Christian and secular thinking, between creation and redemption, between theology and culture, between morality and economics, between society and God, between grace and law, and so forth. Where we often think exclusively in binary terms, his thought functions both in an antithetical (good versus evil, truth against error) and in a complementary manner (all aspects of created reality are related, are interconnected). It is this balance between unity and diversity in his thinking which makes his writings, after more than four hundred years, so refeshingly actual.

Viret puts his finger on a major means by which the State extorts its citizens: the universal application to all goods of the gabelle tax on the sale of salt, tax first instituted in 1341 by the French King, Philippe VI de Valois (1328–1350). Viret, in a brilliant historical analysis, shows that this tax on the sale of salt was extended to almost every good sold on the market in the Kingdom of France and can thus be considered the ancestor of what we today call the VAT, the Value Added Tax, an elastic and very effective instrument in the hands of the modern almighty and tyrannical State the better to fleece its citizens.

By “tyranny” Viret means the trend of the monarchies of Western Europe, first the Holy Roman Empire of the Hohenstaufen’s, then those of France, England and Spain, (all imitating the absolute bureaucratic centralisation of the ancient Roman Empire, a model restored by the Imperial Roman Papacy from Gregory VII to Boniface VIII), towards absolutism. This trend would lead to the revolutionary nation State and to our present totalitarian and democratic, statist and oligarchic tyrannies. But, in his criticism of the fiscal abuses of tyrannical government, Viret at no time questions the divine ordinance of Government, a government limited by divine and human laws, both the overarching divine biblical Law and existing terrestrial legislation and jurisprudence. Nor does he deny the State its right to levy legimate taxes. Under the title, “Taxes due to Princes and the necessary moderation in their application” he has Jérôme, the historian, sociologist, economist and theologian in his Dialogues, say:

With good reason Kings and Princes levy taxes and revenues so as appropriately to provide themselves with the means for the governement of their people and for the administration of justice to all their subjects. For such has been ordained by God.20

But this, in Viret’s opinion, in no way provides legitimation for the ruler’s right to levy arbitrary taxes at will on his subjects. Earlier, the same Jérôme had affirmed, in response to a question he had himself addressed to Tobie (who represents the common sense position of the ordinary Roman Catholic layman of Viret’s time very much interested by the gospel), “Have you any idea where lies the chief cause for the tyranny and the extortions of Princes with regard to their subjects?” To which Tobie answers: “No doubt in the sins, both of the rulers and of the ruled.” To which Jérôme gives the following differentiated answer:

If we look to God, we cannot doubt that man’s sin is the true, the first and the principal cause of tyranny. But if we look to men, the cause is to be found in the flatterers and thieves who, at court, gather around Princes. Such flatterers and thieves teach Princes to consider that their every wish is legitimate and thus that the bodies and the goods of their subjects are freely at their disposition and pleasure, as so much cattle. They speak as if Princes had no obligations towards their subjects; as if they had never taken the oath to govern them for their good, or to deal with them justly as good princes and faithful shepherds should do.21

Jerôme’s eloquent description of such perverse flattery of Princes by fawning and cynical courtisans elicits the following vigorous reponse from Tobie, a section which bears the following title: “Does the mere good pleasure of Princes legitimate their every action, in particular the daily increase of ‘tailles’ and ‘gabelles’?” [that is taxes on the sale of every commodity]. Let us follow Tobie’s reasonable response:

What we must first discuss is the following question: Are such increases in gabelles and tailles [that is in “value added taxes”] in the first place legitimate? This question I raise not only from the perspective of God’s Law, but from that of ordinary civil legislation. For no human law worthy of the name can free Princes from themselves submitting to the rule of law and justify their enacting whatever law they please, thus laying on the backs of their subjects whatever burden they wish. For even if their subjects were nothing more than chattel-slaves, some kind of equity must even then regulate the relation between such serfs and their lord.

This leads Viret to a careful economic and historical analysis of the “gabelle” and “taille” taxes imposed by the French Monarchy on the sale of every kind of good. Tobie here clearly expresses Viret’s own indignation:

Since the beginning, this tyrannical system of universal taxation has never decreased but has rather constantly grown. For princes and nobility alike never consider the ordinary revenues and taxes at their disposal as a necessary limitation to their style of life, to their projects and to their ambitions. Rather they only consider the fulfillment of the ambition they cherish, not examining whether their actual revenues are able to sustain such utopian dreams . . . To satisfy their excessive ambitions they then look to ways of increasing their taxes and revenues.22

Here Jérôme comments:

In this, their action is the exact opposite of what they should in fact be doing. For, instead of limiting their style of life and their ambitious projects to their normal revenues and taxes they, on the contrary, seek to increase such revenues and taxes in order adapt them to the style of life and the ambitions they have in mind. Placing themselves in this dilemma they often undertake many ambitious and difficult projects for which they do not have the means: that is their ordinary revenues and taxes. Their revenues not being able to cover the cost of their projected ambitions they are forced to seek ways of raising them to the level of their inflated needs. But their subjects soon come to understand who is to pay for such axtravagant ambitions.23

There follows a minute and hilarious enumeration by Tobie of all the objects subjected to the value added tax imposed by the King’s administration on every kind of economic activity, this in favour of the growth of the omnipotent State and its visible and invisible ruler-leeches. But time forbids my sharing with you this brilliant tour de force in social and economic satire.


Reasonable economics, because both biblical and creational

Viret perceives very clearly the consequences of such unrealistic personal, economic and political ambitions on the part of the French Monarchy: social unrest, persistent hatred of the ruling classes by an impoverished populace and, finally, revolution. He, of course, disapproves of such violent reactions, but clearly perceives their inevitable nature. Evil will out and God’s just judgements will not be halted. Overweening ambition will necessarily know, in due time, its fall, but in the process the nation will be drastically, perhaps irretrievably, damaged. In Viret’s view, a view expounded by his theological spokesman, Théophraste,

Such rulers are little better than mere tax collectors . . . They have no care for their own people, nor any concern for the common and public good. They have no respect for the laws of the kingdom, for the correct policing of the society given to their charge, for justice or even for the safety of their kingdom. Their only preoccupation is that of drawing to themselves the wealth of the nation, this for the satisfaction of their good pleasure and for the enjoyment of sensual delights.

The means to this end: constantly and continuously increasing the universal taxation levied by the State on the sale of every good. Tobie’s good sense expresses the common complaint of a people overburdened by the fiscal extortions of its rulers. He finds his consolation in the conviction that a God who is just will in time inevitably exercise terrible and grievous vengeance on such egotistical and iniquitous rulers.

. . . they should consider that their subjects are men like themselves, that all stand under the rule of the same God whose will is by no means that the big should eat the small, and that Kings and Princes be among their subjects like lions and wolves among sheep, or like a great fish who, in the sea, devours the small about him. 24

How are we to conclude this brief evocation of Viret’s economic thought? How may we characterise his economic and political good sense? How was it possible for him to develop so precise and comprehensive an analysis of the economic and political problems of his time, an analysis that is so exact that his writings can today still speak with great perspicuity to the difficulties which bedevil our own times? I will put forward, as a provisional answer, the following suggestions:

(1)He constantly looked at every aspect of reality from the point of view of God.

(2)This theonomic and presuppositionalist attitude came from his fully biblical perspective, a perspective which witnessed to his truly catholic spirit: he took into account every aspect of God’s revealed Word.

(3)In this, his theological thinking was very different from that which informs much of that modern gnostic dualism which marks the thinking of the Christian Church today: biblical theology for the Church, scientific autonomous thinking for created reality.

(4)He thus understood that the order manifestedby the written Word of God was the same order as that we find in the created cosmos and in God’s providential covenantal direction of history.

(5)He thus did not oppose (but rather distinguished) nature and grace, general and special revelation, for, in Viret’s thinking, both Creation and redemption have issued forth from the same One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Such a theology led him to consider every aspect of reality, however deformed today, however sinful, as a fallen witness to the goodness of the created order and capable of being illuminated by God’s supernatural revelation and restored in Jesus Christ by his sovereign, almighty and benevolent grace.

(6)Thus, to speak of God and his just and merciful decrees to his contemporaries, Viret did not limit himself simply to a faithful exposition of the Scriptures (for him these divine writings were absolutely normative) but made use in his preaching and writing of every aspect of created and providential reality. Thus he rightly felt that the whole of man’s cultural activity was available to him as a springboard from which the preaching of the gospel would touch the minds and hearts of his audience, this from popular proverbs to philosophy; from poetry to historical annals; from economic analysis to the description of the details of human and animal anatomy. He lived before the time when modern science had come to eliminate the final and formal causes from the very method of the new sciences. As all things had their end and meaning in God and were ordered and sustained by him (even in their present fallen state!) all things likewise could be brought to speak of God, if seen in the light of God’s inspired and infallible Word. Thus his fundamental presuppostionalism was the foundation on which rested his evidentialist use of every fact in Creation to speak of God and of God’s immutable ordering of his Creation.

('i) Thus, to use a vocabulary unknown to him, Viret was at the same time fully presuppositionalist and fully evidentialist in his apologetic thinking and in his preaching of the gospel, thus bringing all the disordered and distorted thoughts of men captive to the obedience of Jesus Christ. Such a catholicity—the totality of Scripture illuminating the totality of created and providential reality—was certainly the source of the immense success of his preaching. He could thus reach out to all the preoccupations of his contemporaries in a language they could readily understand.

(8)His economic thinking was thus both theological and moral, both historical and sociological, both structural and human. He could in this way perceive and express the mechanics of economic realities and, at the same time, relate such structural realites to the immediate and long term responsibilites (both for good and for evil) of human agents. These human agents in the economic process could thus be the morally responsible instruments for producing good fruit or corruption into the ongoing deveolpment (or disintegration) of the social order. For Viret would have considered both Adam Smith’s “unseen hand” or Karl Marx’s “iron laws of economic science” imaginary realities, for they ignored the economic impact of the responsible moral (or immoral) actions of human agents created in the image of God.

(9)Finally, this fully catholic, theologically inspired reflexion, developed by Pierre Viret in so many fields of human thought and endeavour, comes from his being not only utterly biblical, but also fully open to all the realities of God’s created and providential order. In this, his thinking was in utter opposition to the dualism of that binary thinking which, since the birth of modern science at the start of the seventeenth Century, has been the bane, or better still the doom, the destruction, both of the created order and of a fully catholic Christian theology, in what we, with irony, might perhaps still call modern civilisation.

It is, in my modest view, high time that the Church (and through her teaching all our nations) come once more to listen to what Viret has to say of God’s immutable purposes for men and of our present most distressing condition. C&S


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“Originally published in Christianity and Society, Vol. 19, No. 2, Winter 2009 (Kuyper Foundation: P. O. Box 2, Taunton, TA1 4ZD England. A complete PDF file of this journal is available free of charge from the Kuyper Foundation’s web site at

Stephen C. Perks
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Kuyper Foundation
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Author Bio:

Jean-Marc Berthoud (behr-tū) 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 chétiens in Switzerland, and of the Association Création, Bible et Science, and is the author of numerous books.


[1] Conference given for I Congresso Internacional. Reforma Protestante y Libertades en Europa, Facultad de Communicaciòn, Universidad de Sevilla on the 31st March 2009, day of the opening of the G20 Conference in London on the World Financial and Economic Crisis.
[2] Pierre et Huguette Chaunu, Séville et l’Atlantique 15041650, Armand Colin-Sevpen, Paris, 1955–1959, 8 volumes.
[3] See Philip Wayne Powell, Tree of Hate: Propaganda and Prejudices Affecting United States Relations with the Hispanic World (Ross House Books, Vallecito, 1985).
[4] Henry Vuilleumier, Notre Pierre Viret, p. 142. a popular form but without the philosophical jargon, to the scholastic method of formal discussion.
[5] Claude-Gilbert Dubois, La conception de l’histoire en France au XVIe siècle (1560–1610) (Paris, 1977, 668 pages).
[6] Le monde à l’empire et le monde démoniacle fait par dialogues (Genève, 1561, 373 pages).
[7] Claude-Gilbert Dubois, La conception de l’histoire en France au XVIe siècle (1560–1610) [The Conception of History in XVIth Century France], p. 442.
[8] Claude-Gilbert Dubois, La conception de l’histoire en France au XVIe siècle (1560–1610), p. 453.
[9] Le monde à l’empire et le monde démoniacle fait par dialogues, p. 156. What an astonishingly perceptive understanding of what is at present (September 2008) happening to the Government of the United States of America in its mismanagement in favour of what Viret so justly calls “thieves and bandits” of the unprecedented present financial crisis. See : E. L. Hebden Taylor, Economics, Money and Banking : Christian Principles, The Craig Press, Nutley, 1978. For an analysis of the development of the phenomenon Viret analyses over the past four centuries see: George Knupfer, The Struggle for World Power, London, 1971. For an up to date account of the financial control of American politics see : G. Edward Griffin, The Creature from Jekyll Island, American Opinion, Appleton, 1994.
[10] Viret was no adversary of the economic function of the market and would have been strongly opposed to socialistic State planning and redistribution of wealth ; but he would have demanded that the market itself be legally and judicially subject to the financial and economic demands of God’s Law and that our present financial “thieves and bandits” be arraigned before the courts.
[11] Robert T. Linder, The Political Ideas of Pierre Viret, Droz, Geneva, p. 63.
[12] Reprinted by the Banner of Truth in Edinburgh.
[13] Jean Calvin, Sermon CXLIV du vendredi 14 février 1556, Deutéronome 25, 13–19, Opera Omnia, Vol. XXVIII, p. 236. My translation.
[14] Jean Calvin, Sermon CXLIV du vendredi 14 février 1556, Deutéronome 25, 13–19, Opera Omnia, Vol. XXVIII, p. 237.
[15] Pierre Viret, Instruction Chrétienne en la Doctrine de la Loi et de l’Évangile, Vol. I, p. 586611.
[16] Ibid., p. 581. 17. Ibid., p. 581–582.
[18] On this whole question see the books cited above by Maurice Allais and E. L. Hebden Taylor.
[19] For an economic and ethical analysis of our present financial situation, which in many ways resembles Viret’s analysis of the similar woes of his time, see the premonitory work by Maurice Allais (Nobel Prize in economic science, and more particularly his: La crise mondial d’aujourd’hui. Pour de profondes réformes des institutions financières et monétaires, (Clément Juglar, Paris, 1999). In many ways Viret’s thinking on social and political matters resembles that of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. See also by Marcel De Corte, Économie et Morale and Principes d’un Humanisme Économique (Université de Liège, 1958 and 1965). In a similar perspective see: Rousas John Rushdoony’s commentary on the Eighth Commandment in his Institutes of Biblical Law, (Presbyterian and Reformed, Nutley, 1973, pp. 448541), Gary North’s comments on Leviticus 19 : 35–36 in his Commentary on Leviticus (ICE, Tyler, 1994), and G. Edward Griffin’s study of these questions The Creature from Jekyll Island. A Second Look at the Federal Reserve (American Opinion, P. O. Box 8040, Appleton WI 54913–8040, U.S.A., 1995, 608 pages) and Eustace Mullins, Secrets of the Federal Reserve: The London Connection, Bankers Research Institute, P. O. Box 1105, Staunton, VA 24401, 1993.
[20] Pierre Viret, Le Monde à l’Empire, 1580 [1561], p. 283.
[21] Ibid., p. 277.
[22] Ibid., p. 280.
[23] Ibid., p. 280281.
[24] Ibid., p. 275.

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