Back to Articles

Pierre Viret: God’s Law and the Fed

Author: Joel McDurmon,

Posted Feb 19, 2010, on

Life is full of little surprises. Some are welcome, others not so much. I would like to tell you about one of the welcome variety. It comes as a very pleasant surprise to me personally and to the work and ministry of American Vision in applying God’s ethical standards to every area of life. This appears as the fruit of a modern French reformed scholar named Jean-Marc Berthoud who has devoted his life to resurrecting the thought and writings of a forgotten reformer, Pierre Viret. The results are simply astounding.

Most people have never heard of Viret. Even those who could name some of the “second-tier” reformers like Beza or Melancthon, or who may even recall the name “Oecolampadius” (who could forget a name like that!), might nevertheless have never heard of Viret. Yet Viret ministered in Lausanne and Geneva, was close friends with Calvin and Beza, and even had a broader reputation as an effective preacher than did Calvin. Yet today reformed scholars, pastors, and people have almost entirely overlooked him. Thanks to Jean-Marc Berthoud and a few other devotees, the fledgling Pierre Viret Association is working toward the publication of Berthoud’s book on the life and work of Viret (of which I am in grateful possession of a manuscript copy), as well as (and I can’t wait for these to get out) translations of Viret’s Christian Instruction in the Doctrine of the Law and the Gospel (3 vols.) and of Viret’s Catechism as well.

What most amazes (and pleases) me is that Viret went to greater lengths in applying God’s law (the Ten Commandments in particular) to every area of life than did Calvin. This comes as a surprise in that we usually look to Calvin as the benchmark of reformed thought. David Hall’s recent (and excellent) book Calvin in the Public Square shows the extent to which Calvin’s thought has influenced ideas on life, liberty, and government (Hall is aware of Viret, and mentions his emphasis on God’s law in society, as well as Berthoud’s work in bringing Viret to the fore).1 But now we are gaining access to the work of Viret in much greater detail, and we can see his potent insights into how a greater application of biblical law can transform government and economics.

I will write at greater length on Viret’s contributions in the future. For now I would like to offer you a taste of this magnificent reformer’s applications of God’s law to economics. Under his exposition of the Eighth Commandment—“thou shalt not steal”—Viret openly condemns all forms of fraud and counterfeiting, including the counterfeiting done by governments. This comes particularly as he considers the Deuteronomic law against false weights and measures. Berthoud relates that Viret “devotes no less than fifty-five large folio pages of small print to a detailed exposition of the Eighth Commandment.”2 Contrasting his detailed civil and social applications with Calvin’s expositions, Berthoud writes,

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.3

Berthoud quotes Viret on commercial fraud in general. The reformer condemns unjust businessmen as “nothing else than public thieves and bandits,”4 and expounds,

As God has given men such a means [money] 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.5

Viret’s fifteenth-century applications, you can anticipate, convict modern economic sins as well. The case laws of the Bible are indeed timeless. Berthoud notes with great accuracy that “though his remarks are carefully adapted to the conditions of his time and culture, they nevertheless remain applicable today.”6 He follows,

Today the counterfeiting of money has become the specialty 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. This paper, check or electronic money is, since the Bretton Woods agreements of 1944, no longer backed in any way by hard monetary reserves and is, as a result in the final resort, totally unredeemable. 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 system.7

In short, if Viret were alive today, he would be leading the cry of “End the Fed!” But this is no mere expansion of Viret’s private commercial and business application quoted above. It grows directly out of Viret’s further application to governments as well. Berthoud reproduces a dialogue written by Viret on this very subject. The witty creation cuts to the heart of the issues and condemns governmental counterfeiting schemes. The dialogue proceeds:

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 travelers 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.

What insight. But what courage! What insight to take the clear law of God and apply it where it would most protect the most people, and yet what courage to preach against those who may have the most inclination (and do have the most power) to retaliate with arms or other use of force—the government! (Recall, for example, what happened when John the Baptist applied the seventh commandment in the court of Herod.) Indeed, “You here touch a matter in which those who have the management of public funds are often deeply implicated.” Yet Viret preached it, and he did not hesitate to epitomize guilty public officials as “not only robbers and counterfeiters but thieves and public bandits far worse than… highwaymen.” Imagine hearing that concerning Obama and Bernanke (and 99.81% of our legislators, bankers, and economists) from your pulpit today. Perhaps the resurrection of Viret’s writings will encourage a few more pastors and scholars to start applying God’s law more broadly than they currently do.

That would be a great surprise. But like I said, life is full of surprises.

One further note: The folks at the Pierre Viret Association are laboring to translate and publish Viret’s magnificent works. They work, so far with much success, on a shoestring budget. Help join in their success by becoming a donor or a member.

Author Bio:

Joel McDurmon, M.Div., Reformed Episcopal Theological Seminary, is the Director of Research for American Vision. He has authored four books and also serves as a lecturer and regular contributor to the American Vision website. Joel and his wife and three sons live in Dallas, Georgia.


[1] David W. Hall, Calvin in the Public Square: Liberal Democracies, Rights, and Civil Liberties (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2009). For Viret see especially pp. 131–132, though Hall mentions his contributions in several other places.
[2] Jean-Marc Berthoud, Pierre Viret, A Forgotten Giant of the Reformation: The Apologetics, Ethics, and Economics of the Bible (pre-publication MS copy, soon to be published by Tallahasse, FL: Zurich Publishing, 2010), 39–40.
[3] Jean-Marc Berthoud, Pierre Viret, 40.
[4] Quoted in Jean-Marc Berthoud, Pierre Viret, 41.
[5] Quoted in Jean-Marc Berthoud, Pierre Viret, 42.
[6] Jean-Marc Berthoud, Pierre Viret, 40.
[7] Jean-Marc Berthoud, Pierre Viret, 42–43.

Back to top of page