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Pierre Viret and the Sixteenth-Century French Protestant Revolutionary Tradition

by Robert D. Linder

Excerpt from The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 38, June 1966, No. 2

Pages 125-137

One of the most difficult and perplexing problems with which the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century had to wrestle as they presided over the demise of the medieval world was that of deciding when and on what grounds political resistance to civil authority was justified and when and on what grounds it was wrong. However, when speaking of this question they did not use the word “revolution,” for in the sixteenth century this word was a scientific term, not a political one. Therefore, the reformers and others of the age spoke in guarded terms of “troubles,” “resistance,” “sedition,” or “changes” rather than “revolution.”

Whatever the terminology, the ideological problems connected with the revolutionary activity of the sixteenth-century reformers remained basically the same. The breakup of the religious unity of western Europe which accompanied the Protestant Reformation meant that two, and sometimes more, expressions of the Christian faith appeared in many areas. In most places where the civil authorities remained Roman Catholic, they felt that loyalty to the medieval Church was synonymous with loyalty to the state. A number of Protestant princes held to the same general principle, clinging to the notion that unity of religion was an indispensable condition of public order. A pregnant sixteenth-century French political aphorism often attributed to Francis I succinctly expresses this general feeling: “Un roi, une loi, une foi.”

French Protestants were not the only sixteenth-century Christians who tried to answer the basic question of what happened when the civil government and the church opposed each other. In nearly every country in Europe, religious minorities had to decide what to do when they found what they considered the “true religion” to be out of harmony with the ruling magistrates. A number of fundamental questions had to be answered. For example, how should “true Christians” respond if they found themselves actively and openly persecuted by the civil authorities? Where did one’s primary loyalty lie if a Christian had to choose between his religion and his political overlord? And if resistance to ungodly political activities and laws were justified, to what extent could this resistance be carried by adherents of the “true faith”?

The Lutherans of Germany were one such group. The formation of the Schmalkaldic League in 1530 and, more important from the standpoint of the history of political theory, the armed defiance of the Imperial Interim in 1548 by the Lutheran city of Magdeburg were both examples of political resistance which found little support in the writings of Martin Luther. The Magdeburgers felt compelled to justify their revolutionary behavior with a formal treatise on the subject. The resulting Magdeburg Bekenntnis of 1550 sanctioned resistance by true believers against legitimate but intolerant and oppressive over-authority when such resistance was led by duly constituted inferior agencies of government.

Later in the sixteenth century a number of Protestant leaders in several European nations found themselves in similar circumstances. Many of them tried to work out some kind of rational justification for religiously inspired uprisings of which they found themselves a part. The most important and noteworthy of these attempts at ideological justification occurred in England, Scotland, the Low Countries, and France.

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in sixteenth-century French political ideas in general and in early French Calvinist political thought in particular. Much attention has been focused on the revolutionary activities of the French-speaking reformers by several capable historians.

For example, Henri Strohl pointed out more than a generation ago that neither Luther nor Calvin approved of political resistance to legitimately established authority for any reason but that the followers of Calvin, influenced by other considerations, bent his teachings to fit their need for a revolutionary ideology. On the other hand, more recently John T. McNeill has argued that there is a rudimentary expression of the right of political resistance in Calvin’s writings. In relatively recent monographs, both H.G. Koenigsberger and Robert M. Kingdon have carefully noted the relation of the religious organization of the French Calvinists to their revolutionary activities. These two scholars are agreed concerning the magnificent use the Huguenots made of the structure of their church government to mobilize their forces during the wars of religion. However, Kingdon has gone more deeply into the matter and correctly observed that the “Calvinist churches had more to offer to these revolutionary parties…than just useful organization.” According to him, they also contributed highly capable leaders of noble birth to the revolutionary cause in France as well as a plausible theory of resistance.

This new interest in sixteenth-century French Protestant revolutionary ideology and activity has brought to light certain evidence which is making it increasingly difficult to accept at least one of the more common generalizations of the past concerning the history of French political theory.

This older interpretation was popularized by historians like Edward Armstrong, Ernest Barker, and J.W. Allen and has been followed in standard histories of political ideas, such as George H. Sabine’s A history of Political Theory and William Ebenstein’s Introduction to Political Philosophy. Simply stated, the older concept is that in the sixteenth century practice preceded theory in the development of political ideas, especially in the case of the French Protestant’s theory of the right of resistance. In this older view, the great turning point was the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572. It was after this crucial date that the French Protestants began in earnest to attempt formally to justify their case and to write down their political philosophy. According to this generalization, this was especially true of the Calvinist justification for political resistance as illustrated by the publication of Francois Hotman’s Franco-Gallia in 1573, Theodore Beza’s Du droit des magistrats sur leurs subjets in 1574, and the Vindiciae contra tyrannos in 1579.

Evidence modifying this older view has been presented by McNeill and Kingdon in their respective studies of the political ideas of Calvin and Beza. McNeill points out that the seed of a full-blown theory of political resistance can be found in Calvin’s writings. McNeill feels that this is true because Calvin openly criticized tyrants and misgovernment and because he consistently implied that, where the honor of God was involved, obedience to God always came first. Furthermore, McNeill notes that, although Calvin taught that no private citizen had the right to raise the standard of revolt against a wicked and tyrannical king, he did indicate in at least one place in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that resistance was permissible if the inferior magistrates led the uprising. Calvin stated that the office of magistrates had been constituted for the people’s protection against the license of kings. He illustrated what he meant by alluding to the Spartan ephors, the Athenian demarchs, the Roman tribunes, and possibly the estate-general of his own day. This concept was first stated in Calvin’s Institutes in 1536 and repeated in all subsequent editions of the work.

Theodore Beza’s mature thinking on the subject of political resistance and his plain statement that duly constituted inferior magistrates had the authority to lead popular uprisings against established authority in the name of the “true religion” is found in his Du droit des magistrats of 1574. However, Kingdon, in his study of Beza’s political ideas, demonstrates that the Calvinist leader had expressed these same concepts in crude and embryonic form as early as 1554 in his De haereticis a civili magistratu puniendis. In this earlier work Beza stated that the main weapons of the faithful against cruel princes was prayer. But he followed this enjoinder with the remark: “However, the inferior Magistrate must, as much as possible, with prudence and moderation, yet constantly and wisely maintain pure religion in the area under his authority.” To demonstrate what he meant by this, Beza used the illustration of the city of Magdeburg’s resistance to the forces of Charles V. Thus Beza, like Calvin, set forth an elementary theory of political resistance a number of years before the St. Bartholomew’s Day bloodbath. The basic difference was that Beza stated his position with greater openness and clarity than did Calvin.

A third great leader of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation in the French-speaking world to expound a theory of political resistance at a relatively early date was Pierre Viret. A native of Switzerland, Viret was instrumental in establishing the Reformation at both Geneva and Lausanne. He spent the greatest share of his time from 1536 to 1559 in Lausanne, was exiled from that city, and fled to Geneva, where he spent the next two years, and finally in 1561 he went to France, where he remained for the last ten years of his life.

Viret was a close personal friend and trusted associate of both Calvin and Guillaume Farel. Furthermore, for many years he enjoyed a close relationship with Beza, first at Lausanne and later at Geneva. Unfortunately, Viret heretofore has not received the attention that he deserves from Reformation scholars and, even though more important and influential than Farel, he is probably less known in the English-speaking world. Viret was a prolific writer, a noted teacher, and a widely acclaimed preacher in his day. He wrote for the general reader of the literate public, and he preached to the masses wherever he found them. His life and thought are very important, for with his popular style he reached and influenced not only the leaders of French Calvinism but also tens of thousands of the rank-and-file of the reformed faith.

Viret’s ideas concerning the right to resist are extremely interesting and very revealing. Viret, like Calvin, urged obedience to legitimately constituted kings and magistrates and to civil laws as a general principle for the Christian life. In this respect, he was like most of his fellow Calvinists who followed the traditional Christian teaching (mostly based on Romans 13) that resistance to superiors and the civil government was wrong. He maintained that it was the duty of the individual Christian to obey the non-spiritual edicts and decrees of the secular state. In many places in his writings he counseled caution, moderation, and peace in all things.

Yet, mixed in with Viret’s pleas for obedience to civil authority, for observance of law and order, and for caution in political activities were numerous stern warnings against tyranny and many imprecations against tyrants. Viret defined a tyrant as a ruler who transgressed either divine or civil laws, or one who persecuted the “true church of God.” Viret also included in this term those civil officials who were guilty of social and economic injustices against the people over whom they ruled. Worst of all according to Viret, the tyrants failed to govern by law. Thus, Viret’s definition of a tyrant was both religious and political, both spiritual and secular. And Viret was much more vociferous in his denunciations of those he considered tyrants and their tyrannical behavior than was his friend Calvin.

Furthermore, there are abundant examples in Viret’s writings of statements concerning religious and political matters which were potentially dangerous, of revolutionary innuendos, and of qualifications to the Christian’s obligation to obey political superiors. Much of this sort of thing can be found in his two major satirical dialogues, the Disputations chrestienne and the Dialogues du desordre, in which caution and moderation seem to take a holiday. In many other places in his writings Viret was often sharp and biting in criticisms of the established order.

Viret’s writings also embodied thinly veiled threats of what happened to rulers who persistently and senselessly persecuted the true children of God. He wrote that when secular rulers and magistrates oppressed the Gospel they were committing spiritual mutiny and rebellion against Jesus Christ, their sovereign king. In one instance Viret cited the ominous second psalm, indicating that God would not long stand for open defiance of his will but would send judgment upon the offenders. He observed that the Lord often punished spiritually rebellious rulers with “troubled and disturbed kingdoms.” In at least two places in his writings he noted that God frequently chastened tyrants by popular uprisings (“par mutinations populaires”) with rulers becoming subjects and subjects becoming rulers in many cases. Biblical accounts of popular revolts against unjust kings in Old Testament times were his authority for these solemn observations.

In one of his works, Viret cited two old proverbs in connection with a discussion of religious injustices. First, he observed that “pressing too hard makes the horse disobedient” and noted that even a good horse with a noble spirit could become rebellious and restive if pushed too hard and mistreated too frequently. Second, he quoted the old adage that “even the ants have their wrath and anger,” this time to illustrate the fact that it was dangerous to push even the most humble men to the brink, and pointed out that when they had nothing to lose, they often rose up against their oppressive political overlords. These maxims were directed at secular rulers in order to warn them of what could happen if they continued to oppress their people over an extended period of time. Viret left little doubt of this when he concluded his remarks on this subject by pointing out to his readers that there were numerous examples in history of popular uprisings by oppressed peoples.

In the same vein, Viret’s teaching that Christians should obey political superiors was riddled with limiting and qualifying phrases. He nearly always carefully distinguished between “good magistrates” and “good princes” on the one hand and “tyrants” on the other. His admonitions were generally to “make certain that you are obedient to your good magistrates whom God has constituted over you for your welfare,” and he often argued that true Christians need give whole-hearted and unqualified allegiance only to “true kings and true princes.” Furthermore, he occasionally noted that it was exceedingly difficult for even the most devout Christians to be obedient when he was being constantly abused and harassed by secular civil authorities. He advised his readers to honor and obey all magistrates in all matters of the physical body and earthly goods insofar as was possible without “consenting to idolatry,” “going against our conscience,” or “hurting the soul.”

Thus, there was much in Viret’s writing which hinted that resistance to political authority was justified under certain conditions, especially when the civil magistrates or the prince took action that encroached on purely spiritual matters. Cautioning the faithful to “be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” Viret counseled a kind of passive resistance as the initial reaction of a true Christian to secular intrusion into the spiritual realm. Prayer and patience were the main weapons at the disposal of beleaguered Christians in times of trial and persecution.

But Viret’s concepts of passive resistance went beyond prayer and patience. What he described as permissible for the individual Christian under persecution was actually a kind of active civil disobedience. In this connection he urged his readers to continue to confess Christ openly even though it was against the law and meant certain imprisonment or death. Furthermore, he said that he could conceive of instances when the Lord would countenance “righteous disobedience” to cruel political edicts which went counter to the will of God. And if it were necessary for the safety of the faithful, Viret condoned the withholding of vital information from civil authorities in order to frustrate their attempts to persecute true Christians.

However, Viret recognized the fact in several of his works that on certain occasions it might be necessary to go the full measure and take up arms in the defense of the Gospel. His allusions to being pushed to the brink have already been noted. He also observed that oppression and persecution many times drove otherwise good subjects to desperate action. He felt that in his own times there were many rulers who tormented and oppressed the faithful until “they were driven to dissensions and troubles.” Viret, like Calvin and Beza, authorized the taking up of arms in defense of the Gospel only under certain conditions. However, it seems to me that Viret’s case was more strongly stated than those of his two associates and that his basic reasoning was more political.

First, Viret did not sanction defending the Gospel by force of arms unless every other expedient, including prayer and passive resistance, had already been tried. Second, he did not authorize individual Christians to take up arms and act independently of duly constituted civil authority. In other words, Viret taught that resistance to the secular government could be led only by duly constituted inferior magistrates who already possessed a measure of political authority. No matter how just a cause or how clearly a ruler had manifested his contempt for God and the true Gospel, this major stipulation had to be met before Viret would authorize political resistance.

Furthermore, Viret felt that, in order for these inferior magistrates legitimately to resist a tyrant, they must in some measure derive their authority from the people they were supposed to be leading and serving. This responsibility to a political constituency was in addition to the personal accountability which every civil official had to God. In such a case, the good magistrate was lawfully fulfilling his office by taking up arms in order to protect the innocent from the wicked. In an extended discussion of the matter of political resistance in one of his early books entitled Remonstrances aux fideles qui conversent entre les Papistes, published in 1547, Viret observed:

Even if a people has its own laws, its own liberties and its own magistrates, still that people ought to face up to their duty toward the claims which some lord has upon them. But, notwithstanding that, if there comes some tyrant who instead of guarding those whom he has promised and sworn to guard and in the place of performing the duties which his office requires of him, he deliberately tyrannizes those whom he owes preservation, then that is a different matter. For if such a people have an honest means of resisting the tyranny of such a tyrant by means of their legitimate magistrates and are able by this means to avoid slavery, then they ought to follow the counsel of St. Paul, of whom we have already spoken before and who said: “If you are a serf, remain in your vocation and your state and do not fret. For you are free in the Lord. But if you can gain your freedom and enjoy liberty, then avail yourself of the opportunity.”

This seems to me to be a rather dramatic statement of the right of Christians to resist not only spiritual but political tyranny when properly led by inferior magistrates. Furthermore, Viret states his case very strongly when he clearly expounds the right to resist political despotism when the people have the “honest means” to do so. Therefore, it seems to me that his rational foundation is more political than that of either Calvin or Beza. Beyond this, Viret closes this section with a veritable political bombshell by quoting St. Paul to make a point that obviously refers to political rather than spiritual freedom. That is, he quotes Paul’s admonition for Christians to be content if they find themselves in serfdom, for they are already spiritually free in the Lord. But, says Viret through Paul, if they have an opportunity to gain their freedom, then they ought to seize it. Even if Viret did not intend this to sound as revolutionary as it does to modern ears, still it must have been read and discussed with deep interest by politically oppressed Frenchmen of the sixteenth century.

In commenting further on this political situation, Viret identified tyrannical behavior with the persecution of the Gospel. In this connection, his remarks become more clear and insistent. Not only did inferior magistrates have the right to lead in politically resisting any despotic attempts to abridge the liberties of a country, but it became their God-given duty to do so when the tyrant threatened to ruin the Gospel by force and violence. The people whom God had committed to the charge of the magistrates for political oversight and protection must be guarded from the fury of the tyrants.

However, it should be noted that Viret probably had some specific and definite areas in mind when he wrote these words of advice concerning political resistance. He probably was referring to the Swiss mountain cantons, which elected their own leaders and enjoyed a large measure of political autonomy, to the largely independent and republican Swiss city-states, to the large and semi-autonomous cities of France, where municipal elections were held to choose local magistrates, and to a number of important provinces and petty principalities within the kingdom of France that enjoyed a large measure of political freedom and self-government. At any rate, his further comments on the subject seem to fit these particular political entities: “I wish to say that we have many examples of those of whom I speak in many countries where the people have great liberty and freedom. For they are like lords unto themselves, except for some small recognition or obligation which they owe to some princes.”

It is very important and interesting to keep in mind that Viret expressed these ideas as early as 1547, seven years before Beza’s Du droit des magistrats, fifteen years before the outbreak of the first war of religion in France, and twenty-five years before the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572. Viret published an identical and unaltered statement of these ideas as late as 1559. It should also be kept in mind that Viret wrote his Remonstrances aux fideles while he was still pastor at Lausanne and that he was specifically addressing those reformed Christians who were living as minorities in predominantly Roman Catholic countries or communities. There seems to be little reason to doubt that he was writing with the kingdom of France in mind. The entire treatise dealt with how true believers should conduct themselves both religiously and politically in such a situation.

There appear to be several reasons why Viret was willing to defend such drastic measures on the part of the faithful. Paramount among them was a deep concern for both religious and political justice, his great desire to secure for the faithful what he termed “liberty of conscience” (i.e. freedom of worship for reformed Christians in Roman Catholic controlled countries), and his doctrine that spiritual matters always were more important than secular considerations. It is this last-named principle which seems to me to be most important and the key to Viret’s justification for political resistance by the faithful.

As far as Viret was concerned, the will of God was to be the supreme consideration in all decisions affecting Christians and their behavior. He stated that it was necessary for each Christian to maintain a “good conscience” toward God in all matters. When the will of the state conflicted with the revealed will of God, he taught by both precept and action that God’s will must be obeyed at all costs. The will of God was the determining factor in all things, both material and spiritual, in the realm of the state as well as of the church. Over and over again he hammered home the New Testament principle that it always was better to “obey God rather than men,” adding his own corollary that “it always was better to transgress a human law than God’s law.” His hierarchy of obedience to established authority always placed God first and human institutions second.

Viret’s own life seconded what he himself wrote concerning political resistance. It was not that he went about seeking out trouble and turmoil, but political vexations seemed to be part and parcel of Viret’s existence. Part of his own theory of resistance no doubt was worked out in the context of his experience at Lausanne. There his efforts for a thorough-going reform of the church in the Pays de Vaud were continually frustrated by the Bernese civil authorities, who exercised political control of that area. His agitation against the political regime of Berne finally led to his exile from Lausanne in 1559.

Furthermore, his activities in France during the latter part of his life also involved certain unlawful actions on his part. He was present in France during and took an active part in the first three wars of religion in that country. What he had written of before 1562, he put into practice in the years following that date.

It seems to me that Viret’s ideas concerning political resistance to established secular authority lend weight to the argument that there indeed was a “sixteenth-century French Protestant revolutionary tradition.” Furthermore, there is an increasing amount of evidence that this revolutionary tradition was supported by a relatively substantial body of theory before 1572, as well as after that date.

The fact that Viret’s ideas concerning political resistance were expressed as early as 1547 is also important. This meant that a rudimentary Calvinist ideology for resistance was in circulation a number of years before the French Reformed Church supposedly became a genuinely revolutionary movement with ideological orientation. This tends to strengthen the thesis adopted by a growing number of Reformation historians who feel that ideas played a major if not a decisive role in sixteenth-century history.

At any rate, it helps to demonstrate that the older concept held by a number of authorities on the history of political thought that practice always preceded theory in the development of political ideas, especially in the case of the right of resistance, is largely incorrect. Allen and Sabine, for example, feel that early French Protestant theories of political revolution were stated formally only after years of actual resistance, particularly after 1572. But if several statements of theory concerning the right to resist were made before 1572, one of the most clear and widely disseminated as early as 1547, then the causative sequence ought to be reversed. Perhaps allowances should be made for the fact that the beginnings of the religious wars in France were at least in part a rational and deliberate attempt to put into practice a previously articulated concept.

Also, it seems relatively clear that Pierre Viret was one of the first to state in a lucid manner a French Protestant view of the right of resistance against the state. Calvin’s rudimentary and guarded justification for resistance under certain highly qualified circumstances came a number of years before that of Viret. However, Viret’s exposition of the matter is much more full than Calvin’s bare mention of it in his Institutes. Moreover, Viret’s writings on the subject appeared several years before Beza’s first expression of his own thoughts concerning the right to resist. Beza’s presentation made plain exactly what he meant when he spoke of political resistance by using the specific example of the Magdeburg uprising against Charles V in 1548. Viret was less clear in this respect but much more political in his approach. Beza spoke only of religious reasons for revolution; Viret’s terminology allowed the reader to make a wider application of his ideas.

In addition, I think it is important to note the antiroyalist element in Viret's theory of political resistance. Certainly his classic statement on this matter in his Remonstrances aux fideles contains the strong implication that kings and princes have certain responsibilities toward their subjects which they must fulfill in order to maintain the stamp of legitimacy. If the ruling prince became a tyrant and failed to fulfill his obligations, then the inferior magistrates not only had the right but also the duty to resist such a ruler. This kind of reasoning places Viret in essential harmony with later French Protestant revolutionary literature, such as the Vindiciae contra tyrannos of 1579. In fact, there is a striking similarity between Viret’s political thought and most of the ideas expressed by the author of the Vindiciae.

Finally, Viret’s contribution to the history of political theory needs to be noted and assessed. Viret was no democrat in the modern sense of the term, and neither can his defense of the principle of political resistance under certain circumstances be construed as a justification for democratic revolution. However, it does seem to me that Viret was in a very real sense a liberal in a predemocratic age. That is, his willingness to authorize the taking up of arms against tyrants when necessary is certainly anti-authoritarian and liberal in the context of sixteenth-century political thought. Furthermore, it seems to me that Viret’s whole approach to the problem stresses freedom rather than authority, consent rather than constraint, and obedience to the inner voice of conscience and to the revealed will of God rather than to the external force of the state. In this sense, Viret was a liberal in his own time, and his thinking did represent a step in the direction of a more democratic era.

Kansas State University

Author Bio:

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 Protestant 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.

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