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Pierre Viret, Pastor of the French-Speaking Reformation

by Olivier Favre

Though John Calvin, the Theologian of the French-speaking Reformation, is well known, as well as William Farel, its Evangelist, unfortunately its Pastor, Pierre Viret, has been largely forgotten. This brief article, written for the five hundredth anniversary of his birth, will seek to unveil this forgotten man in his pastoral aspect.

In order to understand how Viret’s pastoral ministry was valued, let’s look first of all at the words of pastor Jacques Bernard, who wrote to Calvin in February of 1541 to persuade him to return to Geneva, from whence he had been banished four years earlier, “Geneva, regenerated by the work of Viret, has become a new nation.” 1 Farel, after having seen the pastoral work accomplished by Viret at Geneva during the same period, wrote to the pastors of Zurich, “I have seen the admirable edifice raised by Viret’s work. His labor has been immense in restoring the people in the good way.” 2 Hear also the words of Calvin, who sought at all costs to keep Viret at his side during his return to Geneva, “If Viret is taken from me, I will be more dead than alive, and this Church is lost.” 3 These words are an eloquent depiction of the appreciation of Viret’s pastoral ministry by his peers. Let’s now turn to what made Viret the “Pastor” of the French-speaking Reformation.

Viret’s Personality

The biographies of Pierre Viret are all in agreement on one point: Viret possessed a peaceful and gentle spirit which expressed itself within the different spheres of his ministry:

  • In his language, as witnessed by Theodore Beza, who spoke of “the wisdom of Calvin, the thunders of Farel, and the honey of Viret.” 4 He also states elsewhere of him: “None possessed more charm when he spoke.” 5
  • In his preaching, which seemed to embrace his hearers as a calm and tranquil stream, as attested by Verheiden, “[Viret] had a word so sweet that he constantly kept his hearers alert and attentive. His style had such strength and a harmony so caressing to the ear and spirit that the least religious amongst his hearers, the most impatient of others, heard him out effortlessly and with pleasure. His audience was, it was said, as though suspended upon his lips, wishing the sermon were longer.”6
  • In his relationship with others. In order to maintain peace, Viret was ready to suffer many injustices, as was the case when his colleague Caroli, but newly arrived, was named the head pastor of Lausanne in Viret’s place.7 His peaceful character was also displayed in his quarrels with the Bernese political authority. Also, when Calvin had lost hope and encouraged him to leave the city (Theodore Beza had already followed the council of the Genevan Reformer), Viret himself still hoped that a peaceful solution might be found. The result of which was that this most peaceful pastor was banished from the city in which he had been the Reformer and pastor for twenty-two years.
  • In his dealings with heretics. Although Viret was exceedingly firm in maintaining doctrinal purity in the Church, we have no record that he had recourse to the civil government to condemn heretics. This could in part be explained by Viret’s caution with regard to the Bernese government, always reticent in sustaining/supporting the application of ecclesiastical discipline. Nevertheless two events throughout the course of his life attent to his gentleness and moderation in this domain. While passing through Valence Viret delivered and rescued a Jesuit father who had fallen into the hands of a Huguenot officer who was preparing to put him to death. Afterwards, much later, it appears that it was thanks to his intervention written to the pastors assembled at Montpellier that the Protestants peaceably delivered the church buildings to the Catholics following the royal edict of January 17, 1562.

    However, it must not be thought that Viret’s gentleness found its origin in a lack of courage, for when the truth and the purity of the Church were in jeopardy, Viret knew how to stand firm and prove his stubbornness, as his determination to obtain the right to exercise a Biblical Church discipline within his local church attests. Indeed, he preferred banishment from his homeland to a dishonest compromise with the moral laxity of the Bernese authorities.

Viret’s Pastoral Gifts

If Calvin systematized the theology of the Reformation, it would be just to say that Viret popularized it. He preached in a language simple and colorful. He wrote in a style which captivated people, responded to their questions, and provided them with simple apologetic arguments necessary for the defense of their faith. In his writings, often written in the form of dialogues, he places in the mouth of his different characters the ordinary thoughts of the time. In this way he succeeded in fascinating his readers who, little by little, following the development of the Biblical argumentation and discovered the insurmountable force and the truth of the Gospel as opposed to human thought. Jean Barnaud, an astute expert on Viret, summarized it thus, “We must not forget that Viret is, par excellence, the people’s writer of the French Reformation; the torn, fragmented, worn copies of countless works which he successfully published, found in numerous public and private libraries of France, Switzerland, and foreign lands—discovered as far away as the secret Holy Office of the Seville Inquisition—thus bespeak the popularity which these writings enjoyed and the far-reaching influence they exercised.” 8

From the commencement of his ministry, Viret’s concern for the people of God caused him to devote himself to the training of pastors for the French-speaking churches. He is thus discovered among the founding members and the first professors of the Lausanne Academy, created in 1537 (only one year after the city’s acceptance of the Reformation). This Academy bore a major importance from the outset of the French-speaking Reformation until the creation of the Genevan Academy, founded in 1559, “from the ruins” of that of Lausanne, following Viret’s banishment.

Other proofs attest to the pastoral gifts of Viret and to the great esteem he enjoyed in the midst of the people of God in the French-speaking world. When he took refuge at Geneva following his banishment, he was immediately received as a pastor and was given the bourgeoisie of the city at the end of 1559, at the same time as Calvin, who had been pastor there for more than fifteen years. Then, when he left for the south of France because of his poor health, he played a role of first importance in the organization of the Reformed Church of Bearn, the kingdom of Jeanne d’Albret. His influence and the respect which all bore him are demonstrated in the fact that he was named Moderator of four successive synods, though the law specified that it was impermissible for the same man to occupy this place two years in a row.

Viret is thus a man who devoted all his life to the service of the Church of Jesus Christ and in particular to the local French-speaking churches. This is why it is important that we turn now to the conception which he had of the Church. For beyond his personality and his pastoral gifts, that which led Viret to become the Pastor of the Reformation was his concept of the Church and pastoral ministry.

Viret’s Concept of the Church and Pastoral Ministry

Even though he was pastor in a city where the Reformation had been imposed in a more political than spiritual manner, Viret affirmed that entrance into the Church was exclusively by means of faith in Jesus Christ: “In order to become sheep, we must hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, which is the voice of the Gospel, by which this conversion and transformation from a wolf into a sheep is made. For the means by which we have access to Jesus Christ and entrance into His Church and His sheepfold, and consequently into the Kingdom of Heaven, is by faith . . . and as Jesus Christ is the Door by which we must enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, thus faith is as the hinge and the key by which this door is opened to us, and without which it must forever remain closed to us.” 9

But seeing that God alone knows the heart, the responsibility is incumbent upon the pastor does not consist in judging the hearts of the members of his church, 10 but in preaching the Gospel, for it is through this that the knowledge of Jesus Christ proceeds. His task is also to be vigilant to maintain a well-disciplined confessing church. This is why Viret could not tolerate within the midst of the people of God a multitude of people who had nothing to do with the Confession of Faith and who refused to conform their life to Biblical standards. Thus, for Viret, the true member of the Church was he who, after having publicly confessed his faith, joyfully submitted his life to the requirements of the Word of God with love for his God by considering every daily event as a means of advancing in his Christian walk.

Thus he affirmed that the task of pastor could be summarized in four elements: “The complete charge of the ministers of the Church consists in nothing more than prayers, administration of teaching and the Sacraments, and in Church discipline.” 11

The faithful exercise of these four elements is what he sought to accomplish through the length of his ministry, no matter the cost. He preached by explaining the true sense of the Scriptures and by applying it for the use of every man, that he might understand it. 12 He also prayed fervently, relying upon the power of God to transform hearts, and finally he administered the sacraments, taking care not to receive at the table of the Lord those who lived in deliberate sin. For, for Viret, “It would be better to have a small flock of sheep and lambs than a very large one in which there were many wolves . . . seeing that such beasts can only damage the flock, and that afterward the trouble must be taken to drive them out, to the great scandal of the Church. . .” 13

If Viret acted in such a manner with such courage, to the point of banishment, it is because he was convinced that he was given the authority of Jesus Christ and that he represented Jesus Christ when he acted faithfully in the midst of His Church, a Jesus Christ who, though dead and raised for sinners, did not tolerate scandalous sinners in the midst of His people. 14

Viret thus possessed a very high view of the ministry and, by the grace of God, he was an instrument in His hand for the salvation of many. He remains an example for pastors of all times to follow, that the Church, the Bride of Christ, might continue to reflect the holiness of her Lord until His return.

Author Bio:

Oliver Favre served as pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Lausanne for fourteen years. He now pastors two small pioneering churches in Payerne and Neuchâtel in French-speaking Switzerland. He is married to Denise and they have three adult sons. After undertaking his theological studies at the European Bible Institute in Lamorlaye and at the Free Reformed Theological Faculty of Aix-en-Provence where he obtained a Masters degree in Theology, writing his thesis on the Ecclesiastical Discipline in the Thought of the Reformer Pierre Viret.


[1] Qouted in Philippe Godet, Pierre Viret (Lausanne, Payot, 1892), pp. 65-66.
[2] Ibid., pp. 65-66.
[3] Ibid., p. 66.
[4] Quoted in Ibid., p. 81.
[5] Quoted in Henri Vuileumier, Notre Pierre Viret (Lausanne, Payot, 1191), p. 142.
[6] Verheiden, Praestantium Aliquot Theologorum Effigies, quoted in Jacques Cart, Pierre Viret Reformateur de Vaudois (Lausanne, 1864), p. 129.
[7] Regarding this see Viret’s letter to Calvin in Henri Jaquemot, Viret le Reforateur de Lausanne (Strasbourg, 1836), p. 39.
[8] Speech given by Jean Barnaud in Le Jubile de Pirret Viret (Lausanne-Orbe, Pache, 1911), p. 61.
[9] Pierre Viret, Des Clefs de l’Eglise et de l’Administration de la Parole de Dieu . . . (Geneva, Jean Rivery, 1564), p. 8.
[10] “However, we must note upon what has been said of dogs and swine, that the Church has no commandment to take such for all those who are so in truth, but only those who are known to be true dogs and true swine as declared by their open sins and wicked life. For this is not at all judging things unknown and hidden, which are reserved to the judgment of God. For how could the Church pronounce sentence against those whose wickedness is still hidden, under semblance and cover of religion, by those feigned and false?” Pierre Viret, Du Vray ministere de la Vraye Eglise de Jesus-Christ, et des Vrays Sacrements d’Icelle . . . (Geneva, Jean Rivery, 1560), pp. 34-35.
[11] Pierre Viret, De l’Estat de la Conference, de l’Authorite, Puissance, . . . (Lyon, Claude Senneton, 1565), p. 131.
[12] Cf. Pierre Viret, De l’Autorite et Perfection de la Doctrine des Saintes Ecritures . . . (Lyon, Claude Senneton, 1564), pp. 77-78.
[13] Henri Meylan, “Un texte inedit de Pierre Viret, le reglement de 1570 sur la discipline,” Revue de Theologie et de Philosophie No. 3 (Lausanne, 1961), p. 213.
[14] “When we see the Minister exercising his office, in administering the holy things to the people-be it the Word or the Sacraments-we must set forth Jesus Christ before our eyes, who is represented to us by the Minister ordained for these things in the name of Jesus Christ . . . In this way the Minister of Jesus Christ are in no way false or vain. For what they declare they do not declare from themselves, or by their own name and authority.” Pierre Viret, Du Vray ministere de la Vraye Eglise de Jesus-Chrit, et des Vrays Sacrements d’Icelle . . ., pp. 47-48.

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