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Pierre Viret: and the Refusal of the Church to Fold
Before the Power of the State
Before the Power of the State
Author: Jean-Marc Berthoud Excerpt from The Acts of the Church: Christianity in French-Speaking Switzerland. Pages 45-55
Twas the night before Christmas, 1558. In the vicarage of the Madeleine, at the foot of the cathedral, Sebastienne Viret awaited with anxiety and some impatience the return of her husband, who had been for some time detained by the debates of the local Council of the Two Hundred.
What could these men be discussing so late into the night on Christmas Eve? It was a question of postponing the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, held three times a year, at Passover, Pentecost, and Christmas; a delay of eight days had been requested, to postpone the Supper until the first of the new year. This earnest demand came from three pastors of the cathedral: Pierre Viret, Jacques Valier, and Armand Banc, who wanted this delay in order to be able to arrange the times necessary for the examination before the Consistory—but not the discipline—of those whom the pastors considered unworthy to partake of the Supper because of their scandalous life or faltering faith. This was at all costs immediately to make the most of the last concession of the Bernese lords. We find here the culminating point of a conflict of powers between the pastors of the Classe of Lausanne on the one hand, of whom the undisputed leader was Pierre Viret, who called for the right of the Consistory, that is, the Church, to excommunicate the unfaithful, and, on the other hand, the political authority, Their Excellencies of Bern, who did not wish in any way to hear talk of the least departure of their absolute control over their Vaudois subjects. After a turbulent debate the Council acceded to the demands of the pastors. The celebration of the Supper would be postponed a single week.
But what now had the Council and the Senate of Bern done? For, since the conquest of 1536, the power of the Pays de Vaud was in their hands. What would be the reaction of those who had been named by their subjects: “Our Illustrious, High, Powerful, and Sovereign Lords, their Excellencies of the City and Republic of Bern”? The response was not long in coming. Informed the same day by their bailiff, the lords of Bern responded with the greatest vigor. The Supper of the first day of the year was completely banned, and a delegation of the Senate was immediately dispatched to Lausanne with quite rigorous instructions: Viret and his two colleagues were dismissed from their offices, effective immediately. The City Council received a strong reprimand for their “abuse of power,” and the Classe of Lausanne (an assembly of pastors and deacons of the region from Lausanne to Vevey) received orders to fill the posts which had thus been made vacant. The unanimous refusal of the Classe to replace Viret and his colleagues brought about the imprisonment of all its members. Released after three days, these pastors were summoned to appear before the Senate, at Bern, February 23-25, 1559. They were placed under the alternative: submit unconditionally to the “Reformation of the Messieurs of Bern,” or resign from their office. About thirty of the pastors chose exile, among whom were nearly all the professors of the flourishing Academy founded by Viret and the Messieurs of Bern in 1537. The dean of the Academy, the famous Theodore de Beze who had arrived in Lausanne in 1549, had realized earlier than his colleagues the uselessness of pursuing the battle with the Bernese power for the spiritual independence of the Vaudois Church. In August of 1558 he had requested leave, and rejoined Calvin in Geneva. He there assisted in founding the famous Theological Academy, which took those exiled from Lausanne, to engage in the work of spreading the Reformation throughout the entirety of Europe. At the end of February 1559, Pierre Viret, seeing finally that nothing more could be obtained, rejoined his friends Calvin and Beze at Geneva where he received shortly thereafter the sentence of perpetual banishment pronounced against him by the Bernese authorities.
Thus at the age of 48, after a fruitful ministry of twenty-eight years, Pierre Viret left forever his home country to which he would write later, “If I should wish that God be glorified among men, where should I desire that He be so more than in the country of my birth?”
Was this then the man, so little inclined to conflicts and controversies, who thus provoked such a violent tempest among the Vaudois, a tempest which scarcely has equal before the great schism of 1847? Was this Pierre Viret, the Vadois Reformer, friend and companion-in-arms of Guillaume Farel, John Calvin, and Theodore de Beze, the faithful pastor who was named the Angel of the Reformation? Forced into innumerable combats in order to establish a true Reformation in the Pays de Vaud, he was driven to engage in a war lasting nearly twenty years with his suzerain in the goal of obtaining true spiritual autonomy of the Church in the face of the pretensions of the absolute sovereignty of the Bernese state. The leader of the Church capable of a such a persistent long-term fight could, in all sincerity, write of himself:
I have always naturally loved peace and have always been in horror of all dissentions and troubles. However, the knowledge that it pleased God to give me His Word, from my youth, and the experience acquired for which I exercise the ministry of His holy Gospel, incites me still more to push for peace and concord, and to better consider what Jesus Christ said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.’
August 1, 1550, at a time when he was busy with the inextricable difficulties which the tenacious will of Bern procured for him to keep the high hand over the Church, Viret wrote to his friend Calvin:
One thing comforts me, the peace which reigns in my house, the mutual affection and the good accord among ministers and professors and the constant progress of our schools. If these things be blemished, I could not live, but must emigrate from here.
Pierre Viret was born in 1511 in the ancient Roman and Burgundian village of Orbe, of parents especially pious who belonged to the middle-class. His father was a tailor by profession. After a start at education in the parish school of Orbe—which one could scarcely call mediocre considering Viret’s remarkable knowledge, his immense education, and perfect mastery of ancient languages, particularly Latin—he left his native village the end of 1527 at the age of 17 in order to complete his studies at Paris, where he thought to prepare himself for the priesthood. At Paris he applied at the College Montaigu, which had been frequented before him by John Calvin, and where he had as a classmate Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. As Calvin, he was strongly marked by the Scottish philosophical teaching of the tendency of the Scot John Major. This common influence explains in part the close resemblance of the thought of the two Reformers. At Paris, after bitter spiritual battles, Pierre Viret converted to the Evangelical faith and opted for the Lutheranism which could so easily conduct those who accepted it to the pyres kindled by the false church. He knew the anxiety of those “poor consciences,” as he described himself, “so troubled and nearly desperate, not knowing which way to turn.” He added: “In good time, being still at school, the goodness of God withdrew me from that labyrinth of error before I was plunged too deeply in that Babylon.”
This Babylon was, obviously, the Roman Church. The beginning of 1531 he returned to Orbe, having left Paris in order to escape from the persecution which held sway over those who dared to profess Evangelical convictions.
From the beginning of 1528, after the famous dispute of Bern in which Zwingli, Bucer, Capito, Oecolampadius, and Farel participated, Their Excellencies of Bern were won over to the Reformation. The Great Order of the Reformation of February 7, 1528, laid down the Word of God as the sole foundation of the Church in all territories under Bernese authority. Throughout the rest of the Burgundian wars until the end of the fifteenth century, the Bernese held possession of a certain number of baillages in common with Fribourg: Orbe, Echallens, Morat, Grandson, Avenches, Payerne, etc. Wherever this was the case, Their Excellencies sought to progress their own territorial extension by way of the Reformed Faith. Certainly they acted by religious conviction, but also, it cannot be doubted, with the offices of a political conquest with long term serious reflection.
This it was that Guillaume Farel, provided with a diplomatic mandate officially issued by the Bernese authority, went to preach the Word of God in all the common baillages. He there provoked many troubles and disputes but, by the grace of God, he also brought about a number of conversions. Ambassador of God, he was equally provided with letters of recommendation from the Bernese authorities which made him their delegate, the diplomatic agent of Their Excellencies. Thus Farel, in the first years of his activity in French-speaking Switzerland, was both the iron lance of the Gospel, and at the same time the political expansionist of Bern.
For Bern had adopted the Zwinglian reform in which the political power, after having broken from a faulty ecclesiastical authority, entirely absorbed it to its own advantage. It was a question here not of a State Church in which the Church, joined to the State, would be meanwhile preserved as an independent spiritual reality, but a true State-Church. The Caesaro-papism of the Roman Church was replaced by the religious autocracy of a united Christian State in which all real distinction between temporal and spiritual powers would disappear. On the one side as on the other, the distinction was lost—and not the opposition!—which established the Bible between the spiritual power (the Church wielding the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God) and the temporal power (the State wielding the sword). This confusion of powers well explains also the pyres of the Roman Church, and the drowning of the Christian Mennonite Baptists in the Limmatt at Zurich by Zwingli’s State-Church. The dead hand on Zwingli’s sword at Kappel, October 11, 1531, was the logical consequence of such confusion.
Bern adopted the Zwinglian vision of a State-Church in which the magistrates dominate the ecclesiastical power with a high hand. Up until the eighteenth century, Their Excellencies also arrested the Baptists who dared to enter their territory, and sold them at the slave market of Venice to the Turks who sent them to man their galleys. Georges de Lagarde put his finger on the absolutist and statist deviation of the Zurich reform when he wrote:
The Zurich State realized within their breast the unity of the public life. It was solely responsible before God for all political or religious acts. High priest and king, it rediscovered the attributes of the ancient pagan cities. It was sovereign.
Later, under the prudent and courageous direction of Heinrich Bullinger, the Church of Zurich recovered a part of its spiritual autonomy in connection to the State. Bern was the Swiss city which pushed the hardest to found the Zwinglian position. As James Good, the American historian of the Reformed Churches in Switzerland wrote:
For no part of Zwingli’s Erastian view (the theory of the submission of the Church to the State) saw a development so extended as that of Bern. There not only was the Church united to the State, but it was also reduced to a nonentity in the arms of the State. By destroying the reign of bishops by the Reform, the State was merely entirely substituted for them and reigned by its own authority.
Gonzague de Reynold, in his study on the genius of Bern, helps us better understand to what point this vision of connections between the State and the Church rejoined the secular politics of Their Excellencies.
For Bern, from its inception, is the only city in the interior of Switzerland which possesses a State thought . . . it reaches to the natural limits, the summit of the Alps and the peak of the Jura . . . . A realistic politic, which is not hampered by theories, is itself sufficiently often devoid of scruples; a political enemy of doctrines and suspicious of ideas. . . . To be its own master and to reign among the others. Not to admit superior power, to subordinate, therefore, the Church to the State, and education to politics.
We have here not the spirit of the Bernese people but those of the political elite who ruled throughout all the medieval and patrician epoch. Gonzague de Reynold, speaking of the political spirit of Bern more clearly, says:
The final, most pronounced character of this spirit is the envy of authority.
I will analyze it.
No one allowed to leave, to run out of power; to retain it until the last particle; to fix it, to render it absolute.
To limit it to the bourgeois, then solely to the patrician families.
To be attentive to this worthless faction, worthless personal ambition which cannot be seized;
to defend the entire family from having more than a representative at the Senate and more than a hundred thousand livres in his purse.
To never permit the discussion of power, to also fear lest someone speak of good: to exercise silence, with lips sealed, to withdraw from spectators, curious, and strangers.
To give favor often, sometimes to reforms, never to concessions.
To demand respect of power as a sacred thing, given by God.
We find here before us a resurrection of the spirit which animated the Roman Empire; of this the leaders of the Republic of Bern were well aware. Gonzague de Reynold writes:
The ancient energetic city and poor of every hour, the humanists please themselves to compare it to Sparta; the now powerful Republic compared itself to Rome; as she, on the long-enduring rock, wrote the four sacred letters: S.P.Q.B.: Senatus Populusque Bernensis.
This is that power that God in His providence used in order to back up Guillaume Farel in his efforts to uproot the French-speaking province to the errors of papal Rome.
Palm Sunday 1531 Farel was in Orbe, according to the order of Their Excellencies, to preach the Word of God there at all costs. This is not the place to describe the battles which followed and the manner in which the city was little by little won over to the Gospel. Among the listeners of the fiery Dauphine evangelist was found a young man of twenty years, entirely accepting of his preaching. This was our Viret, and Farel quickly detected the grace of God which his modesty and young age concealed. As he was to do later with Calvin, Farel imposed the vocation of minister of the Word of God upon Viret, and established him as pastor of his native community. Viret had the joy of bringing his father and mother to the knowledge of salvation, and when he left Orbe fifteen months later, he left a flourishing community. From ten people it had passed to more than forty-five.
In 1534, after an itinerant ministry which led him to receive a sword wound in the back—a forceful argument from a monk of the Payerne Abbey—Viret was found at Farel’s side at Geneva. There again an attempt was made on his life, this time by poison. He survived, though his health was never restored. In 1536, after a short journey to Germany to solicit aid in favor of the Vadois of Piemont, who were being harshly persecuted by Charles II of Savoy and Francis I of France, Viret settled in Lausanne, where he began to preach the Gospel before the arrival of the Bernese troops. The year 1536 saw the conquest of the Pays de Vaud by Bern and Fribourg, the famous Lausanne Dispute in which Viret took the lead role alongside of Farel—he was not then twenty-five—and the Reformation Edicts which imposed the Reformation by force on a population still largely established in the old Catholic traditions. Apart from the period running from January 1541 to July 1542 when he assisted Calvin at Geneva, Viret, until his exile in 1559, consecrated all his energies and great gifts which God had given him to feed the Vaudois Church, and more particularly his Lausanne parishioners. This long pastoral experience permitted him to have a clear regard for his Vaudois fellow citizens who, though truly desiring that someone should throw out the bishop, wished to limit this to what Viret called a difformation, and refused all true reformation according to the Word of God.
They gladly hear the preachers when they cry out against the vices of the priests and monks, but they do not wish to hear the preachers cry out against their vices. They want a Gospel preached without repentance and without a changed life. They want, under the title of the Gospel, a liberty which would be to them an unrestrained licence to do all that they please. They want to be unburdened from the yoke of the Antichrist, but they want nothing to do with carrying Christ’s.
In order to achieve a Church which would sanctify itself, Viret, in spite of his love for peace, was progressively caused to enter into a merciless wrestling match with the Roman power of the Bernese Republic. Roger Barilier, in his remarkable historical piece Viret Banished, sanctioned by the dramatic circumstances which we have examined, characterized Viret’s thought so justly by these words which he placed in the Reformer’s mouth:
The Church will not be reformed; she shall not truly be the Church until the day when she will be emancipated from the civil power, when the authority of the minister will be recognized, when she will be disciplined according to the Gospel, and when she will clearly confess, by her faith and by her works, the name of the glorious Savior.
In Viret’s satirical dialogue, Le Monde à l’Empire et le Monde Démoniacle [The Corruption of the World’s Empires and the World Demonized], we read:
The reformation of the Gospel can be understood in two ways.
How is this?
One can well take the reformation of the Gospel for a reformation by which men reform their lives and conversation to the rule of the Church. . . . But there is also another way which can be called a hidden or illegitimate reformation.
What do you mean by this hidden or illegitimate reformation?
A reformation made by design in which men do not truly wish to reform their morals, old and wicked customs, and manners to the rule of the Gospel, but they wish to reform the Gospel to their rule and to make it serve their affections and their particular gain and profit.
Viret, much more than Calvin or Farel, Bullinger or Zwingli, desired a Church separated from the State. But, as Calvin himself had done, after having welcomed as providential the support of the Bernese power in establishing the Reform, the French-speaking Reformers—Farel also—quickly realized the spiritual dangers which represented the political predominance of the State over the Church. No true reformation of the Church and the society can be effective without the reestablishment of a true spiritual autonomy of the Church beside the State. This necessary independence is marked, negatively by the refusal of the interference of the magistrate in the internal life of the Church; positively by the reestablishment within the Church of a true ecclesiastical jurisdiction leading to the disciplinary power of the consistories, which should materialize in the right of excommunication of the unfaithful and public sinners. Their Excellencies of Bern, in their slow but inflexible march toward absolute power, could not at any moment tolerate such pretensions. This would signify the establishment of a state within the State, the manifestation of a power which evaded—no matter how small—their will of total ascendancy over society.
For Viret, the Church should respect the power of the magistrate as being directly instituted by God (like the father of the family, which is a Biblical model of all social organisms), and not reduce it to an inferior state as had often been done by the papacy. Listen to him:
The Church has her ministers and conductors, not to engage in things pertaining to the office of the civil magistrates, but solely over those things which concern her ministry and her discipline. For the power which the Lord has given her (which sign is the power of the keys) is confined within these limits. Thus, if she overstep, and if her ministers usurp in any way the office of the magistrates, they abuse their office and are not true ministers but tyrants who usurp that which does not in any way belong to them.
But, by contrast:
There is no prince who has the right to give the laws of religion and service of God. . . . If a presumptuous prince be found who desires to stop serving God, none should obey him, under pain of obeying the devil.
In 1551, several years before his departure from Lausanne, Viret could write these strong words on the limits of pastoral obedience:
The pastor remembers that he is a minister of God and not of men; he faithfully discharges his offices which have been confided to him, he endeavors to obtain justice from the magistrates and the Church. That which he cannot obtain he returns to God and occupies himself solely with doing that which is his duty. He will right gladly suffer to be deposed and driven from his ministry and will expose his own life rather than act against his conscience and lose the Church in confirming impiety and tyranny.
Also, of such magistrates who dare to usurp spiritual power, Viret adds:
. . . they want a liberty which is an unrestrained license . . . They want to take under their paw the poor ministers and preachers, as their valets, to make them scurry about and go under their hand as they please. If the ministers do not wish to do this, . . . they will immediately cry that such ministers are ambitious and rebels and that they wish to set aside the magistrate.
Viret well knew that the medieval vision, a vision largely inherited by the Reformers, which tried largely to coincide the State and the civil society and in which all the citizens were submitted to ecclesiastical discipline, different and more demanding than that of the magistrate, was not faithful to the teaching of the Bible. This vision of a homogeneous religious society drew its origins rather from a political totalitarianism of Aristotle, of which the Roman Empire was a striking example. In this sense the teaching of Viret is much in advance of that of his contemporary Reformers and, what matters more to us, is much more faithful to the model of the Church which we find in the Bible. He wanted a living, regenerated Church, disciplined by the Word, truly confessing, a Church which would be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, and whose teachings would affect all institutions of society, beginning with the State, in order to conform it, through the sanctification of faithful Christian citizens in every social order, to God’s design for all His creation. Viret wrote:
We will not stop at the multitude but at truth. For we love more to have a little herd of sheep who line up according to the obedience of the Word of God, than a truly great herd made up of dogs, swine, wolves, and foxes, and mixed with all sorts of beasts.
He understood better than anyone the necessary distinction of the two swords, both having their authority from God, both submitted in their action to the divine norm of the Scripture, but each exercising in its own proper domain the means which were appropriated to it. To the question: Why is it necessary for the Church to arrange a discipline properly exercised by elders when there exists a civil jurisdiction perfectly capable of exercising justice, Viret responded:
Because matters are diverse. For this reason it is necessary that the offices pertaining to the Church and its administration and government be distinguished from those which pertain to the civil government and the republic. For otherwise there would be confusion if temporal and spiritual things were all put together.
Such a perspective did not refuse less the entirely new Roman tyranny of popes and short robes (that of the Bernese), to whom the false reformation was nothing but a difformation, of the old; these popes and their bishops had a long robe of clerical Rome.
Instead of a pope with his long robe, they want to make another with a short robe, which it will be well to fear more than those whom they so condemn, if it happens that they once take root and be received and sustained.
And Viret, without difficulty, clearly showed the inevitable consequences of the appearance of such a power as that of Bern accumulating the religious and profane authority. This is that ancient Roman power which, since the French Revolution, has reappeared on the world scene in all its ancient force under the form of the modern Hegelian State: sovereign, absolute, completely autonomous, not accountable to anyone, least of all God. This State without faith or law has become, as was foreseen by the supreme theoretician Hegel, a god walking upon earth, a god who knows no boundaries to his power, nor justice to his right.
If the complete-power of the Church is within the hands of the magistrates, they can cut it up and sew it back together as they please. They have no need to borrow the sword which they have beside them. They give and take away ministers as it seems good to them. They treat them as their valets. When they be drunk and angry, they give them leave, as the fancy takes them. And in this way the wolves will receive their fill in the Church, and the true pastors will be cast out. For the tyrants will never allow anyone to tell them the truth.
A contemporary theologian who, like Viret, has consecrated his entire life to the practical application of the Law of God to all aspects of reality, Rousas John Rushdoony, in his study on the connections of Christianity and the State before the Reform, reached the same conclusions as our Reformer:
If the state is not placed under the sovereign authority of the triune God, there can exist no hope of liberty for men and the Church. The State, having become its own god, its own source of rights and morals, it is therefore impossible for it to deceive or to do any wrong. Faced with such a State no man can possess the least right of critique or any other liberty of having any other opinion besides theirs. . . . The modern humanist State is thus the most jealous god in history. It will not tolerate any rival.
The confrontation with Bern was inevitable. After two years of such an appreciated ministry in Geneva, Viret’s failing health obliged him to seek a milder climate in France in the spring of 1561. In this country he exercised his remarkable talents to the benefit of the Churches of Midi, of the city of Lyon, and finally, which was his last exile, in Bearn, the kingdom of Jeanne d’Albret, queen of Navarre.
Viret was a man of rare modesty. Posterity, in taking at his word his deceptive appreciation of himself, hold him in fundamentally low regard. Here is an example of what some of his contemporaries say of his preaching gifts:
His speech was so sweet that he would continually hold the attention and the interest of those who heard him. His style, which married strength to harmony, was so caressing to the ear and to the intelligence that even those of his hearers least interested in religious matters, those most impatient of other preachers, would hear him out without difficulty and even with pleasure. One has said, that they were as though suspended on his lips, that they wished his discourses were even longer.
At his side Melchior Adam wrote:
In Lyon, preaching out in the open, he brought thousands to saving faith in Jesus Christ. By the power of his divine eloquence he would even cause those passing by to stop, listen and hear him out.
Of Calvin Beze 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.” Some of his contemporaries placed him above Calvin as a preacher. But if Calvin is incomparable as a dogmatic exegete and polemist, Viret largely surpasses him as ethicist and apologist. His strength was a domain often neglected, because of its awkwardness: the application of the Word of God to all domains of life. His Christian Instruction in the Doctrine of the Law and Gospel of 1564 is unquestionably the best commentary on the Ten Commandments that the Christian Church has ever known. In this work, as he presents the appearance of the philosophical idealism of Descartes (a subjectivism that does not allow any true link between the knowledge of nature and that of the Creator, Romans 1:18-23), Viret gives us a magisterial application of the Biblical doctrine of the general revelation of God throughout all creation. His marvelous polemical dialogue, Le Monde à l’Empire et le Monde Démoniacle (1561) contains—among other treasures—a historical, social, and economic analysis of the light of the Word of God which permits him, for example, to put his finger on the functioning of certain economic phenomena perverted in his time, two centuries before the development of modern economic science! As a Christian moralist he was comparable to a John Chrysostom of the fifth century, to a Cardinal Pie of the nineteenth, or even to a Rousas Rushdoony of our epoch. It is high time that we finally begin to grasp the importance of this remarkable thinker, that we repeat his words in modern adaptation, and that we return to his vision of the application of the complete Word of God to all aspects of human life, to all scientific disciplines. Without such a return to the Biblical reality we can have no hope for the revival of the Church and for the restoration of his reformational influence over the entirety of culture and society.
To conclude this too brief survey, I will give you the words of a man who knew Pierre Viret well and who, moving beyond the modesty of his friend, sought to place him among the great men of God, the humble and powerful servants by which the Lord Jesus Christ is glorified in His Church. This is what Theodore de Beze wrote in his Portraits in 1581:
Recipient of poison, wounds, and all man’s deadly rage.
I see the virtue of the Lord, His noble mysteries,
And in great silence I submit myself to His decrees.
I read the precious writings, full of wisdom without end,
That you, my dearest Viret, in that dreadful prison penned.
I see the goodness of your judgment, and your conscience clear,
And know that truly God resides within your mansion here.
I know Christ watches o’er His Church with gentle, loving care,
For, seeing it half-dead, engulfed in flame, in great despair,
He lights a fire in men’s souls within that dreadful heat,
Enflaming hearts, enlight’ning minds, to make His Church complete.
If all the folly of the world rejects His sacred way,
Demanding from us some new sign, some miracle today,
Our gentle Viret will provide a witness with each breath;
He spoke to them in life, and he is speaking still in death.
(Lausanne, January 13, 1991. Excerpt from Des Actes de L’Eglise, Jean-Marc Berthoud. pages 45-55. Published by L'Age D'Homme)
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.
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