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The Bern Dispute (1528) and Viret’s Conflicts with the Bernese Authorities

by Daniel Bovet

Pierre Viret is oftentimes found in conflict with the Bernese authorities. The last of these conflicts is that which would provoke his deposition and exile in 1559. Viret sought to introduce into the Church a discipline similar to that which Calvin had established at Geneva: conferring upon the ecclesiastical authorities the right to impose the penalty of excommunication. It was in no way a matter of papist excommunication with its abuses, but simply the possibility for the Church to temporarily remove the scandalous and obstinate sinners from the Holy Supper. The controversy was a conflict of jurisdiction between the Church and the State: for Bern, the civil power sought to exercise episcopal power over the Church. What is paradoxical is that today the separation of Church and State is taken for a degradation of the Church. In the sixteenth century, to the contrary, the union of the Church and State assured the supremacy of the latter, whereas at Geneva, the separation was the instrument of what would be called theocracy. The meaning of the word separation has changed indeed.

Two other conflicts possessed a more dogmatic aspect. The first we shall examine was provoked by Andre Zebedee, pastor of Orbe from 1539 to 1546, and who joined the Academy of Lausanne in 1547. Scarcely arrived in Lausanne, Zebedee found a means of accusing Viret of Lutheranism! The point in question was the doctrine of the Eucharist. The Roman Catholic position of transubstantiation is well known; the majority of Protestants, though, are less clear on the consubstantiation of the Lutherans: the bread and wine of the Holy Supper remain bread and wine, but the Eucharistic consecration adds the real presence of the body and blood of Christ. Zwingli radically opposed this opinion, seeing in the sacraments no more than naked and empty signs of a wholly spiritual reality. Calvin, and Viret with him, essentially shared Zwingli’s viewpoint, but with certain nuances, to tell the truth difficult to grasp and impossible to summarize, in which a malicious spirit might discern a sort of concession to Lutheranism. The opposition between Luther and Zwingli equally troubled the Bernese clergy and tended to the absolute victory of the Zwinglian doctrine. To find a shade of Lutheranism in the thought of Viret was thus a means of rendering him suspect to Bern. In 1549, however, Viret successfully justified himself entirely; Zebedee was sent away and named master of the school of Yverdon. We note here that the viewpoints of Zwingli and Calvin were reconciled in 1549 in the Consensus Tigurinus, or the Zurich Concord, upon which Calvin and Bullinger labored.

The second conflict dealt with predestination: Calvin’s opinion is well-known, as is his definition in his Institutes of the Christian Religion: “We call Predestination the eternal counsel of God by which He has determined what He wills to do with every man. For He did not create all in the same condition, but ordains some to eternal life, and others to eternal damnation. Thus, according to the end for which man is created, we say that he is predestined to death or life.” This doctrine, clearly exposed in Latin from 1535, and in French from 1541, remarkably does not appear to have at first aroused much discussion among the French-speaking Reformers. The controversy was awakened, it appears, in 1551 by Jerome Bolsec, a physician and former monk, who dared to question the well-founded scriptural ideas of Calvin on predestination. It is then perceived that “Calvinism” was by no means unconditionally adhered to; the Council of Geneva, knowing of the controversy, admitted that these matters were “great and difficult;” Bolsec also found some sympathies among the Vaudois pastors. However, Viret and the majority of the pastors of Lausanne, as well as the professors of the Academy, entirely shared Calvin’s views. The Bernese, on the other hand, saw above all within this question a danger of troubles; thus their reaction was to forbid all preaching and discussion on “certain high and elusive doctrines, chiefly regarding the matter of divine predestination.”

In all these affairs, the Bernese authorities referred constantly to the conclusions of the Bern Dispute and the Edict of Reformation which followed. There were many disputes at the time of the Reformation of which the issue was censured dependant upon the force of the arguments of the opinants. But these disputes were necessarily convoked by an authority, which in general pertained to a certain party, and though the invitation was addressed to all going and coming from whatever country they be, the proposed theses of the convocation would inevitably be the conclusions at the end of the debates. The majority of these disputes were organized by partisans of the Reform, and concluded in favor of the Reform; there was however in 1526 a dispute at Baden which concluded in favor of the Catholics.

The Bernese Reformation had political roots which must be found in the fifteenth century conflicts of the jurisdiction between the State and Church. The instrument of the religious Reform was Berthold Haller, of Swabian origin, born in 1492, arriving in Bern in 1513, who from 1520 began to preach on the side of Luther and Zwingli. He met with resistance, but in 1527 the government was entirely won to the Reformation, and the organization of a dispute was the means chosen to make the people adopt it. Contrary to what passed in France and Germany, the Bernese Reformation thus possessed a governmental origin, and this is doubtless the reason for the union of the government of the Church and State which was inaugurated.

The Dispute was held from the 6 to the 26 of January 1528. th th Zwingli, Ocolampadius (from Basel), Bucer, and Capiton (from Strasbourg) were present. The four bishops whose diocese extended over the Bernese territory were invited, but none attended. The principal representative of the Roman Church was Conrad Treiger, provincial of the Order of the Augustinians of Fribourg (in Switzerland). Theses I to IV gave rise to the most extensive discussion; the first three dealt with the exclusive authority of Christ and the Word of God, to which the Catholics sought, against the Reformers, to join the authority of the Church. The fourth was thus worded: “It cannot be proven by any Scripture of the Bible that the body and blood of Christ are physically eaten in the bread of the Eucharist.” Throughout the discussion the Catholics spoke but rarely, leaving the Reformers to dispute among themselves; the Lutheran viewpoint was defended by Benedict Burgauer, pastor of the Church of St. Laurent of St. Gall; he came to heads with Zwingli, Ocolampadius, and Bucer, without cessation from the 14th to the 19th of January. The firth thesis was the condemnation of the mass: “The mass, as it is celebrated today, as if in it Christ were offered to God the Father for the living and the dead, is contrary to the Holy Scripture, blasphemes against the most holy of all sacrifices (the passion and death of Christ) and, by this abuse, is an abomination before God.” One conceives that on this point the Catholics were defeated, but the debate ended without altering the convictions of the antagonists. The sixth to tenth theses dealt with the invocation of saints, purgatory, the veneration of images, and finally the celibacy of the priests, and were also rapidly dismissed. In conclusion, the theses were adopted by nearly two hundred voices.

It must be remarked that predestination was not explicitly mentioned in any of the theses. And certainly, Zwingli had previously expressed himself on this subject in the terms which, according to Henri Vuilleumier, “scarcely yielded, in rigor and in harshness, to the forms of Calvin.” Did the promoters of the Dispute already feel the danger of exposing this question too publicly?

The Edict of Reformation was promulgated February 7th, 1528. It endeavored to insure as gentle a transition as possible, which did indeed encounter certain resistances that in some places it was required to overcome by a forced army. The new pastors were for the most part former priests; the Bernese Church remained the Bernese Church, it was simply Reformed. It resulted in a state spirit which opposed itself to “Calvinism” on many points, permeating the majority of the clergy of the Swiss Romand.


Jean Barnaud, Pierre Viret, sa vie et son oeuvre. Saint-Amans, 1911.

Henri Vuilleumier, Histoire de l’Église Réformée du Pays de Vaud, four volumes. Éditions La Concorde, Lausanne, 1927.

Madeleine Bron, “Etude sur les Actes de la Dispute de Berne (Janvier 1528)” Thèse présentée à la Faculté de Théologie de l’Église Evangélique Libre du Canton de Vaud pour obtenir le grade de Bachelière en Théologie (dactylographie). Lausanne, 1931.

Author Bio:

Daniel Bovet, Swiss citizen originally from Arnex-on-Orbe, born April 4, 1931 in Lausanne. Bachelor of Arts (Latin-Greek) in 1949, Engineering Physics degree in 1957 from the University of Lausanne Polytechnic Institute. Scientific work in mathematical physics, especially in the field of the Theory of Elasticity, with applications to Soil Mechanics. City Councilor in Lausanne from 1970 to 1985; member of the Grand Council of the Canton of Vaud from 1982 to 1998, member of the Constituent Assembly of the Canton of Vaud (1999-2002), member of the Synod of the Evangelical Reformed Church of the Canton of Vaud in 1998 and 1999. Retired in 1995, he participated in the organization of the Alexandre Vinet Year in 1997. In 2001, founding member and president of the Pierre Viret Association.

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