Calvin's Love and Dependence on Viret

As you wished, I am settled here; may the Lord overrule it for good. For the present, I must retain Viret also, whom I shall not suffer on any account to be dragged away from me. Do you, besides, and all the brethren, exert yourselves to help me here to the utmost, unless you would have me tortured to no purpose, and made utterly wretched, without having any benefit to be gained by it.

Calvin to Farel, September 16, 1541, quoted in Jules Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin, Volume 1 (Philadelphia, 1858), p. 284

I will leave no stone unturned to prevent Viret being taken from me.

Calvin to Bucer, October 15, 1541, quoted in Jules Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin, Volume 1 (Philadelphia, 1858), p. 293

. . . should Viret be taken away from me I shall be utterly ruined, and this Church will be past recovery. On this account it is only reasonable that you and others pardon me if I leave no stone unturned to prevent his being carried off from me. In the meantime we must look for supply to the Church of Lausanne, according as shall be appointed by the godly brethren, and by your own advice. Only let Viret remain with me.

Calvin to Farel, November 11, 1541, quoted in Jules Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin, Volume 1 (Philadelphia, 1858), p. 307

There appears a brighter prospect for the future if Viret can be left here with me; on which account I am all the more desirous to express to you my most thankful acknowledgment, because you share with me in my anxiety that the Bernese may not call him away; and I earnestly beseech, for the sake of Christ, that you would do your utmost to bring that about; for whenever the thought of his going away presents itself, I faint and lose courage entirely.

Calvin to Oswald Myconius, March 14, 1542, quoted in Jules Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin, Volume 1 (Philadelphia, 1858), pp. 313-314

Calvin and Viret: Brethren in Unity

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”
—Psalm 133:1

One of the brightest lights in the history of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century is doubtless the study of the remarkable friendships existing among the Christian Reformers of that era. Calvin, indisputably the most well-known Reformer of our time, was certainly not a solitary figure standing alone against the entrenched forces of Roman Catholicism. When God began to shine the light of His Gospel in the hearts of the Swiss and French people—so long steeped in the darkness of religious error—He raised among them a host of valiant men to press for reform, men who would soon be given the task of shepherding this new flock. Though each man was called individually and fashioned in a particular way quite distinct from the others, God saw fit to bring together these tools, separately fashioned, but all endued with the vision to engage in the same Kingdom work. One of the men thus prepared and brought to the forefront of the Reformation work was the little known Pierre Viret.

Viret, born and raised in present-day Switzerland, was the son of Guillaume Viret, a devout Roman Catholic. After finishing his elementary studies at his hometown Orbe, Viret journeyed to Paris and enrolled at the College de Montaigu where Calvin was also studying. Though both were converted at college, the two men did not meet until several years after the fires of persecution drove them from Paris to begin the work of Reformation on another field.

It is commonly believed that Calvin and Viret met for the first time in Basel in 1535. The two soon became regular correspondents and worked closely together for many years. Viret, together with William Farel, was actively engaged in bringing the Reformation to Geneva, and was present at the providential meeting in 1536 when Farel threatened Calvin with God’s judgment unless the man remained in Geneva to continue God’s work in that city. The young Calvin also joined Farel and Viret in defending the Reformed Faith at the Lausanne Disputation later that same year. On this Michael Bruening notes,

Three events, in particular, brought Calvin and Viret closely together in a common cause. The first was the Lausanne Disputation and, more importantly, its aftermath. Bern’s decision to impose the Reformation on Vaud, along with the opening of the [Lausanne] Academy, made Lausanne the new center for the French-speaking Reformed Church in Vaud and arguably in all of Europe. Lausanne’s new prominence demanded a closer working relationship between the city’s leading reformer, Viret, and his counterpart in Geneva. Although Viret started his Lausanne ministry under the senior Pierre Caroli, his disputes with the former Sorbonne doctor constituted the second major factor that brought Calvin and Viret together. Defending themselves against accusations of Arianism and blasting Caroli’s teaching on the efficacy of prayers for the dead was, to use modern parlance, a “bonding experience.” This was particularly true for Calvin and Viret, for although each had already developed a close relationship with Farel, the two had not worked closely together until the Caroli affair.1

These three friends, Calvin, Farel, and Viret, were to become the foundation upon which the French Reformation would be established. Though each worked in his own God-ordained ministry, the three were often found laboring closely together, and soon earned the name Triumvirate. Some even labeled them the Paul, Peter, and John of the Sixteenth Century Reformation. Calvin, dedicating a book to Farel and Viret, spoke thus of their holy friendship:

“It will at least be a testimony to this present age and perhaps to posterity of the holy bond of friendship that unites us. I think there has never been in ordinary life a circle of friends so heartily bound to each other as we have been in our ministry.”2

Viret, together with Farel, continued the spread of the Reformation in Geneva until Calvin was firmly established in that city. Afterward Viret was appointed pastor of the Church of Lausanne, the capital of the Canton of Vaud. From their separate locations the two men still managed to work closely together, and their friendship deepened over the following years.

As troubles multiplied and trials increased in the tumultuous city of Geneva, Calvin looked more and more to Viret to assist him in his work. Indeed, their friendship had become so deep by the time of Calvin’s exile in 1541 that it was Viret to whom the city turned to exert his influence to persuade the recalcitrant Calvin to return to the city. Viret had been called to Geneva after Calvin’s banishment, and did his utmost to restore the exiled pastor to his parish. Writing to Calvin, Viret described the transformation of the city, and the people’s willingness to receive the reformation. “You cannot imagine,” he wrote to Calvin, “the attentiveness with which they listen to my discourses, and what a crowd of men they attract. . . . such tranquility reigns in the republic, it is completely transformed, and has taken on an entirely new appearance. . . . The Lord has offered us a most favorable moment. If you neglect it, Calvin, the Lord will certainly punish you for neglecting the Church, and not you only, but also those who restrain you.”3

Calvin, however, was in no way eager to return to the trials and troubles that awaited him at Geneva, and at first rejected Viret’s proposal to return, writing to him on May 9, “I had to laugh at that part of the letter where you show yourself so concerned for my health. Would I prosper in Geneva (of all places)? Why not rather be crucified right now? It was more than enough to have perished there once; why would I want to be racked with that torture again? Therefore, my Viret, if you want the best for me, forget about that idea.”4

Calvin’s refusal can be accounted for in part by the confidence he placed in Viret. Calvin’s implicit trust in his friend’s ability to shepherd the church of Geneva is found in a letter to Farel in February of 1541, “It was a singular joy for me to learn that the Church of Geneva is endowed with the arrival of Viret. . . . I now foresee that the matter is out of danger.”5 Thus assured of his flock’s safety, Calvin had no inclination to return to the fire from which he had been dismissed.

Despite Calvin’s well-placed faith in Viret, Viret was not to be dissuaded from calling his friend back to his duty, and exerted his utmost influence upon the city and Council to recall the exiled Reformer. ‘Master Pierre Viret,’ says the register at the date of the 28th February, ‘hath showed that it would be very meet to write again to Master Calvin. Ordered that he be written to.’”6

After many such appeals, Calvin was at last persuaded to return to the city, and Viret joyfully assisted him in his reentrance. As Bruening notes, “Viret’s presence in Geneva at that time was essential in overcoming Calvin’s initial reluctance to return to the city and in assisting him in his reform efforts once he arrived.”7 Robert Linder also writes, “Calvin later testified that only the fraternal support of Viret during this decisive period made these first months tolerable.”8

Viret remained in Geneva for some time to aid Calvin in his return and reentrance into the city. The presence of Calvin’s brother-at-arms was indispensable to the newly-returned Reformer, as Bruening writes,

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Viret’s 1541-1542 stay in Geneva. First of all, Calvin had found the prospect of returning to the city from Strasbourg so abhorrent at first that he likely never would have returned to Geneva if Viret had not been there months beforehand to restore order in the church. Second, Calvin and Viret’s friendship deepened during these ten months together in Geneva to the point where Viret clearly replaced Farel as Cavin’s closest confidant in the following years. According to the extant record, Viret and Calvin exchanged only fourteen letters between Calvin’s exile and his return (1538-1541). During the same period, sixty-five letters survive between Farel and Calvin. In the years following Viret’s departure from Geneva in 1542, however, the figures are reversed. From 1542 to 1549, Calvin was in contact with Viret more than twice as often as with Farel.9

When Calvin was again settled in Geneva after his banishment, Viret desired to return at once to his pastorate in Lausanne, where his presence was sorely needed, but Calvin would not hear of his leaving. After continual pleadings and much urging, Viret was persuaded to remain for several months in Geneva to aid Calvin. Farel, writing to the pastors of Zurich, noted the importance of Viret’s presence in the city of Geneva at that crucial time, “If Viret is recalled [to Lausanne], then surely Calvin and the Church of Geneva shall fall again into ruins!”10 Calvin also shared this opinion, as is noted by Bruening,

After a long delay, which necessitated a six-month extension of Viret’s leave of absence [from Lausanne], Calvin finally returned to Geneva in September 1541. Viret had helped to turn the Genevan church around, making it possible for Calvin to set about the task of implementing his reforms immediately upon his arrival. Faced with this daunting task, he insisted that Viret remain at his side to help. Three days after his return, Calvin told Farel, “I have also kept Viret with me, whom I absolutely would not allow to be taken away from me.” Now it was Calvin who sought to persuade Viret that he was needed in Geneva. He explained to Farel, “If Viret leaves me, I am completely finished; I will not be able to keep this church alive. Therefore, I hope you and others will forgive me if I move every stone to ensure that I am not deprived of him.” Calvin is hardly known for emotional outbursts; this language, therefore, indicated how precious a resource he considered his friend during his first months back in Geneva.11

Viret’s ready and selfless assistance of Calvin at one of the most difficult hours of his life was not forgotten by the Reformer. The friendship of these two men expanded significantly during this time, and showed itself in a beautiful brotherly relationship throughout the length of their lives.

Viret returned to Lausanne in July of 1542. His prolonged absence from the city had been disastrous for the Church, which he found in a deplorable condition upon his return. Writing to Calvin of its lamentable state, Viret mourned, “I came, I saw, I was dumbfounded (veni, vidi, obstupui). If only what we had heard about the state of this church were not so true.”12 Calvin, fearful lest Viret perish under the weight of his ecclesiastical troubles, responded to his letter, expressing his concern and begging Viret to take care of himself and keep Calvin apprised of his health and condition, “I confess that I am in fear when I think of you. I beseech you to allow no one to come here without bringing letters from you or something to let me know how you are.”13

Despite Lausanne’s manifest need for Viret, Calvin still desired to have his fellow Reformer at his side, and in July of 1544 he urged the Council of Geneva to write to the Bernese lords, requesting permission to permanently retain Viret at Geneva. Upon hearing of the letter, however, the Lausanne counselors and pastors immediately sent ambassadors to Bern, begging the lords to reject Geneva’s request. Meeting with such a desperate appeal from Lausanne, Bern declined to grant the transfer, and ordered Viret to remain in Lausanne. Though refused their request, Viret wrote to Geneva to express his love for the city, assuring them of his devotion and seeking to comfort his Genevan friends, “As for me, if you so desire, you will always have me as your humble servant, no less than if I were present with you, as truly I am in spirit, though I am distant in person; I will also be joined with you in body as soon as it is the good pleasure of Him who has called us in His service.”14

Upon the death of Viret’s wife in 1545 an opportunity is afforded us to see Calvin’s fondness and affection for his fellow laborer. Hearing of the depths of grief into which Viret had fallen at the loss of his wife, Calvin was terrified lest his friend perish under the weight of the blow. Writing to Viret, Calvin begged him to come to Geneva for a time, assuring him in the most endearing terms that he would take care of everything and see that Viret was not troubled in his grief: “Come to distract yourself,” he wrote, “not only from your sorrow, but also from all your troubles. You need not fear that I will impose any work on you. I will take care that you enjoy your own pleasure in tranquility. And if anyone bothers you, I will deal with them.”15

Despite Calvin’s touching letter, Viret felt he could not pull himself from his work in Lausanne. Calvin, however, was not to be dissuaded, and wrote again, pleading with Viret to come. This time he went so far as to send a horse to carry Viret to Geneva, in order that Viret might not tire himself on the road. Thus pressed by his dear friend, Viret could refuse no longer, and, leaving Lausanne, he journeyed to Geneva to enjoy the company and consolation of his fellow Reformer.

Throughout the following years Viret was often called to Geneva to mediate in conflicts involving Calvin and certain dissenters. Viret’s peacemaking skills were well-known throughout the country, and he was habitually called upon to mediate in quarrels between the brethren. His ability to quiet discord and establish peace was especially beneficial to Calvin, who frequently employed his close friend in the role of peacemaker throughout his turbulent ministry in Geneva and elsewhere. Writing to Viret of one such quarrel in 1547, Calvin begged Viret’s aid, exclaiming, “Those who wish to quiet the affair without tumult hope that you will be the providential peacemaker. The opposing faction themselves want you.”16 Viret, writing to Calvin, assured the man of his devotion and willingness to offer aid in any way possible: “Ah! If I could only take upon myself a share of the tribulations that I know are now tormenting you! . . . If I could be of any service to you, I would not trouble myself at all with the displeasure of men if only my little aid would be to your advantage.”17

Not only discord, however, drew these two friends together. Family life was also a large link between the two men. After the death of Viret’s wife, Calvin took it upon himself to find a suitable helpmeet for the stricken Reformer. Leaving no stone unturned, the self-appointed matchmaker Calvin traveled far and near in his search for the ideal wife for his dear friend. After several ill-fated attempts the right woman was finally discovered, and Calvin himself assisted at the wedding.

Viret’s new wife, Sebastienne, kept up a regular correspondence with Calvin’s wife Idelette, and in 1548 the latter journeyed to Lausanne to assist Viret’s wife in the birth of their child. At Idelette’s departure Viret wrote Calvin, expressing his profuse thanks for the loan, “We have suffered great sadness at her leaving us so soon,” he concluded, adding, “We would never have allowed it at all, save out of consideration for you.”18 Another child, Martha, was born in 1550 to the Viret family, and Calvin was named the godfather.19

The years in which Calvin and Viret ministered in separate cities are marked by a plethora of letters. A regular correspondence passed between them upon every subject, and when heightened church troubles, journeys, or other matters brought a necessary silence to their communication, it was quickly remedied, often with apologies. Viret, writing to Calvin in 1541, assured him, “If I have written but rarely and very briefly to you and the other brothers at Strasbourg, I ask that you do not fault me with a crime as though I did not show enough regard for our friendship. . .”20

Matters of children and other such “trivialities” fill the letters which passed regularly between the two Reformers during these years. Indeed, nothing appeared too commonplace to be mentioned in their correspondence. As one historian noted,

At Calvin’s return [to Geneva] Viret joined him as a colleague, and the sweetest epistolary relationship was enjoyed between the two. During nearly twenty years continual messages passed from Geneva to Lausanne. Everyday news, events involving the Church or State, household troubles, memories, plans, confidences, all are found in this friendly correspondence, which never closes without feeling and emotion, filled with testimonies of the truest affection. The two friends never laid the pen aside except to visit each other, and what a time was their every meeting! “Someone told me,” wrote Calvin, “that you are inclined to come to Geneva. I have seized the hope with as much fervor as if you were already here. If such is truly your intention, come Saturday. Your arrival could not be more timely. You will preach for me Sunday morning in the city so that I can preach at Jussy, and join me after dinner. We’ll take a visit to Monsieur de Falais; then, crossing the lake, we’ll enjoy the pleasures of the country together at the home of our friends Pommier and Delisle, and we shan’t return until Thursday. The day following, if you’d like to go to Tournay or Bellerive, I’ll accompany you. Above all, you can count on the warmest reception.”21

The unity enjoyed between Calvin and Viret throughout their lives is a marvelous testimony of the grace and favor of God upon His children. Throughout the many trials, troubles, and persecutions caused by enemies both within and outside the Church, the deep-rooted friendship of these two men of God is a shining example of the protection and provision of the Lord. The depth of the bond of love enjoyed between Calvin and Viret effuses the delightful fragrance of God’s blessing upon His own. As the psalmist wrote, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! . . . for there the LORD commandeth the blessing, even life forevermore” (Psalm 133:1, 3).

Calvin and Viret’s friendship presents a striking portrayal of Christian unity and brotherly love, a perfect example of the Biblical doctrine of dependence—no man stands alone, but each exists in communion with the fellow-members of Christ’s Church. Contrary to the modern ideology of independence and self-reliance, Christians above all must be first to acknowledge their complete dependence and reliance upon God. Furthermore, just as all are dependent upon God, likewise no man can thrive in sterile theological and moral independence, but each must exist within the Biblical framework of the community of believers, being built up together into the true Church, of which Christ is the cornerstone. May God continue to grant to the Church many such relationships as that enjoyed by Calvin and Viret to further His kingdom work upon the earth.

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1 Michael W. Bruening, Calvinism’s First Battleground: Conflict and Reform in the Pays de 1 Vaud, 1528-1559 (Springer, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 2005), pages 176-177

2 As quoted in Jean-Marc Berthoud, Pierre Viret: A Forgotten Giant of the Reformation, page 2 22

3 Viret to Calvin, February 6, 1541, quoted in Schnetzler, Vuilleumier, & Schroeder, eds., Pierre Viret D’Après Lui-Même (Georges Bridel & Cie Éditeurs, Lausanne, 1911), pages 45-46

4 As quoted in Michael W. Bruening, “Pierre Viret and Geneva,” Archive for Reformation History, Volume 99 (2008), page 180

5 Calvin to Farel, February 19, 1541, quoted in Henri Jaquemot, “Viret: Réformateur de Lausanne,” Thèse présentée à la Faculté de Théologie de Strasbourg (Strasbourg, August, 1836), page 30

6 Felix Bungener, Calvin: His Life, His Labours, and His Writings (T. & T. Clark, 1863), pages 6 s 161-162

7 Bruening, “Pierre Viret and Geneva,” page 176

8 Robert Linder, The Political Ideas of Pierre Viret (Geneva, 1964), page 29

9 Bruening, Calvinism’s First Battleground, pages 177-178

10 Henri Vuilleumier, Notre Pierre Viret (Librairie Payot & Cie, Lausanne, 1911), page 87

11 Bruening, “Pierre Viret and Geneva,” page 184

12 Viret to Calvin, July 21, 1542, quoted in Bruening, Calvinism’s First Battleground, page 12 179

13 Calvin to Viret, August 1542, quoted in Jaquemot, “Viret: Réformateur de Lausanne,” page 34, note

14 Viret to the Council of Geneva, July 10, 1544, quoted in Schnetzler, Vuilleumier, & Schroeder, eds., Pierre Viret, page 65

15 Calvin to Viret, quoted in Jean Barnaud, Pierre Viret, Sa Vie et Son Oeuvre (Saint-Amans, 1911), page 315

16 Calvin to Viret, March 27, 1547, quoted in Ibid., page 16 322

17 Viret to Calvin, October 26, 1547, quoted in Schnetzler, Vuilleumier, & Schroeder, eds., Pierre Viret, page 80

18 Viret to Calvin, June 29, 1548, quoted in Ibid., page 88

19 Henri Vuilleumier, Notre Pierre Viret (Librairie Payot & Cie, Lausanne, 1911), page 102

20 Viret to Calvin, February 6, 1541, quoted in Schnetzler, Vuilleumier, & Schroeder, eds., Pierre Viret, page 44

21 “Les Amitiés de Calvin,” Bulletin de la Société de L’Histoire du Protestantisme Français (Paris, 1864), page 93