Catechetical Instruction



Within both Calvin’s Geneva catechism of 1536 and Viret’s catechism of 1541 (found in Volume one of his “Christian Instruction”), the concept of man’s chief end is found:


Master: What is the chief end of human life?

Scholar: To know God by whom men were created.

Master: What reason have you for saying so?

Scholar: Because He created us and placed us in this world to be glorified in us. And it is indeed right that our life, of which He is the beginning, should be devoted to his glory.


Viret’s catechetical instruction of doctrinal truth reflects the warmers, pastoral style common in the sixteenth century Continental Reformed catechisms and confessions, compared to the more scholastic and abstract of the following centuries. Viret, in his first question, deals with man’s true issue of life and personal happiness. He responds Biblically. His answer: simply put, happiness is achieved when man glorifies God by making Him his chief end.


The chief good of man, and the end for which God created him

MATTHEW: What is it that men naturally desire most in this world?

PETER: To be perfectly happy.

MATTHEW: And what is it to be perfectly happy?

PETER: It is to be delivered and free from all evil, to live in perpetual peace and joy, and to enjoy every good thing.

MATTHEW: And how is man’s true and chief good found, by which he can be happy as you have stated?

PETER: Man’s good is found in the chief reason for which God created him in His image and likeness, and placed him in the world.

MATTHEW: What then is the chief reason for which God created man and placed him in the world?

PETER: To be glorified in him and through him.

MATTHEW: What is the true means by which God can be glorified in and through man?

PETER: By the true knowledge of Him, which leads man to honor Him as his God and Creator with the true honor due Him, which He requires of man.


For this cause desiring to be accommodating to all, in as much as it has been possible for me, and principally to the most uneducated and untrained, I have labored to bring to light various forms of Christian instruction, which are like various types of Catechisms, by which each one can ascend from level to level, in the school of Christian doctrine which is the Church, as school students climb in school from class to class and lesson to lesson, according to which each one of them have benefited and are found capable of more superior studies. For this reason I have written a very brief summary of the principal points of the Christian doctrine, which I have divided into small chapters, ordering logically the contents contained in it, according to which they are related and joined together, and in which the ones depend on the others and remain connected together. Then, I wrote another one even more concise, composed in the form of a dialogue. Next I added a third one to these, which is like a fuller and more familiar explanation of the first two, by which those who will have already read the two others, will be able to ascend higher, in the knowledge of those subjects which have not been treated in the others, or which have only been treated summarily and in passing. Then there is as a fourth level the large Instruction which had already been printed before all these others which are like small abridgements and summaries of it, in which I expose all the points treated here very thoroughly, according to the aim which I had determined, and the work seemed to me to require. Now by these diverse Treaties, one is able to know how one can limit or expand the same material, and how one can deal with it in various ways without changing either the subject or the substance of it.9


First of all, because I treat in this small summary, the foundations of our faith and religion, a little more briefly than they are presented in ordinary Catechisms, I had thought, that it might serve many, as a preparation, and introduction, to the doctrine which is presented more fully, in ordinary Catechisms. Next, I know that there are many excellent people, not only in this country, but also in many others, fulfilling their duties as true fathers of families, teaching their children in the fear and doctrine of the Lord, from the earliest age. These people can also use this labor of mine, to prepare those whom they have to teach, more fully in doctrine, in the manner in which I have stated. I have also thought that there is nothing wrong, with various people treating the same subjects. For some have one manner of teaching, which is more proper to some; and others, a manner which is more appropriate to others. In this way each one can determine for himself, that which is most suitable for him.10


Inasmuch as the method of teaching by dialogues, is more familiar than any other, I made use of this method in all these forms of instruction, except in the first summary. It is true that this method is a little longer because many times it is necessary to use as a result of it countless words, which are seemingly lost, for the simple reason that they do not belong properly speaking to the substance of the subject being treated. Yet they are not lost at all, because they serve not only to clarify the material, but also to distinguish and expose it more fully, and more familiarly. And when it is a question of teaching the most simple, it is better to be a little longer and clearer, than to be too brief and more obscure.11


Our Lord Jesus Christ states succinctly the basis both of salvation and damnation for all men, when he says in the prayer offered to God his Father on behalf of his disciples: This is eternal life: That they know that you are the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (Jn.17:3). Since it is this way that the knowledge of God, such as it is manifested in Jesus Christ, brings eternal life and salvation to men, it follows, at the same time, that ignorance of salvation, contrary to this knowledge, brings them damnation and eternal death. If there is, therefore, any knowledge which is seen as desirable among men, and which should be held as costly and precious, it is this knowledge, without which men not only are unable to be happy, but in contrast are more miserable than brute beasts, and more worthy to be regarded as beasts than men. For this reason there is nothing that they should fear more than ignorance of that celestial and Divine knowledge, by which they are deprived of any true understanding, and of any certain assurance, and hope of their own salvation, and of the greatest good for which they could wish, and which they could receive.12

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9 Pierre Viret, Instruction Chretienne (L’Age d’Homme, Lausanne, 2008), pages 176-177

10 Ibid., pages 141-142

11 Ibid., page 177

12 Ibid., pages 97-98

Lausanne Cathedral
Lausanne, Switzerland

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Pierre Viret The Angel of the Reformation by R.A. Sheats

Pierre Viret by Jean-Marc Berthoud