Saturday, August 7, 2010

Book Review: Pierre Viret

At long last, as his 500th birthday approaches, thanks to Jean-Marc Berthoud, Zurich Publishing and the Pierre Viret Association, one of the great French Reformers, Pierre Viret (1511-1571), has been brought out of the shadow of John Calvin, whose 500th birthday we observed last year, and into worthy remembrance (Jean Marc-Berthoud, Pierre Viret: A Forgotten Giant of the Reformation - The Apologetics, Ethics, and Economics of the Bible, Tallahassee, Florida: Zurich Publishing, 2010). I have previously noted the ongoing efforts to translate select Viret works; now Mr. Berthoud's anticipated biographical sketch is available from Zurich Publishing.

With an excellent and succinct introduction by Thomas Ertl, President of the Pierre Viret Association, Mr. Berthoud has sketched for us a brief biography of this neglected Reformer, known as the "Angel of the Reformation," who was perhaps John Calvin's best friend, who as a preacher outrivaled his friend, and the man who in Lausanne in 1537 founded the first Reformed Academy, whose professors later served in Calvin and Beza's Genevan Academy. In this biography, particular attention has been paid to Viret's work as an ecclesiastical reformer, ethicist, apologist, economist, and philosopher, with extracts from his writings on each subject.

A prolific writer, Viret published over 40 works in his lifetime, "some up to a thousand pages in length," few of which have been republished in modern times. The Pierre Viret Association is working to rectify this oversight. As I have noted last year, select translation works are forthcoming. Mr. Berthoud has provided us with a list of Viret's published works in French, and a complete bibliography, including Viret's Latin works, is also forthcoming from Dominique-Antonio Troilo next year, Lord willing. Also expected next year is an English translation of Viret's letters by Michael Bruening.

Viret was greatly concerned to bring truth and application of the evangelical gospel to the people around him. This was the impetus for his academy, his prolific writings addressed most often to laymen, and his apologetic themes.

According to Robert Linder, Viret was probably present to observe first-hand the famous meeting between William Farel and John Calvin at which Farel issued his thunderous call to Calvin to pastor in Geneva (Linder, The Political Ideas of Pierre Viret, pp. 28-29). From the days when Viret, William Farel and John Calvin jointly defended in public debate Farel's 1536 Lausanne Articles, the three men were remarkably united in their friendship and ministry, each with different gifts. Theodore Beza noted that Calvin taught with authority, Farel thundered mightily, and Viret preached eloquently and winsomely (Berthoud, p. 20). Together, they were known as Geneva's Triple Light, or the Genevan Triumvirate. Viret's popularity as a preacher, in fact, exceeded that of Calvin.

Viret believed "that 'good laws' in a truly in Christian state always would be based on on the Ten Commandments of God found in the Holy Scriptures" (Linder, p. 58). Mr. Berthoud, as a theonomist, does not recognize the traditional Reformed threefold distinction of moral, judicial and ceremonial law (Berthoud, p. 35). He views Viret as "not explicitly theonomic (the term did not then exist), [yet] far more consistently and thoroughly Biblical than...his Genevan colleague [Calvin]" (Berthoud, p. 35). In this writer's view, Linder's statement that "Viret, unlike Calvin, was ready to extend openly the authority of the Bible over the state" (Linder, p. 63) is inexplicable in light of Calvin's theocratic statements in his Institutes and elsewhere, and too much is made of this erroneous dichotomy by Mr. Berthoud, in this writer's opinion, when he emphasizes the descent into the particulars Mosaic judicial laws by Viret over Calvin. The theocratic views of Viret in his application of God's law to society and the state as found in his massive Instruction Chrétienne, considered by Pierre Courthial to be "one of the magisterial works of the Reformation" (Courthial, Christian Instruction, Vol. 1, Introduction, p. 19), are apparent and admirable. It is to be regretted that Mr. Berthoud's theonomic views take such precedence in his chapter on Viret's ethics, but the extracts from Viret and Linder are most helpful in bringing forward Viret's ethical views.

Mr. Berthoud also sees Viret as a presuppositional apologist. Berthoud is on stronger ground here, and his discussion of Viret's understanding of common grace as it bears upon discussion of gospel truth with unbelievers, is most interesting. Berthoud is not favorable to the Ramist philosophy adopted by the Puritans (which he views as "binary," Berthoud, p. 82), or the evidentialist apologetic of C.S. Lewis and Alister McGrath, but shows how Viret in his Christian Metamorphosis brings both heathen philosophers and, above all, the holy Scriptures to bear in his witness to the unbeliever, with Viret calling Job the 'greatest of all philosophers' (Berthoud, p. 57). Berthoud rightly distinguishes between the fallacy of "an imaginary common intellectual ground shared in dialogue with the adversaries of the Christian faith" and Biblical wisdom of "mak[ing] use of all aspects of man's intellectual and cultural activities to reach, in a very concrete and practical fashion, the interests of his contemporaries" (Berthoud, p. 57).

Berthoud's discussion of Viret's concern with rightly understanding Biblical magistracy versus tyranny, particularly in the economic sphere, is most illuminating. Viret has much to say about taxes, just and unjust, and Mr. Berthoud highlights this point most appropriately. The gabelle tax was employed in his day, as Berthoud notes, much like a value added tax in our modern society, as a catch-all means of increasing statist power. If the power to tax is the power to destroy, then it is a power that must be reined in by Biblical limitations of civil authority, which Viret discusses at length.

This modern introduction to the life and thought of Viret is very timely as Viret's 500th birthday celebration draws near. As "the most successful and sought-after Protestant preacher in sixteenth-century France" (Linder, "Forgotten Reformer," Christian History No. 71 (July 2001)). He was a very important Reformer, so important that, in my view, the four Reformers presently at the center of the Reformation Wall should have been expanded to five to include him, rather than pushing him to the side. Viret contributed greatly to light of the Reformation which dispelled darkness (Post tenebras lux) and therefore it is most fitting that he should now step out of the shadows. Many thanks to Mr. Berthoud, Tom Ertl and others for bringing Pierre Viret into the light once again.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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