Thursday, February 7, 2013

Viret's Holy Commonwealth

Robert Dean Linder, The Political Ideas of Pierre Viret, pp. 122-125:

From the foregoing facts drawn from an examination of Viret's remarks concerning politics, a relatively clear and complete picture can be constructed of what he considered the ideal state to be like. What he envisioned as the epitome of a godly state in which Biblical principles were observed was in many ways comparable to the Holy Commonwealth that the New England Puritans tried to establish in the American wilderness almost a half century after Viret's death. In fact the parallels are so striking as to be noteworthy.
Viret's Universal Church was one in which all true believers were members and which found its visible expression in the form of a local congregation called a "community of saints." The local church was to govern itself like a "free community" and a "celestial republic." In short, the form of ecclesiastical government was to be a type of congregationalism. It is true that Viret's congregational church polity was not exactly like that of the New England churches. He still accepted the ecclesiastical machinery of the Reformed Church with its colloquies and synods, and saw these gatherings as valuable assets to the work of God. However, his fundamental emphasis was always upon the local congregation which was to be governed like a democracy.
Then, too, he assigned to the minister an important and influential role of leadership in the local church. Like the Puritans, he maintained that the pastor was no better than any other believer and that his difference was one of function and office rather than rank. But also like the Puritans, Viret's thought reveals that for all practical purposes he conceived of the minister as the executive head, under Christ, of the local church. 
The Church as a whole was to occupy a position of privilege in Viret's ideal state. The preaching of the true Gospel was to have precedence over all other activities and have free reign among the people. In addition, the civil code of the secular state would be based directly upon the laws of God and conform with them in every possible way. Furthermore, although a Christian magistracy was not absolutely necessary nor for that matter possible in every instance and every country, still in his ideal state the magistrates would all be true Christians. In this manner they could work in complete and harmonious co-operation with the Church. The Christian magistrates would act like "guardians" and "foster-fathers" of the Church, protecting, helping and sustaining it in every way possible consistent with their office. This was also the idea behind the Holy Commonwealth of New England.
Also, the great influence of the clergy in secular government was apparent both in Viret's thinking and in New England Puritan practice. Viret felt that ministers should be consulted by secular officials in order to determine the will of God, especially in all matters relating in any way to religion, and that the head of state should include "true ministers of the Gospel" among his advisors. Furthermore, if the will of the secular government should ever conflict with the will of God, Viret recommended that the ministers go to the civil officials, call their attention to the point in question and admonish them to conform to God's plan rather than to their own.
Still, the provinces of the Church and the state were to be distinct and separate. The minister, though he should have a great deal to say about the practical operation of the state, should never exercise political influence either by law or threats of excommunication and interdict but only by moral suasion. Likewise, the civil magistrate should never use his powers to force acceptance of the Gospel on people or to legislate religion for the masses. Instead he should do everything in his power to protect the Church as it carried out its spiritual mission. He also should make conditions as favorable as humanly possible for the acceptance of the message of repentance and faith in Christ which the Reformers preached. But in no case should the magistrate usurp the office of minister or interfere in the internal affairs of Church, especially in matters of church discipline, and under no circumstances should the minister assume any of the civil powers of the magistracy.
Finally, there are enough democratic elements in Viret's thought to assume that in a political entity where the vast majority of the people were true Christians, he would approve of some kind of Christian Republic based upon popular participation in government. After all, if he was so willing to trust even a common laborer who was one of the elect of God with the government of the Church, why would he be unwilling to commit to this same regenerate individual the reins of power in an ideal secular state where the Gospel was proclaimed freely and regularly and in which nearly everyone was a true believer? Even in a state where true Christians were a minority, Viret's personal preference appears to have been for some sort of democratic republic.
It is true that Viret nowhere sought to restrict political rule to the elect, but he did dream of an ideal state in which all would be united by faith and knowledge in the true religion thus identifying for all practical purposes the elect with the body politic. Therefore, it seems safe to conclude that if it were possible to win nearly everyone in a certain political community to the Reformed faith, he would have endorsed popular participation in both ecclesiastical and civil government. This would have been Viret's idea of a state which conformed most closely to God's will for man on earth.

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