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Pierre Viret (1511-1571) — another forgotten Reformer (1)

October 2017 | by Brian Ellis

Some years ago, my wife and I were able to take a vacation in Switzerland. This was the first time either of us had been there, and a highlight was visiting the scene of some of the great heroes of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation.

Most people have heard of Martin Luther and John Calvin. There were, of course, many others involved in the Protestant Reformation. I would like to introduce you to one of them — Pierre (Peter) Viret.

Switzerland was not an organised country in those days, but a conglomeration of city states. There were three different languages used in the different areas: German, French and Italian. In Geneva, where Calvin would later become the dominant Reformer, the language was French.

We were able to spend a couple of days in Geneva. We were also able to visit Zurich in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, where the Reformation was headed by Ulrich Zwingli and, following his death in battle, by Heinrich Bullinger.

Much of our vacation was in the mountainous, eastern part of Switzerland, with its magnificent scenery. At the close of our vacation, we drove past the city of Lausanne. I have always regretted that we didn’t turn off and visit Lausanne, even for a few hours.

Why is that? Because Lausanne was the scene of the main labours of Pierre Viret, a close friend of Calvin and a leading Reformer in Switzerland and France. At the time, I knew little about him.

Preacher

Pierre Viret was born in the small town of Orbe, in French-speaking Switzerland, in 1511. His father sent him to Paris to study for the priesthood when he was sixteen. He studied theology at the Sorbonne, the same college Calvin studied at, a few years earlier.

There he came into close contact with Reformation influences. It was there too that he was converted to Christ. When persecution against Protestants erupted in Paris, he returned home to escape the purge taking place, even though he had not finished his studies.

 

His home town of Orbe was ruled over jointly by two large cities. One was the Roman Catholic city of Freiburg and the other the Protestant city of Bern. This meant both Protestants and Catholics could express their opinions freely in Orbe. However, problems arose and Bern, in 1531, sent a Protestant delegation to the town, including Guillaume (William) Farel. Bern wanted to win the town for the gospel.

‘At first it seemed that Farel’s preaching had little impact on the citizens of Orbe. After a week of continued preaching, while he was surrounded by hostility, verbal abuse and even physical violence (with women, in particular, attacking him), Farel still had only a small group of ten listeners. One of them was Pierre Viret’ (Friends of Calvin, Machiel A. van den Berg, p.92).

If anyone could get the quiet, shy Viret to begin preaching, it was Farel. So Viret preached his first sermon in his home town, on 6 May 1531: his preaching ministry had begun. About a year later, he had a congregation in Orbe of about 80 people, to whom he preached and ministered the Lord’s Supper, and among whom were his parents.

Theodore Beza, who was Calvin’s successor in Geneva and only a few years younger than Viret, describes his preaching in Orbe: ‘From the outset Viret’s preaching proved attractive and large crowds gathered round him whenever he appeared in the pulpit.’ (Beza’s Icones, contemporary portraits of Reformers, Theodore Beza p.153).

Faithfulness

It was to Orbe, in 1532, that a Catholic doctor of theology arrived and began preaching. Viret went to hear him. The Catholic, by twisting some Gospel passages, was seeking to prove that a person was saved only by doing good works. Viret publicly rebuked the man for his wrongly handling the text of Scripture and responded with a faithful exposition of the Bible’s teaching on good works.

Farel, after hearing of Viret’s encounter with the Catholic doctor, wrote: ‘This old man who preached such things, and was taken to be so wise, was openly reprimanded before all and admonished to speak otherwise, just as the Scripture declares, by this youth [Viret], who has scarcely begun to preach and who was esteemed greater than the other, by clearly showing before all how this visitor had lied and seduced the people.

‘The monk is vanquished. Since that time neither he nor any other has preached, except those who preach the gospel’; ‘Viret has had this victory, by the grace of God, of silencing these enemies of the truth, not by the sword, nor by fire, but by the Word of God’.

Farel soon called on Viret to help him in the work of reformation in other towns and Viret joined him in the city of Payerne. He then proceeded to preach in other French-speaking areas of Switzerland, eventually returning to Payerne in 1533.

Opposition

The Catholics there tried to hamper Viret’s ministry. They brought him before the city council, but Viret was able to show them courteously from Scripture that what he was teaching was clearly taught in the Word of God.

The monks therefore tried another method to deal with him. He was waylaid from behind by a monk with a sword, who struck him several blows. He was left for dead, but was slowly nursed back to health by his friends.

Upon recovery, he received an urgent letter from the Protestant Council of Bern. There were troubles in Geneva, where the Catholics were seeking to end all Reformed preaching. The Catholics had summoned a Dominican priest of great learning, Guy Furbity, to speak against Protestant teaching.

Farel was already in Geneva and Viret joined him there, on 4 January 1534, at the request of the Council of Berne. Ambassadors from Bern met with the Council of Geneva and declared that the Catholic monk must defend his teaching from Holy Scripture.

The monk refused, but Viret answered his refusal: ‘St Peter commands us to give with gentleness an answer for our faith . . . He was brought before rulers, dukes and those in power, and not to spiritual leaders. Neither Paul nor Stephen, nor any of these men, ever demanded to be heard in the court of St Peter…

‘You say you have the truth and can defend it by the Holy Scriptures. You must not thus suffer any fear, but, seeing that you have disputed with ecclesiastics as well instructed as yourself, it shall be a simple matter for you to deal with the rest, for you must contend with us alone, poor people that we are’ (quoted in Pierre Viret, The angel of the Reformation, R. A. Sheats, p.42).

A public debate was now organised, in which Furbity had to admit defeat at the hands of Farel and Viret. He was confronted with the Word of God and admitted his own words were impossible to support from the Bible.

Following the debate, Farel and Viret began preaching in Geneva. Soon a church was allocated to them, where they could preach to those who were turning from the darkness of Catholicism to the light of the Word of God.

However, the Genevans soon pleaded for Viret’s return and the Council of Berne acquiesced to their request. There Viret continued to labour alongside Farel.

Poison

The Roman Catholic party in Geneva saw the presence of these Reformers as a real threat. They had lost the disputation with Furbity and could not see how they could recover. They would use other means: a devilish plot to poison the Reformers in their lodging. A woman agreed to help them. She pretended to be a Huguenot (French Protestant) refugee and was taken in as a cook for the preachers. She set about poisoning them.

Farel, Viret and Froment, another preacher, sat down to spinach soup. Just as they began to eat, Froment was called away. Farel tasted but did not like the soup and asked for something else. Viret then ate the entire poisoned bowl; the woman fled and he became dangerously ill.

The cause of his sickness was soon known. Viret was moved to a city councillor’s house, so that the councillor’s wife could care for him. Everyone expected him to die, but he clung to life.

Viret was ill for some months, but the Lord had other plans for him and he slowly began to recover. Although the poison did not kill him, he suffered its effects for the rest of his life.

To be continued

Brian Ellis has served for over 50 years as a missionary to the Philippines and as founding pastor of Cubao Reformed Baptist Church, in Metro-Manila.