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Pierre Viret (1511-1571) — another forgotten Reformer (2)

January 2018 | by Brian Ellis

Lausanne today

The failed attempts to murder Pierre Viret (ET, October 2017) backfired on the Catholics; they were regarded with suspicion and contempt. Geneva was won for the Reformation, yet Viret was not to remain there.

He was now entreated to go to Lausanne. Geneva had preachers, but there were none in Lausanne. Viret could not refuse. Sheats writes: ‘Lausanne, seat of the bishop, was perhaps the city most heavily steeped in Roman Catholicism at the time of the Bernese conquest. For 400 years, it had endured the rule of the bishop of Lausanne, the highest ecclesiastic in the country’ (Pierre Viret, the angel of the Reformation, R. A. Sheats, p.48).

Viret enters Lausanne

He arrived in Lausanne in February 1536. The Catholic bishop, hearing of the approach of Bernese soldiers, fled the city. Viret wrote of the opposition he encountered there: ‘I was alone when I first set foot in this place … It had a bishop escorted by a numerous cohort of canons, priests and a great mob of monks.

‘Without counting the entourage of the bishop, I had to combat four brotherhoods at least: one, the canons; another, the clergy; third, the Dominicans; and fourth, the Franciscans. I shall not speak of the convents of nuns, and will leave you to consider how many conspirators these had at their side.

‘What efforts it would take to attack this rampart of Diana of Ephesus, this citadel of Minerva! What hope could exist for me? … Who was I to cast myself before such formidable giants?’ (Sheats, p.49).

The Bernese army had conquered much of the French-speaking area of what is western Switzerland and Viret’s main work was now to be in Lausanne, where he laboured from 1536 to 1559 as pastor, teacher and writer.

He found Lausanne saturated with superstition and ignorance. An example is given of a rat, who was found eating the bread of the host on the altar. It was thereafter called the ‘holy rat’ and cared for by the inhabitants of the city. After the rat’s death, its remains were devoutly preserved as a sacred relic for succeeding generations!

But Viret was a preacher and soon his preaching began to bear fruit for the glory of God. He wrote: ‘I preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and am ready to give a defence of my doctrine and faith to all men, and at any time it is demanded of me.

‘And if there be any priest, monk, or any other, whosoever he be, who can prove to me that I have taught anything contrary to the Word of God, I ask not only that you drive me out as a menace to your city, but also that you punish me with such severity that no man dare preach who is not well assured of his doctrine’.

Farel confronts Calvin

Viret returned to Geneva for a short time and, in June 1536, was joined there by William Farel. Soon after this, the young John Calvin passed through Geneva on his way to Strasbourg. He only planned to spend one night there. Farel, however, hearing of Calvin’s arrival, had other plans for Calvin. He went with Viret to meet Calvin in his lodgings.

Calvin later described the meeting with Farel and Viret: ‘I had decided to slip through Geneva without stopping more than one night in the town. Now, a short time previously, popery had been thrown out through the instrumentality of this good person above mentioned [Farel] and by Pierre Viret … Wherefore Farel, who was burning with a better zeal for the advance of the gospel, straightway made every effort to hold me [in Geneva].

‘Now after he heard that I had some particular study, for which I wished to keep myself free, when he saw that he could get nowhere by prayer, he even went as far as a curse, that it might please God to curse my rest and tranquility for study that I was seeking, if in so great a necessity I were to withdraw and refuse to give my help and assistance.

‘This word frightened me and shattered me so much that I set aside the journey I had planned’ (Quoted in Jean Cadier, The man God mastered, pp.74-75). Viret was to become a close friend of Calvin over the years and work with him.

However, there was the problem of the large French-speaking area of the Pays de Vaud, controlled by the Council of Berne. How could they provide preachers for the churches in this area?

Academy founded

They reached the conclusion in 1536 that an academy needed to be established to train men for the ministry. This was to be the first Protestant academy within the French-speaking world. It would be located in Lausanne and the city’s pastors would be its tutors.

When the academy started most of its students were converted Catholic priests and monks. They knew nothing of the Bible or much else. Soon, though, the academy was down to just one teacher: Pierre Viret, who taught theology. However, with the help of the lords of Berne, he began to attract other teachers — wise and godly scholars from Switzerland and the neighbouring countries, including Italy, Germany and France.

‘The theological school of Lausanne, elder sister to that of Geneva … was, during the first years of its existence, the sole establishment of its type in the French-speaking world; consequently, its renown was not slow in spreading far and wide, and French, Germans, and Englishmen were seen to arrive at Lausanne’ (B. Van Muyden, Histoire de la nation Suisse, tome second, Lausanne, 1898, p.153).

In 1538, the Lord provided Viret with the blessed gift of a godly wife, Elisabeth Turtaz. Farel presided over the ceremony and she was a great blessing to Viret in his ministry.

Calvin College, Geneva

Prior to Viret’s marriage the city council of Geneva had banished Calvin, Farel and the blind pastor Couralt. These three went to Berne, which responded by sending a deputation to Geneva, including Viret, with the hope of persuading the Genevan council to be reconciled to their banished pastors.

But the deputation was unsuccessful. Calvin moved to Strasbourg, where he became the personal friend and colleague of Martin Bucer. Bucer was the leading Protestant minister in southern Germany and the main mediator between the Lutheran and Reformed churches.

Viret’s preaching blessed

Viret tried by letter to persuade Calvin to return to Geneva, but he refused. Geneva therefore, in 1540, decided to ask Viret to come and take Calvin’s place. He had been one of the original Reformers in the city and they still regarded him as belonging to Geneva.

Pierre Viret

However, Viret felt he could not forsake Lausanne and declined the invitation. At Calvin’s instigation, the Genevans asked Viret again, and eventually Viret agreed to go there for six months. This he did, from January 1541.

Farel wrote of Viret’s preaching, at this time, saying: ‘Never did man receive a like reception. Never has the church hastened with such fervour to hear the Word of God’. ‘He handled Scripture well’, says Roset, ‘and he was gifted with eloquence which charmed the people. He taught with meekness those who were of the contrary opinion … The civil magistrate was among the first to profit by his exhortations’ (Sheats p.114).

Viret and others, including the professors and pastors of the Zurich church, continued pleading with Calvin to return to his pastorate in Geneva. He now consented. It had been an absence of three years.

Sheats writes: ‘Indeed, despite Calvin’s premonitions, the Geneva which met his eyes upon his return was not that which he had left. It was ‘a new Geneva, regenerated by the work of Master Viret’.

Viret, with characteristic humility, referred the credit to another source: ‘All are constrained to recognize and admit that this is the hand of the Lord’ (pp.117-118).

To be concluded

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