Pierre Viret And The Cornerstone of True Reformation

pierre viret

Pierre Viret Street in Lausanne Switzerland. Lausanne Cathedral in the background.

Pierre Viret Was Major Reformation Influence

Pierre Viret was a true reformer. He belongs in the discussion as a major player in the protestant reformation. But why dont more people know about him?

Perhaps because of tradition. And, perhaps because "tradition talk" is often cheap. Especially when it comes to the Reformation. It’s especially easy to promote and encourage reformation when it’s the religiously or denominationally correct thing to do. But what is genuine reform? Who were the true reformers? How do we know when true reformation is occurring?

So, what is reformation? And how can we distinguish between true and false reformation? This was a vital question during the confusing and trying times of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Was true reformation merely a denunciation of Roman Catholicism?

Viret Brought The Protestant Reformation To Geneva Before Calvin

That said, was it enough to merely condemn the wrong customs of the Church and to cast off the monk’s robe? Or was there more to it than mere externals? Is reformation a turning from or a turning to something? And what might that ‘something’ be? What’s at the heart of it, after all?

For Swiss Reformer Pierre Viret (1511-1571), the answer was easy.

Actually, this contemporary of John Calvin and a co-laborer of William Farel, Viret brought Reformation to Geneva before Calvin even came to the city. For decades, throughout French-speaking Switzerland and the towns and villages of war-torn France, Viret confronted Catholics, civil magistrates, and Protestant turncoats alike as he labored to bring the transforming truths of genuine reformation to the hurting and troubled world of his day.

pierre viret

Pierre Viret Believed In Scripture Alone

Additionally, Pierre Viret was an eyewitness to reformation in all its aspects ... the good, the bad, and the ugly ... and watched in agony as counterfeit reforms split churches and families and destroyed nations and peoples.

During the many years of his life and ministry Viret perpetually issued a single call to young and old, papist and Protestant, pope and peasant: true reformation must begin—and continue—with a return to the Word of God.  The bedrock foundation on which all true reformation must be constructed is scripture:

“The Truth and doctrine alone is the only thing on which the Church can securely erect herself. She cannot do this on the natural understanding of man (no matter how excellent it might be) or on tradition and custom (no matter how ancient they may be).”1

Man’s reason, traditions, or social reforms can't bring true reformation.

Importantly, in the tumultuous days of religious reformation, trust in the Word of God alone and a genuine acknowledgment of and submission to its authority is, according to Viret, what distinguishes the synagogue of Satan from the true Church and bride of Jesus Christ:

"For, just as the synagogue of Satan cannot recognize or acknowledge the Word of God, but instead always considers it foreign and strange because she is the bride and daughter of the devil who is the father of lies and the enemy of all truth (John 8:44), so also on the other hand it is impossible for the true Church of Jesus Christ to fail to always recognize it in the same way that a daughter recognizes her mother, because she is the daughter of God, who is Truth Himself—indeed, a daughter born “not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God,” and the bride of Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life, and through whom this Truth is revealed to us by God" (1 Pet. 1:23; Eph. 5:25-27; John 14:6).2

Pierre Rivet Urged All People To Return To God's Word

Indeed, through a return to the Scriptures, reformation comes to a people, a nation, a land. And a lack of adherence to this same Word similarly guarantees hypocrisy and apostasy. Both in his sermons and writings, Viret warned against the danger of departing from the Word of Life. He urged Protestants and Catholics to return to the Scriptures.

This is the point from which all heretics and apostates have strayed. Viret notes that both Muslims and Roman Catholics (as well as the heretical Protestant sects of his day) stumbled at this point and pursued a false path founded on either extra-biblical revelation or trust in man’s reason, traditions, and man-centered reforms. So important is a strict adherence to the Scriptures that it is this alone which allows us to distinguish between true and satanic reformation:

"But what monstrous beliefs and new doctrines could men daily invent under this same pretext [of the authority of extra-biblical revelation and man’s reason] if we once accepted this foundation ...? Couldn’t Mohamed prove his law and teaching by the same reasoning? For he was also in the Church and also came out from it just like the pope and his followers. And haven’t all heretics also belonged to the Church in external appearance and didn’t they all come out from her?" 3

Pierre Viret Believed Reformation Creates Distinctions

True reformation always creates a distinction between true believers and an apostate church.  Further, it also emphasizes that it is Scripture alone which provides the test by which this reformation can be measured. Enthusiasm, good intentions, and rebellion against the incorrect beliefs of a previous day cannot be trusted as markers of genuine reform.

Far more than this is needed before reformation truly arrives in a land or to a people.  As Viret noted: “faith makes the Christian, and faith proceeds from hearing the Word of God and cannot be true unless it possesses the Word of God as its foundation (Rom. 10:17; Heb. 11:6).” 4

From A True Reformer

The sheep hear the voice of their shepherd and follow him rather than the voice of a stranger. For what Jesus Christ said always remains true: the sheep hear the shepherd’s voice, but “a stranger will they not follow.” And again: “He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye, therefore, hear them not, because ye are not of God” (John 10:5; 8:47). This is the difference between the true Church of Jesus Christ and the synagogue of Satan.5

“For other foundation, can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ”  (1 Cor. 3:11).

Finally, when a people return to the eternal and infallible life-giving Word of God ... when the sheep hear the Shepherd and follow Him, we ... just like Viret ... can be confident that true reformation is just around the corner.

1 Pierre Viret, Instruction Chretienne, Tome Premier (L’Age d’Homme, 2003), 482.
2 Viret, Instruction Chretienne, Tome Premier, 483.
3 Viret, Instruction Chretienne, Tome Premier, 561.
4 Pierre Viret, Du Devoir et du Besoing qu’ont les hommes a s’enquerir de la volonté de Dieu par sa Parolle (1551), xxvi.
5 Viret, Instruction Chretienne, Tome Premier, 483.