Book Review: Pierre Viret

Pierre Viret: A Forgotten Giant of the Reformation, The Apologetics, Ethics and Economics of the Bible, Jean-Marc Berthoud, Tallahassee: Zurich Publishing, 2010.  Soft cover, 98 pages, $10.00 USD.

Everybody knows John Calvin, but few know about one of his closest friends, Pierre Viret.  In his day, Viret was a popular preacher and prolific writer.  Guido de Brès spent some time under his tutelage at the Reformed academy in Lausanne.  Yet for all that, very little has been written about Viret, “the angel of the Reformation.”  This book is only one of a handful in English about this Reformer, and certainly the only recent one.  Furthermore, all of his writings are still in French or Latin, waiting to be translated.

The author, Jean-Marc Berthoud, is a Swiss Reformed writer.  He appears to be largely self-taught when it comes to theology.  According to the biographical information on the inside flap, he worked for the Swiss postal service for many years before retiring in 2004.  He has written a number of books in French and also many articles in English for the Christian Reconstructionist publication Chalcedon Report (now published as Faith For All of Life).

After a brief survey of Viret’s life, Berthoud goes on to describe Viret’s efforts as a Reformer, Ethicist, Apologist, Economist, and Philosopher.  One of the strengths of this little volume is the lengthy quotes that Berthoud provides from Viret’s books.  This allows us to get a taste of his writing style and to hear him in his own words.  Berthoud also provides description, analysis, and evaluation of Viret’s views.

This book is not an arms-length approach to Viret.  It does not even try to be.  Rather, it is a book with a definite agenda.  As hinted at earlier, Berthoud is a Christian Reconstructionist and he sees a friend in Pierre Viret.  So, when it comes to ethics and economics, the views of Viret are portrayed as being sympathetic to theonomic ethics.  Theonomy is a movement which argues for the abiding validity of the Mosaic civil code for contemporary governments.  It is a component of Christian Reconstructionism.  The presuppositional apologetic of Cornelius Van Til is as well, and Berthoud attempts to portray Viret as a proto-presuppositionalist.  While there are connections and the author does attempt to be nuanced, this inevitably comes off as anachronistic.  Further, since so little of Viret’s writings are available, it is impossible to responsibly assess Berthoud’s assertions at this time.

Berthoud also considers the relationship between Viret and later post-Reformation developments.  In his concluding chapter, he notes how rationalism developed in the later seventeenth century as a fruit of the philosophy of Descartes and the science of Galileo.  He also lays blame at the feet of a French philosopher, Petrus Ramus.  Ramus influenced a number of significant Reformed theologians, including William Ames.  Berthoud claims that Ramus’ simplified binary logic “inevitably made rationalism the intellectual order of the day” (82).  This was opposed to the “more complex Aristotelian form of logic” which is “to be found both in the created order and Holy Scripture.”  He concludes that these developments were “wholly foreign to Pierre Viret’s thinking” (83).  One problem here is that Berthoud is long on assertions and short on evidence.  Another problem is that Ames and others adopted Ramism as way to improve on Aristotelian pedagogical methodology, specifically to wed better the practical and theoretical.  To place part of the blame for the ascendancy of the Enlightenment on Ramism and its reception among post-Reformation theologians requires a lot more evidence to be persuasive.  Berthoud provides no primary or secondary sources to support his case here.

Those items notwithstanding, this is a helpful gateway to the study of an important figure in Reformation history.  The author has included copious footnotes that point us to primary and secondary sources (with some exceptions, as noted above).  An appendix includes a lengthy bibliography of the French works of Viret.  According to the website for the Pierre Viret Association (www.pierreviret.org), efforts are being made to get some of Viret’s French writings into English.  This book certainly whets one’s appetite.  No doubt as more of his works come to light again it will be revealing to compare Viret with Calvin and also to assess his influence on de Brès.

N.B.: Some of the works of Viret are available online at the Post-Reformation Digital Library.

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

3 responses to “Book Review: Pierre Viret

  • Jaclyn

    Apparently John Calvin and his close friend Viret had the same barber.

    Jaclyn Penninga

    • Jean-Marc Berthoud

      Dear Rev. Bredenhof,
      Thank you for drqwing the attention of your readers to my little book. You comment on my remarks on Ramus’s binary thinking and its effect on the Calvinistic tradition by suggesting to your readers that my argument is unsubstantiated. In a little book like my introduction to some aspects of the thought and action of Pierre Viret, it was somewhat unwieldy to increase the space taken up by the footnotes. As a result of your remark I have decided to give full documentation to this question in the expanded French version of my book. You will find below the footnote whose absence you no doubt rightly regretted.
      Wisth my warm Christian greetings,
      Jean-Marc Berhtoud

      Charles Waddington, Ramus (Pierre de la Ramée) sa vie, ses écrits et ses opinions, Ch. Meyrueis, Paris, 1855 ; Peter P. Graves, Peter Ramus and the Educational Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, Macmillan, New York, 1912 ; Walter J. Ong, Ramus. Method, and the Decay of Dialogue. From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1958 ; Nelly Bruyère, Méthode et dialectique dans l’œuvre de La Ramée. Renaissance et âge classique, Vrin, Paris, 1984 ; R. Hooykaas, Humanisme, Science et Réforme. Pierre de la Ramée (1515-1572), E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1958 ; Kees Meerhoff, Rhétorique et poétique au XVIe siècle en France. Du Bellay, Ramus et les autres, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1986 ; Kees Meerhoff et Jean-Claude Moisan (Éditeurs), Autour de Ramus. Le Combat, Honoré Champion, Paris, 2005 ; Kees Meerhoff et Jean-Claude Moisan (Éditeurs), Autour de Ramus. Texte, théorie, commentaire, Nuit Blanche, Québec, 1997 ; Collectif, Ramus et l’Université, Éditions Rue d’Ulm, paris, 2004 ; Mordechai Feingold, Joseph S. Freedman and Wolfgang Reuther, The Influence of Petrus Ramus, Schwabe, Basel, 2001 ; James V. Skalnik, Ramus and Reform. University and Church at the End of the Renaissance, Truman State University Press, Kirksville, 2002. Sur l’idéologie anti-aristotélicienne de la « méthode unique » à la fin du XVIe siècle, voyez : Neal Ward Gilbert, Renaissance Concepts of Method, Columbia University Press, New York, 1963 ; Philippe Desan, Naissance de la Méthode. (Machiavel, La Ramée, Bodin, Montaigne, Descartes), Nizet, Paris, 1987 ; André Robinet, Aux sources de l’esprit cartésien. L’axe La Raméée-Descartes. De la Dialectique de 1555 aux Régulae, Vrin, Paris, 1996.

  • Jean-Marc Berthoud

    Dear Rev. Bredenhof,
    I wpould add the following refernces to the influence of binary thinking on the Puritan tradition :

    Ralph Bronkema, The Essence of Puritanism, Oosterbaan & Lecointre, Goes, 1929.
    Thomas McCrie, Life of Andrew Melville, Blackwood, Edinburgh, 1899.
    Keith L. Sprunger, The Learned Doctor William Ames. Dutch Background of English and American Puritanism, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1972 ; Matthew Nethenus, Hugo Visscher and Karl Reuter, William Ames, Harvard Divinity School Library, Cambridge, 1965.
    Donald K. McKim, Ramism in William Perkins’ Theology, Peter Lang, Berne, 1987.
    Howard Hotson, Johann Heinrich Alsted 1588-1638 : Between Renaissance, Reformation and Universal Reform, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000 ; Paradise Postponed : Johan Heinrich Alsted and the Birth of Calvinist Millenarianism, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, 2000.
    J. A. Van Ruler, The Crisis of Causality. Voetius and Descartes on God, Nature and Change, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1995.

    Best regrds,
    Jean-Marc Berthoud

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