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Pierre Viret: The Angel of the Reformation

Riley D. Fraas

Pierre Viret: The Angel of the Reformation, by R. A. Sheats. Tallahassee, FL: Zurich Publishing, 2012, xx + 323, $30.00.

Pierre Viret: The Angel of the Reformation by R. A. Sheats is the finest specimen of a spiritual biography that I can recall reading in recent memory. If the reader is looking for a work of academic history that objectively reports all the facts about Viret, this is not the source. Its bias is clearly in favor of the Reformation in general and Viret’s ministry in particular. However, if the reader is looking for a source of inspiration, encouragement, and devotion to the Almighty, it is highly recommended. Here are six reasons why I recommend that you read it.

1. It Is an Action-Packed, Page-Turning Thriller

From conflicts with Romanists (55); Bernese Protestant magistrates assuming all ecclesiastical authority in Pays de Vaud and forbidding church discipline (151–202); ignorant parishioners; empoisonment (44–46); illness (206); exile from his home country (167); blessed ministerial fruit; to his surprisingly gentle character in the face of opposition, capture, and imprisonment (251), I just could not put this book down. The action is non-stop. One episode that stands out in my mind is this anecdote of the first impression the reformer Guillaume Farel made in a Catholic village:

Arriving thus in Orbe with the Bernese ambassadors, Farel proceeded immediately to the town church where he mounted the pulpit and attempted to preach. A Catholic eyewitness recounts the event:

... after vespers were said, Farel, with presumptuous audacity, without asking leave of anyone, mounted to the pulpit of the church to preach, and as soon as everyone saw him, men, women, and children all cried aloud and booed with every exclamation, seeking to prevent him, calling him dog, scoundrel, heretic, devil; other abuses they hurled upon him, so much so that one couldn’t even hear God thunder.[1]

Farel, however, was not to be cowed, and patiently awaited the cessation of the noise. At sight of his calm obstinacy, the men of the city rose furiously from their seats and rushed forward with the intention of pulling Farel from the pulpit. The courageous preacher would certainly have perished at the hands of the incensed mob had not the bailiff taken him in hand and personally escorted him to his lodging. (11)

2. It Is Well-written

Sheats writes with an effusiveness and expressiveness of style that can only come from being immersed in sixteenth-century French literature for months on end. Her English prose ebbs, flows, and punches. This quality is admittedly easier to recognize than to describe, but I will offer an example, “Again, as in the years of Catholic power, the Scripture had been replaced, though it was now done not by a bishop’s command or papal decree, but by the pen of a Protestant magistrate” (166).

3. It Is Doxological

As a spiritual biography should, it glorifies God in all things. This book will drive you to your knees in thanks to God for his mighty acts in history. Sheats recounts the successful disputation held versus the Catholic clergy at the cathedral of Lausanne in 1536:

Upon this vital battlefield each of these three men contested for the Faith, the mystery hid from ages, but now revealed to the saints (Col. 1:26). And within this combat each among this brilliant array of Reformers was noted in his own way: men shuddered at the thunderings of Farel, they sat amazed at the memory and clear-headedness of young Calvin, and they marveled at the startling wisdom and refreshing gentleness of Viret. (70)

And,

Viret and Calvin. How often the Lord had brought the paths of these two men together! How often the Swiss Reformer had enjoined his French counterpart—in preparing Geneva to receive the man they had banished, in aiding Calvin upon his return to the city ... ever spurring each other onward to the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. But now, after a lifetime’s friendship and companionship, it was Calvin who first attained the prize. (246)

4. It Fills in Important Historical Gaps

Pierre Viret (1511–1571) is a name that is largely forgotten, but clearly should not be. Viret, along with the more famous Calvin and Farel, together formed the Triumvirate (71–72). These three pastors worked closely together, were dear friends, and were used mightily in French-speaking Switzerland. Viret spent a significant part of his ministry in Geneva, so much that the Genevans thought of him as “our pastor” long after he had departed that city (247). At the founding of the Genevan Academy, the principal and most competent faculty members were those who had been exiled from Pays de Vaud as a result of their dispute with Bernese Protestant Lords over fencing the Lord’s Supper, professors from the Reformed Academy of Lausanne (204). This Academy had been established to train ministers for the newly Reformed city. During its short existence, the Academy of Lausanne of which Viret was a founding faculty member yielded some of history’s most influential Reformers. Sheats writes:

Indeed, in the days prior to the establishment of Calvin’s Academy in Geneva in 1559, the preeminent place of study in the pays de Vaud was unquestionably Lausanne. The Academy turned out countless pastors for the Reformed faith, and, aside from the preachers who left the Academy to proceed as missionaries to the surrounding Roman Catholic countries, were many world-renowned men of the Faith who also received their training at Viret’s school. These students included Zacharias Ursinus and Casper Olevianus, authors of the Heidelberg Catechism of 1562, and Guido de Brès, author of the Belgic Confession of 1561.” (92)

5. Pierre Viret Is an Inspirational Figure

Viret was known for being dauntless, courageous, gentle, pastoral, and a true peacemaker. Here are some notable quotes from the author: “If Farel was the Peter of the French Reformation and Calvin was the Paul, of a certainty Viret was the John” (64). “Only the fear I have of Him holds me to my post[2]” (175).

Just as Beza, Viret recognized the innumerable difficulties and almost certain defeat that awaited him in Lausanne. But, despite the seeming hopelessness surrounding him, he knew he could not forsake his call. As pastor of Lausanne, he must remain and fight for the Reformation of that city until every means possible had been exhausted. (174–75)

Sheats describes an incident in Lyon, France, where Viret ministered for a time, involving a Jesuit priest who had newly been condemned to death by the Protestant authorities for his false teachings:

Viret requested that clemency be shown the condemned man and that time be granted him to consider the Reformed teaching before he was brought to execution. The baron, however, would hear of no delay, and ordered the execution to continue. Viret, seeing that all entreaties were vain, leapt upon the scaffold and, interposing his very life to save his enemy, declared that if Auger were to die, he also would share his fate. (223)

As a result, the execution was interrupted, and Auger was not long after sprung out of prison by Catholic comrades, and lived on to trouble Viret’s ministry (246). Viret was so universally appreciated as a peacemaker that when the French crown issued an edict that only French-born pastors could remain in the country, the Catholic clergy in Lyon, fearing what might happen in their city if his peacemaking influence were absent, lobbied for the Swiss Viret to be given special treatment by allowing him to remain in Lyon (235).

6. The Beautiful Glossy Color Photographs

This book contains copious photographs taken on location in Switzerland, France, and the Netherlands of cities, cathedrals, castles, and council buildings relevant to the life and ministry of Pierre Viret. If you have never been to any of the locations pictured, as I have not, you may want to go after seeing these photographs. The high volume of photographic pages and the extended bibliography and index reduce the prose sections to considerably less than the official 323 pages.

I won’t say that you must read the book. I will only say that if you don’t, you’re really missing out.

Endnotes

[1] Quoting Pierrefleur, Memoires de Pierrefleur (Lausanne, Editions La Concorde, 1933), 16.

[2] Quoting Henri Vuilleumier, Notre Pierre Viret (Lausanne: Librairie Payot & Cie, 1911), 228.

Riley D. Fraas is the pastor of Hope Congregational Church (CCCC) in Bethune, Colorado. Ordained Servant Online, January 2014.

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