Francis Turretin and His Love for Biblical Truth

Francis Turretin and His Love for Biblical Truth

Francis, the third of the seven children of Benedetto and Louise Turretin[1], was born on October 17, 1623 and named after his paternal grandfather. Recognizing the boy’s exceptional intelligence, Benedetto encouraged his studies. But Benedetto died when Francis was only seven, and Louise became the most important figure in Francis’s life – as later correspondence attests.

Studies and Travels

            After studying at the Geneva Academy under renowned teachers such as Giovanni Diodati and Theodore Tronchin, Turretin traveled to some of the best European university of that time, spending time Leiden, Utrecht, Paris, Saumur, Montauban, and Nîmes.

            Antoine Leger, pastor and professor in Geneva, was concerned about Turretin’s inevitable exposure to heterodox theological views (such as the widespread Socinianism), but advised him to treat others with charity.

            Turretin did, in fact, come into contact with many different ideas. He became particularly acquainted with Amyrauldianism, a system of doctrines that, with a belief in hypothetical universalism, was considered very akin to Arminianism. In fact, Turretin became friends with a sympathizer of this system, Jean Daillé, and continued to correspond with him for the rest of his life – maybe remembering the reminder Leger had given him: “intimate friendship enjoys hours of constant strain.”[2]

A Pastor’s Heart

            As soon as Turretin returned to Geneva in 1647, the city's Company of Pastors proposed that he should seek ordination. After he passed the required exams, he was appointed to the ministry and called to serve as pastor of the Italian church. But, before the actual laying of hands, he requested two weeks to think it over. Apparently, he disliked being pressured. Once, when he felt pressured to serve as a professor at the Academy, he even asked to withdraw his consent to ordination.

            Before Turretin began his pastorate in the the Italian church, the Company of Pastors received a letter from the church in Lyon, asking them to send Turretin to them “on loan” as a pastor. They had met Turretin before, during one of his travels. The Company refused, and in 1549 Turretin was ordained as pastor of the Italian church in Geneva.

            Turretin took his ministry seriously, refusing an appointment to the Chair of Philosophy at the Academy, since his pastorate was taking all of his time. In 1652, however, the church in Lyon repeated their request. To convince Turretin to answer their call, the elders of that church wrote a letter to Turretin’s mother, asking her to encourage her son to accept (another indication of her influence on him). The letter was delivered by two ambassadors who insisted on the urgency of the matter. A plea also came from Turretin’s friend Daillé, who was sincerely concerned about the situation in Lyon at that time.

            Moved by the urgency of the matter but hesitant to let Turretin go, the Company of Pastors agreed to send him for three or four months. The three months turned to ten, and still the church in Lyon was begging him to stay indefinitely. Eventually, the Company of Pastors requested him back.

            The church and the city of Lyon, sad to see him leave, composed a poem of gratitude in his honor, naming him “star of the morning, beautiful and dawning dawn, ... blessed man of God, offspring of a worthy father, mouth of gold, ... heart inflamed with love for faithful souls, charitable, zealous, enemy of the rebels, rich vase where all goods are amply kept.”

            “Maybe our faults have caused this loss, but who was not moved by your eloquent mouth? ... Farewell, rising sun, farewell. The whole church, regretting your departure and missing your exquisite doctrine, says good-bye, with full affection.”[3]

Professor, Diplomat, and Advocat

            Turretin continued to serve as a pastor in Geneva. In 1653, he finally accepted a post as professor of theology at the Academy. He was also commissioned to take care of some diplomatic matters. Like his father, he was sent to the Netherlands to raise funds to help his city to resist the claims of the king of Savoy. He and Antoine Léger were also responsible for distributing gifts that the churches in England and the Netherlands had made available for the oppressed Valdenses in northern Italy. Turretin was particularly moved by news of their persecution.

            He also took to heart the plight of the Christians in Lucca, his family’s hometown in Italy, who were constantly challenged to renounce their faith. As Vermigli had done before him, Turretin encouraged them to leave a country where they could not worship God according to their understanding of Scriptures.

            “It is true that this resolution is difficult,” he wrote, “and that it is not possible to come to it without infinite struggles: but when it is a question of salvation, nothing should appear too hard. You have to break with all kinds of attachments. Bind yourselves with strength and courage. If your weakness, as well as the strength and violence of your enemies, astound you, remember that you are dealing with an all-good, all-powerful and all-wise God, capable of making a way for you through the abyss; and who in any difficulty never forsakes those who truly fear him.”[4]

Later Years

            Turretin married late for a man of his time - in 1669, when he was already 46. Of his wife, we only know the name: Elizabeth de Masse. They had four children, but only one, Jean Alphonse, survived childhood. Turretin’s mother, who had been in faithful correspondence with him, died in 1676.

            Turretin’s last years were occupied by his teaching, preaching, and writing. His most famous work, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, were written between 1679 and 1682 in form of questions and answers. At the urging of his friends and others who had sat under his weighty preaching, he also published two books of sermons in French, the first in 1676 and the second in 1686.

            In the preface to this collection, he explained his motivation for publishing it. If we are in the safety of a port and see others struggle in a storm, but can’t physically help them, we can at least “encourage them with their cries so that, taking new strength, they resist the storm and the force of the waves until they finally arrive happily in port. Likewise, when we see our poor brothers exposed to and shaken by the furious storm while we have been so far providentially preserved through a support we cannot sufficiently admire, it is quite just that, if we cannot to extend our hand to them to bring them to safety, we at least try by our words and exhortations to strengthen them in this sad state, so that their faith will not fail or or be engulfed in the waves of despair, and that they, supported by the power and infinite goodness of their divine Pilot, may be certain that they will not perish, but will emerge, after all their sufferings, at the desired port of salvation. I shall count myself happy if my feeble lights can be of some help to them on this occasion, and I shall have reason to thank God for it all my life.”[5]

            Much of Turretin’s work was in fact aimed at protecting the church from what he considered the greatest doctrinal threats - Roman Catholicism, Arminianism, and Amyrauldianism – and encouraging Christians to stay faithful to Scriptures. In 1669, he worked with two other Swiss theologians, Johann Henry Heidegger and Lucas Gernler, on a Swiss Consensus (Consensus Helvetica) to address Amyrauldianism. The Consensus was endorsed by the Genevan Company of Pastors in 1678.

“Let’s Go”

            Turretin’s death was unexpected, since he was generally healthy (despite some problems with gout and with digestion). On September 26, 1687, as he was going about his ordinary activities, he was suddenly overtaken by a violent illness that took his life within days. He had suffered for some time from gout and stomach problems, but this illness was different, and the physicians could only offer palliative care.

            As he approached the end of this life, the pastors reminded him of Hebrews 4:16: “Let’s go [allons] then with assurance to the throne of grace, to obtain grace.”[6]Allons, allons,” Turretin repeated, “Let’s go.” Those were his last words.

            His nephew Benedict Pictet, who had studied under Turretin and had served as his assistant in the theology department, was a constant presence by Turretin’s deathbed and delivered the sermon at his funeral on November 3.

            Turretin’s son, Jean-Alphonse, was an adolescent when his father died. On his deathbed, Turretin asked him to care for the church, love the truth, and cultivate humility and charity. But Jean-Alphonse chose a very different route than his father. After joining the Company of Pastors, he became progressively more liberal in his theology, promoting the abolition  of the Consensus Helveticus and opposing many of his father’s rigorous positions.

            In spite of this, Francis Turretin continues to be appreciated for the clarity and thoroughness of his writings, so much that John Gerstner, editor of a modern edition of the Institutes, has called him “the most precise theologian in the Calvinistic tradition.”


[2] Eugène de Budé, Vie de François Turrettini, Théologien Genevois, Lausanne, Georges Bridel, 1871, 132

[3] Ibid, 59-60

[4] Ibid, 182

[5] Ibid, 189

[6] My translation of the French version quoted in 574.


Simonetta Carr