Essay / On This Day

Happy Birthday, Peter Martyr Vermigli

Today (September 8) is the birthday of Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562), a Protestant Reformer born and trained in Italy, later active in England and Switzerland. Though he was forced to move from city to city and was sometimes in danger, Peter did not in fact become a martyr. “Martyr” was not a title, but was actually his given name, after a 13th-century saint (who earned the title Martyr the old-fashioned way, by getting his head knocked off).

Peter Martyr Vermigli was a great Reformation theologian who can shake up what most people think they know about the Reformation. Any reading of the works of Vermigli is fatal to four perennial misconceptions in particular:

First, most people still think the Reformation was brewed in Germany. But Vermigli is of Italian vintage, trained in a radical form of Italian Augustinian theology (Gregory of Rimini’s) and fluent in patristic and scholastic thought. Even in the sixteenth century, nobody expected an Italian to be a serious reformer, but Vermigli managed to gather up every scrap of Italian reform (including the work of Juan de Valdes) and tie it all together. Calvin called Peter Martyr Vermigli “the miracle of Italy,” and Beza called him a “phoenix born from the ashes of Savanarola.”

Second, most people think the sixteenth-century Reformation was a kind of gigantic, churchly “do-over” by people who wanted to leap back 1500 years to the age of the New Testament, ignoring the intervening “dark ages” as one long mistake with no real Christians in it. Hogwash. Peter Martyr Vermigli was well-versed in the church fathers, read them assiduously, cited them constantly, and had learned deeply from them. Vermigli had a high view of the authority of Scripture, and he learned that view from the church fathers, not Calvin. He had a forceful doctrine of predestination, and he got it from Augustine, not Luther. It never occurred to Vermigli that he might have to choose between the church fathers and his Protestant theology. What Vermigli read in the church fathers was a lot closer to Protestantism than it was to the decadent Roman Catholicism he found himself opposing. To put it as sharply as Vermigli sometimes did: Rome pointed to the fathers, but the fathers pointed to the authority of Scripture, and justification by faith. (Never mind that you could learn this lesson from actually reading almost any of the Reformers; in Vermigli it is a particularly unavoidable insight.)

Third, most people think Calvinism came from Calvin. But Vermigli, an ardent and conspicuous spokesman for the Reformed way of doing theology, is a great example of the way Reformed thought arose from multiple centers. Especially when you view him in his interactions with Bucer, Cranmer, and his other colleagues, the Reformed theological movement shows itself to be an international movement with a host of advocates. Calvin deserves plenty of credit, but his contribution shows up better if you understand him as one of the leading lights rather than as some kind of all-illumining sun. Calvin was a few watts brighter than Vermigli in certain key areas.

Fourth, most people think the Reformation was an anti-philosophical movement, especially motivated to throw off the influence that Aristotle had exerted on Christian thought for about four centuries of the late middle ages. Scholasticism bad, back-to-the-Bible good, is the basic idea in the popular mind. But Vermigli knew that back-to-the-Bible did not require him to throw out philosophy. He wrote, in fact, an impressively large and insightful commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

At the beginning of that commentary, Vermigli took a few pages to remove “a certain hindrance” which we still hear today:

It consists of what Paul said in Colossians 2: ‘Beware lest anyone prey on you through philosophy.’ Truly, with such words he seems to frighten Christians away from the study of philosophy, but I am sure that if you properly grasp the meaning of the Apostle’s statement you will not be disturbed. Since true philosophy derives from the knowledge of created things, and from these propositions reaches many conclusions about the justice and righteousness that God implanted naturally in human minds, it cannot therefore rightly be criticized: for it is the work of God, and could not be enjoyed by us without his special contribution.

What Paul censured is that philosophy corrupted by human invention and by the bitter disputes of philosophers. If they had remained within limits and discussed only what creaturely knowledge has revealed about God and nature by the most certain reasoning, they would not have strayed from the truth. Hence the Apostle says “By this philosophy,” …then he adds, “which has its origin in human tradition and is inspired by cosmic forces.”

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