As we approach the 497th anniversary of the Reformation, the few churches that still celebrate Reformation Day will be holding celebrations to commemorate Martin Luther, of course, and maybe John Calvin as well—perhaps one or two other Reformers key to their particular regional tradition. I can bet you there are precious few out there who will be celebrating the legacy of Peter Martyr Vermigli. And yet it is almost impossible to tell the story of the Reformation without Vermigli. Indeed, although we rightly hear a lot about goings-on in Wittenberg and in Geneva, much of the Reformation happened in the wide spaces between these two cities, and there was little of it in which Peter Martyr did not have a hand.
I. Early Life and Education
Peter Martyr Vermigli (named after an obscure medieval Italian saint and martyr, Peter of Verona) was born in 1499 in the great city of Florence, just as both the magnificence of the Renaissance and the appalling corruption of the Church were reaching their height. The infamous Alexander VI was on the papal throne in Rome, surrounded by a web of intrigue, adultery, and murder; while Michelangelo was just returning from Rome to Florence to begin work on his legendary David.
All was not well in Florence, however. Lorenzo the Magnificent, who had made the city the envy of the cultured world with his patronage of great Renaissance artists, had died in 1492, and his son, the aptly-named Piero the Unfortunate, ruled only two years before being deposed in a French invasion that threw north Italy into chaos. Into this chaos preached a charismatic and fiercely ascetic monk, Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola’s fervent preaching for repentance and reform had won him the support of Lorenzo a few years before, but now with Florence on the brink of ruin, he turned increasingly apocalyptic, proclaiming visions of the coming end of the world and demanding reform in church and state. In the wake of the French invasion, he helped establish a popular republic in Florence, dedicated to the extermination of vice and the destruction of secular art and literature. Soon excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI, Savonarola was captured, tortured, and burned at the stake in 1498. Unbalanced and ill-fated though he may have been, Savonarola’s reforming zeal testified to the widely-felt awareness across Europe in this period that Christendom was in crisis, with both church and society in need of comprehensive reform.
“Out of the ashes of Savonarola,” John Calvin’s successor Theodore Beza was later to write, “Peter Martyr Vermigli rose like a phoenix.” Displaying a precocious intelligence and fervent piety from an early age, he joined the Augustinian order of monks at the age of 15 and was sent for study four years later in 1518 to the University of Padua, then perhaps the greatest intellectual center in Europe. There he was to spend the next eight years—the longest period of his adult life that he was to live in one place—absorbed in his books, heedless of the chaos a few hundred miles to the north, where a fellow Augustinian monk, an obscure teacher named Martin Luther, had nailed some theses to a church door and put all of Germany in an uproar. During this period, there was scarcely any area of learning that Vermigli did not master. There in Padua he had access to the great tradition of medieval scholastic theology, in which he immersed himself, but he shared too the humanist passion of the Italian renaissance; the thirst to return to the sources—Patristic and classical—and read them in the original languages. Accordingly he studied not merely the favorite scholastic works of Aristotle, but also his Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric and scientific works. and taught himself Greek so that he could read these in the original languages. He studied Cicero and the neo-Platonists, not to mention the church fathers. At the same time, he studied with the great law faculty at Padua, mastering both the texts of the medieval canon law and the Roman civil law, a knowledge that was to serve him in great stead later as an assistant of Thomas Cranmer in England.
His first connection with England, in fact, began at just this time, as he struck up a friendship with a young English aristocrat named Reginald Pole, later to become his reluctant nemesis. A member of the English royal family and a favorite of King Henry VIII, who paid for his education, Pole was a devout humanist, committed like many other leading intellectuals of his time to the triple aims of classical scholarship, church reform, and civic renewal, but shy of involvement in public life. Unfortunately, he was given little choice. Henry, seeking a divorce from his Spanish wife Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to produce him a son, sought Pole’s support above all, even offering him the Archbishopric of York, though Pole was only twenty-six years old and not even ordained. Pole waffled, remaining in Padua and keeping a close eye on affairs in England, where he supported many of Henry’s reforming aims but could not support the divorce. Finally in 1536 he came out in public against Henry, for which he was made a cardinal (though still not ordained) and put in charge of the effort to retrieve the now-heretic England for the Catholic church.
II. Italian Reform
Meanwhile, however, both Pole and Vermigli had found themselves in an ever-widening circle of priests, scholars, and devout laymen committed to the cause of church reform in Italy. Because, in the event, Italy remained staunchly Catholic, we instinctively assume that there was no Protestant Reformation there. In fact, however, had history played out just a little differently, Italy might have become the seat not merely of another branch of the Protestant Reformation, but one capable, as the Germans never were, of accomplishing reform at the very heart of the church hierarchy. This movement sought a revival of lay spirituality and devotion, focusing as Luther had on the believer’s direct access to Christ, without legalistic intermediaries, and also on the renewed reading of Scripture, and like Luther campaigned for the abolition of abuses among the corrupt church hierarchy.
Vermigli, a powerful preacher and expositor of Scripture, was at the heart of this reforming network as he found himself promoted through a series of posts in Italy to become one of the highest-ranking officers of the Augustinian order. Though not directly exposed to the writings of the Protestant reformers until around 1537, from what we can tell, Vermigli had independently arrived at many of their same theological insights through his study of St. Augustine, the favorite church Father of many Protestant Reformers. In particular, he and his friend Gasparo Contarini were fleshing out a doctrine of justification by faith that resembled that being taught by Luther and Melanchthon.
The years 1536-37 were pivotal for the Italian reform movement. Vermigli was appointed consultant to a papal commisison on church reform, alongside his friends, both newly-made cardinals, Reginald Pole and Contarini, and other leading reformist Italian churchmen, Jacopo Sadoleto and Giovanni Carafa, likewise newly-appointed cardinals. The different paths of these five men symbolize the splintering of the reformist agenda at the heart of the Roman church of this period. Pole we will hear more about in due course; suffice to say for now that he remained in many ways a moderate to his death (despite the ambiguous legacy of his final years), receptive to many Protestant complaints but unable to accept what he saw as their heretical doctrines. Sadoleto became a committed apologist of the Catholic church, seeking to win Protestants back by persuasive writing; his most famous attempt was a letter to the people of Geneva in 1539, which provoked one of the classics of Protestant polemic, John Calvin’s Reply to Sadoleto. Carafa, on the other hand, who had always harbored a fierce ascetic and disciplinary streak, concluded that the corrupting influence of Protestantizing doctrine was even worse than the corrupt lives of the clergy, and became the architect of the uncompromising Counter-Reformation. In 1542 Carafa launched the merciless Roman Inquisition, over which he presided for the next thirteen years as cardinal and then in 1555 as Pope Paul IV. By his death in 1559, almost the last vestiges of evangelical reform in Italy had been stamped out, and never again was the Reformation to gain a foothold there.
But what of Contarini? In 1540, he was appointed as the head of the Catholic delegation to a great Colloquy to be held in Germany. The Catholic Emperor, Charles V, realizing that he could not contend against the growing power of the Lutheran princes, and earnestly desiring the peace and reform of the Church (though remaining a loyal catholic), hoped that representatives of the two sides could settle their differences in discussion and debate. The leaders of the Protestant delegation were Luther’s sidekick Philipp Melanchthon, and the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer; both had a reputation, unlike Luther himself, for valuing peace and seeking compromise whenever it could reasonably be achieved. Contarini was a man of similar disposition, and he had initially intended Vermigli to join him at the gathering, though this did not transpire. When the Colloquy met in 1541 in Regensburg (also called Ratisbon), they found, as might be expected, numerous points of disagreement, but they were determined to see what progress they could make nonetheless. In particular, they focused on the crucial doctrine of justification, since the Protestants reasoned that if they could find accord on this key point, at the heart of the Gospel, all other differences might become more manageable. Given Contarini’s Augustinian views, they were able to make substantial progress, and even settled on a tentative formula that, although it was not to satisfy Luther, seemed like it might provide a basis for reunion. Even before Luther had rejected it as too ambiguous, however, the formula, and the Colloquy, were doomed.
The Pope and his advisors angrily rejected the articles that Contarini sent to them, and insisted that these matters could only be settled by a general council presided over by the Pope—which was to materialize as the Council of Trent five years later. In this new atmosphere, Cardinal Carafa rose to prominence and Contarini was recalled in disgrace. Before being put under house-arrest, he stopped to visit his old friend Vermigli in Lucca, the city in northwest Italy where Vermigli was now teaching.
By this time Vermigli was presiding over what was essentially a closet Protestant seminary. He had gathered around him such great scholars as Girolamo Zanchi, Bernardino Ochino, and Emmanuel Tremellius, all of them to soon take up distinguished posts in the great Reformation centers to the north. Tremellius, a converted Jew, taught Vermigli Hebrew around this time; with this knowledge, Vermigli was able to add a mastery of the Rabbinical commentaries on Scripture to his already immense erudition. After the recall of Contarini, Vermigli’s friend Ochino was summoned to Rome to answer for his increasingly Protestant preaching. Instead, he fled north to Switzerland. This was the signal for Carafa’s crackdown to begin, and the dissolution of the nascent Italian Reformation. Contarini and one of Vermigli’s mentors, Juan de Valdez, died before they could be punished. Vermigli and Tremellius fled north in 1542; Zanchi followed later and had an illustrious four-decade career at Heidelberg and elsewhere as one of the greatest of Reformed theologians. Vermigli’s old friend Reginald Pole, drawing back when the time of decision came, remained loyal to the Roman church, but tried to shelter his fellow moderate reformists from the wrath of Carafa. We shall meet him again in due course.
III. Zurich to Strasbourg
Meanwhile, let us follow Vermigli north. Taking as many of his books as he could with him, Vermigli went first to Zurich to meet Heinrich Bullinger, the leader of the Reformation there, whose writings he had been enthusiastically devouring now for several years. Bullinger and the other leaders of the church there were, naturally enough, initially skeptical when one of the most prominent Catholic churchmen in Italy, now aged 42 and with connections to the Pope himself, arrived on their doorstep professing to be a Protestant. We can only imagine the surprise and delight of Bullinger and his fellow theologians as they cross-examined Vermigli over the coming days and slowly realized that not only was he a zealous and orthodox Protestant in all his convictions, but he was perhaps the greatest intellectual asset yet to appear among the Protestants. I imagined it must’ve been something like a Hunt for Red October moment—you know, the point in the movie when Jack Ryan suddenly realizes that one of the senior captains in the Soviet submarine fleet is trying to defect to the Americans, bringing with him the most advanced piece of weaponry in the Soviet Navy.
At this time, Vermigli struck up a fast friendship with Bullinger, with whom he was lodging, a friendship that was to last until his death twenty years later. Unfortunately Bullinger, who had already recruited a stellar cast of teachers for his “School of the Prophets” in Zurich, had no post to offer Vermigli. Within a few months, however, a wonderful opportunity presented itself. Martin Bucer’s colleague in Strasbourg, Wolfgang Capito, had just died, and his position as Professor of Divinity was now vacant. With glowing recommendations from Bullinger, Vermigli was soon invited to fill the post. And so he came to a city that was at the bustling heart of the Reformation during this period; Bucer knew and corresponded with everyone, whether Lutherans, Swiss Reformed, or even reform-minded Catholics. He had in fact just said farewell to an extremely promising young divine named John Calvin, who had spent three years teaching in Strasbourg before being recalled to Geneva. We can only imagine how dazzling Vermigli must have found his new life in Strasbourg. Only months earlier, he had been beleaguered with a band of friends in the inhospitable atmosphere of Italy, fearing for his life and rarely able to openly discuss his convictions. Now he found himself in one of the most completely-reformed and well-educated cities cities in Europe, where Bucer worked hand-in-hand with a sympathetic city government not only to preach evangelical doctrine, but to reform church administration and the lives of the people. Although a great preacher, diplomat, and church leader, Bucer was humble enough to soon recognize that Vermigli as the sharper theological mind, and soon came to rely constantly on Vermigli’s advice. Meanwhile, Protestant students from around northern Europe swarmed to Strasbourg to hear the lectures of the famous Italian convert. Soon, the lifelong celibate monk Vermigli had even found himself a wife, Catherine Dammartin.
This blissful interlude was not to last long, however; within five years it was time to take flight again.
After the failed Colloquy of Regensburg, Charles V had been momentarily distracted from his vision to reunite his German dominions, both politically and, ideally, in obedience to the Church of Rome. Wars in France consumed his attention until 1546, the year of Martin Luther’s death, and by the time he was at last able to turn his attentions back to Germany, the Lutheran princes there had forged a strong alliance called the Schmalkaldic League. Hostilities soon broke out, but despite some early successes, the Protestant armies were crushed at the Battle of Muhlberg on April 24, 1547. The consequences were swift and dramatic. After thirty years of taking deep root among the cities of northern and western Germany, under the support of sympathetic princes, the Protestant faith was suddenly threatened with complete repression. The defeated princes capitulated to the Emperor’s demands and a hateful new policy, the Augsburg Interim, was imposed, amounting essentially to a restoration of Catholic worship and theology. Melanchthon and some of the Wittenberg theologians pressed hard for negotiations, and succeeded in extracting a compromise, the Leipzig Interim, which still brought back most of the unwanted Catholic ceremonies but left core Protestant doctrines intact. For some, like Melanchthon, this was a burden they could and must suffer under, until God delivered their church; for others, like the fiery young preacher Matthias Flacius Illyricus, such compromise was completely unacceptable. The resulting schism bitterly divided the Lutheran church and darkened Melanchthon’s reputation, leaving deep wounds that would long outlast the end of the Interim and restoration of German Protestant freedom in 1552. Indeed, it also helped pave the way, as we shall see, for the fatal divide between Lutheran and Reformed Protestants.
Meanwhile, in Strasbourg, the onset of the victorious imperial armies signalled an end to Bucer’s great reform. Thankfully, as they say, when God closes a door, he opens a window. In 1547, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the leader of the newly Protestant Church of England, summoned Bucer and Vermigli, together with Vermigli’s friend and now-colleague at Strasbourg, Bernardino Ochino, to England. Vermigli was appointed to the prestigious position of Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, while Bucer was appointed to Cambridge. Ochino and other Protestant luminaries fleeing from the Continent also took up academic posts. Cranmer even went so far as to invite Philipp Melanchthon from his beleaguered position at Wittenberg, but Melanchthon was not quite ready to give up on Germany.
How was it that just at the time when darkness was coming over all the centers of continental Protestantism, when the papal counter-reforming Council of Trent was assembling in northern Italy, the island of England was able to provide shelter to the cause of reform, as a sort of Noah’s Ark amid the tempest? After all, even most people who don’t know much about Henry VIII know enough to know that he was hardly hospitable to evangelical Protestantism even in his best moods. The break from Rome had secured him his divorce, an enormous amount of wealth from church lands, and extraordinary power over the Church of England. Having achieved these things, he saw no reason to rock the boat by allowing Protestant doctrine to take root in his lands. Little did he know that his favorite churchman and advisor, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, was secretly a Protestant, and indeed secretly married (while supposedly celibate!) to the niece of a leading Lutheran reformer.
IV. Peter Martyr in England
The great sea-change in English religious policy had been enabled by Henry VIII’s death in 1547. His nine-year-old son Edward VI assumed the throne and was soon hailed by the Reformed around Europe as a “new Josiah.” Brought up under Protestant tutelage and of apparently genuine piety and zeal, he was also surrounded by largely Protestant councillors and regents. Cranmer was soon able to begin moving church policy in a firmly Protestant direction. In 1549 the first English Book of Common Prayer, a relatively conservative document that maintained many medieval Catholic emphases, was promulgated, and it was followed three years later by a considerably more Reformed—some would complain too Reformed—version, which reflected Vermigli’s input and notably Cranmer’s shift to a Calvinist or perhaps quasi-Zwinglian theology of the Eucharist.
In England as elsewhere, the issue of the Eucharist was at the center of theological conflict. The doctrine of transubstantiation lay at the heart of many of the abuses of late medieval worship, and helped maintain for the Catholic priesthood an aura of almost magical power in the eyes of the laity. Vermigli’s new home in Oxford was as inhospitable as Strasbourg had been congenial. Rioting students threw stones through the windows of his room at Christ Church College, and traditionalist academics sought to thwart him at every turn. In 1549 Richard Smith, the Catholic former professor of divinity, who had been sacked to make room for Vermigli and was understandably bitter, challenged him to a disputation on the subject. The resulting public debate helped make Martyr famous, winning him a following among the student body at Oxford and helping to discredit the Roman party (it didn’t help that Smith himself fled to the Continent, leaving others to debate in his place). In the later published version, Vermigli was to express the Reformed doctrine of the Eucharist with such clarity that John Calvin himself would later write, “The whole doctrine of the Eucharist was crowned by Peter Martyr, who left nothing more to be done.”
Shortly thereafter, Vermigli found himself mired in a controversy in quite the opposite direction. A zealous Protestant preacher named John Hooper had been appointed Bishop of Gloucester, but he refused to wear the traditional episcopal vestments, even for the ordination ceremony, deeming them “popish rags.” Although a fiery new Scotsman at court by the name of John Knox supported him, Cranmer and the other councillors were scandalized at his stubbornness, and asked Vermigli, who shared Hooper’s admiration of the church at Zurich, to convince him that whatever his personal worship preferences, there was nothing theologically objectionable in the vestments as such. Vermigli’s letter to Hooper on this subject was to become an important text in the subsequent battles over Puritanism in Queen Elizabeth’s reign.
Cranmer was soon to call on Peter Martyr for even more important business: the reformation of the church laws of England, and consequently the whole governmental structure of the English church. Vermigli’s legal expertise proved invaluable, and the two were hard at work on the project when suddenly in 1553, the boy-king Edward died. The structure of the English church was to remain frozen in this half-reformed state, a state of affairs that was to cause no end of conflict under Elizabeth.
For unfortunately Edward’s half-sister, the princess Mary, had no interest whatsoever in continuing the reforming project. On the contrary, she was determined to reinstate Roman Catholicism at any cost. The new Protestant establishment was thrown into disarray. Several leaders, including Cranmer, were put under arrest. Prominent foreign Protestants, including Vermigli, were allowed to peacefully depart, and many of his students were to follow him into exile. Among them were at least six future bishops of Elizabeth’s church, the backbone of what was to become English Protestantism. No sooner did Vermigli leave than his old friend Reginald Pole arrived in England, eager at last to return to his native England. Just four years earlier, on the death of Pope Paul III, so respected was Pole that despite his past associations with “heretics” and commitment to ongoing reform (and the fact that he was only a deacon at this point), he had been the favorite candidate to succeed Paul. Against the fervent opposition of his erstwhile colleague Cardinal Carafa, he came within one vote of winning the papal election, before withdrawing himself from consideration to avoid conflict. The result was a papacy that firmly turned its back once for all on reunion with the Protestants.
Once back in England, Pole sullied his long reputation for moderation by aiding Mary, “Bloody Mary” as she was soon called, in her campaign to burn the Protestant church into extinction. But first they hoped to score a propaganda victory: the recantation of the great architect of heresy himself, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. A broken man, he was bullied into signing a document repenting all his Protestant errors. When his inquisitors triumphantly put him into the pulpit in Oxford to publicly read his recantation, however, he shredded it and fervently repented of his inconstancy. Escorted to the stake to be burned, he thrust his right hand, with which he had signed the recantation, into the fire, and died nobly as a Protestant martyr.
V. Strasbourg and Zurich again; controversies over Eucharist and predestination.
But let us return to Vermigli. Thankfully, the situation for Protestantism in Germany had improved markedly since 1547. He and his colleague Ochino were now able to return to Strasbourg and resume teaching there. Unfortunately, with the retreat of the immediate Catholic threat, Protestants had begun to squabble with one another. In particular, a rift had opened within Lutheranism between moderates like Melanchthon and hardliners, who prided themselves, among other things, on their staunch adherence to Luther’s theory of “consubstantiation,” that the physical body and blood of Christ, while not transformed into bread and wine, are truly present among them. These militant Lutherans began to agitate and write fierce polemical tracts against any adherents of Reformed eucharistic theology, in what came to be called the Second Sacramental War. Needless to say, Calvin gave as good as he got in the heated exchanges which ensued. Although Vermigli, on arrival in Strasbourg, consented to sign the Lutheran Confession of Augsburg, the Lutherans there were not satisfied with his interpretation of it, and he came under increasing pressure. When in 1556 he received an invitation from his friend Bullinger at Zurich, therefore, he leapt at the opportunity, and headed there with Ochino and his retinue of English exiles.
But here again he quickly encountered controversy on the second great point that was soon to divide the Protestant churches: predestination. Bullinger had always, in distinction from Calvin, espoused a moderate and judicious doctrine of predestination, and Vermigli’s more Calvinist exposition of the doctrine troubled some in Zurich, particularly a professor there named Theodore Bibliander, who was so opposed to the doctrine that he challenged Vermigli to a duel with a double-edged axe. Bibliander was finally dismissed in 1560, cementing the doctrine of predestination as a matter of Reformed consensus, although there were to remain a wide range of different ways of articulating the doctrine.
At just around this time, Queen Mary, and her new archbishop Reginald Pole, had died in England and her Protestant sister Elizabeth had succeeded her, and invited Vermigli to travel once again and resume his post in Oxford. Now an old man and very happy in Zurich, where he had had the opportunity to publish extensively, Vermigli declined. His English disciples took their leave of him and returned to positions of influence in Elizabeth’s church, from which they corresponded regularly with their old teacher and sought his advice on the direction of the reform there.
VI. Poissy, death, and legacy
However, Vermigli was not quite done with his travels after all. There was one key theater of the Reformation which he had never visited, and that was France. Here, despite the harsh decrees of the Council of Trent and the martyrdom of many French Protestants over the preceding years, the prospects for reform in France were looking suddenly rosy. The old king had died, leaving first a sickly fifteen-year-old son and then a ten-year-old son as heir. Although no new Josiah like Edward in England, Charles IX did have several leading Protestant nobles among his councillors. There was also a party of hardline Catholics known as the Guises, determined to dominate the throne. And in the middle was the imposing figure of Catherine de Medici, born in Florence twenty years after Vermigli and now the Queen Mother. Determined to maintain the independence of the French throne from all other parties, including the meddling Popes and their Council of Trent, Catherine determined to call her own church council, a council of the church of France, both Catholic and Protestant, in hopes of finding some consensus and a basis for national unity.
Accordingly in 1561 she summoned the bishops of the realm, and a delegation of Protestant ministers headed by Calvin’s assistant Theodore Beza, to the Colloquy of Poissy. Given Martyr’s Florentine background and his ability to address Catherine in her native Italian, not to mention his unparalleled erudition, the Reformed party eagerly clamored for him to join them. The resulting disputations, like the Colloquy of Regensburg twenty years earlier, came tantalizingly close to achieving consensus, and yet in the end proved that the two sides remained impossibly far apart. After initial public debate, the leading representatives of both sides were summoned to private conferences before the Queen on the doctrine of the Eucharist. Vermigli’s mastery of this subject was invaluable, but unlike Beza, he was a hard-edged systematic theologian, not a smooth-talking diplomat, and he made matters considerably more difficult for Beza on several occaions. Nonetheless, in the end, the Reformed delegates were able to propose a doctrinal formula that met the tentative approval of the Catholic representatives. But no sooner was it presented to the whole council than it was shouted down as a betrayal of the faith, and the Catholic negotiators disgraced. The Colloquy, paralyzed, began to disperse, and Vermigli returned, tired and ailing, to Zurich. After the breakdown at Poissy, France was to descend into decades of religious civil war, never to gain such a chance again.
Vermigli died early the next year in Zurich, mourned by the august company of scholars and churchmen there and by Protestant leaders all across Europe. Although dead, his friends and disciples continued to carry on his legacy in Protestant churches of Switzerland, France, Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands, and above all England, where his writings outshone even Calvin’s for several decades.
Unfortunately, the very things that made him great in life conspired to help make him forgotten in death. Having traveled all around Europe, he left no settled school or deep stamp of influence in any one place, unlike Calvin in Geneva or Luther and Melanchthon in Wittenberg. Moreover, his erudition, while impressive to his contemporaries, made for a somewhat dry writing style, less appealing or colorful than Calvin’s, though of immense value for the historical theologian wishing to grasp the contours of the early Reformed tradition. But his life, at least, as I hope this exposition has shown, was colorful enough to be well worth remembering.
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