Peter Martyr Vermigli: Reformer of Europe

Pietro Vermigli - by Hans Asper - 1560

Pietro Vermigli – by Hans Asper – 1560

Italy, Switzerland, England, France, and The Holy Roman Empire (Germany); Peter Martyr Vermigli influenced them all. His skill in debate and acumen in laying forth the Bible and Reformation doctrine convinced bishops, gained the attention of monarchs, and stirred up the hearts and minds of everyday Christians so that it was as if the whole of Europe had come to know his name in the 16th Century. Peter Martyr Vermigli worked tirelessly to carry the torch of the Reformation and his controversial opinions that at one time almost led to a double-headed axe duel remain a subject of study, inspiration, and contention in the present day.

Born in Florence in September of 1500, Peter Martyr Vermigli or Pietro Martire Vermigli grew up in the world of Renaissance Italy. The center of Christendom on Earth: Italy had become a cesspool of corruption. Militaristic and politically-minded popes who wished to expand their territory as well as their wealth, and corrupt priests with mistresses, sometimes multiple plagued the area. Nobles of the city states cheated each-other each in their attempt to gain more power for themselves as is characterized in Machiavelli’s The Prince. Those that spoke out, like Girolamo Savonarola in Florence during the Borgia papacy (Pope Alexander VI) two years before Vermigli’s birth, were burned at the stake.

Pietro Vermigli - by Hendrik Hondius - 1602 - National Portrait Gallery, London

Pietro Vermigli – by Hendrik Hondius – 1602 – National Portrait Gallery, London

Growing up in the same city as Savonarola may have made its mark on Vermigli as he felt “from an early age…to pursue this one thing above other human arts and studies—that I should learn… primarily the divine Scriptures.”(James xiv) Indeed, Theodore Beza once called him the “phoenix born from the ashes of Savonarola.” (James xiv) He spent his time studying and learning and even in his early stages started to think of ways the church might become more true to the scriptures. He went into the rather obscure Augustinian Order (not nearly as big as the Franciscans or the Dominicans) at the age of 14 to study Augustine, and by 1518 he went to the University of Padua. According to Bradford Littlejohn, in Padua “Vermigli soon acquired a reputation for piety, preaching, and phenomenal erudition.” Vermigli out-shined his classmates and started to gain a distinguished reputation.

Like many college students, Vermigli got into a core group of like-minded friends. Among them were “Pietro Bembo, Reginald Pole and Marcantonio Flaminio—all future leaders of the abortive Italian reform movement.” (James xv) These clasmates each went out into their respective fields aiming to reform the church from within. His fame and notoriety as a preacher earned him the position of abbot or head of a monastery at St. Peter ad Aram in Naples in 1537. (“Peter Martyr Vermigli – Italian Religious Reformer”) He served the Catholic church in a number of ways.

Vermigli participated on the side of the Catholics in trying to determine a way of reconciling the church with the Lutheran movement in 1540 at the Colloquy of Worms. The talks failed, but intrigued Vermigli. He especially caught on to Martin Bucer and took note of everything he saw and heard in Germany. Indeed, even some cardinals suspected him – especially after an association with Juan de Valdés (a reform-minded catholic) and other Reformation sympathizers that he may be guilty of heresy. However, shortly after the “Theatines (clerics called to fight against Protestantism) procured his suspension from preaching…sympathetic cardinals at Rome had the ban lifted.” (“Peter Martyr Vermigli”) Vermigli’s powerful friends paved the way for him to teach safely for a time.

He came back home to Italy, he got back with Valdés and his circle where he “first read Protestant literature and embraced the pivotal doctrine of justification by faith alone.” (James xvi) At Lucca, where he began to teach, he started to hold these doctrines out openly. One of his star pupils who would become a great reformer in his own right, Girolamo Zanchi “was introduced to the works of Bucer, Melanchthon, Bullinger, and Calvin” through Vermigli’s teaching; a bastion of Protestantism right under the Pope’s nose. (James xvi) His work became well-known.

One of the hallmarks of Vermigli’s understanding of justification by faith alone is contained in his commentary “On the Death of Christ.” Vermigli says:

His obedience was then very great and also willing because nobody was able to take his life away from him. He himself laid it down. But his obeying did not make him less than the Father as regards his divine nature. Like a friend he obeyed a friend, not like an inferior, ‘Unto death.’ The Lord of life subjected himself to death, and the immortal one died since a king ought to die for his people. A shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, and a victim who is killed for a sin should be considered a sacrifice. Where there is sacrifice, God is reconciled and sin is destroyed. In short, our justification is there. (Quote in A Companion to Peter Martyr Verimigli 348)

Vermigli did not go unnoticed for long. The inquisition under Cardinal Carafa was underway and Vermigli was “ordered to appear before a Chapter Extraordinary of the Lateran Congregation of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine in Genoa [The Augustinian Order]. Warned by highly placed friends, [he fled to Zürich, Switzerland].” (James xvi-xvii)

In Zürich, as can be imagined, Vermigli made some powerful friends again: Huldrych Zwingli among them. However, some reformers did not eagerly embrace him. This Italian runaway, after all, could have just turned out to be a spy for the church in Rome. As a result “he was carefully scrutinized by Heinrich Bullinger, Konrad Pellikan, and Randalf Gualter [in Zürich, and again by others in Basel]” (xvii) It must have been a harrowing time for Vermigli as he had just left the fires of the inquisition only to be interrogated by almost half a dozen Protestants (although with much more civil methods). He passed the test. Unable to find work teaching in Zürich, he headed up to Strasbourg (switched to France) and worked as a faculty member for Martin Bucer himself in 1542. A year earlier and he would have been there the same time as John Calvin. Alas, he just missed him.

There is nothing quite more rewarding than teaching under a man you most admire. Strasbourg gave Vermigli a time of growth and a time to explore where the Reformation might take him. He married Catherine Dammartin of Metz and spent time at the Bucer household. He described Bucer’s home as a “hospice for those forced into pilgrimage for the sake of Christ and the Gospel’.” (A Companion) Indeed, it was not long before the rising star of Strasbourg mastered his own teacher. James relates, “As a teacher, Vermigli was judged by all ‘to surpass’ Bucer.” (xvii) Vermigli’s reputation proceeded him all the way to England.

Peter Martyr Vermigli of Florence - 16th Century - National Portrait Gallery, London

Peter Martyr Vermigli of Florence – 16th Century – National Portrait Gallery, London

Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cramner had been on the search for some good men to lead the newly formed Church of England. In addition to Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, and others he also brought on board Peter Martyr Vermigli. Vermigli accepted and “became regius professor of divinity at the University of Oxford.” (“Peter Martyr”) This time in England gave Vermigli a time to expand some of his teaching and take part in the Oxford Disputation of 1549 where “he single-handedly upheld Protestant Eucharistic teaching.” (James xviii) He helped to contribute to the alterations made to the Book of Common Prayer (1552) and the Forty-Two Articles (1553) with John Knox and others. Here, the teaching of Calvin and Zwingli made its way into English liturgical life and teaching. Indeed, it even offended the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica when they wrote, “His influence on the 1552 prayer book and the Forty-two Articles (1553) is problematic” without any explanation as to why. (“Peter Martyr”) It is described as “close to that of John Calvin, Bucer, and Philipp Melanchthon.” (“Peter Martyr”) Even in death hundreds of years later, Vermigli begets controversy. He fled England back to Strasbourg at the ascension of Queen Mary I (Bloody Mary) in 1553.

"The Candle is lighted, we can not blow it out. - published by John Garrett - 17th century

“The Candle is lighted, we can not blow it out.” – published by John Garrett – 17th century – Features Vermigli and many other reformers including his pupil Zanche.

By the time Vermigli had gotten back to Strasbourg, things had changed. Luther and Bucer had died in 1546 and 1551 respectively. Vermigli held a view of the Eucharist that sided with that of the Reformed (Calvinist and Zwinglian as opposed to Lutheran). As a result, he ended up going back to Zürich to leave some controversy behind him.

In Zürich, Vermigli’s championing of Predestination got him into more trouble. One professor, Theodore Bibliander “had begun openly to attack Vermigli’s doctrine of predestination. [When he did,] a full-blown ‘Prädestinationsstreit’ ensued. The controversy became so intense that Bibliander challenged Vermigli to a duel with a double-edged axe.” (James xxi) The duel never took place and Bibliander was let go in 1560. As a result. Vermigli ended up winning the debate and he lived in relative peace thereafter. He died in Zürich at the ripe age of 62 in the year 1562.

Vermigli is remembered today as a hero of the Reformation. His international work truly makes him a figure deserving of the utmost respect and study. Recent years have seen an great increase of works cataloging Vermigli and as the 500th year anniversary of the Reformation approaches in 2017 it can be expected that even more works will be released.

A Companion to Peter Martyr Vermigli. Torrance Kirby, Emidio Campi, & Frank A. James III eds. Brill: Boston, 2009. Web. Google Books. 29 Oct. 2015.

James, Frank A. Peter Martyr Vermigli And the European Reformations: Semper Reformanda. Boston: Brill, 2004. Web. Google Books. 29 Oct 2015

Littlejohn, W. Bradford. “The Road Not Taken: Peter Martyr Vermigli and the Lost Cause of Catholic Reform.” Reformation21. Oct. 2014. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

“Peter Martyr Vermigli – Italian Religious Reformer.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.


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