1999 for many seems to be only the year before the new millennium. But by God’s grace 1999 is a year in which we are called to live, serve and remember the Lord and His work. One great servant of Christ whom we ought to remember in 1999 is Peter Martyr Vermigli. He was born 500 years ago on September 9, 1499 in Florence, Italy.
Peter Martyr is little remembered today, but in his day he was widely recognized for his brilliance, his learning, his piety and his influence. By reviewing his life and work we can see again the amazing complexity and interconnectedness of the Reformation and see how God used one man to advance the cause of His truth.
Vermigli was born in Florence at a moment of great accomplishment and turmoil in the history of that city. The Renaissance was at its height and Florence was in many ways its capital. The city produced or nurtured such great artists as Botticelli (1444–1510), Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Raphael (1483–1520), and Michelangelo (1475–1564). The Renaissance thinker Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) who wrote the famous “Oration on the Dignity of Man” had studied and died in Florence. In the year of Vermigli’s birth the great Florentine platonist Marsilio Ficino died.
Politically Florence had flourished under the rule of Lorenzo di Medici, “the Magnificent” from 1469–1492. After his death turmoil came, as France invaded Italy and the city struggled for independence and liberty. In this time of trouble arose the remarkable monk Girolamo Savonarola. In the years between 1491 and 1498 he grew to become the most important influence in the city, preaching for religious renewal and criticizing the papacy. He was executed in 1498, the year before Vermigli’s birth.
Peter Martyr grew up in this great city in these days of vitality and difficulty. In 1514 he entered an Augustinian monastery, dedicating himself to become a monk in one of the most rigorous monastic orders. The church recognized his intellectual gifts and sent him to study at the University of Padua 1518–1526, where he concentrated on Aristotelian philosophy and the fathers of the ancient church. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1525. He became known as a powerful preacher and was advanced in his order. From 1533–1537 he served as an abbot in Spoleto and from 1537–1541 as an abbot in Naples.
During this time his theology developed in the same direction as the Protestant Reformers in the north although it is difficult to trace the sources of influence on him. Clearly he was influenced by Paul, Augustine and the late medieval theologian Gregory of Rimini. He came to a strong conviction about double predestination, and also moved to Protestant views of justification and the Lord’s Supper.
The decade of the 1530s was one in which many leaders of the Roman Catholic Church recognized that the church needed improvement. Pope Paul III (pope from 1534–1549) encouraged reflection on moral reform in the church, and that allowed some room for men like Vermigli to speak in cautious ways about doctrinal reform as well.
In 1541 Vermigli became a prior in Lucca where he found a great receptivity to reforming ideas and where he preached and taught Reformation doctrine. There he came into contact and influenced a number of important Italian theologians.
Emmanuel Tremellius, a converted Jew from Ferrara, worked with him and taught Hebrew. Tremellius would later teach as a Protestant in Cambridge and Heidelberg. The great theologian Girolamo Zanchi was converted to Protestantism in Lucca as were the Diodati and Turrettini families. From these families would come noted theologians: Giovanni Diodati represented Geneva at the Synod of Dort and Francis Turretin was the great Genevan systematician.
In September 1541 Pope Paul III and the Emperor Charles V met in Lucca to discuss the state of Europe (Budapest had fallen in August to the advancing Turks) and the state of the church. Joining them was Cardinal Contarini, just returned to Italy from the Colloquy at Regensburg where he had tried to negotiate a religious settlement with Philip Melanchthon and Martin Bucer (with the young John Calvin also in attendance.) Contarini stayed with Vermigli while in Lucca and it would be fascinating to know the character of their conversations.
Paul III became more defensive about calls for reform in the church. He encouraged Cardinal Carrafa (who in 1555 became Pope Paul IV) to establish a vigorous Inquisition in Italy. Vermigli increasingly sensed that the freedom he had enjoyed in Lucca was coming to an end and that his choices for the future were probably death, apostasy from his Protestant convictions, or exile. He chose exile leaving Lucca August 12, 1542. He took leave of friends and associates as he traveled north arriving finally in Strassburg in November 1542 where Bucer invited him to teach in the place of Wolfgang Capito who had died the previous year.
The decision of Peter Martyr to identify openly with the Reformed cause was remarkable. He was already 43 and most who courageously joined the Reformed church did so at a younger age. He had a very promising career in the Roman church and left great opportunities behind. But the Lord was to open for him remarkable positions of service and influence for the Reformed faith in the last twenty years of his life.
He served in Strassburg from 1542 to 1547 sharing in the work that Martin Bucer had done there to reform the church. In 1547 he received an invitation from Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, to teach as a Regis professor at Oxford. There he taught powerfully on the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper, helped Cranmer and others with the 1552 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, and aided Bishop Hooper in the discussion of the use of vestments in the church. When King Edward VI was succeeded on the throne by his half-sister Mary (known to history as “bloody Mary”). Vermigli again had to move to escape Roman Catholic persecution. He returned to Strassburg (1553–1556) and then settled finally in Zurich where he taught and worked with the distinguished Reformer Heinrich Bullinger. He was widely regarded as one of the greatest Reformed authorities on the Lord’s Supper and so was invited to the Colloquy of Poissy in 1561 where he and Theodore Beza defended the Reformed cause before the king and queen mother of France. He also seems to have had a significant influence on Zacharius Ursinus as he was moving from a Lutheran to a Reformed theology. When Vermigli was invited to teach in Heidelberg, he recommended Ursinus in his place. Perhaps Peter Martyr deserves to be called a grandfather of the Heidelberg Catechism.
At the age of 63 his body began to weaken and death approached. He had lived a most remarkable life that had led him to live in many parts of Europe and to know and influence many of the most important figures of his day. His great talents and learning he dedicated to Christ in teaching, preaching and writing (especially on the Lord’s Supper and commentaries on the Pentateuch, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, land 2 Kings, Romans and 1 Corinthians). Excerpts from his writings circulated widely as Loci Communes published in Latin in 1576 and in English in 1583. Josiah Simler who preached a funeral oration for him aptly named him “an ambassador of Jesus Christ, to divers cities and nations.”1
Simler recorded the final hours of Vermigli’s life and his own last words: “And on the day before he died, some of us his friends being present with him, and specially Bullinger among the rest, he lay a certain space meditating with himself; then turning unto us he testi~ fied with speech plain enough that he acknowledged life and salvation in Christ alone, who was given by the Father an only favour unto mankind; and this opinion of his he declared and confirmed with reasons and words of scriptures; adding at the last, This is my faith, in this will I die; but they which teach otherwise and draw men any other way, God will destroy them.” These words show the seriousness of his faith and his intense sense of the spiritual conflict of his times. His remarkable life and testimony deserve to be remembered on the 500th anniversary of his birth.
1. The Life, Early Letters and Eucharistic Writings of Peter Martyr, edited by J.E. McLelland and G.E. Duffield, (Sutton Courtney Press). 1989, p.51.
Dr. Godfrey is Professor of Church History and President of Westminster Seminary in CA.