The English Reformation normally evokes images of Henry VIII, Thomas Cranmer, Edward VI and Lady Jane Grey. Few remember another protagonist who brought both raging controversy and theological clarity to 16th-century England—Peter Martyr Vermigli.
It was the summer of 1542 in Italy. After the previous year’s disappointing attempt to conciliate Roman Catholics and Protestants at the Diet of Regensburg, Pope Paul III was pressed on all sides.
In Rome, the consistory had just agreed to renew the Roman Inquisition under the oversight of Cardinal Giampietro Carafa. On the other hand, throughout Italy, embers of the Protestant religion had steadily been flickering into flame, largely promoted by religious orders embracing an Augustinian view of justification. Protest-ant books were smuggled in from the north, mostly through Venice. Scholars were arriving from all over Europe, bringing new ideas.
In the small town of Lucca, nestled among the green Tuscan hills, Peter Martyr Vermigli, an Augustinian prior with a deep understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, had been able to teach sound doctrine without alerting the religious authorities, even founding an academy of like-minded Christians dedicated to teaching classical and theological studies.
Other believers, however, were not as prudent. Another Augustinian in Lucca, Girolamo da Pluvio, had recently celebrated the Lord’s Supper according to Protestant rites — administering bread and wine to all believers, without mentioning transubstantiation. This news had reached Rome, causing an uproar.
Girolamo was imprisoned, then secretly freed by friends and finally recaptured. Vermigli was called to Rome to answer for Girolamo’s actions and what followed. It was clear that the investigation would expose his own beliefs. For him, as other likeminded men, there were only three options—deny the faith, die as a martyr, or leave the country and continue to teach and write in other European nations.
The first was no option for Vermigli; he would never deny his faith. The choice between the other two was difficult. Can a pastor leave his flock to save his life? Should a Christian even fear death at all? Vermigli prayed, studied and conferred with others. From Augustine, he had learned that it is permissible for a pastor to flee during persecution, if his ministry can be supplied by others who don’t have the same reasons for flight. Staying in Lucca would place other Christians in danger. And how would he react to questioning and torture?
Fleeing the country meant leaving the Roman Catholic Church for ever, a church he had hoped to reform. It meant leaving his congregation, family and friends. In his own words, it meant to ‘head off like a poor and unknown stranger for a distant country where he does not understand the language of the people, where he has to keep on constantly asking this person and that for bare necessities, where he is generally regarded as a person of dubious character, where not rarely (as often happens to strangers) he is rejected or badly received, where because of a change in the coinage or because of the variety of food and lodging, one is always putting up with considerable discomforts’.
But finally his decision was made, and he left secretly for Switzerland with three companions. He stopped briefly at the Augustinian convent in Fiesole where he wrote three letters, one to his friend Cardinal Reginald Pole, one to the Rector General of the Augustinian canons, and one to his community in Lucca. The letters were to be delivered one month after his departure. He signed the third one ‘Freed from hypocrisy by the grace of Christ’. Vermigli stopped in several cities on the way. In Florence, he met Bernardino Ochino, a famous friar who had been openly preaching justification by faith and had just been summoned to Rome. After conversation with Vermigli, Ochino fled to Geneva.
Vermigli proceeded to Bologna and from there to Ferrara, where he spent a few days with Duchess Renée, a protector of Protestants. Finally, he crossed the Rhaetian Alps into Switzerland. He was 43 years of age. After a short stay in Zurich, he moved to Strasbourg, initially as a guest of Martin Bucer. Here he married Catherine Dammartin, a former nun, who became for him a constant source of strength and comfort.
Life in that part of Europe was not easy. With the defeat of the Protestant alliance at the end of the Schmalkaldic war (1546-1547) and the Augsburg Interim—a superimposed religious system strongly resembling Roman Catholicism—many Protestants, including Martin Bucer, looked for freedom in other lands. At this time too, Vermigli was invited by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to become Regius professor at the University of Oxford.
King Henry VIII had just died, and his heir, Edward VI, a child of nine, was raised as a devout Protestant. Edward VI, his uncle (Lord Protector Edward Seymour), and Cranmer were determined to promote reformation in England and provide Oxford with professors to teach Reformed truth.
The Roman Catholics in Oxford did not welcome Vermigli. His exposition of 1 Corinthians, particularly chapter 7 on the marriage of clergy and chapter 11 on the Lord’s Supper, caused a furor. Vermigli was challenged to an open debate. In spite of his reasonable defence, his enemies stirred the common people against him.
Catherine’s arrival caused further unrest. After five centuries of canonical celibacy, the idea of priests and nuns entering into marriage was considered scandalous. Popular opposition against Vermigli increased when Edward VI published his first Book of Common Prayer (1549). Peter Martyr (as Vermigli was often called), a major contributor to that work, became a target for rioters in Oxford. He was threatened with death and, for a while, had to take refuge with the king.
Besides contributing to the Book of Common Prayer, Martyr helped formulate the 42 Articles (1552). The articles were, however, short-lived, for in July 1553 Queen Mary ascended the throne and re-established Roman Catholicism as the official religion of England. Martyr was placed under house arrest for six weeks, while Cranmer and others were imprisoned. Confident of his innocence since he had only acted upon command of King Edward VI, Martyr asked the Queen’s permission to leave the country, which was granted. His enemies, however, were not willing to let him go so easily.
Vermigli received warning of ambushes in Flanders and Brabant. Finally, he arrived in Strasbourg, without Catherine, who had died earlier that year. In Strasbourg, Martyr was welcomed and restored to his former position. Invita-tions came in from other cities. Geneva asked him to lead their Italian church—a task he would have willingly done—but he deferred to the Strasbourg council’s decision, who begged him to stay. On another occasion he was asked to teach in Heidelberg, but recommended in his place Zachary Ursinus, who became one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism.
In 1556, controversies about the Lord’s Supper in Strasbourg led Vermigli to accept an invitation to teach the Old Testament at the University of Zurich, a city he had loved from the start. There, three years later, he married another Catherine—Caterina Merenda, a member of the Italian church in Geneva.
The following six years were mostly tranquil, disturbed only by the disheartening news of Mary’s reign of terror in England. In 1557, Catherine Dammartin’s body was disinterred, tried for heresy, and cast on a dunghill. Vermigli’s pain was no doubt compounded by knowing the man in charge of this act was Cardinal Reginald Pole.
The last major event of his life was the Colloquy of Poissy, a conference held near Paris to try to conciliate Roman Catholics and Protestant Huguenots. Vermigli spoke on the Lord’s Supper in Italian, to gain Queen Caterina de Medici’s ear. Sadly, it became obvious that agreement could never be reached. Less than 14 months later, he fell ill with an epidemic fever and died at 64 years of age, leaving no children.
Vermigli’s greatest contribution to the Reformation probably relates to the Lord’s Supper. At a time of heated controversy over Roman Catholic (transubstantiation), Lutheran (consubstantiation) and Zwing-lian (memorial) views, Verm-igli explained the sacrament as an active relation be-tween the elements of bread and wine on the table and Christ’s body in heaven.
In Vermigli’s view, the elements don’t change in substance, but, because of God’s institution and through the minister’s consecration, the Holy Spirit transforms them into instruments of grace. Many Reformed churches today still tend to this view. In the century after Vermigli’s death, over 100 editions of his works were published in Europe. Physically, he was small and unimpressive; a lover of peace, but he found himself in contexts of turmoil. John Simler, who preached his funeral oration, described him as ‘an ambassador of Jesus Christ to divers cities and nations’.
Besides Peter Vermigli’s deep influence on Protestant doctrine, particularly evident in the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession, he left a wealth of essays, letters, prayers and sermons, mostly translated into English, and written in a distinctive blend of thoughtfulness, humble sincerity and spontaneity.