Why You Should Care About Peter Martyr Vermigli


By Brad Littlejohn

When I was thinking about my master’s thesis and planned doctoral research, a senior scholar in the field of political theology quipped, “The trick to any historical dissertation is to try and dig up some neglected third-rate thinker and try to pass him off as a second-rate thinker.” And although he was at least half-joking, it has struck me since that this is an apt summary for how most of even the thoughtful reading public is likely to think of most exercises in historical resourcement.

Out trots the scholar enthusiastically brandishing a heap of manuscripts, and exclaims, “Hey, have you ever heard of so-and-so? You’ve really been missing out on this neglected genius!” The onlookers, unimpressed, are liable to retort, “If he’s such a genius, why has he been so neglected?” We tend to operate with an implicit Darwinian cynicism when it comes to the history of ideas—if someone or something has been consigned to the dustbin of history, there’s probably, we suspect, a good reason for it. At the very least, we figure, theology seems to be doing just fine without the contributions of this neglected genius, so he can’t be all that important.

There are of course any number of holes in this train of reasoning, which probably become obvious enough simply by making these implicit musings explicit. But let’s focus on the last one. Is it really the case that our theology today is “doing just fine”? A glance around in most any direction suggests otherwise. And I would suggest that one of the key reasons is that we seem to have lost the ability to pursue dialectical clarity and biblical saturation at the same time. Some quarters of the contemporary church are saturated in Scripture; they live and breathe Bible. They can rattle off Bible verses for any topic you might want, or else they’re tuned-in to the deep typologies and literary motifs of Scripture. But when you ask for a clear and crisp systematic explanation of what Christians ought to believe on some doctrine or other, you are apt to get, at best, an answer heavy on rhetorical hand-waving and light on clarity, or at worst, an indignant rejection of the premise that Bible people should feel the need for such narrow dogmatic precision.

And in part you cannot blame them, for in some cases this reaction is an allergic one, developed in response to narrow dogmatism of the worst sort, a dry and dusty love of logic-chopping that masquerades as theology, but would be equally happy doing Kantian philosophy—an empty shell of systematic theology that has been deprived of the beating heart of a love for the Bible.

But this is precisely why resourcement is necessary, and with people like Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) at its heart. Vermigli’s neglect is particularly curious given that his life is certainly not lacking in drama. Indeed, you could almost tell the story of the Reformation through it, beginning with his secretive reforming work in the heart of Roman Catholic Italy, until the Inquisition smoked him out, continuing to Zurich, the birthplace of the Reformed tradition, then to Martin Bucer’s lively Christian community in Strasbourg, then to Oxford during the reign of Edward VI to build the foundations of an English Reformed church, then back to Strasbourg, and finally back to Zurich—with a trip to the great ecumenical endeavor of Catherine de Medici, the Colloquy of Poissy, in the last year of his life. No other figure can claim such a central role in shaping both the Church of England and Continental Reformed theology.

To be sure, John Calvin may have outstripped all his contemporaries in literary style, breathing a spirit of rich piety throughout all his treatises, and offering in his Institutes a summary of Reformed doctrine unrivalled in its pithy power, but it is debatable whether his was actually the greatest Protestant theological mind of his generation. That honor might belong to Vermigli, of whom Calvin said, “The whole doctrine of the Eucharist was crowned by Peter Martyr, who left nothing more to be done.” In any case, what is certain is that Vermigli modeled better than any early Protestant theologian the wonderful symbiosis of Biblical saturation and dialectical clarity that so eludes us today. Few men of his era were so advanced in knowledge of the Biblical languages as Vermigli, and the vast majority of his prodigious output consists, like Calvin, in commentaries on Scripture. Of these, only one has so far been translated into modern English, his weighty Commentary on Lamentations, though his massive commentaries on Genesis and on 1 Corinthians are nearing completion through the great translation efforts of the Peter Martyr Vermigli Society, which is overseen by the Davenant Institute.

The reader of Vermigli’s commentaries will be impressed at his command of the text, his careful exegesis, and the pastoral concern that guides it. But he will probably be more impressed by those qualities that are rarely if ever found in modern biblical commentators—an encyclopedic command of ancient and medieval philosophy and law which enables Vermigli, in digressions of various lengths called scholia, to draw the careful distinctions needed to reconcile various Scriptural teachings with one another, and construct the elements of a systematic theology in the course of his exegesis. Many of these scholiawere collected posthumously into a massive Loci Communes or Common Places, which was one of the most-read and quoted works of theology in Elizabethan England, and is now at last receiving a modern English translation through the labors of Kirk Summers, the Davenant Institute, and the Greystone Institute.

Some of the most fascinating scholia, in which Vermigli displays his keen sense of the relationship of philosophy and theology, natural and special revelation, were published in vol. 4 of the Peter Martyr Library as Philosophical Works: On the Relation of Philosophy and Theology. The last copies of this volume sold out early this year shortly after Davenant took possession of the Peter Martyr Library from Truman State University Press, and in May we re-published the volume for the first time in affordable paperback, for just $24.95. But for a limited time only this summer, we are making this volume available for just $15.00 as part of our celebration of the publication of our newest Vermigli reprint, The Dialogue on the Two Natures of Christ.

This work, Vermigli’s last, is unique among his immense corpus in its form. Composed as a work of intra-Protestant polemical theology, Vermigli nonetheless casts it as a measured and relatively even-handed dialogue in order to more irenically engage the Lutheran theologian Johannes Brenz. While 16th-century polemical theology might be apt to make us yawn nowadays, there is no question so central to our Christian faith (or on which confusions continue to harm the church so much) as the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ. What did it mean for Christ to be one person in two natures, “without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation,” in the words of the Council of Chalcedon? Parsing this difficult doctrine correctly had always posed a great challenge, but never more so than in the heated debates that arose within Lutheranism in the 1550s. Seeking to defend Luther’s highly realist account of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist against the more symbolic language of the Reformed, the Lutheran theologian Johannes Brenz had elaborated a doctrine of the “ubiquity” of Christ’s body, in which the communion of the two natures gave the human nature divine properties like that of omnipresence. Convinced that such a doctrine threatened to upset the delicate doctrinal balance at the heart of the Christian creed, Vermigli took up his pen in the last year of his life to write the Dialogue. In it, the full range of his intellectual powers—his exegetical attention to the biblical text, his immense knowledge of the Church Fathers, and the dialectical precision arising from his philosophical training—are on display. The result is one of the enduring classics of Protestant Christology, that deserves to be much more widely read.

To that end, we are proud, now that this volume is also sold out in hardcover, to offer it for the first time in paperback, for just $21.95and, for the next two weeks, at a special sale price of $15.00!

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