Each October, as Reformation Day rolls around, I’ve become accustomed to seeing memes of Luther with “thug life” glasses and Calvin with laser eyes. Occasionally we may also see digital memorials to other great men such as Wycliffe, Huss, Zwingli, and Knox. But at 500 years out, many significant figures of the Reformation slip through the cracks of our modern memory.
One such figure is Peter Martyr Vermigli.
The Life of a Forgotten Reformer
Like Luther, this Italian Reformer became an Augustinian monk at a young age—about 15 years old. He was so eager to learn and teach Scripture that he memorized entire books of the Bible during this period of his life. And his faithfulness as a student must have been apparent because he was hand-picked to attend the University of Padua—one of the most significant schools of the day.
The rigorous education he received at Padua made him somewhat unique among the Reformers. In fact, Richard Muller says he was “probably the most highly trained of the Reformed thinkers of his generation." He even taught himself Greek so that he could, like all the other humanists, return to and read the original ancient sources (ad fontes).
But by 1542, roughly 25 years after Luther’s 95 theses, Vermigli was forced to flee Italy because of his protestant convictions. Like many other refugees of the Reformation, he landed in Strasbourg where he befriended Martin Bucer and was a professor of divinity until the death of Henry VIII in 1547.
Thomas Cranmer saw the shift of power from Henry VIII to Edward VI as a prime opportunity to push reform in England. One key move in this reform was to appoint Vermigli as the Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford.
While a professor at Oxford, Vermigli forcefully repudiated transubstantiation in a disputation on the Lord’s Table and lectured through both 1 Corinthians and Romans. Vermigli’s theological ability greatly assisted Cranmer’s goal of reforming England and even influenced the 1552 Book of Common Prayer on the topic of the Lord’s Table. Sadly, Vermigli’s time at Oxford was cut short.
When Bloody Mary ascended the throne in 1553, Vermigli no longer had a place in England. The religious and political tumult of the monarchy eventually led to the execution of Cranmer, but by God’s grace, Vermigli was allowed to flee to Zurich at the invitation of Heinrich Bullinger.
During his time there, he greatly influenced a young Zacharias Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism. Although he was eventually invited back to England, Vermigli spent the remainder of his days as a professor of divinity in Zurich.
The Doctrine of a Forgotten Reformer
Vermigli’s choice to lecture through 1 Corinthians and Romans during his Oxford years was strategic. Teaching through these books gave him ample ground to defend the Reformed doctrines of the Lord’s Table, the authority of Scripture, predestination, justification, and sanctification. These books also gave him abundant material to refute popish doctrines such as Purgatory.
In his 643-page exposition of Romans, he went so far as to directly confront the Council of Trent. On justification, he writes,
“Justification is considered in session 6 of the Council of Trent. . . . There those good holy fathers, that is, hirelings of the pope, decreed that the beginning of justification is by grace. But they immediately make clear what kind of grace they understand, for they say, ‘It calls and it stirs up. Those who are to be justified are so helped by it, that being called and stirred up they give assent to this grace and work with it and are disposed toward regeneration.’ But this assent and working together with [grace] is attributed to free will, as the words show. What else would Pelagius say if he were now alive?”
Negative attacks like this one against the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification are coupled with thorough positive formulations of the doctrine. Elsewhere he writes,
“We hold that justification exists by faith alone. This saying is proved by all those places of Scripture which teach that we are justified freely, as well as those that affirm that justification comes without works and also those that draw an antithesis between grace and works. I say that all these places truly prove that we are justified by faith only, even if this word ‘only’ is not read in the Scriptures; but that is not of much weight, since its signification is derived from them by necessity.”
In addition to his expositions of biblical books, Vermigli produced two significant works on the Lord’s Table. The first, mentioned above, is his disputation at Oxford aimed primarily at Roman Catholicism. At the risk of hyperbole, Nick Needham writes, “Traditional Roman Catholic scholastic theologians feared him more than any other Protestant Reformer, simply because Martyr could wipe out Roman Catholics in debate with their own scholastic weapons.”
Vermigli’s second influential work on the controversies surrounding the Lord’s Table, directed against the Lutherans, is his Dialogue on the Two Natures of Christ. On the doctrine of the Eucharist in general, Calvin said, “Peter Martyr brought the entire doctrine to perfection, leaving nothing more to be desired.”
It seems that God providentially prepared him with a unique education for these moments where he would defend the truth at the highest possible level. A careful read through these theological works quickly reveals that Vermigli used all the tools in his intellectual tool belt—patristic, medieval, scholastic, humanist, or otherwise—but always under Scripture as the final authority.
In his preface to 1 Corinthians, he states, “This ought to be esteemed as the chief principle by which all matters of true divinity are to be resolved and examined: to wit, The Lord hath said.” He supports this point with comments on 2 Timothy 3:16, Matthew 24:35, Romans 15:4, Psalm 19, and several other passages. Thus, Frank James confidently asserts, “Indeed if there was one overriding precept, one essential doctrine, one foundational presupposition at the heart of Vermigli’s theology, it was the commitment to the final authority of Scripture.”
Remembering a Reformer
In life, Vermigli worked alongside Bucer, Cranmer, Bullinger, and Beza. He also directly influenced the theology of Calvin and mentored Zacharias Ursinus. In death, his exposition of Romans and 1 Corinthians, along with his Loci Communes (compiled after his death), were influential for generations.
Although he received an exceptional education, Vermigli’s approach to theology was not markedly different from the rest of the Reformed. He drew from a wide range of authorities and sources, but they were all subordinate to Scripture. In this way, he set an example for later Reformed writers to eclectically appropriate various sources in a way that adhered to the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura.
So, as we look back on the constellation of great men God has given for the edification of the church (Eph. 4:11–16), we should remember this often overlooked light of the Reformation to learn what we can from his life and teaching.
- The 1583 English edition of Vermigli’s Loci Communes is available online.
- Nick Needham’s book 2000 Years of Christ’s power, Vol. 3, Renaissance and Reformation.
- Nathan Busenitz’s course on the Reformation through the Institute for the Christian Life.
 Vermigli’s biographical information used in this blog is drawn from the following sources: Mariano Di Gangi, Peter Martyr Vermigli 1499–1562: Renaissance Man, Reformation Master (New York: University of America Press, 1993). Philip McNair, Peter Martyr in Italy: An Anatomy of Apostasy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967). Nick Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s power, Vol. 3, Renaissance and Reformation (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2017). Salvatore Corda, Veritas Sacramenti: A Study in Vermigli’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 1975). Lyle D. Bierma, An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism: Sources, History, and Theology (Grand Rapdis: Baker Academic, 2005).
 Richard A. Muller, “John Calvin and Later Calvinism” in The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology, eds. David Bagchi and David C. Steinmetz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 134.
 Peter Martyr Vermigli, Predestination and Juistification: Two Theological Loci, Vol. 8, The Peter martyr Library, ed. and trans. Frank A. James III (Moscow. ID: Davenant Press, 2018), 156.
 Peter Martyr Vermigli, Predestination and Juistification: Two Theological Loci, Vol. 8, The Peter martyr Library, ed. and trans. Frank A. James III (Moscow. ID: Davenant Press, 2018), 218.
 Nick Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Vol. 3, Renaissance and Reformation (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2017), 201.
 Quoted in Nick Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Vol. 3, Renaissance and Reformation (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2017), 201.
 Frank A. James III, “Peter Martyr Vermigli: At the Crossroads of Late Medieval Scholasticism, Christian Humanism and Resurgent” in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, eds. Carl R. Trueman and R.S. Clark (Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press, 1999), 67.