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Vermigli on Episcopacy

As Steven pointed out a number of years ago, the early Scots adopted an episcopal form of church polity. This should not strike us as unusual for there were some among the continental Reformers who wanted to continue the long tradition of ruling bishops in the church. Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Jerome Zanchi supported this notion, just to name a few. Bucer and Vermigli were residents in England for a short time and left their mark on such English divines as Thomas Cranmer and John Jewel. Though scholars have noted Bucer’s support of episcopacy, Vermigli’s support of that polity has gone unmentioned.1 Vermigli produces no single treatise in defense of the episcopacy. In fact, he treats it as if it were a non-issue. As Torrance Kirby has shown, it was Heinrich Bullinger, the “Antistes” of the Church of Zurich – where Vermigli resided and taught – who was one of the chief driving forces of support for the English religious settlements of the mid 16th century.2For Bullinger it was the bishop’s role to propose ministers, while it was of the King’s prerogative to depose them. “The bishops, in short, exercise a ‘prophetical office’ of spiritual jurisdiction whereas it is the monarch’s task to promulgate the necessary laws upon which the continued true worship of God depends.”3The role of the bishop for these reformed divines, though it was a historic role, was not predicated upon any perceived “potestas” that descended from the imposition of hands, nor was it seen to have been commanded by the apostles for the esse of the church.

Vermigli notes, like Bullinger, that the bishop’s role is to appoint ministers. He is not to “have dominion” over the other ministers as if his power were somehow greater or as if he were more holy. Rather, the bishop is to care for the flock. Vermigli asserts, “God wants there to be an Aristocracy in the church, that Bishops would take care of everything and choose ministers so long as the voices of the people are not excluded.”4 Vermigli models the bishop’s rank on the Trinity. In his Kings commentary he argues, against the Roman Catholic doctrine of the papacy:

The same [principle] can be seen in the most holy Trinity, where the person of the Father is first with respect to order. It does not follow from this, however, that the Son and the Holy Spirit are lesser than Him or to be subject to Him, as if they did not have just as much divinity, since they are co-essential and consubstantial with Him. Therefore, he can be given the first place of order without [having] the first place of power, which these [Papists] so greatly pretend. Surely, their impudence is great, who bind Christ and the Holy Spirit to the chair of Rome and to its Pope, since they want yet to be bound by no ends or limits, but usurp an infinite license for themselves. On the contrary, we confine the Church by means of God’s word, so that by it, as by certain limits, its power might be defined and limited.5

Here Vermigli claims that all ministers are equal in terms of power even though some are placed in a higher order than others for specific functions. Bishops are also not to pass laws but are merely to care for the other ministers and serve the body of Christ. When Jerome Zanchi wrote his confession of faith toward the end of his life he included bishops as part of the ecclesiastical order. “So we acknowledge that from a perpetuall succession of byshops in some church, I say not any manner of succession, but such a one as hath had ioyned also unto it a continuance of the apostles doctrine, it maye rightly bee shewed that that church is apostolicall.”6This undoubtedly irked the Genevan theologian Lambert Daneau who wrote to Zanchi to say, “If only you would remove what you add about Archbishops and Hierarchy, your confession of faith would please me greatly.”7

  1. I find it slightly perplexing that the late Robert Kingdon does not mention the place of bishops in Vermigli’s ecclesiology, cf. Kingdon, “Ecclesiology: Exegesis and Discipline” in A Companion to Peter Martyr Vermigli, eds. Kirby, Campi et al., (Brill, 2009).
  2. Kirby, The Zurich Connection and Tutor Political Theology, (Brill: 2007), 25-42.
  3. Ibid.
  4. In Librum Iudicum… (1561), 185b.
  5. Melachim Id est, Regum Libri Duo Posteriores, (Zurich, 1566), 107b.
  6. Zanchi, De Religione Christiana, eds., Baschera & Moser, (Brill, 2007), 397.
  7. Ibid., 18-19, footnote 111.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.