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Deep in History?

The scene: Twitter, Reformation Day 2017.

The charge:

To date, this has been retweeted 95 times (the number seems oddly fitting) and “liked” 580 times. But there’s an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow-polka-dot problem with it, viz.:

“The more I prayed, studied history &theology, read the Bible & ChurchFathers, the more I felt God calling me to be Protestant” said PRETTY MUCH EVERY PROTESTANT REFORMER IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY

One wonders how he thinks the Reformation originated. All of the first-generation Reformers had to come from, you know, elsewhere, and given that the Reformation was a theological movement the Reformers at the very least thought what they were doing was…what’s the word for it…ah, yes: theological. And given that they thought that the church had wandered some way from its historical roots, at the very least what they thought they were doing was…hang on…got it: historical. And given further that part of their goal was to restore the church to its ancient purity, at the very least what they thought they were doing was…looking for a fancy word…how about: patristic. And given yet further that they all held the final unnormed norm for the church and theology to be the Bible, at the very least what they thought they were doing was…one second…yes, here it is: Scriptural. And given finally that they all believed in the supernatural and the God of revelation, at the very least what they thought was motivating their religious convictions was…wait for it: God.

How about an illustration? Let’s use a second-generation Reformer (this wasn’t a phenomenon only of the first generation, after all), the Italian Thomist (you read that right) Girolamo Zanchi.

Briefly, Stephen Grabill:

Zanchi was born and raised near Bergamo where he entered the Augustinian Canons and received a Thomistic training. [Peter] Martyr [Vermigli] was his prior at Lucca and was instrumental in his conversion to Protestantism. Zanchi spent ten years as a Nicodemite, or crypto-Calvinist, teaching theology before fleeing north to Geneva in 1552, where he studied for a year under Calvin. Later he served as professor of theology at Strasbourg, Heidelberg, and Neustadt until his death in 1590.

More expansively, Patrick O’Banion:

Soon after his mother’s death, in February 1531, young Zanchi entered the religious community of Santo Spirito di Bergamo and became a novice in the Augustinian Order of Canons Regular. The Augustinians were a medieval religious order whose members lived communally according to a rule of life inspired by St Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Like contemplative orders such as the Benedictines, canons swore vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience (obeying the so-called “Counsels of Perfection”) and gathered throughout the day for the round of prayers known as the liturgical hours.

Unlike the contemplatives, who separated themselves from the world in monasteries, however, the Augustinian canons labored in churches and focused their energy on public ministries like preaching and teaching as well as the administration of the sacraments. Perhaps this orderly world was just what an orphaned teen needed.

O’Banion goes on:

He surely began the long process of preparing to take holy orders and must have studied the works of his order’s namesake as well as the writings of Aristotle, the great medieval scholastic theologians (perhaps especially the thirteenth-century Dominican Thomas Aquinas), and probably some of the Church Fathers.


Probably in late 1535, four years after arriving at Santo Spirito, Zanchi met Massililiano Celso Martinenghi (1515-1557). Celso was the younger by a year and had spent far less time living the religious life, but he was a nobleman’s son. Despite the mismatch of caste and experience, the two formed a fast friendship that remained, as Zanchi put it many years later, “unbroken to the end.” Together they read theology and studied Greek and, early in 1541, when fifteen members of the Bergamo community left to join the house of San Frediano in Lucca, both Zanchi and Celso were among the number. In ways they could hardly have foreseen, this move altered the course of their lives.

Zanchi then fell under the spell of Peter Martyr Vermigli (noted above). O’Banion writes:

…Peter Martyr became a father figure, pointing the younger man toward a new understanding of the gospel and reorienting his reading of the scriptures….Zanchi sat under Peter Martyr’s daily exposition of the scriptures, which cast the Bible as the touchstone, that by which both the great works of the past and the writings of contemporary theologians were to be evaluated.

But wait, there’s more!

Peter Martyr stayed barely fifteen months in Lucca. He fled in 1542 in the wake of his rising fame. His increasingly clear allegiance to Protestant theology made him an easy target for the Inquisition. But he left a deep impression on both Zanchi and Celso, who remained at the monastery for almost another decade, preaching, teaching, and learning. They read the works of several leading Swiss, German, and French Reformation thinkers, including Philip Melanchthon’s Commonplaces, Martin Bucer’s Treatises, Heinrich Bullinger’s On the Origin of Error, and John Calvin’s Institutes. Zanchi read deeply now in the Church Fathers and continued his study Hebrew.

Thus John Patrick Donnelly summarizes Zanchi’s transformation as follows in Calvinism and Scholasticism in Vermigli’s Doctrine of Man and Grace:

In 1541 Zanchi was sent to Lucca and came under Martyr’s influence. Martyr’s preaching turned Zanchi’s primary interest away from Aristotle and the medieval scholastics to scripture, the Fathers, especially Augustine, and to various Protestant exegetes, as Zanchi relates in a letter to Philip of Hesse.

It is one thing to disagree with Protestants’ readings of the Bible, history, theology, and the church fathers; it is quite another to assert that Protestantism has no connection to any of the four.1 To do so only indicates, in a delightful paradox, an ignorance of history that surpasses the putative ignorance of the Protestants.

  1. Quite another, indeed, since it sprang directly from the four.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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