Following up from our Reformation Day Post on Giovanni Diodati, we look further into the history of the Bible in Italy. This history is instructive. Early reformists and later protestant reformers exemplify the clash between the reformed view of the sufficiency and clarity of the Bible and the practice of magisterial authority by the institutional church. Where do you stand on this question?
We thank Pastor Keith Jones of Rozzano, Italy, for collaborating on this post. He comments on the ongoing role of the Bible in reforming the church in Italy and speaks of his church’s plans for a series of seminars focusing biblical truth. But first we acknowledge the Advent season by comparing two translations of Luke 2:10-14 separated by nearly 400 years.
Spanning 398 Years of Translating the Bible into Italian
During the Advent season we are especially thankful for Luke’s portrayal of our Lord’s early days. The announcement by angels to the shepherds in the field in Luke 2:10-14 is an especially memorable passage. Here is the passage in Giovanni Diodati’s 1608 edition of the New Testament, followed by a phrased layout of the 2006 Nuova Riveduta rendering. Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased. (Luke 2:14 NLT)
Early Bible Translation
Bible translation began because of mission. The history of Bible translations is an interesting story to say the least. Empowered by the Spirit of God, the church moved out from Jerusalem into Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Teaching converts to observe all that Jesus commanded (Matt 28:20) required the translation of the early versions of the New Testament. In the east the Bible came to be translated into Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopian, and Arabic. In the west translation into Latin, Gothic, Old Church Slavonic, and Anglo-Saxon occurred. “Old Latin” (Vetus Latina or Vetus Itala) Bible manuscripts, based on the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the Old Testament, date back to the middle of the fourth century CE.
Later in that fourth century Saint Jerome produced what we now call the Vulgate, a translation into Latin for common people based primarily on the original biblical languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Although it was first opposed by Saint Augustine, who favored the Septuagint, Jerome’s Vulgate eventually replaced the Old Latin tradition. It was officially recognized at the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent in 1546.
Biblical knowledge waned among the common people in the middle ages, especially among those who did not understand Latin. As the spirit of the renaissance wafted through Europe, things began to change. The motto Ad Fontes! reflected the desire of scholars to get back to the sources. Erasmus of Rotterdam hurriedly edited a Greek New Testament (1516) which spawned the Textus Receptus. Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros’ Complutensian Polyglot (1520) was a much more ambitious project, comprising six volumes which contained the the Hebrew Old Testament along with the Aramaic Targum and the Latin Vulgate, the Greek New Testament with a Latin interlinear and the Latin Vulgate, accompanied by Hebrew and Greek dictionaries. In God’s providence, this intellectual trend helped spark the protestant reformation.
The Bible in Italy
Our previous post surveyed the work of Diodati and the Riveduta translations. Here we briefly mention a few other significant chapters in the story of the Bible in Italy. A much more extended discussion of the historical and theological issues will be found in La Bibbia e l’Italia. This is a collaborative effort by protestants and Roman Catholics, edited by Giuseppi Platone. A shorter survey in English is here. In what follows we briefly mention key figures in Italian history who spoke biblical truth to institutional power as well as Italian reformation figures.
Arnold of Brescia (c. 1090-1155) was an Augustinian canon and monastic leader in northern Italy who argued biblical simplicity. His writings were burned and he was he was exiled by Pope Innocent II around 1142. When a republic was founded in Rome by Giordano Pierloni around 1145, Arnold became it’s intellectual leader. After Pope Adrian IV marshaled secular forces to regain control of Rome, Arnold was tried and executed, more as a rebel than a heretic. After he was hanged, his corpse was burnt and his ashes were thrown into the Tiber. His call for ecclesiastical reform focused on the wealth of the church and denounced the worldliness of the clergy. His ideas anticipated later views of the separation of church and state, and he likely influenced the Waldensians. Here is an extended discussion of Arnold’s life and its significance for today.
Peter Waldo and the Waldensians. Waldo (c. 1140-c. 1205) was a wealthy French merchant in Lyon who was converted around 1170. He gave his wealth to the poor and began to preach a return to the simplicity of New Testament teaching. Waldo commissioned a translation of the Latin Bible into the vernacular Romance language. As a layperson, he was forbidden to preach. He was eventually excommunicated in 1184; his movement was condemned in 1215. The Waldensians were cruelly persecuted and fled into the mountains of the Piedmont region. Various versions of their confessions of faith are available. Later the Waldensians came into contact with the reformation and aligned their teachings more along Calvinist lines under the influence of William Farel. After this a new wave of persecution began. The Waldensians were given civil rights in 1848, but they were not fully recognized by the Italian givernment until 1984. The Waldensian Giovanni Luzzi was the main force behind the original Riveduta Bible translation in 1924. The Waldensians in Italy merged with the Methodist church in 1975. Other branches of the church exist today in North and South America. In 2015 Pope Francis officially asked the Waldensians for forgiveness for the persecutions of the past. W. Robert Godfrey summarizes the origins and significance of the early movement here. A more detailed study with bibliography is here.
Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) was an early voice in Italy calling for a return to biblical authority. He was born in Ferrara and became a Benedictine friar. His preaching denounced corruption in the clergy and in the church at large. He called for an end to the maltreatment of the poor. and for individual spiritual renewal. He practiced an ascetic lifestyle and called on others to do the same. He claimed to receive apocalyptic visions of the ascendancy of Florence as a new Rome. His political alliances as much as his preaching brought him and his followers under the censure of Pope Alexander VI. He and two close associates were eventually hung, their bodies burnt, and their ashes scattered in the Arno River. Here is an extended discussion of Savonarola’s life and its significance for today.
Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) was born in Florence and served the Roman Catholic Church as an abbot and a prior. He eventually read protestant theological literature and began to accept protestant views. His ministry in Lucca impacted many people, including the Diodati family. In 1542 he fled to Zurich from the Inquisition in Italy, He taught Old Testament at Strasburg for a time before moving to England to teach at Oxford (1547-53). There his views on the eucharist influenced Thomas Cranmer and the Church of England. Escaping persecution after the accession of Mary I, he returned to Strasburg for a few years before leaving to teach Old testament at Zurich until his death in 1562. He was considered an expert on the Eucharist and defended the Calvinist view against the Roman Catholics and Lutherans alike. His Loci Communesis was likely his best-kwown work. This was a collection of theological digressions culled from his biblical commentaries. Vermigli was knowledgable in Hebrew, Greek, and Rabbinics. He championed the original meaning of the Bible in an era when many were more occupied with allegorical and typological interpretation. Here is a more extended discussion of Vermigli and his significance for today.
Francois Turretini (1623-1687) differs from Diodati and Vermigli in that he was not a biblical scholar but a theologian who built on the work of biblical scholars. Like Diodati, Turretini’s family came to Geneva from Lucca, Italy. After studying in Geneva, Leiden, Utrecht, and Paris, Turretini returned to Geneva and became pastor of an Italian congregation there. He began teaching theology at the University of Geneva in 1653. Turretini championed the reformed orthodoxy of the Synod of Dort against both the Arminians and the moderating tendencies of Moses Amyraut and the Academy of Saumur. Many praise Turretini’s use of logic and his precise theological formulations and consider him the most important reformed theologian of the 17th century. He is best known for his Institutio Theologiae Elencticae (Institutes of Elenctic Theology), published in three parts between 1679 and 1685. This work was widely used as a textbook. Its original Latin version was still being used as a text at Princeton Seminary two hundred years after Turretini died, and an English translation is still in print today. As elenctic theology, Turretini’s discussions enter into debate (polemics) with other positions in order to demonstrate the superiority of the reformed position. I thank my friend Steve Spencer of North Park University for help with this brief sketch of Turretini.
Roman Catholics were also involved in Bible translation into vernacular Italian. Nicolo Malermi’s translation from the Vulgate was published in 1471. Antonio Brucioli‘s Bible appeared in 1532. The Old Testament was based on the Vulgate; the New Testament on Erasmus’ Greek NT. Brucioli was sympathetic to the reformation, yet he never left the Roman Catholic Church. He was tried for his reformist views and forced to recant. In 1559 his Bible was put on the index of prohibited books by Pope Paul IV, who banned vernacular Bibles not approved by the local bishop. Later, Pope Benedict XIV encouraged the work of Antonio Martini, whose Bible translation was complete by 1781. Much more recently, the CEI version (Versione Conferenza Episcopale Italiana) appeared in 1971.
Roman Catholic and Protestant Views of the Bible
This survey of early reformist and later reformed figures highlights the difference between Roman Catholic and Reformation views of the Bible. The fundamental reformed belief and ethos of Sola Scriptura starts with the sufficiency of Scripture itself to accomplish God’s work in people’s lives. Human teachers, confessions, and creeds are valuable means to articulate the biblical message, but the Bible itself is supreme, and its basic message is perspicuous (clear) to anyone who sincerely seeks to understand it. This runs afoul of Roman Catholicism’s hierarchical approach to authority in the church. In a 2006 essay on Vatican II and biblical interpretation (here), Avery Cardinal Dulles articulates the Roman Catholic view (emphasis added):
“The hierarchical magisterium, in its authentic pronouncements, does not speak as an independent authority but as an organ of the living tradition, informed by the inspired biblical texts. Its voice is not a foreign one, because it is by nature a servant of the Word of God. Thanks to the charisms given through episcopal ordination and appointment to office, the hierarchy can speak with deeper insight, but it will be best able to do so if it takes advantage of the prior work of biblical scholars, one of whose functions is to prepare for the judgment of the magisterium.”
For Roman Catholics, ultimate authority rests in the magisterium as it interprets the Bible for the church in view of tradition. On the one hand, the Bible serves the magisterium by informing it, on the other hand, the magisterium serves the Bible by interpreting its message for the church. In any event, the magisterium is the highest authority in biblical translation and interpretation; individual consciences are subject to the magisterium, and only secondarily to the Bible. For reformists within the church like Albert of Brescia, Savonarola, and the Waldenses, magisterial authority meant persecution and even death at the hands of the inquisition. For Albert Brucioli and Giovanni Diodati, it meant that the church prohibited and destroyed their worthy Bible translations. For Peter Martyr Vermigli and Francois Turretini, it meant exile in another country to carry out their teaching ministries. For the church in Italy, it meant that the spark of the reformation was snuffed out for the most part. And yet the eternally enduring Word of the Lord cannot be bound (Isa 40:8; 1 Pet 1:24-25; 1 Tim 2:9).
An Ongoing Initiative in Italy
Today around 75% of Italians identify as Roman Catholics. Those identifying with all other Christian denominations comprise less than 10% of the population. Fewer than 1% are protestants of any sort, including evangelicals, yet the biblical message is still being proclaimed.
Pastor Keith Jones describes one church’s efforts to promote la Bibbia e l’Italia . . .
“The elders of La Chiesa Evangelica Veritas (Veritas Evangelical Church) recently decided to offer some seminars to equip the members of our church and the church of Italy in general with the skills necessary to interpret the Bible. The first seminar with David Turner was held in October 2020. You can participate through the Zoom videos here. Study Guides in Italian and English are also available.
Christians here in Italy desperately need to learn to read, understand, and apply the Bible. Two main factors contribute to the Italian churches’ weakness in the area of biblical knowledge. The first is the historic stress of Roman Catholicism on the authority of the church over personal knowledge. The second is the tendency in the Italian culture towards emotionalism. Most people in our evangelical churches come out of Catholicism with reliance on the authority of the church and little personal Bible knowledge. The accompanying tendency toward emotionalism in our churches gives a primacy to feelings over understanding.
We believe that knowing and applying the Bible is at the foundation of what it means to be a Christian. Living out biblical truth is the very definition of living the Christian life. This high view of the Word of God leads us to offer this series of seminars. We truly believe that if the Word of God were to gain strength in the hearts and minds of people in Italy, the spiritual scene here would be very different. These seminars reflect our effort to bring the Word of God into a more central place in the life of Italian people, the Italian church, and the broader Italian society.
Our next Seminar will be a Systematic Theology seminar dealing with the Doctrines of God and Scripture. Our teacher will be Dr. Michael Wittmer, Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. The seminar is scheduled for the weekends of February 12-14 and 19-21, 2021. For details on how you can participate in the seminar, contact Elder Paulo Di Nunzio (firstname.lastname@example.org).”
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Notice the sufficiency and perspicuity of the Bible on this notable occasion from the Old Testament:
All the people assembled with a unified purpose at the square just inside the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had given for Israel to obey. So on October 8 Ezra the priest brought the Book of the Law before the assembly, which included the men and women and all the children old enough to understand. He faced the square just inside the Water Gate from early morning until noon and read aloud to everyone who could understand. All the people listened closely to the Book of the Law. Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform that had been made for the occasion. To his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah. To his left stood Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam. 5 Ezra stood on the platform in full view of all the people. When they saw him open the book, they all rose to their feet.
Then Ezra praised the Lord, the great God, and all the people chanted, “Amen! Amen!” as they lifted their hands. Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah—then instructed the people in the Law while everyone remained in their places. They read from the Book of the Law of God and clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage.
Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were interpreting for the people said to them, “Don’t mourn or weep on such a day as this! For today is a sacred day before the Lord your God.” For the people had all been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. And Nehemiah continued, “Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!” And the Levites, too, quieted the people, telling them, “Hush! Don’t weep! For this is a sacred day.” So the people went away to eat and drink at a festive meal, to share gifts of food, and to celebrate with great joy because they had heard God’s words and understood them. (Nehemiah 8:1-12 NLT)