Vermigli and the Right to Resistance

During my study time I once read a review, written by one of my teachers, on a book about Peter Martyr VeRobert Kingdonrmigli. At that time I was almost completely ignorant on Vermigli. But the review somehow aroused my interest. And ever since I’ve been attracted to Vermigli’s biography and theology. Recently I bought Roger Kingdon’s The political thought of Peter Martyr Vermigli – Selected Texts and Commentary (Genève, Librairie Droz 1980). As its subtitle shows, the book is a collection of translated texts of Peter Martyr on political theology, preceded by an excellent introduction of Robert Kingdon.

There has been a renaissance in the study of Peter Martyr Vermigli, since the publication of McLelland’s dissertation The Visible Words of God: the Sacramental Theology of Peter Martyr Vermigli. But, as Irena Backus pointed out in a review in Zwingliana in 2003, the research on Vermigli suffers from the lack of a critical edition of his Opera Omnia. The bulk of Vermigli’s writings consists of commentaries on Scripture. He chose a middle course between Calvin’s brevitas and Bucer’s prolixity, by collecting his theological digressions in loci. These passages were edited after his death (1576) by Robert Le Maçon, pastor of the French Strangers’ Church in London as Loci Communes. The Loci became a popular source for studying Vermigli’s theology in the course of time. At the same time however, it means that other parts of his work remain obscure. Kingdon’s collection offers some of those neglected texts.

In the same review Irena Backus mentions a list of topics that have not been investigated, at least in 2003. One of those topics is Vermigli’s doctrine of resistance, which has not been researched thoroughly to date as far as I know.  And indeed, this is a fascinating aspect of the theology of the Reformation in general, and of Vermigli’s theology as well. Kingdon points out in his Introduction that the topic was important for Peter Martyr. His biography will have contributed to this, while he was forced to flee a couple of times during his lifetime. Another factor is the fact that Vermigli had to lecture on books of the Old Testament in Strasbourg and Zürich. And as Kingdon remarks: “The matter of the Old Testament, furthermore, in some ways lends itself more than the New Testament to political commentary” (p.V).

Kingdon devotes considerable attention Vermigli’s doctrine of resistance in his Introduction, characterizing it as ‘basically Lutheran’ (XVIII). As he points out: “Vermigli very clearly wanted to avoid any hint of sanctioning popular revolt” (XVI). However, in somPeter Martyr Vermigli-1e circumstances he approves of resistance by inferior magistrates. Kingdon clearly suspects that Vermigli’s thoughts on the subject are flawed by inconsistency. He writes that ‘Vermigli (…) tried to apply the same argument (…) but without much success’ (XVII), that his examples ‘are not fitted very convincingly to the general theory’ (XVII) and that ‘[t]he apparent contradiction is not recognized or resolved’ by him (XIX). With all due respect for Kingdon (and he was indeed an expert on the Reformation!), I would question whether he is correct here. While it might be possible that Vermigli’s thoughts on the subject were somehow inconsistent, it seems far more probable that we haven’t caught the precise drift of his thoughts. Let me give one example of possible additional thoughts.

Vermigli seems to be very emphatic in his refusal to assign the right of resistance to individuals! Only on the basis of political ‘institutions’ (be it impersonal (laws) or personal (magistrates)) there can be talk of justified resistance. Why is that? It is my hunch that here the ‘logic of God’s commandments’ is at work: “You shall not kill” (Ex.20:13 RSV). There is no mandate to overrule this commandment on an individual basis. But there can be such a mandate for a policital body. Paul asks in Romans 13 not only for obedience to the governing authorities (13:2). He also points out that it has the duty to execute God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (13:4). This is the kind of mandate, given not to an individual, but to a political body, which Vermigli has in mind. The structuring of divine mandates might resolve the apparent inconsistency when Vermigli maintains that “resistance to the ancient kings of Israel was never justified”, while in the same scholium on Judges 3 speaking approvingly “of the imprisonment of a Danish king by his subjects and of the English practice of compelling kings to account for misspent money” (XIX). Kingdon suggests that “[t]his statement would seem to prohibit resistance in hereditary kingdoms and permit it only in elective kingdoms” (Ibid). But this conclusion does not follow, if we keep an eye on the ‘logic of God’s commandments’. Precisely that seems Vermigli’s point: the specific mandate given by God to David seems to overrule the right of resistance. Why this is so, is another question. My hunch is that the more specific a commandment is for Vermigli, the higher its lasting validity.

Anyway, it seems that outlining Vermigli’s political theology and in particular his doctrine of resistance is a worthwile project indeed!