Christians in Italy

by Fares Marzone

Fares is the Director of Istituto Biblico Evangelico Italiano (Italian Evangelical Institute – IBEI)

Italy was reached with the gospel at the beginning of Christianity. The Roman church was probably founded by those, ‘both Jews and proselytes’ (Ac. 2:11), who were present in Jerusalem and heard Peter’s preaching at Pentecost. A further church was started at Puteoli, a Neapolitan seaport (Ac. 28:13‑14).

The apostle Paul spent several years imprisoned in Rome and took the opportunity, in these challenging circumstances, to preach the gospel, writing, ‘…that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel’ (Phil. 1:12). It was from Rome that Paul delivered some of his great writings in which the highest Christology is found, such as in Ephesians and Colossians. From there he wrote a personal letter to Philemon. During his second imprisonment, he wrote his final words of teaching, encouragement and exhortation to his co-worker, Timothy. Summarising his life, Paul wrote: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith’ (2 Tim. 4:7).

In the Middle Ages

The gospel spread all over Italy, but soon there was a great deviation from the truth, both at a doctrinal level – salvation also by works – and organisationally, with the imposition of a strict hierarchy. Despite this, the Lord has always upheld His people. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, a great revival movement arrived in Italy. In 1215, the Waldensians began preaching the gospel in the north of the country and gradually their witness spread. They devoted their lives to the furtherance of the gospel in many places; despite great opposition, persecution, imprisonment and death. Even in such circumstances, the Lord was preparing a great gospel movement: the Reformation, started by Martin Luther in 16th-century Germany.

The Reformation in Italy

The message of the five solas (alone), biblical principles central to the doctrine of salvation, came to Italy through its cities, which were important for commerce, politics and the sharing of ideas and knowledge. The first city impacted was Venice, where many German people lived and worked, and where trade goods arrived from Germany, or were sent by sea to southeast Europe and Turkey. Erasmus’ Greek New Testaments and Luther’s books written in Latin, the lingua franca of the day were easily hidden inside sacks containing foodstuffs and other goods. In the nearby University of Padua, one of the oldest in the world, professors could easily read their content either in Greek or in Latin. The influence of such texts was significant, and many people came to know the Lord. Some witnesses reported that, in mid-16th century Venice, thousands of evangelical Reformed believers would gather in four churches.

They devoted their lives to the furtherance of the gospel in many places; despite great opposition, persecution, imprisonment and death.

In Trieste, another very important commercial seaport, the doctrine of justification, sola fide (by faith alone), had a wide circulation. Pier Paolo Vergerio, the Roman Catholic bishop, who later became an evangelical believer, wrote in 1534: ‘I heard that in Trieste there has been a proliferation of Lutheranism…’ In 1519, Luther’s 95 Theses had been the object of argument at Turin University, around which at least 30 Waldensian churches were founded, each with its own pastor. In Italy, during the years 1530 to 1550, there were at least 60 other towns where evangelical reformers were gathering, although many of these believers did not initially leave Roman Catholicism. Some met inside Catholic churches, while others gathered in the simplicity of the apostolic way and broke bread. Cities such as Lucca, Modena and Naples were important centres for this great spiritual movement.

Significant Evangelical Reformers: Ochino, Diodati & Vermigli

A great help in the spreading of the gospel in the years 1530-1550 was the reading of a Bible, even if not translated into Italian from the original languages, and several of Luther’s books. Some publishers realised they could make a considerable fortune in printing such works, since many people were searching for new ideas. Some of the Italian reformers were gifted preachers.

Bernardino Ochino, a renowned Catholic speaker, arrived in Naples, where, due to the influence of others who were already acquainted with the New Testament truth and Luther’s books, Ochino became a true believer. At first he remained in the Catholic Church but preached the gospel. Eventually, Ochino left Roman Catholicism and was forced to flee abroad. Arriving in Geneva and warmly welcomed by Calvin, he started the first Italian-speaking evangelical church. By the end of the 16th century, 1,000 people would gather together daily, at 6.30am, to listen to the preaching of the Scriptures.

John Diodati was born in Geneva to an Italian Protestant refugee family. He was a tremendously gifted linguist and devoted himself to translating the Bible into Italian from the original languages. His translation was published in 1607 and although it has undergone several revisions, it is still the main version used by Italian evangelicals.

Moreover, Peter Martyr Vermigli was a great preacher and theologian from Florence who came to true faith. While prior of Basilica San Frediano in Lucca, Vermigli preached the gospel to thousands of people inside the main cathedral, where he also discipled many in the reformed faith. He, too, was forced to leave Italy and the Catholic church, and was later instrumental in the English Reformation.

Today: A Double Opportunity

Years ago, I was asked to write a book, which was published in spring 2017, entitled, The Protestant Reformation: Its Theological and Historical Importance, the Results, the Limits…and what about Italy? The book led to invitations from 41 individual churches organising conferences to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The IBEI, Rome, also planned events for the anniversary. The aim was to present the historical context for the Reformation and to emphasise the role of the Bible as sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone): the sole, infallible rule of Christian faith and practice. In so doing, both history and doctrine were highlighted. On 31 October 2017, believers were invited to one of the main evangelical churches in Rome to attend such an event. I was delighted to witness considerable interest from Christian young people, who were keen to know more about the men and women who had devoted their lives to disseminating gospel truth, despite great difficulties. It was with great emotion that I, alongside hundreds of believers, sang ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God.’

I was delighted to witness considerable interest from Christian young people, who were keen to know more about the men and women who had devoted their lives to disseminating gospel truth, despite great difficulties.

An even greater and unexpected opportunity was given to speak about the Reformation in public places such as halls, school auditoriums and a theatre. This provided a unique opportunity to talk about the positive social influence of the Reformation and to preach the gospel – pointing to the uniqueness of Christ and explaining the meaning of solus Christus (by Christ alone). The conferences were attended by young and old: businessmen, housewives, journalists and lawyers. Choirs sang and on one occasion two Roman Catholic priests were present, as well as two mayors and city councillors. In some conferences, the true meaning of the word ‘Protestant’ from the Latin protestor (to testify), ‘to witness in favour of’, was explained. In each session, the Word of God was preached. In two towns it was the first occasion the gospel had ever been heard.

Three conferences took place in Bergamo, the birthplace of Girolamo Zanchi, one of the greatest Reformers who fled to Switzerland, eventually teaching Systematic Theology at Heidelberg University. One of the most important lawyers in the city, who was acquainted with the works of Zanchi, came and listened very carefully. Similarly, a businessman was present; he had fought for years with his wife, a beloved believer, and had never been to an evangelistic event, despite her kind and numerous invitations.

In addition, a brother, who works with students, had the idea of organising two events for almost 150 high school students, plus their teachers. I spoke on the Reformation and the gospel, giving opportunity for the listeners to ask questions both during my exposition and afterwards. Those attending received a tract written especially for these events. The brother, who organised the event,
maintained contact with the teachers and provided information about meeting places for those who wanted to find out more. Many positive comments were received from the teachers and more mature students.

What About the Results?

Several hundreds of unbelievers had the opportunity to hear the gospel for the first time and to receive either a tract or a copy of the New Testament, or both. The various assemblies that organised the events made many contacts with those who attended. Because of these conferences, other evangelistic events will be organised in some of these locations.

Only the Lord knows what will happen in the future. We firmly believe that His Word will not return to Him empty, without accomplishing what He desires, and without succeeding in the matter for which He sent it (Isa. 55:11).

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