Eclipsing Calvin? Peter Martyr and History’s Beck and Call

Derek Ouellette —  June 12, 2011

“The most important theologians of our day are John Calvin and Peter Martyr.” ~ Justus Jonas Scaliger, a contemporary of Calvin and Peter

I have read a few books on the reformation in my time, and not many of them ever made more than a passing reference to a character named Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562), such that when Peter was mentioned in Kenneth Stewart’s book, Ten Myths About Calvinism, I hadn’t even recognized it.

So I was astounded when I read Stewart mention that Peter’s work, “Common Places”, rivaled that of John Calvin’s “Institutes”; that the “Peter Martyr Library” currently being translated into English – a project that began in 1994 – is up to nine volumes and counting (p.38); that John Calvin regarded Peter as one of the greatest expounders of the doctrine of the Eucharist in Protestantism (HT); and that a contemporary of Calvin, Justus Scaliger, wrote that Peter was equal with Calvin in sharing the honour of being the most important theologian of the Reformation era.

An article on the Reformation Theological Seminary website writes:

Students of the Reformation often assume that there is nothing left to discover. Since we know a great deal about Luther and Calvin and their supporting casts, it is thought there is no more sixteenth-century treasure to be found. Fortunately, that is not true, not even with regard to Luther and Calvin. In recent years, scholars have discovered a hitherto untapped treasure of the Reformation-Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562). It is not that scholars have suddenly discovered his existence; but rather, they have begun to appreciate his vital significance for understanding the Reformed branch of Protestantism. Although not well known today, there is a growing recognition that PMV was one of the most important theologians to give shape to Reformed theology and, in some instances, he was more influential than Calvin.

This is quite the exciting revelation that calls for a re-evaluation of the very use of the term “Calvinism” and what it has come to embody. Raising questions about the origin and earliest influence of Calvinism may very well have some lasting effects on how neo-Calvinists have been identifying themselves, and in fact it may also call us to re-consider the shape of the Arminian/Calvinism debates which perhaps are long overdue for re-framing.

However, to know any of these we need to know in what ways was Peter Martyrs theology “in some instances… more influential than Calvin”? This also raises questions as to why Calvin is heralded as he is while Peter remains relatively unheard of. Why Calvin and Geneva are given a place of such preeminence by modern Reformers while Peter and Zurich remain buried in the past.

I suspect that Peter will not remain buried for much longer. Critical Reformed scholars will be exploring his writings and his influence and it will be interesting to see how this co-influencer of Reformed theology of the past will influence the Calvinism of the not to distant future.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Ken Stewart

    I provide an answer to this question in handling the first of ten myths. The reason that we think of Calvin as preeminent above the other sixteenth century Protestant theologians is that in 1843, a decision was made in Edinburgh by Anglican and Presbyterian sympathizers of Calvin to translate and publish in English all his major theological books and all his biblical commentaries. They made this decision on the basis of an impression they had formed that Calvin had always been preeminent and their making his books more available than those of any other Protestant theologian of the sixteenth century fixed the idea of his preeminence in our minds. No similar effort was made to translate and publish the writings of any other Swiss reformer on that scale in the whole nineteenth century. So, in our time, Calvin zealots have bought into a nineteenth century myth.

    • Derek Ouellette

      Hey Ken,

      My purpose here was to focus the article on introducing Peter Martyr to others (thanks for bringing him to my attention!). So I wanted to keep it short and let people contemplate on those questions hoping of course to offer some answers in an upcoming post and to also consider what implications Peter’s re-discovery and work may have on the future of the Reformed tradition.

      I wonder though, where did the Anglicans of 1843 get the idea and impression of Calvin and Geneva’s preeminence?

      In any case, I “amen” your comment.

  • Dave Leigh

    In my opinion this is just another example of how much the church historically has been led and affected more by personalities than its claims of biblical, doctrinal, logical, or dogmatic justifications.

  • FrGregACCA


    How did Peter’s theology differ from Calvin’s?

    He and Calvin apparently agreed with regard to the Eucharist which, frankly, is not that something that commends him to me.

  • Fr. Ray Ball

    Anyone familiar with Taize and Max Thurian should be familiar with Peter Martyr, as the Eucharistic theories he presented are foundational to the theology presented by them. He is also institutional in the 39 Articles for the Anglicans, as he was one of the teachers brought into England during the reign of Edward VI. He fled during Mary I’s reign into relative obscurity. Great article.