Modern Reformation interview

“Is the Reformation in Italy Over?” An interview with Andrea Ferrari in Modern Reformation magazine’s May/June 2010 issue. The following isĀ an excerpt of the interview. You can read the article in its entirety by visiting the Modern ReformationĀ website here.

“Did you ever think that it would turn out this way?” Rev. Andrea Ferrari asked me excitedly after his ordination as minister in the United Reformed Churches of North America (URCNA). No, I definitely could have never foreseen this in 2005, when I started to work for Alfa e Omega, a small publishing house devoted to the production of Reformed material into Italian. A year later, Rev. Ferrari, then editor-in-chief of Alfa e Omega and pastor of Filadelfia Evangelical Church, visited our church and gave a presentation on his publishing ministry.

Since then, he has visited our congregation, Christ United Reformed Church (URC) in Santee, California, spending much time in discussion of pressing matters of ecclesiology and covenant theology with our senior pastor, Rev. Michael Bro wn, and our associate pastor, Rev. Dr. Michael Horton. In February 2009, realizing that no solid confessional Reformed or Presbyterian denominations existed in Italy, and feeling the need for structure and oversight in his pastoral efforts, Rev. Ferrari asked for our help. On January 24, 2010, he was ordained at Christ URC and called to the missionary task of establishing a federation of Reformed churches in Italy.

The following interview explains his present commitment and vision, as well as the challenges he and other believers face in Italy today.

We often hear that the Reformation has bypassed Italy. Do you think that’s true?
In Italy there was indeed a Reformation! I would even add that Italy was even more ready for a Reformation than other countries because of the presence of Rome and of the pope. You may think, for example, of the lesser-known movement called conciliarism, which struggled with the pope and the Roman Curia even before the Reformation, especially in the fifteenth century. The bishops forming this movement affirmed that the pope should be under the supervision of the council of bishops. It was a very strong struggle, and we had a Reformation. People were turning to the gospel and books were translated and introduced into Italy through Venice, which had a long history of resistance to the power of Rome. There were also writings by Italians. For instance, tens of thousands of copies of a famous work by Benedetto of Mantua, The Benefit of Christ, were distributed all over Italy. For the first few decades, the Reformation took root in Italy, especially among the clergy and nobles who were educated and could afford to buy books.

Things changed with the passing of the years, especially because of the Inquisition and the punishments and imprisonments inflicted on those who professed the Protestant doctrines. After this persecution began, Italian Protestants had three options: death, exile, or return to the Roman Catholic Church. They could not go underground anymore. The repression that had begun in the Middle Ages against the so-called “heretical movements” intensified. As in the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic sacrament of confession became an instrument of social control, allowing religious and civil authorities to exercise censorship. There was a series of rules that allowed the priests to ask specific questions about people and places, and hiding became extremely difficult and dangerous. Many Italian families left Italy at that time: the Turretinis, the Diodatis, and also reformers such as Peter Martyr Vermigli, Paolo Vergerio, and Bernardino Ochino, who are representatives of many other people who were not theologians or teachers. On the other hand, we had some Italians who studied in Geneva and were sent back and were killed- Gioffredo Varaglia, for instance.

The persecution continued for those who refused to leave or recant, such the Waldensians.
The Waldensians were persecuted even before the Refor-mation, but they were literally slaughtered in Piedmont and Calabria in the seventeenth century.

I believe there was a new rise of Protestantism in the nineteenth century.
The nineteenth century period known as Risorgimento, which brought national unity to Italy, was much favored by Protestants who were seeking a diminishment of the power of Rome. They fought fiercely for the separation between church and state. It was a time of excitement and changes. That is the time when, in Italy, Plymouth Brethren churches were established and multiplied, under the leadership of famous exponents such as Count Francesco Guicciardini and Teodorico Pietrocola Rossetti, who were very much involved in the preaching of the gospel as well as in supporting the patriotic wind blowing throughout Italy. There were also the so-called colpoltori, evangelists who had as their objective the distribution of the Bible. They went around with little carts full of Bibles or distributed them in local squares, trying for the first time to introduce the Bible to people in Italy.

There was in fact a chasm between the Reformation and the time of the Risorgimento. In these 250 years, laity could not find Bibles in Italy. At a time when in other European nations the Bible was being spread and translated into the languages of the people, in Italy it was just the opposite. People were kept in a state of ignorance-not taught how to read-just to keep them from the Bible. For the same purpose, the Jesuits introduced an approach to religious instruction that engages the senses-visual objects and other methods apart from language and words-therefore bypassing the mind. This approach is still very much in use among Roman Catholics, as we recently witnessed through Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. It was strange to me, as an Italian, to see evangelicals in the English-speaking world so enthusiastic about the movie and inclined to say it was a powerful means to reach lost sinners.

It is important to know that, since the Counter-Reformation, the Roman Catholic hierarchy had established a direct link between Protestantism and the Bible. There was the persuasion that if people could read their Bibles they would turn automatically into Protestants, so that’s why the pope and the Curia forbade the reading of the Bible in Italy, officially until 1758-reading the Bible was forbidden by law. The Bible itself was burned at the stake, and the equation “Scriptures = Heresies” penetrated deeply into the fabric of Italian culture.

It seems that, after such a long period of darkness and lack of scriptural knowledge, evangelicals in Italy today would take advantage of their freedom and make a concerted effort to return to the Scriptures.
It is not so. What I see is a lack of awareness among the majority of evangelicals in Italy of the need to return to the Scriptures. We see in Italy what John MacArthur denounced in his book Ashamed of the Gospel: pragmatism and a man-centered approach to worship. The Word of God is not central in the worship of evangelical churches in Italy. I am not just referring to the fact that the preaching and teaching is very poor. I am thinking also about prayers and hymns. No scriptural hymns are usually sung, just some choruses with pleasant music. You can get thirty to forty minutes of music, some drama, and performance by chorals, drums, electric guitars, and so forth.

Do you think they are influenced by the example of some American churches?
That’s one reason. It is a reflection of American evangelicalism that is manifesting itself in other cultures.

Do you think that Pope Benedict’s current emphasis on theology has influenced the attitude of Roman Catholics and even evangelicals toward the importance of scriptural doctrine?
I have the impression that committed Roman Catholics in Italy know more of the Bible than many evangelicals. In my personal evangelistic efforts and in those done with the church, we have regular contact with thoughtful Roman Catholics. We have discussions about the Bible and compare different perspectives. Evangelicals in general seem more ignorant about the Bible; and the problem is that they don’t care, especially if they are part of the “Generation-Me” (born after the 1970s). What is becoming more and more important in evangelical ministry in Italy is technology, which is dehumanizing, as C. S. Lewis anticipated in The Abolition of Man. This technological approach to the Word of God is deteriorating and undermining the most important traits of the way in which people should relate to each other and to God.

You can read the article in its entirety here.

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