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The Foundation for Reformed Theology is committed not only to the reading and study of the classic texts of Reformed theology but also and especially to their appropriation and application yet today.

One such text, by the Italian Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562), is "Schism and the True Church." An English translation is included in the Peter Martyr Library. More information about that may be found on the Publications page of our website.

The question Peter Martyr poses here is whether Protestants are schismatics for having separated from the medieval Church of Rome. His answer includes three main points:

      1. Our separation was for just causes;

      2. Our separation was absolutely necessary; and

      3. We have not rejected the Church but returned to it.

Please see the following excerpts from each of these three sections of this writing: 

Our Separation Was for Just Causes


The first and only unity exists in the Church among those who preserve its faith. Our adversaries have abandoned the faith and no longer retain it. There cannot then be any unity between them and ourselves. (p. 173)


They hold us in execration, and excommunicate us with horrible maledictions. (p. 174)


If we should join them, we would be pulled away from the greater part of the world. (p. 174, emphasis added)


Experience shows that continuing among them would only obscure and weaken the truth, rather than cause them to improve. (p. 175)


The Catholic Church is universal. Therefore, wherever you find those who correctly believe and are truly united to Christ as members of his body, there is found the Church universal. (p. 176) 


It is quite obvious that our adversaries find themselves immersed in those  sins of which the apostle said: "Those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God." (p. 178)


They say that we are out of line when we judge the Church in light of God's Word--rather they affirm the contrary, that the Word of God must be confirmed by the authority of the Church. In other words, they want the power and authority of the Church to take precedence over that of the Word of God. . . . Since the Church is gathered by the Word of God, it must of necessity be subsequent to that Word. (pp. 178, 179)


We cannot ascribe to the Church the inerrancy we associate with Scripture. (p. 180)


In his book On Christian Doctrine, Augustine presents many ways of interpreting the Scriptures. Yet among these there is not one in which he refers us to the pope or to the Church. (p. 185)


We are obliged to listen to the Church only to the extent that it answers or speaks according to the Word of God. If the Church offers us merely the innovations and traditions of men, we must ignore them with deaf ears--especially when it proposes things contrary to the Word of God. . . . We see the true Church as circumscribed by the Word of God, which is its infallible rule and immovable foundation. (p. 185, emphasis added)


The Church is the pillar and ground of the truth only insofar as it upholds the Word of God, preaches it, retains it, bears witness with it, defends it, maintains it. (p. 186)


Whatever power is held by the Church must be used for edification. They have stirred up innumerable conflicts to defend their primacy, and continue to provoke the most serious contentions in order to pursue and preserve it. They whittle down the Church of Christ. They deform it and reduce it to a deplorable condition. (p. 189)


The more we excel in faith and with constancy confess Christ, the closer we adhere to the foundation. (p. 201)


Others should not depart on account of the filthy habits and vicious ways of clerics. Yet all who are godly members of Christ's body should seek their reformation, or else their removal from office, if they stubbornly persist in sinning. If this cannot be done, at least we will listen to them when they teaching in conformity to the books of Moses, the Law of the Lord, the prophets, and the writings of the New Testament. If, however, on the pretext of their ordination they want to impose on us the traditions of men--especially traditions contrary to God's Word--we will not obey them. (p. 204)


They accuse us of having broken the bond of brotherly love with them. But they forget that love flows from faith. Since they do not hold the faith but have instead denied it, we cannot have fellowship with them in ecclesiastical affairs, nor maintain fraternal love. . . . They persecute us because we have supposedly separated from them on our own without proper authorization. They forget that God has urged each one of us to be sure of our own salvation. (p. 205, emphasis added)  


Our Separation Was Absolutely Necessary

This necessity is made evident by three considerations. First, it will be shown that God's commandment--which is of greatest weight for the godly--has moved us to take this step. Next, it was necessary to flee lest our minds and consciences should become defiled with the idolatry and diseased doctrine of the adversaries. Finally, it was imperative lest we be exposed to the wrath and punishment of God which hovers over them. (p. 206)


Since our adversaries have alienated themselves from Christ, we cannot cleave to them without ceasing to be numbered among his sheep. (p. 206)


Such a separation is a way of confessing the truth of the Gospel. Every believer must declare what he believes, not alone by his words but through his actions. (p. 209)


Not even Noah and his family would have been saved if they had failed to part company with the ungodly and enter the ark. (p. 211) 


We were led to do this by three good and sufficient reasons. These are: first, to obey the commands of God; second, to flee from sin and idolatry; third, to avert the judgments threatened against the wicked. (p. 212)


We Have Not Rejected the Church but Returned to It


They feel secure to long as episcopal government and external ritual, with the semblance of ecclesiastical ministry, are maintained at Rome--imagining that the Church consists essentially in such things--even though they have damaged and subverted all that truly belongs to the nature of the Church of Christ. (p. 212)


It is a great sin to separate yourself from the Church. But when you say "Church" and there really is none, who can fault such separation? (p. 212, emphasis added)


In parting company with the Romanists, therefore, we have not forsaken the Church but have fled from an intolerable yoke and a conspiracy formed against the doctrine of the Gospel. (p. 214)


We are not to be accused of having separated ourselves from the pope. God has separated us from him by his oracles and precepts. (p. 214)


Human traditions have adulterated the pure Word of God. . . . Those things in which the Church chiefly consists went up in smoke and disappeared. . . . For us to separate from such a Church should not provoke rebuke but praise, especially since we have now come to the catholic and apostolic Church. (p. 218, emphasis added)


We have, moreover, left behind an old schism by which the Romanist crowd broke away from others and turned its ears from God's word to follow fables. . . . We have withdrawn from those who have lost the way and we have taken the highway of truth, that we might walk in it. (p. 222)


The unity of the Church consists in the Spirit, the Word of God, the sacraments, and the most intimate fellowship with Christ, who is the head of all the members of the Church. We have not broken this union, but seek to maintain it solid and secure in every way. (p. 224)


Let us with our whole heart and with all our endeavor embrace sound and true godliness, and show forth plentiful and manifest fruits of our faith. In this vocation of ours let us avoid the offenses by which the course of the Gospel may be hindered, and those who are still somewhat tender may be deterred from going forward in Christ. Let us rather labor to edify the brethren, and drive them as much as we can to purer religion. And let us remember that it is not sufficient to have put our hand to the plough: we must persevere to the end. (p. 224)


Appropriation and Application


Thank you for reading these excerpts. I hope they have sparked your interest in reading more from Peter Martyr Vermigli.

If Peter Martyr is wrong, then all Protestants are schismatics, and there is no legitimacy to the existence of any Protestant church today. We should all go home to Rome. But if any Protestant church has ever had any legitimate existence, so that Peter Martyr is right, then leaving one today (1) for just cause, (2) of necessity, and (3) in order to return to the Church, does not constitute schism. The heirs of the Reformation cannot have it both ways.

As always, please forward this email to anyone else who might be interested in it. There is a link for that below my signature.

And as always, let us study and pray about this question: How can we best apply these historical teachings to the faith and life of the church today?

Dr. James C. Goodloe IVGrace and Peace,
Dr. James C. Goodloe IV, Executive Director
Foundation for Reformed Theology
4103 Monument Avenue
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