- The Italian Reformers and the Zurich Church, c. 1540–1620
Mark Taplin has given us a thoroughly researched, clearly written, and richly informative study that makes contributions in a number of areas: the Italian Reformation, reformed dogmatics, Zurich and Swiss church history, and Radical Reformation. At the center of his research is the correspondence of Bullinger with the Italian reformers, or with others about the Italians. Taplin's careful and detailed use of this manuscript source should prove useful to other scholars — Philip Benedict (Christ's Churches Purely Reformed , 63-64) has estimated that at the present rate of publication the edition of the 15,000 letters to and from Bullinger will only be competed in 2109.
In the meantime, Taplin traces the interaction of the Zurich church with Italian Protestants in Italy, Rhaetia, and Zurich itself. Early direct contacts remain elusive. It is really only in the 1540s that contacts became more frequent and substantive, in large measure because the Roman Inquisition forced many leading Italian reformers, such as Peter Martyr Vermigli and Bernardino Ochino, into northern exile. Zurich grudgingly allowed a separate Italian church (1556) despite pervasive xenophobia and the guilds' fears of competition. However, for decades the Italians found a reliable and indulgent protector in Bullinger, whose patience and tolerance of diverse theological opinions contrasted sharply with his colleague [End Page 149] in Geneva. Nonetheless, when finally confronted with the Christological and Trinitarian deviations of Lelio Sozzini and especially Ochino, Bullinger and Zurich adopted a more rigorist approach in the defense of the catholicity of the Reformation. What would have been brilliance and creativity in the secular arena appeared to be a dangerous instability in the theology of many leading Italian Reformers. Having only just escaped the jaws of papal persecution and still informed by the heady liberation that sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers offered, a number of Italians were not prepared to accept the intolerance and restrictions of beginning confessionalization among the stolid Zurichers. The battle against heresy forced Bullinger and his orthodox colleagues to develop ever more precise theological formulations and made them vigilant against doctrinal deviation as far away as Poland. Their unhappy experience with the Italian church in Zurich informed their attitude toward an alternative Italian refuge in Rhaetia. Here too heresy raised its head. But the support of the secular authorities and the commitment of staunchly orthodox Italians on the spot enabled Zurich to foster congregations in the Valtellina, the Valchiavenna, and the Valbregaglia, whose doctrinal reliability did much to erase the earlier reputation of the Italians as fractious and flighty. Unfortunately, the other Protestant cantons had little interest in those distant congregations, and were quite willing to sacrifice them to maintain harmony in the Confederation and to pursue other secular goals. A resurgent Catholicism brought increasing pressure to bear on the Rhaetian Reformed churches, until in 1620 Catholic aristocrats supported by Spain rose up and attacked Protestant churches and communities in the Valtellina, killing hundreds. Many survived only by fleeing the area. Chiavenna held out, but was occupied by the Spanish in 1621, and Protestant worship was suppressed. The Rhaetian Reformed churches never recovered from the blow. In Zurich, the Italian community was largely absorbed into the larger community by the early decades of the seventeenth century.
In Taplin's telling, Bullinger is less irenic than he is often presented, especially in the years after the Ochino affair brought home to him the dangers posed by the freethinking Italian reformers. And yet, the patience and goodwill that he displayed for years despite severe provocation is quite remarkable given the time and circumstances. Calvin certainly outshone Bullinger in scholarship and acumen, but the Zurich Reformer engendered both respect and affection. Nonetheless, both political and theological concerns drove Bullinger and Zurich to erect clear boundaries between themselves and those to the "left." Although it is well known that the Magisterial Reformers used the Fathers even...