"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 Brown, 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.
Most people associate Europe with secularism. Is this an accurate description, and what challenges does it present to evangelistic efforts?
It's certainly more difficult to speak to people about the Bible in Europe than here in the States, because of secularization and the influence of the Enlightenment. There is still the notion of the autonomy of man and a growing attempt to promote man's progress solely through man's ability. The academy has endeavored to make society secular; and in this, Europe is ahead of the United States. At this time, however, we are witnessing a change. Philosophers, sociologists, and scholars of various disciplines realize that atheism and other schools of thought such as evolutionism were not able to eradicate from European society the thought of God, the sensus divinitatis, the search for spiritual realities. So this might be a profitable time for us in Europe, because if it is true that we live in a post-Christian culture in Europe, it's also true that we are not in the kind of "brave new world" prophesied by the Enlightenment thinkers. We are seeing a sort of neo-paganism. Modernity couldn't purify culture from religion. The suggestion of people such as Jean Jacques Rousseau to have a state religion embraced by the society of human beings has failed completely. People are still religious. They still have a religious sensitivity. They are still asking themselves the same questions they have been asking themselves for a long time.
The situation in all of Europe, including the United Kingdom, is not encouraging; but we should not despair, because as we read in the Contemplations of Joseph Hall, "when things are at the worst, then God begins a change." We face many challenges: secularization, the spread of Islam, the arrogance and pushy attitude of both atheists and evolutionists (last year for the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, some of them went around in buses to spread the "evolutionary gospel"). There is even a new political party in Italy called Democrazia Atea or "Atheist Democracy." The European Parliament issues laws against intelligent design, saying it is dangerous in schools for the education of children because it comes from fundamentalists, both Christian and Muslim.
What other challenges do you face specifically in Italy?
Of course, in Italy we have the omnipresent pope and the Roman Catholic Church, which for us, as Italian Protestants, is a challenge. I was really discouraged as an evangelical and Reformed pastor when many evangelicals in the United States praised John Paul II, and when evangelical newspapers and magazines that are open to Reformed theology applauded him as a great man of God and Christian statesman. I felt frustrated as our small Reformed congregation tried to be faithful to the message of the Bible about law and gospel. I said to myself, "What am I doing here if these prestigious evangelical publications have such great things to say about the pope? Is the Reformation over, as Mark Noll suggests in his homonymous book? In that case, let's all go back to Rome." But the Reformation is not over! Even if the true church, as the Belgic Confession states, at times "appears very small, and in the eyes of men to be reduced to nothing," it is semper reformanda (always reforming). Even if from a human point of view it seems that the true church is extinct, Christ is an eternal king who cannot be without subjects.
What type of training is available in Italy to Christians who feel called to the ministry?
Each denomination in Italy has its own training center, and in the last fifteen years or so there has been an increase of seminars in local churches. When a church reaches a certain number of people and begins to have a reputation, that church starts a training program.
What is available to Reformed Christians?
There is no Reformed theological seminary in Italy. If a young man in our church showed evidence of a call to the ministry I would send him to the United States, to Westminster Seminary of California.
The Waldensians, who had turned Calvinist at the time of the Reformation, became liberal in the late 1800s, and later, in many cases, Barthian. There are now many expressions of feminist theology and liberation theology in the Waldensian churches. There is also an openness to the New Perspective on Paul. In my opinion, this is happening because the Waldensian church, along with the Methodist church and the Baptist Union, is pushing in Italy for an ecumenical agenda, to find a way to reconcile with the Roman Catholic Church and the New Perspective, which provides a somewhat common ground. That's why some important Roman Catholic publishers and Waldensian publishers have printed the major works of E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright.
This brings us to another one of your ministries in Italy: publications.
Yes, another way in which we are trying to recover Scripture in Italy is through the publication of Reformed material. I started, almost in jest, very simply translating a few sermons by John Owen for use by our local congregation. The first was God Withdrawing His Presence for the Correction of the Church, which we printed in 1995. Since then we have published many other books, first just for devotional reading; but then we wanted to address the needs of ministers, so we began to translate some material for preachers by George Whitefield, Thomas Watson, Jonathan Edwards, Al Martin, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and others. After this, we began to think about Christian families, and we published books by authors such as Tedd Tripp-books on family worship, relations between husband and wife and between parents and children, catechizing. Finally, we published theological works by authors with a high view of Scripture: John Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Geerhardus Vos, and B. B. Warfield. This is helping people to recover or to understand for the first time the basic principles of Protestantism. In 2009, we distributed more than 7,000 books, which for Italy is not bad.
Your present visit to the United States is particularly important to you. In January 2010, you sustained with impressive performance a colloquium doctum examination administered by Classis Southwest of the United Reformed Churches of North America (URCNA). How did you decide to become a URCNA minister?
Our congregation, Filadelfia Church, following in a sense my own personal pilgrimage, has been recovering little by little our Reformation heritage, a high view of Scripture, and consequently a high view of the Christian ministry of Word and Sacraments. As I studied John Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Chalmers, C. H. Spurgeon, William Carey, Benjamin Warfield, Geerhardus Vos, Herman Bavink, and others, I became progressively more aware of this rich pastoral heritage, of the rich ecclesiological applications of this high view of Scripture and of the ministry of Word and Sacraments, and of the benefits these have for the members of local congregations. As I embraced this heritage, first my wife and children were impacted, and then the church.
One important aspect of the discovery of this Reformation heritage in our own local assembly has been the recovery of a full Reformed ecclesiology, with a three-office view of the government of the local church and its benefits in the application of discipline in the local congregation, so the pastor cannot become a target of sedition within the church. We as a church felt alone. We realized that our confessional documents did not protect us and that there was nobody who could exercise authority over contentious people who were schismatic in doctrine and life.
What steps did you take to help your church to understand this change in direction?
At first, I took two mature men in my congregation through an in-depth study of the Three Forms of Unity and the URCNA Church Order. Later, with the backing of these men, I introduced the congregation to Reformed covenant theology and the Heidelberg Catechism. Each family has now received a copy of the Heidelberg Catechism and URCNA Church Order in Italian.
How many members are in your church?
We have thirty-five members, but usually we have between forty and fifty people attending.
How far is your church from Milan, the largest city in Italy (second largest in population), fifth largest in the European Union?
We are practically on the border of the greater Milan area, about seven miles from Piazza Duomo, the heart of the city.
What is your present vision for yourself and your church?
I came to the conclusion that God is calling me and our church to establish other Reformed churches in Italy, not Reformed just in name-churches where children are catechized, where families practice family worship, where members receive pastoral visitation, where the worship service is according to the Word of God, where the liturgy is not like going to a rock concert, where Word and Sacraments have the central place, where the Sabbath is observed with godliness, where people join together with reverence and awe in God's presence. To my knowledge, there are presently no churches in Italy that apply and function with a Reformed ecclesiology.
What steps are you planning to take toward this vision?
My approach is that, as Reformed, we should not start with great projects and ideas. Jesus teaches us the principle of being faithful in little things. We should start always from the personal, the local, the specific. Heads of families should catechize their children, pastors should teach their people-even if it is a small church-to live a Scripture-centered or gospel-driven life. As a pastor, I must teach our congregation to have worship that is Word-centered, where God speaks to us and our worship is an answer to his Word. In our church, since the beginning, we have consecutive expositional readings: New Testament in the morning and Old Testament in the evening.
Our hope is that in a few years we might be able to have a few families leaving our church in order to establish another church where they apply the same principles. And, of course, we'll be practicing what in our heritage is called covenant evangelism, from generation to generation.