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John Diodati: The Great Italian Reformer – A Review

Category Book Reviews
Date March 30, 2007

A review by Austin Walker of John Diodati’s Doctrine of Holy Scripture by Andrea Ferrari (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books Inc., 2006), ISBN #1-892777-98-3).

Among Christians John Diodati (1576-1649) is hardly a household name compared with men like Martin Luther or John Calvin. He belonged to the third generation of reformation theologians in Geneva, following Calvin and Theodore Beza. One of his students was the celebrated Francis Turretin whose own Institutes became a standard work of Reformed theology for two hundred years.

Diodati was born in Geneva of an Italian Protestant refugee family. His father, Carlo Diodati, was declared a heretic by Rome in 1568, but had already fled for safety to Geneva the year before. John Diodati was to become a student in Calvin’s Academy before serving there as a professor, first as a Hebrew teacher, then succeeding Beza as professor of theology. He remained in that position for the rest of his life. He also served as pastor in the church in Geneva. He became well-known as the man who first provided Italians with a translation of the Bible in 1607 which subsequently became the standard version of the Bible for Italian Protestants until the twentieth century.

Diodati was involved in major doctrinal disputes in the first decades of the seventeenth century. He was the Genevese representative at the famous Synod of Dordt (1618-1619) which counteracted the growing influence of the teaching of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) who had also been a student in the Genevan Academy under Beza before going to Leyden to study under Gomarus. Later, Diodati was also involved in the dispute over the teaching of Moses Amyraut (1596-1664) in France, opposing the ‘hypothetical redemption’ which became known as Amyraldianism.

A slim volume (108 pages of text) entitled John Diodati’s Doctrine of Holy Scripture has been written by Andrea Ferrari. He is pastor of the Filadelfia Christian Evangelical Church in Milan. Ferrari believes Diodati is a neglected figure in seventeenth century Reformed theology. This book is a specialised study focussing attention on Diodati’s twenty five theses on the doctrine of the Scriptures, first published in 1596. In that year, at the age of twenty, Diodati completed his formal education at the Academy in Geneva.

Following a brief biographical sketch and an historical survey of the doctrine of Scripture, Ferrari provides us with a translation from the Latin of Diodati’s theses. The remaining half of the book analyses Diodati’s doctrine of Scripture from a study of the theses, amplified by references to his Pious Annotations upon the Holy Bible. In the theses, Diodati sets out the nature, purpose, and identity of the Scriptures, deals with the questions of versions of the Bible, especially the Latin Vulgate, and then deals with the important matter of biblical interpretation. It was Diodati’s concern to present a proper application of the principle of sola scriptura.

Ferrari sets his discussion of Diodati’s doctrine in the context of the principal controversy of the day between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. The doctrine of Scripture lies at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. In the seventeenth century the focal point of the controversy concerned the authority of the Scriptures. At the heart of Diodati’s argument lies the conviction that the authority of the Bible is not founded on the church, in particular the Roman Catholic church. Rather, the church is founded on the authority of the Bible. This brought him into a head-on collision with Roman Catholicism and their teaching expressed by the counter-reforming Council of Trent. But positively it also drove him to explain why and in what ways the Scripture is the only source of authority and to explain to his readers the true function of the church.

Ferrari successfully traces for us the important role that Diodati had in the history of Protestantism in Europe in general and in Italy in particular. In Italy his major achievement was without doubt his translation of the Bible into Italian, a contribution paralleled by the earlier translations by Luther into German and Tyndale into English. He concludes that Diodati’s theses about the Holy Scriptures reflect continuity in that doctrine with his Genevan predecessors, Calvin and Beza, and with his successor, Turretin. Thus he confirms that Diodati must be understood as a champion of Reformed and Protestant theology.

If you know little or nothing about John Diodati, or Italian or European Protestantism at the turn of the sixteenth century, then Andrea Ferrari’s monograph will serve as a very useful, concise and readable introduction. Furthermore, by addressing the issue of the authority of the Bible Ferrari is addressing a matter that remains a fundamental issue for every generation of Christians. What controls the conscience of a Christian? Is it some ecclesiastical hierarchy and the traditions of men, or is it the Holy Scriptures? On the answer we give depends our liberty, our spiritual well-being, and our eternal salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. Ferrari shows that John Diodati gave a very clear answer, serving as a faithful guide for his generation.

Austin Walker is co-pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church in Crawley, Sussex.

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