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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

“The Spiritual Marriage between Christ and His Church” by Girolamo Zanchi

Published Monday, February 14, 2022 By Simonetta Carr

With so few biographical resources on Girolamo Zanchi (1516-1590), The Spiritual Marriage between Christ and His Church and Every One of the Faithful is worth reading even just for the introduction O’Banion includes in its first pages. His biographical sketch does more than fill a gap in the history of the Protestant Reformation. It is essential to a proper understanding of Zanchi’s treatise.

Zanchi’s Life

In many ways, Zanchi’s life was similar to that of another, more famous Italian Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562). Born in 1516 in a small, northern Italian town, Zanchi, like Vermigli, joined at an early age an Augustinian monastic order, studied in one of the best Italian universities, was ordained in the Roman Catholic Church, and moved to the Tuscan town of Lucca, where Vermigli had become prior.

Like Vermigli, Zanchi embraced the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone and had to flee Italy when the arm of the Roman Inquisition cracked down on those who upheld it. Vermigli fled in 1542 and Zanchi nine years later.

After his flight, Zanchi taught in Strasbourg (now in France), served as pastor in Chiavenna (an Alpine city then within Switzerland), and taught in Heidelberg, Germany. His time in Strasbourg was particularly difficult due to strong theological disagreements with the Gnesio-Lutheran university rector, Johannes Marbach (1521-1581).

Equally trying was his family life, as his wife, Violanthis Curione, suffered two miscarriages, the second one leaving her partially paralyzed for life. Her care required much of Zanchi’s time and placed a great financial burden on the family. Violanthis died in 1556, after only three years of marriage.

His second marriage, to Livia Lumaga, was also challenging at first, as two of their children died within three months and one at three years of age. Later, they had more children who survived into adulthood.

Through these trials, Zanchi remained a loving and committed husband and father. To O’Banion, the fact that, after Zanchi’s death in 1590, his sons and sons-in-law “spent nearly three decades transforming their father’s notes into a coherent and publishable collection of theological treatises” is a proof of how much they loved and esteemed him (xxxii).

The Book

Spiritual Marriage was the fruit of a long meditation that began with Zanchi’s lectures on Ephesians 5 and matured through other experiences. Most of it was written through dictation because, by the end of his life, Zanchi was virtually blind.

First published in Latin in 1591, the treatisewas soon translated into English and other vernacular languages and spread quickly throughout Europe. Later, as it happened with other early modern texts, it became virtually forgotten. Why was it so popular and why, after centuries of neglect, should we pick it up again?

“The short answer to both questions,” O’Banion says, “is its lively depiction of a spiritual reality: that Christ is the church’s one and only Bridegroom and that the church collectively—that is, every person who has true and living faith in Christ individually—is Christ’s bride” (xxix).

Modern readers who are used to how-to books and articles might not describe Zanchi’s text as “lively,” as it requires some concentration. If I had to use a couple of adjectives, I would say it is thorough, clear, and thought-provoking. To me, its greatest value is in stimulating discussion of largely unexplored aspects of our union with Christ as our Bridegroom.

For example, Zanchi asks, is this “spiritual marriage” simply a union of soul with soul, or is it a union of our whole person (flesh and spirit) with Christ’s whole person? And does it occur in reality or in our imagination? If in reality, then how?

I admit that I had never pondered these questions. But, without a careful reflection and a study of the pertinent Scriptures, it’s easy to empty this mystery of its deepest meaning.

Zanchi’s explanation of a real and substantial union between a whole person and Christ’s whole person is most likely a fruit of his long discussions with Johannes Marbach and his consequent studies and meditations on the Lord’s Supper. There are, in fact, similarities in Zanchi’s understanding of our participation in Christ in the Lord’s Supper and his understanding of our union with Him.

“When it is said, ‘They will be two in one flesh’ (Ef. 5:31),” he writes, “this is understood to refer to Christ and the church on account of the union that she has with Christ. Therefore, the apostle meant that we are made one (not only in soul but also in flesh) with Christ, not only with His deity or soul but also with His flesh, notwithstanding that it is in heaven” (57).

Understanding and enjoying this marriage is important on many levels, including a soteriological one: “For our entire salvation consists in this spiritual and divine marriage. For Christ the Bridegroom always delights in His bride. He is her Head and everlasting Savior, that she might not utterly fall away from Him” (7).

Cautions and Conclusions

O’Banion warns the reader that some of Zanchi’s advice might feel dated, particularly in his description of earthly marriages or some of his allegorical representations. For example, the fact that Zanchi calls the husband “Lord and savior” of his wife is likely to ruffle some contemporary feathers. And yet, Zanchi’s life and his overall view of marriage can easily dispel any suspicion of a domineering husband. 

In fact, after explaining Zanchi’s context and upbringing, O’Banion offers a bold challenge to our modern reservations. “Just because Zanchi’s interpretation of a text strikes us as unusual or differs from the way we have learned to read Scripture, we should not assume that we are right and he is wrong. It may be that the history of interpretation took a wrong turn somewhere during the last four centuries and that an old Italian exile approaching the end of his days still has a thing or two to teach us” (xxxvi).

In reality, Spiritual Marriage can provide much wisdom for our earthly marriages, starting with the realization that they are only imperfect mirrors which, as O’Banion points out, “fulfill their truest purpose by drawing our attention toward the real thing.” In fact, he continues, “we can only enjoy our earthly marriages when we view them in light of our spiritual union with Christ” (xxxii).

Spiritual Marriage is a short book. Zanchi’s words occupy just over 100 pages. But the contents are meaty and deserve a careful reading. I am planning to read it again at an even slower pace, taking full advantage of Zanchi’s reflections and numerous references (both Scriptural and otherwise).

Writing to Horatio Pallavicino (c. 1540-1600), who served as ambassador to Elizabeth I, Zanchi explained that he dedicated the book to him “that amid such and so many controversies at this time concerning the Christian religion, you might have a summary from me of our salvation with which you might be able to defend and protect yourself against all enemies.”

I think this is still a good reason for us to savor this book today, including, among our enemies, our own doubts, hesitancies, and fears.

Simonetta Carr is the author of numerous books, including Broken Pieces and the God Who Mends Them: Schizophrenia through a Mother’s Eyes, and the series Christian Biographies for Young Readers (Reformation Heritage Books).

  • Simonetta Carr


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