On February 2, 1516, Girolamo Zanchi was born in the northern Italian city of Alazano. Orphaned at age fourteen, Zanchi joined the local monastery of the Augustinian Order of Regular Canons. In 1541, Zanchi transferred to the priory of San Frediano in Lucca where Peter Martyr Vermigli—one of the most well-known and influential of the Italian Reformers—was the prior. Under Martyr’s guidance, Zanchi studied the works of some of the leading figures in the Reformation, including Martin Bucer, Philip Melanchton, Heinrich Bullinger, and John Calvin, and adopted many of their theological and political views. The turbulent political and religious climate of sixteenth century Europe eventually caused Zanchi to flee Lucca in 1551 and spend the rest of his life relocating to several different cities in Western Europe.
Heidelberg proved to be the location where Zanchi’s productivity was at its height. From 1568–1576 he was a professor of theology at the University of Heidelberg. In this position, he worked on a massive theological system entitled Theological Writings . The influence of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologiae on Theological Writings is apparent. Although he was unable to complete the project, Zanchi seemed to want to create a Protestant “summa.” Not only did Zanchi adopt a similar structure for Theological Writings , he also carried over some of Aquinas’ philosophy, especially in the area of natural law. But Zanchi did not focus exclusively on Thomistic principles. The fourth volume of Theological Writings is loaded with references not only to the Thomistic natural-law tradition, but also to Roman law, canon law, common law (i.e., the natural law), the proper laws (i.e., customary laws) of nations and churches, and the polity of ancient Israel.
Zanchi’s discussion of the natural law reveals his distaste for those who abuse their political power by promulgating unjust laws. Assuming a law is passed with the correct authority, Zanchi observes that a law can be unjust in one of two ways. Either it primarily promotes only the well-being and pleasure of the one promulgating the law or it prescribes conduct that opposes God or God’s law. Zanchi stresses that unjust laws of either type do not bind our conscience. What is more, we have a moral obligation to resist unjust laws that oppose God or God’s law. Thus, while Zanchi acknowledges that just laws may limit individual liberty, he indicates just as emphatically that no one is under any obligation to defer to the unjust laws of a tyrant. In his own words, “[i]f, therefore, some authority gives a command contrary to God, then not only are we commanded not to obey this governing authority, but we are also required to fight against it.”
Hero of Liberty image attribution: Hendrik Hondius I [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons