Alfred Place Baptist Church

A week in Milan

A year or two ago Andrea Ferrari of Milan got in touch inviting me to Italy to take part in the Jonathan Edwards’ centenary celebrations. The Alfa & Omega publisher had just translated and printed Iain Murray ’s life of Edwards, and Edwards’ “Religious Affections” had also been translated into Italian. I could not go that year and neither could Iain Murray but we went the following year. Andrea did his Master of Philosophy degree on the Italian reformer, John Diodati at the Bryntirion Seminary Wales under Dr Gwyn Davies of the Aberystwyth Welsh Evangelical Church . John Diodati was the pastor of the Italian church in Geneva and a professor at Calvin’s Academy. He was also responsible for the translation of the Bible into Italian. He had begun to translate this when he was 16 years of age. What promise there was in the early history of the Reformation in Italy until the Inquisition and Counter Reformation set up its machinery of repression.

 

Andrea often attends the autumn Montville Conference in the New Jersey church where Al Martin is the pastor, and he has also been to the Carey Ministers’ Conference, Westminster Conference and to the Leicester Banner of Truth Conference. He is in his mid thirties and has been married to Cristina (the daughter of an Italian Assemblies of God minister) for thirteen years. They both have excellent English, and so what I thought would be an overload of English imposed on an Italian home for a week turned out to be giving our friends an enjoyable opportunity of exercising their fluent English.

 

The Ferraris spoke of their years in Sicily where Andrea was an AOG pastor for six years. What vegetable are grown there, they said, their eyes sparkling! Many people would cook their own bread in an oven in the kitchen taking it out hot, sprinkling it with salt and covering it with olive oil and eating it immediately: "Delicious," Andrea sighed, "but now they eat . . . McDonalds." They have two delightful boys, Simone and Daniele, aged 12 and 11, sweet natured, a pleasure to share a house with. We could hear their family devotions wafting upstairs – the singing – before they went to school. When Simone was five years of age Cristina was reading the story of Samson and Delilah to him. "You see, it all went wrong when he married the wrong woman. He didn’t marry the woman God chose," she said. Simoni was quite concerned; "How will I know that I won’t marry the wrong woman?" he asked. "Well, you will see how she lives and that she loves God, and so on," his mother told him. "But when Delilah first went out with Samson she seemed to love God and be a believer," he said. "Then you must pray that God will help you marry a real Christian," his mother said. "O, let’s pray now," the 5 year old said to his mother earnestly and immediately.

 

Andrea Ferrari had not had a promising start to life. From a nominal Roman Catholic home he mixed with other teenagers so that smoking cigarettes developed to smoking marijuana. He also knew the heroin injecting crowd in this part of Milan but stopped short of that. A good thing because most of those were dead of AIDS within ten years, but a friendly priest spoke to Andrea of his growing drug addiction and told him of Teen Challenge and its work. He went along and lived there in that Christian rehab programme and soon he was converted. Reading the book of Ecclesiastes became the definitive instrument. Was it a struggle to come off drugs? "No," he said, "I was a new person." He began to attend the Assemblies of God, and his parents could hardly believe what he was telling them, in fact on one Sunday his father followed him from the home to confirm that Andrea was indeed going to church. The parents have since both been converted and are members of this congregation in Milan . We enjoyed being with them at the meetings. How difficult his father first found it when he became a Christian, to change the old patterns of life. He had always worked very hard, but then as a Christian, to have to stop the work he enjoyed at the end of the afternoon on Tuesdays and Fridays to give his evenings to the weeknight meetings, and also not to work on Sundays at all, how tough that was at first. Now it is all the sweet new routine in Christ which he gladly does, seeing all the benefits. It is part of presenting his body to Christ. At the other end of the family Andrea’s sons are raised in that happy pattern. Interestingly enough they now go to the same school which he had once attended. It is a state school, open plan, with yoga lessons! The larger family unit of the Ferraris is a blessed one.

 

Andrea trained in Rome in the theological college of the Assemblies of God, and Christiane also did the one year woman’s course there and that is where they met. It was while he was studying there that he and another student, Nazzareno ( Reno ) Ulfo came across the Puritans and their fertile minds were captivated by them. He sought counsel from men in Scotland , and his appreciation of the Reformers, Spurgeon and the writings of Dr Lloyd-Jones and his subsequent thinking about the ministry of the Spirit meant that his days in that denomination were numbered. He pastored for a time an Assemblies of God church in Sicily , and then a few years ago returned to this his home town. It is called Novate, and is one of the satellite towns around Milan , where he became the founding pastor of a newly constituted Reformed Baptist Church based on the 1689 Confession of Faith. They have called it the Filadelfia Church .

 

I met with around 15 of them on Friday night at their weeknight Prayer Meeting and spoke briefly. It was just like our own church mid-week meeting in its structure as were the Sunday services where many more attended including for the first time three families from an AOG who are deciding to join them. The hymns were all known to us, and sung heartily in unison; the prayers were reverent and long. Preaching through an interpreter is like running a 100 metres race single step by single step, though Andrea’s skill on all four occasions was terrific. One of the hymns we sang was, "Great is Thy Faithfulness," with its chorus

 

"Tu sei fedel Signor, tu sei fedel Signor

Giorno per giorno tu spandi merce,

E mi provvedi quanto m’occorre,

Tu sei fedel Signor, fedel con me."

 

The church fellowship is growing and the young families are attentive and expect the Word of God to be opened up and applied to them week by week.

 

Andrea was amongst the first group of younger men to translate and print Puritan works in Italian while still a student in Rome .

 

                                                            PASSAGGIO

 

‘Passaggio’ is the name of another publishing house bringing out many of the works of Dr Lloyd-Jones, including the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, five volumes of Romans so far, and  ‘Preaching and Preachers.’ Other books by Sinclair Ferguso
n and Walt Chantry have also been translated and published and more are planned. Passagio have a splendid annual conferences in May. This year the conference theme was The Work of the Holy Spirit (4 addresses) and the speaker was past. Jim Elliff ( USA ). His ministry was a great blessing for them and very refreshing. Andrea Artioli is oneof the men who heads up Passagio and he writes, “It is a great privilege to rest in God’s sovereign work and to be re-minded that the Spirit is always active even though we sometimes do not see much of him. The Lord Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground,and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.’ What an encouraging passage! By the way, the first conference in Rimini was attended by almost 200 people coming from all over Italy and the second one in the church in Asti was attended on Sunday by 150 people.All of them have been greatly blessed and Passaggio sold so many books as it never did in the past 10 years. Please, we ask you to pray for us and for the ministry. Just before the Passaggio Conferences began some people started to attack the work of Passaggio by telling to a quite large gathering of Italian elders that our doctrinal position is Hyper-Calvinist. This false statement is causing a great sorrow among us and pressure.We do know that there is a spiritual battle in all what we do. But… as we have been just reminded: we are in His almighty and sovereign hands.”

 

                                                ALFA & OMEGA

 

The publishing house connected with Andrea Ferrari is called ‘Alfa & Omega.’ They have translated into Italian Bunyan’s ‘Holy War,’ Pink’s ‘Profiting from the Word,’ Richard Sibbes’ ‘Bruised Reed,’ Thomas Watson’s ‘All for Good,’ Warfield’s ‘Person and Work of Christ,’ Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Religious Affections," Iain Murray ‘s ‘Life of Jonathan Edwards,’ Whitefield’s ‘Sermons,’ Edwards’ ‘Charity and its Fruit,’ Tedd Tripp’s ‘Shepherding a Child’s Heart,’ Lloyd-Jones on ‘The Primacy of Preaching.’ Essential serious materials. They are now in the process of completing the translation of Spurgeon’s ‘Lectures to my Students,’ Ryle on Matthew, and the works of John Owen in volume 6, dealing with overcoming temptation and mortification. I told him Andrea Ferrari on my last Sunday morning in Aberystwyth I had preached on that theme and had mentioned the excellent new paperback edition of Owen on Mortification modernised and published by the Banner. They also plan to publish O’Brian’s commentary on Ephesians, and David Daniell’s life of Tyndale – impressive stuff. Without responsible commentaries serious Protestant pastors in Italy simply have the books of RC scholars and translated German works to consult in preparing sermons.

 

How do these books get to the Christians in Italy ? There are a mere 9 Christian Literature Crusade Bookshops in the whole country, and one other Christian bookshop and distributor from a Swiss organisation. That’s your lot. Most of these shops, like the one in Milan , are small and tucked away in a suburb. So, this is the dilemma, that a handful of little shops will stock the books which you want to see sold throughout the entire nation. Many Protestant churches are not book-conscious congregations and certainly not sympathetic with what Alfa & Omega are saying. So how can these books reach the Christians of Italy? Today it is largely by a mailing list containing 3,000 names and this is growing. Alfa & Omega also have a good web site which advertise and promote their literature, and numbers are sold by that means. The larger theological volumes are printed in runs of a thousand copies, while when they printed a more popular work like Iain Murray on Jonathan Edwards it is in a run of 1,500 to 2000 copies. There has been no history of Protestant Christian literature in Italy . This is all new. When they got the annual sales figures from the CLC Book shops one shop manager was excited to tell them that she had sold more books than ever in the past year.

 

The Assemblies of God is the largest Protestant denomination by far in Italy with about a thousand churches. It has as many congregations as all the other Protestant churches put together. Its older pastors, who still have influence in the denomination, were men who preached the gospel and expected a holy life of separation from worldly activities in any who professed faith in Christ. God honoured for many years their preaching of repentance and faith in the finished work of Christ, but today the music scene has spread and continues to do so amongst the AOG. Their groups and bands, with that emphasis on self-_expression and inevitably on entertainment, have taken a grip of Sunday services. So while much singing, with all its vibes, is defined as ‘worship’ Bible preaching has been marginalised, and so has the demand to mortify worldliness as being not ‘seeker-sensitive.’ The Baptists, on the other hand, while adopting some of these ingredients, have largely swallowed the social gospel and so too has the ancient Waldensian church. Such denominations sharing a similar outlook have been drawn together. In the annual tax returns Italians are allowed to designate a certain amount of their taxes to churches or charities. Earlier this year the leading homosexual organisation in Italy announced that gays intended to designate the Waldensians as the group who were going to receive their tax money as the religious group who were most understanding and protective of homosexuals. There are between 100 and 200 of the Waldensian congregations meeting in fine large buildings in key places in all the big cities of Italy , and yet with tiny elderly congregations, and the buildings are hired for cultural and political meetings. The largest religious group in Italy after the Roman Catholics are in fact the Jehovah’s Witnesses with half a million members. They have achieved this total not by crusade evangelism with advertising enticing great crowds to football stadiums, nor by choirs and choreography and drama in Sunday services, but by steady personal work and literature.

 

                                                THE CITY OF MILAN

 

Greater Milan is the largest conurbation in Italy (though Rome as a city is larger). Eight million people live here, three times the population of Wales . The 45 minute journey south-west from the airport was drab, into industrial haze and past hundreds of factories lining both sides of a busy motorway for kilometre after kilometre. The land here is flat; not a hill offers any distraction from all these dirty concrete flat-roofed buildings with their hoardings. It is far better to take off in the other direction from Milan gong north towards the nearby Swiss border.

 

We went into the heart of Milan on a train and the underground on Friday morning ascending steps from the tube and emergi
ng next to the famous Cathedral, Opera House and Galleria complex at the heart of downtown Milan . The Opera House was having a facelift and was hidden behind grey sheeting. The Galleria is a high magnificent arcade of expensive shops built like a church and in the shape of a cross. The Cathedral is a vast edifice which utterly dominates the city. The front is the last part being renovated, and like the Opera House is covered in scaffolding which faces the pigeon-infested square. The sides of the Cathedral are now pristine. Five hundred years old it is a magnificent example of renaissance architecture with its ceiling, statues, and vast panelled doors. It is a statement of the Counter Reformation that Protestant word-centred worship and access to God through Christ alone by the Spirit was not going to disturb the papal-priestly religious structures of Italy . The best part of the cathedral is its roof. We paid fifteen euros (ten pounds) for the three of us to take the elevator rather than ascend the 250 steps. There were many more steps to climb when we arrived up on the roof walking under the flying buttresses and between the forest of columns from the top of which statues gaze out across the city. The cathedral is crowned by a large golden statue of Mary looking up, with her arms plaintively moving out from her body. On the roof we sat and had the ham and olives rolls that Cristina had prepared.

 

Around the corner from this Cathedral is a two storey Catholic Book Shop packed with thousands of books. If one could be complacent at the absence of any services or clergymen in the Cathedral so that one began to think of Rome as a museum then this shop, bulging with modern books, reminded you of the vast network of churches covering continental Europe explaining Rome’s position on the nature of reconciliation between mankind and God as one mediated to men and women by the actions of ‘mother church’ alone. She has an image of authority, scholarship, reverence and trinitarian orthodoxy which would make some inquirers, judging between Rome ‘s claims and Italy ‘s few Protestant churches, pause and wait a long time. How modest are the wonderful efforts of both Alfa & Omega and Passaggio in comparison. How few and far between are the free grace churches in this vast nation. I felt I was witnessing the planting of a mustard seed, but what promises are linked to that enterprise. There are round a thousand such Roman Catholic Book Shops throughout Italy , well stocked and managed, all in the most prominent places in most cities and found at every shrine and place of pilgrimage. Why shouldn’t these shops in this age of aggioronamento also stock and sell the publications of Passaggio and Alfa & Omega? They are already displaying and selling the books the Waldensians publish. There is a ready made network of book shops in Italy . May that day come.

 

“THE INSTITUTE FOR EVANGELICAL FORMATION AND DOCUMENTATION”

 

On Saturday we drove 150 miles to Padua and the residential study centre of the Institute for Evangelical Formation and Documentation (IFED). This architecturally impressive three storey building standing in its own grounds was opened ten months ago with lecture rooms, dormitories, library, computer room and the church’s meeting room where its residential Sunday congregation meets. Its director who chaired the meeting is Dr Pietro Bolognesi who studied at the Aix Seminary. Its Vice-Principal is Dr Leonardo de Chirico who studied in the Evangelical Theological of Wales in Bridgend and got his Ph.D. from King’s College, London . His first book has appeared, "Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism," ( Bern ; Peter Lang, 337 pages) in which he examines the way leading men have grappled with this issue. Those theologians are Berkouwer, Van Til, David Wells, Bloesch, Herbert Carson and Stott. It is a splendid book.

 

90% of the money for the ambitious project of building this Institute was raised within Italy itself. At the present it is offering lodging places for Christians where they may sleep while on holiday. Padua is just 45 minutes away from Venice and is central for north Italy . Dr Pietro Bolognesi has had influence among the Plymouth Brethren Assemblies of Italy which have been the most biblically thoughtful groups in that nation’s Protestant congregations. The Institute has promoted the Reformed world and life view by its conferences and also by an impressive six-monthly journal of theology full of meaty articles and reviews. Its journals tend to be single issue editions on such subjects as ethics, biblical theology and leading theologians. It has been running for over 15 years.

 

One remembers an Institute with a similar vision started in Toronto about forty years ago which disappointed the Dutch immigrant Christians who had hoped it would become a stronghold for the historical evangelical faith. It became the doorway by which more Dutch liberal thinking entered the Christian Reformed Church in North America . The Italian Institute is rooted in more fundamentalist soil. Those whose Christian background of ‘Assembly Principles’ has been pre-millennial dispensational ("Why paint the deck-chairs on the ship when the Titanic is going down?") have been presented in the Institute and its publications with a new attitude of cultural understanding and engagement, showing them, incidentally, the evangelistic opportunities that such thinking offers. The organisers do not want to alienate the fellowship of those who have been dubbed the ‘stepchildren of the Reformation’. Italian Protestantism has enough divisions without this new venture further polarising believers. On this occasion about 70 men and women came to hear a paper on, "When Orthodoxy is Not Enough." Some had travelled 300 miles from north of Rome to be present. With the exciting development of this new facility the supporters of the Institute wait on God for his blessing and guidance as to future progress.

 

                                                            VENICE

 

After the peace and happiness of the Sunday services at which we were joined by three women from America , Monday was spent travelling the 160 miles to Venice and our first experience of that extraordinary city. How vast it is, and four huge cruise ships, high in the water, had deposited their passengers there to explore the city before going off again with them around the other ports of the Mediterranean . No cars are on the islands on which Venice has been built. The city is not wheelchair friendly as every hundred yards there is a steep humpbacked bridge of ten or so steps up and down to allow the beautifully lacquered gondolas to pass beneath. What a colourful sight the gondoliers make in their straw boaters and striped sweaters, but we heard none of them singing. Many of the buildings in Venice are over 500 years old and the sights in every direction are magnificent. The city goes on and on and we walked ourselves into the ground. There are the water buses and we bought a day ticket which allowed us to travel all round the city, up the Grand Canal in the morning, alighting at St Mark’s famous square with the Doge’s Palace and Cathedral. We took the water bus back at the end of the afternoon to a spot near the ocean liners where
our car was packed. One felt one needed to go back for a week to take in everything. We had seen 1% of what Venice has for the curious.

 

GEOFF THOMAS