Rome, November 6-9, 2014

Science and Theology in the Italian Waldensian Church

Giovanni Pistone

Collegio Carlo Alberto, Moncalieri


My last affiliation as a professor of Probability and Statistics was with the engineering school Politecnico di Torino, from which I retired in 2010 to become a visiting researcher of the de Castro Statistics Initiative, a no-profit organisation which is hosted by the Collegio Carlo Alberto, a joint venture of the Compagnia di San Paolo and the University of Torino located in Moncalieri, Torino. Some years ago I have been ordained predicatore locale (lay preacher) of the Waldensian Church, Turin. This double affiliation should explain my peculiar interest in the activities organised by the group led by professor Giandomenico Boffi as a part of the Sefir research program. The present paper is a slightly expanded version of my talk at the workshop held in Villa Lituania, Rome, on November 6-9 2014.

As a scientist and as a believer, I recognise myself in the words of the director of CTNS Robert J. Russel1 in his introduction of the SATURN project

The project will encourage scientists to recognise that their research is consistent with their faith and that their scientific labour is a genuine form of religious vocation.

As a church member, I am concerned with the attitude of my own church community and of the full Ecumene in scientific issues, mainly because this aspect of the church life engages my own responsibility as a scientist. However, two statements are of order from the very beginning of my short contribution.

Waldensian Church in Italy

The Waldensian Church, formally Chiesa Evangelica Valdese, is an evangelical protestant church in the Presbyterian and Synodal Calvin tradition. In 1975 Italian Waldensians fully merged with Italian Methodists, to give rise to the Unione delle Chiese Metodiste e Valdesi. There is also a deep communion with the Italian Baptists: there is a generalised exchange of pastors and common general meetings. There are also very good relations with Italian Adventists, with the Italian Salvation Army and with the Chiesa dei Fratelli. The Waldensian Church is a founding member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches and of the World Council of Churches.

The Waldensian church is a small: membership is about 30000 in Italy and 15000 in South America. Full time pastors are about 100. A member is either born in a Waldensian family, baptised and later confirmed in his community, or holds the one baptism from any church and, as an adult, presents a request to be admitted, together with written confession of faith to the assembly of Elders in a local community. The Italian Synod, a joint assembly of pastors and elected delegate, meets every year during the last week of August in Torre Pellice, Torino. The synod, precisely the documented discussions and the astablished rules, are the unique source of authority in the Waldensian church.


Beginning of XVI century, the followers of the French preacher and reformer Peter Waldo (1140–1218) had survived only in a small enclave in the west Italian Alps, called the (Waldensian) Valleys (main centre today being Torre Pellice). The church's ministries consisted of unmarried travelling preachers, named barba (from beard = uncle), educated in country schools, and moving from one family to another in a rural environment.

The Valleys are actually near Geneva, where John Calvin and other Swiss reformers was active. In 1532 an assembly of barbas and lay people, the Chanforan Synod, decided to join the Calvin's reformation. Waldensian became a reformed church and started to build temples. From this time on, the Waldensian obtained the political support of northern protestant states.

Many Waldensian have considered, and somehow still consider today, the survival of the community in the Valleys enclave to be a providential event. A sort of Sinai event, e.g. faith resting on liberation and survival of the community. This is the ground of a wide spread legend, telling that Paul actually went to Spain (as he says in Romans 15:24) and founded one of his churches while passing through the Valleys.

Modern history

After a period of repression and fighting, the Waldensian obtained freedom of religion in a restricted enclave in the Western Italian Apls. It is another chapter of the epic, called Glorioso rimpatrio (1689). In 1848 king of Piedmont Carlo Alberto granted full civil and political rights to Waldensians and Jews. The date of this event, February 17, is the national memorial festival for Waldensian.

Waldensian joined enthusiastically the wars for the unification of Italy and accompanied the Piedmont's armies building temples and selling bibles. The Seminary was eventually moved to Rome. In the same period, in Turin, there was a strong contrast between the Waldensian pastors and the Salesians of Giovanni Bosco. Theology was liberal.

During the fascism the Waldensian church experienced repression. During the fall of fascism many members of the church participated in the fighting against fascists and German army. Today the orientation of the main stream is politically left oriented, ethically pro-choice and politically correct in communication. But there is no social or ethical church doctrine, apart from the Synodal discussion and deliberation. The church service are supported by members contribution only, while the comparatively large collection from the 8/1000 tax source is used for deaconal and cultural activity.

Contributions from the Seminary and the pastorate

The Seminary Facoltà Valdese di Teologia in Rome has a standard European university structure 3+2+3. Students preparing in the perspective of ordination are resident. Lay preachers, catechists, local organisers, are expected to go for the nonresidential undergraduate degree.

Faculty is small and consists of professors of Old Testament, New Testament, Systematic Theology, History of Christianity, Practical Theology. Other background topics have lecturers: Greek, Hebrew, Philosophy. No natural science topic is in the curriculum at any of the levels. The few contributions to the topics of our interest here come from the professors of Systematic Theology, mainly in relation with the ethical issues raised by modern science and technology. The general orientation in the Seminary, in favour of the theology of Karl Barth, prompts for a sharp rejection of any forms of Natural Theology and a very cautious consideration of those authors, such as Jürgen Moltman and Wolfhart Pannenberg, who have given a serious consideration to the use of concepts coming from contemporary science to theology.

However, a few Waldensian personalities have given relevant contribution to the Science and Theology debate.

Giovanni Miegge (1900-1961) has been a leading personality especially during and after the WWII.3 In particular his Per una fede (1952) gives a concise overview of his own theological orientation and world view. It contains a remarkable chapter on the theology of creation. He has been author of the few contributions, in church journals and church seminars, on the theological issues prompted by modern science e.g. relativity, quantum, cosmology, as early as 1945. He published an extended and ambitious contribution titled Science and theology, a problem of the church in occasion of a week-long seminar Theology in presence of the scientific vision of the word at Agape 1958.4 In this essay, he starts from a first-hand knowledge of what was going on in Europe, quoting C.J. Dippel, P. Ricoeur, C.F. von Weizäcker, G. Howe, E. Schlink, to build an argument based on the theological re-evaluation of the notion of a natural or sacred history as the theatre of God's Providence.

Giovanna Pons has been ordained pastor in 1981. She has been teacher of mathematics and Physics and started his studies in theology after the opening of the Waldensian church on the women ordination. Her master dissertation discusses topics in Science. She jointly authored in 1988 a book5 with Elena Bein Ricco titled Scientific Knowledge and Faith. The book vividly articulate a position on the theology of the scientific knowledge. The Author introduce first a notion of modern science as based on critical realism to contrast the uncritical scientism of the old science. After that they examine the peculiar answers given by W. Pannenberg and A. N. Whitehead to the challenges of both theology and science. Their conclusion is that theology is a peculiar science, mainly because its object is the Creator and is not any created object like the ones of the other scientific disciplines. They also argue that Pannenberg and Whitehead answers to Barth's arguments come short in dealing with the full force of the Bertian rejection of Natural Theology. After other episodic contribution to this subject, Giovanna Pons turned her interests and work to Bio-ethics.

Bio-ethical issues have been the concern of research touching scientific topics by the theologian Sergio Rostagno, currently Emeritus professor. He had a leading position in this area as member of the Commissione bioetica della Tavola Valdese from its beginnings and as coordinator from 1992 to 2007. Currently the coordinator is the philosopher Luca Savarino.

Fulvio Ferrario holds today the Theology chair. His most important sistematic contribution on Systematic Theology is God in the Word (2008).6 He tags himself as "barthian" and consequently, he adamantly rejects any Natural Theology. He rejects also any theology of nature, but points to Wolfarth Pannenberg for a second opinion, see Dio nella Parola, sec. 1.5. He made occasional contributions on scientific topics e.g., a Faculty address during the Darwin's year.

Cultural work

From his very beginning, the Waldensian church has put great emphasis on culture and scholarship. Main media are the Seminary's teaching, the Synod's decisions and minutes, the Pastor's preaching and teaching, but many other media have been supported over the years and actually contain few but relevant contribution to the Science and Theology debate.

The Claudiana publishing house is the main publisher of the Waldensian church. Claudiana has published, among other works of Alistair McGrath, the Italian translation his Science and Religion. An Introduction 19997. The periodicals are the Riforma (weakly issues) and Protestantesimo (4 issues per year). Cultural centres have organised seminars and workshop e.g., Pascal.


I hope this modest paper would convey at least a few information about an almost unknown reality in the Church. I want to conclude with a couple of personal thoughts.

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork (Ps 19:1)

I acknowledge the support of pastor Giovanna Pons and of Luca Romano in the preparation of this article.

  1. Robert J. Russel. "Launching Project SATURN: Scientific and Theological Understanding of Randomness in Nature". Theology and Science 11(4) 2013 331-333.

  2. The Waldensian Church is a reformed evangelical church and hence shares the Nicene Creed with the rest of the Western Church.

  3. Among his works one should mention at least: the historical essay Lutero. Vol. I. L'uomo e il pensiero fino alla Dieta di Worms (1483-1521) Claudiana Torino 1946, reedited as Lutero Giovane (Young Luther), Feltrinelli Milano 1964; the study in the history of the dogma La Vergine Maria (Virgin Mary), Claudiana Torino 1950; the theological meditation Per una fede, Claudiana Torino 1952.

  4. Agape is a meeting center the Waldensian Church opened in 1951. In Aug 25-29 1958 meeting the theme was La teologia in presenza della visione scientifica del mondo, with contribution of scientists and theologians. Some of the contributions are published in the Seminary's journal Protestantesimo 1959 issue 2. In particular, G. Miegge Scienza e teologia, problema della chiesa 66-79, reprinted in the collection G. Miegge. Dalla "riscoperta di Dio" all'impegno nella società. Studi teologici. A cura di C. Tron. Claudiana, Torino 1977.

  5. Elena Bein Ricco e Giovanna Pons. Conoscenza scientifica e fede. Incontri e scontri tra saperi del nostro tempo. Introduzione di E. Rambaldi. No 57 in Piccola Collana Moderna, Serie Teologica. Claudiana, Torino 1988. Giovanna Pons. La luce buona e la luce vera. Sermoni ed interventi. Prefazione di G. Bouchard. Trauben, Torino.

  6. Fulvio Ferrario. Dio nella Parola. No 6 in Theologica. Claudiana ,Torino 2008.

  7. Alister E. McGrath. Scienza e fede in dialogo. I fondamenti. No 1 di Theologica. Claudiana, Torino 2002.