As promised in Part 3, this post will begin a discussion of natural law in the thought of the Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562), but first I want to touch on the broader issue of natural law in the context of Reformation theology.
More than any other Reformer, John Calvin is appealed to for his insight on natural law. This is probably due to the stubborn persistence among scholars to single him out as the chief early codifier of Protestant doctrine. While this approach is understandable given the force of habit, the discussion should be widened beyond Calvin to include those Reformers who either preceded him or were contemporaries of his and the later representatives of Protestant orthodoxy. Though Calvin talks a fair bit about natural law, his treatment of it is unsystematic and imprecise compared to the medievals and some of his contemporaries. Susan Schreiner, a Calvin expert and University of Chicago Divinity School professor, thinks Calvin’s discussion of natural law should be seen as an extension of his doctrine of providence. In her view, Calvin uses natural law for the practical purpose of explaining how order is preserved after the fall in society, law, and morality.
As time passes in the sixteenth century, however, Protestant theologians develop increasingly sophisticated doctrines of natural law that they situate in the wider context of the grand moral tradition with Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Scotus, and many others. What is striking here is the degree to which Martyr and his fellow Reformer and former student Jerome Zanchi, for example, show continuity with Thomas and Scotus. The Jesuit historical theologian John Patrick Donnelly expresses a similar viewpoint. “Does Martyr’s scholasticism have affinities to any particular medieval school? Yes. Martyr cannot fairly be called a Thomist, yet his scholasticism stands far closer to Thomism than to any other major school of the Middle Ages. His training was mainly Thomistic and he cites Aquinas far more than any other scholastic except Lombard.”
The astonishing thing about the rise of Reformed scholasticism in the 1540s and 50s is that its medieval roots run heavily to Thomism and Scotism, hardly at all to nominalism. This challenges the opinion of several prominent contemporary Roman Catholic and Protestant intellectuals, who credit the emphasis on the will in Protestant ethics to the influence of William of Occam rather than to medieval Augustinian antecedents.
Use of traditional natural-law terms in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant orthodoxy show significant points of continuity with the thought of Thomas and Scotus. The discontinuities stem from disputes over the interpretation of key biblical passages, an expanded sense of how sin affects reason and human nature, and a criticism of works righteousness, to mention a few key areas. Calvin, Martyr, and the Reformed scholastics all share the conviction that Scripture is the cognitive foundation of theology and that moral arguments can be based on precepts drawn from that foundation.
Part 5 will begin to sketch out Martyr’s view of natural law.
This entry has been cross-posted to my blog, Common Notions.