This post examines Peter Martyr Vermigli’s understanding of natural law, while Part 6 will take up the natural-law thinking of Jerome Zanchi, Martyr’s former student and colleague.
Martyr was born in Florence in 1499, entered the Augustinian Canons, and took a doctorate in theology at the leading center of Renaissance Aristotelianism, the University of Padua. His favorite authors were Aristotle and Thomas. In Italy he enjoyed a distinguished career as teacher, preacher, and abbot. By 1540 he was already Protestant by conviction; after persuading many citizens and canons, including Zanchi, to convert, Martyr fled to Zurich in 1542 to escape the Inquisition. During the last twenty years of his life he taught at Strasbourg, Oxford, and Zurich. He died in 1562 two years before Calvin. Over half a dozen of his students became important theologians. And all together there were about 110 printings of his various writings, which consist of about twenty-five massive volumes. Within Reformed circles he was universally admired for his piety, prudence, and scholarship. (This paragraph is adapted from John Patrick Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” Viator 7 (1976): 442).
While Martyr disagrees with Thomas nearly as often as he adopts his teaching, they both view theology as a science whose principles are borrowed from revelation. In fact, Martyr’s discussion of the nature of theology borrows the content, language, and examples of the opening question of Thomas’s Summa, but without acknowledging their source. Like Thomas, Martyr tries to incorporate as much from Aristotle in his system as is consistent with Scripture; thus in his commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics Martyr usually concludes each chapter by showing the agreement of Aristotle’s teaching with the Bible. (Adapted from Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” 443).
In his theological works Martyr cites Aristotle ninety-eight times — more than ten times as often as Calvin does in the Institutes. Martyr’s works cite thirteen other Aristotelian philosophers a total of eighty-five times. Martyr also refers to twenty medieval scholastic authors, particularly Peter Lombard and Thomas. And he never cites a nominalist work with approval. He agrees with Thomas far more often than he lets on. This is so because their theologies are a synthesis of Scripture and Aristotelian philosophy. (Adapted from Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” 443).
For Martyr, like Thomas, all knowledge is either revealed or acquired. Theology is revealed knowledge and philosophy is acquired knowledge. (Some might even say philosophy is an acquired taste.) Knowledge of God breaks down along parallel lines as revealed and acquired knowledge. Revealed knowledge of God is restricted and refers to things that can only be known by special revelation, such as the doctrines of justification, forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection of the body. Acquired or natural knowledge of God, however, is unrestricted and refers to things that can be known through nature, reason, or conscience.
Martyr uses two explanations to account for the natural knowledge of God. First, knowledge of God can arise simply from reflection on the Creator’s workmanship. And, second, it can arise from certain information the Creator hardwired into the mind. Martyr thought the hardwired information led people “to conceive noble and exalted opinions about the divine nature” and, as a result, to pattern their behavior consistent with those opinions. Martyr calls the first type contemplation, and sees it illustrated in Romans 1, and the second he calls practical, and sees it illustrated in the natural moral law of Romans 2. Like Luther and Calvin, he held to the existence of a universally imprinted knowledge of God that justly holds people accountable for their innate moral consciousness and awareness of God.
According to Romans 2:14, the classic natural-law passage, even though the Gentiles did not have the Decalogue, they did “by nature” the things contained in it. “The light of nature,” declares Martyr, allowed them “to discern between honesty and dishonesty, between right and wrong. So if we look upon the life and manners of Cato, Atticus, Socrates, and Aristides, we shall see that in justice and civil comeliness they far excelled a great many Christians and Jews. Therefore they cannot excuse themselves for not having had a law.”
Martyr disagrees with Augustine and Ambrose who both thought the apostle Paul was referring to believing Gentiles — and not unredeemed humanity — in Romans 2:14. To justify his position, he gave two reasons why knowledge of the moral law is implanted in the human mind. The first is to take away all excuses by providing objective and universal knowledge of the moral law and the fact of future judgment. The second is to motivate us to do what we know to be just and honest. This is what prods us to pursue righteousness and serves to renew God’s image in us. According to Martyr, “The image of God, in which man was created, is not utterly blotted out but obfuscated in the fall, and for that reason is in need of renewal by God. So natural knowledge is not fully quenched in our minds, but much of it still remains….” While natural law takes away excuses, Martyr thinks it can only effectively motivate believers to pursue righteousness because apart from Christ, as they already know, it is impossible to please God.
So much for Martyr, in the next post we will take up Zanchi.
This entry has been cross-posted to my blog, Common Notions.