Posts tagged with: peter martyr vermigli

This post concludes my series on the largely forgotten catholicity of Protestant ethics, with a few brief remarks and reflections.

My goal for this series, as stated in Part 1, was to show that voluntarism and nominalism are not the same thing, that two important Reformed theologians (Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi) had more than a passing interest in Thomism (or intellectualism as Pope Benedict XVI referred to it in his now famous Regensburg address), and that evangelicals need to revisit their wariness on the capacity of reason to discern moral truth. Much more could be written on each of these topics, and likely will be on this blog and some others, but the fundamental point should not be missed that two significant sixteenth-century Reformed theologians break the modern mold for Protestant ethics. Among the thinkers and writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I can assure you there are numerous others who also break the mold.

For almost one hundred years now, Protestant theologians and ethicists have held natural law at arm’s length. During this same period, Protestant theologians have also largely shunned any vestige of the scholastic and metaphysical base of Reformation-era theology in order to gain acceptance in the modern Academy and to increase their contemporary cachet. Whether this strategy has been successful, or if it is even coherent to begin with, is beyond this blog series to determine, but I have my doubts.

It is enough to simply point out that natural law is tied to philosophical realism — the belief that the created world is the external foundation of knowledge for all science. (Read Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1, pp. 223-33). And that a realist metaphysic, was the agreed upon philosophical approach from the very beginning of Christianity to somewhere in the eighteenth century when modern currents of thought began to chip it away. (For those who doubt whether this is so, take up and read Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine). According to the Belgic Confession, the world “is a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God.” It is high time that Protestants recover a sense of their connectedness with the broader and older Christian moral tradition and take up once again “the invisible things of God.”

“If nominalism is correct,” as Bavinck warned, “we can forget about science altogether.”

This entry has been cross-posted to my blog, Common Notions.

This post sketches out the rough outline of Jerome Zanchi’s understanding of natural law. An interesting difference between Zanchi and Martyr is that Thomistic elements are far more important in Zanchi’s theology than in Martyr’s theology.

The historian John Patrick Donnelly thinks Zanchi is the best example of “Calvinist Thomism,” meaning a theologian who was Reformed in theology and Thomistic in philosophy and methodology. Zanchi was born and raised near Bergamo where he entered the Augustinian Canons and received a Thomistic training. Martyr was his prior at Lucca and was instrumental in his conversion to Protestantism. Zanchi spent ten years as a Nicodemite, or crypto-Calvinist, teaching theology before fleeing north to Geneva in 1552, where he studied for a year under Calvin. Later he served as professor of theology at Strasbourg, Heidelberg, and Neustadt until his death in 1590. After his death his relatives gathered most of his writings into his Opera in eight large tomes, which went through three editions. In all, there were about seventy printings of his writings. (See John Patrick Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” Viator 7 (1976): 444).

Zanchi planned a great Protestant “summa” modeled after Thomas’ Summa theologica. According to Donnelly, the first four volumes of Zanchi’s Opera, which appeared under separate titles as he finished them at Heidelberg, cover the same material at twice the length as the first half of Thomas’s Summa. Even though Zanchi never completed his “summa,” it is unrivaled for thoroughness and synthetic power in sixteenth-century Protestant theology. (See Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” 444).

Zanchi begins his analysis of natural law by noticing that canon lawyers and theologians restrict their idea of natural law to human nature, defining it as “the law common to all nations and that’s obeyed everywhere by natural instinct not by any statue.” Civil lawyers also use this definition for the law of nations because all people employ these laws and are led by them. Examples of such laws include statues concerning God, public worship, religion, obedience to superiors and the state, and defense of oneself, one’s family, and the state. (more…)

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.

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.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, my aim is to probe the natural-law doctrines of only a few influential sixteenth-century Protestant theologians.

Some, such as John Calvin, may already be familiar to you, while others, such as Peter Martyr Vermigli (known as Martyr) and Jerome Zanchi, may be entirely new. What is surprising about Martyr and Zanchi is how much their natural-law doctrines are in line with the metaphysical essentialism of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. Before going any further I should forewarn you that what I just said challenges a good many Protestant and Roman Catholic stereotypes.

The most common stereotype is that the Reformers and their successors were indebted to the nominalist metaphysics of William of Occam, which resulted in the Bible being treated as a law book and God being conceived as an arbitrary and irrational sovereign. In subsequent posts, this interpretation will be examined in relation to the thought of Marytr and Zanchi. So stay tuned for more on this topic.

However, at this point, I should mention that the stereotype is largely accurate in regard to the modern natural-law tradition associated with Samuel Pufendorf and later thinkers but not with Hugo Grotius. The distinguished medievalist Francis Oakley has shown recently that Grotius’s famous remark in The Law of War and Peace about natural law being valid “even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, [namely] that there is no God, or that the affairs of men are of no concern to him” does not point to a fundamental break with scholastic patterns of thought. In fact, Oakley thinks no real novelty attaches to the way in which Grotius identifies the ultimate grounding of natural law. He provides two reasons to support his view.

First, counterfactual assertions concerning the existence of God were commonplace in antiquity, the middle ages, and later. Grotius was not unique in his use of counterfactual arguments. Second, according to Oakley, “understood in the broader context of his natural law thinking, Grotius’s impious hypothesis can be seen to witness less to any great secular novelty than to the continuing dialectic between two distinct theories concerning the metaphysical grounding of natural law which the early modern natural law thinkers had inherited from their medieval and late medieval predecessors. In the De jure belli et pacis, it turns out, he was maneuvering for position in such a way as to distance himself from the more voluntaristic approach with which he had appeared to sympathize in his earlier De jure praedae (“On the Law of Booty”) and in accordance with which even the content of natural law was understood to be grounded in the mandates of a legislating divine will” (p. 66).

The second most common stereotype, particularly among evangelicals, is to assert that Thomas’s synthesis of Aristotle and Augustine started Christian theology on the way to secularization. According to Carl Henry, founding editor of Christianity Today and prolific evangelical theologian, “Thomas may have thought he was directing Aristotelian thought God-ward; instead, he grounded Christian theism and morality on secular turf.”

I will respond to these stereotypes in due course, but I first want to mention four Protestant doctrines in which natural law historically played an important role, which I will take up in my next post.

This post has been cross-posted in my blog, Common Notions.

Blog author: sgrabill
posted by on Monday, July 17, 2006

In Part 4, we saw that post-Enlightenment philosophical currents such as Humean empiricism, utilitarianism, and legal positivism are the real culprits in the demise of natural law and not theological criticism from within Reformation theology, as many today take for granted. If this is so, why is contemporary Protestant theology so critical of natural law?

The most common reason why contemporary Protestants reject natural law is because they think it does not take sin seriously enough. And the second, which we will address in Part 6, is that natural law is thought to elevate “autonomous” human reason above divine revelation and therefore to rival God and Scripture.

To many Protestants, natural law seems to suggest that the order of being in the original creation has not been sufficiently disrupted by the fall. Moreover, they think reason is viewed too optimistically because it is still able to discern a rough outline of God’s will in creation. They think natural law is guilty of elevating reason above revelation as the standard of what is right and wrong, true and false. In other words, they think natural law leads to rationalism where reason is the standard by which everything is judged. Following Barth and his mediators, many think the divine image was fully destroyed with the result that nonbelievers now only experience God’s wrath and judgment and never God’s general providence (or common grace as it is called in some traditions).

Helmut Thielicke, a Lutheran theologian and sympathetic critic of Barth, says, since the fall, we confront at best “orders of preservation.” Yet, despite his affinity with Barth, Thielicke could not fully jettison natural law. He saw that it had abiding significance as a sign of the human quest for justice and right. For him, natural law is a goad to the pursuit of justice in an imperfect world. But it is difficult to respect the common search for justice without more solid theological and anthropological reasons.

But the modern Protestant view of natural law as simply an order of preservation does not do justice to the status it had in the older systems of theology. Reformers such as Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, John Calvin, and Wolfgang Musculus, contrary to popular opinion, incorporated large segments of the medieval as well as the patristic past into their systems of theology.

To be sure, they opposed certain high profile doctrines of late medieval and early sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism. But, as historian Richard Muller points out, “It is worth recognizing from the outset that the Reformation altered comparatively few of the major loci [or topics] of theology: the doctrines of justification, the sacraments, and the church received the greatest emphasis, while the doctrines of God, the trinity, creation, providence, predestination, and the last things were taken over by the magisterial Reformation virtually without alteration.” Importantly, the Reformers did not discard the custom, since the time of Thomas Aquinas, of treating ethics as a subdomain of the more fundamental doctrines of God and providence, which, as Muller contends, were carried into the Reformation without any significant alteration.

In Part 6, we will address the second most common Protestant criticism of natural law, namely, that it elevates autonomous human reason and therefore rivals God and Scripture.

This has been cross-posted to my blog on natural law, Common Notions.