Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Pietro Vermigli: Natural Law Makes us "Run to Christ"

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Pietro Vermigli by Hans Asper (1560)

THE REFORMER PETER MARTYR VERMIGLI presents us with a notion of the natural law that is more compatible with the Classical and Roman Catholic understanding of that doctrine. Far less pessimistic that his contemporary John Calvin, the Italian Reformer remained more faithful to his Aristotelian and Roman Catholic sources, at least in the area of the natural moral law, than Calvin. In the area of the natural law at least, he writes more in tune with the realism of the via antiqua than with the nominalism of the via moderna. In fact, contrary to so many of the Reformers, Vermigli did not disdain Aristotle, but even wrote a commentary on the Nichomachean Ethics. This stands in direct contrast with Luther, who claimed in his "Open Letter to the Christian Nobility" that "God has sent [Aristotle] as a plague upon us for our sins." Moreover, Vermigli's view in the area of natural theology is "broadly Thomistic with a strong Augustinian accent," thus assuring a more traditional bent. Grabill, 102.


Born in Florence, Italy, Peter Martyr Vermigli (1500-1562), originally Piero Mariano, was admitted into the Augustinian order, and was named after St. Peter Martyr. He was educated at the Augustinian friary in Fiesole, and then transferred to St. John of Verdara near Padua. Graduating in 1527, he preached in Brescia, Pisa, Venice, and Rome. In 1530, Peter Martyr was elected abbot of the Augustinian friary at Spoleto, and in 1533, prior of the convent of St. Peter ad Aram in Naples. Exposed to the influence of Protestant theologians' works, including Martin Bucher and Huldrych Zwingli, and eventually succumbing to their views, Peter Martyr drew the ire of authorities, including those of the Spanish viceroy of Naples and the superiors of his order. Summoned to appear before a chapter of his order and facing likely disciplining, Peter Martyr instead escaped to Pisa and then to Zürich and Basel, ultimately settling at Strasbourg where, in violation of his vows, he married his first wife Catherine Dammartin of Metz, and was appointed professor of theology. As Grabill summarizes it, "he was forced to move every five years on average . . . . [a]s a result, his institutional gravitas was in a state of near constant flux." Grabill, 99. Accepting an invitation by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Vermigli was appointed regius professor of divinity at Oxford where he was actively involved in a variety of theological disputes. When the Catholic Queen Mary assumed the throne, Vermigli returned to Strasbourg where he taught theology. Vermigli ultimately settled in Zürich accepting a chair of Hebrew, whence he spent the rest of his days. He participated in the Colloquy at Poissy, a failed effort in 1561 to reconcile the Calvinist Huguenots and Catholics in France. A prolific writer, Vermigli published Biblical commentaries and various treatises. He died in 1562.

Similar to Calvin, Vermigli did not undertake to fashion a synthetic analysis of the natural law in the manner of St. Thomas. Yet his attendance to the notion of a nature-based morality independent--yet consistent with--revealed morality was more focused than Calvin. Vermigli's treatment of the natural law is most manifest in his exegesis of the first two chapters of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans. This is not unexpected, since the first two chapters of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans is the textus classicus when it comes to the Scriptural warrant for the natural law. In his treatment of this text, Vermigli shows marked differences from Calvin. "The fundamental differences between Calvin and Vermigli have to do with the latter's more extensive and disciplined use of natural theology/natural law. . . . While Vermigli acknowledges reason's post-lapsarian limitations, he is more sanguine than Calvin regarding its ability to grasp the precepts of the natural law through sense experience, moral intuition, and dialectics." Grabill, 102, 103-04.

St. Paul

Unquestionably, Vermigli believes in the existence of a natural theology: both the world and our minds are constructed so as to be able to glean from creation the existence of divinity. "God has planted prolepsis in our minds," Vermigli states, "that is, anticipations and notions through which we are led to conceive noble and exalted opinions about the divine nature." Grabill, 110 (quoting Vermigli, Romans, f. 21r; CP, 1.2.3).

That natural knowledge outside of revelation is also found in the area of morality. Vermigli suggests that there is a natural moral theology that finds its roots in the imago Dei, the image of God, that is in man, and which persists, albeit in an attenuated or weakened fashion, in post-lapsarian man. Since our souls are akin to God their creator, they reflect "justice, wisdom, and many other most noble habits," and "also the knowledge of what is right and honest, and what is wrong and unclean." Grabill, 111 (quoting Vermigli, Romans, f. 22v; CP, 1.2.4) Without doubt, Vermigli departs from Calvin's pessimistic assessment of man's ability to know of God and his law. Grabill, 113-14.

Following St. Thomas's commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, Vermigli distinguishes between two types of knowledge of God. The first is "effectual," and second "frigid" or ineffectual. Effectual knowledge of God leads to spiritual transformation that is expressed by good deeds. Grabill, 114. Truth obtained through Faith, as distinguished from truth obtained through Reason or Nature, is "more likely to lead to action." Grabill, at 114. Therefore, he affirms with St. Thomas that, without Faith and the aid of God's grace, the "natural law is ineffective in leading human beings to the good." Grabill, 114. "Surely," states Vermigli,
this does not happen because one truth by itself and taken on its own is stronger than another. Truth has the same nature on both sides; the difference arises from the ways and means by which it is perceived. Natural strength is corrupt, weakened and defiled through sin, so that the truth that it grasps has no effect. But faith has joined with it the divine inspiration and power of the Holy Spirit so that it apprehends truth effectively. Hence the difference consists in the faculty by which truth is apprehended. This should not be taken to deny that more than we know through nature is revealed to us by the Scriptures, the New as well as the Old Testament. But we have drawn a comparison between the same truth when known by nature and when perceived by faith.
Grabill, 114 (quoting Vermigli, Romans, ff. 20r-21v; CP, 1.2.11) . To have effective knowledge of the natural law, that is, knowledge that results in an ability to follow that law, requires, in the ultimate analysis following the Fall, Faith and Grace in Christ. True: external compliance to the natural law may be found in other cultures and times:
[N]o nation is so savage or barbarous that it is not touched by some sense of right, justice, and honesty. . . . We might say instead that by this freedom our works may agree with the civil or economic law, which has regard to outward acts and is not so much concerned with the will.
Grabill, 117 (quoting Vermigli, "Free Will," f. 102, par. 4). While perhaps the natural law or even the Mosaic law may be followed externally and imperfectly or partially either as a result of natural goodness or the threat of human law, it is impossible for wounded, fallen man to follow the natural law perfectly, that is, with full internal assent. To follow the natural law with such full internal assent requires us to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength, clearly an act that requires Faith and Grace. Grabill, 116.

For Vermigli (and unlike Calvin), the natural law is not principally condemnatory, though it has a role in informing the conscience and the internal forum. "Vermigli contends that God did not reveal such natural knowledge for the sole purpose of establishing his wrath against the Gentiles," Grabill, 115, but rather to force us to "admit that they were too weak while knowing what they should do," and so to make then "run to Christ." Grabill, 116 (quoting Vermigli, Romans, f. 23v; CP, 1.2.8 "proinde necessarium esse, ad Christum confugere").

For Vermigli, the natural law has a more positive role of prompting man towards God as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. This places him opposite Calvin. In almost a Kantian manner, Calvin appears to have maintained that although the natural law may be objectively manifest in the created order, since the Fall man had no ability subjectively to inform himself of that order. Thus, post-lapsarian man had no ability to know the moral Ding an sich that was vouchsafed us in the created order. Vermigli, on the other hand, contended that even after the Fall, man had the ability subjectively to comprehend and so to know the natural law manifest in the created order, but man's knowledge, though real, was not effectual without Faith and Grace. For Vermigli, the corruption of man, therefore, was more manifest in the will than in reason.

Vermigli properly insisted that the knowledge of moral good acquired by nature does not vitiate the need for revelation. "In Vermigli's judgment the phrase by nature [in Romans 2:14] should not be construed in such a way as to exclude divine revelation or assistance vis-à-vis the requirements of morality." Grabill, 117.

In sum,
Vermigli distinguishes two principal uses for why knowledge of the moral law was implanted in the human mind. The first, corresponding with a "frigid" knowledge of God, exists to nullify any excuse by providing objective and universally accessible knowledge of the moral law and the judgment to come. The second, corresponding with an "effectual" knowledge of God, exists to increase human "readiness" and "strength" to do that which is known to be just and honest. It is the second use, as Vermigli insists, that prods humanity to pursue true righteousness and that serves to renew God's image in us.
Grabill, 119-20.

To quote Vermigli:
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, which Paul now touches upon.
Grabill, 120 (quoting Vermigli, Romans, f. 44 r).

The contrast between Vermigli's teaching on the one hand with Calvin or Barth's teaching on the other hand is striking. If there is to be dialogue between the Classical and Catholic view of the natural law and the Reformed or Protestant tradition, it must be through the likes of someone like Vermigli, and not someone like Calvin or Barth. In the area of natural law, the latter two are simply too far down the path of error to allow for easy reconciliation or rapprochement.

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