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Vermigli on Man’s Natural Knowledge of the Final Judgment

May 6, 2009

The Last Judgment by Memling

God is set forth to be both mercifull and good, but yet in such sort, that his long sufferyng and patience have endes & limites. And by reason of this differryng of punishments which happeneth in thys lyfe, the Apostle is compelled to make mention of the last iudgement. Otherwyse, forasmuch as in this lyfe many are passed over unpunished, & others are most severly delt with all. God might be thought to deale uniustly. Wherefore he urgeth them wyth the feare of the last iudgement and affirmeth that the differryng of vengeaunce bryngeth more grevous punishmentes. Which thyng Valerius Maximus, an Ethenike writer speaketh of, that God by the grevousness of the punishment, recompenceth the long delaying thereof. Whereby it is playne, that Paule, disputing against the Ethenikes, which knew not the holy scriptures, reproved them by those thynges, which might be known by the lyght of nature. Wherefore there is a certayne naturall knowledge grafted in the hartes of men, touchyng the iudgement of God to come after thys lyfe: which thyng the fables also of the Poets declare, whiche have placed Minoes, Radamanthus, and Eacus as iudges in hel. Wherefore they shall be more grevously punished, which have bene the longer borne withall: because the contempt of God addeth no small waight unto theyr sinnes: which contempt semeth to have crept into them, whilest thy so long tyme despised his lenitie and patience. (Commentarie upon the Epistle to the Romanes, 50)

This passage is interesting for a couple of reasons:  1) Knowledge of “other-worldly” stuff is often confined to the realm of faith, but here Vermigli attributes the knowledge of a final reckoning of spiritual and physical affairs to the natural man. 2) Vermigli notes that Paul uses arguments from reason because the Greeks did not accept the authority of scripture. Some Reformed folks today would not admit such a style of argument to St. Paul, seeing it as a tacit admission of the basic coherence of the pagan’s position. Vermigli did not view rational argument through such a minimalist lens. Neither was he afraid to admit the possibility of coherence within the philosophy of the natural man. The point of using reason in this situation is not to find elements of agreement between two “worldviews” but to discover and demonstrate the pagan’s misuse of philosophy. In this case, Vermigli implies, Paul sought to demonstrate the contradiction of a natural knowledge of the final judgment coupled with a continued lifestyle of misconduct and rebellion against God.

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