Calvin and Vermigli on Adam’s Original Righteousness, pt. II

“Solummodo hoc inveni quod fecerit Deus hominem rectum et ipse se infinitis miscuerit quaestionibus quis talis ut sapiens est et quis cognovit solutionem verbi.” (Eccl. 7:30)

This verse from the Vulgata was read by the Western church for hundreds of years and interpreted to mean that Adam was created with supernatural gifts that directed him toward his ultimate end in the Heavenly Jerusalem.  Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Peter Martyr Vermigli are among the many who implemented the clause, “God made man just,” in their theological writings as proof of Adam’s original righteousness.   

Thomas appealed to this verse in defense of his belief that Adam was not created in a state of mere nature but was created in grace.  He affirms that some believe that Adam was not created in grace but that grace only came after sin.  He responds that if Adam’s original righteousness was produced from nature the effect (supernatural qualities) would be greater than the cause (nature). (ST I, Q. 95, a. 1.)  According to Thomas, the belief that Adam was created in a state of mere nature is contrary to scripture, reason, and St. Augustine, who says:

For, as soon as our first parents had transgressed the commandment, divine grace forsook them, and they were confounded at their own wickedness … for though their members remained the same, they had shame now where hey had none before.  They experienced a new motion of their flesh, which had become disobedient to them, in strict retribution of their own disobedience to God. (De Civitate Dei, XIII.13) 

This paragraph from Augustine’s City of God provided the foundation for Thomas’s definition of original righteousness (although his definition was not novel). According to Thomas, Adam was created in obedience to God, a status that requires more than just natural gifts.  He explains:

For this rectitude [explained in Eccl. 7:30] consisted in his [Adam’s] reason being subject to God, the lower powers to reason, and the body to the soul:  and the first subjection was the cause of both the second and the third; since while reason was subject to God, the lower powers remained subject to reason, as Augustine says. Now it is clear that such a subjection of the body to the soul and of the lower powers to reason, was not from nature; otherwise it would have remained after sin; since even in the demons the natural gifts remained after sin, as Dionysius declared.  (Ibid.)

This rectitude of the inward parts of man to reason and man to God is a supernatural rectitude that was given to Adam in his created state.  This right ordering is necessary because if man had been created in a state of pure nature he would not have been able to discover divine truths own his own nor acquire divine beatitude merely by natural effort.  His natural inclination toward the common good needed an addition of supernatural charity that directs the entire man toward the Heavenly City.  Thomas explains the different supernatural qualities necessary for man’s beatitude:

[T]o enable us to carry out activities that are ordered toward the end of eternal life, the following are divinely infused in us: first (i’) grace, through which the soul acquires a certain spiritual way of being; then (ii’) faith, hope and charity. Thus by faith, the intelligence may be enlightened concerning the knowledge of supernatural matters, which function at that level just as naturally known principles do at the level of our natural activities. By hope and charity, the will acquires a certain inclination towards that supernatural good; the human will just by its own natural inclination is not sufficiently ordered toward this. (Disputed Questions on the Virtues in General, A. 10, resp.)

This grace and these theological virtues are qualities that were divinely infused within Adam for the purpose of ordering him toward divine things and, should he pass the test, the vision of God. We should remember that when Thomas uses the verb “added” in reference to the grace infused in Adam he is speaking hypothetically, as if Adam existed apart from grace, a concept that Thomas never thought a reality.  Rather, Adam was created in a state of grace, meaning God created him ex nihilo with these virtues naturally engrafted. When it comes to the nature of original sin and Adam’s loss of original righteousness (which is the right order of man to himself and to God) Thomas follows both Anselm and Augustine.  In his Summa theologiae I-II, Q. 82 he asks if original sin is a habit. The first objection replies that original sin is not a habit because Anselm said that it is a privation, which is opposed to habit.  Thomas responds on the authority of Augustine that original sin is not only a privation of original righteousness but is a habit of concupiscence. He affirms:

As bodily sickness is partly a privation, in so far as it denotes the destruction of the equilibrium of health, and partly something positive, viz. the very humors that are inordinately disposed, so too original sin denotes the privation of original justice, and besides this, the inordinate disposition of the parts of the soul.  Consequently it is not a pure privation, but a corrupt habit. (ST I-II, Q. 82., a. 1.)

Thus original sin removes the supernatural qualities that ordered the soul toward God and his supernatural end while at the same time causing a habit of concupiscence within the soul.  Further in the Summa Thomas speaks of the “wounding of nature” in which all of the powers of the soul are disordered due to sin. (ST I-II, Q. 85, a. 3.)  The four parts of the soul each receive a wound which inclines man toward evil.  The intellect receives the wound of ignorance, the will receives malice, the irascible receives weakness, and the concupiscible receives concupiscence. The wound of original sin effects the entire person, not only one part of the soul.  Thomas confirms the material and formal elements of original sin:

[T]he privation of original justice, whereby the will was made subject to God, is the formal element in original sin; while every other disorder of the soul’s powers, is a kind of material element in respect of original sin. Now the inordinateness of the other powers of the soul consists chiefly in their turning inordinately to mutable good; which inordinateness may be called by the general name of concupiscence.  Hence original sin is concupiscence, materially, but privation of original justice, formally. (ST I-II, Q. 82, a. 3.)

Therefore, Thomas believed Adam to have been created in grace with supernatural virtues infused for the sake of attaining the ultimate end. When Adam sinned these gifts of grace were removed and his nature was wounded with a habit of concupiscence.  

Peter Martyr Vermigli, in his commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, also uses Ecclesiastes 7:30 as evidence that Adam was created in grace. He refers to that passage while defending Anselm’s position against Pighius.  Vermigli counters Pighius’s argument that the corruption of original sin is not hereditary but was natural to Adam, saying that the defects came when Adam sinned and his original righteousness was removed “for actions or doinges are not taken away from men, but the power to use them well is taken away.” (Commentarie upon the Epistle to the Romanes, p. 124.) Vermigli argues that sin does not naturally corrupt the whole person but the efficient cause of this corruption of original sin is the justice of God:

whereby the grace of the Spirite and heavenly gifts, wherewith man was endewed before hys fall, were removed from hym when he had sinned. And thys wythdrawing of grace, came of the iustice of God, althoughe the blame bee to bee ascribed to the transgression of the fyrst man: least a man shoulde straight way say that God is the cause of sinne. For when he had once withdrawen his giftes, wherewith he had adorned man straight way vices and corruptions followed of their owne accord, which were before farre from the condicion of man. (Ibid., p. 122.)

In this passage Vermigli affirms that Adam was created in a state of grace. He affirms the same notion in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where he disagrees with Aristotle’s statement that the virtues are produced and destroyed by and through the same things.  This was one of Aristotle’s arguments against Plato’s concept of innate virtue.  Concerning these things, Vermigli notes:

And whether virtues are present in us by nature is also a question.  If we speak of man as created by God (for all things made by him were supremely good), there can be no doubt that in his created state he was also equipped with virtues.  Just as the heavens did not remain without ornament and the land was immediately covered with plants, so man at his creation did not lack the appropriate virtues. With respect to vitiated and corrupt nature, however, these statements are true in the normal course of things and according to ordinary reason.  Aristotle, however was unable to see this corruption of our nature, since he was left without faith and the light of holy scripture … When it comes to the true virtues, such as faith, hope, charity, and the like, we must say that nothing prevents our nature, in spite of corruption, from being adorned with these charisms, provided that God himself deigns to inspire them. It is against human nature, however, to acquire these virtues by ourselves and through our own efforts. Moreover, it is not always true that we must have actions before we acquire virtues. We say this because of the first man and also because of those whom God immediately infuses with virtues from the moment of their conversion. (emphasis added) (Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, pp. 296, 297.)

Adam was created with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, virtues that cannot be produced by nature but must come from God’s supernatural infusion of these qualities. Vermigli also believed that Adam was given the gifts of the Holy Spirit: fortitude, fear, and the inspirations of God – these are also mentioned by Thomas in ST I-II, Q. 68.  These things “surpass nature.” (Ibid., p. 336) Therefore, Adam did not have them by nature but “even then God himself, of his own benevolence and grace, gave Adam true virtues and adorned him with his beautiful gifts.” (Ibid.) 

Aside from disagreement over the definition of grace and the primacy of charity among the theological virtues Vermigli agrees with Thomas’s doctrine of original righteousness and original sin.  By grace, the lower parts of Adam’s soul were submissive to will and reason and the reason was submissive to God. He affirms, “And these men by Originall iustice understand nothing elles, then the right constitucion of man, when the body obeyeth the soule, and the inferiour partes of the soule obey the superiour partes, and the mind is subiect  unto God and to his law.” (Commentarie upon the Epistle to the Romanes, p. 124.)

Like Thomas, Vermigli combines the opinion of Anselm and Augustine in his definition of original sin: “…we have alleaged Augustines definition, that originall sinne is the concupiscence of the flesh, and Anselmus definition, that it is the want of originall iustice…” (Ibid., p. 129.) Furthermore, Vermigli adds his own definition to these in order to refute Pighius, who misinterpreted Augustine and Anselm, using them to defend his doctrine of pure nature. Therefore, Vermigli adds to, or more precisely, reiterates the classic doctrine of original sin in the following definition:  “Original sinne therefore is the corruption of the whole nature of man, traduced by generation from the fall of our first parent into his posterity, which corruption, were it not for the befefite of Christ, adiudgeth al men borne therein in a maner to infinite evills, and to externall damnation.” (Ibid., p. 125.)

According to John Patrick Donnelly, Vermigli’s definition “gives a new centrality and emphasis to total depravity which is distinctly Reformed.” (Calvinism and Scholasticism, p. 107.) However, Vermigli considered his definition to be a clarification and reiteration of Augustine and Anselm rather than a “distinctively reformed” definition. He affirms this later in his commentary:

With this our definition of originall sinne, wel agreeth the want of originall iustice.  Also with it agreeth the description of Augustine, wherein he saith , that it is the concupiscence of the flesh: so that either of them be rightly understanded. The chiefe of the Scholemen acknowledged this doctrine, as Thomas, Scotus, and in especiall Bonaventure. These appoint for the materiall part in this sinne, the corruption of nature, or concupiscence: and for the formal part, the want of original righteousnes: and so of these two opinions, which we have now rehersed, they make but one. (Ibid., p. 126.)

Here Vermigli confirms that his definition of original sin, and by concomitance original righteousness, is not distinctly Reformed, but in order to refute the Pelagianism of Pighius he emphasizes the essence of the church’s opinion  from Augustine to Scotus: sin does not only affect one part of the soul but the whole person. Neither did Vermigli consider his position terribly different from the Roman Church of his day.

But in this thing he [Pighius] semeth to contmemne the iudgement of his owne Romishe Church, which otherwise he every where maketh equall even, with God himselfe. For, that Church doth in such maner acknowledge originall sinne, that it suffereth not infantes dying without baptisme to be buried… (Ibid., p. 128.)

In conclusion, there is a surprising similarity between the Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas and the Church Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli on the nature of Adam’s original state and the corruption of human nature that followed his fall from grace. In this same commentary Vermigli does openly disagree with St. Thomas. However, his charge is not against a wrongheaded nature/grace distinction, rather an unbiblical definition of grace, a mistaking of the effects of grace for the cause (as Calvin also says). As I demonstrated in this post Vermigli believed that God created Adam in a state of grace with infused theological virtues that caused the submission of his passions to his will, his will to reason, and his reason to God. For Vermigli, as for Thomas, this original internal and external order of Adam is original righteousness. When Adam fell the supernatural gifts were removed and concupiscence corrupted or “wounded” his entire nature, thus leaving him utterly dependant on God’s healing grace. I hope to devote another short post to this same topic so that I may revisit Calvin in light of the current post and talk about the elements in both Vermigli’s and Calvin’s thought that are distinctively Reformed. 


The Areopagus Address: John Calvin on Paul’s Modus Demonstrationum

Paul’s drift is to teach what God is. Furthermore, because he hath to deal with profane men, he draweth proofs from nature itself; for in vain should he have cited testimonies of Scripture. I said that this was the holy man’s purpose, to bring the men of Athens unto the true God. For they were persuaded that there was some divinity; only their preposterous religion was to be reformed. Whence we gather, that the world doth go astray through bending crooks and boughts, yea, that it is in a mere labyrinth, so long as there remaineth a confused opinion concerning the nature of God. For this is the true rule of godliness, distinctly and plainly to know who that God whom we worship is. If any man will intreat generally of religion, this must be the first point, that there is some divine power or godhead which men ought to worship. But because that was out of question, Paul descendeth unto the second point, that true God must be distinguished from all vain inventions. So that he beginneth with the definition of God, that he may thence prove how he ought to be worshipped; because the one dependeth upon the other. (John Calvin, Commentary Upon the Acts of the Apostles; emphasis added)

Richard Muller points out (in PRRD Vol. 3, p. 174) that Calvin considered it proper for Paul to begin his Areopagus address with proofs drawn from nature – even citing the pagan Aratus as an authority. I find it interesting that both Calvin and Aquinas seem to adhere to a similar notion of demonstration:  pagans do not respect the Scriptures, so we must use reason.  Aquinas says: 

But on two accounts it is difficult to proceed against individual errors: first, because the sacrilegious utterances of our various erring opponents are not so well known to us as to enable us to find reasons, drawn from their own words, for the confutation of their errors: for such was the method of the ancient doctors in confuting the errors of the Gentiles, whose tenets they were readily able to know, having either been Gentiles themselves, or at least having lived among Gentiles and been instructed in their doctrines. Secondly, because some of them, as Mohammedans and Pagans, do not agree with us in recognising the authority of any scripture, available for their conviction, as we can argue against the Jews from the Old Testament, and against heretics from the New. But these receive neither: hence it is necessary to have recourse to natural reason, which all are obliged to assent to. But in the things of God natural reason is often at a loss. (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, I.II, a.3, 4)

Notice also that Calvin did not consider the pagans to need demonstration of God’s existence but they needed their religion to be reformed.  The demonstration of the true God was Paul’s starting point not for the purpose of exposing the quiddity of God in a way that could be grasped apart from faith but “that he may thence prove how He ought to be worshipped” since the one depends on the other.  Thus, there still remained in Calvin a tinge of the Schoolmen’s high view of reason.  And, with a bit of negative theology, perhaps inherited from St. Augustine or St. Bernard, Paul’s purpose is seen to teach what God is.  Paul taught what God is precisely by teaching what he is not:  a man-made image.

Vermigli on the Good of Unbelievers: Grace Perfects the Civil Realm

The common Reformed Christian ethic rejects Aristotle’s virtue theory as semi-Pelagian if not full-blown Pelagian.  Recent studies of the works of Peter Martyr Vermigli have shown that if the above premise is true then an irreconcilable conflict exists within Reformed theology.  If Vermigli, the man who was highly respected by John Calvin as an orthodox scholar, held to a view of the virtues that leads inevitably to a crypto-Kantian ethic of duty then either “Calvinism” is self-contradictory or everyone since the 16th century has completely missed the point. 

However, Vermigli adopted Aristotle’s virtue theory, that the good is not innate in man and must be cultivated through experience, yet he made an important distinction which Thomas Aquinas also made: “Man’s nature may be looked at in two ways:  first, in its integrity, as it was in our first parent before sin; secondly, as it is corrupted in us after the sin of our first parent.” (ST Ia-Iiae, Q. 109, a. 2) Vermigli added that Aristotle’s virtue theory is only true after the fall and that Adam would have been naturally engrafted with all the virtues.  Once again Aquinas says something similar:  “The first man had knowledge of all things by divinely infused species.” (ST Ia, Q. 94. a. 3).  And:

in the state of innocence man in a certain sense possessed all the virtues … For it was shown above that such was the rectitude of the primitive state, that reason was subject to God, and the lower powers to reason.  Now the virtues are nothing but those perfections whereby reason is directed to God, and the inferior powers regulated according to the dictate of reason … Wherefore the rectitude of the primitive state required that man should in a sense possess every virtue.” (ST Ia, Q. 95 a. 3)

But this only delays the answer to the question.  If the virtue theory is true post-lapsarian then one is still left with the question of how unbelievers can do good works.  Is it not liberal Christianity that claims that through good efforts men and women can be genuinely good people, even unbelievers?  The following passages from Vermigli’s Romans commentary should explain (a) what Paul means in ch. 2 by the idea of the law written on the hearts of all men and (b) what types of good Vermigli thinks can be done by those who have rejected their creator.  (Notice that Vermigli does adopt a Thomistic understanding of nature and grace but that these two are not seen in opposition – Reason [speculative and practical] is not hindered by Revelation but perfected; therefore, all good deeds by believers and unbelievers alike are gifts of the Holy Spirit)   

Now commeth he unto the Gentiles:  whiche ought not to complayne, thoughe they perished, seing they had not the lawe of Moses.  For hee declareth that they were not utterly without a lawe, because they did by nature those thinges which were contayned in the law.  And when hee sayth, by Nature, he doth not utterly exclude the helpe of God.  For all truth that men knowe, is of God, and of the holy ghost.  And nature here signifieth that knowledge, whiche is grafted in the myndes of men.  Even as in the yes of the body, god hath plated the power of seinge. Neither doth Paul in this place entreate of the strengthes, by which the Gentiles being helped performed these things:  For, that shall afterward be declared, how by the spirite and grace of Christ the power to lyve uprightely is ministered unto the regenerate.  But now he speaketh onely of certayne outwarde honest and upright actions, which as touchyng civill righteousness, might by nature be performed of men. 

He explains his point further: 

Augustine noteth the same and addeth, that therefore the worke of the law is sayd to be written in the hartes of the infidels, because the lineamentes of the first estate still abode.  Thereof we gather, that the writing of the lawe of God in the hartes of men, is after two sortes:  one is, which serveth only to knowledge and iudgement:  the other is, which besides that adeth both a readiness, and also strength to doe that which is iudged to bee iuste and honest.  And the Image of God, unto which man is created, is not, as touching this, by hys fall bitterly blotted out, but obfuscated, and for that cause hath neede to be renued by hym.  So naturall knowledges are not fully quenched in our mindes, but much of them do still remaine:  which thing Paule now toucheth.  Wherefore, the difference between the olde Testament and the newe, abydeth whole:  although Paule so speaketh of the ungodly Ethnickes, that they had the worke of the lawe written in their hartes.  Neither is sayd, that because of these thinges which they did or knewe, they attained unto the true righteousness.  Yea rather when Paule had shewed, that they wanted it, he [surveth?] them up unto Christ.  Chrysostome in deede upon thys place, writeth:  that God made man kutarcha , that is, sufficient of himselfe to escheive vices, and to embrace vertue.  Whiche if he understande of man as he was first created, is true.  But after hys fall it is not to be graunted, for asmuch as without Christ we can doe nothying of our selves:  yea, by or owne strengthes we can not so much as thinke any good thyng, much lesse to doe any thyng.  Unlesse peradventure he understand this as touching the knowledge of iustice and uprightness in generall, wherof we doe now speake.  For the self same father in an other place more then once avoucheth, that we have altogether need of the grace of Christ.  That which the Apostle now maketh mencion of, touching the knowledge of the Gentiles, is very apte to repell the sclaunderous talke of the ungodly, which use to say:  Why came not Christ before?  How was mankinde provided for before hys coming? What wrought hys providence then?  By these thinges which are now spoken, thou now perceavest, that mankinde was then also provided for.  For as touching knowledge they had inough whether we understand that, which pertayneth unto contemplation:  or that which is directed to workying and doing.  Wherefore, before the coming of Christ they dyd uniustly complaine, that they were forsaken, when as they had knowledge, and thought not them selves to want sufficent strengthes.  

Therefore Vermigli makes a distinction between two different types of good: civil and spiritual.  Those who have rejected their creator by serving the objects of sense experience rather than the One to whom those objects point can only do civil good, but those who through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit uniting sinners to Christ have the supernatural virtue of faith can do both spiritual (that produced by the Spirit) and civil good.  Virtues, therefore, are only true and complete if they are perfected by the Holy Spirit.  Thomas Aquinas explains that there are two reasons why man needs this grace in the state of corrupted nature:  (a) “in order to be healed” and (b) “furthermore in order to carry out works of supernatural virtue.” (Ibid) Neither complete good nor works of faith, hope, and charity can be done without the grace of the Holy Spirit.  

By the grace of God sin was not allowed to completely corrupt man’s nature – now even the unbeliever is able to do objective good.  Vermigli shows himself to be following not only the orthodoxy of Luther and Calvin but that of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and other Fathers of the church.  One final passage should exonerate him from the implicit charge of Pelagianism and explain fully his alteration of Aristotle’s virtue theory in conformity with the Gospel.  His is a true example of Grace perfecting Nature:

As for the thesis that virtues are produced and destroyed by and through the same things, it is true as far as civil morality is concerned, but it is not universally valid. Adam received virtues directly from the hand of God, but he corrupted them by his own evil pride; thus, they were not produced and destroyed by and through the same things.  The same must be said of those who receive them at once from God. Aristotle says, “By doing just things, we are made just.”  This, however, only applies to civil and inherent justice; we must hold a far different opinion of the justice by which we are justified … Everyone should not only see to it that he conforms to the dictates of reason in his civil behavior; he should also make certain, with a devout and reverent spirit, that his actions and decisions are pleasing to God. (Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p. 297)

Exodus 3:14 and God as Being

**The purpose of this post is not to give a grammatical historical interpretation of the above mentioned text nor to set up the opinion of the Reformers et al as the bastion of Truth.  The purpose is to demonstrate that certain traditions of interpretation were carried on by the Reformers et al, thus marking a plane of continuity between them and the Scholastics.  Secondly, although I disagree with particular methods and opinions of John Frame I must admit my indebtedness to his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.  If it were not for Van Til and Van Tillians such as Frame I probably would not even be reading books. They definitely awakened me out of a fundamentalist lethargy and anti-intellectualism. Ironic, aye?

John Frame thinks Aquinas’s (and other “Scholastics”) interpretation of Exodus 3:14 (God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”) is way too old-timey (i.e. Medieval). For those who don’t know Aquinas interpreted the sum qui sum (greek: ho on) of this passage to mean that God is ipsum esse subsistens (subsistent Being). He says in his Summa:

This name HE WHO IS is most properly applied to God … because of its signification. For it does not signify form, but simply existence itself. Hence since the existence of God is His essence itself, which can be said of no other, it is clear that among other names this one specially denominates God, for everything is denominated by its form. (ST I. Q.13, a.11)  

Therefore, because God does not receive existence from a different source than himself his existence is his essence, and it is he who gives existence (i.e. being) to all of creation.  Also, “Existence” is not a univocal term, as if God exists in the same way the Statue of Liberty does.  Aquinas explains:

As we read in the book of Causes, God’s existing is individually distinguished from all other existing by the very fact that it is an existing subsistent in itself, and not one supervening on a nature other than existing itself. (Quaestiones Disputate de Potentia, Q. 7, a.2)

One could and should ask why Aquinas interprets God’s revelation of himself in this passage as ipsum esse subsistens.  Fran O’Rourke says that he does this for two reasons.  First, because God refers to himself as sum qui sum (Vulgate).  Second, because Dionysius interprets it ontologically as well.  He says, “Aquinas discovered in reliance upon Dionysius both the theological and ontological signification of this passage.” (O’Rourke, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas, p. 131) Of course Aquinas was just as much an Augustinian as he was a follower of Dionysius and Aristotle.  For example, compare Aquinas’s interpretation of sum qui sum from his Summa with St. Augustine’s statement in the City of God:

… understand that which God spoke by the angel when He sent Moses to the children of Israel:  “I am that I am.”  For since God is the supreme existence, that is to say, supremely is, and is therefore unchangeable, the things that He made He empowered to be, but not to be supremely like Himself. (XII.2)

Therefore, the interpretation of the sum qui sum of Exodus 3:14 as Subsistent Being in Aquinas is just as much Augustinian as Neo-Platonic.  And guess what else.  It’s Calvinistic.  Here’s how Calvin interprets this same passage in Exodus:

The verb in the Hebrew is in the future tense, “I will be what I will be:” but it is of the same force as the present, except that it designates the perpetual duration of time.  This is very plain, that God attributes to himself alone divine glory, because he is self-existent and therefore eternal; and thus gives being and existence to every creature. (Harmony of the Four Last Books of Moses)

This interpretation of Calvin’s is almost identical with that of Augustine and Aquinas.  In fact Richard Muller points out that this position was also held by many of the later orthodox reformed theologians.  He states:

Following out the medieval tradition, Mastricht rests the doctrine of the essence and independence of God on Exodus 3:13-14, specifically on God’s answer to Moses’ question concerning his name:  Mastricht renders the answer, “ero qui ero,” “I will be who I will be,” noting that the Hebrew might also be rendered “sum qui sum.” His sensitivity to the implications of the Hebrew verb reflects the arguments of Reformers like Bullinger and Musculus and of early orthodox writers like Zanchi and Polanus, just as his doctrinal conclusions echo the results of exegesis in his time:  Diodati, for example, interpreted the text as saying “I am the only true God, truly subsisting, & not only through the opinion of men as Idols are; I am he that have an everlasting beeing, unchangeable, substisting of its self, not depending from others, infinite, most simple, the author and cause of the beeing of all things:  not a borrowed, changeable, finite, dependent, and compounded being, etc. as all other creatures have.” (Muller, PRRD, Vol. 3, The Divine Essence and Attributes, p. 233)

Muller notes that this Reformed interpretation is not a proof-texting for certain metaphysical and rationalist presuppositions.  He notes, “Here too, we are not encountering a rank proof-texting, but rather an application of the older hermeneutic whereby either direct declarations of Scripture or conclusions capable of being drawn from the text are understood as the basis of vaild [sic] teaching.” (Ibid., p. 237) John Frame, in critiquing Aquinas’s interpretation is also critiquing an Augustinian and Reformed interpretation.  Furthermore, he is not quite clear about why he believes it to be erroneous.  He says:

This text, plus a number of premises from Platonic (especially Neoplatonic) and Aristotelean philosophy, forms the basis for a rather complicated metaphysical theory of the divine being that has influenced many theological discussions of the doctrine of God.  The relationship of this theory to Scripture is rather tenuous, especially if we reject, as I think we should, Aquinas’s interpretation of Exodus 3:14. (The Doctrine of God, p. 220)

Frame then goes on to state charitably that Aquinas had a deep desire to maintain a Creator/creature distinction.  He even catalogues certain Scholastic definitions such as essence, substance, being, form, etc. in order to give his readership a greater contextual knowledge.  However, despite Frame’s statement of his opinion that Aquinas’s interpretation of Exodus 3:14 should be trashed he never offers a more thorough critique than:

… we should remember that Aquinas and his followers distinguished quite sharply between divine and human being, between Being and beings.  All the same, the structure seems rather univocal for a thinker, Aquinas, who elsewhere insists that all, or at least most of our language about God is analogical. (Ibid., p. 223)

This critique, Frame informs the reader, is based on the fact that Aquinas does not discuss the anologia entis in his De ente et essentia. (Ibid., p. 224) Firstly, I almost can’t make sense of that argument (is that even an argument?).  Secondly, the De ente et essentia, according to Jean-Pierre Torrell, was one of Aquinas’s early works in which he makes certain statements in agreement with Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina that he would later be more cautious about (due to certain controversies).  Thirdly, Aquinas is very clear in his Summa and in the passage quoted above from Quaestiones Disputate de Potentia that God’s Being is hyperousion (beyond being). Frame’s opinion here stated is simply wrong. 

Frame continues stating, “I have no problem affirming that God is a necessary being, but on the basis of Scripture … rather than on specifically Thomistic premises.” (Ibid., p. 224) With this statement one can sense Frame’s presuppositions regarding Medieval Scholasticism – he also says that the scholastic concepts are “an unnecessary complication.”  As I shall discuss in a following post Frame presupposes that the Scholastics used terms based on autonomous reasoning to subvert the Biblical text and distort the original meaning, accepting instead the presuppositions of Greek philosophy.  I shall deal with this contention later.  For now it has been my point to demonstrate at least two points in regard to John Frame’s critique of Aquinas’s interpretation of Exodus 3:14: (1) Because Frame fails to realize and note the fact that his critique of Aquinas is also a critique of a traditionally Christian and Reformed hermeneutic his presentation of the problem as “Scholasticism” cannot be more than a caricature. (2) Because Frame’s disagreements with Aquinas on this point are never substantiated beyond mere conjecture and opinion he leaves the reader suspicious at best of a straw man fallacy.  This also makes the reader suspicious of Frame’s motive in attacking Aquinas.  Is his motive based on scholarship or a bias toward a particular apologetic method?  Stay tuned…

My Soul Is Not Me

Peter Leithart and others have noted the post-modern phenomenon of what I shall call the impenetrable ego. In his book on baptism Leithart notes that the idea that the ritual actually affects the person (socially, psychologically, ontologically) seems eerie because we have this idea that “who I am is deep down inside and cannot be touched by anything from the outside” – a sort of Neo-Stoicism.

Since I have occupied my summer with readings of Aquinas I shall not digress.  He had to fight with the gnostics as well (those who would radically separate mind and body, ego and flesh).  Aquinas does not fall victim to scholarly critiques of the Medieval theology such as that of N.T. Wright; who says that the popular idea that when we die our souls go to heaven never to return was invented by the Medieval church.  St. Thomas was waging war against the Albigenses (a.k.a. Cathari/Medieval Manichees). Fergus Kerr says we should read all of Aquinas with this context in mind.

Aquinas’s argument against the idea that “what is real in me is separate from matter” is fairly simple: Because the soul is only part of the person it cannot be spoken of as if it characterizes the whole. Sure, he also says that the soul is the form of the body – giving actuality to the body’s potential to exist.  I’m not denying the “superiority” of the soul or the fact that Aquinas did not diverge from the traditional teaching that the soul is separated from the body at death. My point is to note the anti-gnostic strain in Aquinas’s teaching on the soul.  He denies that phrases such as “my essence is the real me” or “who I really am is immaterial” can have any legitimacy.  In his De Ente et Essentia he confirms this:

For the phrase human being expresses it [essence] as a whole (not cutting out demarcated material but including it implicitly and indistinctly in the way we said a genus includes its differentiating characteristics): so individuals can be called human beings.  But the word humanness expresses it as a part (including in its meaning only what belongs to humans as humans and cutting out all demarcation), and so we don’t call an individual human being humanness.  This is why the word essence is sometimes asserted of things (Socrates, we say, is an essence of sorts) and sometimes denied (Socrates’ essence, we say, is not Socrates).

“Essence”, says Aquinas, can refer to an individual human being as a whole and also to the part of the individual that is purely immaterial.  Therefore, to say that the “essence” in the later sense is the real person is to say that part of the whole human is more human than the whole, which is a contradiction.  It is like saying “my arm is the real me” or “my face is more me than the rest of me.”  He demonstrates this more clearly in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:17-19:

For it is clear that the soul is naturally united to the body and is departed from it, contrary to its nature and per accidens. Hence the soul devoid of its body is imperfect, as long as it is without the body. But it is impossible that what is natural and per se be finite and, as it were, nothing; and that which is against nature and per accidens be infinite, if the soul endures without the body. And so, the Platonists positing immortality, posited reincarnation, although this is heretical. Therefore, if the dead do not rise, we will be confident only in this life. In another way, because it is clear that man naturally desires his own salvation; but the soul, since it is part of man’s body, is not an entire man: my soul is not me; So that even if soul achieves well-being in another life, that doesn’t mean I do or any other human being does. Moreover, since it is by nature that humans desire well-being, including their body’s well-being, a desire of nature gets frustrated.

He confirms here that a soul detached from the body is an incomplete human being. Therefore, neither the soul by itself nor the body is the true source of a person’s identity; rather, the composite body-soul which is the human being.  As John Nevin says, “The soul to be complete to develop itself at all as a soul must externalize itself, throw itself out in space; and this externalization is the body.” (Mystical Presence, pp. 161, 162)

Who Needs the Forms?

The whole realist/nominalist argument among the Medieval philosophers often seems arcane and pedantic to us post-moderns.  I mean, who cares if the form is in the thing or somewhere else?  The whole idea of a form in things is way too “spooky.” Reality is given to us; we don’t need forms right?  Well, without answering that question directly I must point out that the import of the Medieval argument between the realists and nominalists can be seen when we realize that they were seeking an answer to the same question with which we are often plagued; the question, “How do I know that what I believe about reality is true?” Pilate asked a similar question to Jesus, recorded in John’s Gospel 18:38:  “What is Truth?”  

John 18:38

Obviously, Pilate was not asking Jesus how one comes to know the essence of a thing, but I can’t help but notice the irony of the situation.  St. Thomas also noticed – it caused him to get sidetracked in his commentary on this Gospel. Here’s what he had to say:

Apropos of this [Pilate’s] question, note that we find two kinds of truth in the gospel. One is uncreated and making: this is Christ: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6); the other truth is made, “Grace and truth came [were made] through Jesus Christ” (1:17).  By its nature truth implies a conformity between a reality and the intellect. The intellect is related in two ways to reality. An intellect can be related to things as a measure of these things; that would be the intellect which is the cause of these things. Another intellect is measured by things, this would be an intellect whose knowledge is caused by these things. Now truth is not in the divine intellect because the intellect is conformed to things, but because things are conformed to the divine intellect. While truth is in our intellect because it understands things, conforms to them, as they are. And so uncreated truth and the divine intellect is a truth which is not measured or made, but a truth which measures and makes two kinds of truth: one is in the things themselves, insofar as it makes them so they are in conformity with what they are in the divine intellect; and it makes the other truth in our souls, and this is a measured truth, not a measuring truth. Therefore, the uncreated truth of the divine intellect is appropriated, especially referred, to the Son, who is the very concept of the divine intellect and the Word of God. For truth is a consequence of the intellect’s concept.

Pilate’s question about Truth interrupted Aquinas’s train of thought.  Perhaps he asked himself the same question and needed to reiterate it in relation to what he saw in the text – a man asking Jesus, “What is Truth?”  Aquinas immediately thought to himself that Truth is a conformity between reality and the intellect. But that’s not all.  Man’s conception of Truth cannot be all there is.  This would mean that Truth is relative. There has to be one who establishes Truth, one who makes the things in his mind exist in reality as they are in his mind.  This One is God and his Son is the eternal Idea who sustains the life of all things. This is where the forms come in – the essence/quiddity/nature of things.  If God makes them the way he thinks them then they are true. If they are true then they cannot change. If they do not change then they cannot be reduced to matter.  Therefore, we need the forms.  We need our immaterial minds to get to the immaterial thing behind the thing.  We need the “spooky” stuff.  The Medievals knew this (some of them liked it way too much).  I fear that we’ve become too materialistic to recognize it.

Aquinas’s Contra Gentiles Also Contra Autonomy

Rudi Te Velde says that Aquinas did not write the Summa contra Gentiles as a missionary manual for Dominicans to evangelize the Muslims.  This timeless work was written to refute certain errors that had come to light in the Medieval context. These errors go beyond that of the Muslim faith.

Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas

The list of errors is not restricted to contemporary thought. The errors are attributed to the ancient natural philosophers, to the “Platonists,” to Avicenna and Averroes (they are not in all respects trustworthy guides in interpreting Aristotle), to heretics like Origen and the Manichees, but most of all simply to “quidam,” to anonymous teachers who hold a more or less reasonable opinion, based on philosophical principles, that conflicts with the truth of Christian faith. (Te Velde, “Natural Reason in the Summa Contra Gentiles” in Brian Davies, ed. Thomas Aquinas: Contemporary Philosophical Perspectives, p. 127)

Aquinas must be seen in his context.  The Christian world had known the philosophy of the Neo-Platonists since the very beginning but the Medieval world experienced a rebirth of Aristotle, who was being introduced and interpreted mainly by Muslim and Jewish authors.  Aristotle’s non-Christian interpreters were leading Medieval teachers at the University of Paris and elsewhere astray with their extreme synthesis. Therefore, Aquinas saw it as his goal to rescue Aristotle from the extremists and preserve the Christian faith, all in the name of Truth.  Te Velde also affirms that Aquinas did not present arguments based on pure reason divorced from Christian Truth.  He was doing the opposite – basing his arguments for truth on the first principles claimed by his opponents:

Aquinas’s strategy is to discuss and combat the claims in the light of reason’s own criteria and rules learned from the philosophi themselves. Insofar as faith requires not only confession but also reflection and understanding in order to be a human faith, Aquinas shows the believer how ‘philosophical’ reason can be assimilated if only reason is brought to correct its errors and false pretensions and becomes aware of its human point of view in relation to the truth of faith. (Ibid)

The contra Gentiles was therefore written for Christians to consider the arguments of the philosophi and their contradictions, not only with the claims of Sacra Pagina but with those philosophi’s own first principles of knowledge.  That’s not all either. Aquinas aimed to demonstrate the foolishness of relying solely on natural reason as a foundation for claims at Truth.  Te Velde continues:

A reason that cannot tolerate our being asked to hold something on faith represents a veritable Trojan horse for the Christian community.  If reason were justified in its claim to autonomy, the only way Christianity could affirm its faith would be by rejecting reason, by excluding rational reflection based on philosophy.  Aquinas chooses not to go along that way.  It is his conviction that natural reason can be integrated in the Christian consciousness of truth, but not unless reason gives up its claim to autonomy and acknowledges its human condition in knowing the truth [emphasis added].  Not reason as such, but the presumption of reason to have an absolute hold on truth prevents a reasonable understanding of the truth of faith.  So the issue is not a defense of the ‘reasonableness’ of Christian faith before reason. Aquinas’s objective is to confirm natural reason with its own condition, to make reason aware of its limitations in order to prevent reason from unreflectively imposing its own limits on the search for truth.  We need more truth than our reason can grasp. (Ibid., p. 129) 

So, contrary to what Evangelical Christians often assume about Aquinas his was actually an argument against autonomy.  The contra Gentiles was not written to atheists nor to anyone outside the Christian community.  It was written to Christians as a guide for the perplexed in order to answer the “new” philosophical arguments that seemed to contradict Christian tradition and faith.  In the end Aquinas’s answer to the gentiles was based on the authority of scripture, pointing out the absurdity of claiming absolute Truth and certainty from an autonomous appeal to the human intellect.