Jupiter Is God: Calvin on Aratus’s Notitia Dei

In ipso enim vivimus, movemur, & sumus: sicut & quidam vestratum poetarum dixerunt, Nam huius progenies etiam sumus. (John Calvin’s translation of Acts 17:28)

For in him we live, move, and have our being; as certain of your poets have said, “For we also are his progeny.”

Ἄρατος ὁ Σολεύς
Ἄρατος ὁ Σολεύς

I have mentioned St. Paul’s Areopagus Address and Calvin’s commentary upon it before. In the previous post on this passage I noted Calvin’s opinion on Paul’s use of demonstration. In essence, he said that Paul did not seek to demonstrate God’s existence to the Athenians since all men, even pagans, already have a natural knowledge of God imprinted in their souls. Rather, Paul’s method was to show the Athenians (a) “what” God is (i.e., he is not physical) and (b) how God must be worshipped (i.e., not as if he requires anything from man). Later in his commentary Calvin reveals a bit more of his thoughts on natural theology. He comments on the passage quoted above in which Paul quotes from the pagan poet Aratus (from Phaenomena 1-5):

Now, that I may return unto this sentence which I have in hand, it is not to be doubted but that Aratus spake of Jupiter; neither doth Paul, in applying that unto the true God, which he [Aratus] spake unskilfully of his Jupiter, wrest it unto a contrary sense [in alium sensum detorquet – i.e., Paul does not “twist” the meaning of “Jupiter”]. For because men have naturally some perseverance [sense] of God [Aliquo Dei sensu imbuti sunt], they draw true principles from that fountain. And though so soon as they begin to think upon God, they vanish away in wicked inventions, and so the pure seed doth degenerate into corruptions; yet the first general knowledge of God [generalis Dei notitia] doth nevertheless remain still in them. After this sort, no man of a sound mind can doubt to apply that unto the true God which we read in Virgil touching the feigned and false joy, that “All things are full of joy.” Yea, when Virgil meant to express the power of God, through error he put in a wrong name. (Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, XVII.28.)

That last sentence is so butchered by the translator that I am obligated by prudence to quote it correctly. The Latin reads, In hunc modum quod de Iove fictitio habetur apud Virgilium, Iovis omnia plena, ad verum Deum transferre nemo sanae mentis dubitet. This sentence should read, “In this way that which is said of the fictitious Jupiter by Virgil, ‘All things are full of Jupiter,’ no one doubts to apply to the true God.”

Therefore, it is the name “Jupiter” which is fictitious and incorrect, but the substance of that knowledge is the true God. Many are amazed by these passages from Calvin, the rigid Reformer who saw men as “totally depraved” and natural knowledge as utterly worthless. True as those statements are in some sense – Calvin does say these types of things in certain passages – they prove inadequate when we “read the footnotes” – i.e., when they are viewed in the light of his whole corpus. This knowledge of God does render the unbeliever without excuse coram Deo but it is knowledge nonetheless.


Plato’s Theism and Martyr’s Humanism

BoethiusThe Medieval world knew Aristotle from the translations of Boethius and the Muslim commentators, all of which interpreted the Stagarite through the lens of his Neoplatonic commentators. Aquinas realized that the Liber de Causis was written by Proclus, not Aristotle as tradition claimed. Yet, he continued commenting on that book and was influenced by it, and he was influenced by the Neoplatonism of the Pseudo-Dionysius. As Kristeller notes, during the time of the Renaissance philosophers began to examine the context and grammar of Aristotle’s writings, seeking to study him on his own terms rather than secondarily through the interpretation of the Neoplatonists.

However, this “rebirth” of the tools of investigation, particularly with regard to Aristotelian philosophy, did not lead theologians to dispose of all things Platonic in the search of a “perennial” philosophy. There were humanists, Thomists, Scotists, Occamists, Augustinians and many others during this era, still endeavoring to find the Archimedean point between the Queen of the sciences and her handmaiden. But, all of these groups were fundamentally Augustinian, and thus could not forsake a certain Neoplatonism. Peter Martyr exemplifies this humanist renewal in Aristotelean studies coupled with a reiterated Platonism. I demonstrated this a while back in a post on the Divine Ideas. Martyr carried on this doctrine, saying that these ideas are God’s contemplation of himself as he may be expressed in infinite ways and are thus the exemplar causes of all things. He also was not afraid to affirm that Plato had an accurate conception of God:

Plato had a very clear notion of God. First, that God is one and is ineffable: he is one, so we do not have to go on to infinity [immensum] in search of causes, for it is true that he is the first cause; he is ineffable, since in human speech there are no words that can express the divine properties. If a man acquired equine nature, he would not be able to transmit to other horses what ha had devised in his human mind. Similarly, philosophers and great thinkers, even if they have a sublime knowledge of God, have no words to express it. Besides, Plato knew that God comprises everything and at the same time exceeds everything, so that there is no kind of miniscule good that God would not possess, nor is there such enormous good that he would not surpass and to which he would not be superior. God pervades all things and never goes outside himself. Even if he is infinite, wherever he is, he is in himself. He produces everything and is prompted by no other reason than his own goodness. For there can exist nothing superior to his goodness that god would seek in creation of the universe; Good is good and produced everything that he made out of his goodness. His goodness is not acquired through application or effort as in the case o human goodness, but is inherent to him and is naturally implanted in his mind. Therefore he did not acquire it by his will or choice. Similarly, the sun enlightens everything with its brightness that it di not acquire, but possesses as something inborn and innate. And all things not only owe their creation to God but also tend toward him as their ultimate goal. Therefore it is no wonder that everything is related to him, since the perfection of all things depends on him. Plato understood and explained in his writings very clearly those aspects of God’s nature that I have just reviewed as well as many other concepts. The same concepts are contained both in holy scripture and in ancient ecclesiastical writers. (Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, pp. 136, 137.)

Plato and SocratesThis attribution of divine knowledge to the pagan philosopher may be shocking to some Christians but it was a common opinion. Luther and Calvin believed that the pagan had a natural knowledge of the first table of the Decalogue but lacked a knowledge of the second. As I noted here, Calvin believed that the unbeliever needs to know how to worship God rather than just gain an understanding of God, an understanding that Calvin says they already have.

Peter Martyr’s perspective on Plato and Aristotle is still very much Medieval. He quotes Boethius and Averroes (whom he calls “the greatest of the Peripatetics”) as well as Augustine as authorities on the doctrine of the Ideas. Yet, he also translates Aristotle from the Greek text and examines phrases and words, demonstrating the philological methods of a new day and time. Plato’s doctrines are useful inasmuch as they reflect the true foundation of all things in the divine mind. Yet, Martyr, once again demonstrating his humanist mentality, does not care for Plato’s ideas beyond the necessity of exemplar causes. He notes, “For even if such Ideas – of one kind or another – really existed, we would not find them useful in our actions.” (ibid., p. 170.) In other words, even if men could have some sort of participation in the divine ideas through contemplation, this sort of knowledge would leave us no closer to the good than the mentally ill. We may only approach the good through acts of virtue and wisdom, and we must abandon Plato for Aristotle when he directs us elsewhere. Thus, Plato’s philosophy is necessary for certain principles of our doctrine of God, but we must lean on Aristotle for our method and pursuit of the common good.

God Provides Knowledge: Heinrich Bullinger on Natural Law

Heinrich BullingerHeinrich Bullinger, the Swiss successor of Zwingli, says that the natural law is an act of the conscience and an innate knowledge of good and evil. This is similar to Thomas Aquinas’s view of the natural law, the conscience is an act and synderesis is a habit of knowledge of the difference between good and evil, the principle which provides the foundation of the law of nature. Yet, where Thomas emphasized the whole faculty of reason and the necessity of virtue, Bullinger places emphasis upon the act of conscience in accusing and excusing the acts of man. This emphasis upon the intellect over the will does not mean that Bullinger de-emphasized or overlooked the role of the desiring faculty or the necessity of virtue in the natural law. He simply attributes the moving of men toward good things to the inspiration of God that comes by means of the conscience. He also attributes the natural law itself to God’s work in men’s souls:

The law of nature is an instruction of the conscience, and, as it were, a certain direction placed by God himself in the mind and hearts of men, to teach them what they have to do and what to eschew. And the conscience, verily, is the knowledge, judgment, and reason of a man, whereby every man in himself, and in his own mind, being made privy to everything that he either hath committed or not committed, doth either condemn or else acquit himself. And this reason proceedeth from God, who both prompteth and writeth his judgments in the hearts and minds of men. Moreover, that which we call nature is the proper disposition or inclination of every thing. But the disposition of mankind being flatly corrupted by sin, as it is blind, so also is it in all points evil and naughty. It knoweth not God, it worshippeth not God, neither doth it love the neighbour; but rather is affected with self-love toward itself, and seeketh still for its own advantage. For which cause the apostle said, “that we by nature are the children of wrath.” Wherefore the law of nature is not called the law of nature, because in the nature and disposition of man there is of or by itself that reason of light exhorting to the best things, and that holy working; but for because God hath imprinted or engraven in our minds some knowledge, and certain general principles of religion, justice, and goodness, which, because they be grafted in us and born together with us, do therefore seem to be naturally in us. (Decades, II.194.)

The Reformers tended to answer the apparent discrepancy between Plato’s idealism and Aristotle’s empiricism by referring to the narrative of Genesis three, where the representatives of the human race fell from their upright state by sinning against the will of God. In the Garden of Eden, Adam had innate knowledge and virtues. Yet, these gifts were not “natural” in the sense that they were produced solely by nature but they were “natural” in the sense that Adam was created with these gifts. They were not added later. After the fall, and because of original sin, men are no longer born with supernatural virtue or knowledge, yet, God does continue to write his law upon men’s hearts – both Melanchthon and Vermigli follow the Stoic notion of prolepseis, or precognitions that stir men up to think on divine things.  So, just as Adam’s gifts were not produced by nature in the beginning, much less may this knowledge be produced by nature after nature has become corrupt. Bullinger, in the above statement, appears to present this same resolution between the two concepts of innate and acquired knowledge. The natural law cannot come from nature because of the corruption of original sin. Yet, Bullinger seems to display a rather extreme doctrine of original sin in this passage. He notes that man’s nature, defined as “the proper disposition or inclination of every thing,” has been so corrupted by sin that reason no longer functions, leaving men utterly evil and debauched. And, because of this corruption the law of nature can only exist if God so delights to write it upon the hearts of men – these principles are written upon the hearts of all men by God and only seem to be natural.

I do not think Bullinger is truly saying that after the fall man’s nature was so corrupt that the very faculty that distinguishes man from beast was lost, that reason no longer held any directive power over the passions. Other Reformers such as Calvin and Vermigli hold to a less than optimistic view of original sin, but even they admit that man’s reason has been preserved from utter destruction, to the extent that even pagans may regulate their passions to the common good of society. Bullinger is being somewhat polemical in concert with Augustine’s condemnation of pagan virtue as “splendid vices.” He is viewing the first table of the law from the perspective of the second. In other words, he is speaking of the potentialities of nature in the City of Man from the perspective of the City of God. Viewed from this perspective, and the boasts of the City of Man that claims a purely autonomous path to perfection, the law of nature is utterly destroyed by the Fall. This is the case because the natural law originally guided man toward his supernatural goal, but after the fall man pursues whatever seems right in his own eyes. So, the pagans would know nothing of God or the difference between good and evil if God did not form the souls of men with these principles from the instant of their creation. Therefore, the City of Man cannot boast in an autonomous acquisition of this knowledge since these principles have been given to it by God. Bullinger seeks to keep Aristotle’s principles of acquired virtue and knowledge while at them same time safeguarding the Biblical doctrine of original sin and innate knowledge of God. He continues, explaining how this law is written in man’s nature:

But in what sort have they it [the law of nature] in themselves? This again is made manifest by that which followeth: “For they shew the work of the law written in their hearts.” But who is he that writeth in their hearts, but God alone, who is the searcher of all hearts? And what, I pray you, writeth he there? The law of nature, forsooth; the law, I say, itself, commanding good and forbidding evil, so that without the written law, by the instruction of nature, that is, by the knowledge imprinted of God in nature, they may understand what is good and what is evil , what is to be desired and what is to be shunned. By these words of the apostle we do understand, that the law of nature is set against the written law of God; and that therefore is is called the law of nature, because it seemeth to be, as it were, placed or graffed in nature. We understand, that the law of nature, not the written law, but that which is graffed in man, hath the same office that the written law hath; I mean, to direct men, and to teach them, and also to discern betwixt good and evil, and to be able to judge of sin. We understand, that the beginning of this law is not to the corrupt disposition of mankind, but of God himself, who with his finger writeth in our hearts, fasteneth in our nature, and planteth in us a rule to know justice, equity, and goodness. (ibid.)

Thus, this law is perfectly natural, just like every good with which man is adorned. But, in order to stay in line with the Aristotelian notion of acquired good while maintaining the Pauline notion of natural corruption, we must not speak of  this law as natural. God has given us these moral principles to lead us back to him, and they are ours, but as a corrupt nature cannot begin to lead man to do good things without the hand of God molding it and adorning it with knowledge of good and evil, so the Gentiles would have an utterly depraved nature were it not for the common grace of God.

Reformed Robotics

Mechanical ManSome people within the Reformed world feel that the only way to validate faith is to denigrate reason. If philosophers can attain to a knowledge of divine things, then why do they need faith? There is a bit of intellectualism in that concept. Faith is an intellectual virtue, but faith does not occur apart from the desire of the will moving the mind toward God, and faith should not be separated from the virtues of hope and charity. In other words, the validity of faith, at least in one sense, is inherent within its own definition. Faith requires a repentant heart and an open mind. I think the Reformed argument would go this way if fully spelled out: “Our faith is a purely intellectual assent to theological propositions, the principal one being ‘God exists.’ Therefore if the Christian admits that the philosopher may have a knowledge of God, then our own ‘divine science’ will be merged into pagan ‘divine science.'” 

Of course, I could respond to this Christian argument that a proper definition of natural knowledge and sacred knowledge would solve this problem, since this distinction leaves some knowledge of God to the philosopher by self-evident principles, but knowledge that God reveals about himself  in the first principles of faith is supernatural and only for the Christian to know. As true as the distinction between pagan theology and Christian theology is, that is not my point. I have noticed that those who denigrate reason by denying a knowledge of God to unbelievers or denying that unbelievers may be virtuous tend to treat faith as if it were mere understanding. Once the distinction between natural science and divine science, natural knowledge and supernatural knowledge, philosophy and theology, is done away with by denying the validity of the former, then the latter science must compensate for lack of natural tools by which to unify or explain itself. Theology makes up for the loss of philosophy by either making up its own rules and language, by subjecting the principles of theology to reason as a subordinate knowledge, or both. Granted, those who submit the principles of theology to reason as a subordinate knowledge do not always realize what they are doing. Yet, when nature is done violence, whether “nature” refers to the science of philosophy or the faculty of reason itself, faith is also done violence. 

God converts our souls, he does not recreate them ex nihilo. Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it. Therefore, the function of reason in the natural man is not destroyed when the divine illumination of faith is given. Rather, that natural knowledge is perfected by the conversion of the whole person. The first principles of faith would be useless for the healing of man’s depraved nature if they were not accompanied by a change of the individual’s heart. Those principles would also be useless if they were not somewhat built upon the principles of natural knowledge. For example, the religious knowledge that informs me of Christ’s incarnation assumes that I know what the word “incarnation” means or that I know what it means to be born. And, in terms of the science of theology, the study of the nature of God assumes that one knows the meaning of essence, being, nature, attribute, and so on. 

The “natural man” is that rare bird who is well schooled enough that he has actually taken time to think about the ultimate goal for the human race or a First Cause of the universe and come to the conclusion that there must be a God. If and when this person is converted to the Christian faith, he would not be asked to recant his former knowledge of an ultimate goal of humanity or a First Cause of the universe. Rather, he would be asked to “repent and believe.” This means he would have to turn from seeking after his own desires and the idea that his natural knowledge is sufficient for his own perfection.

Thus, those Reformed folks who denigrate natural knowledge implicitly adhere to a radical separation between nature and grace, faith and reason. This is often couched in terms of worldview. Nevertheless, this solid wall that many have erected between natural knowledge and religious knowledge often leaves the latter lacking in emotion – since desire itself is natural. Theology devoid of the insight of the natural mind becomes a list of propositions tightly organized into columns of rules that one must either adhere to or relinquish the faith. Confessions are also “reanimated” into a modern and robotic system of belief that is simple and practical for the new convert to the Reformed world. It does not come with all of the hang-ups of organs and tissue that one finds in the writings of Luther and Calvin. It does not move on its own or go places that we cannot predict. No, our confessions have no real value apart from the authority of the institutional church. It goes where we want it to go and jumps when we push its buttons. We are the Reformed faith, and it is what we say it is.

Within the Reformed world (in the South at least) there seems to be two main types of student: the first type is loyal to the denomination and presbytery and will never consider objecting to the confession at any point, and the second type reacts to what they perceive to be a strict intellectualism  by seeking to make everything practical – these are the ones who are evangelizing in the community every weekend. Sometimes the groups overlap, but not usually. What I have seen is a genuine lack of theological aesthetic that comes from a wise soul who takes the time, or perhaps can’t avoid gazing in wonder at things natural and divine and marvels at the deep mysteries waiting to be discovered in both realms. Instead, you find faculties warring between the Biblical Studies department and the Systematic Theology department. The former is usually a reaction against the Reformed Robotics mentality of the latter, yet to the opposite extreme. 

This type of Reformed theology that I call Reformed Robotics is not confined to a single camp but comes from the generally Puritan mentality of “Church vs. world.” The distinction between philosophy and theology is not even a tertiary issue for most of us, but what really matters is the battle against “the liberals.” Lectures in the biblical studies department are centered upon textual issues contra Liberali, with almost no time devoted to the discussion of theological issues that practically leap out of the text. In fact, certain professors are masters at skipping every “difficult” text – theologically “difficult” not textually “difficult.” But, when your team only plays defense, the whole game is played by the movements and progressions of the other team. 

When the beauty of natural knowledge and its contribution to theology are disdained out of fear, either that the faith will lose its value or that the liberals will take over the church, theology becomes a Robot devoid of desire-provoking beauty and mystery, and is then used as a defensive tool for the Reformed Magesterium. Unfortunately, when this happens most of the truly intellectual types within the church find residence elsewhere (Anglicanism, Methodism, Catholicism, etc.) and those intellects that remain tend to be mere intellects, preaching a theology that lacks real substance. A Quodlibetal of difficult issues would be counterproductive to the agenda. 

Fortunately, this is not true of every Reformed person, though the exceptional sorts may be difficult to find; and it was not true for earlier generations, as I have attempted to demonstrate with this blog. The issue of the proper role of faith and reason is difficult and requires meditation for sure, but we should thrive on the difficult issues because extraordinary challenges generate extraordinary solutions. And, if grace perfects nature, then faith will supply answers for some of the errors and weaknesses of reason. But, when nature is seen as inherently evil, faith tends to take the place of reason and becomes a purely intellectual duty, and the science of Reformed Robotics is born.

Vermigli on Man’s Natural Knowledge of the Final Judgment

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.

Paul, Plato, and Aristotle on the Lex Naturalis: The Interpretation of David Pareus

David Pareus

David Pareus (d. 1622) is one of those church reformers that most people have never heard of. In fact, his name was world renowned in his day. He was known via his association with former tutors such as Zacharius Ursinus and Jerome Zanchi, and for his biblical scholarship, defense of the Reformed churches against Catholic apologists, and for his humanism. The divines who gathered in Dordrecht for the famous Synod held there, requested his attendance as a distinguished scholar. Though he was unable to attend, the delegates requested his assistance through letters and his writings were held in high regard by all of those in attendance at the Synod. On the issue of the extent of Christ’s death, both moderates and extremists acquiesced to his opinion on the matter. 

The following is taken from Pareus’s In divinam ad Romanos S. Pauli Apostoli Epistolam Commentarius (p. 153), and demonstrates a Reformed Catholic humanism, not only in Pareus’s knowledge of the Classic languages and literature, but also in his willingness to use pagan philosophy as a true explanatory reference for principles found in both Holy Scripture and nature. I have cited the Latin/Greek original with a translation underneath. Any correction to perceived errors in the translation would be greatly appreciated:

Dubium:  Ex ver. 15. Ostendunt opus legis scriptum in cordibus suis: quomodo dicat Apostolus, legem esse scriptam in cordibus: cum physici doceant, intellectum esse instar tabulae rasae, in qua nihil sit scriptum: omnia tamen nohta¿ scribi possint? Plato in Philebo: dokei√ moi to/te hJmw◊n hJ yuch\ bibli÷w tini« proseoike÷nai quam sententiam sequitur Aristoteles I.3. capit 4. de anima: wJsper ejn grammatei/w wvJ mhde\n uJparxei ejnteleceia gegrammenon oJper sumbainei ejpi\ touv nouv. 

Responsio. Non pugnant: Nihil enim est in intelectu scriptum actu, quod Aristotel. dicit ejnteleceia: Omnia vero sunt scripta potentia: quoniam intellectus ad omnia intelligibilia habet se in potentia. Et quodamodo tamen actu inscripta dicuntur ea, ad quae ratio & mens sana se convertit per se sine demonstratione: ut sunt notitiae de Deo colendo, de parentibus honorandis, de discrimine honesti & turpis, etc. quae notitiae dicuntur lex naturae & naturales, quia harum femina nobiscum nascuntur. Praeter has sunt aliae, quas vocant koi\naß ejnnoiaß, quibus assentitur ratio ex solo sensu totum esse maius sua parte, ignem urere, aequalia aequalibus addita facere tota aequalia, etc. ex qualibus doctrinae mathematicae exstructae sunt. Platonis sententia est, omnia naturaliter inscriptura esse: sed nascentibus propinari poculum Lethes, unde oblivio omnium notitiarum, quas discere, sit reminisci. Intellexit praestantiam mentis & naturae humanae non esse a Deo conditam cum tanta ignorantia: sed quia veritatem non novit, fabulam finxit, quam etiam tabula Cebetis proposuit. 


Problem. From verse 15, “They show the work of the law written in their hearts”: Why does the Apostle say that the law is written in the hearts: when the physicians teach that the intellect is like a blank tablet upon which nothing is written, yet every intellect can be written upon? Plato in his Philebus says: “It seems to me that our soul in such a situation is like a book,” which is followed by a sentence of Aristotle (I.3. Chap. 4. de Anima): “just as characters may be on a tablet on which nothing has been written, so it happens with the mind.”

Response. They do not disagree: For nothing is written upon the intellect actually, which Aristotle calls entelechea: Indeed, all things are written potentially: because the intellect is itself in potency to all intelligible things. And in a certain way, nevertheless, those things are said to be actually inscribed, to which reason and the whole mind itself is converted by its very nature without demonstration: as is the knowledge about worshipping God, honoring the parents, the distinction of honest and filthy things, etc. which knowledge is said to be the law of nature and natural because it is begotten with us from woman. After these there are other [types of knowledge] which they call koinas enoias [common sense], to which reason ascends by sense alone: the whole is greater than its parts, fire burns, equals are added to equals to make whole equals etc. by which sort of doctrine mathematics were built. The sentence of Plato is, all things are inscribed naturally [upon the intellect] but after being born it drinks the cup of Lethe, whereupon all knowledge is lost, which to discern is to remember. He knew that the excellence of the mind and human nature was not preserved by God after so great an ignorance: but because he did not know the truth, he imagined a tale, which even the tablet of Cebes proposed. 

For Pareus, as for Vermigli, Zanchi, et alia, this law of nature that is inscribed upon the hearts of man – the law that tells us to worship God, honor our parents, and distinguishes between good and evil – was known by Paul, Plato, and Aristotle. Pareus does not see a disagreement between Plato and Aristotle, an innate knowledge and a knowledge by acquisition. The two may be reconciled by the distinction between the passive and active intellects. The former is in potency to all things, and the latter only gains knowledge through abstraction.

Even the active intellect contains certain types of innate knowledge, in the sense that these things are self-evident and are assumed within rather than proven by demonstration. The natural law pertains to that ability given from birth to distinguish between good and evil. Common sense, on the other hand, pertains only to sense perception and those principles that are discovered through those means. Finally, Plato’s tale of the river Lethe came close to the true cause of man’s ignorance, but without divine revelation he could not know that ignorance did not come from drinking the wrong water but from a volitional choice to abandon nature and God. Pareus’s ideas in this passage do not differ from those of Vermigli, Zanchi, and even Calvin. But, his exposition is more scholastic than the latter, as can be seen in his use of the method of proposition-aporia-response. He is a paragon for a Reformed humanism that seems all but forgotten today, and we could all benefit greatly from the translation of his whole corpus.

Voluntarism, Skepticism, and the Unveiling of Nature

Medieval ClockPierre Hadot distinguishes between what he calls a Promethean and Orphic concept of nature in the history of philosophy. Both groups see the inner workings of nature as secretive and hidden from mankind. However, these secrets may be discovered by man by the use of certain methods. The Promethean method seeks to do violence to nature in order to force her to confess her secrets. The Orphic philosopher sees nature as somewhat divine and seeks to woo her through poetry and art, believing that the secrets of nature must be given voluntarily by Nature herself. According to Hadot, the Christian theology of voluntarism contributed to a more Promethean concept of nature and her secrets (Hadot also erroneously charges all Christians with a Promethean theology). Where Augustine held that God’s will and goodness are one and simple, voluntarists believed that God was more free and could do that which was contrary to his revealed will and even things contradictory. This view of God’s will led to an agnosticism about the secrets of nature, and Nature herself became more like a clock than a personality. Hadot explains, quoting Descartes:

According to theological voluntarism … if two plus two are four, it is because God so willed it. There is no intelligible necessity to impose itself on God’s absolute power: “The mathematical truths that you call eternal have been established by God and depend entirely on him, as do all other creatures. Indeed, to say that these truths are independent of God is to speak of him as a Jupiter or a Saturn, and to subject him to the Styx and the Fates.” [Oeuvres philosophiques, 1:259-260] (Hadot, The Veil of Isis, p. 133)

Hadot is not accusing Descartes of using God’s absolute will as a first principle of knowledge or speculative investigation. Rather, Descartes’ philosophy dealt violence to speculative science by attributing to God a virtually unknowable will and to nature, an unpredictable set of laws, and assumed an opposition between God’s will and the nature of things. Hadot continues:

God has established these truths “as a king establishes laws in his kingdom,” as Descartes wrote on April 15, 1630, to Father Mersenne. This doctrine of complete divine freedom had two consequences. First of all, it is possible that phenomena, or that which appears to us, may be produced by processes different from those we can construct mathematically and according to the laws of mechanics. We must renounce the idea of an absolutely certain science that knows genuine causes. The result is that we can observe and measure natural phenomena, but we cannot truly understand their causes. Seventeenth-century scientists found a sufficient motive for renouncing worries about the finalities and essence of phenomena in theological reasons; it was enough for them to determine how these phenomena occur according to the laws of mechanics. (ibid. p. 133)

Thus, the voluntarist concept of certain possible worlds that God may will to create, worlds that function completely different from ours, led to the birth of a minimalist science of phenomena that reduced the organic and dynamic Nature of things to a mechanical nature that is identical with man’s own art. In this system, the secrets of nature that were once only thought to be discoverable by imitation can now be known by reduplication via the art of mechanics. If the universals of Nature can be other than man is able to know, then Nature will be reduced in value to predictable physical phenomena, thus losing her personality, volition, and mystery. Thus, by reducing Nature’s value the Promethean project was furthered.