The Meaning of Aristotle’s τἀγαθόν: The Benefit of a Humanist Ethos

Peter Martyr Vermigli

During the time of the Renaissance there was a debate between humanist moral theologians and those who followed the via antiqua. The former thought moral theology could not be properly utilized by the laity and should therefore be confined to the universities. The latter considered the practical science apt for the virtuous rhetor to use in discourse and civic instruction on the nature of human behavior. Thus, one can see a disagreement between those who considered the science more speculative and those who considered it more practical. The University of Padua adopted the Florentinian humanistic concept of the science of morals but later confined the discipline to the clerics.

According to David Lines, many books were used during the Renaissance as sources for the study of morals, including Thomas Aquinas’s Sententia libri Ethicorum (i.e., his commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics). 

In fourteenth century Italy, most interpreters of the Ethics [Aristotle’s] drew heavily on Thomas’s own commentary. Acciaiuoli’s commentary was admired partly for its faithfulness to the Dominican friar. Even Ottaviano Ferrari (1518-86), a pugnacious scholar who lectured on the Ethics in the Collegio Canobiano of Milan, could oppose but not ignore the saint from Aquino. The effects were even clearer on the members of the Dominican and Jesuit orders. Around 1490 two near contemporary Dominicans, Ludovico Valenza da Ferrara and Girolamo Savonarola, produced compendia of moral philosophy. Tellingly, these works are not digests of Aristotle’s works, but of Thomas’s Summa IIa IIae, even though they cover topics in ethics, oeconomics, and politics. (Lines, “Humanistic and Scholastic Ethics,” Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy [CCRP], 310.) 

The Paduan trained Peter Martyr Vermigli carried on the tradition of lecturing on moral theology that saw the value of the science for the civic sphere, as he lectured at the Academy of Strasbourg. Vermigli was trained in the via Thomae and most likely knew the humanist poet Flaminio of Serraville, but the extent of his humanism lies in a literary technique and linguistic capacity that was typical of the ad fontes approach of the age.  An example of this can be seen in his translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics from Erasmus’s 1531 Greek edition, rather than relying on a Latin text. Particularly, Vermigli follows a humanist interpretation of one of Aristotle’s key phrases.

Johannes Argyropoulos - Byzantine humanist
J. Argyropoulos

He comments on Aristotle’s statement τἀγαθόν οὗ πάντ᾽ ἐφίεται (the good is that at which all things aim), saying even though τἀγαθόν is definitive (as opposed to ἀγαθόν) it does not refer to something supreme, as the “summum bonum” (supreme good) or “God” and especially not “The Holy Trinity.” He notes that the Greek article does not always denote something particular:  “Another function of the article is to indicate the reason and form without any particular conditions, in which several individuals are united; for example, as when we say ho anthropos logikos, ‘man is rational,’ we do not mean a specific individual, but rather we define the common nature and form that are shared by various individuals like Socrates and Plato.” (Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, 21.) Contrary to those who see the phrase as a reference to the Trinity, Vermigli believes that τἀγαθόν refers to the “good itself” or the common good, which is the common form of the many naturally desired goods. A horse seeks after its own good, a dog its own good, and a human aims at its own good, but all things seek the good in general. If all things aimed at God or the supreme good there would be no natural end or reason for which each species was created, as if nature does not aim at its own preservation and perfection.  Vermigli recounts the interpretation of Leonardo Aretino (a.k.a Bruni; d. 1444) and George of Trabizond (d. 1486), who were led by the Greek article preceding the noun to interpret the phrase as a reference to the Trinity.  Instead, Vermigli follows the exegesis of Johannes Cardinal Bessarion (d. 1472).  “Bessarion, Nicene cardinal and the most learned man among the Greeks of the modern era, refuted this opinion, saying that Trapezuntius [Trabizond] should have been aware that in Greek when an article precedes a word it has a triple function.” (ibid, 22, 23)  Vermigli then adopts as his own the translation of the humanist Johannes Argyropoulos (d. 1487) who rendered τἀγαθόν as “the good itself.” (ibid)

The translation of τἀγαθόν posed a problem for other theologians during the time of the Renaissance.  David Lines affirms that one issue of debate in this period was the notion of the goal of all things:

which Aristotle described at the beginning of the Ethics as tagathón (“the good”).  Bruni’s [Leonardo Aretino] translation of this expression as summum bonum … was often followed well into the sixteenth century.  But it also raised questions and objections.  After all, if moral philosophy really deals with the supreme good, how does it differ from metaphysics and theology? And to what extent could one really expect a pagan such as Aristotle to be cognizant of Christian truth?

Vermigli seems to tie his interpretation of τἀγαθόν as the “good itself,” as opposed to summum bonum, to his belief that the pagan philosopher does not know the good as God per se in his search for the good as his final end. In other words, his translation is not abstracted from a real doctrinal issue. He notes:  “The difference between us and pagan philosophers is that they suggest the ultimate end should be achieved by one’s own virtue and zeal, whereas we say on the basis of divine scripture that the supreme good [summum bonum] cannot be obtained unless we are assisted by the spirit and grace of Christ.”  (ibid, 41.) In this passage Vermigli appears to limit the translation summum bonum to that particular end which may only be realized through the assistance of Christ. Thus, Vermigli distinguishes summum bonum from “the good itself” in order to clearly differentiate between the final end as understood by the pagan philosophers and the final end as it is revealed in the scriptures, an idea that he sees exemplified by the rules of Greek grammar.   

Moerbeke's Translation of book 7 of Aristotle's Metaphysics
Moerbeke's Translation of book 7 of Aristotle's Metaphysics

Thomas Aquinas’s exegesis of Aristotle’s τἀγαθόν is similar; although, he was unfamiliar with the Greek text and depended upon a Latin translation that rendered the term summum bonum. Instead of the humanist ethos that provoked study of the original languages Thomas did not have a functioning knowledge of Greek and relied on William of Moerbeke’s Latin translation of Aristotle’s Ethics. Like Vermigli, Thomas also makes a distinction between the different desires of particular beings, and, although beasts lack the type of desire that comes with knowledge, they also tend toward the good via the guiding knowledge of the “divine intellect.”  (Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I.1.11) Aristotle’s summum bonum does not imply a single good that all things desire but refers to the good in general.  However, Thomas’s interpretation falls into the realm of Vermigli’s critique in his statement, “because nothing is good except insofar as it is a likeness and participation of the highest good [summum bonum], the highest good itself is in some way desired in every particular good.” (ibid) However, this evidence does not demonstrate a substantial theological difference between Thomas and Vermigli, because Thomas’s method of commenting on Aristotle primarily consists of finding the truth for the instruction of the theologian and only secondarily consists of determining authorial intent. In fact, “Thomas places himself explicitly in the Christian perspective and arranges things so as to have the Philosopher speak of the contemplative faculty in which Thomas himself sees the happiness of beatitude.”  (Jean-Pierre Torrell, St. Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 1, 228) Also, Thomas’s assertion that the summum bonum is desired in every particular good “in some way” is ambiguous and does not appear to differ per se from Vermigli’s statement that the pagan philosopher seeks God per accidens, not per se, in seeking the common good.

In conclusion, one can see the benefits of a new age and development of scholarship that was the Renaissance. Vermigli remained a follower of the via antiqua, but his acceptance of certain humanistic principles and alacrity to follow the interpretation of humanist philosophers rendered him more capable to determine the proper relationship between philosophy and theology.

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Vermigli on Why the Natural Law Accuses Mankind

Peter Martyr VermigliVermigli affirms that the natural law accuses  man because of the corruption resulting from the loss of original righteousness.  He affirms against Pighius that there are three laws that bind our nature, thus rendering the lack of original righteousness a sin: (1) The institution of man as the imago Dei (image of God), which consists primarily in his endowment with the “divine properties” of justice, wisdom, goodness, and patience, (2) the law of nature that depends upon the original justice of the imago Dei, and (3) the Law of God.  (Commentary upon the Epistle to the Romanes, 124, 125) Vermigli explains why the second of these laws requires original righteousness:

We have also the law of nature, and to live agreably unto it (as Cicero saith in his 3. booke de finibus) is the principall and last end of mans estate.  And this lawe dependeth of that other law [original justice] which we before put:  For it commeth of no other thinge, that we have in our mind cogitations, accusing, and defending one another, but only for that they are taken of the worthiness of nature, as it was instituted of God.  For whatsoever Philosophers, or lawgivers have written of the offices of mannes life, the same wholy dependeth of the fountaines of our constitution.  For those precepts cannot come out of a corrupt nature, out of selfe love, and malice, hereby we are prone to evil:  but they come of that forme of upright nature, which they imagine is required of the dignity of man, and which we know by the scriptures was instituted of God, and commaunded of us to be renued. (ibid.)

Therefore, the natural law accuses mankind because we fail to live up to the justice with which man was originally endowed.  When the pagan philosophers wrote about man’s duties (i.e., offices) they believed that the precepts derived from the natural law could be fully kept by the prudent person.  However, Vermigli counters that an upright nature is a gift that must come from God.

Edwards’s Definitions of Nature and Supernatural

Jonathan EdwardsIn the following quote Jonathan Edwards clarifies, in a footnote, what he means when referring to certain natural and supernatural principles given to Adam:

To prevent all cavils, the reader is desired particularly to observe, in what sense I here use the words natural and supernatural: – Not as epithets of distinction between that which is concreated or connate, and that which is extraordinarily introduced afterwards, besides the first state of things, or the order established originally, beginning when man’s nature began; but as distinguishing between what belongs to, or flows from, that nature which man has, merely as man, and those things which are above this, by which one is denominated, not only a man, but a truly virtuous, holy, and spiritual man; which, though they began in Adam as soon as humanity began, and are necessary to the perfection and well-being of the human nature,  yet are not essential to the constitution of it, or necessary to its being: inasmuch as one may have every thing needful to his being man, exclusively of them. If in thus using the words, natural and supernatural, I use them in an uncommon sense, it is not from any affectation of singularity, but for want of other terms more aptly to express my meaning. (On Original Sin, IV., ch. 2.)

To begin, Edwards makes it very clear that by these terms he is not referring to some hypothetical universe in which God created Adam in a state of mere nature and then added supernatural gifts to that nature. Rather, he is referring to a specific man, Adam, who had supernatural qualities “as soon as nature began.” This is essentially in agreement with Thomas’s view, which many have mistaken as that very view from which Edwards seeks to distance himself.

Furthermore, Edwards clarifies that when he makes a distinction between nature and the supernatural he is distinguishing between that which belongs to or flows from mere man, and that which is above mere man. Virtue, holiness, and spiritualness may be terms that describe the imago Dei but in terms of humanity they “are not essential to the constitution of it, or necessary to its being.” The truth of this statement is self-evident, since God has allowed many individuals to exist even though they have lost these supernatural characteristics. Sin does not take away man’s “man-ness,” but sin does distort it. Therefore, if it is not already clear, the concept of a donum superadditum  added to Adam’s nature is perfectly Reformed, as long as the “superaddition” is not thought to have come upon Adam in real time, i.e., after he was created.

Braine on de Lubac

While over at Theogothic  a survey of John Milbank’s take on Calvin is being presented I thought I would point everyone to a good critique of Henri de Lubac – this is pertinant since the Rady-O folks are heavily influenced by his interpretation of Thomas’s “natural desire” for the beatific vision. Although I am not an expert on de Lubac and his critics I do understand a few of the critiques from his RC brethren:  de Lubac reads Thomas through a Scotist lens and emphasizes will over intellect, he goes too far in his union of nature and grace – they almost seem identical, he confuses “nature” and “person” in a way that makes human nature liable to change.

David Braine offers a thorough assessment of these critiques and of de Lubac’s apparent mistakes. Braine notes that many of those who criticize Henri de Lubac’s interpretation of Thomas’s teaching in the Summa contra gentiles (3.LVII.iv), quod omnis intellectus naturaliter desiderat divinae substantiae visionem, every intellect has a natural desire for the vision of the divine substance, have not sought to clarify his definition of the word “nature.” Braine lays most of the blame for this misunderstanding upon de Lubac:

de Lubac did not have the gift of using analytical philosophy in the service of theology in the way exemplified in St. Thomas. He therefore makes the mistake of regarding human nature, if realized in an order of providence distinct from the actual order of providence within which we actually come into existence and live, as a specific difference between two natures which are only generically the same. Instead, maintaining the use of the term “nature,” or phusis, exemplified in Aristotelian and most later philosophical usage, he should have said that supernatural finality is something given to persons in virtue of a relation, rather than it gives them a distinct nature. (Braine, “The Debate Between Henri de Lubac and His Critics,” Nova et Vetera, Summer 2008, p. 552)

Where de Lubac spoke of a a supernatural finality “inscribed upon human nature” he should have said “inscribed upon human persons.” The reason for this is that human nature in its abstract philosophical sense is a definition of the quiddity (whatness) of the species “human.” It is not an essential characteristic of human nature that it have supernatural qualities. In his effort to prove that Suarez’s hypothetical world of pure nature never really existed he allows the pendulum to swing to the opposite extreme of confusing nature and the supernatural. Concerning the critique that de Lubac puts too much emphasis on the will in man’s supernatural calling, Braine agrees while being charitable to what he thinks was the essence of de Lubac’s argument:

When it is said that “the soul is naturally capable of grace,” we should say that it is the person as made with intellect and will, and thereby in the image of God, who is being said to be thus capable […] It is only by beginning from the recognition of the person as the primary subject of predication where human beings are concerned, and then by thinking of the soul as the human intellectual principle in the person, and by thinking of intellect and will as aspects of this principle, rather than as powers predicated of it, that we can avoid the idea of the natural desiderium for the vision of God as an exercise of the power called will, elicited by some logically prior exercise of the power called the intellect. (Ibid., p. 556.)

Braine agrees with de Lubac’s critique of Cajetan in the sense that the later considered the desire for the vision of God to be “natural” only secundum quid (in a certain way) and unnatural simpliciter. Braine notes that St. Thomas held the opposite opinion, using the word “natural” to refer not to some hypothetical world of pure nature but to God’s actual order of providence. Therefore, since the real world is the world that is ordered by God’s providence Thomas can say that the desire for the vision of God is natural. This means Thomas gives primacy to the theological perspective whereas Cajetan gives primacy to the natural. Thus, de Lubac is correct in critiquing the notion that man has two distinct ends, one natural, the other supernatural. Finally, Braine seeks to clarify de Lubac’s interpretation of Thomas while offering a critique:

de Lubac’s exegesis of St. Thomas in regard to the natural desire (desiderium) for the vision of God does not appear to be sustainable. If we look at St. Thomas, and examine typical texts in which the “natural desire (desiderium) for the vision of God” is spoken of, such as SCG III, c. 50, it is evident that St. Thomas is speaking of a natural desire which is conditional upon knowledge of the existence of God as cause of all things …. it is a natural desire which can in principle be satisfied, though only through supernatural assistance, and in the actual order of providence under which the whole of creation exists throgh the divine gifts of grace and glory will always be satisfied, unless some obstacle is put to receiving these gifts by the will of the creature which can only hope with those who have reached the age of reason. (Ibid., p. 568.)

In essence, Braine is arguing that de Lubac did not mention the fact that Thomas believed that the natural desire of man for the vision of God is not fulfilled naturally. Thomas believed that in order for man to attain this his final end he needs the added supernatural qualities which lift the soul up to God. Rather than disrespect the memory and life’s work of such a great scholar as Henri de Lubac, Braine includes within his critiques many principles of the former’s theology that still remain valid. Overall his clarifications and critiques of de Lubac and his critics are very helpful and important, especially in regard to those who have been influenced by this proponent of the Ressourcement, some of whom have continued to confuse nature and the supernatural.

Jonathan Edwards on Adam’s Natural and Supernatural Principles

The case with man was plainly this: when God made man at first, he implanted in him two kinds of principles. There was an inferior kind, which may be called natural, being the principles of mere human nature; such as self-love, with those natural appetites and passions, which belong to the nature of man, in which his love to his own liberty, honor and pleasure, were exercised: these when alone, and left to themselves, are what the Scriptures sometimes call flesh. Besides these, there were superior principles, that were spiritual, holy and divine, summarily comprehended in divine love; wherein consisted the spiritual image of God, and man’s righteousness and true holiness; which are called in Scripture the divine nature. These principles may, in some sense, be called supernatural,  being (however concreated or connate, yet) such as are above those principles that are essentially implied in, or necessarily resulting from, and inseparably connected with, mere human nature; and being such as immediately depend on man’s union and communion with God, or divine communications and influences of God’s Spirit: which though withdrawn, and man’s nature forsaken of these principles, human nature would be human nature still; man’s nature as such, being entire without these divine principles, which the Scripture sometimes calls spirit, in contradistinction to flesh. These superior principles were given to possess the throne, and maintain an absolute dominion in the heart: the other, to be wholly subordinate and subservient. And while things continued thus, all things were in excellent order, peace and beautiful harmony, and in their proper and perfect state. These divine principles thus reigning, were the dignity, life, happiness, and glory of man’s nature. When man sinned, and broke God’s Covenant, and fell under his curse, these superior principles left his heart: for indeed God then left him; that communion with God, on which these principles depended, entirely ceased; the Holy Spirit, that divine inhabitant, forsook the house. Because it would have been utterly improper in itself, and inconsistent with the covenant and constitution God had established, that God should still maintain communion with man, and continue, by his friendly, gracious vital influences, to dwell with him and in him, after he was become a rebel, and had incurred God’s wrath and curse. Therefore immediately the superior divine principles wholly ceased; so light ceases in a room, when the candle is withdrawn: and thus man was left in a state of darkness, woeful corruption and ruin; nothing but flesh, without spirit. The inferior principles of self-love and natural appetite, which were given only to serve, being alone, and left to themselves, of course became reigning principles; having no superior principles to regulate or control them, they became absolute masters of the heart. The immediate consequence of which was a fatal catastrophe, a turning of all things upside down, and the succession of a state of the most odious and dreadful confusion. Man did immediately set up himself, and the objects of his private affections and appetites, as supreme; and so they took the place of God. (On Original Sin, IV., ch. 2.)

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. 

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

Within the spirit of the post below concerning snobbery, I suggest that we who rummage through the old dusty pages of theological and philosophical works of days long past adhere to the commonsensical maxim to never create a problem of diverging doctrinal paradigms where an author him/herself did not. For example, I have not read in any Reformer where he disagrees with the “papists” because they view Christ, man, and sin through a dualist nature/grace paradigm.  The anachronistic insertion of such a paradigm would amount to something similar to what C.S. Lewis termed “chronological snobbery.” Therefore, I vow not to insert a problem of dueling “worldviews” where Luther, et al. did not.  Steven has an excellent post for those wanting to know the problems of “worldview thinking.”

Rather than disagree with Rome because of its worldview Calvin and Vermigli opposed what may seem to us as non-essential if not insignificant doctrinal points. It is really easy for us to read the polemics of Luther or Calvin anachronistically, as if they would both be just as militant about some of these points were they living in 21st century Europe or America.  As James Davison Hunter points out, the religious situation in America is no longer divided between Protestant and Catholic, as it was in the 19th and earlier centuries. Rather, we are divided between those who adhere to the authorities of church or Bible and those who value the authority of reason and the freedom to critique supernatural authorities.  Sure, Protestants and Catholics are still divided in terms of doctrine and practice.  However, one can notice the change in rhetorical tone toward a spirit of mutual respect that did not exist for the Reformers.

I am somewhat grieved to bring up a “whipping boy” to accentuate my point, since he is someone who has taught me many things.  Herman Bavinck is that “boy.” First, I must emphasize my respect for Bavinck.  I agree with Richard Gaffin, that Bavinck’s is “Arguably the most important systematic theology ever produced in the Reformed tradition.”  With that said, I offer one critique. Bavinck makes the following statement concerning the Reformed understanding of Adam’s original state:

[For the Reformers] grace serves, not to take up humans into a supernatural order, but to free them from sin.  Grace is opposed not to nature, only to sin.  In its real sense, it was not necessary in the case of Adam before the fall but has only become necessary as a result of sin […] Grace does not give us any more than what, if Adam had not fallen, would have been acquired by him in the way of obedience.  The covenant of grace differes from the covenant of works in method, not in its ultimate goal.  It is the same treasure that was primised in the covenant of works and is granted in the covenant of grace.  Grace restores nature and takes it to its highest pinacle, but it does not add to it any new and heterogeneous constituents. (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3:  Sin and Salvation in Christ, p. 577.)

Now, I must add one caveat to this quote, which I think is a misinterpretation of the Reformers:  Bavinck is critiquing the Catholic doctrine that Adam was created in a state of “pure nature.” According to this doctrine, man was originally created without supernatural gifts, his nature remains constant before receiving grace, while grace is given, and after grace has been removed because of the fall. Throughout the process Adam’s nature remains as it was created.  This was a position held by many Jesuits during the time of Francis Turretin.  Peter Leithart notes here that Turretin attributed this position to Pelagianism, both old and new – as did Vermigli.  Therefore, inasmuch as Bavinck critiques the notion of pure nature he is correct.  The Reformers did not hold to this position.  However, by stating that the Reformers did not believe Adam needed grace before the fall Bavinck misrepresents at least two Reformers:  John Calvin and Peter Martyr Vermigli.

Adam and EveCalvin affirms that Adam was created in the image of God with the “adornments” of wisdom, virtue, and justice, and he calls these the “gifts” which God “willed to be conferred upon human nature.” (Institutes, II.I.4-7.)  But, throughout the Institutes Calvin seems to equate man’s original state with human nature.  He seems to imply that Adam did not have sanctifying grace “superadded” to his nature. Rather, Adam was created with these gifts, and those gifts are natural. At this point I must state clearly that the word “nature” can cause much confussion.  What did Calvin mean by “nature”?  Fortunately, he gives us an idea of his definition when he explains the meaning of “corruption of nature”:  

Therefore we declare that man is corrupted through natural vitiation, but a vitiation that did not flow from nature.  We deny that it has flowed from nature in order to indicate that it is an adventitious quality which comes upon man rather than a substantial property which has been implanted from the beginning.  Yet we call it “natural” in order that no man may think that anyone obtains it through bad conduct, since it holds all men fast by hereditary right. (Ibid., II.I.11.) 

Here Calvin uses the word “nature” to refer both to man’s original state as created by God and his state after the fall. Adam has a nature before the fall and a nature after the fall, but he maintains the same nature/substance throughout.  In other words, his substance remains yet it receives the “adventitious quality” of original sin.  Calvin explains, “in man’s perverted and degenerate nature some sparks still gleam.  These show him to be a rational being, differing from brute beasts, because he is endowed with understanding.” (Ibid., II.II.12.) Therefore, the definition of man as a rational animal, which is his nature, does not change after the fall, and thus original sin is something added to that nature.  We can see something similar with Calvin’s understanding of nature and grace.  He explains that some gifts are natural but others are above nature:

I feel pleased with the well-known saying which has been borrowed from the writings of Augustine, that man’s natural gifts were corrupted by sin, and his supernatural gifts withdrawn; meaning by supernatural gifts the light of faith and righteousness, which would have been sufficient for the attainment of heavenly life and everlasting felicity. Man, when he withdrew his allegiance to God, was deprived of the spiritual gifts by which he had been raised to the hope of eternal salvation. Hence it follows, that he is now an exile from the kingdom of God, so that all things which pertain to the blessed life of the soul are extinguished in him until he recover them by the grace of regeneration. Among these are faith, love to God, charity towards our neighbour, the study of righteousness and holiness. All these, when restored to us by Christ, are to be regarded as adventitious and above nature. If so, we infer that they were previously abolished. (Institutes, Henry Beveridge, trans., II.II.12.)

In this paragraph Calvin affirms both a sin/grace distinction and a nature/grace distinction, or more properly a nature/supernatural distinction.  Adam was created with certain supernatural gifts added to his natural gifts in order that he attain a supernatural end.  After the fall this nature/supernatural distinction in gifts does not disappear but a new category is added, that of sin. Therefore, we can tentatively conclude that Calvin did not consider Adam’s original righteousness to be purely natural, not needing the addition of grace (as Bavinck implies),  nor can we reduce his soteriology to a mere sin/grace distinction.  Because Adam was created with supernatural gifts we can say that these gifts were natural (I think this is what Bavinck means by the term) and in this sense no addition was needed.  However, this does not mean that these gifts were produced from nature, but that Adam had a natural capacity to receive them.  Adam’s faith, hope, and charity were not products of nature but were given supernaturally by God at the time of creation. 

I believe that a nature/grace  distinction (as opposed to a sin/grace distinction) within the writings of Calvin and Vermigli is difficult to find because they considered the removal of original righteousness to be a sin in and of itself, as Calvin mentions in the quote above. Therefore, a post-lapsarian sin/grace distinction is the same as a post-lapsarian nature/grace distinction because  a nature without grace in this world is a corrupt nature.  Because Calvin uses the word “nature” in reference to Adam’s originally righteous state he can say that any removal of grace is a corruption of nature, rather than a return to a state of pure nature. Also, the use of the word “nature” when distinguished from “grace” denotes a metaphysical definition, something that Calvin sought to avoid in order to be perspicuous.  In the next post I will discuss Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of this topic and compare texts from he, Vermigli and Calvin in which they discuss Adam’s original state.