God’s Will as Moral First Principle

John Donnelly, in his book on Peter Martyr, refers to the Reformers’ moral theology as a system of “thou-shalt-nots” contrasted with Thomas’s system of moral virtue. Others have referred to the former theory of morals as divine command ethics.  This view is way too simplistic.  Sure, Calvin believed the ten commandments to have Christian pedagogical value, so did Luther and others.  Yet, Martyr did not reject but embraced Aristotle’s theory of virtues (with qualifications of course).  In fact their theologies are not much different from that of St. Thomas.  

As I have demonstrated in other posts Thomas saw a necessity for revealed divine law in the fact that original sin has corrupted man’s natural ability to direct his actions in a right order.  Pinckaers and others have rejected the notion that virtue is the center of Thomas’s moral theology.  If that were his view there would be little room for grace, an issue that spans a significant part of the Summa.  If virtue is not central to Thomas’s moral theory then does that mean the divine law is?  No.  I think it is fairly clear that God’s grace plays a central role for Thomas, although my point here is not to err by creating a center where none exists.  Many issues can be called central to his moral thought but one can be quite certain that grace and the divine law do play a significant role.  In commenting on Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians Thomas notes three norms for living the just life:

There are three norms immanent in man by which he may be guided and regulated if he is to walk justly and make spiritual progress.  In man, one of these is the reason which judges about what is to be done in concrete circumstances.  Another is the understanding of universal principles, called synderesis; and thirdly, there is the divine law or God.  Actions are good and meritorious when the person is guided by these three in their proper interrelations; namely, when the action is in accord with the judgment of reason, and this reason judges according to true understanding, or synderesis; and this synderesis is, in turn, directed by the divine law.  (Commentary on Ephesians, pp. 174-5)    

(This is not an example of Pelagian moralism since Thomas has already established in his commentary the necessity of grace for justification).  Thomas continues to affirm that the Gentiles lack all three of these things saying, “This is traceable to their not sharing in the divine light, or not being enlightened and directed by the divine law.” (Ibid.) I find Thomas’s tone in withholding these three norms from the Gentiles very Augustinian but that is beside the point. For Thomas the divine law is made up of both the Old Law which “restrains the hand” and the New Law that “controls the mind.” (ST I-II, Q.91, a.5)  The divine law contains precepts and spiritual guidance. In fact, Thomas sees three conditions that this divine law includes:  it orders man to the common earthly and heavenly good, it directs human internal acts in righteousness, and it induces man to observe its commandments by causing fear and love.  Therefore, one of the main purposes of the divine law is to lead man to virtue. (ST I-II, Q.92, a.1) Thomas is still far from Pelagianism here since the New Law, which is contained in the divine law,  is the grace of the Holy Spirit within believers.  “… the New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Ghost, which is given to those who believe in Christ.” (ST I-II, Q.106, a.1)

So, Thomas does see a necessity for “though-shalt-nots” but not without the grace of the Holy Spirit.  It does seem, since he states that the divine law leads to virtue, that virtues are more important in Thomas’s moral theory than divine commands. Virtue may be the end of the divine law, but man cannot be truly virtuous without it.  Thomas states that man is only prudent who puts things in proper perspective. “Everyone who sets things in perspective considers their end; hence he is wise in an absolute sense who knows and acts for the universal end, God.” (Commentary on Ephesians, p. 211.)  How does one know how to act for this universal end of beatitude?  Thomas answers:

For just as speculative reason puts whatever is to be done in perspective and judges it – it is necessary to have conclusions and to judge them by principles – so likewise in the field of performance. Now the first principle through which we ought to judge and regulate everything is the will of God.  Hence the intellect, in moral matters and those which lead to God, must have the will of God for its principle.  If it does, then the intellect becomes prudent. (Ibid)

Therefore it is not true that Thomas’s moral theology is centered on virtue in opposition to “thou-shalt-nots” since he sees both virtue and the divine commands as necessary for right moral actions.  Whether the Reformers held to a high view of virtue is a different discussion.


Aquinas on Civic and Infused Virtue

A human being is not only a citizen of the earthly city, but is also a member of the heavenly city of Jerusalem, which is governed by the Lord and has as its citizens the angels and all the saints, whether they are already reigning in glory and at rest in their homeland, or still pilgrims on earth, as St. Paul says in Ephesians 2:10, “You are fellow-citizens of the saints and members of the household of God”, and so on. But for us to become members of this heavenly city, our own nature is not enough; we need to be lifted up to this by the grace of God.  For it is clear that the virtues of a human being qua member of this city cannot be acquired just through what is natural to him. These virtues, therefore, are not caused through our actions, but infused in us by God’s gift.  (Thomas Aquinas, Disputed Questions on the Virtues, pp. 54, 55)

Aquinas is here making a distinction that he obviously gets from Augustine’s distinction between the earthly city and the heavenly city in his City of God.  As I’ve shown in previous posts this notion was picked up by Peter Martyr and Martin Luther.  This distinction between the good coram humano and the good coram Deo was also used by John Calvin and many others within the Reformed world. This should help demonstrate Frederick Copleston’s thesis that a stark dichotomy should not be seen between Augustine and Aquinas. Aquinas used Aristotle to systematize what he considered to be a thoroughly Augustinian Theology.

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)

Vermigli on the Divine Ideas

I found this passage from Vermigli’s commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics very interesting.  In the context he is discussing the theory of Plato’s Ideas and their relevancy to the topic of the Good.  This clearly shows the Platonic influence on Vermigli’s thinking, which is mediated through Augustine – he even says at one point that because Dionysius accepted Plato’s theory of Ideas “his opinion is not thoroughly absurd.” In this passage he discusses how God’s essence, which is one, can be the exemplar of many things.  He says:

The concept of ideas is derived from existing crafts; a craftsman cannot create anything without an archetype, neither can a painter or sculptor produce anything he has not previously conceived in his mind.  What is different, though, is that craftsmen devise creations in their minds through some industry and labor, while God has such ideas naturally implanted in him. Moreover, such ideas are distinguished in the minds of the craftsmen materially, whereas in God they are differentiated only rationally …. We say therefore that the divine nature is one and uniform and that it is most perfect; moreover, even if creatures imitate it they do not imitate it in its entirety, nor in the same manner or extent.  Therefore, just as the divine essence is referred to as a pattern for various species, at the same time different degrees of perfection may be noticed or distinguished in it, although not materially but theoretically.  Thus, since God considers himself a pattern to be imitated and mirrored in his creations in various degrees according to their characteristics, he is said to be contemplating his own ideas that, even if hidden from us, are rendered clear through the things he produces.  Therefore in the letter to the Hebrews, it is said, “By faith we understand that the world was created, so that what is seen was made out of things that do not appear.”  And in the letter to the Romans it says, “Since the creation of the world and through those things that have been made, the invisible nature of God is revealed” to philosophers. (Peter Martyr Vermigli, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, pp. 140, 142)

After this digression from the main topic Vermigli even speaks of the Ideas as important for his doctrine of providence and predestination – it’s too bad that Frank James doesn’t mention this in his book Peter Martyr Vermigli and Predestination.  I find this all very interesting, especially because Vermigli must have been aware of St. Thomas’s use of the Ideas in the mind of God to explain Aristotle’s noesis noeseos.