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)