Peter Martyr Vermigli and the Scholastic Inheritance: Negotiating Scholastic Sources

[This is part 1 in a series]

by Joshua Benjamins

The sixteenth-century Reformers maintained a rather uneasy relationship to the scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages. While the early architects of what later became known as “Reformed scholasticism” adopted much of the methodology, terminology, and theological presuppositions of the medieval Schoolmen, their appropriation of the scholastics was mixed with sharp and frequent criticism. This ambivalence is clear already in the writings of John Calvin, who—as Richard Muller notes—“held a fundamentally negative view of scholastic theology, at times to the point of caricature, at the same time that his theology contained a measure of positive allusion to and indirect reliance on scholastic formulations.” 1

Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, a classic statement of Protestant theology comparable to Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae for its scope and influence, is replete with citations of the early Fathers of the Church and especially Augustine, whereas Calvin’s much more infrequent references to the Schoolmen (scholastici) are almost uniformly critical. Calvin faults the Scholastics (especially Aquinas and Peter Lombard) for their “crabbed subtleties” (4.18.1) and “endless labyrinths” (3.2.2), derisively refers to them as Sophistae (e.g., 4.14.26), and rhetorically links them with the “Romanists” (4.19.15).2 On occasion, however, Calvin himself makes recourse to the precise terminology and fine distinctions of the schools which so often elicit his relentless denunciation (as in his approving use of Aquinas’ distinction between relative and absolute necessity at 1.16.9, or his use of the four causes framework at 3.14.17).

Many of Calvin’s theological heirs offered a more positive appraisal of the scholastic inheritance, while also echoing Calvin’s criticisms. A prime example is Peter Martyr Vermigli, an older contemporary of Calvin who received a traditional scholastic education at the University of Padua from 1518 before joining the ranks of the reformers. Many years later, in 1556, Vermigli would characterize Paduan divinity in forthrightly disparaging terms: “Dark, bespattered, entangled, and uncultivated, stained on all sides with devilish contentions.” 3 However, Vermigli owed a great deal to his training at Padua, for the thorough grounding which he received there in philosophy, theology, logic, dialectic, and languages would inform his thought and writing for the rest of his career. His deep familiarity with Aristotle and the medieval theologians is clear on nearly every page of his Biblical commentaries and theological treatises. But his use of these sources is not unmixed with criticism.

One illuminating example of Vermigli’s complex relationship to the scholastics is his Dialogue on the Two Natures in Christ (1561), part of an extended debate with the Lutheran theologian Johannes Brenz over the intertwined issues of hypostatic union, eucharistic presence, and ubiquity (the alleged omnipresence of Christ’s glorified human body, a notion advanced by Brenz and some other Lutherans). In the remainder of this post, I will explore the way in which Vermigli and his opponent evaluate the medieval theologians and will point out the historical and theological presuppositions which inform their readings. In the following posts, I want to turn to the deeper level of theological methodology and suggest that Vermigli’s nuanced appropriation of Aristotle and his position on the use of philosophy in theology, and his robust conception of natura and divina potentia ordinata reveal important continuities with the medieval scholastics.

Vermigli’s debate with the Lutheran Brenz gives us an illuminating microcosm of how Reformed and Lutheran controversialists parsed out the authority of both patristic and medieval theologians. 4 Both disputants assign varying degrees of authority to the fathers according to a governing narrative of the gradual devolution of the church over time. They classify patristic writers and medieval theologians in separate categories and generally grant more credence to the former than to the latter. Brenz makes this principle explicit, proposing that there are “two different classes of fathers”—scholastic and patristic. 5 Within these two classes there are further distinctions of rank and authority. 6

Vermigli follows a similar approach, as is apparent from the way he assigns weight comparatively to patristic and scholastic authors. Without positing Brenz’s strict dichotomy between church fathers and scholastics, Peter Martyr shared Brenz’s view that the fathers have different degrees of authority, explaining that their authority “must be considered primarily according to the time and age in which they lived.” 7 With a well-developed historical consciousness, Vermigli did not (like Brenz) make antiquity the sole barometer of authoritative precedence, but measured authority according to the moral, spiritual, and intellectual climate in which the author lived.

On the Lutheran side of the debate, Brenz is unflinching in his condemnation of the scholastic theologians. When he enlists Aquinas in support of his own view of the hypostatic union, he feels the need to excuse his recourse to the scholastic tradition, and makes the belittling comment, “I am not calling up these testimonies from the scholastic writers because I think it necessary to go back to such filth and seek their aid in order to establish pious dogmas, for I am not unaware how much human philosophy has corrupted heavenly doctrine; but I do it to show that not even their opinion is at odds with ours, provided that their sophistical filth is wiped clean and properly understood.” 8 He accuses the scholastics of idle speculation devoid of the teaching of Scripture and the apostles, and exhorts, “Let us not scrutinize too curiously the secrets of God’s sanctuary.” 9 While he grants that the scholastics achieved a great deal “in knowing the mysteries of human philosophy and in scrutinizing the nature of the universe,” he insists that they did a great disservice to the church of Christ “when they perniciously mingled philosophy with theology.” 10 When he quotes Hugo of St. Victor (c. 1096–1141) and other medieval thinkers as proponents of ubiquity, Brenz is quick to add that “you, of course, O Zwinglian, disdain the authority of these men, and I don’t consider them to be of much value either.” 11

Interestingly, Brenz takes it for granted that his Reformed interlocutor has no more regard for the opinion of scholastics than he himself. Despite his expressed disdain for the scholastics, however, Brenz does think that their testimonies count for something, for he tries to show at length that their writings disprove Vermigli’s objections to the multilocality of Christ’s body, 12 and occasionally uses scholastic terminology to explain his position. In short, Brenz’s use of the scholastics is opportunistic and his attitude toward them derogatory, yet he does not reject their authority altogether.

Peter Martyr’s appraisal of the scholastics is not altogether different from Brenz’s. Whatever weight he may grant to Aristotelian philosophy, Vermigli is often highly critical of scholastic theologians, medieval as well as contemporary. In the debate with Brenz, he condemns the medieval scholastics for their “sophistical, barbarous, and filthy vocabulary,” referring apparently to the language of “personal,” “local,” and “sacramental” presence. 13 When in another context an opponent introduced Cardinal Cajetan as an authority, Peter Martyr replied, “I do not allow him; he is a scholastic, a cardinal who lived in my own time.” 14Despite these criticisms, though, Vermigli’s sophisticated use of scholastic terminology and definitions betrays a thoroughgoing familiarity with his medieval predecessors as well as a deep appreciation for their accomplishments. In his Dialogue, he adopts the scholastics’ enumeration of four properties of glorified bodies (impassibility, clarity, agility, and subtlety) and also makes use of their philosophical terminology. 15

More significant than Vermigli’s calculated use of scholastic terminology is the fact that his Christology is consciously informed by and essentially continuous with the scholastic tradition. The clearest example is Vermigli’s use of a Christological distinction articulated by Peter Lombard and later adopted by Thomas Aquinas. In his Sentences, Lombard famously affirmed that “the whole [totus] Christ is everywhere, yet not wholly [totum].” 16As he explained, “‘wholly’ is referred to the nature, but ‘whole’ to the hypostasis.” 17Through this phraseology of totustotum, Lombard carefully qualified Christ’s omnipresence: Christ is everywhere present with respect to his hypostasis but not with respect to his human nature. (Interestingly, Calvin—who in other places petulantly criticized Lombard for his barbarous language 18 —embraced this distinction in his critique of the Lutheran doctrine of ubiquity in the 1559 version of his Institutes, referring to it as “a commonplace distinction of the schools to which I am not ashamed to refer.” 19 In his debate with Vermigli, Brenz tries to argue that his own espousal of ubiquity was consistent with Lombard’s position, and appeals by way of explanation to Aquinas’s statement in the Summa (Part III, q. 52, a. 3) that “the person of Christ is whole in every place but not totally because it is not limited by any place.” But Vermigli decisively refutes Brenz’s dissembling quotation of Aquinas, inserting the remainder of the Summa passage which Brenz had omitted and showing that in this quaestio “Aquinas does not deal at all with the body of Christ but with the divine person, which he says is not totally in a place because it is not limited by any place.” 20 Moreover, in a thorough exegesis of both the Summa and the Sentences, Vermigli convincingly shows that his Christology is fully consistent with that of Aquinas, Lombard, Bonaventure, and the other luminaries of the tradition.

Both Vermigli and Brenz exhibit a curious ambivalence in their appropriation and renegotiation of scholastic authorities. On the one hand, they disparage the scholastics for corrupting true doctrine, introducing deleterious terminology into theological discussion, and clouding the light of truth with the mists of over-wrought distinctions. On the other hand, both interlocutors pragmatically use scholastic authors and scholastic distinctions to support their arguments—often at the same time as they dismiss the scholastics as unreliable authorities. 21 But whereas Brenz quotes the scholastics only apologetically and as a last resort, Vermigli is more thoroughgoing and appreciative in appropriating his medieval predecessors. Though he is often openly critical of scholastic theologians both medieval and contemporary, his use of Lombard and Aquinas shows that his Christology is quite consciously informed by the medieval tradition, in substance as well as expression.

3 thoughts on “Peter Martyr Vermigli and the Scholastic Inheritance: Negotiating Scholastic Sources

  1. Is it really proper to describe Peter Martyr Vermigli as a “prime example” of Calvin’s “theological heirs” considering that he was, as you say, an older contemporary of Calvin? Considering that Musculus and Bucer also make more positive appropriations of their scholastic heritage than Calvin might it not be the case that Calvin is, in fact, something of an outlier on this issue within the early Reformed tradition?

  2. Thank you for this: as a patristic scholar, I’ve always wondered whether these debates are the natural result of certain Fathers injecting fertile, yet incomplete thoughts into the tradition (e.g. Leo the Great’s statement that Christ’s *visibilia transivit sacramenta*). It’s remarkable and heartening to me that Vermigli retains the scholastics’ characterization of glorified bodies, not least for their clear root in earlier tradition. Interesting things here! I’ll be reading the other two pieces shortly.

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