Peter Martyr Vermigli and the Scholastic Inheritance: The Proper Place of Philosophy

[Go here for part I in this series]

by Joshua Benjamins

In my last post, I explored one particular dimension of Peter Martyr Vermigli’s relationship with the scholastics by focusing on his use of scholastic sources in his debate with the Lutheran theologian, Johannes Brenz, over the hypostatic union of two natures in Christ and the omnipresence (‘ubiquity’) of Christ’s glorified body. As I argued there, Brenz and Vermigli share some key presuppositions in their evaluation of scholastic authority and exhibit a similar pragmatism in their use of scholastic writings. In this post, I turn from issues of explicit citation and criticism to Vermigli’s and Brenz’s respective conceptions of the relationship between philosophy and theology. Here some deeper and more pervasive fault lines come to light, especially when it comes to the role which philosophical insights can play in illuminating theological mysteries like the hypostatic union and the session of Christ. As I briefly mentioned in my last post, Vermigli adopted some principles of Aristotelian physics—especially the maxim that “every body is in a place”—as basic parameters within which to understand the location and condition of Christ’s glorified body. Vermigli’s Lutheran opponent attacked this as an illegitimate and pernicious importation of philosophy into the theological realm. I wish to suggest that the debate between Vermigli and Brenz highlights two fundamentally opposed perspectives on the proper relationship between philosophy and theology, and that Vermigli’s position is more consonant with the medieval tradition.

In his debate with Vermigli, Johannes Brenz draws a sharp dichotomy between the teaching of the Holy Spirit and the teaching of the philosophers. He states that philosophical analysis is virtually useless when it comes to the Incarnation: “The human intellect cannot grasp this mystery through its own arguments; however, faith grasps it through the Holy Spirit.”[i] Not only in the case of grand theological mysteries like the Incarnation but also in other doctrines like Christ’s ascension and his session at the right hand of God, Brenz opines that the Christian theologian ought to abandon all philosophical speculation and cling solely to the testimony of Scripture and the fathers. He repeatedly exhorts his readers to flee from human philosophy to the words of God, and he accuses Vermigli of slavishly following the figments of Aristotle instead of the teachings of the Holy Spirit.

One of Brenz’s primary rhetorical tactics in his treatise against Vermigli (entitled On the Majesty of our Lord Jesus Christ) is to draw a rigid dichotomy between two camps, which he terms the school of Aristotle and the school of Christ.[ii] Vermigli, he constantly reiterates, belongs to the former, for he and his fellow ‘Zwinglians’ (Brenz’s pejorative appellation) “seek their teaching on spiritual matters from the axioms of Aristotle and then twist the words of sacred Scripture to conform to it.”[iii] Vermigli and his co-religionist, Heinrich Bullinger, prefer to “indulge in fleshly thoughts and in Aristotle’s dogma about bodies and places,” says Brenz, but it is better to follow the apostles and prophets than the philosophers.[iv] God’s will is to be sought not from Aristotle’s school, whose irrefragable axiom is that “there is no proportion between the finite and the infinite,” but from the school of Christ, whose axiom is that “the Word became flesh.”[v] Here Brenz stands very much in the tradition of Luther, who unflinchingly upheld the doctrine of the Incarnation over against all the strictures of human philosophy.[vi] When one recalls that Brenz was present to hear Luther’s sharp criticism of Aristotelian philosophy at the Heidelberg Disputation, it is not far-fetched to imagine that Luther’s dismal appraisal of Aristotle may have had a long-term effect on his devoted student.[vii]

While he never goes as far as Luther did in famously calling reason “the devil’s whore,” Brenz harbors a rankling suspicion of any use of philosophical arguments in theology. Luther, Brenz’s admired teacher, had stressed the inability of philosophy to grasp theological mysteries. Though not advocating “a radical opposition between theology and philosophy,” as Joar Haga explains, Luther argued that “there is a different—and sometimes contradictory—element between the two perspectives.”[viii] Brenz’s position on the relation between philosophy and theology is perhaps even stronger than Luther’s, for he comes close to asserting that philosophical argumentation has no place in the arena of theological debate.[ix] In attacking the Reformed idea of a circumscriptive heaven, Brenz criticizes the patristic and scholastic writers who “in treating such a great mystery are accustomed to indulge at times in philosophical arguments rather than theological ones. I therefore prefer to follow what the oracles of the Holy Spirit and the writings of the prophets and apostles set forth for us to believe, rather than what the arguments of human wisdom put forth.”[x] At times, the Swabian reformer’s strong statements about the incredibility of Christian dogmas show him to be verging upon a brand of Christian anti-intellectualism: “Faith becomes more credible when the things believed are more incredible.”[xi]

This anti-intellectual strain is most evident in Brenz’s insistence that the doctrine of ubiquity which he espouses is altogether absurd and irrational from a human perspective, yet it must be accepted on the testimony of Scripture. In a particularly striking passage, he confesses, “I am not unaware that these words about the majesty of Christ, to which the Son of Man has been raised by the Son of God, seem to human reason to be most absurd, and plainly impossible…. But although this union is the absurdity of absurdities, still the human intellect must necessarily yield to it and render itself captive in obedience to the word of God.” Like Luther, who clung to the essential omnipresence of God as “an infinitely incomprehensible thing…clearly and powerfully attested in the Scriptures,” Brenz insists that human intellect must accept what is absurd to human reason and give way to the testimony of Scripture.[xii] In this vein he quotes Augustine: “Even if we find it hard to refute the philosophers’ arguments, let us hold unswervingly to what is demonstrated by the Lord. Let them prate; let us believe.”[xiii] Augustine’s sentiment in this passage is rather different than Brenz’s, but the latter’s point is clear enough: faith enables the believer to accept what is entirely absurd to human reason.

This complacent indifference to rational argument, which runs throughout Brenz’s diatribes, distinguishes him from Vermigli, who is unwilling to commit himself to positions that are contradictory from the perspective of human reason. In response to the statement of Brenz just quoted, Vermigli writes, “Granted…that to the wise of this world this union seems to result in many irrational consequences, still it is not right for devout men to use this pretext to devise absurd arguments which are opposed to the divine Scriptures and true theology.”[xiv] Vermigli freely grants that the hypostatic union may appear absurd to human philosophers, yet he insists that there is a coherent incarnational logic.

Operating upon a marked dichotomy of faith and reason, Brenz accuses Vermigli of exalting the axioms of Aristotelian philosophy above the testimony of the Word of God. This constant allegation, however, misrepresents—perhaps willfully so—Vermigli’s appraisal of philosophy. In his Dialogue, Vermigli lays out quite clearly the limited extent of his reliance on reason and philosophy and, in particular, the limitations upon his acceptance of Aristotle:

Just so you know, in religious questions we are not in the least tied to men. We embrace the truth, whoever says it, as spoken by the Holy Spirit…. We don’t agree with the sayings of Aristotle because of the author but because we consider some of his axioms true, in the same way that Paul quoted certain verses of the poets. But when the Philosopher was mistaken and taught something contrary to religion, we support him least of all and even oppose his errors utterly.[xv]

This cautious approval of the Philosopher is entirely consonant with Vermigli’s general conception of the relationship between faith and reason. As Joseph McLelland puts it, Peter Martyr’s “governing thesis” on this issue is that “philosophy and theology are harmonious, but the final arbiter is Scripture.”[xvi] This does not mean that philosophical principles or theories must be derived directly from Scripture in order to be valid, but that they cannot contradict the written Word of God. Listen to Vermigli’s positive evaluation of pagan literature in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:33 (Paul’s citation of Menander): “the Apostle does not fear to borrow truth from the Gentiles. For no matter who says it, it is from the Holy Spirit; and when we take it from the books of the wicked, we are not stealing what belongs to others but we are reclaiming from unjust possessors what belongs to us…. [P]agan books are not to be rejected outright, but the truths which we read in them should be attentively listened to….”[xvii]

Vermigli’s qualified acceptance of Aristotle is clear not only in his treatise against Brenz but also in his other writings and especially his Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, published shortly after his Dialogue against Brenz. In the introduction to this commentary, Vermigli feels the need to explain Paul’s warning in Colossians 2 against following human philosophy. In the process, he gives his own appraisal of philosophy:

Since true philosophy derives from the knowledge of created things, and from these propositions reaches many conclusions about the justice and righteousness that God implanted naturally in human minds, it cannot therefore rightly be criticized: for it is the work of God, and could not be enjoyed by us without his special contribution. What Paul censured is that philosophy corrupted by human invention and by the bitter disputes of philosophers.[xviii]

Vermigli thus concedes to philosophy a legitimate and positive role which is distinct from but congruent with theology. As John Patrick Donnelly notes, “Martyr frequently rebukes the Christian anti-intellectualism that cites Paul’s condemnation of philosophy.”[xix] Instead, the Italian reformer holds that true philosophy can confer real and valuable truths about the world—if only within the bounds of natural knowledge. Clearly, Vermigli considered many of the theses and axioms of Aristotelian philosophy to fall inside the parameters of valid natural knowledge.

While a full comparison of Vermigli’s outlook on philosophy to that of his scholastic predecessors falls outside the confines of this post, it may suffice to point out that Vermigli’s use of Aristotelian physics as a tool to parse out complex Christological issues recalls Thomas Aquinas’s similar use of the Philosopher in unfolding doctrines such as the hypostatic union and the resurrection (see Corey L. Barnes’ contribution to this volume). Vermigli is at one with Aquinas in his insistence that natural knowledge cannot contradict divine revelation (cf. Summa Contra Gentiles 1.7) and that knowledge of the principles of nature can form a legitimate basis for theological argumentation. In the next post, I hope to show that Vermigli’s theological methodology implicitly rests upon this positive valuation of “true philosophy” and its corollary validation of nature as a sound principle for theological reasoning.

[i] Johannes Brenz, Die christologischen Schriften: in drei Teilen, Teil 1, ed. Theodor Mahlmann (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1981), 22 [hereafter abbreviated CS]. All translations of Brenz are my own.

[ii] CS 360,362,368,388.

[iii] CS 362.

[iv] CS 392.

[v] CS 308,310.

[vi] For Brenz, as for Luther, the union of finite and infinite is incomprehensible within a traditional ontology like Porphyry’s tree where God occupies a higher level of being than man. Cf. Joar Haga, Was there a Lutheran Metaphysics?: The interpretation of communicatio idiomatum in Early Modern Lutheranism (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2012), 68-69.

[vii] Among Luther’s theses at Heidelberg were the following: “He who wishes to philosophize by using Aristotle without danger to his soul must first become thoroughly foolish in Christ…. If Aristotle would have recognized the absolute power of God, he would accordingly have maintained that it was impossible for matter to exist of itself alone.” “Heidelberg Disputation,” Luther’s Works [LW], ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress; St. Louis: Concordia, American ed., 1955-1986), 55 vols., 31:41.

[viii] Haga, Lutheran Metaphysics, 67.

[ix] CS 26; 430.

[x] Brenz, De personali unione duarum naturarum in Christo, et ascensu Christi in coelum, ac sessione eius ad dextram Dei Patris, qua vera corporis et sanguinis Christi praesentia in coena explicata est, & confirma . . . (Tübingen: The Widow of Ulrich Mohard, 1561), fols. 21v-22r.

[xi] CS 300.

[xii] “That these words of Christ . . . still stand firm,” LW 37:59.

[xiii] CS 24,26 = De personali unione fol. 5v.

[xiv] Vermigli, Dialogue on the Two Natures in Christ, trans. and ed. John Patrick Donnelly (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 1995), 39.

[xv] Dialogue, 14. Cf. John Patrick Donnelly, Calvinism and Scholasticism in Vermigli’s Doctrine of Man and Grace (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1976), 46.

[xvi] Translator’s Introduction to Vermigli, Philosophical Works: On the Relation of Philosophy to Theology, trans. and ed. Joseph C. McLelland (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 1996), xxxiii.

[xvii] Vermigli, In selectissimam D. Pauli apostoli priorem ad Corinthios Epistolam D. Petri Martyris Vermilii Florentini…, 1st ed. (Zürich: Christophorus Froschouerus, 1551), fol. 420v (my translation).

[xviii] “Introduction to the Ethics,” in ibid., 14.

[xix] Donnelly, Calvinism and Scholasticism, 45.

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