Peter Martyr Vermigli and the Scholastic Inheritance: Potentia Absoluta and the Voice of Nature

by Joshua Benjamins

In my last post, I highlighted the sharply divergent conceptions of the proper role of philosophy which emerge in the course of Peter Martyr Vermigli’s controversy with Johannes Brenz over the ubiquity of Christ’s glorified body. Another intriguing element of this particular debate is the way the two men appeal to divine power, divine will, and nature to justify their Christological and eucharistic teaching. By using these explanatory categories as an index, we can uncover some important elements of the theological methodology of Vermigli and Brenz. Further, the interlocutors’ use of traditional notions about potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata also helps to map their engagement with medieval scholasticism.

As many intellectual historians have elaborated, arguments de potentia dei absoluta had a long history in medieval debates among philosophers as well as theologians.[1] Potentia dei absoluta, the absolute power of God, was typically contrasted with potentia dei ordinata—the power God exercises in accordance with the orders of nature and grace which he has established. The distinction between these two kinds of power emerged in the eleventh century and was further developed in the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Francis Oakley has argued that in the classical use of the distinction, down to the middle of the thirteenth century, “the invocation of the absolute power served to affirm the freedom of God and the contingency of the entire created order,” while appeal to “the ordained power served at the same time to affirm the de facto stability and reliability of that contingent order.”[2] During this period, theologians usually used arguments from God’s absolute power in order to discuss the logical possibility or impossibility of events which God does not in fact do, but could choose to do. This is the basic rubric of Aquinas’ treatment of omnipotence.[3] On the other hand, many thinkers with nominalist sympathies construed potentia absoluta as “a presently active and extraordinary power capable of operating apart from the order established de potentia ordinata and prevailing in the ordinary course of things.”[4] In this “operationalized” view, potentia absoluta became “a presently active power of extraordinary interposition.”[5] Hence, in many late medieval authors, the distinction between absoluta and ordinata came to be equated with the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary modes of divine operation in the world—that is, between providentia dei ordinaria and providentia dei extraordinaria. It was primarily in this latter sense that Luther employed the terms “absolute power” and “ordained power.”[6] As Oakley explains, Luther also brought “the power distinction into connection with the older (and narrower) distinction between the hidden or secret will (voluntas beneplaciti) and the revealed will (voluntas signi) of God,” with God’s absolute power mapping onto his secret will and his ordinary power onto his revealed will.[7] As I hope to show, Vermigli is at one with the classical medieval tradition—including Aquinas—in that he carefully delimits the scope of potentia absoluta based on the integrity of the natural order. By contrast Brenz, like the nominalists, construes potentia absoluta as a broader, more undefined and limitless power, in keeping with his emphasis on God’s unbounded will.

John Patrick Donnelly comments that the distinction between potentia absoluta and ordinata, though common in the scholastic tradition, is “very rare in Martyr’s writings.”[8] However, the issue of potentia absoluta crops up quite frequently in Vermigli’s writings, and the debate with Brenz suggests that this scholastic distinction played a fairly important role in Peter Martyr’s thought, especially in the eucharistic debates. Vermigli was reluctant to entertain considerations drawn from the absolute power of God. He insisted that although God is omnipotent, he cannot do anything that involves contradiction or logical impossibility. Outside of his debate with Brenz, Vermigli frequently reiterated this point, often with explicit reference to the issue of ubiquity and the bounded nature of human bodies. In an excursus on the resurrection in his Commentary on 2 Kings, he explained:

God can do all things which do not involve a contradiction, as they say in the schools. For in general it is impossible for things to coexist when they cancel out and destroy each other…. God is omnipotent even though he cannot sin…nor make a human body while it exists not to be a human body, and make the number three not to be three. Such things are not impossible because of some defect in him but from the very contradiction in the things.[9]

Here Vermigli is closely echoing both Lombard’s Sentences[10] and Aquinas’ discussion of divine omnipotence in Book 1 of the Summa Theologiae. There Aquinas, citing Aristotle’s Metaphysics 5.17, argued that “[God] can do all things that are possible absolutely.”[11] In other words, God can bring about any state of affairs in which the predicate is not incompatible with the subject, for that would imply being and non-being at the same time (thus, in Vermigli’s example, making three not to be three is impossible absolutely). Aquinas remarked that such things “cannot come under the divine omnipotence, not because of any defect in the power of God, but because it has not the nature of a feasible or possible thing…whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility. Hence it is better to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them.”[12]

In 1549, in his debate with transubstantiationists at Oxford, Vermigli contrasted divine power with divine will. Argumentation from omnipotence, he remarked, “is very weak; in fact, the present dispute is not about the divine power. We do not deny that God is able to turn bread into flesh, but the entire contention is whether he wills to do it.”[13] Vermigli wishes that the eucharistic question be addressed not from the perspective of God’s absolute power but from the perspective of his will—here a virtual equivalent for potentia ordinata in the traditional sense.

Finally, in his Commentary on 1 Corinthians, first published in 1551, Vermigli directly addressed theologians who appealed to divine omnipotence to justify the ubiquity of Christ’s human body. Though he does not employ the terms potentia absoluta and ordinata, the distinction he draws is more or less congruent with the traditional scholastic distinction:

Here our adversaries explain many things with reference to God’s power, but they do so foolishly and without reason. For here the question is not “What is God able to do?” but “What does he will to do?” and “What do the Scriptures assure us of?” There are many things which we consider to be impossible not because of God’s infirmity (for he has none) but in themselves—as, for example, that things become uncuttable or that three be four. This too is [to be] classed among these things: that a human body be diffused without bound and be in different places at the same time. Our adversaries should not hurl themselves into these steep and stupid infinities when a plain and easy way lies ready at hand.[14]

As these passages make clear, Vermigli’s appeal to divine will is no irrational voluntarism. The omnipresence of a human body is impossible per se, from a logical standpoint; it is a “very contradiction in the things.” Even God cannot contravene such internal principles of nature.

Over against arguments from God’s omnipotence, Vermigli repeatedly insists that the theologian must heed the voice of nature, which is sanctioned by God himself. In a revealing passage in the excursus on the resurrection quoted above, he wrote, “we must listen to the voice of nature, which has God himself as its author. Nature has determined that these things are impossible…. The teachings of nature [naturae dogmata] are not to be reshaped except when they contradict the word of God.”[15] Equally arresting is a statement Vermigli made in a letter of 1562, written only a year after the Dialogue. Here he responds to those who grant that by the decrees of nature (decretis naturae) it is both true and necessary that all bodies are in place, but who nevertheless insist that ubiquity is possible through the immensity of God’s power. Vermigli eloquently wrote, “[I]f we listen to nature in cases where it is not repugnant to the words of God, we are not doing anything unworthy of Christian theology, since indeed nature has God as its author and vindicator, and therefore nature’s rules and decrees do not proceed from nature but from God himself.”[16] The voice of nature does not have absolute authority, for it cannot be heeded when it is overruled by the clear testimonies of Scripture or the consensus of the fathers.  Nevertheless, it can be a reliable basis for theological conclusions. As Vermigli’s Orothetes tells Brenz’s Pantachus in the Dialogue, “The principles of nature are not to be overturned unless the testimony of sacred revelation forces us to it.”[17] This robust Aristotelian conception of nature represents one of the crucial elements of Vermigli’s theological methodology.

When applied to Vermigli’s controversy with the Lutherans, this traditional understanding of potentia and natura provided a philosophical basis for opposing the ubiquity of a human body. Vermigli’s basic argument against Brenz is that “there are [some] things which are so intrinsic to humanity that they cannot be removed from it without destroying it.  If you take away from the nature of man a certain size, lineaments, and limit, then he will indeed become something or other different from a man.”[18] By attributing divine omnipresence to the humanity of Christ, the Lutherans were in effect destroying and hence denying the reality of his human nature.

In response to Vermigli, the Lutheran Brenz lays heavy stress on the immensity of divine power and the indefinability of God’s sovereign will. Brenz opens his vitriolic treatise On the Majesty of Christ with a quote from Psalm 135:6, “God does whatever he wishes in heaven and earth,” and with the remark that, since various Lutheran colleagues of his have expounded the argument from Christ’s will (voluntas), he will concentrate his own argument on Christ’s power (potentia).[19] For Brenz, God is “an all-free and all-powerful agent” and none can prescribe limits for him.[20] Adopting Luther’s abovementioned formulation of potentia absoluta and ordinata as the distinction between God’s secret and revealed will, Brenz said, “We are not speaking here of the will of God, which in the schools is called ‘revealed,’ but of that which is called ‘hidden.’”[21] In the case of the saints, God has willed that the capacity of human substance be circumscribed and bounded, but in the case of Christ, he has willed it to be “uncircumscribed, immense, and infinite.”[22] According to Brenz, “Whatever God commands, that is the nature of a thing.”[23] Here we can see a key difference between Vermigli’s robust concept of natura and Brenz’s more voluntaristic conception.

As to Vermigli’s argument that some things are impossible per se or from the nature of things themselves, Brenz dismissed it as “a brazen device of the Zwinglians” to excise the real presence of Christ from the Eucharist.[24] Especially in his second treatise, On the Majesty of Christ, Brenz everywhere charges Vermigli with blasphemously subverting the almighty power of God.[25] Some thirty-five years earlier, Brenz’s revered teacher, Luther, had used identical rhetoric against the Zwinglians, as he accused them of impiously denying God’s omnipotence and insisted that “the power of God cannot be so determined and measured, for it is uncircumscribed and immeasurable, beyond and above all that is or may be.”[26] Luther’s devoted student appropriated not only his arguments but also his provocative rhetoric.

Brenz does grant that certain things cannot happen even by divine power—for example, that God should suffer violence or die. However, he restricts this category to things which would imply powerlessness (imbecillitas) in God rather than power.[27] The Swabian reformer also draws a series of positive arguments from analogy. That which is done cannot be undone, and yet God has so remitted men’s sins as to remember them no more. The mortal cannot be immortal, yet according to Paul, mortality has put on immortality. Nothing cannot be something, yet God created all things ex nihilo. Above all, “God cannot be man—for what proportion does the infinite have to the finite? And yet a way [ratio] has been found for God to be man. One cannot be three nor three one, yet in the divinity a mode has been found for one to be three and three one.”[28] Note how Brenz is transferring the terms of the ubiquity question onto incarnational ground. By equating the paradox of ubiquity with the paradox of the God-man and the paradox of the Trinity, he cleverly turns Vermigli’s own line of reasoning against him and implicitly raises the question of how far a theologian can press arguments from reason and nature without denying the supernatural mysteries of the Christian faith. Vermigli, of course, would not have accepted Brenz’s analogies, for as shown above, the boundary with which he circumscribes the voice of nature is the irrefutable testimony of Scripture. While divine revelation compels the theologian to accept creation ex nihilo, the forgiveness of sins, the Trinity, and the Incarnation, it nowhere affirms the ubiquity of Christ’s humanity.

Brenz’s theological methodology shows important continuities with Luther’s. As Volker Leppin observes, “While Zwingli assumed that he could draw reliable conclusions from his insights into the properties of special substances and natures, Luther again and again referred to God’s will.”[29] Brenz emphasizes God’s infinite power (potentia absoluta) more than (as Luther did) God’s perfectly unbounded will, yet both theologians are comfortable with resting their case in the hidden operations of God so as to defend transformations that are inexplicable in terms of real natures. For Brenz, God’s will subverts and upends the natural order of causes and effects and the natural limitations of human bodies. Vermigli, by contrast, emphasizes the integrity of nature and the stability of the natural order. In the tradition of Aquinas and Lombard—he closely restricts the extent of potentia absoluta.

Vermigli’s controversy with Brenz is thus a helpful locus for grasping some of the theological and philosophical continuities which the Italian reformer shares with his medieval predecessors. Here too, Vermigli’s use of the scholastic inheritance stands in contrast to the position of his Lutheran opponent, Johannes Brenz. As I have suggested, Vermigli’s argumentation in the ubiquitarian debate shows the deep influence of the classical scholastic tradition upon his theological methodology, and this is especially true with regard to the integrity of nature and the primacy of divina ordinata. While Brenz’s Christology and eucharistic theology are undergirded by a reliance on the limitlessness of God’s power and will, Vermigli’s thought is grounded in the conviction that “nature has God as its author and vindicator.”

[1]  Oakley traces the emergence of the distinction between potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata, the issues to which it was applied in Middle Ages, the shifting meanings which were attached to it, in his article, “The Absolute and Ordained Power of God in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Theology,” Journal of the History of Ideas 59.3 (1998): 437-61. See too the comprehensive study of Richard Paul Desharnais, “The History of the Distinction beween God’s Absolute and Ordained Power and its Influence on Martin Luther,” PhD. diss. (The Catholic University of America, 1966).

[2]  Ibid., 445.

[3]  See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1.25.3 and esp. 1.25.5 ad 1.

[4]  Oakley, “Absolute and Ordained Power,” 446.

[5]  Ibid., 452.

[6]  Ibid., 456.

[7]  Ibid.

[8]  John Patrick Donnelly, Calvinism and Scholasticism in Vermigli’s Doctrine of Man and Grace (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1976), 71n11, 167.

[9]  “Resurrection: Commentary on 2 Kings 4,” in Philosophical Works: On the Relation of Philosophy to Theology, trans. and ed. Joseph C. McLelland (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 1996), 64.

[10]  Lombard, Sentences bk. 1 d. 42 ch. 2.

[11]  Aquinas, ST 1.25.3 co.

[12]  Ibid.

[13]  Oxford Treatise and Disputation on the Eucharist, 1549, trans. and ed. Joseph C. McLelland (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2000), 93. Cf. Dialogue on the Two Natures in Christ, trans. and ed. John Patrick Donnelly (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 1995), 49, and 15: “But I am not going to pull out of my own head arguments based on God’s power, for these are weak and fraught with danger, since they are used to confirm dubious dogmas;” Dialogue 35: “since there are some things that cannot happen even with the divine power, not of course from any failure of it but from the nature of things.”

[14]  In selectissimam D. Pauli apostoli priorem ad Corinthios…. 3rd ed. (Zürich: C. Froschauer, 1579), fol. 159v (translation mine); cf. also Dialogue 18. It is noteworthy that Vermigli’s expressed opponents in this context are not Lutherans but Roman Catholics who advocated ubiquity. In a eucharistic treatise of 1554, the Roman Catholic theologian Stephen Gardiner, one of Vermigli’s interlocutors in the Oxford Disputation, defended the doctrine of ubiquity against numerous objections. Responding to the objection that ubiquity is “contrary to nature and reason” [naturam et rationem], he appealed to a distinction between God’s operation in the order of nature and His operation through special power (virtus): “Qui omnia in omnibus operatur Deus, aliter in natura ordine a se praescripto, aliter virtute, cum ita illi visum est quae fiant efficit, quae ab eodem profecta autore inuicem proprie non pugnant, etiam si hominum iudicio & carni secus videatur.” Confutatio cavillationum, 22-23.

[15]  “Resurrection: Commentary on 2 Kings 4,” 118-19.

[16]  “D. Petri Martyris Ad amicum Quendam, virum Eloquentem et magni nominis, de causa Eucharistiae” (May 1562), in Loci communes, fol. 575r (translation mine).

[17]  Dialogue, 30.

[18]  Dialogue, 41. Cf. Oxford Treatise, 165: “It is as repugnant to the nature of a body to be in various places at once, as it is not to be a body.”

[19]  Brenz, Die christologischen schriften [hereafter CS], 200.

[20]  CS 306.

[21]  CS 308.

[22]  CS 308.

[23]  CS 368.

[24]  CS 394.

[25]  CS 202,236,304, etc.

[26]  “That these words of Christ . . . still stand firm,” in Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress; St. Louis: Concordia, American ed., 1955-1986), 55 vols., 37:57.

[27]  CS 396.

[28]  CS 396,398.

[29]  “Martin Luther,” in A Companion to the Eucharist in the Reformation, ed. Lee Palmer Wandel (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2013), 52-53.

One thought on “Peter Martyr Vermigli and the Scholastic Inheritance: Potentia Absoluta and the Voice of Nature

  1. It would be interesting to consider how much Brenz’s position regarding the capability of human intellect (or non-capability) is rooted itself in earlier discussions, scholastic and patristic. I note, for instance, the position of Pseudo-Dionysius and other influential patristic sources, which would place almost any question related to the Incarnation outside the bounds of inquiry. In this sense, the Lutherans find themselves on quite strong “traditional” grounds by arguing against speculations on the mode or manner of Christ’s presence post-Ascension.

    Thanks again for this set of posts!

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