Natural Theology 3: Vermigli on the Natural Knowledge of God

Richard Muller rounds out the Reformers’s view of “natural theology” with a section on Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562). Vermigli was a “Thomist-trained” Italian who, “of all the early Reformed codifiers of doctrine, produced the most extended treatment of the problem of the natural knowledge of God in relation to theology.”

It is telling that “in sum, Vermigli stands in agreement with Calvin on the uselessness of natural knowledge of God in salvation”. Muller notes that “he appears also to take more cognizance of the relative validity of philosophical argumentation based on natural revelation”, and in that way, “Vermigli’s nuanced views may offer a clearer antecedent than Calvin for the later Reformed orthodox position”.

Vermigli on the natural knowledge of God.

The highly influential locus on the natural knowledge of God found in Vermigli’s Loci communes is drawn from his commentaries on Romans, chapter 1 and 1 Samuel, chapter 6. Vermigli’s discussion begins with a reflection on Paul’s phrase to gnoston tou theou (Rom. 1:19), which Vermigli renders as “that which may be known of God.”

The phrase is restrictive in implication and indicates two categories of the knowledge of God—things accessible to the natural man and things known only by special revelation, such as justification, forgiveness in Christ, and the resurrection of the body. The former category, Paul “reduces … to two principal points, namely, the everlasting power and divinity of God”: both the almighty power of God and also the fact that this power is both wise and good in its creative exercise and providential care—and thus is a truly divine power are manifest in “the workmanship of this world.”

There are two opinions concerning the source of this natural knowledge of God. Some, notes Vermigli, would explain it as the result of creation: a certain indication of the Creator and his truth can be perceived in created things. Others believe that God placed in the human mind “certain … information, whereby we are driven to conceive excellent and worthy things of the nature of God.”

On the basis of this natural tendency we learn of God by observing creation. Some claim that pagan philosophers like Aristotle and Plato were in fact instruments or mediators of divine revelation. It is quite true that these thinkers correctly analyzed the order of causes and effects in this world and recognized that such an order cannot go on indefinitely but must come finally to a chief cause which is God.

But these evidences of God as cause and protector of all things are equally given in Scripture—as David says, “The heavens set forth the glory of God.” Vermigli makes no attempt to restrict the source of natural knowledge of God to one or the other of these options—and it is clear from his exposition that, although he did not produce a set of the traditional a posteriori proofs of God’s existence in any of the loci used as sources for the Loci communes, he certainly assumed that the proofs were valid.

He admits, broadly, to the fact of natural revelation and the ability of human beings to discern it. Indeed, he indicates a place for the natural knowledge of God in Scripture and, by implication, in Christian theology. All things, says Vermigli, show forth “the eternal power and divinity of God”—but especially human nature which manifests his very likeness and majesty.

The soul especially—with its “justice, wisdom, and many other noble qualities,” with its sense of right and wrong—testifies to the existence of God, as does the conscience with its inward condemnation of wickedness, love of the good, and presentiment of God’s future judgment. There is nothing in the created world so vile that it in some way does not give testimony of God.

This revelation of God in nature renders all inexcusable: no man can explain his wickedness or impiety on the ground of ignorance. All men know of God or can know of him. Vermigli notes that Paul also makes impossible another rationalization—that men lack the strength of will to do the good or to worship rightly. This lack rests on human sinfulness; man’s weakness comes by his own fault.

Even admitting the universal existence of sin, it is clear that men might still aspire to some good and attempt to avoid evil. But they freely choose to sin—again leaving themselves inexcusable before the Law of God in their hearts and the knowledge of God given in nature.

Vermigli concludes that no matter how clearly God may be inferred from nature to be the Creator, it is nevertheless necessary to know God as Creator by faith. The article of creation is the first article of the creed. Remove it from the articles of faith and the subsequent related doctrines, including the doctrines of original sin and Christ, will be unable to stand. Faith itself demands that we learn even of creation by revelation. Vermigli thus explicitly sets aside the analogia entis of his Thomist teachers:

The effects by which the philosophers move toward knowledge of God are far inferior to his goodness, strength and power … these things are not in him in the same way as we speak of them. For, as in simplicity of nature, so also in goodness, righteousness, and wisdom is [God] other than men.

In addition to a natural knowledge of God, therefore, man must have faith revealed “by the Word of God.”

For Christ said, “None can come to me unless the Father draws him.” Faith therefore gathers a plentiful knowledge of God out of the Scriptures, as far as salvation requires and as far as our present capacity allows … yet we do not reach an understanding of the essence of God.

In sum, Vermigli stands in agreement with Calvin on the uselessness of natural knowledge of God in salvation, but he appears also to take more cognizance of the relative validity of philosophical argumentation based on natural revelation. On this point, Vermigli’s nuanced views may offer a clearer antecedent than Calvin for the later Reformed orthodox position.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., pp. 276–278). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Lord willing I’ll continue to follow up with Muller’s treatments of “Reformed Orthodox perspectives”.

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