Metaphysics in the Reformation: The Case of Peter Martyr Vermigli: A Review

Metaphysics in the Reformation: The Case of Peter Martyr Vermigli by Silvianne Aspray. Oxford: The British Academy, 2021,  £60, pp. 164.


Time was when Protestants and Catholics could argue their differences on the familiar terrain of doctrinal loci—justification, Scripture, the eucharist—trusting that beneath these specific (albeit significant) differences lay a broadly shared foundation of metaphysics, epistemology, and theology proper. No longer. Sometime in the 1990s, a handful of Cambridge dons had too much time on their hands and cooked up an intellectual curiosity dubbed “Radical Orthodoxy,” which claimed, among other things, to have discovered a fundamental rift within Western intellectual history that had formerly gone largely unnoticed: Duns Scotus and his “univocity of being” (c. 1300 AD). Although Radical Orthodoxy’s fifteen minutes of fame have come and gone, it has left an enduring impact, in part through works like Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation (2012). Now, Protestants eager to cling to their heritage must defend the Reformers against the charge of helping to popularize the new Scotist metaphysic, which supposedly pitted God against creation and paved the way for the rise of a functionally atheistic  approach to the natural sciences.

Silvianne Aspray’s new study Metaphysics in the Reformation: The Case of Peter Martyr Vermigli represents an important contribution to this ongoing debate. In it, she considers the thought of one of the deepest philosophical thinkers among the leading early Reformers, the Florentine Reformed scholastic Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1562), and uses it to test the validity of Gregory’s thesis (shared with John Milbank and others) that the Reformation rejected a “metaphysics of participation.” Aspray deserves credit for saying “not so fast” to their sweeping claims that the Reformers simply exchanged the rich birthright of classical neo-Platonic or Thomistic metaphysics for a mess of nominalist pottage, and also for helping to raise the profile of Vermigli, a true giant among the Reformers who has been widely ignored until recently. That said, her book fails to fully escape the orbit of Gregory’s frankly absurd paradigm, and, despite flashes of brilliance, ends up mired, as often as not, in incoherence.

Aspray begins promisingly enough, offering a lucid and readable account of the centrality of metaphysics in anti-Reformation polemics over the past century, along with a very helpful summary of the issues at stake. She defines the conflict as one between an “ontologically participatory” model of reality and a “univocal” model. In the former, “the ontological dependence of finite causes on the infinite means that God works intimately in and through all secondary causes because he is the innermost cause of their being” (15). In other words, divine being and divine action are of such a different order than creaturely being and action that the two are not in competition: of any creaturely action, we can say both that the creature acts fully and properly (in its mode as a dependent being), and that God acts fully and properly (as the first cause of all being, upon which all creatures depend at every moment). There is to be no parsing out of “God does X, but creatures do Y,” whether in analyzing the laws of nature or free human action.

In the latter, however, “instead of God’s gift of being, it is God’s power which comes into view,” such that “God’s causal agency may exclude human agency, or be in competition with it.” In this latter system, supposed to have begun with Scotus, “God’s influence and agency does not primarily work itself out through the being of the secondary cause (so that God works in them), but rather as a concurring with them, in such a way that divine (primary) and human (secondary) agency both work alongside each other, contributing different but seamless elements to the same effect” (15). There is no question that this second model, taken to its logical conclusion, is potentially disastrous for theology and philosophy. With regard to salvation, for instance, it seems to lead us either toward a Pelagianism, in which God and man “team up,” as it were, to accomplish something that neither can achieve entirely on their own, or to a hyper-Calvinism, in which God’s almighty power is seen as entirely overwhelming or excluding any creaturely agency such that man is reduced to the status of passive automaton. Moreover, the second model could certainly lend itself to an exclusion of the Church and the sacraments as instruments of God’s gracious work, as authors like Milbank and Gregory have charged the Reformers with doing.

That said, we might wonder if something as profound as metaphysics can be captured in terms of such a neat dichotomy, and particularly, whether every locus of theology can be subjected to this kind of analysis. For instance, while seeing the ordinary relation of God and world as participatory, such that God works in and through natural causes, the Thomistic tradition has of course granted the possibility of miracles—God can and does sometimes deploy his power to act in place of or alongside natural causes. When God causes a tree to grow, both divine and creaturely being are fully active in one and the same act, but when God raises the dead to life, creaturely being really is wholly passive. And since “raising the dead to life” is a common way in which the Scriptures speak of our salvation, we might suspect that there is some place for a more “univocal” framework in describing aspects of soteriology. In other words, one could be committed to a participatory ontology on the whole and yet find univocal language better suited to discussing certain questions. Thus, we should beware of any approach that seeks to read an overarching metaphysical framework out of the way in which a theologian treats an individual theological locus.

Unfortunately, this is exactly the methodology that Aspray adopts, proposing to discover Vermigli’s “implicit metaphysics” by zeroing in on his discussions of particular issues in ethics, justification, the eucharist, and political theology as they appear scattered throughout his occasional treatises and biblical commentaries. The result, unsurprisingly, is a constant, “on the one hand, on the other hand,” that purports to show Vermigli at one moment committed to a thoroughgoing participatory metaphysic robust enough to warm the heart of the most devout acolyte of Radical Orthodoxy, and at the next moment mired in a disjunctive metaphysics of univocity in which divine and human agency are in conflict. To be sure, in her conclusion, Aspray attempts to rescue Vermigli from the charge of inconsistency—which she herself has effectively foisted on him—by describing his approach as comprising a “complex metaphysics.” Such a metaphysics, “by sustaining an unresolved tension between a participatory and a univocal metaphysical model,” she suggests, might transcend the either/or framework she has set up, suggesting that perhaps neither model is fully adequate to do justice to the human condition (145). Perhaps, she hints, the apparent contradictions in Vermigli’s thought point toward the possibility of some higher Hegelian synthesis of finite and infinite.

This conclusion, however, is more of a promissory note than a payoff, and it is hard to see what currency it is drawn upon. From the rest of the book, it is difficult to resist the impression that “complex metaphysics” is indeed simply a euphemism for “self-contradictory metaphysics,” with Aspray making little or no effort within each chapter to make sense of the apparent conflicts she discovers. Indeed, despite her insistence in the introduction that Vermigli was a thinker of uncommon profundity, he comes across as little more than a dunce in several key portions of the book. For instance, in a pervasively confused account of Vermigli’s political theology in Chapter 4, Aspray finds herself over and over again expressing astonishment that Vermigli could have believed that Scripture was transparently self-interpreting, given that he himself spent his whole career as a careful and patient interpreter of the text. Perhaps, one wonders, Vermigli did not,in fact, mean to claim that Scripture was self-interpreting, and Aspray has simply not been a careful and patient interpreter of Vermigli’s texts in this regard?

This is not to say that Vermigli was never inconsistent. Some of the inconsistencies (or “complexities”) Aspray analyzes might give us pause and invite today’s Reformed theologians to search for better and clearer ways to express their doctrine. In some cases, though, while the tensions she uncovers seem real enough, plausible reconciliations readily suggest themselves. In other cases, however, the tension itself turns out to be the result of superficial misreading or poor theological reasoning. In what remains, I will give one example of each of these interpretive failures: one relating to justification, and one to the eucharist.

An example of the first appears in Chapter 2, in Aspray’s discussion of justification. The question revolves around the idea of imputed righteousness—clearly a central question for any Protestant theology. On the one hand, the author wants to credit Vermigli with a deeply participatory understanding of salvation as union with Christ, a framework in which God is savingly at work in and through all the faculties of the believer such that “the more God inspires faith in human beings, the more fully they become themselves in communion with Christ” (79). On the other hand, she wonders why he also seems at times to fall back on a thoroughly “extrinsic” understanding of grace as a pure divine gift of imputed righteousness, such that “only once this pure first gift is given, will human beings themselves be transformed” (80). Is salvation a both/and activity of God and man or is it an either/or? To be sure, these are deep waters, but might we not say, in keeping with the above point about God raising the dead, that there must be a moment in any fully Protestant account of salvation in which God is wholly active and man is wholly passive? Not because, as a general metaphysical rule, creatures should be understood as inert instruments or as inherently in competition with divine agency, but for the quite specific reason that fallen man is spiritually dead: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,” declares Paul (Eph. 2:1). Only after being revived by a word that is entirely from the outside can man’s creaturely being again participate actively in God’s work within him.

Aspray’s apparent unwillingness to consider this possibility also colors her discussion elsewhere. For instance in Chapter 3, she claims to find a tension in Vermigli’s account of the role of faith in the eucharist. For believers, faith sustains a life-giving union in which the life of Christ overflows into those who receive the sacraments. This, she says, “seems to imply an ontological connection between the two [i.e. between Christ and the believer], along the lines of the older model of causality described in the Introduction: the faithful and their actions depend in their very being on their connection to the transcendent” (98). But this does not seem to be the case for unbelievers, for whom “the Eucharist has no mediatory function” and God and man seem to stand over against one another. Thus, Aspray asks, “How come they [unbelievers] have any life at all, if they are entirely cut off from the life-giving source of being? If they do have being, their being seems to be ontologically dependent on the infinite” (99). Presumably, Vermigli would answer (along with Aquinas, Augustine, and almost the entire Christian tradition for that matter) that it is entirely possible for a human being to be entirely dependent upon God at all moments for his physical and psychical life and, yet, because of indwelling sin, alienated from the spiritual union that enables a participation in eternal life. Finitude may pose no obstacle to participation, yet fallenness still may; there is no real tension here, much less a contradiction.

However, perhaps the greatest lapse in reasoning for Aspray (as for Brad Gregory, on whom she seems too dependent here) comes elsewhere in Chapter 3. To her credit, Aspray vigorously dissents from the characterization of Vermigli’s Reformed eucharistic theology as mere Zwinglian memorialism; no, Vermigli’s sacramentology is a fully participatory one, in which the creaturely instruments of bread and wine become true instruments of a life-giving union between Christ and the believer. Indeed, she rightly notes that Vermigli critiques his Catholic opponents’ transubstantiation doctrine on precisely the grounds that it falls into the ditch of a univocal metaphysics in which creaturely being must be shouldered aside to make way for divine action. However, she then goes on to argue that Vermigli collapses into this same error by “his tendency to conceive of the distance between God and the world in spatial terms” (104). Vermigli, she says, “seems trapped in the terms of a debate which conceives of a spatial gulf between God and the world which can only be overcome by either a kind of spatial rapprochement, or through spiritually bridging the distance” (104). In other words, she charges Vermigli with falling prey to the crassest physicalism in his conception of God, such that God must be physically present in either one place or another; if God  is present in a place, no creature can be present in the same place, and if a creature is present in a place, God must be somewhere else, present only by spiritual influence.

If true, this would be a damning charge, indeed. Vermigli would be guilty not merely of Scotism but of a conception of deity on par with the lowest forms of pagan mythology. Nonetheless, this is exactly the charge Brad Gregory lodges against all of Reformed sacramentology in his Unintended Reformation, and Aspray seems ready to agree. What is the basis for the charge? Vermigli’s insistence “that in his human nature, Christ sits at the right hand of the Father” (102). Aspray, like Gregory, seems unable to distinguish between claims about Christ’s human nature and his divine nature, a distinction that was absolutely fundamental to sixteenth-century eucharistic debates, as indeed to all of post-Nicene Christian theology. It is, one supposes, possible that deep down, Vermigli heretically believed that the divine nature itself was spatially limited, but his conviction that Christ’s human nature was spatially limited can hardly be alleged as evidence for this remarkable claim.

In sum, then, Aspray’s foray into Vermigli’s theological metaphysics represents an important but largely unsuccessful effort to grapple with some of the most important questions facing Protestant theology today. To her credit, she refuses Milbank and Gregory’s simplistic dismissal of Protestant theology as hopelessly detached from the earlier tradition of Thomistic metaphysics and classical theism, marshaling considerable evidence that Vermigli effectively deployed this participatory understanding at key points in his theology. However, by forcing upon Vermigli’s theology a simplistic dichotomy between two all-encompassing metaphysical models, she misses clear opportunities to discern a coherent underlying theological vision that might make sense of many of his divergent emphases. While holding open the possibility that the “tensions” she discerns might be reconciled as part of a “complex metaphysics,” Aspray makes little effort at such reconciliation within this book, leaving the reader with a picture of Vermigli’s thought (and of classical Protestantism generally) as a chaotic jumble. Metaphysics in the Reformation, in the end, highlights the urgent need for scholars well-versed in philosophy, theology, and history to articulate the coherence of Reformation thought anew in a theologically illiterate age.


Dr. Bradford Littlejohn is the founder and President of The Davenant Institute and a Fellow in Evangelicals in Civic Life at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of numerous books including The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans, and Protestant Political Theology (Eerdmans, 2017) and The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed (Davenant Press, 2017).

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