Steadfast in their Apologetic: Vermigli and Calvin’s Defense of Classical Theism

Evangelical Protestantism was born on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther (1483-1546) nailed his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg. “Protestant” (i.e., “one who protests”) is actually a negative term in the sense that it communicates, not what someone is for, but what someone is against. Protestants are against any abuse that takes place within the sacred walls of a church, including the abuse of power through monetary, political, or sexual exploitation. Even more egregious is the abuse of the powerful against the flock of Christ, whereby they obscure the gospel by selling redemption to the unwitting masses, thereby putting the very souls of those in the visible church in danger of eternal damnation. Luther’s protest, chiefly directed against the sale of indulgences, was an attempt to free the human conscience from any “man-made” religious authority that would place a pecuniary price on what is inherently free. “Evangelical” (from evangel, meaning “good news” or “gospel”) is a positive label, noting what Protestants are for—i.e., they are those who believe that the blood of Christ has already paid the price of redemption for us, and so salvation is absolutely free. God’s loving grace has procured for us free justification, and so is to be received by faith alone.

The Reformation was not a “hatchet job,” implemented to tear down every tradition in the church. It was, instead, a “scalpel,” used to cut out anti-scriptural accretions that had found their way into church tradition. The Reformation is not Eastern Orthodox, but it is orthodox, as it seeks to teach and defend the correct doctrine of Christ. Reformational Christianity is not Roman Catholic, but it is catholic, as it seeks to preserve the forms and freedoms of Christ’s universal church.

With respect to theology proper, classical Reformational Christianity has no quarrel with the understanding of God bequeathed to western Christians by the Patristics and Scholastics. All Christians worship the same God, but its major strands unfortunately disagree about the specific way we are reconciled to that God. As we will see, several founders of the Reformation, those whom we call “the magisterial Reformers,” and more particularly the fathers of Reformed theology, adopted, virtually in toto, the classical view of God articulated by Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-1274). Indeed, not only did they uphold classical Thomistic theism, they also promoted the natural theology of the Dumb Ox, most notably his cosmological argument. In short, classical apologetics just is Reformed apologetics. And classical theism, which is rooted in a classical natural theology, just is Reformed theism. To secure our thesis, this brief survey highlights the natural theology and theology proper of two Reformed theologians; namely, Vermigli and Calvin.

Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562)

The sixteenth century historian and French Calvinist, Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609) had this to say about Peter Martyr Vermigli: “The two most excellent theologians of our times are John Calvin and Peter Martyr, the former of whom has dealt with the Holy Scriptures as they ought to be dealt with—with sincerity I mean, and purity and simplicity, without any scholastic subtleties…. Peter Martyr, because it seemed to fall to him to engage the Sophists, has overcome them sophistically, and struck them down with their own weapons.”[1] In other words, Vermigli used the tools of the Scholastics against Rome in defense of Reformed theology. Hence, McLelland writes: “The methodological judgment [of Scaliger] should be related to the question of naming Vermigli Aristotelian and Thomist. As we have seen, he abandoned neither his early Aristotelianism nor the Thomist theology that built on the Philosopher’s groundwork.”[2] In short, Peter Martyr was a Reformed Thomist.

As an illustration of McLelland’s point, consider Vermigli’s comments on Romans 1.19:

3. For God has revealed it to them [Rom 1.19]; we gather from this that all truth comes from God, for it does not spring from us…. These signs which have declared God to us from the beginning are themselves creatures; when natural philosophers [Physici] studied them, they were led to knowledge of God on account of the wonderful properties and qualities of nature. Knowing the series of causes and their relation to effects, and clearly understanding that it is not proper to posit an infinite progression, they reasoned that they must arrive at some highest being, and so concluded that there is a God. Plato, Aristotle, and Galen have set forth these matters exceedingly well.

We must not neglect the sacred writings: they also have described the same path to us.[3]

Notice that Vermigli affirms a secondary, confirmatory knowledge of God gained through observing nature. In context, Vermigli has just affirmed that God has implanted a knowledge of himself, or, in Calvin’s words, “a sense of deity” in everyone. And yet this does not preclude his articulating arguments for God’s existence. Also, in context, Vermigli shuns any suggestion that we owe our natural knowledge of God to philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. Indeed, we owe our natural theology to natural revelation; hence, no pagan philosopher invented, constructed, or in any way served as the foundation for this knowledge. Rather, they merely discovered the deity via the tools that God himself had given to them—i.e., nature and human reason; viz., nature is the material cause of our natural theology, while human reason is the instrumental cause. These tools have been given to all of us by God, the efficient cause of our theology. To say that Plato and Aristotle are the foundation from which we derive our natural theology is as foolish as saying that Abraham and Moses are the foundation from which we derive our sacred theology. God is the revealer, via either nature or holy writ; humans merely use their God-given gifts to either receive and discover more truths about God, or reject and shun the divine revelation. Notice also that Vermigli goes on to give a brief rendition of the Thomistic cosmological argument. As we read in the translator’s footnote: “In this paragraph Martyr follows the cosmological argument, an induction from the contingency of worldly phenomena to God, stated classically in the first of Aquinas’ five ways…. Martyr combines two concepts in the natural knowledge of God, innate notions or prolepsis and created effects that entail a transcendent Creator.”[4]

Finally, notice Vermigli’s last assertion quoted, where he affirms a confluence between general and special revelation and/or natural and sacred theology. In short, the very same God revealed in nature is also revealed in Scripture. Of course, the Bible tells us more about God than what we get from nature, but not less. It reveals to us many things we could never know about God from creation alone, but this does not mitigate nature’s sufficiency in revealing God. As Vermigli goes on to say, “We could also reason from many other such matters, but they may be easily gathered from the writings of both Scripture and philosophers. Therefore, I will add nothing more; I count it sufficient to have said that nothing may be found in the world so abject or lowly that it gives no witness to God.”[5]

The statement that every fact we discover in the world reveals God to the human creature, whether it is a galaxy or a grain of sand is the heart of the Thomistic argument. Vermigli is saying that everything we observe is contingent, and so it needs a cause, and since an infinite cause-effect regress is impossible, the world of contingencies must be sustained in being by an uncaused cause, a being which just is everything the theist says God is. Thus, it can be truly said that nothing in the world is so high or low as to lack contingency, and this is proof that whatever exists, no matter how abject, is a revelation of God.

So, what kind of God does Vermigli infer from the series of contingent effects? Nothing short of the God of Thomism: “every act as act depends on the first principle of all things. God is primus actus, as the philosophers acknowledge.”[6] As the one who is pure act and prime mover, God can only permit sins, he cannot cause them. Indeed, “since sin is a defect and privation, it does not need an efficient, but a deficient cause.” Therefore, “our motion of turning away from God is proper to our will insofar as it is corrupted and not as it was instituted by God.”[7] In saying these things, Vermigli shows his dependence upon an Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysic while justifying his own theology proper.[8]

John Calvin (1509-1564)

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) said the following about Calvin:

I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Dæmonism. If ever man worshiped a false god, he did. The being described in his 5 points is not the God whom you [John Adams] and I acknolege [sic] and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a dæmon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin. Indeed I think that every Christian sect gives a great handle to Atheism by their general dogma that, without a [special] revelation, there would not be sufficient proof of the being of a god. Now one sixth of mankind only are supposed to be Christians: the other five sixths then, who do not believe in the Jewish and Christian revelation, are without a knolege [sic] of the existence of a god![9]

Jefferson’s critique here is intriguing, as he says that any Christian sect that denies natural revelation, or even natural theology, has basically admitted the very point atheists have always made—namely, that there is no genuine evidence for God’s existence. No evidence except, “The Bible tells me so.” This dogma has two intolerable consequences: (1) The vast majority of human beings are without any knowledge of God; (2) God is going to judge everyone for their sins, even though those who lack access to special revelation (e.g., the Bible) have no way of knowing anything about God. God punishes people, in other words, for not believing something they, in principle, cannot know. That seems a trite unfair!

We concede Jefferson’s main point. If there is no natural theology, then the main contention of atheism is sound, as few (if any) have ever even heard of God; and so it would be unfair for God to judge anyone for not believing in him on the day of our respective judgments. The only issue before us is whether or not Jefferson correctly understood Calvin’s doctrine of the knowledge of God. We answer in the negative.

The Genevan Reformer actually argued, in a manner similar to Vermigli, that, on the basis of the universal consent of humankind we must conclude that God has implanted a knowledge of himself within every single human being. This sensus divinitatis, or “sense of deity,” is inescapable and undeniable. As Calvin writes: “That there exists in the human mind and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service.”[10]

Human experience constantly teaches everyone the truth of Calvin’s doctrine of the sense of deity within all of us. We have all heard the statement, “There are no atheists in fox holes.” How many times have I heard a story of a self-proclaimed atheist who, after barely escaping a tragedy or, indeed, while going through one, finding himself in a church or a synagogue praying fervently? Or even in his own room, reading a Bible or a devotional in an attempt to find solace or some assurance that hope remains for escaping what has befallen him, or that there is a purpose to his suffering? These fleeting moments of despair or terror or even the fear of Judgment Day, followed by an overwhelming desire to make things right with God, in all of our lives, including the lives of recalcitrant atheists, indicate that, deep down, there is a knowledge of God firmly planted in the souls of men. For Calvin, the theistic proofs are unnecessary, since everyone already knows God as we emerge from the womb. And yet, as in Peter Martyr, Calvin’s doctrine of the sensus divinitatis did not preclude his desire to articulate proofs for the existence of God.

Calvin famously begins his Institutes with the insight that it is impossible for us humans to truly know ourselves without also knowing God; nor is it possible for us to truly know God without also knowing ourselves. How is this so? Calvin notes that, “in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts toward the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; no, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone.…”[11] Calvin’s method, as we see here in this passage, is to start with a knowledge of himself as a dependent being, only to realize that he must immediately begin to contemplate the God upon whom he subsists. In other words, in the opening lines of his theological masterpiece, Calvin gives us a truncated version of the argument from contingent being to necessary being. Later in his Institutes, Calvin offers a more explicit, though still compressed, version of the cosmological argument:

I only wish to observe here, that this method of investigating the divine perfections, by tracing the lineaments of his countenance as shadowed forth in the firmament and on the earth, is common both to those within and to those without the pale of the church. From the power of God we are naturally led to consider his eternity, since that from which all other things derive their origin must necessarily be self-existent and eternal. Moreover, if it be asked what cause induced him to create all things at first, and now inclines him to preserve them, we shall find that there could be no other cause than his own goodness.[12]

Notice that, contrary to Jefferson’s assessment of him, Calvin believes there is a natural theology available to everyone inside and outside the church—i.e., those who do and do not have access to special revelation. Thus, Fesko notes that Calvin is here showing significant continuity with Thomas’ proof from composed actuality to pure actuality, stating that, while he does not present the argument in as “philosophical manner as Aquinas does, he nevertheless discursively appeals to the concept of tracing the effects of creation back to their cause and even cites pagan authorities positively in the process.”[13] This fact about Calvin’s natural theology must be stressed, given the constant refrain we so often hear from modern Reformed theologians (e.g., Reformed theology admits of a natural revelation, though not a natural theology).[14] No, Calvin insists that even those outside the church are able to trace the effects in the world back to its Source. Everyone, including nonbelievers who have never seen a Bible, is, as a matter of principle, able to prove the existence of God from the created order. Muller concurs with this reading of Calvin,[15] as does Warfield.[16] In the words of Calvin himself, “… those blessings which unceasingly distill to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain.”[17] Just as the limnologist is able to trace the waters of a river back to its source, so also God has so constructed the human mind that all of us are able to trace finite things within the contingent chain of effects back to the Source of all being. Indeed, in a previous section of his Institutes, Calvin quotes Virgil to secure the point that men can know God from his effects.[18]

Perhaps the best evidence clinching the point that Calvin upholds a natural theology, that all people (regardless of worldview) may rightly infer from the created order, is found in his commentary on Acts 17, where Paul delivers his apologetical sermon to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (among others) in Athens. In this famous scriptural text, which classical apologists commonly invoke to defend the practice of natural theology, we read the following words:

The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands, neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things; and He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His offspring’” (Acts 17.24-28).[19]

The poets Luke, through the voice of Paul, is referring to are Epimenides (6th cent. BC) and Aratus (ca. 315-240 BC), with the former noting that we live and move and have our being in our Creator and the latter affirming that all humans are the offspring of God. Notice that, according to this text, God discloses himself in nature (cf. Acts 14.15-18). And why does he do this? To condemn humankind? No, but that every human, regardless of time or place of origin, may seek him and find him through the revelation they have received in the created order. And so, in a sense, we may view all of the musings of the pagan philosophers, from Socrates’ penetrating questions to Plato’s contemplation of justice to Aristotle’s cosmological argument to an unmoved mover, as “groping after God.” None of this, of course, demonstrates that everyone has actually found God. Nevertheless, for Luke and Paul (Rom 1.18-25; 2.4,14-16), God’s motive in giving his natural revelation is so that all may find him; and this, in turn, demonstrates that all, regardless of prior presuppositions, will discover the true and living God in nature if they reason correctly. This text demonstrates that, when addressing those who do not believe in Scripture, in order to convince them of our position, we do not appeal to the Bible as an authority, but we instead use common notions (e.g., the laws of logic and common sense experience), and reason from creation to the Creator. At least, this is how Calvin sees things: “Paul’s drift is to teach what God is. Furthermore, because he hath to deal with profane men, he draweth proofs from nature itself; for in vain should he have cited testimonies of Scripture.”[20]

As far as Calvin is concerned, Paul’s attempt to establish God’s existence is not through subtle and abstruse inferences based upon esoteric premises that only learned philosophers will grant. Nor is it established by quoting holy writ, believing that its self-attesting character will persuade the pagans of its truth. Indeed! The reality of God is easily shown through his works of creation and providence. As Calvin writes: “And surely he [Paul] doth not subtlety dispute of the secret substance [essence] of God; but by his works he declareth which is the profitable knowledge of him.”[21] And, concerning Paul’s citations of pagan poets, Calvin muses:

He [Paul] citeth half a verse out of Aratus, not so much for authority’s sake, as that he may make the men of Athens ashamed; for such sayings of the poets came from no other fountain save only from nature and common reason. Neither is it any marvel if Paul, who spake unto men who were infidels and ignorant of true godliness, do use the testimony of a power, wherein was extant a confession of that knowledge which is naturally engraven in men’s minds.[22]

In short, the light of nature concerning the existence of God gets through, even into the minds of men, which is illustrated through thinkers such as Aratus and Epimenides.

What kind of God does nature reveal? Warfield summarizes Calvin’s theology proper in the following way: “There is but one only true God, a self-existent, simple, invisible, incomprehensible Spirit, infinite, immense, eternal, perfect, in His Being, power, knowledge, wisdom, righteousness, justice, holiness, goodness, and truth.”

It is quite embarrassing, then, to see Jefferson claim to adore “the Creator and benevolent governor of the world,” whom he also calls “omnipotent,”[23] while also calling Calvin’s God a demon. Calvin, who affirms all of the attributes of the God of Aquinas, a theologian whom Jefferson clearly admires, is in unswerving continuity with the great tradition of the Church; while Jefferson—who believes in a corporeal God, thereby denying his simplicity and immutability—articulates a theism that falls far short of a coherently true conception of the deity.[24]


No Protestant can embrace Thomas Aquinas’ theology in its entirety without compromising several essential Protestant principles (e.g., sola fide). Hence, to whatever degree a Protestant is a Thomist, he must always qualify himself. There are those like Norman Geisler and Richard Howe, who are “Evangelical Thomists.” And then there are those like myself, who are “Reformed Thomists.” To be a Reformed Thomist just is to embrace many essential Thomistic distinctives—e.g., the real distinction between esse and essence within contingent reality; a fundamentally Aristotelian-Thomistically inspired empiricist epistemology; the soundness of the classical theistic proofs; a view of God that embraces the divine simplicity, eternity, immutability, and impassibility; etc. As we have seen in this study, which is confirmed in multiple other studies, these basic Thomistic theses were largely accepted by magisterial Reformers such as Vermigli and Calvin.[25]

To be a Reformed Thomist just is to embrace many Reformed distinctives that virtually no Roman Catholic disciple of Thomas can ever accept—e.g., a rejection of the donum superadditum with respect to unfallen man (advocated by most, if not all, Reformed divines); a view of original sin that entails the actual corruption of human nature itself, and not merely the removal of original righteousness; “a deeper Protestant conception of natural theology,”[26] which grounds our natural knowledge of God in the concreated sensus divinitatis within all humans, and not merely in an unconscious inference from order to Orderer; the material and formal sufficiency of Scripture; a wholly forensic view of justification; etc.

The question before us is whether the label “Reformed Thomist” is an oxymoron or rightly captures the historical continuity between Thomas and the Reformation. This brief essay has attempted to demonstrate the latter by showing that, for Vermigli and Calvin, the theistic proofs, as given by the catholic tradition in general, and Thomas Aquinas in particular, do indeed prove to their satisfaction that God exists. And not just any god, or the impotent deity of pagan theism, but the very God disclosed in Scripture and upheld in the Reformational creeds and catechisms.

These early Reformers were quite eager to embrace the classical conception of God, and even defend their theism via the traditional proofs for God’s existence. Why should modern Reformed theologians be prevented from doing the same?

Travis James Campbell (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary; ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary; BA, Wittenberg University) is the founder and president of Consider This, and serves as a history teacher at Deerfield-Windsor School in Albany, GA.

  1. Joseph McLelland, “Translator’s Introduction,” in Peter Martyr Vermigli, Philosophical Works: On the Relation of Philosophy to Theology (vol. 4 of The Peter Martyr Library; trans. & ed. Joseph C. McLelland; Moscow, ID: The Davenant Press, 2018), xxvii; quoting Scaliger from B. B Warfield, “John Calvin the Theologian,” in Calvin and Augustine (ed. S. G. Craig; Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1916), 481.

  2. McLelland, “Translator’s Introduction,” xxvii.

  3. Peter Martyr Vermigli, “Nature and Grace,” Philosophical Works, 21.

  4. Vermigli, Philosophical Works, 21n7. To be sure, we must quibble here over the word “induction.” For Vermigli, just as it is for Aquinas, Thomas’ theistic arguments are not inductive inferences which, if strong enough, render God’s existence more probable than not. Rather, the quinque viae are deductive proofs, which, if sound, prove with certainty the undeniable existence of God.
  5. “Nature and Grace,” 22—italics added.

  6. “Whether God is the Author of Sin,” in Philosophical Works, 220.

  7. “Whether God is the Author of Sin,” 242-243.

  8. Cf., e.g., Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles 3.162.2-5.

  9. Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to John Adams: Monticello—April, 1823,” in The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail & John Adams (ed. Lester J. Cappon; Chapel Hill, NC/London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 591-592—italics in original.

  10. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.3.1-3 (trans. Henry Beveridge; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008). All quotations and references to the Institutes are taken from this edition.

  11. Calvin, Institutes 1.1.1,2.

  12. Institutes 1.5.6—italics and emphasis added.

  13. J. V. Fesko, Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), 63-64.

  14. Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena and the Doctrines of Revelation, Scripture, and God (2nd edition; ed. William Edgar; Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2007), 133; and K. Scott Oliphint, Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2006), 129-131.

  15. Muller, Divine Essence and Attributes, 173-174.

  16. Benjamin B. Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God,” in Calvin and Calvinism (1932 repr.; vol. 5 of The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield; ed. John E. Meeter; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 35. See also R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of Christianity and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 198-208.

  17. Calvin, Institutes 1.1.1.
  18. Calvin, Institutes 1.5.5; quoting Virgil, Aeneid, bk. 6,1, 980-990.

  19. New American Standard Bible (NASB).

  20. John Calvin, Commentary upon The Acts of the Apostles: Volume 2 (vol. 19 of Calvin’s Commentaries; trans. Christopher Fetherstone; ed. Henry Beveridge; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 157-158—henceforth, Acts II.

  21. Calvin, Acts II, 158-159.

  22. Calvin, Acts II, 169.

  23. Cf. Jefferson, “Letter to John Adams: Monticello—April, 1823,” 593n69.

  24. Cf. Jefferson, “Letter to John Adams: Monticello—April, 1823,” 593.

  25. Cf. Manfred Svensson and David VanDrunnen, eds., Aquinas Among the Protestants (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2018); and Norman L. Geisler, Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991).

  26. This phrase comes from Geerhardos Vos (1862-1949). Cf. Geerhardos Vos, Reformed Dogmatics (5 vols. in 1; trans./ed. Richard B. Gaffin; Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012-2016), 231-232; 282-283; see also, Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol. Ia.94.1; Ia.95.1; IaIIa.82.3. I am grateful to Dr. Lane Tipton for helping me better understand Vos’ perspective on this issue.


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