Philosophical Works: Peter Martyr Vermigli

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Puritanboard Clerk
Vermigli, Peter Martyr. Philosophical Works: On the Relation of Philosophy to Theology. trans. Joseph C. McLelland. Moscow, ID, Davenant Press, 2018.
Prone we are to dream of golden ages. For some they are in the future, for many conservatives they are behind us. Saying the theology of Peter Martyr Vermigli’s time marked such a golden age might be premature. It is more interesting to ponder what could have been the case, had other factors been in play. Would English Protestantism have taken a different, perhaps more holistic turn had his majesty, King Edward VI, survived? Maybe. Friendly to Protestantism and already guided by Bucer and Vermigli, who knows? There would have been a robust Reformed faith guided by a godly king, forestalling later counter-developments by Knox, necessary as they might have been.

The Almost Thomist

Tempting as it is to call Peter Marty a Thomist, that might be too simplistic. Like most (all?) of the Reformed Orthodox, he used Thomistic categories while never submitting himself to the system. Thomist categories are too powerful to ignore.

According to the editor, “Martyr describes the relationship between philosophy and theology in positive terms, the first grounding and supporting the second while the second governs the use of the first” (McLelland xxi). As philosophical categories can never be avoided, pace pietists and biblicists, one might as well use the most powerful available.

Whatever else may have been Martyr’s commitment (or non-commitment) to Thomism, it seems clear that he accepted “the Aristotelian-Thomistic epistemology in which our external senses receive from the outside world images that are transferred to internal senses and thence to the intellect” (xxiv). This is particularly relevant to his discussion of dreams and our knowledge of God.

Part 1: Reason and Revelation

Vermigli’s Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics

Philosophy is defined “as a capacity given by God to human minds, developed through effort and exercise…to enable us to attain happiness” (Vermigli 7). Paul’s warnings in Colossians do not apply to philosophy as a whole, pace some legalists and pietists. Vermigli explains: “true philosophy derives from the knowledge of created things, and from these propositions many conclusions about [implanted] justice and righteousness” can be reached (14). In other words, a true statement from general revelation is just as binding as from Scripture.

Nature and Grace, being some comments from Romans 1 and 1 Samuel 5

We have proleptic notions in our own minds about God. This is not the same thing as “innate ideas.” Rather, they are notions which also function like anticipations about the divine nature (21). Vermigli is not a Cartesian, nor is he a Platonist.

Part 2: Body and Soul

“Resurrection,” Commentary on 2 Kings 4

He defines resurrection as “a new union of the soul with the body by the force and power of God, so that the whole person may stand before the last judgment and receive blessings or punishments” (56). Following Thomas Aquinas, Martyr enumerates the condition of the blessed in perfection: they receive immortality, light, agility by which the body is under the soul’s command, impassibility, and subtlety, an acute perception by the senses (107-110).
Our Knowledge of God

“Visions, How and Har Far God May be Known,” being a commentary on Judges 6

Following the moderate realism of Thomas, Vermigli explains how we know things, particularly through the senses. The accidents or qualities from a genus arouse sense knowledge. This means we cannot know God by means of our senses.


Should we expect dreams from God today? Vermigli seems to suggest they do happen today, but given the ephemeral nature of dreams in general, he does not place much weight on it. He lists Cyprian and Augustine as examples of such dreams (164). He concludes: “Therefore, a good and lawful attention to dreams is not be forbidden; the godly are permitted to pray that they may be instructed even in their dreams” (168).

Providence, Miracles, and Responsibility

Providence is “the measure [ration] which God uses in directing things to their proper ends” (178). “Contingency and Necessity.” Proximate causes fall under “contingencies.” We can speak of a “double necessity,” absolute and hypothetical (181). This clarifies a problem, but it does not remove it: if everything is certain from God’s point of view, how does this not make our actions absolutely necessary?

Some first principles:
  1. If God made all things, nothing can be outside his providence; for if it were outside his providence, it would be outside creation too.
  2. It is the nature of created things to have some contingency to them. If so, then they cannot be under any absolute necessity.
  3. Indeed, “everything is contingent from its properties and principles” (194).
  4. Second causes, particularly those arising from accidens per se, are “instruments of the providence of God” (191).
  5. In conclusion, “all things are necessary in relation to the providence of God, while in their own nature they are contingent” (195).
Is God the Author of Sin?

The doctrine of concurrence helps us here. “The will of God concurs with both the good and the bad, but in different ways. Indirectly with the bad: he allows them to be done…As for good things, he not only suggests but fulfills them” (235). God cannot will sin because sin belongs to those things that do not need an efficient cause, but a deficient [cause]” (235). In practical matters, it looks like this: “inferior things receive the impulse of the first cause according to their own nature; if sin is acquired, it comes through the nature of second causes” (239).


As a compendium of Vermigli’s philosophy, it has the strength and weakness of any such text: strong because it makes available hard to access texts from Vermigli; weak because the nature of it makes for quite difficult reading. Although Joseph McLelland does a fine job explaining Vermigli’s philosophy, the reader still needs some familiarity with Thomism and Aristotelianism before approaching the text. Nonetheless, we are grateful to the Davenant Institute for making it available.
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