Vermigli on necessity and contingency

Recently, I was involved in writing about God’s providence. In an earlier post I wrote about the importance of the concept of permission with regard to divine providence. Shortly after that I had to prepare a sermon about God’s predestination. In the course of my preparation I spent some time on reading Peter Martyr’s commentary on Romans 9, especially his ‘scholium’ onPeter Martyr predestination. I was struck by his careful exposition of these matters in terms of contingency and will. I wrote before on Vermigli’s stance in matters of contingency and necessity, concluding then that the conceptual structure of his thinking doesn’t fit in with the concept of synchronic contingency. However, after reading parts of his scholium on predestination, I now think my conclusions were too rash. My conclusion was based on Vermigli’s assertion that something contingent becomes necessary, once it has occurred. I forgot, however, that even Scotus himself endorsed this view (Lectura I,40).

I am at the moment not in the position to give a definitive verdict in these matters. Instead, I want to give an indication of his conceptual skills by way of presenting Vermigli’s ‘toolbox’. I am not in the possession of the English translation in the particular volume of the Peter Martyr Library (on Predestination and Justification). So I will refer directly to the first Latin edition, printed in Basel in 1558. Vermigli starts a new entry in his discussion on predestination on p.434, asking (1) whether divine predestination entails – somehow – necessity for us; (2) whether it implies an impediment of the free will and (3) whether it removes God’s justice.
In order to answer the first question, Peter Martyr sets out to define what he means with necessity and to make a couple of distinctions. He starts with absolute necessity or ‘necessitas simplex’. This necessity consists in states of affairs, that can’t be denied without implying a contradiction. Examples are God and mathematical or geometric truths. He distinguishes these necessities carefully from physical and natural laws, such as the course of the sun, the burning of fire, and the like. These are not neccesary in an absolute or simple sense, because God can (as Scripture shows) decide to prevent their occurance.

Vermigli however recaputilates them as examples of neccesity on the basis of an inner principle, be it in different ‘degree’ of necessity. This he contrasts with neccesity on the basis of an external principle. He mentions two kinds of this kind of necessity, the first being coerced (by violence f. ex. to act against one’s will or nature. The second is more important for his argument, necessity ‘ex hypothesi’. He mentions (p.435) in this regard the scholastic distinction between the necessity of the consequent (necessitas consequentis) and the necessity of the consequence (neccitas consequentiae). The last necessity is also called implicative necessity. He connects this distinction with another one: ‘sensum compositum’, referring to the necessity of the consequent and ‘sensum divisum’, referring to the necessity of the consequence. His example is a classic in scholastic literature: what is white, can’t be black. Well, says Vermigli, that’s true if we take them together (in sensu composito): a thing can’t be white and black (= not white) at the same instance. In formula: -M (p & -p). However, it can be true, if we take them apart (in sensu diviso). In that case we could formalize it like this: Mp & M-p. He explicates: “Quod est enim album modo, mutari potest et efficiri nigrum”. It seems then, that Vermigli interprets this possibility in terms of change over time. What is possible now (t1), could be different at a later moment (t2): Mp[t1] & M-p[t2]. But even so, this example doesn’t by itself rule out the possibility of an underlying synchronic conceptual structure. Finally, Vermigli adds one more distinction to his conceptual toolbox, speaking about the neccesity of certitude or infallibility, before moving on to apply these distinctions to the questions surrounding divine predestination. This terminology goes back to Duns Scotus. A bit further, he explains his preference: “quia Deus nec mutari, nec falli potest”.

This passage is discussed in the book of Frank James, Peter Martyr Vermigli and Predestination, (1998). He speaks of it as a ‘rather extensive scholastic exercise’ (p.82). Moreover, he interprets Vermigl24727i’s preference for his own terminology (neccisity of certitude or infallibility) due to dissatisfaction with existing scholastic vocabulary. James mentions these distinctions only in passing (in a footnote), apparently not being aware of its conceptual importance.
Luca Baschera treats the passage in his chapter ‘Aristotle and Scholasticism’, in Torrance Kirby, et al. (eds.), A Companion to Peter Martyr Vermigli  (2009).

In his discussion of whether divine foreknowledge renders all events necessary, Vermigli draws on the traditional distinction between necessity ‘of the consequent’ and necessity ‘of consequence’ in order to demonstrate how God’s infallible knowledge of the future does not entail any coercion of secondary causes. However, even though the nature of secondary causes is preserved by God who makes use of them without doing violence to them, it is quite clear that according to his position, all events, when related to the knowledge and will of God, are indeed necessary (p.157).

This can hardly count as a summary that does justice to Vermigli’s position. Both James and Baschera neglect the conceptual difficulties involved in the discussion about necessity and contingency. Interestingly though, Baschera points to the influence of Gregory of Rimini on Vermigli, although he suggests that the influence of Aquinas in matters of providence and predestination is more important. Gregory of Rimini is mentioned by Antonie Vos, in his masterpiece The Philosophy of John Duns Scotus (2007), as one of the inheritors of the line of thought of Duns Scotus (p.6). As said before, at the moment I am not able to decide whether Vermigli did or didn’t work with a concept of synchronic contingency. But a fascinating and intriguing question it is for sure!

Boersma’s sacramental suggestion

Last holiday I read Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation – the weaving of a sacramental tapestry (Eerdmans 2011). I had read some favorable reviews (here and here) of theHeavenlyParticipation book. I’d been looking forward to the reading of the book, not in the least because Boersma appeals to the ‘nouvelle théologie’ of De Lubac and others. Himself being an evangelical theologian, that is quite remarkable. The Dutch systematic theologian Hendrikus Berkhof remarked once about most reformed or evangelical theologians (at least in Holland): ‘catholici non leguntur’ (‘catholics are not read [amongst us]’). Berkhof himself was an exception to that rule, and so is Hans Boersma (who has Dutch roots as well). That makes his book quite remarkable. Heavenly Participation can in this sense even be called a brave book. Boersma shows to be acquainted not only with De Lubac, but also with other representatives of ‘nouvelle théologie’ like Jean Daniélou, Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu.

Boersma’s overall thesis is that there has been a loss of the Platonist-Christian synthesis of the church fathers. And we are in need of a recovery of that synthesis of the ‘Great Tradition’, as Boersma likes to call it. The book is divided into two parts. The first part, called ‘Exitus: the Fraying Tapestry’, offers an analysis where and how the unraveling of the sacramental tapestry, as it was common among the fathers in the Early Church, took place. The second part, ‘Reditus: Reconnecting the Threads’, attempts to point out how the sacramental world view of the fathers can be restored in its former glory. Now, it’s clear that the success of the last part depends on the degree of success of the first part. If the diagnosis fails, the therapy will be wanting as well. So the question is: How convincing is Boersma’s analysis?

In chapter 3 Boersma lists five factors that, according to Boermsa, the nouvelle theologians believed were responsible for the modern unraverling of the sacramental tapestry:

  1. Juridicizing of the Church (Congar). The Gregorian Reform, which resulted in an enormous increase of the authority of the pope and of the power of the church as institution. This resulted in a distinction between divine and human actions, which led to a gradual disappearing of the sacramental, divine character of authority.
  2. Discovery of Nature I (De Lubac). The debates concerning the nature of the Eucharist between Berengar of Tours and his opponents in the 11th century, also led to a loss of sacramental sense. Although the Church rejected Berengar’s views, his underlying assumptions were adopted, especially the separation between sacrament and the unity of the church.
  3. Discovery of Nature II (Chenu). The rediscovery of Aristotle lead to a discovery of nature in the 12th and 13th centuries, claims Boersma, pointing to Chenu. The dualism between matter and spirit of the Platonic worldview was challenged now. But that meant a desacramentalizing of nature, an abandonment of the Platonist-Christian synthesis.
  4. Scripture, Church, and Tradition (Congar). The 14th and 15th centuries witness an ever-increasing separation between the authority of Scripture and that of the church. Congar locates the source of this trouble with Henry of Ghent, with Duns Scotus and Ockham in his trail. From their questions it was only a small step to dissenters like Wycliffe, Hus and the reformers. Once again we observe, according to Boersma, a moment of loss of the sacramental ontology of the Great Tradition, in which Scripture and church were kept together.
  5. Nature and the Supernatural (De Lubac). De Lubac’s Surnaturel offers a detailed analysis of the relationship between nature and the supernatural. He criticizes in particular those Renaissance theologians (like Cajetan, Bellarmine) who spoke about ‘pure nature’ (pura natura), thereby highlighting the autonomous character of the natural. This also led to a loss of the sacramental synthesis, because nature was no longer in need of the supernatural.

In the next chapter Boersma adds two other factors which, in his opinion, contributed to the unraveling of the tapestry. In fact, he calls them the ‘Scissors of Modernity’. These factors are: Duns Scotus’ concept of the Univocity of Being and the rise of nominalism through the pilosophy of William of Ockham. Together they ‘cut the sacramental tapestry in two and thus caused the decline and ultimately the near-collapse of the Platonist-Christian synthesis in the modern Western world. That, in short, is Boersma’s analysis. But, as an analysis, or diagnosis, it raises a lot of questions. Let me list a few of them:

  1. Boersma offers us a list of seven possible contributing factors to the unraveling of the sacramental tapestry. But nowhere does he pose the question whether all these factors were equally important. Or to put it differently, nowhere does he make an attempt of connecting these factors with each other. In fact, Boersma suggests a lot, but he omits to ask the really important questions.
  2. Another question would be whether all these cited authors, from past to present, meant the same thing when they spoke about ‘sacramental’. Boersma uses the term ‘sacramental’ without explaining what he precisely means by that. The same could be said of another key term: ‘participation’. What happens then, is that these terms become a kind of mantra, obscuring all possible conceptual differences and problems.
  3. A next question is how it is possible that in Boersma’s analysis not only the introduction of Aristotle’s philosophical thoughts in the 12th and 13th century counts as contribution to the loss of the sacramental tapestry (discovery of nature), but also the philosophies of the fervent opponents of this development (Franciscans like Duns Scotus and Ockham). And yes, there has been a discovery of nature in the line of this latter philosopical trail. But that was a very different discovery and a very different way of speaking about nature.
  4. In his critique on Scotus’ concept of univocity of being Boersma claims: ‘For Scotus, God is simply one of many beings – all understood in the same, univocal sense of “being” (…) The new understanding (…) turns God into one of many categories’ [75-76]. Therefore, Boersma opts for the concept of the analogy of being. This leaves room for just one conclusion: Boersma doesn’t understand the concept of univocity of being in Scotus. In fact, the concept of analogy of being presupposes a kind of univocity. So his criticism seems out of tune. More generally, Boersma seems not be aware of the developments in the study of medieval philosophy in the last decades.

Danielou and De LubacIn short, this book of Boersma didn’t convince me, how much I sympathize with his sacramental suggestion and his conversation with the nouvelle theologie. That certainly is important for evangelical theologians. There is much to learn from De Lubac, Daniélou and others. And with Boersma, I’m longing for a better and deeper understanding of the sacraments in our church. But in order to achieve that, we need to take a better look to the (indeed: great) tradition of the church than is offered in his book.

Triple John

The early years of John Calvin have attracted a lot of attention. One reason for that fact is the lack of hard evidence. We know, for example, hardly anything of value about Calvin’s education. Yes, we know that he studied at Collège Montaigu in Paris. But what was his curriculum? And who were his teachers? We don’t know.

But we’d like to know it for sure. So, there are quite a lot of hypotheses. One persistent hypothesis is the one that describes a considerable influence to John Maior (or Maïr). This hypothesis has been en vogue during a couple of decades. It has been supported by François Wendel, Willem Dankbaar, but above all by Karl Reuter. Reuter made a case for it in his book Das Grundverständnis der Theology Calvins (1963). He claimed that Major’s influence upon Calvin could be proved by several key doctrinal positions of the latter, such as his doctrine of divine providence, his doctrine of sin and justification, but above all his ‘anti-pelagian’ doctrine of God. Behind the back of John Major he discerned several theologians and philosophers: Thomas Bradwardine and Gregory of Rimini. Major’s influence on Calvin is said to be ‘ockhamistic’, but also ‘scotistic’. Indeed, that’s the third John: John Duns Scotus. The supposed influence of John Duns Scotus, via John Major, on John Calvin has been widespread. Even the famous scholar Heiko A. Oberman was convinced of a fundamental connection between Duns and Calvin.

Is there evidence for this connection? Bruce Gordon is very obvious in his biography of John Calvin (2009):

“It has been suggested that he studied Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Gregory of Rimini and other key luminaries of medieval theology, but again nothing can be established with certainty. It is not even known whether he studied theology in Paris” (p.8).

And T.H.L. Parker says in his biography of Calvin (1975):

“It is further conjectured that the Scottish theologian, John Major, who was a regent (i.e. professor) at Montaigu between 1525 and 1531, taught the young Calvin. One or two writers even go so far as to assert that Major taught Calvin theology. The only foundation for the notion is that Major and Calvin were contemporary at Montaigu (…)”. (p.13).

The definitive verdict had been spoken nearly a decade before Parker wrote his book. In his book Le Jeune Calvin (1966; transl. The Young Calvin) Alexandre Ganoczy investigated all of Calvin’s early writings. But he didn’t find any traces of John Major, not to mention John Duns Scotus or other medieval theologians, except two of them: Gratianus and Petrus Lombardus. Both of them wrote a textbook on canon law resp. theology. Calvin knew these books and quoted them extensively in his 1536 Institutio. In short, John Major’s influence on John Calvin seems to be very limited. And as far as the influence of Duns is concerned, it seems quite certain that Calvin didn’t read him up to 1536. Maybe, he read him later. But that’s another question.

Paul Helm on Synchronic Contingency

As I wrote before Helm’s Deep is one of the blogs I frequently read. In his post at the beginning of this month, Paul Helm discusses the notion of ‘contingency’. He makes a distinction between two concepts of contingency: logical contingency and synchronic contingency. Concerning the latter, he mentions the name of John Duns Scotus and the advocates of his thinking. The notion of synchronic contingency in Duns has been (re)discovered in the early 1980’s, simultaneously,  by Jaako Hintiika (Helsinki) and Antonie Vos (Utrecht). Vos was one of my teachers in Utrecht.

However, Paul Helm is fairly critical about the concept of synchronic contingency. Why? In his post he gives two reasons for his critique. The first is this: “An oddity about this that immediately springs to mind is that Scotus applies a temporal adjective to the activity of a non-temporal being.” But what’s odd here? In fact, as Helm himself notes, this way of applying temporal adjectives to God’s willing and acting has been part of a broad theological tradition. Helm refers to the idea of the divine decrees and the question of its order, as it has been worked out in the reformed tradition. So, his argument turns out to be not an argument about synchronic contingency after all, but, at most, an argument about applying temporal terms to an eternal (that is: timeless) God.

What about Helm’s second argument? Helm claims:

Similarly, we might attempt to parse synchronic contingency along the following lines: at the same eternal ‘moment’, given that God chose to bring about X he could (in exactly similar circumstances) have chosen Y. This is divine freedom it is said. But then, do ‘circumstances’ apply to God as they do to us mortals? Surely not. God does not find himself in sets of circumstances, as we do, and so he does not the task of coping with them, as we do.

Once again Helm seems to work with a confused conception of synchronic contingency. He seems to explain these ‘circumstances’  in a rather ‘psychological’ way. At least, that’s what the word ‘coping’ suggests. Does he think of those circumstances as influences on God’s willing or His motivational structure? But that is of course not the way any medieval (or reformed) theologian could have been thinking. God is the ‘prima causa’. What then could Helm mean with ‘circumstances’? The only alternative which I can come up with, is that Helm thinks of the set of all logical possibilities, which God (necessarily) knows. They ‘determine’ in a certain sense God’s willing and choosing. However, if that is what he means, the word ‘coping’ doesn’t seem very appropriate. God isn’t coping with these logical possible states of affairs. What is at stake in the notion of synchronic contingency in relation to God’s willing, is that He perfectly knows all logical possible states of affairs and chooses one possible world (a set of possible state of affairs), although He could have chosen differently.

So, I don’t think Helm produced sound arguments against synchronic contingency. His real arguments we are waiting for.