Comments on Vermigli’s Commentaries

At his blog Paul Helm announces a couple of posts about Peter Martyr Vermigli. More specifically, he will write about Vermigli’s  and Calvin’s attitude to Aristotle’s ethics. I look forward to these posts. I seized the opportunity to open up my copy of Volume Four of the Peter Martyr Library: ‘Philosophical Works’. The title is a bit pretentious, because this volume offers an anthology of various passages from Vermigli’s commentaries. However, this was the way in which Vermigli’s Loci Communes (posthumously) were edited. There is a wealth of theological and philosophical reasoning, scattered over his writings, including the commentaries.Loci Communes In contrast to Calvin, who aimed in his commentaries at ‘brevitas’, Vermigli took ample space to elaborate on interesting issues mentioned in the biblical text. His excursus on the resurrection in his commentary on 2 Kings 4 is a very convincing example of this phenomenon. In this Volume it extends to nearly 100 pages. In this light we can easily understand Calvin’s aiming for brevity… Nevertheless, Vermigli was certainly the better philosopher of the two!

The lecture of this Volume reminded me of an earlier post, in which I speculated about Vermigli’s stance towards (synchronic) contingency. Well, in the section about Providence, a passage from his commentary on 1 Samuël 10:2, we find the answer. Vermigli starts the discussion by making two distinctions.

“There is one necessity that is absolute (simplex) and another that is conditional (ex hypothesi). When we say that God is wise or just, we understand it to be a simple and absolute necessity. Other things are conditionally necessary, such as this subject of debate in the schools: Whatever is, is necessary while it exists.” (192).

This is the first distinction. There is another to follow:

“Moreover, things may be considered in two ways, first a they are in actuality, in which case they have the nature of necessity since they are no longer indefinite. For instance, to write or not to write is hypothetical. But if you are in the act of writing, it is no longer contingent but necessary. Hence we say that sensory knowledge is certain, because the objects themselves cannot be otherwise. Secondly, things may be considered as they lie hidden in their causes; but since causes may sometimes produce effects and sometimes not, there is no necessary power of acting in them.” (192).

At this point Vermigli starts a discussion about God’s eternity in relation to his causal action and whether this action of His make things necessary or not. In the sentence which is written bold, Vermigli offers the clue to his conception of necessity and contingency. APeter Martyr Vermigliccording to him, time alters the modal status of things. What was contingent, becomes necessary. That’s basically the Aristotelian (and Thomistic) view of diachronic contingency. Synchronic contingency denies the (possibility of the) modal change implied in this view. Time doesn’t affect the contingency of a certain state of affairs. So, Vermigli can be dispatched of my list of ‘suspects’ of Reformers who were important in the transmission of the Scotian concept of synchronic contingency to the reformed scholastic tradition. All the same, I look forward to the posts of Paul Helm about Calvin’s and Vermigli’s attitude to the ethics of Aristotle.

One more thing: this Volume of the Vermigli Library was edited and translated by Joseph C. McLelland. He dedicated the Volume “to Thomas F. Torrance, Doktorvater and friend, who introduced me to Peter Martyr”. McLelland wrote his dissertation about Vermigli’s eucharistic theology. It reminds me, once more, of the fabulous intuition of Thomas Torrance. Although he occasionally cites Vermigli in his books (f.ex. Kingdom and Church), to the best of my knowledge he never refers to him while speaking about the incarnational union with Christ, which was very important to Torrance. But Vermigli comes quite close to this conception in certain passages (letters and commentaries). Did Torrance read those passages? I’m not sure. But he might…

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.

Helm, Ryle, and Fashion

One of my favorite blogs is that of Paul Helm. Always instructive, often stimulating. And – perhaps most important to me – he writes regularly about John Calvin. In July he had a post about ‘Fashion‘. It’s an interesting piece about the ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ of authors, trendy thoughts and so on. In short: the fashions of the mind. Then, Helm asks:

But what about Gilbert Ryle? Largely forgotten. Does any one read Ryle? Do people find help from his writings, do research on them? I rather doubt it.

At the moment I read it, I was inclined to agree with Helm’s observation. However, a few weeks later I found the proof of his being wrong.  As you can see, Gilbert Ryle’s book is still being read! Here by the Dutch philosopher René van Woudenberg (Free University, Amsterdam) .

So, fashion does not always have the last word!