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!

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…

Melanchthon’s change of eucharistic opinions

A few months ago I wrote here about Melanchthon and his remarkable change of opinion with regard to the questions of contingency and determinism. It’s not entirely clear when he changed his mind, but the years 1527-1528 have been suggested. Recently I bought W.H. Neuser’s, Die Abendmahlslehre Melanchthons in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung 1519-1530 (Neukirchen-Vluyn 1968). While reading some parts of it, I was struck by the fact that Neuser describes a parallel change of opinion, in this case with regard to eucharistic theology. In his book Neuser Luther and Melanchthonelaborates on the eucharistic controversy between Luther and his followers on the one hand and Zwingli, Oeculampedius, but also ‘Schwärmer’ like Karlstadt on the other hand. Matters were, of course, far more complex than a division along one line of demarcation. While Luther tended to be blunt in eucharistic matters, Melanchthon striked a more nuanced note. Both men, however, were basically in agreement about Christ’s real presence.

In 1527 Melanchthon carried out, with three others, a visitation in Thüringen. There were considerable worries about this area, because of the obstruction against the Reformation in the monasteries on the one hand and of Karlstadt’s influence on the other hand. Melanchthon himself wrote the instruction for the visitation (July 1527). He locates the presence of Christ’s body and blood “in pane et in calice” (in the bread and in the cup). In the Articuli visitationis, the report Melanchthon made after the visitation, which was cut short on the 13th of August, he writes something different: “cum pane et cum calice” (with the bread and with the cup”). That’s more than a play upon words. It means that Melanchthon changed his mind with regard to the mode of Christ’s presence in the eucharist. A couple of questions arise from this observation of Neuser.

(1) What caused this change of mind of Melanchthon? Neuser suggests (p.276) – and I’m inclined to believe him – that the visitation confronted him with a massive heritage of roman catholicism, in particular the magic realism of the old opus operatum theology. In order to combat this, Melanchthon changed his own formulations with regard to the mode of Christ’s presence.

(2) Can we date the change more precisely? Yes, we can, to a certain extent. The terminus a quo must be the date already mentioned, when the visitation was terminated temporarily: August 13. The terminus ante quem is the 26/27th of September. At that time Melanchthon had a consultation with Luther about the visitation. We only know of the conversation between the two men from Melanchthon’s letters, but it is clear that Melanchthon felt uncertain about his eucharistic opinions. Initially, he was relieved about Luther’s reaction, but a month later his tone is bitter. “I don’t want to be involved with this question anymore”, he writes to Joachim Camerarius.

(3) Is there a link between his change of opinion with regard to the mode Christ’s presence in the eucharist and with regard to contingency and free will? That is of course a question that is not easy to answer. Both changes are dated in or close to 1527. That makes it worthwile to give the suggestion a serious look. To establish the connection precise textual research for the date of Melanchthon’s change with regard to contingency needs to be done.  However, if – for the moment – we suppose that there is a connection, it seems plausible that the change of opinion has been initiated by the experiences of the visitation. Is that conceivable? Yes, I think so. It would for example mean that Melanchthon found out that the emphasis on God’s sovereignty made people indifferent. So, yes it is conceivable. But, is it probable? So far, I’m not convinced, although – I have to admit – I’m certainly intrigued by these two changes of opinion.

Melanchthon on Determinism and Contingency

Recently, I read Barbara Pitkin’s essay ‘The Protestant Zeno: Calvin and the Development of Melanchthon’s Anthropology’ (published in The Journal of Religion 2004; 347-378; online available on Academia.eu). She shows how Melanchthon and Calvin differ on important issues concerning divine action and human liberty. Yes, they agree on the basic intent, namely that human beings are not capable to will the good on their own, but in the way they articulate this basic insight they differ considerably. Calvin, on the one hand, tends to downplay the ability of the human will in favour of the determing role of God’s willing and acting. Melanchthon, on the other hand, seeks to explore the way in which human willing is involved in and – in some sense – cooperates with God’s willing and acting. Pitkin shows how the interaction between the two men developped. Melanchton was concerned about Calvin’s views on predestination, deeply aware of the threat of determinism in Calvin’s theology.

This reminded me of an article in the Dutch journal Kerk en Theologie (2011; p.138-159) from Antonie Vos about the Freedom of the Will according to Melanchthon. Vos shows how Melanchthon changed his opinions about determinism and contingency between the first edition of his Loci Communes in 1521 and the second, revised edition of 1535. Vos uses the edition from the Utrecht University library, instead of the text from the Corpus Reformatorum (XXI), which is an amalgam of different editions. The textual history of the Loci is indeed quite complex (compare the ‘Introduction to the second edition’, p.xiii-xv from Benjamin T.G. Mayes in the English translation from Melanchthon’s Loci Praecipui Theologici from 1559): The Chief Theological Topics, translated by J.A.O. Preus (Concordia Publishing House 2011)). After some research I found a copy of this second 1535-edition on the internet, digitalized by the Herzog August Biblithek Wolfenbüttel. The quotes I checked, show that it is the same edition as the Utrecht-copy. The relevant texts are to be found under the title ‘De causa peccati & de contingentia’ (in PDF-reader, p.92).

On an earlier occasion I wrote about Antonie Vos and the rediscovery of synchronic contingency. Vos and his Research group published about the synchronic contingency in the theology and philosophy Duns Scotus on the one hand, and some important reformed theologians, like Voetius and Turretini, on the other hand. However, this seemed to presuppose a certain gap between medieval theology and the emergence of reformed scholasticism. And indeed, the theologies of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin show certainly deterministic traits, to say the least. Moreover, both Luther and Calvin fulminated against scholastic distinctions in this regard. The more surprising it is to discover Melanchton’s ‘conversion’ from determinism to contingency. “The freedom of the will is the cause of our action’s contingency”, he writes (Est autem libertas voluntatis causa contingentiae nostrarum actionum). The contrast with the 1521-edition is immense. There he asks rhetorically: “‘What then?’, you will ask, ‘isn’t there – to use a phrase of those – no contingency in reality, no chance, no fortune?'” (Quid igitur, inguies, nullane est in rebus, ut istorum vocabulo utar, contingentia, nihil casus, nihil fortuna).

So, between 1521 and 1535 Melanchthon changed his mind in this regard. The question is: can we trace this change more precisely? Vos mentions in his article a remark of Bernard Lohse, who suggests ‘after 1527’. Barbara Pitkin, following Timothy J. Wengert, mentions also 1527-1528, more specifically, his edition of the commentary on Colossians (‘The Protestant Zeno’, p.359). It certainly is worth further study to trace backhis notion of contingency. Moreover, it seems probable that Melanchthon wasn’t the only one who rediscovered the notion of (synchronic) contingency in the turmoil of the Reformation era. There must have been others as well, I expect. On top of my list of other ‘suspects’ is the name of Peter Martyr Vermigli

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.