Metaphysics in the Reformation

The Case of Peter Martyr Vermigli

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Silvianne Aspray
  • Oxford: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     176 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Metaphysics in the Reformation is for scholars; general readers will struggle with the language and ideas, even if the book is also beautifully written and lively. The main purpose is to develop a new method for research in metaphysic (i.e., case studies), but only in cases where metaphysics applies to the relationship between the divine and the mundane. Silvianne Aspray envisions a whole library of such studies, and no doubt the goal is worthy. Here, the case study is Peter Martyr Vermigli (an excellent choice!), and Aspray investigates his writings on grace, the sacrament, ecclesiology, and magisterial authority over religion, and reinforces the analysis with surveys of the key secondary literature.

Vermigli is an excellent choice because his experience is distinctive. He lived through the dynamic period of the Reformation and experienced doctrinaire Catholicism, Calvinism, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, humanism, and medieval scholasticism. He also bridges the gaps between the first and second generation of reformers (via a virtual republic of letters). Moreover, Vermigli is a point of contact between the two modes of understanding metaphysics—participatory and univocal. That is, he considers both cooperation between the divine and the mundane, sometimes considers the two modes at odds, and sometimes considers only the univocal elements therein.

A secondary reason for choosing Vermigli appears in Aspray’s examination of Vermigli’s writings as an illustration of whether the Reformation slots comfortably into emerging theories of modernity or not. Does it form a bridge between the ages of Renaissance and Reason? Pure history offers little insight here, whereas theology and philosophy do, hence Aspray’s reliance on these disciplines. Consequently, Aspray takes a nuanced, hermeneutic, exegetic approach, in which each chapter fronted by valuable bibliographical material explaining which of Vermigli’s writings take center stage, sometimes making comparisons with other more famous reformers (e.g., Martin Luther, John Calvin) along the way. As noted, the book is not perfect, but as a result we have a much deeper understanding of the internal logic and complexity of the Reformation as a whole, and (with enough case studies) we will better understand where it fits into the emergent rationalism of early modernity.

The book covers five key themes, the first of which scrutinizes divine and human agency and the question of causality (i.e., cause and effect). The key question is whether God works in creation cooperatively, competitively (with humans), or univocally (alone). Vermigli suggests two metaphysical explanations: (1) providence (in which God cannot be in cooperation or competition with human volition), and (2) co-agency (e.g., God the perfect first cause works through man as the flawed or lesser second cause). Vermigli considers the options through biblical, Aristotelian, and Thomist exegesis. The results are telling, and Aspray makes clear the development of Vermigli’s theology as much more nuanced than previous biographers allowed.

The second chapter moves on to Vermigli’s theologies of justification and divine grace. Protestant theology developed aporetic elements here, Vermigli included, and Aspray does not shy away from it. God either works alone and implants (imputes) true faith into the hearts of people (thus saving them for God’s own purposes) through the Holy Spirit or incorporation into Christ or hearing the Word. Or there is an element of human volition and necessary cooperation (i.e., God works through humans to affect the desired results) which allows for competition and choice. Vermigli’s featured works are entirely examples of biblical exegesis—Genesis, Corinthians, Romans—but his conclusions have elements of both intrinsic and extrinsic justification and working through them can be difficult (even with Aspray’s superb analysis as a guide).

Chapter 3 moves on to the question of a divine presence in the sacrament. Here Vermigli clearly differentiates between himself, Catholics, and Lutherans by rejecting the physical presence along with its association doctrines (i.e., God does not disrespect the structures of reality). He also muddied the waters between himself and Zwingli, however, with his suggestion of a sacramental union between the elements, with a real presence offered only to and received only by true believers (i.e., the natural structures can, however, be divinely enhanced). Vermigli supplied no clear-cut explanation of his own position, however, which forced Aspray to consult the secondary literature which she deconstructs with aplomb. The metaphysical conclusion is that the finite and infinite share being through spiritual means (albeit unexplained), while at one and same time staying entirely separate.

Moving on to magisterial authority in chapter 4, Aspray shows how Vermigli takes the two metaphysical frameworks—participatory or univocal—and produces two competing models. Sometimes magistrates have their authority due to God’s placing them into their positions of power (and working through them), and sometimes there is competition between divine institutions and temporal institutions. Although the Word of God is the ultimate, unifying power for human existence, the secondary level suggests that the king shares authority with the Word (somehow). The king (as magistrate), divinely instituted, mediates divine power like a parent supervises and cares for children and binds the commonweal together. For Vermigli, the Word is facilitated and enforced by the magistrate and only disseminated by the clergy. Vermigli leaves no hermeneutical guide to understanding scripture or the Word, however, there is no seeming interpretive authority (the Holy Spirit?).

Aspray illustrates a notable shift in Vermigli’s theology over the course of his working life which is indicative of the more general transformation in Protestant circles from a participatory metaphysical model through a confused transition period, to a univocal model. Using Vermigli (hopefully other studies will follow) the readers get a firm grip on both Reformation metaphysics (in and of itself) and the 16th-century transition period from the Renaissance to the Age of Reason and modernity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew A. Chibi is Director at  Distance Learning Association, Sheffield, UK.

Date of Review: 
September 16, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Silvianne Aspray (née Bürki) is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge. She received her PhD in philosophical theology from Cambridge in 2018.


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