Fesko's Beyond Calvin (9): Metaphysics and Justification, pt. 5 (Vermigli, Consequent Necessity)

On pp. 39-40, Fesko summarizes Peter Martyr Vermigli along the lines of the essay's thesis. Noting appropriately that Calvin was "not alone in the work of reform" (39), Fesko mentions Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Farel, Bullinger and then introduces Vermigli as Calvin's "co-laborer." Even though he is apparently aiming again at the somewhat - though not entirely - illusory target of Calvin-only-ism, the reminder is a helpful one. Fesko will focus on Vermigli in ch. 9 of this book, so we will reserve some judgments for when we come to that chapter.

Fesko recognizes that Vermigli sees union with Christ as the "source" of good works, but goes on to qualify what importance this has to his thesis: "However, like Calvin, he too could use causal language" (39). But, again, neither I nor anyone I am aware of has suggested otherwise, neither for Vermigli nor for Calvin. But let's move on to something potentially more productive for the debate as a whole.

Fesko goes on to quote Vermigli's words in defense of good works. Let's follow this closely. Vermigli says, using the translation by Frank James, "Because we do not reject good works, we say that they ought to be held in a place of honor, since a very close connection obtains with the immediate consequences of justification." Fesko follows this quote with the words: "Note here that Vermigli considers good works the consequence of justification." Yes, a consequence, but what kind of consequence? Since Fesko has just seen Vermigli identify union with Christ as a/the source of good works, how should we understand good works as a consequence of justification? This is an important question and exploring it may go a long way to bringing about rapprochement among those who disagree, so I would encourage us to think carefully through this.

Does Vermigli mean that justification as such produces good works or does he mean that the reality of justification - the fact that a person is justified or does "have" justification - requires, as a consequence of necessity (a possible use of the language which Fesko acknowledges in a footnote here), that other graces must also be present, such as good works? Let's remember the sixteenth century context for saying things like Vermigli says here. In his historical context, since Vermigli is explicitly concerned to argue for the value of good works, we can expect that their value would be in question only if justification "by faith alone" (properly understood) is also being defended, in which case Vermigli's language is not only sufficiently clear but quite similar to Calvin's. What Vermigli is saying, on such a reading, is that given union with Christ (which Vermigli sees as the source of good works), there is no such thing as having Christ for one benefit but not for others. If one has Christ for justification, one has him for the good works of sanctification as well - and we can add for adoption, and glorification, etc. This was Calvin's insistence in connection with 1 Cor. 1:30 throughout his ministry.

In fact, outside of the historical context of the Reformers' responses to Rome, there is - do I dare to use this language? - a "theological indifference" about which grace of the ordo salutis one places in either of the two slots in the argument here. Simply stated, given the Christ and the Spirit of a Reformed understanding of union with Christ, the reality of any one blessing, including justification, entails the reality of other blessings as a consequent necessity. Theoretically, if sanctification were the grace in need of clear defense and justification (properly understood) were taken for granted, the terms could be reversed in the argument: "if there really is sanctification in Christ, there is justification in Christ too, since there is only one Christ and both are in him." But since justification by faith in Christ alone is the distinct note being sounded by the Reformers over against their detractors, justification is the "reality" front and center in their theology, and since good works are allegedly marginalized or even unnecessary if one affirms justification as the Reformers did, then, for them, the good works of sanctification are predictably a (or the) consequent necessity of justification in view.

A little later Fesko notes Vermigli's statement regarding good works as the fruit of justification. "To be sure," says Vermigli in the quotation, "[good works] follow justification as fruits, which spring up and sprout from a true faith." In this section, Vermigli continues, quoting Augustine's epistle to Honorius, "Good works derive from the fact that we are justified, and not that we are justified because of prior good works" (quoted by Fesko on pp. 40-41). A few comments, then:

a. Fesko has appropriately pointed us to an example of a Reformed theologian speaking of  the good works of sanctification as the "fruit of justification." I have not denied there are such examples or that Reformed theologians speak this way (with the language or at least structure of causation) in certain contexts. Perhaps I have not been as clear that I do not deny that Reformed theologians within the tradition have long spoken this way, in which case I happily take the opportunity to say so again. However, this is not the same as saying it is the only acceptable way of speaking within the Reformed tradition, or that it requires a host of other theological ideas such as good works as purely works of gratitude for justification.

b. The question still holds, however, and rather centrally: what is meant by "fruit of justification." So far in our posts I have already strongly affirmed one way in which this is not only legitimate but important: at the level of experience of grace or the Christian life (the life of "religion" in early modern rhetoric), the peace of conscience enjoyed in justification is crucially a presupposition of truly good works of sanctification. The alternative is to put them in reverse order and suggest that we work for our wholly-future justification, which is empty of the good news of the Gospel. (This is also Vermigli's evident concern in his quote from Augustine (mentioned above) to the effect that we are not justified "because of," i.e., on the meritorious grounds of, prior good works, but we pursue good works on the presupposition of a justification securely in place.) Thus, one possibility for Vermigli's words (and the many other examples like it among other theologians) is that they are accenting this important truth: what we call "progressive" sanctification, as a life of good works expressive of that sanctification-reality, comes "after" and on the presupposition of a secure justification.

c. Another way to understand the "fruit" language is along the lines of what I have suggested above in this post, namely, to posit that the good works of sanctification are, for the Reformed, consequentially necessary given the reality of justification in Christ. The reason for this consequent necessity is not, however, due to the distinct infrastructure or make-up of justification per se (other than that it is an aspect of union with Christ) but of Christ himself, so that the reality of any grace in Christ entails, of necessity, the reality of the other graces too. "Christ has been made for us wisdom by God, and justification, and sanctification, and redemption," says the Apostle (1 Cor. 1:30). There is only one Christ for all the blessings of redemption, not a separate Christ for each benefit, which is why union with Christ is so determinative for the structure of soteriology. The alternative, to use Calvin's words for this notion, is to "tear Christ into pieces," something of which he accused both his Roman objectors and his Lutheran counterparts. This, then, is another possibility, and a theological rather than only experiential one. I suggest reflection on this way of articulating the relationships could bring a lot of people closer together in the current debate.

d. Yet another possibility is the one Fesko proposes, except that he has assumed rather than demonstrated that this is the only possible way of understanding Vermigli. He has not demonstrated, then, that these other two possibilities cannot apply. If Fesko is correct about the theological significance of Vermigli's language here, then that is fine too, for it would only confirm that there are some Reformed theologians who have spoken thus. But he has not done more than appeal to the fact of the causation language to prove his case, and one needs a lot more than the presence of causation (and "fruit") language or argument.

However, as a parting remark for now and one designed to bring into view more than Fesko puts before us, Vermigli says more than what Fesko singles out here. Especially in light of what Fesko has just recently dismissed in this essay regarding Calvin's "replication" model, I note particularly what Vermigli says regarding the connection of good works to eternal life in his own exposition of Romans. It is a passage I noted in Life in Christ (pp. 108-9, n. 53), which I quote:

"Peter Martyr Vermigli, in his 1558 commentary, would argue along similar lines: 'But works are not of our selves, for they are called the gifts of God, which he works in us. Wherefore Augustine very wisely says: That God doth crown his gifts in us. Now if our works be due unto him (which thing we cannot deny) then undoubtedly the nature of merit is utterly taken away.' More notable still is the parallel between aspects of Calvin’s replication principle and the way Vermigli relates works to the reward of eschatological life: 'Eternal life is sometimes in the holy scriptures called a reward: But then is it not that reward, which Paul writeth to be given according to debt: but is all one as if it should be called a recompensation. Gods will and pleasure was, that there should be this connection, that after good works should follow blessedness: but yet not as the effect followeth the cause, but as a thing joyned with them by the appointment of God' (In Epistolam S. Pauli ad Romanos commentarii doctissimi… [Basel, 1558], 40a).

At the least, Vermigli's own model of causation, including the way in which he understands the good works of sanctification to be the "fruit" of justification, is not, in his own thinking, incompatible with affirming a positive connection of good works with eternal life. Neither is he reticent to transform traditional causation theory to deny causation in one sense in order to affirm it in what we might call, as with Calvin, a more apparently voluntarist sense: the connection of good works to eternal life comes down not to how things relate in the theoretically-abstract but to God's (historical and Christological) appointment of how things would be. His argument does not suggest, then, that law-gospel model which sees those good works as only expressions of gratitude for justification.

Lastly, Fesko goes on to argue in this section that Vermigli's use of Aristotelian causality is not an unfortunate carryover from his education in Thomism but is common to the theologians of the Reformation. Since I don't have a problem with Vermigli or Calvin or others using Aristotelian causality, we can leave this to the side.