Peter Martyr Vermigli on Law and Gospel

Covenant Justification and Pastoral MinistryIn the history of Christian theology there have been two ways of speaking about the relation between law and gospel: 1. historically and 2. theologically or hermeneutically. These two ways of relating law and gospel are complementary. The first way of relating them, i.e., the historical relation of law and gospel is older than the theological way of relating them. The historical distinction has been articulated in two ways. The Fathers and medievals spoke of the “old law” (Moses) and the “new law” (Christ). They also spoke of “law” (Moses) and “Gospel” (Christ). In this use they were describing the succession or progressive of revelation in redemptive history.

The historical distinction between law and gospel, as a way of speaking of the history of redemption, of promise and fulfillment, continued in the Reformation so that one finds the Protestant writers and even ecclesiastical confessions speaking this way alongside the theological way of speaking of them. Thus, when reading Protestant writers, particularly Reformed writers, one must be conscious that the distinction may be used in more than one way.

Arguably, however, one finds hints or suggestions in the fathers, particularly Augustine (De spiritu et littera) of another sort of distinction, that of a distinction in kind between the law and the gospel, i.e., the notion that, wherever it is found in Scripture the word of the law is one thing and the word of the gospel is another.

This hermeneutical or theological distinction between law and gospel was most clearly articulated in the Reformation first by Martin Luther and then by the rest of the magisterial Protestants (Melanchthon, Bucer, Calvin et al). For more on this see the chapter on the law/gospel distinction in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.

In the mid-20th century, the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (d. 1968) rejected the hermeneutical distinction (along with the Reformed doctrine of infant baptism, the Reformed doctrine of Scripture, the Reformed doctrine of predestination—how exactly Barth was Reformed is not always easy to say but nevertheless he became the paradigm of Reformed theology for many people) between law and gospel and this rejection, like everything else Barth ever thought reverberated throughout the Reformed world.

By the late 20th century it became a commonplace in conservative Reformed circles to say that the hermeneutical distinction between law and gospel is “Lutheran.” Some have argued that, by contrast, Calvin made a distinction between the Spirit and the letter. In his commentary on 2Corinthians 3, however, Calvin explains that by “Spirit” and “letter” he meant law and gospel. Calvin made substantially the same hermeneutical distinction between law and gospel as Luther but frequently expressed it in terms of a distinction between “grace and works.”

The successors to the magisterial Protestants continued make the same hermeneutical distinction between law and gospel as is easily shown and has been demonstrated online (and here), in lecture, and in print in CJPM. Nevertheless, some continue to question the Reformed credentials of the distinction. That the question persists says more about the powerful affect of the a priori notion that there must be a fundamental difference between the Lutheran and Reformed traditions on this point than it does about the actual history of Reformed theology or the facts of the case.

All this to introduce another quotation from another orthodox Reformed theologian on the hermeneutical or theological distinction between law and gospel. This one is from Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1562), an Italian Romanist theologian who converted to the Reformed confession. Trained as a Thomist, he began to move toward the Reformation and was protected as he did so by Gasparo Cardinal Contarini (1483–1542) but, on Contarini’s death, he was forced to flee Italy. He taught Reformed theology in Strasbourg, Zurich, and Oxford. He was widely respected in and influential upon both the European and British Reformed worlds.

Here’s a bit from Vermigli’s comments on Romans 10:5. I’ve revised the spelling and punctuation of the old English translation. (HT: Particular Voices)

Moreover, Christ the most true interpreter of the law, teaches the self same thing. For a young man demanding of him “what shall I do to possess eternal life?” He made answer, “Keep the commandments if you will enter into life.” This place most plainly proves that the talk was of eternal life. Neither is it any marvel that the law is the Word of God, whose property is to bring life with it so that it be received. Although the law and the Gospel are not received after one and the self same manner. For the Law is received by doing and most exactly performing that which is commanded but the Gospel is received by a lively and effectual assent of faith. And that the property of the Word of God is to bring life it is manifest by the creation of things which were not and straight away they had being. And Christ also many times said that his words are life which thing the Apostles also meant when they said “You have the words of life” etc. [emphasis added-rsc]

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  1. The wind beneath Cranmer’s wings… Vermigli and Bucer.

    Question: To what degree do you think monocovenantalism (a la Murray) has played a role in weakening “the distinction in kind between the law and the gospel?”

    It seems it may be those of more recent scholarship who are out of step with historical reformed theology, no?

    Keep ’em coming Dr. Clark, and Happy New Year.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    You seem to imply that it was primarily Barth’s rejection of the law/gospel distinction that led to its falling out of favor in the 20th cent. I don’t remember hearing that before. I’d like to know more.

    Also, if it’s true, why don’t you and other law/gospel advocates trumpet a denial of law/gospel as being Barthian and regularly use him as your interlocutor?

    You also said that some deny law/gospel out of an insistence on being different from Lutherans. Perhaps more could be said (though I don’t doubt you have said so already and will provide links for it). I guess I want to know why some Reformed people so desperately desire to be not-Lutheran. Who are these people? What is their reasoning? Why is it a crime to make use of a Lutheran distinction?

    In my limited experience, some who reject law/gospel do so because it’s Lutheran (I still don’t understand why this is such a big deal). Others reject it because they fear antinomianism. After all, if we remove law from gospel, then Christians need not obey any law. They are, of course, arguing against the abuse of the distinction, like those who advocate total abstinence from alcohol to prevent drunkenness.

    • Hi Mike,

      1. Re: Barth. I made this point in CJPM (see below). I’ve made this point on the HB many times. I don’t know that there’s a direct cause and effect relation. I’m not accusing those who reject the historic Reformed distinction of being Barthians but I do think that Barth changed the landscape and that we’ve not always been conscious of the influence he’s had even in conservative quarters. E.g., The later Berkouwer was deeply influenced by Barth and mediated him to a lot of otherwise anti-Barthian Reformed folk. They imbibed Barth without realizing it and that changed their assumptions and perception of Reformed theology. We also were cut off from the tradition for a variety of reasons (some educational and some rhetorical) and as the temperature of the water changed around us, to change metaphors, we weren’t always aware of it. We spent the first half of the 20th century fighting modernism not paying attention to the tradition. When I became Reformed c. 1980 it was very difficult to get and read early Reformed theology. People just sort of assumed that if a writer called himself Reformed and claimed that the Reformed view X is Reformed, well it must be. We lost our sense for a time that there is an objective definition of “Reformed.” See Recovering the Reformed Confession for more on this.

      There was a major controversy in the confessional/conservative Reformed world in the mid-70s as to whether it was permissible for Reformed folk to say that we are justified through faith and works. I take that as prima facie evidence that we had lost our bearings. Remarkably, those who defended the confessional Reformed view of justification sola fide were derided as “Lutherans.”

      2.Re the Lutherans. When I became Reformed one of the first things I was told was that “we are not Lutherans.” Okay, that’s true in some ways but in some ways it’s either false or misleading. Why are so many (especially) American Reformed so adamant about this? Part of the answer is in the desire to carve out an identity. The confessional Lutherans do the same with us all the time. “Yes, we believe in unconditional election but not like those sneaky Calvinists!” This is about establishing an identity.

      3. Some of it comes out of the rhetoric about having a “distinctly Reformed view of x.” If we know a priori that there is a distinctly Reformed view of every and anything then there must one for justification or law/gospel. It’s called an a priori, something one knows before one looks at facts. It’s hard to overturn an a priori because it’s a sort of blind commitment on which, again, one’s identity rests.

      I tried to give an account of this in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.

      There are a few posts on the HB about how Reformed confessional theology, piety, and practice is actually distinct from Lutheran confessional theology, piety, and practice.

    • Ah, that makes sense. Thanks!

      It’s amazing that we could so easily lose touch with our earlier traditions. So sad.

  3. Oh, I also meant to add that in looking at PVM’s quote, it occurred to me that the passage mentioned would make a great proof text for the nature of the promised reward of the covenant of works (e.g., after the word “life” in WSC 12). Don’t know why that never occurred to me before.

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