I recently purchased and read, “On Original Sin: Vol. 1 of a New Translation of the Loci Communes” of Peter Martyr Vermigli, translated and edited by Kirk Summers, and printed by The Davenant Institute. This is actually the first volume of the second part of the original commonplaces. I’m excited to learn that Dr. Summers is continuing to translate the Loci Communes of Vermigli because this work was both extremely significant in its own day, and, I believe, important for our own theological discussion today. I’m hoping this could be part 1 of a series of 7 posts on how Vermigli’s work relates to the Westminster Confession, as well as contemporary discussions about original sin.
I initially decided to purchase this book based out of issues within my own denomination. The PCA has ministers in her midst that affirm certain views of sexual orientation that I find troubling, and I believe that a rather under-developed historical theology is partly to blame. Thankfully, our denomination’s study committee has just released a report on this issue, which can be read here. A discussion of this report was put up online here. Along with reading this study, I read this work on Vermigli, thinking “if only we would read the early sources on the nature and power of indwelling sin!” So, being somewhat personally ignorant of early Reformed work on this topic, I decided to pick up the book. The primary issue I wanted to consider was: what does concupiscence have to do with sexual “attraction”? I assumed from the outset that the ideas of sexual “attraction” and “orientation” would be foreign to a work like this, given that these concepts were recently developed. As I worked through this, I detailed a number of steps in which we (or I at least) can arrive at some conclusions about the relation of original sin to what people today call “sexual orientation” or “sexual attraction”. My conclusion at the end is that it would be appropriate to take away from Vermigli and the Westminster Confession that sinful sexual attraction is more accurately understood as a form that original sin may take in a person.
1. Vermigli’s Anthropology and Contemporary Anthropology
No, I’m not talking about the store. First of all, to get how this book can be applicable to today’s discussion, we need to grasp Vermigli’s anthropology, or view of human nature. His anthropology follows a more Aristotelian and scholastic view. This is important to learn or re-learn, since it may, for one, be accurate, and, for another, may speak to the strange developments in theological anthropology in our time.
According to Vermigli’s anthropology, the human is composed of a soul and body. Within the soul, there is a distinction between the higher and lower soul. Okay, now track with me: what follows is complicated, but it is helpful to break it down. The higher part of the soul is endowed with the mind, but the mind also extends to the lower part of the soul. The mind’s faculties include intelligence, reason, memory, and will (p. 33).
The lower part of the soul (also called baser or crasser part) includes both the feeling and vegetative parts of the soul. The feeling part of the soul is endowed with the affections (impulses), which are simultaneously called lower parts of the mind. While the higher part of the soul is indivisible and immaterial, the lower part of the soul (vegetative and feeling, including affection) is capable of mingling with the body so as to effect or be diffused in the body in some way (p. 40). In fact, the crasser parts of the soul, “such as the vegetative parts and the feeling part” are “procreated from seed” or created by physical means (p. 92-93).
Vermigli suggests that there is a telos or goal for anthropology that is behind the structuring of the human person. He states that the original human nature was designed for each part to follow a proper order, each part obeying another in order to achieve the ultimate end of the human. The end (purpose) of the human person is to be with God, and stand in relation to God. All the properties of the soul were originally created to fit that end, but were only enabled to accomplish that end with divine assistance. The reasonable soul is designed to rule over the feeling part of the soul and the body, while the feeling part of the soul, as well as the body, are designed to obey the reasonable soul. When the grace of God is removed, the affections (impulses) are first corrupted, since they are the weakest, and turn the lower soul and the body away from the purposed end of God to other and created ends. Once the affections are corrupted, the mind is blinded and the will is corrupted since the mind has no divine grace to assist it in ruling the body to follow its original end of knowing God (p. 22).
This is an important starting point because contemporary anthropologies start out with greatly differing assumptions about the soul. The trouble is that in “today’s world” we have very different vocabulary to discuss anthropology, sexuality, and sin. While we may not adopt all of the nuances of Vermigli’s view, it is worthwhile to understand his position because it will enable us to translate his perspective on how original sin infects mankind to our contemporary view of human composition. Many views today deny the existence of the soul altogether, arguing that since we now know far more of the body’s complexity, and Occam’s Razor entails not applying unnecessary means, we should consider the body as sufficient to do all functions that previous theologians assigned to soul. I think we see this popularly portrayed in a recent TV show “Upload”, where one character suggests that all the “old” views about consciousness are wrong, and that consciousness is simply an arrangement of material phenomena.
More popular and biblical approaches to anthropology propose the existence of the soul, but still downplay the soul, and render it only a kind of inhabiting force or thinking entity, possibly based out of a Cartesian influence. I’m certainly making assumptions here, but I think a reductionistic Cartesian view of the soul as a thinking entity (or consciousness), loosely or roughly bonded to the body, is the primary view of both pagan and Christian theologians in the United States of America. I would consider the recent TV show “The Good Place” as a prime example of this easy dichotomy between soul and body.
Meanwhile, a theologically rich, but biblically guarded view suggests that the soul and body, while indeed being a kind of dichotomy, have a strong and relational union. Many biblically-sound, contemporary theologians will not admit a distinction between the nobler and crasser parts of the soul, nor admit a view that allows elements of the soul to be propagated physically. At the same time, they do admit the view that while the soul is simple (being spiritual), it has complex and distinct “organs” or “faculties”, such as mind, will, and affection. In addition, this theologically rich, biblically guarded view proposes that all of these spiritual organs have some kind of interplay with the body.
Within this theologically conservative view, there are disagreements between the interrelation of the faculties of the soul. In the United States of America, many (if not most) conservative theologians have adopted an Edwardsian anthropology. Jonathan Edwards argues that there are two faculties of the soul: the mind and the will. In his view, the affections are simply one aspect of the will. Several prominent theologians have argued about whether Edwards was correct, particularly in relation to how the affections may determine the will (or vice versa). The only reason I point this out is to show the differences between Vermigli, and what might be your own view of the soul. Remember, Vermigli suggests that the soul’s higher part consists primarily of the mind. In his view, the mind includes reason and will, and it extends into the crasser parts of the soul. The crasser parts of the soul are the sensitive/feeling part and the vegetative part. The sensitive feeling part of the soul is what contains affections, and these things are equally present in the brute animals. This view would then contradict an Edwardsian view of affections. While Edwards suggests affections are an aspect of the will, Vermigli proposes that the will is a function of the mind (in the higher soul), and that affections are an aspect of the lower soul.
Here’s a brief comparison:
Soul includes two faculties: mind and will.
Will contains or is the affections.
Soul contains a higher and lower part.
Higher part consists primarily of mind.
Mind includes reason and will.
Mind, along with reason and will, extend to lower part of soul.
Sensitive part (affections/impulses) and vegetative part are in the lower part of the soul as well, but not in the higher part.
I think that should give us plenty to think about for now! In the next post on this, we’ll look at Vermigli’s definition of original sin, how this relates to the early definitions, and how it relates to today’s definitions.