How the Reformation Preserved the Sacramental Worldview

It’s lamentable that in our day philosophy has become, like the study of Religion, “a game that scholars play,” as one academic put it. For the Reformed orthodox of the 16th-17th centuries, however, like the Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, philosophy is the “love of wisdom.” This means it’s a way of life, as Pierre Hadot and so many others have so aptly reminded us. Philosophy for men like Philip Melanchthon, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Johann Heinrich Alsted, is a participation in the Wisdom of God, and so philosophical knowledge does not merely add facts to the mind, as if the mind were some sort of computer processor, but it transforms the whole person into a well-cultivated and amiable citizen with rightly ordered desires, ready to do whatever it takes in pursuit of the common good, to bring about the transformation of the earthly city into an image of its heavenly reality, as much as possible in this life. This is why Martin Bucer says “The doorway of Philosophy, which the Platonists call ‘moral Philosophy’ is the architecture of the whole human life, and is the chief moderator of every human faculty and action” because he says, it refers all desires to their highest end in the supreme Good, which Christians know to be the True and only God.[1]

In what follows I argue that Reformed philosophers once utilized, across the board, a participatory ontology, that is to say, they promoted a philosophy that centered on the idea that created being participates in the divine Being. Rather than unpacking John Calvin’s use of philosophy, or that of Martin Luther or even Philip Melanchthoninstead of reinventing any of those wheels–I will focus on the lesser known Reformed scholastics, Peter Martyr Vermigli and his student, Girolamo Zanchi and their use of Platonic metaphysics to articulate a participatory ontology.

Reformed Participatory Ontologies?

According to Hans Boersma, in his book Heavenly Participation, prior to the Late Medieval Period, all Christians perceived the world around them through a sacramental worldview. This worldview was brought about by a synthesis of Platonism and Christianity, arising from the writings of the church fathers, from Origen to St. Augustine and beyond. St. Paul’s participatory language of being united with Christ, of sharing the mind of Christ, and being present with him in the heavenly realities had become wedded to the Neoplatonic “exitus-reditus schema”, that is, the idea that all things emanate (or proceed) from the divine Being and have an innate desire to return to it as their Source. Because of this “sacramental ontology”, all Christians looked at the material world around them as a deep mystery, as a symbol and a sacramental tapestry that depicted heavenly realities, giving an incomprehensible depth and beauty to all areas of life. Tragically, Boersma argues, the tapestry was unwoven by Late Medieval nominalism, which radically divided God’s absolute power from his ordained power, rendering all of creation a matter of divine volition rather than participation. And human knowledge of the essence of things became merely a knowledge of names or mental concepts, having no divine symbolic value or connection to the divine Ideas in the mind of God. It’s this vast disconnection between the heavenly and earthly realms that ultimately led to our current secular worldview, nominalism being the “seedbed of modernity.”

According to Boersma there is a direct connection between the late Medieval unraveling and severing of the sacramental tapestry and the Protestant Reformation. He acknowledges that the Reformers attempted to reweave the broken tapestry, but he argues, they did not succeed “and as a result some of the problematic late medieval presuppositions continued in the Reformation tradition as well as in contemporary Evangelicalism.”[2] And so, he says, “the Reformation [is not] something to be celebrated but …something to be lamented.” Even if the Reformation cannot be directly blamed for the tragic end of the Medieval worldview, it cannot be let off the hook because it did nothing to repair the broken sacramental ontology of its forefathers.

Now, Boersma’s criticisms of the Reformation themselves require a bit of unweaving and reweaving. First of all, the phrase “sacramental ontology” would strike the Medeival scholastics as a confusion of categories. For, ontology has to do with the study of being, but the sacramental sign is not united with the hidden reality as its proper mode of being, as if the reality becomes the essence of the sign. If so, in the Eucharist, Christ would become fully incarnate again as bread and wine. Natural things participate in the divine reality naturally, whereas sacraments participate in the divine reality supernaturally. Sacramental bread is more than a type of eternal bread-ness, it is a type of eternal bread-ness united with the body of Christ. But, to be fair, what Boersma means by “sacramental ontology” is simply “participatory ontology” – he says the two phrases are synonymous. And, it is for this reason that his description of the Reformation as a “lamentable tragedy” fails to persuade, because it is precisely a “participatory ontology” that all of the Reformed orthodox philosophers maintained. This means of course that they did manage to prevent any sort of nominalism (or secularity) from solidifying within Reformed confessions of faith and educational institutions.

Indeed, the very word “ontology” was itself first coined by two Reformed philosophers, Jacob Lorhard and Rudolph Goclenius the Elder, both of whom were devout students of the Reformed philosophy of Philip Melanchthon (Goclenius was also the teacher of J.H. Alsted, the teacher of J.A. Comenius). The means, of course, that Reformed philosophers promoted the idea of ontology – they even invented the word! – as the participation of all things in the divine Being. If the theology of a particular Reformer is inconsistent with their participatory ontology, which Boersma seems to think is the case, then the problem is a problem of consistency, not a problem of unraveling the tapestry of the Platonic-Christian synthesis woven by the church fathers and upheld by the early Medievals. In fact, we find a plethora of citations of the church fathers and Platonists in the writings of the Reformed scholastics. Bucer, Vermigli, Zanchi, Goclenius and others cite St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Augustine, the Pseudo-Dionysius, and others in defense of their use of the Platonic notion of eternal Ideas in the mind of God as the exemplar causes of all things.

Rather than pin the destruction of the Platonic-Christian synthesis on Reformed philosophers, we need to recognize that they actually promoted it and incorporated it into the curriculum of educational institutions for hundreds of years. And such being the case, we would be remiss (whether you’re Roman Catholic or Protestant) to ignore the good work that Reformed Protestants of the 16th & 17th centuries did to preserve the “sacramental” or “participatory worldview.”

Boersma rightly notes that the church fathers did not simply baptize Platonism in developing a Christian philosophy of participation. They were highly critical of many Platonic notions: the eternity of the world, the idea that all things emanate from the One by necessity, the idea of God as a monad, and many others. This same critical reception is true of the Reformed orthodox. Following St. Paul’s warning against vain philosophy in Colossians 2, Otto Casmann (student of Goclenius) in his work Of Philosophy: both Christian and True, argues that Christian Philosophy “has been ordained for us [by God], a system of Christian wisdom, both for the saving knowledge of Truth and action toward the Good.”[3] “[Christian] Philosophy”, he says, “consecrates all wisdom and knowledge to God, so that [the philosopher] longs to transfer the whole of this life to God’s glory.” Philosophy for the Christian, in other words, is about taking dominion over one’s own mind, about faith seeking to govern the body and the will through the understanding, so that the Christian can dedicated the whole of his person (the imago Dei) to the glory of God.

As Melanchthon says, “that sweetest voice of Plato is correct when he says that the grace of God is scattered through the arts. Then let us love philosophy and know that it is to be used by the Church to her great benefit, if it is used rightly.”[4] Reformed philosophers understood that there is a twofold way of knowing God: through the book of nature and the book of Scripture, but Christian philosophy unites these two in the pursuit of heavenly Wisdom. Just as St. Paul quoted the pagan poet Aratus to say “in him we live and move and have our being,” as a reference to the Christian God, so Reformed orthodox philosophers did the same with the Platonic notion of participation in the divine Being.

 

Reformed scholastics like Peter Martyr Vermigli and his student Girolamo Zanchi were either trained in the via Thomae (not the via Moderna) or took to imitating the Angelic Doctor in their writings. They were not just Aristotelians or Platonists, they were eclectic, as Richard Muller convincingly demonstrates.[5] That is, they followed Aristotle’s method and used his categories, but they pursued the Truth wherever they found it because they were humanists, and as the Italian humanist and Platonist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola says (quoting Seneca), “it is ignoble to know by way of commentary.”[6] True knowledge must come directly from the sources. This means recognizing, along with the Platonists (Plotinus, Porphyry, etc.) that the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato can be harmonized. William Ames, for example, adopts Aristotle’s categories, but he also uses the Platonic notion of procession and return to describe the unity of the liberal arts.[7] And, as Muller also shows, the Reformed scholastics were broadly Thomistic, and years of modern scholarship on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, especially the work of Wayne Hankey, has revealed his deep dependence on Platonic philosophy.[8] Thomas quotes from the Christian Neoplatonist the Pseudo-Dionysius more than any author besides Aristotle and Augustine.

Since Bucer, Vermigli, and Zanchi were trained in the via Thomae, their use of Platonic sources is part and parcel of their Thomism. In his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which comprise the lecture notes to his students at the Strasbourg Academy, Vermigli recommends St. Augustine’s Platonic exemplarist metaphysics, approves of the Platonism of the Pseudo-Dionysius (albeit mollified by Augustinianism), and recommends that his students read the Neoplatonic commentaries on Aristotle by Ammonius and Simplicius.[9] He refers to the Christian Platonism of Cardinal Bessarion and approves his efforts to harmonize Aristotle and Plato, which was one of the chief efforts of the Neoplatonists.[10] As I’ve argued before, Bucer also receives the writings of the Pseudo-Dionyisius in a much more positive way than Luther or Calvin.[11]

Zanchi intended to write his own Protestant Summa Theologiae.[12] His writings demonstrate the influence of Renaissance Platonists like Marsilio Ficino and Augustino Steuco.[13] Zanchi not only quotes from Neoplatonic commentaries on Aristotle, such as those by Ammonius and Simplicius, but he also refers to Plotinus in his works. He recommends Plotinus’s Ennead on providence and says “among the writings of the philosophers I think nothing more outstanding and divine can be read concerning providence than the two books by Plotinus on the matter in the third Ennead.”[14] In his work De operibus Dei (1591), Zanchi refers positively to Plotinus’s Enneads on the heavens, on eternity and time, on providence, and on the immortality of the soul. He even argues contrary to St. Augustine’s portrayal of Plotinus in The City of God, that Plotinus was a Christian and a contemporary of Origen the church father, referring to Plotinus as “homo Christianus” (a Christian man).[15]

In the same work Zanchi also outlines his cosmology in a Neoplatonic fashion, as he sees all things unified in the microcosm of the human person and proceeding from the divine Being. He structures his De operibus Dei around the “three worlds” of the Platonists: the angelic, celestial, and sublunar worlds, which correspond to the invisible, visible, and mixed realities present in the human person. Since each person has both a spiritual part and a material part then humanity inwardly combines all other worlds, reflecting the divine Being in a unique way. The exemplar of the universe, which existed in the mind of God for all eternity, is now copied into the human person. Zanchi finds this concept of the microcosm in both Gregory of Nyssa and Proclus the Neoplatonist. Zanchi says:

It is clear that of all things created by God (from those things prior to man to the natures of hidden things above) were summed up and held together in man, that is in the body of Adam that was given so great a soul. And all things were depicted or rather engraved in him as in a small tablet, so that man, because he has communion with everything in the universe, should worthily be called a ‘little universe’, that he might attain every creature by name on any occasion. Proclus the philosopher says the same in his commentary on the Timaeus of Plato, saying, “all such things subsist in man partially, as the world contains divinely and completely.” However, the soul is not worthy by itself to be called a ‘little universe,’ since the natures of the elements or of other bodies are not in it. Likewise, the body by itself without the soul is not worthy to be called by such a great name.[16]

Zanchi believes that when God created Adam, He infused in him the ideas of all things, thus reflecting his own eternal Ideas in human intelligence, because as he says, “the exemplar of the whole universe existed within God previously and from eternity, then the summation of the universe was copied into man (consisting of body and soul) by God almost in the same way that a seal is copied into the wax.”[17]

The unity of matter and spirit in the human person is also the Christological paradigm and reveals how all things are held together in Christ. It also explains human knowledge and the way the human person participate in the divine Mind or Nous.[18] According to Zanchi the human mind participates in the divine primarily through the mind’s ability to create likenesses of the divine Ideas within itself. He affirms the Plotinian principle that “like is known by like” to describe the way that the human mind participates in God’s own act of knowing, namely, by turning away from sensible images and discovering the reflection of the exemplar within the soul.[19] The inward motion of the soul in self-reflective knowledge is the chief activity of the image of God in the soul, as it is the property of God’s divine knowledge to know all things by reflecting on them within His eternal essence.[20]

 

Conclusion

Hans Boersma is correct that we moderns have lost a crucial element of basic human knowledge. We’ve lost the participatory ontology that was handed down to us by our fathers in the faith, who saw the language of participation in Holy Scripture and used the philosophy of the Platonists to expound upon that Scriptural language and reality. Yet any attempt to recover this “sacramental worldview” by ignoring the rich tapestry of Protestant Platonism – and attempt to glean wisdom only from the ressourcement of the Nouvelle theologie, of Henry de Lubac and his ilk – is rather one-sided at best. The Platonism of the Reformed scholastics shows that Protestants need not borrow from any other source than the one that the Reformers themselves used, namely, the Platonic-Christian synthesis that they received from the fathers. We can see this in Bucer, Vermigli, Zanchi, and others, all of whom articulate a participatory ontology that is in accordance with the Thomistic tradition.

And our Anglican forefathers, whom Boersma rightly affirms promoted the ancient Platonic-Christian synthesis, did not believe that their fellow Protestants on the continent were guilty of discarding or neglecting that synthesis. In Elizabethan England the names of Vermigli and Zanchi were household names. The philosopher John Case was perhaps the English equivalent of Zanchi, and he refers to Vermigli and other continental Reformed philosophers positively in his works.[21] Zanchi’s works were promoted on the continent by the Synod of Dort, and in England they were preached at St. Paul’s cross (see Bancroft’s sermon of 1588), read by seminarians at Oxbridge, and they were even used to buttress Laudian theology by Peter Heylyn.[22]

 

The fact is, no sect of Christianity was unaffected by some variation of nominalism, namely, the secularizing philosophy (or theologies) of the Enlightenment and the pietism of the Great Awakenings. What my research reveals is that there was a time when the Platonic-Christian synthesis was shared by all Protestants and Roman Catholics alike, and so the destruction of the sacramental worldview – or the non-prevention of its destruction – is not to be leveled on any one sect of Christianity. It is time that Anglicans began to once again recover the cosmopolitanism of the Anglican Way and to return to the rich resources of Protestant Platonism in all of its forms, as our Anglican forefathers did.

If we do so, we’ll become more grounded and ecumenical across the board, unafraid to promote and encourage the ancient sacramental worldview (i.e., participatory metaphysics) as a bridge of unity with those who are outside of the Anglican fold, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox. Indeed, it was a Presbyterian by the name of W.G.T. Shedd, who edited and published the American edition of the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who said, “Those [Platonic] a priori methods, consequently, which dispense with physical sensation and outward sensuous observations, are best adapted to convince of the reality of an invisible and immaterial entity like the human spirit, and its infinite antithesis and corresponding object the Eternal Spirit.”[23] Now is the best time for all of us to stop pointing the finger at one another and unite in the recovery of the “sacramental worldview” that we all once shared, for the sake of Christendom.

 

  1. See Bucer’s his commentary on Romans, the locus entitled, “An insit in philosophia quod cum doctrina Pauli congruat.”

  2. Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 85.

  3. Philosophiæ et Christianæ et Veræ, 5.

  4. Melanchthon, address to the Master’s students in the year 1544.

  5. See the first volume of Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, as well as his many other writings on this topic.

  6. See Pico’s Oration on the Dignity of Man.

  7. “Harum omnium artium comprehensio, qua res emanant ab ente primo, & ad ipsum denuo redeunt, Encyclopaidia nominatur.” Ames, Philosophemata, 148.

  8. See Muller, “Calvinist Thomism Revisited: William Ames (1576-1633) and the Divine Ideas,” in From Rome to Zurich, between Ignatius and Vermigli, ed. Kathleen Comerford, Gary Jenkins, and W.J. Torrance Kirby (Leiden: Brill, 2018).

  9. Vermigli, Kommentar zur Nikomachischen Ethik des Aristoteles, ed. Luca Baschera and Christian Moser (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 236.

  10. See Lloyd Gerson, Aristotle and Other Platonists.

  11. See Eric M. Parker, “‘Saint Dionysius’: Martin Bucer’s Transformation of the Pseudo-Areopagite” which you may access here: https://www.academia.edu/37017087/_Saint_Dionysius_Martin_Bucers_Transformation_of_the_Pseudo-Areopagite

  12. See John Patrick Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” here: https://www.brepolsonline.net/doi/abs/10.1484/J.VIATOR.2.301598?journalCode=viator

  13. He refers the reader to Ficino’s Platonic Theology on a number of occasions. On his use of Steuco, see here: https://calvinistinternational.com/2015/03/24/perennial-wisdom-zanchi-recommends-a-book-of-philosophy/

  14. “[I]nter scripta Philosophorum nihil ego praestantius, diviniusque de providentia legi, quàm duos Plotini hac de re libros in Enneade tertia” Zanchi (1590: 386).

  15. “Quam sententiam ipse etiam Plotinus homo Christianus, in lib. de Cœlo defendit” Zanchi (1591: 366).

  16. “Est autem manifestum, rerum omnium a Deo ante hominem conditarum naturas, ad extremum in homine, hoc ist, in corpore Adae, tali anima praedito, fuisse summatim collectas: & ceu in brevi tabella depictas, imo insculptas: ita ut homo, quia cum rebus omnibus mundi communionem habet: merito parvus mundus appellari solitus sit: & nomine omnis creaturae saepenumero veniat. Ideo & Proclus Philosophus in Timaeum Platonis, ἔπι καὶ ἐν τούτω (ἀνθρώπῳ) πάντα μερικῶς· ὅσα ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ θείως τε καὶ ὁλικῶς· Sine corpore autem, sola anima parvi mundi nomine digna non est: cum in ea non sint Elementorum naturae, aliorumve corporum: sicut & solum corpos sine anima, tali nomine appellari nequit” Zanchi (1591: 863).

  17. (Zanchi 1591: 863).

  18. See my transcription of a portion of Zanchi’s argument on the Christological character of knowledge: https://epistole.wordpress.com/2016/07/28/zanchi-the-logic-of-union-with-christ/

  19. “Est autem ea humani intellectus natura, ut cognoscere queat & quae infra se, & quae intra se, & vero etiam, quae supra se sunt. Si enim creatus est, ut cognoscat Deum: multo magis, & se, & res corporatas cognoscere potest. Atque hac etiam in re sita est non minima pars imaginis Dei, ad quam homo creatus est. Simile enim non nisi a simili cognoscitur. Ideo homo factus quoque est μικρόκοσμος: ut posset totum Mundum cognoscere” Zanchi (1591: 800).

  20. “Et tantam quidem nobis facultatem intelligendi donavit: ut, si omnia possent actu in anima esse, per species suas (ut Philosophi vocant) intelligibiles: omnia etiam intelligeremus: & anima fieret omnia, Quanto magis igitur Deus, in quo sun actu omnia, omnia etiam intelligit?” Zanchi (1590: 180).

  21. See Charles Schmitt, John Case and Aristotelianism in Renaissance England on Case.

  22. For the way that Zanchi is used at 17th century Cambridge see Eric M. Parker, “Cambridge Platonism(s): John Sherman and Peter Sterry” in Revisioning Cambridge Platonism, ed. David Leech and Douglas Hedley (Springer, 2019); and for Peter Heylyn’s use of Zanchi see his Theologia Veterum, 446: https://books.google.com/books?id=UVZnAAAAcAAJ&pg=RA1-PA426#v=onepage&q&f=false

  23. See Shedd’s article, “The Ontological Argument,” in The Presbyterian Review, vol. 5., 227.


The Rev. Dr. Eric M. Parker

Fr. Eric is the Rector of St. Paul's Anglican Church in Lexington, VA. A native of southern Mississippi, he holds an M.A. in Theology from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Religion from McGill University. He has co-authored a book on Nicholas of Cusa and authored various academic and online articles. He is married to Aubrey and they have two children with one on the way.


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