The Face behind Article 17
August 15, 2015
I think there is a good case that Peter Martyr Vermigli is the brains behind Article 17 of the Thirty-nine Articles. He was the highly respected and trusted Regis Professor of Divinity at Oxford (1548-1554), and actually wrote a tract on predestination at around the time the Article was being drafted. One can see many similarities between his teaching on the subject and the wording of Article 17.
Indeed, Article 17's opening definition of predestination to life seems to have been substantially lifted from Vermigli's Romans commentary which says, "Predestination is the most wise purpose of God, whereby before all eternity he has constantly decreed to call those he has loved in Christ to the adoption of sons..." (Vermigli, In Episotalm S. Pauli Apostoli ad Romanos, 411 on Romans 9, my translation).
he similarities are striking in the matter of reprobation, which I have been exploring a little here lately. The corresponding definition of reprobation in Vermigli's Loci Communes is:
reprobation is the most wise purpose of God, whereby before all eternity, he has constantly decreed without any injustice, not to have mercy on those whom he has not loved, but has passed over them; that by their just condemnation, he might declare his wrath towards sins, and his glory (Loci Communes, 3.1.15, my translation).
This is "the sentence of God's predestination", the doctrine which is "a most dangerous downfall" to some who have it perpetually before their eyes. The Devil uses it, says Article 17, to thrust those without God's Spirit into desperation and ungodliness.
Reading over Vermigli's Loci Communes, as I have been lately, I think we might even be able to put an actual face to the difficult doctrine -- a man named Francesco Spiera. I will let Vermigli himself tell you the harrowing story, below. But note how similar the language and thought here is to Article 17.
And it is vain that they say that many fall into suspicion of their reprobation: for out of the holy scriptures no man can gather any effectual arguments for his reprobation. And if God will sometimes reveal it by a certain secret judgement, it cannot be made into a general rule.In our time, indeed, it happened that a certain man in Italy called Francis Spiera inwardly felt that God had imposed this evil upon him. But this in my judgement was done to terrify others. For he, after he had begun to know the truth of the gospel and openly confessed it, was brought to Venice before the Pope's legate and publicly renounced it. Afterward, being stricken with a grievous wound of conscience, he persuaded himself that he had sinned against the Holy Spirit. He was thereby thrown into so great a desperation, that he could not be consoled, though notable and pious men counselled and exhorted him to have a good hope in Christ and his death. He would say that these things were fine to preach to other people, but to him they were pointless: for he could see that he had most certainly sinned against the Holy Ghost, and that there was no remedy left to deliver him from damnation. And so remaining in this desperate state, he died.God would in this man, by an exceptional and extraordinary dispensation, frighten away others from the like wickedness and impiety. However, this does not happen often, as far as we can gather from history, neither can any man discern this desperation by the holy scriptures. And I am not sure God did this to Spiera, but it was probably prompted by the Devil (whose bondslave he was, having renounced godliness), so that he might drive him to utter desperation" (Vermigli, Loci Communes. Part 3, chapter 1, section 33 on predestination, my translation).
Elsewhere, Vermigli spoke about, "principles of misery", which he enumerated as "the reprobation of God, the want of God's Spirit, and infidelity. Whoever is subject to these evils, is to be counted altogether miserable and unhappy."
I think it is clearer, with this context and background in mind, that "the sentence of God's predestination" in Article 17 is talking about reprobation -- the thought of which the Devil sometimes misuses (as with Spiera) to cast some people into desperation, so they don't listen to the gospel. We are being told in the Article not to apply reprobation this way; but using the very words and observations of a man who quite firmly believed that the truth of reprobation itself was undeniably scriptural.
In the end, Article 17 is not a theoretical text, dealing in mere dogmatic abstractions. It is rooted in both biblical-theological reflection of a very profound kind and real human experience, even in its teaching on the darker side of predestination.