The Catholicity of the Reformation: Musings on Reason, Will, and Natural Law, Part 6
Religion & Liberty Online

The Catholicity of the Reformation: Musings on Reason, Will, and Natural Law, Part 6

This post sketches out the rough outline of Jerome Zanchi’s understanding of natural law. An interesting difference between Zanchi and Martyr is that Thomistic elements are far more important in Zanchi’s theology than in Martyr’s theology.

The historian John Patrick Donnelly thinks Zanchi is the best example of “Calvinist Thomism,” meaning a theologian who was Reformed in theology and Thomistic in philosophy and methodology. Zanchi was born and raised near Bergamo where he entered the Augustinian Canons and received a Thomistic training. Martyr was his prior at Lucca and was instrumental in his conversion to Protestantism. Zanchi spent ten years as a Nicodemite, or crypto-Calvinist, teaching theology before fleeing north to Geneva in 1552, where he studied for a year under Calvin. Later he served as professor of theology at Strasbourg, Heidelberg, and Neustadt until his death in 1590. After his death his relatives gathered most of his writings into his Opera in eight large tomes, which went through three editions. In all, there were about seventy printings of his writings. (See John Patrick Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” Viator 7 (1976): 444).

Zanchi planned a great Protestant “summa” modeled after Thomas’ Summa theologica. According to Donnelly, the first four volumes of Zanchi’s Opera, which appeared under separate titles as he finished them at Heidelberg, cover the same material at twice the length as the first half of Thomas’s Summa. Even though Zanchi never completed his “summa,” it is unrivaled for thoroughness and synthetic power in sixteenth-century Protestant theology. (See Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” 444).

Zanchi begins his analysis of natural law by noticing that canon lawyers and theologians restrict their idea of natural law to human nature, defining it as “the law common to all nations and that’s obeyed everywhere by natural instinct not by any statue.” Civil lawyers also use this definition for the law of nations because all people employ these laws and are led by them. Examples of such laws include statues concerning God, public worship, religion, obedience to superiors and the state, and defense of oneself, one’s family, and the state.
Zanchi distinguishes three levels to natural law as follows. On the first and most basic level, natural law teaches self-preservation, an instinct common to all living things. On the second level, natural law teaches that the human race should be advanced through procreation and education of offspring; this level is shared with the animals. On the third level, natural law teaches people to worship God and to do justice to their neighbor; this level applies only to humans.

Zanchi thinks natural law must be understood within what is called the three primary estates (creation, fall, and redemption). Before sin entered the world, natural law was perfectly a part of all people. He says, “Divine will and the precepts for doing some things and avoiding others had been co-created with Adam when the image of God was breathed into him.” After the fall, however, it “was almost entirely blotted out as was any law that looks to God and the worship of him or to our neighbors and the just and fair relationship with them.” The first and second levels of natural law — instinct and procreation — were badly warped. While some sliver of the third — worship and justice — remained in humanity at large. While the fall did not blot out natural law, it did make it so that human nature on its own was now an unreliable guide. Based on his reading of Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Romans 2:15, Zanchi thought God reinscribed general, natural principles of worship, goodness, fairness, and honesty into humanity a second time.

After surveying various definitions of natural law, Zanchi lays out his own jam-packed definition.

Natural law is the will of God, and consequently, the divine rule and principle for knowing what to do and what not to do. It is, the knowledge of what is good or bad, fair or unfair, upright or shameful, that was inscribed upon the hearts of all people by God himself also after the fall. For this reason, we are all universally taught what activities should be pursued and what should be avoided; that is, to do one thing and to avoid another, and we know that we are obligated and pushed to act for the glory of God, our own good, and the welfare of our neighbor both in private and in public. In addition, we know that if we do what should be avoided or avoid what we should do, we are condemned; but if we do the opposite, we are defended and absolved.

There are several ideas to notice in this definition but I want to focus only on two.

First, the definition draws attention to the fact that God originally inscribed natural law on everyone’s heart. And second, it shows that God also reinscribed natural law a second time after the fall. Given the corruption that set in after the fall, Zanchi argues that natural law cannot come from nature or human nature but must come instead from God. He says, “Natural law, however, being a principle of reason is a good, divine, and spiritual thing. Thus, it must come from somewhere besides nature; that is, it must . . . come from God.” If natural law came from nature or from human nature, says Zanchi, “then it would exist equally in all people; for those things that are shared by all people naturally exist equally in all people.” But some are clearly wiser, more concerned with justice, and more zealous for God than others are. Zanchi’s definition emphasizes that natural law does not now arise from natural instinct but is rather a gift of God, a natural revelation of the Creator’s will. According to him, those within the Augustinian tradition “call it natural law as the apostle Paul does because the principles of justice and honesty have been inscribed on our hearts by God and those little sparks of heavenly light (as Cicero calls them) appear inside of us as innate and natural.”

Following from the definition, Zanchi lists three functions of natural law that correspond with certain goods. First, natural law is a “trait shared with all other living things that we protect and save ourselves. This includes eating, drinking, sleeping, resting, moving, using medicine, clothes, and so forth. This produces these laws: A healthy lifestyle is praised while an unhealthy one is rejected; it is permitted to drive off force with force.” Second, natural law is a “trait shared with all animals, that we endeavor to propagate our species, that we take time for having and rearing children, and the other things related to it; that is, that we pay attention to domestic affairs.” Third, natural law is a “trait applying to all human beings, that we know and worship God and that we maintain a community among human beings.” This third aspect is typically divided into two categories, just as the Decalogue is divided into two tablets: one concerns knowledge and worship of God (piety), while the other concerns loving our neighbor (justice).

Part 7 will be the final installment in this series.

This entry has been cross-posted to my blog, Common Notions.