Aristotelian theology

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Aristotelian theology and the scholastic view of God have been influential in Western intellectual history.

Metaphysics[edit]

In his first philosophy, later called the Metaphysics, (or “after the Physics”), Aristotle discusses the meaning of being as being. He refers to the unmoved movers, and assigns one to each movement in the heavens and tasks future astronomers with correlating the estimated 47 to 55 motions of the Eudoxan planetary model with the most current and accurate observations. According to Aristotle, each unmoved mover continuously contemplates its own contemplation; they have no knowledge of the cosmos, nor do they participate therein. The planets and stars, which have their source of motion within themselves (by virtue of aether, Aristotle's fifth element) aspire to emulate the uniform circular motion of their particular mover. Thus captivated, their tireless performance is entirely the result of their own desire. This is one way in which the movers are said to be unmoved. Also, because they are immaterial eternal substantial form, they lack any aspect of magnitude or volume and occupy no location; thus, they are physically incapable of moving anywhere, or of moving anything. Likewise, they must have no sensory perception whatsoever on account of Aristotle's theory of cognition: were any form of sense perception to intrude upon their thoughts, in that instant they would cease to be themselves, because actual self-reflection is their singular essence, their whole being. Like the heavenly bodies in their unadorned pursuit, so the wise look, with affection, toward the star; and hence as a role model, they inspire those who look up to them, and by whom others still, will yet find themselves enthralled, and so on, creating the enduring natural order of aeon, season, animal and plant.

Principles of being[edit]

Aristotle, by Francesco Hayez

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle discusses actuality (entelecheia, Greek: ἐντελέχεια) and potentiality (dynamis, Greek: δύναμις). The former is perfection, realization, fullness of being; the latter imperfection, incompleteness, perfectibility. The former is the determining, the latter the determinable principle. The unmoved movers are entirely actual, Actus Purus, because they are unchanging, eternal, immaterial substance.

All material beings have some potentiality. The Physics introduces matter and form and the four causes -- material, formal, efficient and final. For example, to explain a statue, one can offer:

  • The material cause, that out of which the statue is made, is the marble or bronze.
  • The formal cause, that according to which the statue is made, is the shape that the sculptor has learned to sculpt.
  • The efficient cause, or agent, is the sculptor.
  • The final cause, is that for the sake of which the statue is made, the (actual) statue.

Contrary to the later so-called "traditional" view of prime matter (prima materia in Latin), Aristotle asserts that there can be no pure potentiality without any actuality whatsoever. All material substances have unactualized potentials.

Aristotle argues that, although motion is eternal, there cannot be an infinite series of movers and of things moved. Therefore there must be some, who are not the first in such a series, that inspire the eternal motion without themselves being moved "as the soul is moved by beauty". Because the planetary spheres each move unfalteringly for all eternity in uniform circular motion with a given rotational period relative to the supreme diurnal motion of the sphere of fixed stars (or First Heaven), they must each love and desire to mimic different unmoved movers corresponding to the given periods.

Because they eternally inspire uniform motion in the celestial spheres, the unmoved movers must themselves be eternal and unchanging. Because they are eternal, they have already had an infinite amount of time in which to actualize any potentialities and therefore cannot be a composition of matter and form, or potentiality and actuality. They must always be fully actual, and thus immaterial, because at all times in history they have already existed an infinite amount of time, and things that do not actually come to fruition given unlimited opportunities to do so cannot potentially do so.

The life of the unmoved mover is self-contemplative thought ("νοήσεως νόησις (noeseos noesis)", i.e. "thought of thought").[1][2] According to Aristotle, the gods cannot potentially be distracted from this eternal self-contemplation because, in that instant, they would cease to exist.

Influence[edit]

Aristotle's principles of being (see section above) influenced Anselm's view of God, whom he called "that than which nothing greater can be conceived." Anselm thought that God did not feel emotions such as anger or love, but appeared to do so through our imperfect understanding. The incongruity of judging "being" against something that might not exist, may have led Anselm to his famous ontological argument for God's existence.

Many medieval philosophers made use of the idea of approaching a knowledge of God through negative attributes. For example, we should not say that God exists in the usual sense of the term, all we can safely say is that God is not nonexistent. We should not say that God is wise, but we can say that God is not ignorant (i.e. in some way God has some properties of knowledge). We should not say that God is One, but we can state that there is no multiplicity in God's being.

Aristotelian theological concepts were accepted by many later Jewish, Islamic, and Christian philosophers. Key Jewish philosophers included Samuel Ibn Tibbon, Maimonides, and Gersonides, among many others. Their views of God are considered mainstream by many Jews of all denominations even today. Preeminent among Islamic philosophers who were influenced by Aristotelian theology are Avicenna and Averroes. In Christian theology, the key philosopher influenced by Aristotle was undoubtedly Thomas Aquinas. There had been earlier Aristotelian influences within Christianity (notably Anselm), but Aquinas (who, incidentally, found his Aristotelian influence via Avicenna, Averroes, and Maimonides) incorporated extensive Aristotelian ideas throughout his own theology. Through Aquinas and the Scholastic Christian theology of which he was a significant part, Aristotle became "academic theology's great authority in the course of the thirteenth century"[3] and exerted an influence upon Christian theology that become both widespread and deeply embedded. However, notable Christian theologians rejected[4] Aristotelian theological influence, especially the first generation of Christian Reformers[5] and most notably Martin Luther.[6][7][8] In subsequent Protestant theology, Aristotelian thought quickly reemerged in Protestant Scholasticism.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Aristotle, Metaphysics 1074b.
  2. ^ Leo Elders, Aristotle's theology: A commentary on Book [lambda] of the Metaphysics, Assen: Van Gorcum, 1972; Michael Frede, David Charles, ed., Aristotle's Metaphysics Lambda, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  3. ^ Oberman, Heiko. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, 1982, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart, 1989. p. 160.
  4. ^ Especially since the 1990s, there have been scholars who argue that the early Reformers have been misunderstood in their stance against Aristotle (and the Scholasticism that he permeated). A distinction must be made between scholastic methodology and its theological content. See the self-avowedly ground-breaking collection, Protestant Scholasticism, eds. Trueman, Carl, and R. Scott Clark, 1997, page xix. Even within that volume, however, Luther is admitted to have made a complete, sincere, and absolute renunciation of scholasticism (see D.V.N.Bagchi within Trueman and Clark, page 11).
  5. ^ Luther is certainly more acerbic and quotable, but both Calvin who "denounced scholastic theology as contemptible" (Payton, James R., Jr, Getting the Reformation Wrong, 2010, page 197) and Melanchthon who found that the church had "embraced Aristotle instead of Christ" (see Melanchthon, Loci Communes, 1521 edition, 23) also rejected Aristotelian elements of scholasticism.
  6. ^ Luther's quotes aimed directly against Aristotle are many and sometimes strident. For example, "Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace" (Thesis 41) and "Briefly, the whole of Aristotle is to theology as shadow is to light" (Thesis 50) in Luther's 97 Theses of September 1517 (Luther, Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, 1517).
  7. ^ In a personal note, Luther wrote, "Should Aristotle not have been a man of flesh and blood, I would not hesitate to assert that he was the Devil himself." (Luther, 8 Feb 1517; quoted in Oberman, 121).
  8. ^ "Thomas [Aquinas] wrote a great deal of heresy, and is responsible for the reign of Aristotle, the destroyer of godly doctrine." (Luther, Against Latomus, 1521; quoted in Payton, 196).