Christian Aristotelianism: Understanding the Reformed and evangelical Intellectual and Theological History

I originally wrote this post on September 5th, 2010, I thought I’d share it again. It’s relevance hasn’t gone away in these last seven years, and remains unchanged for many folks either just cutting their teeth on Reformed theology, and/or for those who are flamingly Reformed and have been for years. Aristotle’s place in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox (or simply classical Calvinist) heritage will always be unchallenged and unshaken; anyone who has spent any time at all studying the history of Reformed theology will know this. But in my experience many people don’t know aristotle1this, many ostensibly Reformed people; they just think that what they are getting in Reformed theology is the meaty stuff, the purely “biblical” stuff. Yet, many have not done the self-critical, or just plain old critical work required in order to really know what they have gotten themselves into. These folk think they are working in a tradition known for its sola Scriptura – and indeed they are – but they remain unaware that historically sola Scriptura does not mean just pure Bible alone; no the Reformers were much more sophisticated and honest than that. They understood the role that philosophy, substance metaphysics, so on and so forth will need to play in order to unpack the inner-logic, the theo-logic resident and underneath the text of the occasional writings that make up Holy Writ. Of course, my contention is that Aristotle need not play any role in un-packing the theo-logic and reality of Holy Scripture; but that’s not to say that there is no place for the retextualization of philosophical language under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is to say, though, that Aristotle, particularly as we have received him in and from the medieval tradition, in my view, has done irreparable damage to how millions of Christians across the globe conceive of God today. But developing that is fodder for another post (that I’ve already written many times over here at the blog). Let’s stay focused though.

The following is to alert Reformed people, and other interested Christians to the role that Aristotle’s philosophy has played, is playing, and always will play in the center of the most dominant strand of Reformed theology today; the theology of the so called Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians. In case you didn’t know, these theologians are those who followed on the heels of the magisterial Reformers (i.e. Luther, Calvin, et al.) in the later 16th and then into the 17th century. Aristotle was present prior to the 16th and 17th centuries by way, primarily of Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis of Christian theology with Aristotelian philosophy. Unfortunately the Reformation really never shook itself loose of this impact; it did for awhile say in Luther and Calvin, but then in the Post Reformation period this mantle and way was picked up once again. This long quote from historian, Richard Muller is intended to alert you all to this, if you’re unaware.

Trajectories in Aristotelianism and Rationalism. Although the early orthodox era (from roughly 1565 to 1640) is also the era during which the new science was being set forth by Kepler, Galileo, and Bacon, and the new rationalism was being initially expounded by Descartes and Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the rise of modern science and modern rationalism did not profoundly affect Protestant orthodox theology until the latter half of the seventeenth century. For the most part, early orthodox Protestant theologians doubted the new cosmology and rejected rationalist philosophy, resting content with the late Renaissance revisions of Christian Aristotelianism at the hands of Roman Catholic philosophers like Zabarella and Sua´rez and of Protestant thinkers like Ramus and Burgersdijk. The new cosmology had to wait until the latter part of the seventeenth century for Isaac Newton’s physical and mathematical discoveries to make any sense at all and seventeenth-century rationalism, particularly in the deductive model presented by Descartes, has never proved entirely congenial to traditional theology and was never incorporated either universally or without intense debate into Reformed orthodox thought.

Just as the Ptolemaic universe remained the basis of the Western worldview until the end of the seventeenth century and continued to affect literary and philosophical forms of expression well into the eighteenth, so did Christianized Aristotelianism remain the dominant philosophical perspective throughout the era of orthodoxy. Here too, as in the area of theological system, important developments took place in the context of the Protestant universities in the late sixteenth century. Where Melanchthon, Vermigli, and others of their generation had tended to content themselves with the teaching of rhetoric, logic, ethics, and physics without giving particular attention to the potential impact of these disciplines on theology, in the second half of the century, the philosophical disciplines began to have a marked effect on Protestant theology. Aristotelian physics served the doctrine of creation in the works of Hyperius, Daneau and Zanchi; aquinas2Agricolan and Ramist logic began to clarify the structure of theological systems, and metaphysics re-entered the Protestant classroom in the writings of Schegk, Martinius, Keckermann, Alsted, and Timpler.

This development of Christian Aristotelianism in the Protestant universities not only parallels the development of Protestant scholasticism but bears witness to a similar phenomenon. The gradual production of philosophical tradition was set aside followed by a sudden return to philosophy. Instead, it indicates a transition from medieval textbooks, like the Summulae logicales of Peter of Spain and the De dialectia inventione of Rudolf Agricola, to textbooks written by Protestants for Protestants, like Melanchthon’s De rhetorica libri tres (1519), Institutiones rhetoricae (1521), his commentaries on Aristotles’Politics and Ethics (1536) and the De Anima (1540), Seton’s Dialectica (1545), Ramus’ Dialectica (1543) and the spate of works based upon it, or somewhat eclectic but also more traditional manuals like Sanderson’s Logicae artis compendium (1615) and Burgersdijk’s Institutiones logicae (1626) or is Idea philosophiae naturalis (1622). The absence of Protestant works from the era of the early Reformation points toward a use of established textbooks prior to the development of new ones under the pressure not only of Protestant theology but also of humanism and of changes and developments in the philosophical disciplines themselves. The publication of Protestant works in these areas parallels the rise and flowering of Protestant academies, gymnasia, and universities. Schmitt summarizes the situation neatly:

. . . Latin Aristotelianism stretching from the twelfth to the seventeenth century had a degree of unity and organic development that cannot be easily dismissed. . . . the differences distinguishing the Catholic, Lutheran,  or Calvinist varieties, are far outweighed by a unifying concern for the same philosophical and scientific problems and an invocation of the same sources of inspiration by which to solve them.

Furthermore, the continuity must be understood in terms of the subsequent trajectories and modifications of late medieval schools of thought — Thomism, Scotism, nominalism, the varieties of via antiqua and via moderna — and the ways in which these schools of thought were received and mediated by the various trajectories of theology and philosophy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. For if the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist theologians shared a common Christian Aristotelian foundation, they differed, even  among themselves, over the nuances of the model and over which of the late medieval trajectories was most suitable a vehicle for their theological formulation.

The continuity of Christian Aristotelianism and scholastic method from the medieval into the early modern period together with the relationship of these two phenomena to Protestant orthodoxy pinpoint one further issue to be considered in the study of orthodox or scholastic Protestantism. It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers (as in the case of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” thesis). It is also an error to discuss Protestant orthodoxy without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages, through the Reformation, into post-Reformation Protestantism. Whereas the Reformation is surely the formative event for Protestantism, it is also true that the Reformation, which took place during the first half of the sixteenth century, is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed, as it were by the five-hundred year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism. In accord, moreover, with the older scholastic models as well as with the assumptions of the Reformers concerning the biblical norm of theology, The Reformed scholastics uniformly maintained the priority of revelation over reason and insisted on the ancillary status of philosophy. In approaching the continuities and discontinuities of Protestant scholasticism with the Middle Ages and the Reformation, the chief task is to assess the Protestant adjustment of traditional scholastic categories in the light of the Reformation and the patterns according to which it mediated that tradition, both positively and negatively, to future generations of Protestants. This approach is not only more adequate to the understanding of Protestant orthodoxy, but is also the framework for a clearer understanding of the meaning of the Reformation itself.[1]

Points of Implication

  1. Muller’s thesis is somewhat acceptable — given the expansive nature he sets for the accounting of the various streams represented by the “Reformed tradition.”
  2. petervermigliChristian Aristotelianism is the framework wherein Protestant theology took shape in the main.
  3. Muller admits to both a conceptual and methodological Aristotelianism within the period known as the “post-Reformation.”
  4. Muller holds that the continuity which he argues for between all periods of the “Reformation” is grounded in late Medievalism — thus construing the magesterial (early and “high”) Protestant Reformation as a hick-up in comparison to the tsunami that swept through from the 12th into the 17th century.
  5. For Muller, it seems, the only real difference between Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist Aristotelians is a matter of emphasis and theological order. In other words, for Muller Christian Aristotelianism is the best philosophical framework commensurate with articulating Christian dogma.

Popular Implications

  1. There is a “popular” ground-swell towards returning the church back to our Protestant heritage — this move works under the assumption that our “past” is a “strictly biblical one.” What is never presented is what we are looking at here, and that is the history and conceptual frame from whence “most of the Protestant” heritage has taken shape (at least in the “Reformed” heritage). People naively assume that the categories that the “Reformed” provide them with are actually Gospel truth (i.e. not associate with a school of interpretation).
  2. These are in fact, typically, the categories that ALL “Evangelical” Christians think through when they approach Scripture (this is the vacuum from whence they/we typically think).
  3. If people fail to realize the affect Aristotle has had upon the way they understand God, they will fail to understand the true nature of God, and thus their daily walk with Jesus is going to be severely skewed.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. One,  71-73.

 

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