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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A Better More ‘evangelical’ and Reformed Way When it Comes to God: Repudiating Aristotelian Metaphysics and its Theology

I wanted to highlight something very important from Torrance’s book Divine and Contingent Order; something so important that I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that what I am going to share from him is as fundamental to understanding Torrance’s theology as is anything from him. The fact that Torrance dedicates this book to his long time Greek Orthodox compatriot Georges Florovsky should say something; that is, that this book, per classic Torrance, is going to take us back to the patristic past, and constructively, through retrieval, bring us into some modern and aristotle1contemporary discussion–in the case of this book it will have mostly to do with issues surrounding science, with obvious overlap with theology.

The following quote from this book brings me back to what I have probably become known for best (at least in my past iteration as a blogger) in the theo-blogosphere, that is my rather contentious relationship with what I have called classical Calvinist (and Arminian) theology (but I wouldn’t want to limit my contentiousness to just the Calvinists and Arminians, I believe in offering equal opportunity of contention for other expressions and certain kinds of classical, mostly Aristotelian inspired, medieval theologies). And so this quote is intended to once again–for I fear that people have become lax in regard to the current takeover of North American evangelical theology by tributaries of resource that are flowing directly from the Aristotelian stream of deterministic logico-causality present and funding evangelical movements like The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, et. al. etc.–re-register that Bobby Grow is still watching 😉 , and I haven’t grown lax in my disdain for the mechanical God of classical Calvinism, in particular, even if I understand that many Calvinists have a deep piety and love for God. So consider my vigor, in this regard, to be motivated, in part, by a desire to align said Calvinist piety and love of God, with a ground and grammar for articulating God and dogma in a way that is correlative and consistent with who the Calvinists and Arminians want to love as God.

In step with the above then, let me get to this quote from Thomas Torrance. In this quote Torrance is sketching the impact that Aristotelian and then Newtonian categories have had upon God and the subsequent development of theology that followed, in particular, and for our purposes, in the post Reformed orthodox era of Calvinist and Arminian theology. And given the fact that much of this theology is being repristinated and resurrected by the neo-Calvinists/Puritans et. al., again, it will only be apropos to visit its informing background through the lens that Torrance provides for that. Torrance writes (at length),

It was in terms of these basic ideas that classical Christian theology of the fourth and fifth centuries set out to reconstruct the foundations of ancient philosophy and science upon which the pagan picture of God and the cosmos rested.  Today we can see that they were masterful ideas which lay deep in the development of Western science, and with which we are more than ever concerned in the new science of our own day and its underlying concept of a unifying order. But what became of these ideas in thought subsequent to the Nicene and immediately post-Nicene era? For a short period they bore remarkable fruit in the physics of space and time, and of light and motion, that arose in Alexandria in the fifth and sixth centuries and which, like the theology out of which it grew, was thoroughly anti-dualist in its basic orientation. Before long, however, these ideas became swamped in the massive upsurge of dualist cosmologies and epistemologies which took somewhat different forms in the Augustinian West and Byzantine East. The idea that the created universe is rational because its Creator and Preserver is rational remained, and was to see considerable development, especially in Western medieval theology and philosophy, which thus has contributed immensely to our scientific understanding of the universe. Unfortunately, however, the doctrine of God behind it all suffered not a little modification in terms of his inertial motion which was to have considerable effect upon classical Newtonian physics. Here the conception of the impassibility and immutability of God (i.e. that God is not subject to suffering or change), which has patristic sources, became allied to the Aristotelian notion of the Unmoved Mover. Although the idea of the creation of the universe out of nothing remained, that became difficult to maintain when the universe itself came to be construed more and more in terms of Aristotle’s four causes in which the effect was understood as following inexorably from its antecedent and defining cause, for to regard the Creator as the First Cause from which the universe took its rise appears to imply ‘the eternity of the world’ if only the mind of God who knows himself as its First Cause. Mediaeval theology on evangelical grounds had to reject the notion of ‘the eternity of the world’ but it remained trapped, for the most part at least, in notions of impassibility and immutability of God which had as their counterpart a notion of the world which, given its original momentum by the First Cause, constituted a system of necessary and causal relations in which it was very difficult to find room for any genuine contingence. Contingence could only be thought of in so far as there was an element of necessity in it, so that contingence could be thought of only by being thought away. The inertial relation of an immutable God to the world he has made thus gave rise to a rather static conception of the world and its immanent structures. Looked at in this way it seems that the groundwork for the Newtonian system of the world was already to found in mediaeval thought.[1]

Does this, at all, sound familiar to you? Have you been exposed to this kind of over-determined world in what you have been taught at church or elsewhere? What do we lose if we affirm the kind of mechanical world that Torrance just described? We lose intimate relationship with God in Christ for one thing. We also have potential for losing compassion for others; we might conclude that the plight of some people, or a whole group or nation of people are ‘just’ determined to be where they are in their own lived lives, no matter how miserable. We might not overtly or consciously think all of this, but it surely would be informing the way we view ourselves and other selves in relation to God in the world.

Let me just leave off by suggesting that what Torrance describes above, about a mechanical-world is the world you get when you embrace classical Calvinism, Arminianism, etc. (philosophically, theologically, ethically, etc.). And let me suggest that there is a better way forward that is more consistent with the idea that God is love, and that he serves (or should) as the ground and grammar of everything.

Conclusion

I know that for many evangelical theologians the tide keeps pushing on, and for them what counts as the most resourceful fount for constructive Reformed and evangelical theology is the theology produced in the 16th and 17th centuries, or what we might call Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy (as Richard Muller does). I am not so naïve to think that this trend won’t continue, but I want to offer you all an off-ramp through alerting you to what Torrance is getting at in regard to the metaphysics present in the current evangelical and Reformed trend as it comes to doing theology for the church. If you’re okay (I’m not!) with offering the church a conception of God where things (like people’s lives) are determined by a God who relates to the world through abstract decrees (in order to keep God as a philosophical Unmoved Mover), then yes, continue on in your resourcing of classical Reformed theology (at least what is considered that by the mainline of evangelical and Reformed theologians); but if you want to offer a conception of God as lively, dynamic, and triune who relates personally and mediately through his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ, then repudiate this trendy move, and start engaging with God on the terms that Torrance is interested in introducing us to.

You see, what Torrance is onto isn’t really something new, he is simply looking further back than the evangelicals and Reformed; he is looking back to some of the Patristic theologians (i.e. what he calls the Athanasian-Cyrilian axis) who do indeed come up against these Hellenic patterns of thinking, but who resist the temptation of sublimating God to those patterns, and instead allow the patterns of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ to re-text the ‘Greek-grammar’ in such a way that the correlation is no longer to the god of the philosophers, but instead to the Christian God revealed in Jesus Christ.

I have given up on trying to convince the Young, Restless, and Reformed, but I haven’t given up on you. For me, personally, what’s really at stake isn’t trying to preserve a certain tradition, per se, the picture is much bigger than that. We are talking about reality itself here, and the implications that come along with that. Like I recently noted elsewhere: “Just remember who we have been “saved” to: Not to a denomination, or a tradition, or a sub-culture, but to the triune God in Christ.” As such we shouldn’t be as worried about who we identify with sub-culturally (like what tradition or denomination we think gives us place and identity in the broader body of Christ), but who we are identified by as we participate in and from the triune life of God in Jesus Christ. I think a lot of theology, unfortunately, has a lot to do with identity-church-politics; once we feel like we’ve been given purpose by that (even if it takes us time to find that) it becomes exceedingly hard to move away from that even if confronted with compelling information about how things are and how they’ve come to be in the history of ideas.

I just want to invite you to re-think where you’re at theologically, and think about what Torrance (and I) have been talking about in this post. Maybe you’ll come to the conclusion, like I have, that there is a better more evangelical way than what we’ve been offered thus far.

P.S. It isn’t just Torrance who makes this critique about the metaphysics funding Aristotelian formed classical theologies; there are others, and they aren’t even “Barthians.”

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 5-6.

[2] Picture credit: Wendell B. Johnson .

 

No God Behind the Back of Jesus: God is Love not an UnMoved Mover

I don’t know about you, but as a North American evangelical, growing up, I was taught and given the impression, theologically, that God is somewhat performance driven; i.e. that he is concerned with me keeping his law in order for me to maintain fellowship with him (a quid pro quo type of relationship). Don’t get me wrong, it was never quite this explicit, in fact just the opposite might have been what was on the surface; i.e. that ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.’ But underneath the pietism that the Sunday school song captures remained a God who was shaped goodshepherdby his relation to me and the world by us (humanity) keeping a rigid performance shaped spirituality. Even if I was told that God was love, and even if those telling me that he is love were genuine, there still, even at a tacit level, remained a detachment or rupture between what they were saying and the theology they, and then I had available to fall back on; in other words there was a fissure between the pietism, and the actual theology behind said pietism. If I am not being cryptic enough what I am referring to is the classically Reformed theology that funded, ostensibly, the piety I lived under as a child and young adult; bearing in mind that my background was just a basic baptistic “biblicist” Free church mode of being.

An antidote to all of this came for me in seminary, particularly through my professor, Ron Frost’s instruction; he introduced me to Trinitarian theology (at that time it was presented to me through Colin Gunton’s work). Since, then, of course, as many of you know, Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth have become my teachers in regard to informing the way I think about God as Triune love and what that means for my development as a Christian person. I thought I would share a lengthy quote from Thomas Torrance that illustrates the type of teaching I’ve been sitting under for the last eleven years. Here Torrance explicates what it means for God to be love:

… Just as we can never go behind God’s saving and revealing acts in Jesus Christ and in the mission of his Spirit, so we can never think or speak of him truly apart from his revealing and saving acts behind the back of Jesus Christ, for there is no other God.

It is of course because God actively loves us, and actually loves us so much that he has given us his only Son to be the Saviour of the world, that he reveals himself to us as the Loving One, and as he whose Love belongs to his innermost Being as God. If he were not Love in his innermost Being, his love toward us in Christ and the Holy Spirit would be ontologically groundless. God is who he is as he who loves us with his very Being, he whose loving is as inexhaustible as his infinite Being for his Love is his Being in ceaseless triune movement and activity. It is precisely as this living, loving, and acting God that he has come to us in Jesus Christ and unites us to himself by his one Spirit, interacting with us in creation and history, and in our human and physical existence in time and space, all in order to be our God and to have us for his people.

It is thus that we understand why Christians believe the God and Father of Jesus Christ to be the one and only God and Saviour of the world. He is not different in himself from what he is in the activity of his saving and redeeming love in the singularity of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the God who is loving and saving us has once for all given his very Self to us in his Son and in his Spirit, and who in giving himself freely and unreservedly to us gives us with him all things. It is in the Cross of Christ that the utterly astonishing nature of the Love that God is has been fully disclosed, for in refusing to spare his own Son whom he delivered up for us all, God has revealed that he loves us more than he loves himself. And so it is in the Cross of Jesus Christ above all that God has both exhibited the very Nature of his Being as Love and has irrevocably committed his Being to relationship with us in unconditional Love. In Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit we know no other God, and believe that there is no other God for us than this God, who freely seeks and creates fellowship with us, utterly undeserving sinners though we are.[1]

There are no decrees, no artificial covenants (of works/redemption/grace), or stipulations in regard to how we can relate to a God like this, or who we are relating to. It is all contingent upon who he is in his triune life, and how that shapes his uncomplicated but ineffable relationship to us through his election and free choice to not be God without us, but with us, Immanuel. This is the God, the One revealed and explicated in Jesus Christ, that the piety I grew up with has been in search of; it is not the God, in my evangelical Calvinist view, who we get through Aristotelian, Thomistic, and scholastic decrees and covenants—the God who hides behind the back of a pretty soft face of Jesus.

It is unfortunate to see a whole new crop of young evangelical theologians drinking deeply from the well of scholasticism Reformed theology, and the God provided for in that schema. It is not the God simply revealed in Jesus Christ, and thought of from there. Instead the God of the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox, the God evangelical theologians are pressing into currently, is a God conceived of through philosophical speculation and appeal to the analogia entis; a God conceived of in abstraction, and then fitted to the God revealed in Christ.

If we cannot simply look at Jesus as the fullest explication and exegesis of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit then I would highly suggest that we not talk too much about any other conception of God. This is a serious matter, which I realize the other “side” would agree to. Unfortunately for some vested reason they can’t seem to accept the fact that the classical theism they have embraced unnecessarily layers a conception of God with the dregs of philosophical projection that muddles the face of God in Jesus Christ to un-recognition. Yes, you might end up with a sense of apophatic transcendence, in regard to the philosophically conceived God, but that sense of transcendence, so conceived, really, ironically, is more of a psychological sense of ‘feeling’ God which is generated by the self, more than a real sense of God’s transcendence as that is given in his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ unmitigated. Torrance speaks of this unmitigated God, I wish the evangelicals would swarm towards his approach to things rather than to what they have been now for these past many years.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 4-5.

Martin Luther’s ‘Real Reason for the Protestant Reformation’, and What Critics of evangelical Calvinism Don’t Get about evangelical Calvinism’s Impetus or Their Own Mode of Theologizing

Martin Luther famously critiqued and rejected Aristotle, and the impact that Aristotelian philosophy had had upon Christian theology in the late medieval period; particularly as mediated through the synthesis of Thomas Aquinas’s theology with Aristotelian philosophy. This was such a fundamental piece for Luther, that it can be said, as Alister McGrath, and my former seminary professor luthermartinand personal mentor, Ron Frost have said, that this rejection and repudiation of Aristotle’s impact on Christian theology led, theologically, to Luther’s “breakthrough” in regard to his understanding of sola fide, and the material principle of the Protestant Reformation theology. The implication of this, if followed, is that theological reasoning is strictly reduced to reliance upon the revelation of God in Christ apprehended by faith.

As McGrath sharpens this further, he underscores why this move for Luther was so important; he underscores why working away from Aristotelian and forensic conceptions of God’s righteousness, and working from the righteousness of God revealed by Christ is so important and so delimiting for a genuinely Christian approach to the theological task. McGrath writes:

For Luther, ratio and its associated concept of iustitia (as used by Aristotle and the jurists) had its proper place in the ordering of civil affairs. Luther’s rejection of ratio relates to his soteriology, particularly to the definition of iustitia Dei, which is of central importance to his theology as a whole. The concept of iustitia which Luther rejected in this context is none other than that of Aristotle’s Ethics, which had been taken up by the medieval canonists and jurists, which had found its way into the soteriology of the via moderna, and which corresponded to a secular, commen-sense understanding of justice in terms of a quid pro quo morality, whose validity was immediately apparent to reason. Julian of Eclanum had insisted that God judged man rationabiliter, which he took to be equivalent to iuste, and had therefore applied to a common-sense concept of iustitia by a process of analogical predication to God. God rewards each man according to his merit, which may be defined in terms of whether he has lived well by the standards set him in the law: non ego, sed ratio concludit. A similar interpretation of iustitia Dei can be derived by direct analogical predication of the Aristotelian understanding of iustitia, linked with the associated interpretation of the relationship between iustitia and lex, to God. The young Luther appears to have adopted precisely such a concept of iustitia in his early attempt to expound the Psalter: indeed it is of particular significance that Luther should choose Psalm 9 (10). 9 to expound the relationship between iustitia and equitas in the divine judgement, as Julian of Eclanum had earlier used exactly the same passage to demonstrate the divine equity in dealing with man according to his merit! It was against this understanding of iustitia, as applied to God (but not applied to civil affairs), that Luther rebelled when he discovered the mira et nova diffinitio iustitiae, with such momentous results for his theology. Luther’s revolt against reason is indeed occasioned by his soteriology — but in a far more specific manner than appears to have been generally realised. Whilst it cannot be proved that Luther appreciated the theological ramifications of everything he read in Book V of the Nichomachean Ethics, it is beyond dispute that he recognised that the concept of iustitia developed therein, applied to God, had appalling theological consequences for sinners: Tota fere Aristotelis Ethica pessima est gratiae inimica. Luther’s joy at his discovery of the new definition of iustitia reflects his realisation that God loves and forgives sinners, and that the iustitia of iustitia Dei is not to be understood qua philosophi et iuriste accipiunt, but qua in scriptura accipitur. Luther’s vitriolic attacks against Aristotle, reason, the jurists, the law, and the Sautheologen of the via moderna reflects his basic conviction that all these employed a concept of iustitia which, when applied to God, destroyed the gospel message of the free forgiveness of sinners. Luther’s ‘evangelical irrationalism’ is closely correlated with his discovery of the righteousness of God: if reason and its allies were unable to comprehend the mystery of the justification of the ungodly, then so much the worse for them. Reason has its role to play in the civil affairs of men, as in so many other spheres — but when faced with the justification of sinners, the central feature of the gospel proclamation, it collapses, unable to comprehend the mystery with which it is confronted. For Luther, the word of the gospel, upon which all theological speculation was ultimately based, was that of a righteous God who justified those worthy of death: if reason was unable to comprehend this fundamental aspect of the gospel, it had forfeited its right to have any say in theology as a whole. In Luther’s opinion, reason was not neutral in this matter: according to reason, God should only justify those whose deeds made them worthy of such a reward: itaque caro est ipsa iustitia, sapientia carnis ac cogitatio rationis, quae per legem vult iustificari. Human wisdom and human concepts of righteousness are inextricably linked — and, as Luther emphasised, both were called into question by the fact that a righteous God could justify sinners. It is clear that this critique of human wisdom, which is ultimately based upon Luther’s deliberations upon the concept of the ‘righteousness of God’, foreshadows the theologia crucis of 1518 in a number of respects. Before moving on to consider the nature of the theology of the cross, however, it may be helpful to summarise our conclusions concerning the nature and the date of Luther’s theological breakthrough.[1]

It is precisely for what McGrath just detailed that Ron Frost in 1997 wrote an essay for the Trinity Journal entitled: ‘Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?’ Frost believes, and I agree with him, that insofar as the following Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology imbibes a ‘Christian Aristotelianism’ it has skipped off the central critique of Luther’s protest movement; which is very ironic indeed. Note Frost’s analysis here:

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed—measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles—a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther—who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week—chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[2]

This is quite profound, to say the least! It is this very premise and insight as developed by Ron Frost, and illustrated by the work of McGrath, that has led me to my form of evangelical Calvinism. It is this fundamental critique and insight that not a single contemporary Reformed thinker or theologian I have come across has grasped whatsoever. I know many who read me seem to think that evangelical Calvinism, my form, is wholly contingent upon Barth and Torrance, but that is way too quick and limited of a conclusion to draw!

It is ironic, indeed, that the most adamant of Reformed voices today simply and uncritically accept the research of someone like Richard Muller who advocate for the Post Reformed orthodox re-appropriation of a ‘Christian Aristotelian’ mode; this is ironic because the very thing that kicked off the Protestant Reformation was in protest to Aristotle’s influence on Christian theology; particularly the impact that played on defining God’s righteousness and how that implicates a variety of things; including how ‘faith’ is conceived. If someone wants to critique evangelical Calvinism, at least my form, then start with engaging with Luther’s critique of ‘Christian Aristotelianism,’ the informing “theology” of what now constitutes most of Reformed theology, proper.

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 139-41.

[2] R.N. Frost, “Aristotle’s “Ethics:” The “Real” Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal (18:2) 1997, p. 224-25.

Saving Faith in Protestant Understanding, and Reflection Upon Its Informing Theology both Definitionally and Historically

The actus fidei in Protestant Reformed theology was an attempt to detail the component parts of what makes up ‘saving faith’ as it were for the recipients of salvation in Christ. What we will cover in this post follows along the lines we touched upon in the last post when we took a look at an ontology of grace. What should stand out to you as you read this is the elevation that intellect and will attain in this schema and explication of ‘faith’. It comes back to an issue of anthropology, of a Thomist intellectualist type (but we will have to cover that more later).

whitemonkRichard Muller provides definition for actus fidei this way:

actus fidei: the act, actualization, perfecting operation, or actualizing operation of faith; in addition to their objective, doctrinal definitions of fides (q.v.), the Protestant orthodox also consider faith as it occurs or is actualized in the human, believing subject. In the subject, faith can be considered either as the disposition or capacity of the subject to have faith (habitus fidei, q.v.), which in case of saving faith (fides salvifica) is a gracious gift of God, or as the actus fidei, the act or actualizing operation of faith, in which the intellect and will appropriate the object of faith (obiectum fidei, q.v.). The actus fidei, then, can be described by the Lutheran and Reformed scholastics as an actus intellectus and an actus voluntatis, an operation of intellect and of will. Both notitia (knowledge) and assensus (assent to knowledge) belong to intellect, while the apprehensio fiducialis, or faithful apprehension, of that knowledge is an act of will. Saving faith in Christ comprises, therefore, the actus credenda in intellectu, the actualization of believing in the operation of the intellect, and the actus fiduciae (q.v.), or actus fiducialis voluntatis, the actualization of faithfulness in the operation of the will. The soul may be considered as the subiectum quo (q.v.), or “subject by which,” of faith, since soul may be distinguished into the faculties of intellect and will.

The scholastic language of faith as actus must not be construed as a description of faith as an activity that accomplishes, for the mind and the will, a saving knowledge of and trust in Christ. Such a view would constitute a denial of the doctrine of justification by grace alone (see iustificatio). Instead, the language of habitus fidei and actus fidei, of the disposition or capacity for faith and the actuality or perfecting operation of faith, needs to be understood in the context of the scholastic language of potency (potentia) and act, or actuality (actus). The disposition, or habitus, is a potency for faith that can be actualized as faith. The act or actus of faith, although it may be defined as an operation, is not an activity in the sense of a deed or a work, but an operation in the sense of an actualization in which faith comes to be faith or, in other words, moves from potency to actuality.

The Reformed orthodox further distinguish the actus fidei into several parts. The first distinction is twofold: an actus directus and an actus reflexus. The actus directus fidei, or direct operation of faith, is faith receiving or, more precisely, having its object. By the actus directus fidei an individual believes the promises of the gospel. The actus reflexus fidei, the reflex or reflective operation of faith, is the inward appropriation of the object according to which the individual knows that he believes. These two acts can be further distinguished since, in particular, both notitia and assensus can be considered as actus directus. The actus directus can be distinguished into (1) an actus notitiae, or actualization of knowledge, and (2) a twofold actus assensus, or actualization of assent (assensus theoreticus and assensus practicus), consisting in an actus refugii, or actualization of refuge, and an actus receptionis et unionis, an actualization of reception and union. By way of explanation, each of these components of the actus fidei is direct insofar as it refers to the object of faith as appropriated. This is clear in the case of the actus notitiae according to which the obiectum fidei, the supernaturally revealed Word of God, belongs to the intellect, and also in the case of theoretical assent according to which the intellect agrees  to the certainty of the truth of its knowledge. The assensus practicus et fiducialis, or practical and faithful assent, still belongs to the intellect, which here recognizes as certain and as the obiectum fidei, not only scriptural revelation, but that revelation of grace and sufficient salvation in Christ which God has promised to believers. The actualization of refuge follows immediately as the realization that Christ himself and union with him provide faith with the means of salvation. This actus is primarily of the will but still direct. Finally, on the ground of all that has preceded, but also now as a result of the actus voluntatis, or actualization of will toward Christ, there is an actus receptionis sive adhaesionis et unionis Christi, an operation of the reception of, adhesion to, and union with Christ. The next operation of faith is the actus reflexus in which the soul reflects upon itself and knows that it believes what it believes and that Christ died for it. Whereas the actus reflexus is primarily an actus intellectus, the final actus fidei belongs to the will. The actus consolationis et confidentiae, or actuality of consolation and confidence, is an acquiescence of the will to Christ and the knowledge of salvation in Christ. The scholastic analysis of the actus fidei is, in short, an attempt to isolate and define the elements of faith which must all be actualized in the believer if the graciously given disposition toward faith, the habitus fidei, is to bear fruit in a full realization of fides.[1]

Stephen Strehle in his 1996 book was right to entitle it The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter Between the Middle Ages and the Reformation, because as Muller’s definition of saving faith within Protestant Reformed orthodox theology illustrates how that is so. What we have is a Protestant reification of medieval and Catholic (Thomist, largely) Aristotelian language when it comes to describing faith and salvation. Even within Muller’s definition we see how he qualifies a shift that took place among the Protestant deployment of the ‘Catholic’ language and indeed the Protestant usage of it; particularly when we see the language of habitus and actus pop up regularly.

Habitus and actus are both fundamental parts of Aristotle’s philosophy and anthropology of virtue and Thomas Aquinas’ theological appropriation of that grammar within his medieval context. What is also present, and highly Aristotelian, about this definition of actus fidei is its constant appeal to a faculty psychology i.e. tripartite faculty psychology wherein mind, will, and affections are understood to be the constitutive parts of what it means to be human. Of course in the scholastic schema what we are going to get an emphasis upon, just as we do in Thomas Aquinas’ Roman Catholic theology is an emphasis upon the intellect/will; since both the Protestant Reformed orthodox and Roman Catholics, by and large, hold to what is called a Thomist intellectualist anthropology wherein the intellect/will are understood to be the defining components of what it means to be human. This is significant, particularly when we start thinking about a ‘biblical’ and genuinely Christian spirituality juxtaposed, indeed, with the Bible’s emphases—which focuses much more on the heart rather than the intellect (if we even want to appeal to a tripartite faculty psychology in the first place).

On a more negative note: it is hard for me to understand, after engaging with Protestant Reformed orthodox theology how those who adhere to it in repristinating form can maintain that what they offer just is “biblical,” and then hear them critique someone like Karl Barth or Thomas Torrance as if their theologizing is outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. It is absolutely ad hoc and petitio principii to make such accusations; all Christians, of whatever stripe, do theological exegesis and maneuvering in their attempt to lay bare what is there in the text of Holy Scripture and its attestation to its reality in the life of God in Jesus Christ.

I would simply ask adherents to what is ostensibly the orthodox faith of Reformed Christians, to at least be humble enough to admit that their positions are just as “theological” and less stridently or prima facie “biblical” as those they believe are outside the bounds. The standard is Holy Scripture and its regulative reality in Jesus Christ; intramural critiques done either way ought to stay at the level of material theological engagement, and labels bandied around such as “heretic” or even “heterodox” ought to be done away with (unless of course we actually do encounter heresy or heterodoxy).

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theology Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 21-23.

Ontology of Grace and Substance Metaphysics

Some have said that talk of ‘substance’ metaphysics is erroneous, I’ll do a post on who in the days to come. Until then I think the following is instructive towards understanding, theologically, what substance metaphysics is referring to when the locus is grace. It is unfortunate when grace is depersonalized, because insofar as God in his being in becoming is grace, if this ontology of grace is aquinas2applied to God we end up with a monad and not a personal God who is Triune.

As of late I’ve been talking with a few folks about Grace, and what Thomas Aquinas thought of it, and how he defined it using Aristotle’s categories of substance and qualities. Below I’m going to give a definition from a Latin theological dictionary on created grace or habitual grace.

habitus gratiae: habit or disposition of grace; a divine gift infused into the soul in such a way as to become a part of human nature. The habitus gratiae can therefore also be called gratia creata, created grace, as distinct from the uncreated power of God that brings it into existence, gratia increata. In addition, according to its function, the habitus gratiae can be called justifying grace (gratia iustificans) or sanctifying grace (gratia sanctificans). This concept, together with a related concept of an infused righteousness (iustitia infusa, q.v.), was rejected by the Reformers in so far as it cannot be correlated with the doctrine of a forensic justification (iustificatio,q.v.) on the ground of the alien righteousness (iustitia aliena) of Christ imputed to believers by grace alone through faith. The habitus gratiae implies an intrinsic righteousness to the believer, whereas the Reformer’s concept of imputed righteousness is extrinsic. Righteousness is viewed by the reformers and the Orthodox as inherent, or intrinsic …, in relation to the work of the Spirit in sanctification (sanctificatio,q.v.), but the concept, here, is expressed in terms of cleansing (renavatio, q.v.) rather than in terms of an infused disposition or habit. [Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, 134]

In other words, created grace, for the Protestant, is incommensurate with the concept of grace as foreign and external mediated by the righteousness of Christ;and applied by the Holy Spirit. For Roman Catholics, historically as noted above, grace becomes part of the person, in the accidents, which is intrinsic to the person. The implication is that grace is something that can be manipulated by the person, depending on their particular disposition — this typically has been known as semi Pelagianism.

The Disastrous Results of Fake-it-till-You-Make it Theology: The Habitus

I have been thinking lately of the deleterious effect that bad theologies have upon us. One of those theologies, that I think is bad, is of the type that believes that as Christians we ought to ‘fake-it-till-we-make-it’; that we ought to muster up enough faith or grace from God to respond to life-circumstances in such a way that an attempt is made (by us) to overcome hard stuff by faking feelings, by faking smiley faces, or faking whatever else with hopes that our souls will follow—a sort of masquerading Christian spirituality. For example, say Joe Christian is having a bad day at monkaquinaswork, instead of being able to admit that he is having a bad day at work he will attempt to overcome his circumstances by faking feelings that he perceives are in line with what a genuine “biblical” Christian response ought to be in the face of said circumstances. Joe Christian believes that over time if he fakes it enough he will begin to instill into his life a Christian character that transcends his daily circumstances, no matter what those circumstances might be.

This approach to Christian sanctification and spirituality has a heritage in the history of ideas. Aristotle introduced a concept known as habitus which medieval theologian par excellence, Thomas Aquinas appropriated and synthesized within his own moral theology. Omar Lizardo describes it this way:

In its initial Aristotelian formulation, the notion of habitus is captured in the idea of hexis (habitus is the usual Latin translation of this Greek word). This refers to the state of possessing (or “having”, Latin habere) an acquired, trained disposition to engage in certain modes of activity when encountering particular objects or situations. For instance, the essential capacity to regularly engage in virtuous action was understood, in the context of Aristotelian ethics, to be the primary exemplification of habitus. Aquinas would refine the application of the concept to ethical reasoning in further specifying the nature and content of the moral virtues. In Aquinas’s rendering, the full virtuous personality is one who has, through effort and training, cultivated the proficiency to act in the morally required manner without effort; that is, a person for whom moral behavior becomes second nature.[1]

Richard Muller defines it this way as applied in a theological context: “habitus infusa: infused habit or disposition; i.e. a disposition of mind or will not present naturally in a human being, usually because of the loss of the imago Dei (q.v.) in the fall, that is graciously instilled or infused in mind or will by God….”[2]

So it is an ‘acquired’ disposition, and understood theologically, it is something given to the elect by God so that they might have the capacity to habituate in virtuous behaviors that will lead to a transformed character (this is akin to what has been called ‘virtue ethics’, an ethical system rooted in the habitus theology of both Aristotle and Aquinas). The emphasis of the habitus is an outside/inside approach to moral/holiness transformation.

Coming back to Joe Christian; when we, like Joe Christian, think that we must fake it till we make it in order to transmute our ‘old-fallen-nature’ into the ‘new-created-nature’ we have in Christ we miss the freedom of the Gospel. The emphasis, because of habitus-like thinking, is now on my effort (yes, with God’s help) to mould and shape ‘my’ character into the character of Christ; Christ is the exemplar I am trying to imitate then through the disposition of the habitus (given by God of course). This might fit well with a view of salvation that works from a declarational emphasis—i.e. or a forensic emphasis—that focuses on the outside of things (like the forgiveness of sins through a paid penalty), but it does not jive well with a participationist theory of salvation.

A participationist theory of salvation emphasizes a view of salvation that sees ‘saved’ persons in deep and intimate union with Jesus Christ (I Cor 6.17); that realizes that we as saved persons have been given new hearts (II Cor 3), and these hearts are not our own hearts but Christ’s. A participationist theory of salvation focuses on God in Christ moving from outside of us into us, as he becomes us (see Irenaeus; II Cor 5.21; etc.), and re-creates our humanity in and from his vicarious humanity from the inside out. A participationist salvation understands that our characters aren’t transformed by focusing on what we can do, or how we can habituate in certain ‘moral’ activities; instead it focuses on who God in Christ is for us and in us. It focuses on His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these other things are added to us and through us from there.

I was reminded today how a habitus theology can set someone up for failure. You can only fake-it-till-you-make-it for so long, and then burn-out ensues; and unfortunately often back-sliding takes over in that person’s life. The problem is, is that we all know that we never really do make it; so it is important for Joe Christian and all of us to set our eyes on the one who has made it for us, Jesus Christ.

 

[1] Omar Lizardo, “Habitus,” accessed online June 9, 2016.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 134-35.

The Reason ‘Reason’ Should Not Function in Place of Revelation: Against Modernity

In my last post I quickly and from the top sketched the problem that John Shore had in his appeal to reason as if it was a new form or mode
Aristotle Small
of revelation from God, and more importantly, about God and his ways within a God-world relation; particularly as that God-world relation applies to Christian ethics. Fortuitously I just happen to be reading theologian par excellence, John Webster’s little book Holiness; in this little book Webster is discussing, but of course: God’s holiness in its reach into various spheres within the Christian’s life. For the rest of this post I will be engaging a bit with Webster’s thinking about holiness, and in particular, and in dovetail with what I was inchoately talking about in regard to the elevation of reason by John Shore (and many others). That said, I don’t really want to get sidetracked by applying this discussion to closely to Shore, maybe only insofar as his approach serves as a contemporary and popular illustration of what Webster describes in regard to a modern understanding of reason and its elevation.

John Webster writes this of modernity’s understanding of reason:

… Modernity has characteristically regarded reason as a ‘natural’ faculty – a standard, unvarying and foundational feature of humankind, a basic human capacity or skill. As a natural faculty, reason is, crucially, not involved in the drama of God’s saving work; it is not fallen, and so requires neither to be judged nor to be reconciled nor to be sanctified. Reason simply is; it is humankind in its intellectual nature. Consequently, ‘natural’ reason has been regarded as ‘transcendent’ reason. Reason stands apart from or above all possible convictions, all particular, historical forms of life, observing them and judging them from a distance. Reason does not participate in history but makes judgments about history; it is a transcendent and sovereign intellectual legislator, and as such answerable to none but itself.

Such conceptions of reason have become so deeply embedded in modern culture and its most prestigious intellectual institutions that they are scarcely visible to us. But for the Christian confession, these conceptions are disordered. Above all, they are disordered because they extract reason and its operations from the economy of God’s dealings with his creatures. To think of reason as ‘natural’ and ‘transcendent’ in this way is, by the standard of the Christian confession, corrupt, because it isolates reason from the work of God as creator, reconciler and perfecter. Once reason is thought of as ‘natural’ rather than as ‘created’ (or, to put it differently, once the category of ‘the created’ is collapsed into that of ‘the natural’), then reason’s contingency is set aside, and its sufficiency is exalted in detachment from the divine gift of truth. Or again, when reason is expounded as a natural competency, then it is no longer understood as fallen and in need of reconciliation of God. Again, when reason is considered as a human capacity for transcendence, then reason’s continual dependence on the vivifying Spirit is laid to one side, for natural reason does not need to be made holy.

Christian theology, however, must beg to differ. It must beg to differ because the confession of the gospel by which theology governs its life requires it to say that humankind in its entirety, including reason, is enclosed within the history of sin and its overcoming by the grace of God concerns the remaking of humankind as a whole, not simply of what we identify restrictively as its ‘spiritual’ aspect. And so reason, no less than anything else, stands under the divine requirement that it be holy to the Lord its God.[1]

This could bring us into a discussion of how pure nature has functioned in Christian theology, or in secular theologies; or this could bring us into a discussion of Thomas Aquinas’ appropriation of Aristotle’s idea of an ‘active intellect’ and how that forms us as people anthropologically; we also could get into a discussion about how the Puritans, for example, spoke about such things in their appropriation of Aristotle’s tripartite faculty psychology—indeed all of these things are really correlative with and even fund, to extent, Webster’s insights on reason. But let’s not, and say we did, for time’s sake.

What is of import, at least to me, in what Webster is highlighting is how all of who human’s are needs redemption. We are noetically flawed, even in redemption we cry out to Jesus along with the man in the Gospel accounts “Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief!” It should be clear though: any appeal to human reason, any appeal to reason embedded in the image of God, as if that sanitizes reason in a way that keeps it untouched by sin is a non-starter for the Christian; as Thomas Torrance has said more than once: ‘We are sinners all the way down, so we need grace all the way down.’

[1] John Webster, Holiness, kindle loc. 122.

*Credit: Image of Aristotle taken from Matt Ryder’s collection here.

What do Victoria Osteen and Aristotle have in common?: Eudaimonia

“I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God—I mean, that’s one way to look at it—we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy ….”[1]

aristotleThis is the quote, and gist of what Joel Osteen’s wife, Victoria Osteen has come under scrutiny for, at large, by many within the Christian community, especially from the evangelical Christian community (and especially via social media). Here is a transcript of what she said more fully, done by my friend, Steven Nemes:

When we obey God, we’re not doing it for God. I mean, that’s one way to look at it. We’re doing it for ourselves. Because God takes pleasure when we’re happy; that’s the thing that gets him the greatest joy this morning. So I want you to know this morning: just do good for your own self, do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship him, you’re not doing it for God really; you’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.[2]

It is no secret that for the Osteen’s ‘happiness’ and living “Your Best Life Now” (the title of one of Joel’s more bestselling books) is of a premium; in fact I would like to suggest, especially in light of Victoria’s recent comments that happiness, personal happiness and self actualization as a person (even if she claims that this is what God wants for us, and what makes him happy) represents her personal philosophy of life.

In light of this, if the pursuit of happiness (a very American virtue isn’t it?) can be someone’s philosophy of life, then I would like to further suggest that this theory of life flows from a certain philosophy of what the highest good is for a human being; apparently it is, for Victoria Osteen, to be self-fulfilled (which comes for the Osteen’s through wealth, health, and a variety of other ‘goods’). In light of all this, I would like to further suggest that what Victoria Osteen is proposing as the philosophy of life fits very well, no, not with Christianity, but with classical philosopher, Aristotle’s idea of life which he too believed was ‘happiness,’ or in the Greek eudaimonia. Read what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to communicate about Aristotle’s philosophy of life as eudaimonia (at length):

Aristotle thinks everyone will agree that the terms “eudaimonia” (“happiness”) and “eu zên” (“living well”) designate such an end. The Greek term “eudaimon” is composed of two parts: “eu” means “well” and “daimon” means “divinity” or “spirit.” To be eudaimon is therefore to be living in a way that is well-favored by a god. But Aristotle never calls attention to this etymology in his ethical writings, and it seems to have little influence on his thinking. He regards “eudaimon” as a mere substitute for eu zên (“living well”). These terms play an evaluative role, and are not simply descriptions of someone’s state of mind.

No one tries to live well for the sake of some further goal; rather, being eudaimon is the highest end, and all subordinate goals—health, wealth, and other such resources—are sought because they promote well-being, not because they are what well-being consists in. But unless we can determine which good or goods happiness consists in, it is of little use to acknowledge that it is the highest end. To resolve this issue, Aristotle asks what the ergon (“function,” “task,” “work”) of a human being is, and argues that it consists in activity of the rational part of the soul in accordance with virtue (1097b22–1098a20). One important component of this argument is expressed in terms of distinctions he makes in his psychological and biological works. The soul is analyzed into a connected series of capacities: the nutritive soul is responsible for growth and reproduction, the locomotive soul for motion, the perceptive soul for perception, and so on. The biological fact Aristotle makes use of is that human beings are the only species that has not only these lower capacities but a rational soul as well. The good of a human being must have something to do with being human; and what sets humanity off from other species, giving us the potential to live a better life, is our capacity to guide ourselves by using reason. If we use reason well, we live well as human beings; or, to be more precise, using reason well over the course of a full life is what happiness consists in. Doing anything well requires virtue or excellence, and therefore living well consists in activities caused by the rational soul in accordance with virtue or excellence.

Aristotle’s conclusion about the nature of happiness is in a sense uniquely his own. No other writer or thinker had said precisely what he says about what it is to live well. But at the same time his view is not too distant from a common idea. As he himself points out, one traditional conception of happiness identifies it with virtue (1098b30–1). Aristotle’s theory should be construed as a refinement of this position. He says, not that happiness is virtue, but that it is virtuous activity. Living well consists in doing something, not just being in a certain state or condition. It consists in those lifelong activities that actualize the virtues of the rational part of the soul.

At the same time, Aristotle makes it clear that in order to be happy one must possess others goods as well—such goods as friends, wealth, and power. And one’s happiness is endangered if one is severely lacking in certain advantages—if, for example, one is extremely ugly, or has lost children or good friends through death (1099a31-b6). But why so? If one’s ultimate end should simply be virtuous activity, then why should it make any difference to one’s happiness whether one has or lacks these other types of good? Aristotle’s reply is that one’s virtuous activity will be to some extent diminished or defective, if one lacks an adequate supply of other goods (1153b17–19). Someone who is friendless, childless, powerless, weak, and ugly will simply not be able to find many opportunities for virtuous activity over a long period of time, and what little he can accomplish will not be of great merit. To some extent, then, living well requires good fortune; happenstance can rob even the most excellent human beings of happiness. Nonetheless, Aristotle insists, the highest good, virtuous activity, is not something that comes to us by chance. Although we must be fortunate enough to have parents and fellow citizens who help us become virtuous, we ourselves share much of the responsibility for acquiring and exercising the virtues.[3]

For Aristotle, if the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy can be trusted as a trustworthy resource, eudaimonia or happiness was the highest good, of which other subordinate goods helped to provide (like health, wealth, friends, etc.) the grounds for living in this highest virtue of what it truly means to live.

Based upon this brief comparison, I would submit that what Victoria Osteen is offering as the end and highest good of life fits better with Aristotle’s philosophy of life of eudaimonia versus the Christian end and highest good of life which is to participate in the cruciform (i.e. cross-shaped) life of God.

 

[1] Taken from this online article, http://christiannews.net/2014/08/28/do-good-for-your-own-self-osteen-says-obedience-worship-not-for-god-video/ , accessed 09-01-2014.

[2] Taken from this blog post by Steven Nemes,  http://thecrucifiedgod.blogspot.com/2014/09/victoria-olsteen-and-heresy-hunters.html , accessed 09-01-2014.

[3] Taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/ , accessed 09-01-2014.