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HISTORY of Christian Theology

Aristotle (385–323 B.C.) was one of Plato’s star pupils and built his philosophy on much that Plato taught, but diverged from him in various ways. One of Aristotle’s greatest contributions was his creation of logic as a science. He developed formulas to test and correct ideas and propositions. He determined that correct thinking can be distilled down to universal rules like math and physics, and can then be taught to any normal person. His work became the foundation of medieval scholasticism, which we will discuss later. Based on his approach to logic, Aristotle finds Plato’s teaching that universal concepts are a reality to be nonsensical. He propounds a more tangible hands-on philosophy.

Ernest Renan states, “Socrates gave philosophy to mankind, and Aristotle gave it science.”i Aristotle was quite the naturalist. Beyond his own efforts, it is said that at any given time he would have 1000 students scouring the known world, collecting specimens of flora and fauna. He meticulously listed, analyzed and categorized each species in groups of ascending general attributes. Aristotle’s work remained the foundation of science until the Enlightenment, nearly two thousand years later.

Aristotle Zoology insectsAristotle Zoology birds

 
Everything is guided by an inner urge to become something greater than it is.

Many of Aristotle’s philosophical ideas spring from his biology. He concluded that development is not accidental or haphazard. Everything is guided by an inner urge to become something greater than it is. A bird’s egg internally is designed to produce the same type of bird and not a snake. It is not a divine craftsman that instills this purposeful existence in creation but nature itself, which each organism inherits from its parent. Unlike Plato, Aristotle believed that the form or essence of an item was contained in the object itself and was not some abstract idea. He concluded that the form or essence of an object is the characteristic of an object, and matter is what it is made of. So, the form of a chair consists of a seat with a base or legs and a back, but the matter it is made of is wood or some other type of matter. Thus, form and matter are unified to produce a material object without the direct aid of a hands-on transcendent causal agent. Aristotle’s concept of form and matter was integral in the development of the concept of transubstantiation of the bread and wine of the Eucharist, which we will discuss in depth later.

Aristotle found that even though nature internally contains its design, there still must be a god that initiated the process of movement to bring about creation. Matter may be eternal, but it still needed some force to set things in motion to create the universe. To Aristotle, this force is an eternal, perfect, immaterial, unchanging god. He is pure energy, more akin to a magnetic force than a person. Aristotle says that God is this “prime mover unmoved.” He is the first cause of all things, yet after setting everything in motion he does nothing because he is perfect and not affected by any outside stimuli. Will Durant describes it well: “Aristotle’s God never does anything; he has no desires, no will, no purpose; he is activity so pure that he never acts. He is absolutely perfect; therefore he cannot desire anything; therefore he does nothing. His only occupation is to contemplate the essence of things; and since he himself is the essence of all things, the form of all forms, his sole employment is the contemplation of himself.”ii   This concept was instrumental in the formation of the creeds declaring that God is without body, parts or passion.

“Aristotle’s God never does anything; he has no desires, no will, no purpose; he is activity so pure that he never acts. He is absolutely perfect; therefore he cannot desire anything; therefore he does nothing. His only occupation is to contemplate the essence of things; and since he himself is the essence of all things, the form of all forms, his sole employment is the contemplation of himself.”

In spite of all his contributions to the development of logic and science, he realized that the greatest question of all was what is the purpose of life? Like Plato, he concluded it was to find happiness through fulfillment of our eternal destiny. Aristotle taught that humans realize fulfillment by developing the unique human characteristic of a rational mind.

Aristotle taught that humans realize fulfillment by developing the unique human characteristic of a rational mind.

Our rational mind is eternal, while our physical body is temporal. Rational thinking leads to a life of moderation. He called this the golden mean or middle way between two extremes. We develop virtue by obtaining knowledge and experience to enable us to better live a life of moderation. Virtues are formed through our actions. They are habits, not simply single isolated acts. Humans realize their divine potential and find happiness through a concerted effort to learn wisdom by living a rational life of moderation. Aristotle’s teaching that we can acquire and develop virtues through practice greatly influenced medieval scholastic theology and Catholic practices that Protestants rejected.

Aristotle’s teaching that we can acquire and develop virtues through practice greatly influenced medieval scholastic theology and Catholic practices that Protestants rejected.
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