Aristotle and Christianity
Christianity is believed to be developed under the shadows of Greek philosophy, with Plato and Aristotle being its chief architects. The previous reflection looked at how the Christian theologians appropriated Plato's ideas. Today we will consider Plato's brightest pupil Aristotle. We will attempt to answer two questions: Who was Aristotle? How did he influence Christian theology?
Aristotle was born around 384 BC in Stagira, which was under the rule of Macedonia at that time. At the age of 18, he moved to Athens to study under Plato. He remained there for the next 20 years or so. After his training under Plato, he was invited to the court of Philip of Macedon to tutor his son Alexander (the Great). In 335 (after finishing with Alexander), he returned to Athens to establish his own school. It is interesting to note that Aristotle was not as well known by his contemporaries. He did not reach the fame of Plato until Christian authors read his writings with great interest seldom shared by their pagan neighbours at the time. They discovered concepts and language in Aristotle's writing that would complement Christian theology.
One of his key ideas to have a sustained influence on Christianity is the idea of the Prime Mover (Metaphysics). Christian thinkers believed that Aristotle's Prime Movers is the same Lord God Almighty to whom we owe our creation and redemption. The question that led Aristotle to this idea is the following: how do we know if something is true?
For Aristotle, to know something is true is to know the causes for the thing. He outlines four different kinds of causes.
· The material cause
· The formal cause
· The efficient cause
· The Final cause
The material cause is to do with the matter. There is a matter that makes up things we touch, see, and feel. It's the sort of thing you can study in a lab, identifying different chemical strains and the physical makeup of things. We can see, touch, and feel matter. For Aristotle, matter matters. Material causes and conditions can explain reality.
Aristotle takes this one step further with the Formal Cause, which is to do with the form of things or the forms in which things appear to us. All nature consists of a combination of material and formal causes. It's the form that makes matter appear what they are. The form is important. A chair is recognizable as a chair because it is in the form of a chair. Aristotle calls it hylomorphism. The Greek word hylo means matter and morphism or morphe implies form. Everything around us is made up of matter and form. And the form ultimately explains the reality we see around us. If the matter is about what things are made up of then the form is about how things appear to us.
This leads to the third cause. According to Aristotle, things don't just come out of nowhere. Everything has a source and purpose. Think of Christianity - it did not emerge in a vacuum. It has a context, a history, and material conditions that shaped and will continue to form and shape it. The Efficient cause for Aristotle is what begins the process of something, what starts the process. A process that brings reality into existence. Everything has a beginning, and the efficient cause looks at the cause behind that beginning.
Now let us look at the Final cause. Let's take the example of a pear. Notice this about the pear. If this pear falls to the ground, becomes properly embedded within the soil, and receives enough rain, it will start to grow into another pear tree. It has, therefore, what Aristotle calls potency or potentiality. It has the potential to become something more mature and more developed. And here, Aristotle makes an interesting point, what is a pear? Aristotle will tell us; a pear is a pear tree. It is an immature pear tree. A pear is a pear tree in a microcosm, with a low degree of actuality because it has not fully grown yet. But when this pear grows into a tree, it is the fullest expression of what a pear is meant to be. Its potential has been actualised.
For Aristotle, these causes go back eternally. He doesn't think we could have the world or the truth without the ultimate causal explanation. He believes that while the causes mentioned are important, none of them go back eternally.
So, he explains it in terms of a one and final cause. He suggests that for all of that infinite series of causations, there must be some cause that is a final cause, a cause behind all causes. And he posits that this final cause is not caused by anything else; otherwise, it will not be the final cause, and we would need an explanation for that cause too.
He calls this cause the Prime Mover or the unmoved mover. And he spends a lot of time explaining the existence of this final cause and the need to have a Prime Mover to make sense of all causality. For Aristotle, the highest cause or the prime mover moves all the cosmos. It's a self-thinking thought. It exists for itself by attracting the rest of us toward it. And this, according to Aristotle, is the source of all intelligibility in the cosmos.
The Prime Mover affect upon the world is like a magnet that affects iron, pulling it without itself being changed by the action. When Medieval theologians discovered the writings of Aristotle, they were in awe of him. Aquinas uses the term actus purus to refer to God's continual creative activity. Aquinas appropriated Aristotle's idea of the Prime Mover into his theology. Like the Prime Mover, Aquinas believed that God is changeless and perfect, drawing all of creation to Godself. For the creation to exist, there must be a perfect creator, the ultimate cause behind all causes.
Aristotle's ideas were fully actualized by the Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume and John Locke. They are also known for starting a philosophical movement known as British Empiricism. Both Hume and Locke created the intellectual climate of which John Wesley was a product. In his Compendium of Natural Philosophy, John Wesley relied on the language of Thomas Aquinas to explain that there is a revealed cause in God's creation, which leads to a First Cause. Wesley worked in the Aristotelian tradition, insisting on the capacity of human knowledge of God through spiritual senses. Wesley went so far to insist that the preachers read Dutch scholar and theologian Gerard Vossius introduction to Aristotelian philosophy.
In the end, we notice three things. First, Aristotle's concept of the Prime Mover was compatible with the Christian notion of God as the source of all creation. Christian thinkers were quick to appropriate this into their theology. Secondly, his method for understanding truth proved equally valuable for Christian theology. Christian theologians have long argued that God's truth is revealed in creation all around us. Observations and perception play a key role in grasping this truth. Knowledge of God is based on our experiences, not doctrine alone. This idea can be traced back to Aristotle. Third, philosophy and theology have much in common. They are both interested in the questions of a higher being, of the good life, and of what being "human" means. On these questions, the two worlds collide. While there is competition and conflict between them, there is also undeniable cooperation and confluence.
Aristotle and Early Christian Thought, Mark Edwards.