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Throttled by Aristotle

How did Aristotle's teaching get into the Church?

All good things come to an end, more so bad things and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is well documented, as is the subsequent rise of the Dark Ages. During this time much of the ancient wisdom of the Greeks was lost to the world and Aristotle in particular was forgotten. On the world stage Christianity gave way to Islam and two Arab scholars, Avicenna and Averroes, rediscovered the works of Aristotle. These teachings were eventually translated from Arabic into Latin and Christian Europe went crazy over this rediscovered philosopher. Posthumous appreciation of Aristotle reached Elvis-like proportions as Christian thinkers began to ask what this Greek philosopher could offer the Church. One man in particular put on his thinking cap and, undoubtedly, altered the course of Christian history.

This man was Thomas Aquinas, the last in our cast list of significant thinkers. A gentle giant, he was a Dominican monk living in the thirteenth century. To Aquinas, Aristotle was "the Philosopher" and he turned his huge brain to see what Aristotle could offer the world of Christian theology. His endeavours in marrying up the ideas of Plato, by way of Augustine and Aristotle, were so influential that he is considered by many Catholics as their greatest theologian and philosopher.

So, in a nutshell, what is a summary of Aquinas's teachings? In common with Aristotle, he was keen on using the rational mind and the senses, alongside his God-given faith. His ideas are explained in his greatest work, Summa Theologica. This is a guide to all the main theological teachings for the Catholic Church. It's rather large and complex but a good way to highlight the influence of Aristotle is to concentrate on just one aspect, that of the sacraments.

Before Aquinas came along, the seven sacraments - baptism, confirmation, reconciliation, the anointing, the Eucharist, holy orders and marriage - were seen as means of grace, ways by which God can bless individuals. Aristotle's influence, through Aquinas, was to modify this understanding into something more concrete. The best way for us to see the ideas of Aristotle in action is to look at the process of transubstantiation.

This is the Catholic belief that, as part of the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the bread and wine actually change into the body and blood of Christ on the altar. This indeed is a strange one. Jesus Christ present, in person, rather than just being present symbolically?

Aristotle taught that there is more to matter than its appearance. Every object also has substance, a kind of inner quality which defines it. An example given is that when water freezes it takes on a different appearance (ice), but is still the same substance (H2O). Given this Greek understanding, Aquinas said that at the point of consecration at Holy Communion, although their appearance doesn't change, the substance of the bread and wine does, miraculously changing into the body and blood of Christ. This fact is accepted by faith by Catholics, despite the fact that the concept is fundamentally pagan, from the mind of Aristotle.

So the whistle stop tour has ended. There has only been space to give you just a sketch of the issues raised by the infiltration of Greek philosophy into Christian theology. The ideas of Plato, refined by Philo (for a Jewish audience) and Origen (for a Christian audience), became thoroughly entwined with God’s revelation to us, thanks to Augustine, the father of the Western Church. Then to this mix was added the ideas of Aristotle - despite being at odds with Plato on so many issues – and all put together by Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, the most authoritative Catholic manual of theology.

And next week we are going to start to find out how this hybrid of faith and reason was to prove most troublesome for the Church.

Steve Maltz
March 2012

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