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ARISTOTLE


It is perhaps not essential for us to defend Aristotle, however, in the interests of fair play, and because Aristotle has a not insignificant place in the development of the traditional apologetic, and has provided excellent tools of logic to challenge effectively the position of Van Til, he (Aristotle) is worth consideration.

Van Til, as might be expected from his transcendentalist and idealist leanings, is particularly severe on Aristotle. Instead of agreeing that Aristotle did acknowledge the true God, as Watson affirms above, Van Til asserts that Aristotle's method brings us to nothing better than a finite God. Because Thomas Aquinas used Aristotle's method in developing the traditional theistic proofs, Van Til refers to apologetics which teach that the theistic proofs are valid, as Roman Catholic, though he does recognise that others have followed in these footsteps. Van Til's castigation is as follows: "He (the Roman Catholic apologist) will try to prove the existence of God by the method of Aristotle..........So doing he does not prove the existence of the ontological Trinity; he 'proves' the existence of a god, a god that fits into the pattern of 'being in general'." Apologetics, page 17.

The undemonstrated assumption, but then Van Til does not have to worry about such things, is that unless you acknowledge the Trinity, which you cannot do without Scripture, you are in no way whatsoever acknowledging the true God. Well this is equivalent to saying that the Wright brothers knew nothing about 'real' flight because, with their limitations, they had not in the first instance produced a jet air liner. Well contrary to Van Til, to affirm that limited knowledge is still true knowledge, is not to assert absolute autonomy, but to confess finiteness.

Roman Catholics affirm the existence of the Triune God. Yet perhaps he would say, because they are Roman Catholics, they do not have 'real' knowledge either. Then we should ask just how much of the Kuyperian shibboleth must be spoken and believed before you can have true knowledge. Van Til might object that this is unfair, and say that all that is required for true knowledge is scriptural regeneration. But then, because their view of regeneration emphasises an eradication of what they call the noetic (intellectual) effects of the fall, Kuyperians lack any credible doctrine of historical faith, and are therefore untrustworthy guides. So how can anybody get true knowledge?

In passing it is worth indicating again that it is improper for Van Til to use the philosophical term 'ontological Trinity', when Paul has proscribed the teaching of Scripture doctrines in 'the words that man's wisdom teaches'.
Van Til is quite critical of the Aristotelian philosophy as a whole, because, as might be expected, he considers that it proceeds on the basis of man as autonomous: "But in practice Rome (insinuating again that it is not Reformed to do so) teaches that those who take reason as autonomous and who therefore make man the final point of reference in predication are essentially right in their methodology. In particular is this the case with Aristotle who is constantly called 'the philosopher' by St. Thomas and frequently said to be right in his basic methodology." A Christian Theory of Knowledge, page 72, Baker, 1969.


Preliminary Considerations

A full discussion of Aristotle is not appropriate nor intended here. Some notice is taken for the purpose of clarification. Aristotle's reputation has suffered in some Reformed circles because some medieval scholastic theologians ostensively used his methods in their theological works. Because the scholastic theology supported the doctrines of transubstantiation and salvation by works, and much of its other discussions have become a byword for vanity, this has damaged Aristotle's reputation.

However, one consideration ought to moderate criticism of Aristotle: viz. the scholastic theologians, not being able to read Greek, could not consult Aristotle in the original, and had to examine his work in translations made by Arabic interpreters. The implication of this is that what Aristotle really taught was not present to the attention of the scholastics.

As with philosophy in general the Christian teacher must stand on guard and keep the special discussions and methods of philosophy separate from theology, which is quite capable of erecting its own noble structure from its true source, the Scriptures. So it is wrong to embroil Aristotle's teachings, right or wrong, in the redemptive science. As already indicated, John Owen has strongly recommended this, and another quotation from him to the same effect will not go astray:

"The schoolmen brought this expression (the word 'morals', in Greek hqika) with all its concerns , as they did the rest of Aristotle's philosophy, into the church and divinity; and I cannot but think it had been well if they had never done it, as all will grant they might have omitted some other things without the least disadvantage to learning or religion. However, this expression of 'moral virtue' having absolutely possessed itself of the fancies and discourses of all, and, it may be, of the understanding of some, though with very little satisfaction when all things are considered, I shall not endeavour to dispossess it or eliminate it from the confines of Christian theology. Only, I am sure had we been left to the scripture expressions of 'repentance towards God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, of the fear of God, of holiness, righteousness, living unto God, walking with God, and before him,' we might have been free from many vain, wordy perplexities..........for let but the Scripture express what it is to be religious, and there will be no contesting about the difference between grace and moral virtue." Works, Volume XIII, pages 412-413.

The spirit of these remarks of Owen's are much against the system of Van Til, which incorporates so much Kantian philosophical dialect. Concerning the first truths of religion - the existence of God, and, taking cognisance of Owen's objection and concession above concerning the term 'moral', the moral law also, Aristotle's teaching can be noticed for what it is worth. Owen in support of his own teachings, and without vitiating the principle of protecting the redemptive science from philosophy, has in fact has made quite a number of quotations from Aristotle (see Owen's Works, Volume XVI, page 608). Having said this, then, in the philosophical realm, Aristotle can be judged on his own merits.

To say this of course is to go against Van Til, for he will not allow that the light of nature can erect a valid philosophy, distinct from theology, without Scripture control. It is unreasonable for Van Til to suggest that men making discoveries by the light of nature, with freedom to err as well as to judge correctly, in other words with a finite autonomy, are acting necessarily in an imperious autonomous manner. Many philosophers have attempted to break their legitimate bounds, abusing reason in the process, but this is not the case with all the efforts of all non-Christian philosophers, as Van Til implies. To repeat Calvin's assertions: 'Shall we deny the possession of intellect to those (the heathen philosophers) who drew up rules for discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason?' And, 'Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skillful description of nature, were blind?'


Aristotle and the Doctrine of God

Having assumed incorrectly the eternity of matter and the series of organisms, see above, and therefore the eternity of change (which is also called movement), Aristotle by ingenious consideration and logical reasoning, not dependent upon the incorrect assumption that he had made, but dependent upon change or movement and causation which produces change, came to the conclusion that: "We must therefore assume the existence of a being itself unmoved (ie. unchanging) which can somehow cause eternal movement. This Prime Mover, eternal changeless and containing no element of matter or unrealised potentiality (ie. He is pure act), keeps the heavenly bodies moving and maintains the eternal life of the universe." The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, page 31.

It is not only Roman Catholics that have recognised the validity of Aristotle's affirmations concerning God. Thomas Watson did so, as above. Thornwell states: "The ancient philosophers concur in the same fundamental truth. The supreme God of Plato and Aristotle figures as the supreme intelligence or mind." Writings, Volume 1, page 175. Calvin states: "Hence certain of the philosophers (among whom Aristotle is cited, from his work Hist. Anim. lib. i. c. 17) have not improperly called man a microcosm (miniature world), as being a rare specimen of divine power, wisdom and goodness, and containing within himself wonders sufficient to occupy our minds, if we are willing so to employ them." Institutes, Book I, 5:3.

It is clear however that Aristotle's view of God is incomplete, as it must be because he was without Scripture. As above he did not recognise God's creating all out of nothing, a doctrine Plato came closest to among the heathen philosophers, again simply because this requires almost certainly the scriptures to discover it. Aristotle's view of providence was either defective or nonexistent. Nonetheless Frederick Copleston remarks that though Plato came closer to the doctrine of creation than Aristotle, and did recognise Divine providence, yet Aristotle "shows a clearer apprehension of the ultimate Godhead than Plato does." A History of Philosophy, Volume 1, Part II, page 60, Doubleday, 1962.


Aristotle and Pantheism


Aristotle has been linked with ancient pantheism, because he taught the prior eternity of the series of organisms and that God was in a sense an Anima Mundi (ie. world spirit). In the opinion of the best expositors however, Aristotle avoids frank pantheism because he distinguished God as an intelligent active cause.

The weakness in Aristotle in distinguishing God from the world, just alluded to, is aggravated by his failure to ascribe definitely personality to God. Thus there are scholars who consider that the God of Aristotle is not personal. Charles Hodge concurs in this view, see his Systematic Theology, Volume 1, page 327, Eerdmans 1973, as does Van Til. But this is debatable. Copleston remarks: "Aristotle may not have spoken of the First Mover as being personal, and certainly the ascription of anthropomorphic personality would be far indeed from his thoughts, but since the First Mover is intelligence or thought, it follows that He is personal in the philosophic sense." A History of Philosophy, Volume 1, Part II, page 59. Dabney agrees with this, saying of the Anima Mundi, that "it obviously has intelligence, choice, and will: and how can personality be better defined?" Lectures in Systematic Theology, page 22.

Given that Aristotle's attempts were the best among heathen philosophers in setting forth the natural knowledge of God possessed by man, it is very clear that such knowledge falls utterly short of Christianity, which provides a much more complete knowledge of God, a knowledge unto salvation, with redemption, and fellowship with God. Aristotle's failure in these respects are a demonstration of Paul's so true assertion, "For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching (the gospel) to save them that believe." 1 Corinthians 1:21


Ockham Duns Scotus and Aristotle

Acceptance of Aristotle was not universal in Roman Catholicism. There were Roman Catholics in earlier times, the Ockhamists certainly, and doubtless there are still some today, critical of Aristotle, just as Kuyperians are.

As an aside, in light of the fact that Kuyperians have had a hardly concealed tendency to call the traditional apologetic 'scholastic', it is worth reinforcing the point that Kuyperianism has scholastic roots also. Ockham represents one such root. Duns Scotus may be another. There is debate as to whether Scotus did cast doubt, as Kuyperians do, upon the theistic proofs. In his Oxford Commentary, Scotus asserts a Natural Theology, whereas in a work called the Theoremata, attributed to him, such natural knowledge is repudiated. This makes it difficult to be sure of his definitive position. See A History of Philosophy, Volume 2, Part II, by Frederick Copleston, pages 201-204. The analogy I have drawn between Ockham and Kuyperianism remains unimpaired, and whoever did write the Theoremata also anticipated Kuyperianism by a considerable period.


Aristotle's Philosophy in General

There are on the other hand, sound Protestant theologians, opposed to Roman Catholicism, who yet greatly appreciate Aristotle's philosophy. Aristotle's syllogistic logic, his theory of happiness, his doctrine of the golden mean, his view of efficient and final causes, and of teleology are all commendable. John Owen also, just like Aquinas, calls Aristotle "the philosopher", and even "the great philosopher", Works, Volume II, pages 343, and 8. As above, William Twisse called Aristotle 'the greatest of philosophers'. Dabney says of him that he was "perhaps the most sagacious of pagan thinkers." Lectures in Systematic Theology, page 22. Charles Bridges, the author of the highly esteemed Commentary on the Proverbs, Banner of Truth, 1968, calls Aristotle "the prince of heathen philosophy." Op. cit. page 620.

Thornwell especially, has a high estimate of Aristotle. He regards Aristotle's theory of happiness, though incomplete, "as one of the finest discussions in the whole compass of ancient philosophy." Writings, Volume 2, page 463. He provides this commendation of Aristotle's moral philosophy:

"Aristotle, among the ancients, was unquestionably in advance of every age which preceded the introduction of Christianity, and is still in advance of many who call themselves Christians, in his clear and steady perception of the indissoluble connection betwixt the cogitative and practical departments of man's nature in reference to duty." Ibid. Pages 481-482.

And as an excellent definitive summary:

"For myself, I have long looked upon the Scriptures as containing the key to the true solution of the problem of existence; and I have been struck, in several instances, with the remarkable fact, that the speculations of Aristotle break down just where a higher light was needed to guide him. He has tracked truth through the court and sanctuary to the mystic veil, which he was not permitted to lift. One hint from revelation would have perfected his theory of happiness (the hint was "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever." Answer to Question 1, Westminster Shorter Catechism); a single line of Moses (I presume with respect to God's creating all out of nothing for his own glory) would have saved a world of perplexity, touching the relations of matter and form." Life and Letters of Thornwell, by Benjamin M. Palmer, page 412, Banner of Truth, 1974.

This judgement of Thornwell's of course contradicts Kuyperianism in the hands of Van Til. Thornwell sees the revealed system of truth as supplementing the light of nature at cardinal points, ie. it has a substantial additive effect of great importance. Revelation 'solves the problem of existence' and brings the word of reconciliation to us. There is no equivocation or invalidation of what man has done with natural light, when it is true. Thus Van Til's sweeping criticism of Aristotle is unacceptable to us, and is not a true representation of the real state of affairs.


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