How Aristotle Messed Up the Church

Mark Beuving —  July 19, 2012 — 4 Comments

Plato wasn’t the only ancient mind to have a huge impact on the church. In this post, I want to consider another key player: Aristotle. Not many people have had as enduring a legacy as Plato, but Aristotle is far from irrelevant. His writings haven’t had as big of a direct impact on the church, partly because his writings were “lost” for much of church history, and partly because his impact was more roundabout. Even so, the world we live in has been shaped by Aristotle’s influence—not only outside of the church, but inside as well. In fact, you think the way you do in part because of Aristotle’s influence.

Aristotle studied under Plato, and while he advanced the Platonic tradition in many respects, he also turned a lot of Plato’s teachings on their heads. For example, Plato taught that the heavenly world contained “forms” which gave meaning and identity to the individual things on this earth. So there is a perfect chair in heaven that defines chairness, and the chairs on earth are imperfect copies of that chair—they are chairs only insofar as they conform to the heavenly chair. Aristotle, on the other hand, explained that the essence of a chair did not exist in heaven as some universal principle, the essence of a chair lives within each earthly chair.

The implications of this are huge (believe it or not). Aristotle was saying that rather than looking to some heavenly principle to determine the meaning of things on earth, we need to look at the individual things around us, and from there we can find some sort of meaning or essence that we might call a universal principle. Is that making sense? In essence: meaning doesn’t come down from the clouds, it comes from observing the things we can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Whereas Plato distrusted the senses, Aristotle believed that truth would be found through the senses.

Basically, Aristotle became the patron saint of modern science. His method of learning was not about revelation (waiting for a voice from heaven), he was all about observation (the scientific method). Beginning with the Renaissance and culminating in the Enlightenment, God was continually being pushed to the fringe of society. People became increasingly confident in man’s ability to explain his world apart from divine revelation. They grew optimistic about man’s ability to approve his world. They saw a golden age just around the corner, and science and reason would lead them there.

Notice that it wasn’t science that was leading people away from God. Rather, it was the assumption that science was capable of explaining everything about our world apart from God. Aristotle gave people confidence that they didn’t need to look to God for the answers, they could find them through observing the objects around them.

And here is where Aristotle began to mess up the church. Christians began to concede that yes, people can explain the world apart from God by observing the natural world. Yet they insisted that you couldn’t know God without revelation. So religion is important for your spiritual life, but everything else can be explained sufficiently through science. It’s an oversimplification, but essentially, the church decided that there were two types of things in this world (spiritual things and natural things) and there were two separate ways of knowing those two types of things (revelation/faith and science).

Ultimately, this box we have allowed ourselves to be placed in has grown smaller and more constricting. The secular world grants us our faith, but we are told that it is a private matter. Faith belongs in our hearts, not our public discourse, our workplaces, or our politics. The amazing thing is that Christians have largely gone along with this.

Aristotle was a wise and fascinating man, but let’s not allow his influence to keep our Christian worldview sequestered off into the realm of private prayer. The Bible still speaks to every area of human existence. We can and should explore the individual things in this world, but we should do so with the conviction that nothing in creation makes sense apart from the Creator.

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Mark Beuving

Mark Beuving

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Mark Beuving currently serves as Associate Pastor at Creekside Church in Rocklin, CA. Prior to going back into pastoral ministry, Mark spent ten years on staff at Eternity Bible College as a Campus Pastor, Dean of Students, and then Associate Professor. Mark now teaches online adjunct for Eternity. He is passionate about building up the body of Christ, training future leaders for the Church, and writing. Though he is interested in many areas of theology and philosophy, Mark is most fascinated with practical theology and exploring the many ways in which the Bible can speak to and transform our world. He is the author of "Resonate: Enjoying God's Gift of Music" and the co-author with Francis Chan of "Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples." Mark lives in Rocklin with his wife and two daughters.
  • Wes

    Hey Mark-

    Thanks for responding to my post! I am glad that we can have this dialogue. Once again, I wish to be as honest and truth seeking in all my comments.

    In regard to your three opening paragraphs I agree with nearly with everything you have said; no contention on my end! I entirely agree that Aristotelian and Platonic thought has numerous positive and even crypto-Christian premises, after all they are sons of Adam, created in God’s image. I do not wish to demote all of their thought in anyway, and I understand, as I stated, the main theme that you are trying to communicate in these articles. However, that being said I still do believe that their may be a more penetrating idea that permeates your thought as a whole, and that is what I was trying to explore. I am very interested in presuppositions and thought formation and how they influence further inferences, which is why my response may have seemed off base, however I think that I can justify what I was getting at. I assure you I am not trying to “hijack” your article to perpetuate any sort of agenda. Allow for me to further clarify:

    The “implicit judgement” phrase relates specifically to the idea of paganism and the Catholic Church, and how the reformers could justify schism from the Catholic Church. I am not sure if you are aware of the reformation history and the many retorts that the reformers posed, but one such retort sounded very similar in regard to the “whatness” of your article. The reformers claimed that the reason why they could leave the Church was that wholesale (philosophically pagan) corruptions had entered the Churches doctrine and dogma, and therefore it (as a teaching office) had fallen into heresy. That is why I asked the question, “If you believe (as the title of the post suggests) that pagan philosophy contaminated Christian thought, I would ask to what extent was the Church corrupted beyond what you have written?” I find this to be a more profound question, as your answer will allow for me to see as the reader where you stand in regard to pagan philosophy’s influence on the visible Church throughout history. If you say that the Church can be influenced by pagan heresies when declaring doctrine and dogma then you would have to appeal to the Church councils in an ad hoc way. That is all I am saying. Further, I would agree with you that the Church has always adopted erroneous and sinful characteristics of the secular culture, however would Christ allow for His Church to fall into wholesale heresy in regard to doctrinal decrees? While I realize now that you are simply talking about modern Christians adopting the culture’s empiricism which was influenced by Aristotle, but perhaps I would ask again the a more pervasive question: Do you believe that the everyday, individual Christian’s lifestyle or the doctrine of the living and speaking Church has been messed up by Aristotle’s and Plato’s thought? Can the historio-supernatural Church have “messed up” doctrines if it is lead by the Holy Spirit into all truth?

    Further, I understand that you are talking about modern Christians Mark, but are not the modern Christians that you speak of more systemically actuated by reformed thought which would lead to the ecclesial problems I spoke of? If modern Protestants adopt this same notion of pagan thought creeping into the Church (take transubstantiation equated to Platonic forms for instance), they would have to answer the questions I posed in my long paragraph. Lastly, I truly, sincerely hope that I do not sound as if I have a chip on my shoulder. If someone responds with a strong-minded contention that does not mean that they are resentful does it? I believe that I have justified why I asked such things, and why they are not tangental or “tract-like”. To be honest with you as well Mark, that seems like a label that someone would use that simply does not like the argument posed on grounds that they simply do not like it. Does seeking truth and asking for answers equate to trying to convert people? Isn’t that how truth is hashed out, through questions? I hope I did it charitably and soundly philosophical, and that it did not come off as canned or with underlying agendas.

    Lastly, the reason why I had issue with your statement about Church architecture is because of the overall (albeit justifiably) critical language used in the article. You said “As a side note, this type of thinking is partially responsible for the grand cathedrals in Europe. They were designed to draw our eyes and thoughts away from this world and onto the mysteries of heaven. Beautiful, awe inspiring, and handed down to us compliments of Plato.” To me this sounded like a condemnation of such architecture, however it was most likely due to the general evaluative language used. My bad. However, I have noticed that you have written other such posts on the Church building concerning Calvin’s disapproval of Church being open which leads to “superstitious” activity. As a Catholic this does not sit well with me as the act of adoration of the blessed sacrament takes place in the chapel, and while Christ is truly everywhere he is also re-presented the Eucharistic sacrament. It was only a push back based on what I think you believe about the Church building in general. I agree that there will always be corruptions found in our fallible personages and those are things we need to constantly fight off and recognize through God’s graces.

    Thanks for the great articles Mark. I look forward to you response, and if not I am glad we have had this discussion thus far.

    – Pax Christi

    • Mark Beuving

      Thanks for the clarifications, Wes. That definitely helps. I’m sorry for not responding directly to your questions about the Reformation. Sometimes when people focus on something in an article that wasn’t really there, I chalk it up to a knee-jerk reaction surrounding a pet doctrine. I’m not entirely clear on the connection you’re seeing, but you’re convincing me of the relevance, and I don’t mind putting my cards on the table, so to speak.

      As far as the church architecture goes, I’m sorry for giving the impression that I think church buildings are bad or that we should build ugly churches. I certainly don’t believe this. God created beauty, so we should pursue it in everything. Furthermore, our buildings—along with everything else we create—inherently reflects our beliefs. The grand style of the cathedrals reflects many positive aspects of theology (e.g., the stained glass windows which taught the illiterate about God’s truth, the God-honoring craftsmanship, even the suggestion of transcendence). I intentionally used the word “partially” in my post (rather than completely) because while I believe that Plato’s emphasis on the heavenly world influenced Christian thinkers who in turn focused on heavenly things a bit too much at times and that this emphasis shows up in the cathedrals, it’s also important to note that the Bible, too, calls us to focus on things above (Col. 3:1), so Plato is not solely responsible for a view to heaven. My point was that his influence on the church swung the pendulum a bit far. Does that sound okay? Clarification is so helpful.

      “Do you believe that the everyday, individual Christian’s lifestyle or the doctrine of the living and speaking Church has been messed up by Aristotle’s and Plato’s thought?” In my posts, I was referring to ways that the beliefs and practices of Christians throughout the ages have been influenced by Plato and Aristotle’s influence on the church (both Catholic and Protestant) and on Western culture in general. I’m not saying there’s some insidious doctrine hiding in everyone’s creeds, catechisms, or theology textbooks (though I’m certain there are more than a few of these lurking around), I’m just saying the thinking of these philosophers continues to be influential. In this case, I’d say the influence is negative.

      “Can the historio-supernatural Church have “messed up” doctrines if it is lead by the Holy Spirit into all truth?” Absolutely. Every page of church history testifies to this reality. We even see this in the New Testament when Paul has to call out Peter on his false teaching and false practice (see Gal. 2:11 and the context). The Spirit does indeed lead us into all truth, but that does not make us (either as individuals or as collected bodies of believers) infallible, epistemologically or otherwise. We are in the process of being redeemed, of having our minds conformed to the mind of Christ, but until that work is completed our minds still bear the stain of sin. So we can and do think wrong thoughts that need to be confronted with God’s truth. This is a healthy process that the church and every individual within it must constantly undergo. (By the way, I think we’re in agreement here based your statement: “I agree that there will always be corruptions found in our fallible personages and those are things we need to constantly fight off and recognize through God’s graces.” Probably we were saying the same thing from two different angles?)

      You mentioned the church councils again, so I’ll just say that when God’s people gather to discuss his truth, we should value and pay attention to what they say. I think this is the case with the councils and the creeds they produced. However, when God’s people say something that contradicts what He has clearly revealed to us in Scripture, then I have no choice to believe that God’s people are in error rather than God’s revelation. God does reveal himself in many ways, but the word of man—even the community of those who are being redeemed—does not override the word of God. So I am all for councils when they help us understand what God has said in Scripture. But I don’t believe that they ever carry the authority that Scripture carries. And to be sure I’m not skirting your question, I do believe that the Catholic Church teaches many things that are in line with Scripture and that honor God. But I also believe that there are many ways in which the Catholic Church does not line up with Scripture. So I would affirm those areas of Catholicism that line up with the Bible, and reject those that contradict it. My judgment is not infallible as to which doctrines lines up and which do not. But I have no greater authority by which to judge these things than God himself, and I have no clearer statement of his truth and will than the Bible.

      I hope I’m scratching the itch a bit better here. I’m sure I’m not saying everything exactly as you’d like to hear, but I agree with you that open dialogue is important.

      Thoughts?

  • Wes

    Hey Mark-

    Love the blog and I am always reading the stuff that you post. I was on Facebook and both of these related articles caught my eye the other night, and I have to say really insightful and thoughtful posts. I thought I would take a crack at a response here just to encourage some further dialogue.

    While I understand the main thrust of the article I think there may be some presuppositions and implied ideals engrained into the argument. Please know that I want to impart my thoughts in the most charitable way possible, as a fellow Christian brother and a seeker of truth through Christ.

    Firstly, Platonism as a philosophical system is antithetical to the Christian Faith no doubt, but one could also not deny that certain Platonic semantics had been adapted (not adopted) by various Church Fathers to apply to theological matters. Take Aristotelian philosophy for instance. Many of the CONCEPTS within Aristotelian thought can be traced back to the earliest days of the early Church, however Aristotle’s philosophy was virtually unknown to the eastern Fathers. Take the Eucharistic meal for example. The early church fathers used the Greek terms like “change of being” to describe the mystical occurrence within the communion meal, which is essentially the same notion found in the principle of transubstantiation. Did paganism spur this doctrine then? I would contest that it did not. Now, this is not a response to argue that the early church universally accepted the doctrine of the real presence in the Eucharist, however I would boldly contest that it was the most unanimously consented doctrine up until Zwinglian symbolism and other reformed notions entered the picture.

    Secondly, neither Plato nor Aristotle were accepted as philosophical “fathers” of the Church, since their respective philosophies led to gross errors in the faith. Which is why when Aristotle became popular in the West his philosophy was significantly scrutinized and his errors abandoned, most notably by St. Thomas Aquinas. However, since these pagan philosophers were searching for real truth, they would find partial (albeit corrupted) verity in their thought, and thusly it should not be wholly abandoned. Take these passages from St. Thomas Aquinas for example:

    “For we ought not to refuse to learn letters because they say that Mercury discovered them; nor because they have dedicated temples to Justice and Virtue, and prefer to worship in the form of stones things that ought to have their place in the heart, ought we on that account to forsake justice and virtue. Nay, but let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master; and while he recognizes and acknowledges the truth, even in their religious literature, let him reject the figments of superstition…” (On Christian Doctrine, ii, 28)

    …and also:

    “Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said anything that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. . . . Their garments, also—that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life—we must take and turn to a Christian use.” (On Christian Doctrine, ii, 60)

    Secondly, is the parallel you are making actually related? Even if there is a pagan parallel, that does not mean that it was casually related. Two groups may develop beliefs and philosophies which are similar, but were totally independent. The notion that similar ideas are always the result of transmission from a common source is not always the case, and for very good reason. Particularly because humans are simply similar to each other and live in similar capacities, leading them to simply have similar views.

    However, my main contention with these two articles is that there may be in an implicit judgement which informs the rest of your Christian thought on this matter. Do you believe that the pagan philosophies permeated the Church in such a way that it fell into apostasy within the first few centuries, and that the reformers were justified in causing a schism? Or does Christ’s promise to lead His church into ALL truth, so that the gates of hell will not prevail against it still hold today? If it is the former, then I would point out that you would have no principled reason to appeal to any creed or confession, because you will only submit to their authority so long as you agree with them, correct? There is a medieval proverb that goes something like this, “If I submit to an authority, only when I agree, than the one to whom I submit is me.” If the early Churches creedal statements do not conform to your interpretation of scripture, then they are only authoritative in a derivative sense, meaning their authority is simply an illusion. This unfortunately would leave you in a very interesting situation, because it means that God at some point bestowed a charism of authority through the Holy Spirit on these men up until a certain point (Nicene Council, Chalcedonian Council) so that they would not fall into error, however he then revoked this special gift or charism of not falling into heresy at some point. This means that there is no actual ecclesiology within Protestantism; it is just a facade in some respect. Therefore, to appeal to the councils is actually an illusion of submitting to authority because you will only submit as long as their decrees conform to your individual interpretation of scripture, thusly making any such council or creed open to heresy or just simply moot. The Protestant can simply pick and choose what he or she likes within the councils and then from there formulate his or her own confession, which simply demotes the person’s reasoning to ad hoc arguments. If you believe (as the title of the post suggests) that pagan philosophy contaminated Christian thought, I would ask to what extent was the Church corrupted beyond what you have written? If you believe it wholly corrupted the Church, then you would run into the problems that I mentioned above, and any of the church fathers, magisterial councils or other ecclesial authorities cannot be appealed to in a principled way.

    In the previous article you made a statement about european chapels, and how the architectural nuances of the typical european Church building are an exemplification of how pagan philosophy was imbued into Christian thought. Well, I would simply point you to the Temple of the Ark within the Old Testament. Perhaps the largest and most ornate structure of the ancient world, with typology and symbolism built into every facet of the building. The Jews, from whom Christianity derived, worshiped in municipal synagogues, as well as worshiped in the Temple of the Ark. Further, the early Christians worshiped in their homes, and in caves and catacombs, as the case may be; these are not buildings expressly constructed for Christian worship. However, Christians whose belief-system developed from Judaism, would also eventually have buildings of worship, just as the Jews did. Not to mention that many of the earliest Christians continued to worship in the synagogue, but were persecuted in the midst which necessitated places of Christian worship. Therefore, deductive logic shows that the Biblical evidences condone specified buildings. Now, if it is the architectural archetypes that you have beef with, then I would go even further and press you to not make a passing statement about the height of a building being an analogical comparison to pagan philosophy. The Church should be and always had been the largest building “on the block” for reasons that I am sure you would not contest with. It is only in the modern age that we have adopted a notion of an invisible and merely accidentally visible church, and placed our churches in strip malls and commercial parks.

    Again, I understand these are thought provoking ideas, and are not meant to be subversive in anyway. I am simply trying to search for the truth within Christ’s love and charity, as I believe that iron will sharpen iron, which means there must be charitable friction.

    – In Christ’s Love, Pax Christi

    • Mark Beuving

      Hey Wes.

      Thanks for your thoughts here.

      First, I need to point out that there are many very good things to be said about both Plato and Aristotle. I wrote these two posts because I think these particular insights have impacted our culture and our churches in specific negative ways. But both men have had a positive impact on Western culture as well. In this post, I focused on the fact that Aristotle’s focus on observing this world led to a huge surge in scientific observation and discovering. That is obviously a great thing. So I could have stayed positive, but I wanted to point out that Aristotle’s epistemology (knowledge comes through the autonomous use of human reason and observation and not through revelation) has been adopted by Western culture, and that Christians have passively gone along with it.

      Maybe I wasn’t clear enough in my actual post, but I wasn’t talking about the church actively adopting Aristotle’s worldview, but rather Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers taking on Aristotle’s epistemological methodology, and then using that to put Christian thought in a tightly constricted box.

      I do think that we should take the insights of everyone around us (including the ancient Greeks) and put them in service of the truth. We shouldn’t be afraid of truth wherever it may show up. The New Testament itself shows us that God’s truth can be presented in terms that a pagan culture is using for other purposes (John’s use of logos or Paul’s reimaging of the concepts of an ecclesia and an oikos are great examples).

      As far as the “implicit judgment that informs the rest of my Christian thought” goes, however, you’ve pulled that out of nowhere. Honestly, it sounds like a chip on your shoulder. I certainly believe that the church has always assimilated erroneous thinking and living, but I don’t for a moment believe that God has ever completely abandoned his church. I’m not sure what I said that gave you this impression, but I assure you it wasn’t my intention. I don’t think I mentioned the reformation in either post. In fact, I was mostly pointing out errors in the thinking of modern Christians. Also, I didn’t appeal to any councils or anything like that. Just to be up front, that long paragraph reads like you wrote a tract trying to convince someone to renounce Protestantism and then pasted it in the middle here. I don’t see the relevance.

      With regard to church architecture, I’m not sure where the disagreement is. Would you agree that many cathedrals were designed to direct the worshiper’s eyes and thoughts upward to heaven? I assume you would. So all I’m trying to say is that a focus on heavenly things has had a long history in the church, and that it shows up in church architecture. I didn’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t ever focus “upward.” That would be foolish and unbiblical. I was only pointing out that an overemphasis on the world to come leads us to scorn this world, and I think that’s a mistake. There is much that is beautiful, helpful, and good about church architecture, and I think there is great value in the cathedrals.

      Anyway, good discussion. This is one of those cases where a short blog post glosses over a lot of things, and a negative point can color huge swaths of life and history negatively. Sorry about that. Hopefully I’ve clarified that I wasn’t trying to bash the things you mentioned. Getting pushback is always helpful in forcing us to clarify what we are saying and what we’re not saying.