Aristotelian theology

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Aristotle in the The School of Athens, by Raphael Aristotle-Raphael.JPG
Aristotle in the The School of Athens , by Raphael

Aristotelian theology and the scholastic view of God have been influential in Western intellectual history.

Scholasticism A method of critical thought which dominated teaching by the academics ("scholastics", or "schoolmen") of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100 to 1700

Scholasticism was a medieval school of philosophy that employed a critical method of philosophical analysis presupposed upon a Christian theistic paradigm which dominated teaching in the medieval universities in Europe from about 1100 to 1700. It originated within the Christian monastic schools that were the basis of the earliest European universities. The rise of scholasticism was closely associated with the rise of the 12th and 13th century schools that developed into the earliest modern universities, including those in Italy, France, Spain and England.

God in Christianity is the eternal being who created and preserves all things. Christians believe God to be both transcendent and immanent. Christian teachings of the immanence and involvement of God and his love for humanity exclude the belief that God is of the same substance as the created universe but accept that God's divine nature was hypostatically united to human nature in the person of Jesus Christ, in an event known as the Incarnation.

Intellectual history refers to the history of ideas and thinkers. This history cannot be considered without the knowledge of the humans who created, discussed, wrote about, and in other ways were concerned with ideas. Intellectual history as practiced by historians is parallel to the history of philosophy as done by philosophers, and is more akin to the history of ideas. Its central premise is that ideas do not develop in isolation from the people who developed and use them, and that one must study ideas not only as abstract propositions but also in terms of the culture, lives, and historical contexts.



In his first philosophy, later called the Metaphysics , (or “after the Physics”), Aristotle discusses the meaning of being as being. He refers to the unmoved movers (hyperagents), and assigns one to each movement in the heavens and tasks future astronomers with correlating the estimated 47 to 55 motions of the Eudoxan planetary model with the most current and accurate observations. According to Aristotle, each unmoved mover continuously contemplates its own contemplation; the planets and stars, which have their source of motion within themselves (by virtue of aether, Aristotle's fifth element) aspire to emulate the uniform circular motion of their particular mover. Thus captivated, their tireless performance is entirely the result of their own desire. This is one way in which the movers are said to be unmoved. Likewise, they must have no sensory perception whatsoever on account of Aristotle's theory of cognition: were any form of sense perception to intrude upon their thoughts, in that instant they would cease to be themselves, because actual self-reflection is their singular essence, their whole being. Like the heavenly bodies in their unadorned pursuit, so the wise look, with affection, toward the star; and hence as a role model, they inspire those who look up to them, and by whom others still, will yet find themselves enthralled, and so on, creating the enduring natural order of aeon, season, animal and plant.

<i>Metaphysics</i> (Aristotle) work by Aristotle

Metaphysics is one of the principal works of Aristotle and the first major work of the branch of philosophy with the same name. The principal subject is "being qua being," or being insofar as it is being. It examines what can be asserted about any being insofar as it is and not because of any special qualities it has. Also covered are different kinds of causation, form and matter, the existence of mathematical objects, and a prime-mover God.

<i>Physics</i> (Aristotle) treatise by Aristotle

The Physics is a named text, written in ancient Greek, collated from a collection of surviving manuscripts known as the Corpus Aristotelicum, attributed to the 4th-century BC philosopher Aristotle.

Aristotle philosopher in ancient Greece

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, the founder of the Lyceum and the Peripatetic school of philosophy and Aristotelian tradition. Along with his teacher Plato, he has been called the "Father of Western Philosophy". His writings cover many subjects – including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, psychology, linguistics, economics, politics and government. Aristotle provided a complex synthesis of the various philosophies existing prior to him, and it was above all from his teachings that the West inherited its intellectual lexicon, as well as problems and methods of inquiry. As a result, his philosophy has exerted a unique influence on almost every form of knowledge in the West and it continues to be a subject of contemporary philosophical discussion.

Principles of being

Aristotle, by Francesco Hayez Francesco Hayez 001.jpg
Aristotle, by Francesco Hayez

In the Metaphysics , Aristotle discusses actuality ( entelecheia , Greek: ἐντελέχεια) and potentiality ( dynamis , Greek: δύναμις). The former is perfection, realization, fullness of being; the latter imperfection, incompleteness, perfectibility. The former is the determining, the latter the determinable principle. The unmoved movers are entirely actual, Actus Purus , because they are unchanging, eternal, immaterial substance.

In philosophy, potentiality and actuality are a pair of closely connected principles which Aristotle used to analyze motion, causality, ethics, and physiology in his Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics and De Anima, which is about the human psyche.

All material beings have some potentiality. The Physics introduces matter and form and the four causes—material, formal, efficient and final. For example, to explain a statue, one can offer:

Hylomorphism is a philosophical theory developed by Aristotle, which conceives being (ousia) as a compound of matter and form. The word is a 19th-century term formed from the Greek words ὕλη hyle, "wood, matter", and μορφή, morphē, "form".

Four causes elements of an influential principle in Aristotelian thought

The "four causes" are elements of an influential principle in Aristotelian thought whereby explanations of change or movement are classified into four fundamental types of answer to the question "why?". Aristotle wrote that "we do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its cause." While there are cases where identifying a "cause" is difficult, or in which "causes" might merge, Aristotle held that his four "causes" provided an analytical scheme of general applicability.

Contrary to the later so-called "traditional" view of prime matter ( prima materia in Latin), Aristotle asserts that there can be no pure potentiality without any actuality whatsoever. All material substances have unactualized potentials.

Prima materia ubiquitous starting material required for the alchemical magnum opus and the creation of the philosophers stone

In alchemy, prima materia, materia prima or first matter, is the ubiquitous starting material required for the alchemical magnum opus and the creation of the philosopher's stone. It is the primitive formless base of all matter similar to chaos, the quintessence, or aether. Esoteric alchemists describe the prima materia using simile, and compare it to concepts like the anima mundi.

Aristotle argues that, although motion is eternal, there cannot be an infinite series of movers and of things moved. Therefore, there must be some, who are not the first in such a series, that inspire the eternal motion without themselves being moved "as the soul is moved by beauty". Because the planetary spheres each move unfalteringly for all eternity in uniform circular motion with a given rotational period relative to the supreme diurnal motion of the sphere of fixed stars (or First Heaven), they must each love and desire to mimic different unmoved movers corresponding to the given periods.

Classical planet seven non-fixed astronomical objects in the sky visible to the naked eye: Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury, the Sun, and the Moon

In classical antiquity, the seven classical planets are seven non-fixed astronomical objects in the sky visible to the naked eye: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The word planet comes from two related Greek words, πλάνης planēs and πλανήτης planētēs, both with the original meaning of "wanderer", expressing the fact that these objects move across the celestial sphere relative to the fixed stars. Greek astronomers such as Geminus and Ptolemy often divided the seven planets into the Sun, the Moon, and the five planets.

Diurnal motion is an astronomical term referring to the apparent motion of celestial objects around Earth, or more precisely around the two celestial poles, over the course of one day. It is caused by Earth's rotation around its axis, so almost every star appears to follow a circular arc path called the diurnal circle.

Because they eternally inspire uniform motion in the celestial spheres, the unmoved movers must themselves be eternal and unchanging. Because they are eternal, they have already had an infinite amount of time in which to actualize any potentialities and therefore cannot be a composition of matter and form, or potentiality and actuality. They must always be fully actual, and thus immaterial, because at all times in history they have already existed an infinite amount of time, and things that do not actually come to fruition given unlimited opportunities to do so cannot potentially do so.

The life of the unmoved mover is self-contemplative thought ("νοήσεως νόησις (noeseos noesis )", i.e. "thought of thought"). [1] [2] According to Aristotle, the gods cannot potentially be distracted from this eternal self-contemplation because, in that instant, they would cease to exist.


John Burnet (1892) noted [3]

The Neoplatonists were quite justified in regarding themselves as the spiritual heirs of Pythagoras; and, in their hands, philosophy ceased to exist as such, and became theology. And this tendency was at work all along; hardly a single Greek philosopher was wholly uninfluenced by it. Perhaps Aristotle might seem to be an exception; but it is probable that, if we still possessed a few such "exoteric" works as the Protreptikos in their entirety, we should find that the enthusiastic words in which he speaks of the "blessed life" in the Metaphysics and in the Ethics (Nicomachean Ethics) were less isolated outbursts of feeling than they appear now. In later days, Apollonios of Tyana showed in practice what this sort of thing must ultimately lead to. The theurgy and thaumaturgy of the late Greek schools were only the fruit of the seed sown by the generation which immediately preceded the Persian War.

Aristotle's principles of being (see section above) influenced Anselm's view of God, whom he called "that than which nothing greater can be conceived." Anselm thought that God did not feel emotions such as anger or love, but appeared to do so through our imperfect understanding. The incongruity of judging "being" against something that might not exist, may have led Anselm to his famous ontological argument for God's existence.

Many medieval philosophers made use of the idea of approaching a knowledge of God through negative attributes. For example, we should not say that God exists in the usual sense of the term, all we can safely say is that God is not nonexistent. We should not say that God is wise, but we can say that God is not ignorant (i.e. in some way God has some properties of knowledge). We should not say that God is One, but we can state that there is no multiplicity in God's being.

Aristotelian theological concepts were accepted by many later Jewish, Islamic, and Christian philosophers. Key Jewish philosophers included Samuel Ibn Tibbon, Maimonides, and Gersonides, among many others. Their views of God are considered mainstream by many Jews of all denominations even today. Preeminent among Islamic philosophers who were influenced by Aristotelian theology are Avicenna and Averroes. In Christian theology, the key philosopher influenced by Aristotle was undoubtedly Thomas Aquinas. There had been earlier Aristotelian influences within Christianity (notably Anselm), but Aquinas (who, incidentally, found his Aristotelian influence via Avicenna, Averroes, and Maimonides) incorporated extensive Aristotelian ideas throughout his own theology. Through Aquinas and the Scholastic Christian theology of which he was a significant part, Aristotle became "academic theology's great authority in the course of the thirteenth century" [4] and exerted an influence upon Christian theology that become both widespread and deeply embedded. However, notable Christian theologians rejected [5] Aristotelian theological influence, especially the first generation of Christian Reformers [6] and most notably Martin Luther. [7] [8] [9] In subsequent Protestant theology, Aristotelian thought quickly reemerged in Protestant scholasticism.

See also

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Process philosophy — also ontology of becoming, processism, or philosophy of organism — identifies metaphysical reality with change. In opposition to the classical model of change as illusory or accidental, process philosophy regards change as the cornerstone of reality—the cornerstone of being thought of as becoming.

Christian philosophy

Christian philosophy is a development in philosophy that is characterised by coming from a Christian tradition.

Thomism philosophical school based on the work of Thomas Aquinas

Thomism is the philosophical school that arose as a legacy of the work and thought of Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), philosopher, theologian, and Doctor of the Church. In philosophy, Aquinas' disputed questions and commentaries on Aristotle are perhaps his most well-known works.

Condemnations of 1210–1277 13th-century anti-heresy condemnations issued at University of Paris

The Condemnations at the medieval University of Paris were enacted to restrict certain teachings as being heretical. These included a number of medieval theological teachings, but most importantly the physical treatises of Aristotle. The investigations of these teachings were conducted by the Bishops of Paris. The Condemnations of 1277 are traditionally linked to an investigation requested by Pope John XXI, although whether he actually supported drawing up a list of condemnations is unclear.

Christianity and Hellenistic philosophy

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<i>On the Heavens</i> work by Aristotle

On the Heavens is Aristotle's chief cosmological treatise: written in 350 BC it contains his astronomical theory and his ideas on the concrete workings of the terrestrial world. It should not be confused with the spurious work On the Universe.

<i>Summa Theologica</i> theological treatise by Thomas Aquinas

The Summa Theologiae is the best-known work of Thomas Aquinas. Although unfinished, the Summa is "one of the classics of the history of philosophy and one of the most influential works of Western literature." It is intended as an instructional guide for theology students, including seminarians and the literate laity. It is a compendium of all of the main theological teachings of the Catholic Church. It presents the reasoning for almost all points of Christian theology in the West. The Summa's topics follow a cycle: God; Creation, Man; Man's purpose; Christ; the Sacraments; and back to God.

The unmoved mover or prime mover is a concept advanced by Aristotle as a primary cause or "mover" of all the motion in the universe. As is implicit in the name, the "unmoved mover" moves other things, but is not itself moved by any prior action. In Book 12 of his Metaphysics, Aristotle describes the unmoved mover as being perfectly beautiful, indivisible, and contemplating only the perfect contemplation: self-contemplation. He equates this concept also with the active intellect. This Aristotelian concept had its roots in cosmological speculations of the earliest Greek pre-Socratic philosophers and became highly influential and widely drawn upon in medieval philosophy and theology. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, elaborated on the unmoved mover in the Quinque viae.

<i>Nous</i> the faculty of the human mind necessary for understanding what is true or real

Nous, sometimes equated to intellect or intelligence, is a term from classical philosophy for the faculty of the human mind necessary for understanding what is true or real. English words such as "understanding" are sometimes used, but three commonly used philosophical terms come directly from classical languages: νοῦς or νόος, intellēctus and intellegentia. To describe the activity of this faculty, the word "intellection" is sometimes used in philosophical contexts, as well as the Greek words noēsis and noeîn. This activity is understood in a similar way to the modern concept of intuition.

Five Ways (Aquinas) 5 logical arguments for the existence of God made by Thomas Aquinas in his book Summa Theologica: the argument from motion; the argument from causation; the argument from contingency; the argument from degree; the argument from final cause

The quinque viae are five logical arguments regarding the existence of God summarized by the 13th-century Catholic philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas in his book Summa Theologica. They are:

  1. the argument from metaphysical motion;
  2. the argument from efficient causation;
  3. the argument from contingency;
  4. the argument from degrees of being;
  5. the argument from final causality.

The active intellect is a concept in classical and medieval philosophy. The term refers to the formal (morphe) aspect of the intellect (nous), in accordance with the theory of hylomorphism.


Neo-scholasticism, is a revival and development of medieval scholasticism in Roman Catholic theology and philosophy which began in the second half of the 19th century.

Lutheran scholasticism was a theological method that gradually developed during the era of Lutheran Orthodoxy. Theologians used the neo-Aristotelian form of presentation, already popular in academia, in their writings and lectures. They defined the Lutheran faith and defended it against the polemics of opposing parties.

Dynamics of the celestial spheres

Ancient, medieval and Renaissance astronomers and philosophers developed many different theories about the dynamics of the celestial spheres. They explained the motions of the various nested spheres in terms of the materials of which they were made, external movers such as celestial intelligences, and internal movers such as motive souls or impressed forces. Most of these models were qualitative, although a few of them incorporated quantitative analyses that related speed, motive force and resistance.

The question of the eternity of the world was a concern for both ancient philosophers and the medieval theologians and philosophers of the 13th century. The question is whether the world has a beginning in time, or whether it has existed from eternity. The problem became a focus of a dispute in the 13th century, when some of the works of Aristotle, who believed in the eternity of the world, were rediscovered in the Latin West. This view conflicted with the view of the Catholic church that the world had a beginning in time. The Aristotelian view was prohibited in the Condemnations of 1210–1277.

Medieval philosophy

Medieval philosophy is a term used to refer to the philosophy that existed through the Middle Ages, the period roughly extending from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century to the Renaissance in the 15th century. Medieval philosophy, understood as a project of independent philosophical inquiry, began in Baghdad, in the middle of the 8th century, and in France, in the itinerant court of Charlemagne, in the last quarter of the 8th century. It is defined partly by the process of rediscovering the ancient culture developed in Greece and Rome during the Classical period, and partly by the need to address theological problems and to integrate sacred doctrine with secular learning.


  1. Aristotle, Metaphysics 1074b.
  2. Leo Elders, Aristotle's theology: A commentary on Book [lambda] of the Metaphysics, Assen: Van Gorcum, 1972; Michael Frede, David Charles, ed., Aristotle's Metaphysics Lambda, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  3. John Burnet (1892). Early Greek Philosophy. p. 88.
  4. Oberman, Heiko. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, 1982, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart, 1989. p. 160.
  5. Especially since the 1990s, there have been scholars who argue that the early Reformers have been misunderstood in their stance against Aristotle (and the Scholasticism that he permeated). A distinction must be made between scholastic methodology and its theological content. See the self-avowedly ground-breaking collection, Protestant Scholasticism, eds. Trueman, Carl, and R. Scott Clark, 1997, page xix. Even within that volume, however, Luther is admitted to have made a complete, sincere, and absolute renunciation of scholasticism (see D.V.N.Bagchi within Trueman and Clark, page 11).
  6. Luther is certainly more acerbic and quotable, but both Calvin who "denounced scholastic theology as contemptible" (Payton, James R., Jr, Getting the Reformation Wrong, 2010, page 197) and Melanchthon who found that the church had "embraced Aristotle instead of Christ" (see Melanchthon, Loci Communes, 1521 edition, 23) also rejected Aristotelian elements of scholasticism.
  7. Luther's quotes aimed directly against Aristotle are many and sometimes strident. For example, "Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace" (Thesis 41) and "Briefly, the whole of Aristotle is to theology as shadow is to light" (Thesis 50) in Luther's 97 Theses of September 1517 (Luther, Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, 1517).
  8. In a personal note, Luther wrote, "Should Aristotle not have been a man of flesh and blood, I would not hesitate to assert that he was the Devil himself." (Luther, 8 Feb 1517; quoted in Oberman, 121).
  9. "Thomas [Aquinas] wrote a great deal of heresy, and is responsible for the reign of Aristotle, the destroyer of godly doctrine." (Luther, Against Latomus, 1521; quoted in Payton, 196).