The Competition with Aristotle

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The greatest Christian Latin writer of the West was undoubtedly St. Augustine. His influence is overwhelming: Hugh of St. Victor (d. c.1141), the author of a Collection of Sentences (summa sententiarum) and On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith (De sacra-mentis fidei Christianae), through his many citations from the Bishop of Hippo established himself as "the second Augustine." The numerous citations of Augustine in Lombard's Sentences could easily make him a worthy candidate for the same title. Augustine is, beyond doubt, the most influential Patristic authority among medieval writers. Despite Augustine's formidable presence, there would be a challenge to the organization he gave to the divine mysteries and especially to the neo-Platonic influences on his reflections. He lived in a world that was ruled intellectually by Stoic and neo-Platonic philosophers. His criticism of the Stoic form of neo-Platonist thought, in Book XIX of The City of God, is masterful in its ridicule of a man-centered reality. There he redefined "justice" as "the tranquillity of order." His new order had God, not man, at the apex. Man's search for "peace" could only be found when man realized that he was a creature of God, not a self-made man. It could only be established when men submitted themselves to the divine order, not an order constructed by their own thought or fancy.

Augustine's model of Christian thinking earned respect for a millennium, and even beyond. Yet, Christian theologians encountered a new challenge in the late twelfth and the thirteenth centuries. A new voice was in the air: Aristotle's voice. It was supported in different ways by his early Greek commentators, Themistius and Alexander of Aphrodisias, and the Arabian Avempace, who presented a very metaphysical and lofty Aristotle. But it was also advanced by an Averroes who approached a more physically anchored Aristotle who only spoke of a divine being to the degree that he was a cause manifested through his effects.

The preparatory curriculum had changed. The Arts faculty that studied the traditional seven liberal arts only did so in a nominal way. The Arts curriculum at the University of Paris by 1255 had changed to a philosophy curriculum: the older "dialectics" section of the seven liberal arts squeezed out the other subjects and had slowly introduced the other works of Aristotle in their place. This was the new preparation for the study of Scripture - the Aristotelian philosophy curriculum. It challenged the very structure and nature of the Scripture or theology faculty. If Aristotle in his philosophical writings could offer a proof for a Prime Mover or god, could the Christians inspired by the Scriptures offer a more solid proof? In short, could theology be as solid a science as Aristotle's theologia, or did it fall short of any scientific measure?

At the University of Paris, the Franciscan Odo Rigaud (d. 1275), citing Aristotle's very terms (dignitates, suppositiones, and conclusiones) describing scientific procedure, attempted to show the similarity between the scientific method of Aristotle and that of a scientific theology. Shortly thereafter, the new precision is most evident in the Commentary on the Sentences of St. Bonaventure (d. 1274). It is important to note that in some of his works Bonaventure uses a more traditional neo-Platonic and Augustinan approach to studying reality as portrayed by the Scriptures. However, in his university responsibilities of lecturing on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, he adjusts his method to the challenge of Aristotle's works. First of all, he divides his prologue to the work into four parts that explicitly parallel the four causes of Aristotle, studying the material, formal, final, and efficient causes proposed by the Philosopher. If you compare Bonaventure's Prologue to the Sentences with the Summa attributed to his Franciscan predecessor at Paris, Alexander of Hales, you will find striking differences between the two on almost all considerations of the various causes. If we look at the efficient cause, we can note that for Alexander, the author of a Summa or the Sentences is God (since they treat of God's revelation), whereas for Bonaventure, the author of the Sentences is Peter Lombard. Bonaventure justifies his position by distinguishing between a scribe, a compiler, a commentator, and an author. An author differs from the others: he writes his own words and joins them to the words of others, as does a commentator. The difference between an author and a commentator, however, is this: an author's own words form the principal part of the work, whereas the words of others are added for the sake of confirmation.

Likewise, in dealing with the formal cause, or way of proceeding, of the Sentences, there will be a distinct variation in the theological study of the Scriptures between the two men. For Alexander, following Augustine, any study of God, the cause of causes, is wisdom. Even Aristotle's study of the cause of causes, the Prime Mover, is wisdom, though less properly, since it concerns itself with the cause of causes as a form of knowledge following the way of art and reasoning. This is not wisdom properly and principally speaking, which is the wisdom of the Scriptures "that perfects the soul according to affection by moving the believer toward the good through principles of fear and love." Alexander, again following Augustine, affirms that science, in contrast to wisdom, is the study of caused beings. Furthermore, it perfects our knowledge in accord with truth. If we would schematize Alexander's view of the kinds of knowledge we can obtain in our studies, we would say that there is: (1) Christian Theology: wisdom as wisdom - the study of God which leads us to the love of God; (2) First Philosophy: wisdom as science - the study of the cause of causes which deepens our knowledge of the first cause; and (3) the Sciences - science as science - knowledge of caused things, including those that also are consequent, though not first, causes. Bonaventure looks to the end or purpose of studying the Sentences of Lombard. Since that purpose is to promote the faith, it follows an investigative approach that is effective in advancing the faith. Such a rational pursuit as that found in the Sentences is not about belief as such; the theology of the Sentences is "about belief as something to be understood." According to Bonaventure, this kind of investigative procedure is necessary to advance the faith for three types of men: "for some are opposed to the faith, some are weak in faith, and some are strong in faith." The questioning approach of the Sentences provides arguments and analogies helpful in the defense of the faith against those who challenge it. Secondly, the investigative approach helps those who are weak in the faith, by presenting arguments supporting the faith. If heretics and other attackers were to give arguments and there were none to show the Catholic positions, befuddled believers would not continue to believe. So far, Bonaventure seems to follow closely Augustine's declaration at the beginning of On the Trinity, chapter XIV, supporting the kind of study "by which that most wholesome faith that leads to true blessedness is begotten, nourished, defended and strengthened." Yet, Bonaventure still has his third group of people to consider: those strong in the faith. For this group, the study associated with the Sentences is effective in bringing the intellectual pleasure of understanding. The nature of the believer's soul is to understand what it believes. As Bonaventure has already said: the theology of the Sentences is "about belief as something to be understood." In terms of Alexander's categories, Bonaventure has altered the scheme a bit: there is now also a Christian Theology that is wisdom as science. He may in many works, such as The Journey of the Mind to God, The Triple Way, and The Tree of Life, pursue wisdom as wisdom; but he has also made room in his Commentary on the Sentences, Disputed Questions on the Trinity, Disputed Questions on the Knowledge of Christ, that is, his more properly university classroom works, for a more scientific approach of an Aristotelian type in studying God's revelation. Similar variations can be found in the treatments that other masters approve for the considerations of the material and final causes of Summae and the Sentences.

The most explicit attempt at setting up the analogy between philosophical study and theological study, however, is found at the beginning of the very first question of The Summa of Theology (Summa Theologiae) of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274). For clarification purposes he first, and quite surprisingly, asks: "Whether, besides the philosophical disciplines, any further teaching is required?" In other words: Is reason sufficient in itself in man's pursuit of fulfillment? He answers that for man to obtain salvation it is necessary to have a teaching revealed by God. He explains why:

For the truth about God, such as reason can know it, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors; whereas man's whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth.

This is true of the knowledge of God such as reason can know Him. A revelation is a fortiori necessary for the truths that are only knowable through divine revelation, such as God as triune, and the Incarnation of the Son of God. So far, Aquinas is showing the limitations of philosophy and of the Philosopher, Aristotle. In the second article of the first question of the Summa, he shows, however, the strong presence of Aristotle in his conception of theology. There he asks if the study of sacred teaching can be a science. He answers:

We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from principles known by the natural light of the intellect, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are also some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of optics proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles made known by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as music accepts on authority the principles taught by the arithmetician, so sacred doctrine accepts the principles revealed by God.

This distinction concerning the different kinds of sciences, along with examples of optics and music as subalternated sciences, comes from Aristotle's chief treatise on scientific knowledge, the Posterior Analytics. For Thomas, Aristotle's subalternated, but nonetheless legitimate, sciences justify the claim that theology is a subalternated science. Like Aristotle's subalternated sciences, which do not have the direct evidence that would make them sciences in their own right, theology also lacks direct evidence that would make it a science on its own. Yet theology, like optics and music, is based on the evidence that exists for those who know directly the divine realities revealed in the Scriptures, namely God and the blessed. It even has a greater claim to being a subal-ternated science than optics and music do: it is based on divine authority, which neither deceives nor can be deceived, whereas optics and music are based on human authority, which is subject to deception.

The first principles employed in theological deductions of further truths are premises accepted on faith. In fact, Thomas considers the first principles of theology to be the articles of the Creed, and the very word "Creed" derives from credere, which means "to believe" or "to accept on faith." How can theology be a science if it is based on faith? Are not faith and science opposed to one another? Does not Aquinas himself say that you can not have faith and science about the same thing? The answer to these queries requires a number of clarifications. First of all, proper science is based on evidence and is not compatible with faith. Subalternated science is based on authority, and the authority itself - not the one who accepts on faith the declarations of the authority -has evidence. Next, however, in his Commentary on the "De Trinitate" of Boethius, we can see Thomas's effort to make his claim of a parallel between the method of theology and the method of philosophy even stronger, and he does so by focusing on first principles that in neither discipline can be proved. In the case of theology, first principles or the articles of the Creed are accepted because God has revealed them. As first principles, they can be accepted only because the First Truth, God, who has both knowledge and veracity, guarantees them. This does not mean that they are blindly believed. Reason does not abandon the first principles of the Christian faith:

They are also defended against those who attack them, as the Philosopher argues against those who deny principles. Moreover they are clarified by certain analogies, just as the principles that are naturally known are made evident by induction but not proved by demonstrative reasoning.

Once again, the procedures of Aristotle, now concerning first principles, are employed in a parallel way in Thomas's manner of pursuing theology. Yet, this is only the prologue to the actual practice of doing theology, where much more of Aristotle's actual philosophy, and not just his method of proceeding, will be brought up for consideration and judgment. Aristotle's total corpus played a significant role in the formation of Aquinas's philosophical-theological synthesis.

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