Aristotle the wipping boy, amongst other things

In a Norwegian debate forum, one of the participants wrote a piece on where we might find what is holy. He maintains that things and places aren’t holy, only persons are. I disagree with him on that, for reasons pertaining to linguistics (since ‘to make holy’ literally means to set someting or someone aside for religious use, thus making it possible for, say, a chapel or a chalice to be holy), to theology (since St. Paul states, quite unambiguously, in 1. Timothy 4:4-5, that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving; for then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer,” thus saying that things and places can be consecrated – made holy, Gk. hagiazō), and history (since practically every Christian Church before Luther, and practically every Church after Luther has taught – or at least practiced the belief – that things and places can be (made) holy.

Now that is out of the way, I want to take a stab at one of the (in my estimate completely irrelevant) points made in the piece to ‘prove’ the author’s point. He writes: “In the High Middle Ages, a new focus on the Eucharist emerges, and the doctrine of Transubstantiation is developed by connecting it to the foremost philosophical model of Aristotle.” The following is a eleboration on the points I made in the discussion in the original piece.

Reading that sentence, the first question that pops into my mind is this: So what? Is there something intrinsically wrong with Aristotelianism, in contrast to other philosophical models? Would it be better if it had been Platonism, for example? Is this just another case of Aristotle being the wipping boy for people who think that they do not use philosophy?

There is one big problem with the claims made too, and that is the fact that the doctrine of Transubstantiation predates the Aristotelian turn in medieval theology by at least a century. This turn happened first through Albertus Magnus (ca. 1200-1280). See this article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and this Wikipedia entry. The Latin phrase transubstantiatio, used of the Eucharist and the real presence, entered into official Roman Catholic documents at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, but it is older. As far as we know, it was first used by Hildebert de Lavardin, Archbishop of Tours, in the 11th century (and it must therefore at least be understandable by ideas older than that, ideas predating the High Middle Ages). See John Cuthbert Hedley, Holy Eucharist (Kessinger 2003), p.37, John N. King, Milton and Religious Controversy (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.134, and this Wikipedia entry.

The expression transubstantiatio, and its Greek equivalent metousiōsis, used of the Eucharist and the real presence, is not directly connected to Aristotelian philosophy, even though it is perfectly correct that many theologians started reading this in light of Aristotelian conceptions. But that is perfectly natural, and lead back to my original question: So what? You will always comment and read something in light of some kind of philosophical conception.

Because this does remain a philosophical question. You cannot deny that. Everything that has to do with reality as such is a philosophical question. Everyone has a philosophy, as G.K Chesterton tells us.

But the problem doesn’t stop there. It is in fact highly misleading to say that Aristotelian philosophy – or a philosophy that arose from an Aristotelian background – wasn’t used in Lutheran theology. Consider the Formula of Concord, here from its Epitome, art. I:13 (on Original Sin): “But as to the Latin terms substantia and accidens, because they are not words of Holy Scripture, and besides unknown to the ordinary man, they should not be used in sermons before ordinary, uninstructed people, but simple people should be spared them. // But in the schools, among the learned, these words are rightly retained in disputations concerning original sin, because they are well known and used without any misunderstanding, to distinguish exactly between the essence of a thing and what attaches to it in an accidental way.” Furthermore, in the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, art. VII:35 (on the Eucharist), it is precicely these terms that are used of the real presence: “[In] addition to the expressions of Christ and St. Paul (the bread in the Supper is the body of Christ or the communion of the body of Christ), also the forms: under the bread, with the bread, in the bread [the body of Christ is present and offered], are employed, is that by means of them the papistical transubstantiation may be rejected and the sacramental union of the unchanged essence of the bread and of the body of Christ indicated.”

We see here a rejection of Transubstantiation, but not because it is ‘Aristotelian| or ‘highly medieval.’ It was rejected because it was seen to be wrong. I disagree with that, as a Lutheran prist, in fact, but that is for another post.

The point here is that Aristotle shouldn’t be a wipping boy for people who probably haven’t read him, or medieval theology, but feels free to pontificate on it nonetheless.


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