Archive Page 2

Aristotelian Influences – Part 1

Or The Rise of Aristotle in Medieval Theology

The translation of work of Aristotle and his commentators, as well as of the Arabian thinkers, provided the Latin Scholastics with a great wealth of intellectual material.  In particular they were provided with the knowledge of philosophical systems which were methodologically independent of theology and which were presented as the human mind’s reflection on the universe. The systems of Aristotle, of Avicenna, of Averroes, opened up a wide vista of the scope of human reason and it was clear to the mediaevals that the truth attained in them must have been independent of Christian revelation, since it had been attained by a Greek philosopher and his Greek and Islamic commentators… It is, of course, true that Aristotle’s system not unaturally took the limelight in preference to those of his commentators, and his philosophy tended to appear in the eyes of those Latins who were favourably impressed as the ne plus ultra of human intellectual endevour, since it constituted the most sustained and extensive effort of the human mind with which they were aquainted; but they were quite well aware that it was the work of reason, not a set of revealed dogmas. To us, looking back from a long way off, it may seem that some of the mediaevals exaggerated the genius of Aristotle (we also know that that they did not realise the existence of different strate or periods in Aristotle’s thought), but we should not put ourselves for a moment in their place and try to imagine the impression which would be made on a mediaeval philosopher by the sight of what in any case is one of the supreme achievements of the human mind, a system which, in regard to both completeness and close reasoning, was unparalleled in the thought of the early Middle Ages.

Frederick Coplestone, S.J. – A History of Philosophy, Volume 2 (Doubleday, 1993)


Sexual Appetite

Oh, the images that C. S. Lewis can create! This intriguing comparison between the appetite for food and the appetite for sex creates one of the more memorable passages from Mere Christianity:

The biological purpose of sex is children, just as the biological pupose of eating is to repair the body. Now if we eat whenever we feel inclined and just as much as we want, it is quite true most of us will eat too much; but not terifically too much. One man may eat enough for two, but he does not eat enough for ten. The appetite goes a little beyond its biological purpose, but not enormously. But if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village. This appetite is in ludicrous and perposterous excess of its function.

Or take it another way. You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act – that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?

The Centrality of Trinitarian Doctrine

The following may be of interest to some. It can be of little doubt that the language used in the Trinitarian formulas of the 4th century is foreign to that of the New Testament. Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity is the example par excellence of a development of doctrine. If the doctrine of the Trinity (as we know it) was not part of the explicit teaching of the early Church, why, then, is not this doctrine open for serious debate like many other developments of doctrine?

Emil Brunner, in Volume 1 of his Dogmatics (Westminster, 1950), addresses the question by making a distinction between the proclamation of the early Church (kerygma) and the subsequent theological reflection upon that proclamation. For Brunner, one of the roles of theology is to safeguard the revealed truths contained within the kerygma. Thus the principle of sola scriptura is maintained while allowing for a developement of doctrine, in that the doctrine is derived by reflection upon the earliest witness to the kerygma, the Scriptures.

Certainly, it cannot be denied that not only the word “Trinity”, but even the explicit idea of the Trinity is absent from the apostolic witness to the faith; it is equally certain and incontestable that the best theological tradition, with one accord, clearly points to the Trinity as its centre. However, there is a third point to be noted, namely, that the re-discovery of the New Testament message at the Reformation did not re-vitalize this particular theological doctrine; the fact is, the Reformers did not alter this fundamental dogma of the ancient Church, but rather, so to speak, “by-passed” it, than made it the subject of their own theological reflection. The statement of Melanchthon, “Mysteria divinitas rectius adoraverimus quam vestigaveriums“, is characteristic of this attitude. Calvin expressed himself in the same way; he regards the doctrine of the Trinity from the following point of view only; namely, that through its conceptions, which differ from those of the Bible, the opponent of the divinity of Christ – who is the enemy of Christian Faith – is forced to throw off his disguise, and to fight in the open, instead of concealing his hostility under a cloak of Christianity.

How are we to explain this strange situation? Here I anticipate the result of the following enquiry, and state it in the form of a thesis: The ecclesiastical doctrine of the Trinity, established by the dogma of the ancient Church, is not a Biblical kerygma, therefore it is not the kerygma of the Church, but it is a theological doctrine which defends the central faith of the Bible and of the Church. Hence it does not belong to the sphere of the Church’s message, but it belongs to the sphere of theology; in this sphere it is the work of the Church to test and examine its message, in the light of the Word of God given to the Church. Certainly in this process of theological reflection the doctrine of the Trinity is central.


There is love and then there is love. In Volume 1 of his Dogmatics (Westminster, 1950), Emil Brunner, helpfully illustrates the keen difference between the love of God for us (Agape) and the love of creatures for the beloved (Eros). This distinction of the different kinds of love is one that is lost in the English language since we have but one word for “love” and it is used in many contexts, both meaningful and shallow. However, understanding the difference between one love and the other can help us to comprehend the truly shocking nature of Biblical revelation as well as the meaning of what Dietrich von Hildebrand calls the “supernatural virtue of Christian love”.

Eros is the desire for that which we do not possess, but which we ought to have, or would like to have. Eros is therfore directed towards a particular value; we love something because it has value, because it is worthy to be loved. Thus Eros is that love which is derived from, and evoked by the beloved. It is the movement which aims at the fulfillment of value, the appropriation of value, the completion of value… In all cases, Eros is based upon, motivated by, the beloved, therefore it is perfectly intelligible and transparent.

This, however, is true of all the love with which we are familiar, whether it be the love of which the poets sing, the love which draws a man and woman together, the love which is kindled by the sight of beauty, the love of the fatherland, mother love, the love of friendship – all this is love, which is based upon something which has been “motivated”, which is kindled by its object, and which makes it desire and strive for, or to enjoy and maintain, union with that which it loves. Whether the object is material or non-material, vital or non-vital, concrete or abstract, neutral or personal – it is always something which is known to contain value, something “lovable” which is loved.

The love of God, the Agape of the New Testament, is quite different. It does not seek value, but it creates value or gives value; it does not desire to get but to give; it is not “attracted” by some lovable quality, but it is poured out on those who are worthless and degraded; in the strict sense of the word this Love is “unfathomable”, and “passeth all understanding”. This Divine Love turns to those for whom no one cares, because there is nothing “lovable” about them – people whom we would instinctively shun or even hate. The highest expression of this Agape, therefore, is loving fidelity to the unfaithful, the love of the Holy God for those who desecrate His sanctuary, the love of the Holy Lord for one who is rebellious and disobedient – the sinner. The contrast between Divine and human love also comes out very clearly in its aim. This love (Agape), does not seek to transfer a value from the beloved to the one who loves, it does not seek the fulfilment of value. Here the One who loves does not seek anything for Himself; all He desires is to benefit the one He loves. And the benefit He wants to impart is not “something”, but His very self, for this Love is self-surrender, self-giving to the other, to whom love is directed. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but should have eternal life.” And this indeed took place “while we were yet sinners”, for “while we were yet weak… Christ died for the ungodly… while we were enemies.” This Love is truly unfathomable, unmotivated, incomprehensible; it springs solely from the will of God Himself; that is, from His incomprehensible will to give His very self to us.

Incomprehensible. Think of it. God had no motivation, no compulsion, no reason whatsoever to love us, yet He does. He wills it. We set ourseles against God, yet He loves us. We have been unfaithful to Him since the Garden, yet He loves us. He forgives us our transgressions “seventy times seven”. His love and mercy are, quite literally, boundless. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Salvation history has taught us as much. If God does not hate us by now, He never will, in a manner of speaking. St. Paul tells us:

“For I am sure that neither death, not life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8.38-39, RSV CE).

It is this incomprehensible love that we are to have toward our neighbours and toward our enemies. It is a love without a cause. This is especially seen in the Divine command to love our enemies, love those who hate us, love those who persecute us (Matt 5.38-48). This is a superatural love in all its absurdity. There is no rational reason for this kind of love. We have no reason to love our enemies, yet we are commanded to. If our enemies hate us, we are to love them. If our enemies revile us and slander us and persecute us, we are to love them in return. Thus, Christians are commanded to mimic the Agape love of the Father. We mimic the merciful forgiveness and love that God has shown us by loving our enemies. We have made ourselves enemies of God, yet we are happy to know that God does not love us in the way that we love each other. We are to go and do likewise.

The Ontological Argument for God

Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) is famous for what has become known as the “ontological argument” for the existence of God. The argument is usually put forth in syllogistic form as follows:

  1. God is that which no greater can be thought
  2. That which no greater can be thought must exist, not only as an idea, but extramentally (extra nos)
  3. Therefore God exists, not only as an idea, but extramentally

Now, I admit that the argument as stated is less than convincing – for me anyway. Why must this idea (i.e. that which no greater can be thought) correspond to being? We know that thought, generally speaking, has no necessary correspondence to reality (i.e. being), else fairy tales would be an impossibility. We can imagine unicorns, elves, and fairy godmothers, but that does not mean they exist in reality. So why is it that the idea of God, that which no greater can be thought, corresponds to reality? What makes the idea of God different than that of a unicorn, such that the one necessarily exists while the other does not? Frederick Coplestone, S.J., elaborates in his 2nd volume of A History of Philosophy (Doubleday, 1993):

This proof starts from the idea of God as that than which no greater can be conceived, i.e. as absolutely perfect: that is what is meant by God.

Now, if such a being had only ideal reality, existed only in our subjective idea, we could still conceive a greater being, namely a being which did not exist simply in our idea but in objective reality. It follows, then, that the idea of God as absolute perfection is necessarily the idea of an existent Being, and St. Anselm argues that in this case no one can at the same time have the idea of God and yet deny His existence.

Now this is an interesting twist. The last sentence says that one cannot “have the idea of God and yet deny His existence.” So are we saying that the idea does not correspond to objective reality, per se, but only that the idea itself would be contradictory if we did not at the same time believe in its objective existence? This is a valid point and great as far as it goes, but I can’t believe that that is the sum of what Anselm was saying. His argument is, as it is said, an ontological one, not an epistimological one.

The argument seems to only make sense from what Coplestone calls, an “ultra-realist” point of view; the view that universals, or ideas (Plato), are an extramental, objective, and substantive reality in themselve (such that “horseness” is itself an objective substance). Thus God, who is the ultimate idea, must exist because ideas as such have an existence outside of us. However, I am not sure if Anselm was an ultra-realist or, what Coplestone calls, a “moderate-realist” in the vein of Saint Thomas Aquinas. A moderate-realist is one who believes that universals or real and objective, yet deny that universals such as “horseness,” “humanity,” whiteness,” etc. are substantive realities in themselves. The opposing view is that of monism, in which universals are not real in any objective way; i.e. universals are purely subjective constructs of human thought.

Still, this argument for God’s existence seems weak to me. Others have found it quite convincing, and since many people smarter than I have found the argument useful, I will assume that I am missing something. Although, I will note that Aquinas did reject this argument (according to Coplestone), but on what grounds I do not yet know. Perhaps I will know in a couple hundred pages when I reach the section on Aquinas in Coplestone’s A History of Philosophy. In the end, I really do wonder if it is on realist presuppositions that this argument is based and indeed found to be necessary. In other words, if you believe that universals are in some way real and objective, and that the idea of God necessarily entails a belief in His existence, then it naturally follows that God must exist. This is the only way that I can make some sense of the argument, but as with all presuppositions they may be attacked and the argument is thereby undercut at the knees, as it were.

Those are my thoughts, disjointed as they are. If anyone else has any further insight into this “ontological argument” for God’s existence, I would love to hear it. I find it (for lack of a better word) interesting that this argument has been taken as seriously as it has throughout the centuries. As Coplestone notes,

In the ‘modern’ era [the ontological argument] has had a dinstinguished, if chequered career. Descartes adopted and adapted it, Leibniz defended it in a careful and ingenious manner, Kant attacked it. In the Schools it is generally rejected, though some individual thinkers have maintained its validity.

Condoms and HIV

As I’ve noted before on this blog, the public discourse on sex is remarkably full of willful ignorance or just plain hypocrisy. Here is another example, this time from the pen of Joseph Bottum, who is now writing the “While We’re At It” blurbs for First Things. From the May 2009 Issue:

Our friend Dimitri Cavalli writes to say that the outrage over the pope’s claim in Africa that condoms makes things worse brings to mind a story about the late Dr. Theresa Crenshaw. A sex therapist, she attended the 1987 World Congress of Sexology in Heidelberg—and asked the audience of eight hundred professionally trained sexologists, “If you had available the partner of your dreams and knew that that person carried HIV, how many of you would depend on a condom for your protection?” No one raised a hand. She then chided the audience for giving ordinary ­people advice that none of them would follow for ­themselves.

Communion with Christ and Each Other

mother-teresa-with-her-peopleIn his 1938 work, Catholicism, Henri de Lubac begins by stressing the theme of communion that runs throughout the whole of Christian doctrine. From the doctrine of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ to the Sacraments to our final destiny, the theme of uniting a fallen humanity stands out. At the very beginning of the book, de Lubac points out that because we are all created in the one image of the one God, we are inexpressibly bound to one another.

For the divine image does not differ from one individual to another: in all it is the same image. The same mysterious participation in God which causes the soul to exist effects at one and the same time the unity of the spirits among themselves. Whence comes the notion, so beloved of Augustinianism, of one spiritual family intended to form the one city of God.

This is not to deny individuality in man, but it highlights our familial bond. Whereas in an earthly sense, our family bonds are signified by bloodline, in a spiritual sense our bond is much more real in that it is through the imago Dei. This is a view that found much favor in the early fathers of the Church. De Lubac also notes that this familial bond via the imago Dei was ours in its full meaning in the Garden of Eden. Only with the fall was this spiritual bond corrupted by sin and the end result mankind becoming dis-united. Our communion was broken. It is with the coming of Christ that this communion is once again restored, and this communion will reach its fulfillment at the end of time; but that is getting ahead of ourselves.

It is well known what the Catholic Church teaches regarding herself as the “Mystical Body of Christ,” so I will not dwell on that too much here. Suffice it to say, the theme of unity and communion runs throughout the Church’s teaching regarding herself. In this one Body, Christ gathers all those who abide in Him. This communion is real, such that if one member suffers, the entire body suffers. If one member rejoices, so to does the entire body. This is an idea that runs throughout the writings of St. Paul as well as the early Church fathers. In passing I will note that in contemplating what it means for an earthly Church to be the Body of a divine Christ, de Lubac writes that the Church is at once stained by sin and the spotless bride of Christ; at once human and divine. De Lubac likens this to man himself, in that we are undeniably sinners, yet redeemed by grace. We are at once sinner and saint; so to is the Church.

In the sacramental life of the Church we too find the mark of communion. In Baptism, we are incorporated into the One Body of Christ. Baptism in this respect is seen as bringing one into the family of God; it is a re-unification brought about through the regenerative work of Christ. The Sacrament of Penance (Confession) is seen in the same light. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls this sacrament, among other things, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. By our sins, we separate ourselves from this Body. Remember that humanity was given a special communion by being created in the imago Dei, and that it is through sin that this communion is broken. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are brought back into the Body of Christ through the forgiveness of our sins. The sins that are forgiven are the very sins that brought about a dis-unity; but we must not think of this dis-unity as merely a dis-union which each other. It is truly a breaking of union with Christ; Christ as the one who is one with the Father, and Christ as the one who is present in His Body the Church. It is in both senses that we are reconciled in this sacrament. De Lubac also notes that this is seen very clearly in the practice of public penance in the early Church. Since grave sin was seen as a breaking with the Body of Christ, only a public repentance in front of those with whom we have broken communion will suffice to restore us to the One we have hurt by our sins. Likewise, the Sacrament of the Eucharist is also seen in this light. The way in which we commonly refer to this sacrament as “communion” will show this clearly enough. From St. Paul to the early Church fathers, the same note of this sacrament as communion with the Body of Christ is struck. It is in this sacrament that the Head and the Body are united in a very real way. We are united with each other and with Christ, when we partake of the One Bread and the One Cup, confessing the one faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Even with regard to the last things and our final destiny is this mark of unity in communion seen. What is heaven, but the full re-unification of the Body of Christ with its Head? Within the first millennium of the Church, a theology was ever present that said none will see the beatific vision of God until the whole of the Body of Christ is united at the end of time. De Lubac does not seem to concur (at least fully) with this line of thinking, but he uses it to underscore the importance placed upon untiy in the early Church.

If it was possible to believe – mistakenly – that the soul could not arrive at the beatific vision before the end of the world, was it not, in part at least, because it was held, and rightly, that the salvation of the individual could only be obtained within the salvation of the community? In these ages men’s outlook was primarily a social one, and was related only secondarily to the individual. They loved to think of the Church entering heaven after she won her victory. As long as she was the Church militant, so it was more or less vaguely supposed, none of her members could enjoy the fullness of triumph.

This is a note struck in Joseph Ratzinger’s Eschatology. Salvation of the individual only comes about in the salvation of the whole; the whole Body of Christ (those who have been incorporated into Christ) that is. So it was with Israel, so it is with us.

This vision of Christianity is one that breaks down all national, social, and economic barriers. Our unity is found in Christ, and our incorporation into His One Body, the Church. Ratzinger further makes this point of union in and with Christ from an eschatalogical point of view in his book Eschatology: the line of demarcation is not between those who are alive and those who are not. The line is between those who are in Christ, and those who are not. With this in mind, the necessity of the doctrine of the communion of the saints becomes clear. All who are in Christ are in communion with Him and with one another. Not even death can prevent such a communion brought about by the One who has conquered death.

Have a happy and blessed Easter!


* all quotations are taken from the 1988 Ignatius Press edition of Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, translated by Lancelot C. Sheppard and Sister Elizabeth Englund, O.C.D.

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