In this morning’s seminar on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Dr. Karen Kilby pointed out that many contemporary critics of Christianity bemoan the influence that the language and conceptual framework of thought in Aristotle’s work has had on much of Christian history – especially in the formation of the early church creeds. In particular, the issue of substance/essence/form/ousia in book “Zeta” of Aristotle’s Metaphysics is what caused much discussion in the seminar today. Although specifying what Aristotle meant when he employed such terminology is interminably difficult, it is not so difficult to realize the influence of this metaphysical discussion on the early church fathers. For example, when the early church father’s (in the east) declared that God is one in essence (ousia) and yet distinct in persons (hypostasis) they adopted such language directly from the cultural background of the day and thus attempted to not only use the Aristotelean language of substance/essence/form/ousia but also to, in certain ways, redefine (sublimate) such terms.
This has caused much concern among some contemporary theological circles that might seek to “rescue” some sort of “uncontaminated” christianity from the grips of a tradition that has been so deeply imbedded and influenced by Greek philosophy. To what extent Greek philosophy has influenced christian doctrine is – as I’m becoming more aware – a debate that is so vast and exhausting that I will not begin to address it here. However, one quick note that Dr. Kilby made in passing that was quite interesting to me was that those theologians that decry any Greek-influenced christianity may have a an improper view of the progress of thought, as well as over-ambitious view of Aristotle’s definitional intentions. The point that she made was really quite an apparent one: Aristotle did not write a book of dogmatic facts; rather, he was experimenting with language, thought, and concepts. Thus, his writings (especially as they are just a compilation of his student’s notes) should not be viewed by anyone – church father, early church theologian, contemporary theologian, whoever – as concrete facts about how things are. Rather, they should be viewed as the experimental teachings of a philosopher who was seeking knowledge – not one who claimed to have found it.