BMCR 2021.12.12

Aristotle and early Christian thought

, Aristotle and early Christian thought. Studies in philosophy and theology in late antiquity. London: Routledge, 2019. Pp. 226. ISBN 9781138697997 $140.00.

It is a historical fact that early Christian thinkers, for the most part, frequently quote and often explicitly praise Plato but rarely mention Aristotle – and then mostly in a critical light. Plato is called the “friend of truth” (Clement, Stromata V.66.3), “admirable” (Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel XI.8.1, XI.9.5), and praised as superior to all other philosophers (Preparation for the Gospel XI.1.3), while Aristotle is often presented as a source of heresy (Irenaeus, Against Heresies II.14.5, Basil, Against Eunomius I.5.43, I.9.8, Nemesius On the Nature of Man 30.18-32.2) and as the enemy of sound philosophy, that is, the philosophy of Plato and the Scriptures (Preparation for the Gospel XI, XV). But this is not the whole story. Aristotle has exerted a good deal of influence on early Christian thinkers, as has been recognized for some time now.[1] This is the first book-length study on the subject and indeed a profound one. In the preface, Edwards explains that he examines not only Aristotle’s influence on early Christians, but also the influence of Peripatetics, such as Alexander, or Platonists with Aristotelian inclinations, such as Porphyry. Edwards adds that he especially focuses on their contribution to the formation of early Christian cosmology, psychology, metaphysics, and, in particular, trinitarian doctrine. The study considers the time period up to the sixth century.

Given the study’s focus, the first chapter, which outlines Aristotle’s philosophy, understandably dwells specifically on his writings on logic, natural philosophy, and metaphysics. It is not entirely true, however, that Aristotle’s ethics exerted little influence on early Christians. As Edwards himself acknowledges in Chapter Three (p. 44-46), Clement’s ethical works are permeated by some of the basic tenets of Aristotelian ethics, although it is not entirely certain whether Clement had direct access to the original works. Chapter Two presents a discussion of Aristotle’s presence and influence in the second century. This was a century of intense and diverse philosophical activity. Aristotle received much attention not only from Peripatetics but also from Platonists, Stoics, and scientifically minded philosophers such as Galen. Edwards succinctly outlines a variety of receptions of Aristotle. Plutarch, for instance, often makes use of Aristotle as an ally in reconstructing Plato’s doctrines. Atticus, on the other hand, is strongly critical of Aristotle and of those Platonists who resort to Aristotle in order to understand Plato. Lastly, Alexander of Aphrodisias is a towering figure among the Peripatetics, who, with his largely exegetical work, not only revives Aristotle’s philosophy, but also develops and strengthens it (with regard to theology and hylomorphism, for instance). Furthermore, Alexander, as Edwards rightly suggests, sets the example of philosophy as exegesis for the coming centuries.

Chapter Three marks the beginning of the core of the book. This chapter presents a sample of receptions of Aristotle’s philosophy by Christian thinkers as well as their reactions before the council of Nicaea in 325. One interesting case is Tertullian. In his De anima (the first surviving Christian treatise on the subject) he advances a view of the nature of the soul which is indebted to Stoicism, yet he also engages deeply with Aristotle’s own psychological theory. Tertullian is the first to use the terms substantia and persona in his trinitarian nomenclature. Edwards considers the question of whether Tertullian follows Aristotle in using the term substantia in the way Aristotle uses the term ousia. Edwards points to the following difficulty: the second person of the Trinity, the Son, is substantia not only in the sense of being a distinct being but also in the sense that he is a being that derives his substance directly from the first person, the Father. Such a dynamic use of the term substantia is not found in Aristotle, Edwards argues. This is true, but early Christians were often creative in their reception of pagan philosophy, and this may well be the case here: Tertullian resorts to the best ancient source for the term ousia, Aristotle, but this does not solve his problem, namely how divine persons relate to one other; he needs to come up with a solution of his own, which clearly cannot be Aristotelian. The rest of the chapter deals with Hippolytus, Basilides, Clement, and Origen. The last two are by far the most interesting. E. Clark suggested some time ago that Clement draws on the Nicomachean Ethics, especially in the Paedagogus and the Protrepticus.[2] Edwards does not argue against her conclusion, yet he stresses Clark’s own admission that Clement often reasons independently of Aristotle. Finally, Origen shows little interest in Aristotle but rather, as Edwards argues, takes far more influence from Alexander, especially with regard to the issue of free will, in which Alexander defended quite a distinct position within the relevant ancient debate.

Chapter Four discusses the Neoplatonic reaction to Aristotle. The chapter presents a good outline of the main reactions to Aristotle of Plotinus, Porphyry, and Dexippus, particularly their reception of Aristotle’s Categories. The chapter, although a valuable summary of an extensive and complex debate, somehow interrupts the thread of the argument established in previous chapters. Of course, we are presented here with developments that the Christians of later generations, the Cappadocians and especially Philoponus and Boethius (who are examined in subsequent chapters), knew well; but the reader of the book would be interested precisely in the latter, which is not part of this chapter.

Chapter Five brings us back to the early Christians and focuses on the trinitarian debate of the fourth century. Christians were confronted with a cluster of issues here, central among which was that the Christian God was one, but three entities are distinguished within him: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. From very early on, Christians were concerned with how they should differentiate the three divine entities. One significant aspect of the issue was the incarnation of the Son, who took an active role in the world as a man. Christians had to justify God’s incarnation on the one hand, while on the other they had reasons to safeguard the transcendence of God the Father and distinguish him from the sensible realm. Early Christians came up with a variety of conceptualizations of the Trinity, especially of the Father-Son relation. These included the Aristotelian energeia-dynamis and the Stoic logos endiathetos and logos prophorikos. The view that prevailed at the Council of Nicaea was that the Son is one with the Father both eternally and in substance. The term homoousios was coined to designate that view. The Christian debate between Athanasius, Arius, and Eunomius, which is well outlined in this chapter, does not show any particularly strong influence from Aristotle despite the use of Aristotelian terminology. The conclusion which emerges is that early Christians were quite creative in the formulation of their doctrines and not blind followers of ancient philosophy.

Chapter Six centers, rightly in my view, on Gregory of Nyssa, the most talented Christian thinker of this period (together with Origen). The pronouncement made at the Council of Nicaea that the Second person of the Trinity is of the same ousia of the first person did not prevent further objections. Eunomius advanced an argument against this position and it is indicative of his impact that both Basil and Gregory of Nyssa wrote long works against him. Eunomius insisted on God-the Father’s being unbegotten (agennêtos), and he created the term unbegottenness (agennêsia) to denote this unique nature, additionally arguing that the Son is a dynamis of the Father. Gregory follows Basil in stressing that the term unbegotten (agennêtos) cannot possibly reveal God’s essence, since it is a privative term and such terms only reveal the human inability to know God. Gregory’s reply was that the dynamis of God the Father is inseparable from his essence, and in this sense the Son is not the product of the Father but inseparable from him. Edwards argues that Gregory operates with a notion of dynamis that we detect in Porphyry. I find Edwards’ argument plausible. It should be extended to understanding Gregory’s conception of the soul as dynamis (we encounter this idea in De anima et resurrectione and De opificio hominis). The fact, however, that Eunomius and Gregory operate with an Aristotelian conceptual apparatus does not necessarily mean that they are indebted to Aristotle’s philosophy. When Basil and Gregory use the Aristotelian formula of the “common logos of being” that unites the three hypostaseis of the Godhead (p. 112), they simply use a well-known philosophical formula. Their use of idion/idiôma on the other hand may well once again be indebted to Porphyry, on whose work, it seems, they systematically drew. But, in the end, this evidence suggests once again that early Christians were creative thinkers. It is open to discussion whether they were good or bad philosophers, but they were certainly inventive, being neither mere followers nor eclectics.

Chapter Seven focuses on the Christological controversy, i.e., the controversy over Christ’s nature(s). Edwards displays his impressive knowledge of the debate in this detailed summary. In his effort to outline in philosophical terms what the human nature of Christ amounts to, Nemesius sets himself in dialogue with Aristotle in his On the Nature of Man, but he ends up drawing from the doctrine of the unconfused mixture, which was originally proposed by the Stoics. The Chalcedonian formula of “one person in two natures” did not stop further efforts such as those of Severus of Antioch (c. 460-538) and Leontius of Byzantium (c. 485-543). The former maintained that Christ’s two natures were united in one nature after the incarnation, in the same way that man becomes rational when reason emerges. Both Severus’ use of the Aristotelian definition of ousia (in order to conclude that to be in two natures is to be two ousiai) and Leontius’s doctrine of enhypostasia, according to which there is no conflict of two natures because it is “in” the union with the divine that Christs becomes human, show how versatile these thinkers were. Their debt to Aristotle is minimal. Aristotle’s notion of ousia had, by then, become a philosophical commonplace.

The final two Chapters, Eight and Nine, however, deal with two actual Aristotelians, Philoponus and Boethius. The chapter on Philoponus is a good summary of both his exegetical and his dogmatic work. It starts with the assumption (questionable in the present day) that Philoponus’ Aristotelian commentaries can be divided into two periods, one in which he endorses the harmony of Plato and Aristotle and one in which he does not. Edwards understandably dwells on Philoponus’ Christian views on creation, which the latter uses as a basis to criticize the eternity of the world maintained by both Proclus and Aristotle. Philoponus shows a good deal of originality in his views on the Trinity, when he stresses the priority of each divine person, each of whom he takes to be a first ousia against the assumed universal ousia of God. Philoponus’ identification of person with nature does not mean that he denies Christ’s composite nature. He holds, following Chalcedonian doctrine, that Christ is of one composite nature. Philoponus shows that he transcends both Platonism and Aristotelianism and produces some interesting arguments in his dogmatic writings as well. Finally, Boethius, like Philoponus, was both an Aristotelian commentator and a writer of dogmatic treatises. Both in his commentaries on the Categories and De interpretatione and in his dogmatic writings he draws heavily on Porphyry. It is especially interesting to observe how these two occupations dovetail. The famous ninth chapter of De interpretatione concerns the future contingents, namely the sense in which these statements are true; an interesting connection here is how God’s knowledge of future events can be explained. Boethius sets out to argue that God’s knowledge of future events does not entail their occurrence in any sense other than entailing the occurrence of a past or a present event, since knowledge cannot possibly cause something to occur. It is clear that the ninth chapter of De interpretatione sparked a new interest for Christian commentators such as Boethius.

Edwards’s book has managed to collect almost all the important instances of Aristotelian influence on early Christian thinkers.[3] However, this collection shows that Aristotle does not play a particularly large role in shaping the thought of early Christians until the sixth century, when the tide begins to turn, as the cases of Philoponus and Boethius show. One could argue that Platonism and Stoicism were more important in this respect. Nonetheless, the well-informed summary of many of the most important early Christian debates offered by this book actually suggests that, in regard to philosophy, Christians were neither followers nor imitators; they were creative, indeed sometimes quite original thinkers.


[1] See A.-J. Festugière, L’idéal religieuse des grecs et l’evangile, Paris 1932, 222-263; D. Runia, “Festugière Revisited: Aristotle in the Greek Patres”, Vigiliae Christianae 43 (1989), 1-34; G. Karamanolis, “Early Christian Philosophers on Aristotle,” in A. Falcon (ed.), Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Aristotle in Antiquity, Leiden/Boston 2016, 460-479.

[2] E. Clark, Clement’s Use of Aristotle: The Aristotelian Contribution to Clement of Alexandria’s Refutation of Gnosticism, New York 1977.

[3] It leaves out Clement’s reception of the Categories (Stromata VIII.8.23-24). On this see M. Frede, “Les Catégories  d’Aristote et les pères de l’église Grecs,” in O. Bruun and L. Corti (eds.), Les Catégories et leur histoire, Paris 2005, 135–173, esp. 143-145; G. Karamanolis, “Early Christian Philosophers on Aristotle,” in A. Falcon (ed.), Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Aristotle in Antiquity, Leiden/Boston 2016, 466-468; and G. Karamanolis, The Philosophy of Early Christianity, London 2021 (2nd ed.), 111-113.