Fudging Aristotle: A Digression (Part 3): Borrowing methods, not concepts

In two recent blog posts describing the methodology of the Reformed Orthodox writers, I noted first that it was “nominally Aristotelian”, stressing, however, that it was so because that methodology was ancient and familiar, and second, that while they employed that methodology, they did so while avoiding Aristotelian concepts, employing Scriptural “content” instead.

William J. Asselt elaborates:

[Older scholarship regarding the Reformed Orthodox] often equated Reformed Scholasticism with a revival of Aristotelianism. After the Reformation, depicted as a bright light after the darkness of the Middle Ages, theology threw itself back onto the language forms of classical philosophy, especially Aristotle. The Reformed Scholastics adopted the terminology of the Greek philosophers, among whom Aristotle stood above all. The conclusion of such a depiction is inescapable: Reformed Scholasticism was nothing but a return to the dark Middle Ages in which theology had wedded itself to Aristotelianism.

However, several objections must be raised against this view. First of all, this account suggests that the adoption of particular terms also implies acceptance of content. It is questionable, however, whether Reformed theologians (following the medieval theologians) used the concept of nature (natura) the same way as Aristotle. The same is true for such terms as “essence” (essentia) and “attributes” (attributa). Does the adoption of such terms mean that theology married itself to Aristotle body and soul?

In the second place, the use of Aristotelian terms and concepts does not mean that the Reformed Scholastics derived their entire conceptual apparatus from Aristotle. Later on in this book it will become clear that the scholastic method as encountered after the Reformation represents a conglomeration of traditions, each of which has its own role within scholastic method as a whole. Aristotle was important especially for terms, distinctions, and logic. For other aspects of scholastic method, medieval scholasticism and humanism were of greater importance.

Finally, the use of Aristotelian concepts and distinctions does not mean that the Reformed Scholastics were uncritical in their use of Aristotle. They may well have taken over certain distinctions, but these were not accepted indiscriminately. In many instances they were modified so that, with their new meaning, they could become suitable for application in the context of the Christian faith. Furthermore, in certain cases, the ideas of Aristotle were unequivocally rejected From William J. Asselt, “Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism”, Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books (2011), pgs 26-27).

Asselt does a very fine job of outlining precisely what Aristotelian terms and methodologies involved, as well as how these were changed. I’ll look at these in a future blog post.

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