Fudging Aristotle: A Digression (Part 7): Logic and Categories

[Subtitle: How Aquinas Fudged Aristotle to Settle Transubstantiation]:

In recent posts, I’ve cited Willem van Asselt with an overview of the Works of Aristotle, and also Arthur Lovejoy noting that “the God of Aristotle had almost nothing in common with the God of the Sermon on the Mount”.

But that doesn’t mean that Aristotle didn’t leave a legacy that Christians could appreciate. Two items that van Asselt considers were valuable to the Reformed Scholastics were Logic and the Categories. I’d like to relate some of his discussion here. In this blog post, I’ll begin to discuss Logic, and in the next, I’ll move to Categories.

We will limit ourselves to four elements that are of direct importance for the understanding of Reformed Scholasticism: The principle of contradiction, the distinction between “essence” and “accident,” the categories, and the use of syllogisms.

3.3.1 The Principle of Contradiction
The first fundamental principle of Aristotle’s logic is the principle of contradiction…. This logical principle is important for all scientific reasoning and demands that an argument contain no internal contradictions. [It] may be summarized as follows: if a certain position is adopted in an argument and the author has defended a particular position, then he cannot deny this position later in the same argument. For if an argument contains an internal contradiction, it is possible to then derive any and every meaning from it. If a thesis is first posited and then denied, it is not possible to say anything meaningful. Aristotle expressed this law of logic as follows: “It is impossible for the same attribute to belong and not belong to the same subject at the same time and in the same respect.

This citation includes the two basic concepts of “attribute” and “subject”. These basic concepts can be illustrated with the following example: if we say of the same horse (= subject) that it is both completely brown (= attribute) and completely not brown (= contrary attribute), we make no pronouncement on the color of the horse. In fact, we say nothing meaningful at all.

In Reformed Scholasticism the principle of contradiction is the point of departure for every theological argument. If this principle is denied, no form of argumentation is possible. In the context of polemics with Roman Catholic and Socinian theologians, the Reformed Scholastics consistently attempted to show that their opponents’ positions were internally contradictory by tracing out the consequences. If one denies the principle of contradiction, any and every discussion on doctrinal differences becomes superfluous because one could defend any position with a simple appeal to the possibility that a thesis can be both true and untrue at the same time (van Asselt, 30).

This is one reason why Roman Catholics defiantly charge you to “find an internal contradiction”. They’ve had some 1500 years of celibate males who have lots of time to sit around and reflect on the “internal story” and to craft it in such a way that there are no internal contradictions. But the external, historical factors are encroaching upon their ability to maintain that façade.


3.3.2 Essential and Accidental
The example of the horse brings us to the second important principle of Aristotelian logic. In the example, a distinction was made between “horse” and “being brown.” Aristotle called “horse” the subject about which we want to express something, and “being brown” the attribute (or predicate) with which we say something about the subject. “Being brown” is not the only predicate that can be attributed to the subject “horse,” for also “having four legs,” “can run fast,” “being a living creature,” or “being gray” are all predicates or attributes that the subject “horse” can have. The number of attributes of a subject, also called entity, (an ens is a being, a person, or thing about which we can say something) is infinite.

After Aristotle asserts that a certain subject can have many different attributes, he considers whether these attributes can also be divided into different categories. He concludes that there are two different types of attributes: accidental attributes and essential attributes. How do these attributes differ? If it is said of Plato that he was very wise, then we predicate “wisdom” of Plato. Yet is it essential for Plato to be wise? This is not so, since Plato remains Plato even if he were not wise. “Wisdom” is thus an accidental attribute of Plato. The essence of Plato is not determined by his wisdom. What, then, determines Plato’s essence? His essence is determined through his essential attributes, such as being human. If Plato no longer had the attribute “being human,” then Plato would no longer be Plato. Plato’s essence is described by his essential attributes

Here van Asselt gives a key instance of where Aristotle is “fudged”, in order to provide an explanation for Rome’s fledgling doctrine of “transubstantiation” (in the 13th century):

The scholastics distinguished between essential and accidental attributes as well. This distinction showed itself to be important not only in respect to the attributes of God and the two natures of Christ, but also in the doctrine of the sacraments. The clearest example is the dispute over Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine of transubstantiation. What happens to the bread and wine after the priest pronounces the words of institution? According to the doctrine of transubstantiation, the substance of the bread changes. This means that the essence of the bread changes. It essentially becomes the body of Christ, just as the wine essentially becomes the blood of Christ. The essential attributes of the bread and wine change during the [Roman Catholic version of] consecration. But how is it that the bread continues to look like bread, and the wine like wine? The distinction between essential and accidental attributes also has an answer for this. The essential attributes of bread and wine do change, but the accidental attributes do not. The accidental attributes are formed of the taste, color, and form of bread and wine. These attributes remain the same, but the essential accidental attributes change.

Aquinas precisely contradicted Aristotelian thinking on this point. Whereas, in Aristotle’s program, “essence” or “substance” does not change, while “accidents” are typically malleable (a horse is still a horse whether it is black or brown, or whether it has four legs or three), in his doctrine of transubstantiation, it is precisely the unchanging “substance” of the bread which changes (into the Body of Christ), whereas the changeable “accidents” actually remain unchanged.

Thus van Asselt continues:

The question was not whether the application of this distinction was really Aristotelian. At least in the case of transubstantiation this was not the case, for in Aristotelian philosophy it is impossible that the essential attributes of a thing change. After all, the essential attributes of bread are exactly [by definition] those attributes that make bread bread. If those essential attributes change, the bread no longer exists. The question in the scholastic tradition is therefore not whether the use of a distinction is Aristotelian but whether the application of the distinction can solve a theological issue.

Willem J. Van Asselt, “Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism”, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books (2011), pgs 30-32).

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