Aristotle and Early Christian Thought

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Mark Edwards
Studies in Philosophy and Theology in Late Antiquity
  • London: 
    Routledge
    , April
     2019.
     288 pages.
     $124.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138697997.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The reception history of Aristotle’s philosophy within late antiquity is an area of surging interest. Mark Edwards’ Aristotle and Early Christian Thought offers a compact, survey-style analysis of the impact Aristotle’s philosophy had on early Christian theology up to Boethius (d. 524 CE). Somewhat ironically perhaps, Edwards’s thesis is ultimately that “no Christian author of the patristic era is strictly an Aristotelian” (194). But this conclusion should hardly surprise long-time readers of Edwards’ musings on the relationship between early Christian theology and ancient philosophy, not to mention those well versed in early Christian literature. As in the case of Platonism, early Christians would only curb the dicta of Aristotelian philosophy with scripture; the hierarchy of authority was never in question as Edwards surmises it would be for medieval theologians. 

The book consists of nine chapters and a brief afterword. In the first chapter, Edwards introduces Aristotle and his works, offering a review of the areas of his philosophy and corpus that came to bear upon core Christian doctrines of creation, Christ’s incarnation, the Trinity, and the soul’s immortality. Edwards illustrates in the second chapter the impact of Aristotle’s Organon, especially the Categories, on 2nd-century philosophers, focusing principally on Alexander of Aphrodisias, the first Peripatetic of the Roman period who was also the chief mediator of Aristotle’s philosophy to early Christian authors.

The weight of the third chapter is on the plausible areas of influence, direct and indirect, upon Tertullian, Hippolytus of Rome’s Refutation of all Heresies, and the Alexandrians, Clement and Origen. In anticipation of the impact Neoplatonism would have on 4th-century trinitarian theology, Edwards pivots in the fourth chapter to the way Plotinus and Porphyry (and Dexippus) critically appropriate Aristotle’s philosophy. If Plotinus criticized the inconsistency between Platonic metaphysics and the implicit ontology operative in Aristotle’s Categories, Porphyry limited the scope of the Categories to the sensible world so that the intelligible world could stand as Plato’s domain. In tracing the lineaments of Nicene trinitarianism, the fifth chapter considers Aristotle’s influence under the Christian rubric of interpreting obscure passages of scripture by means of what is clear in scripture as “not only an exegetical rule but the basis of all theological reasoning” (77).

Furthermore, while the explicit contents of Greek philosophy were subjected to scriptural teaching, in its pervasiveness it also exerted subliminal influence on Christian thought. Edwards exposits Aristotle’s presence in the Nicene controversy itself, in protagonists of its early reception (Eusebius and Athanasius), and in its philosophical defense by the Neoplatonist Marius Victorinus. He also considers Aristotle’s role within Cyril of Alexandria’s Neoplatonically mediated but Aristotelian argument against Eunomius’s Aristotelian contention for the difference in ousia (being, essence) between the Father and the Son. The Aristotelian qualities of Augustine’s theology receive attention here since they were mediated by Victorinus’s theological writings and his Latin translations of Plotinus and Porphyry. In the sixth chapter, Edwards analyzes Gregory of Nyssa’s response to Eunomius’s Aristotelian criticism of homoousias (same in being, essence) by utilizing a Porphyrian variation of Aristotelian logic. Edwards considers Gregory’s notions of dynamis (power), divine infinity, and inseparable trinitarian operations while also attaching to this chapter an appendix on Gregory’s notion of hypokeimenon (underlying thing, substratum).

The seventh chapter attests the utility of Aristotle’s Organon for expounding the mystery of Christ’s incarnation in the wake of the Chalcedonian formula, especially in negotiations over the meaning and relations of technical vocabulary such as physis (nature), ousia (being, essence), and hypostasis (individual reality, individuation). The increasing appropriation of Aristotle’s logic evident in such authors as Severus of Antioch and Leontius of Byzantium pales in comparison to the Aristotelian training received by John Philoponus, the subject of chapter 8. Philoponus is the first Christian commentator on Aristotle’s corpus, but neither do his commentaries assume deference to Aristotle nor does he hesitate to chasten particular points of Aristotle’s philosophy on the basis of his reading of scripture. The ninth and final chapter considers Boethius as the first Latin Christian to engage Aristotle’s philosophy directly, without the mediation of Neoplatonism. From his earlier Aristotelian commentaries to his magnum opus, the Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius learned from Aristotle but maintained a resolute Christian perspective, thereby Christianizing Aristotle and opting to follow Catholic teaching when Aristotle conflicts with it.

In characteristic fashion, Edwards’s most recent contribution to the field offers an erudite analysis of an extensive topic at the juncture of ancient philosophy and early Christian theology. Scholars of early Christian theology owe a debt of gratitude to Edwards for shining a light on the traces of Aristotle’s philosophical legacy in late antique Christianity. Of the book’s many achievements, the most welcome may be its simultaneous affirmation of the power of the Christian perspective and dismantling of the unqualified assertion that Platonism was the sole source of pagan philosophy upon which early Christians drew. In this way, Edwards’ study joins a contiguous body of scholarship exploring how early Christians also adapted Stoicism.

I am also left with a few questions. Is the austerity of Edwards’s thesis salutary for the purpose of the book? Setting out to prove that within early Christianity there are no strict Aristotelians seems to produce a threshold unlikely to be met rather than stimulating a generative encounter with the interpenetration of philosophical insights within the late antique world in which Christianity arose. Perhaps the study may have benefitted from noting that as in the consensus view among ancient philosophers that “nothing comes from nothing,” so the terms, concepts, images, and insights deployed within early Christianity, which are reminiscent of Aristotle, may be variously mediated, but they most certainly did not come from nothing. Although the book’s organization is intuitive enough for those familiar with the development of early Christian theology and its engagement with Greco-Roman philosophy, one wonders if a clearer structure would invite a broader audience. As it stands, the density of the analysis suggests an advanced readership. These questions notwithstanding, Edwards’s Aristotle and Early Christian Thought is poised to yield fruit for some time in the study of late antique Christianity’s engagement with its eclectic philosophical setting.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alexander H. Pierce is a PhD candidate in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
July 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Edwards has been Tutor in Theology at Christ Church, Oxford, and University Lecturer in Patristics for the Faculty of Theology (now Theology and Religion) since 1993. Since 2014, he has held the title Professor of Early Christian Studies. His books include Neoplatonic Saints (2000), Origen against Plato (2002), Culture and Philosophy in the Age of Plotinus (2006), Image, Word and God in the Early Christian Centuries (2012) and Religions of the Constantinian Empire (2015).

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