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Advanced Historical Theology - The Dominican School and Extreme Aristotelianism - by C. Matthew McMahon

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Part 16 – Advanced Historical Theology – The Dominican School and Extreme Aristotelianism

The Dominican School

Those monks that upheld the Aristotelian philosophies, and believed they should not be discarded, were the Dominicans. They would give way to the new theological view found in Thomas Aquinas.

Albert the Great taught in Paris from 1245 to 1248. His literary works are enormous, for he set himself to comment on all the works of Aristotle. In the field of natural science, his works opened up new doors that had not been opened before, and he also worked in areas of astronomy, zoology, and botany. His most significant contribution to Christian thought is his work on how he distinguished between philosophy and theology. The latter differs from every other science inasmuch as that which it proves follows from revealed principles, and not from autonomous ones. In philosophy Albert was a rationalist after Augustine. His theology was overly conservative, but it was not developed into a coherent system. This would be left for his disciple, Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas was the foremost teacher in the Dominican school, and without doubt, one of the greatest theologians of the church for all time. His intellectual giftedness were united to a profound spirituality and this combination earned him the title of the “Angelic doctor.” Most of his philosophical works are on commentaries of Aristotle’s works. His most well known work is the Summa Theologica which systematized Christian theology.

Thomas believed that philosophy is an autonomous science that can reach the very limits of human reason. But because human reason is fallen, it errs. Reason has a basic function not only in philosophy, but also in theology. It can prove those truths that are not, strictly speaking, articles of faith, but which have been revealed to give a greater certainty. His metaphysics are basically Aristotelian, although some of his thoughts are Neo-Platonic. He distinguishes between a number of “sets” which help define his theology: substance and accident, nature and essence, matter and form, act and potency, essence and existence. He expounded on the nature of God by using the undeniable aspect of motion and movement. There are things in the world that move, and there must have been a mover that moved all things, which in and of itself does not move. This gives way to causality by which something is affected. This causality demonstrates necessary being, and by seeing being in general, one sees various degrees of being. All these give way to the reality that there is a God, who is necessarily there. God is absolutely simple, for there is in God no body or hylomorphic composition. He is the highest degree, and the highest good. God alone is infinite, and is one. Aquinas also said that to know the essence of God is unattainable in this life, and that the relationship between the Creator and the creature is analogous. Everything that takes place in the world, though, is an act of the divine will or ordained by it.

There were a number of accusations made against Aquinas for his philosophical and theological formulations. Some thought he was drifting too far away from Augustine, and others thought he was abandoning true formulations of Aristotle. In spite of these extreme views, Thomism found several defenders such as Giles of Rome, Godfrey of Fontaines and Peter of Auvergne. In 1323 John XXII, Pope at Avignon, canonized Thomas, and from that time his influence over the theological strata of the church increased.

Extreme Aristotelianism

Throughout the 13th century, the central issue that was posed by theologians was how one’s attitude toward Aristotle and his Commentator should be seen. Among those who were extreme Aristotelians was Siger of Brabant. Siger was a member of the Arts Faculty at Paris, and decided to continue as an artist instead of a theologian. His main idea was to understand Aristotle and then to use what he understood in the quest for truth. Siger and his followers have been called Latin Averroists which this title seemed to originate with Thomas because Siger followed Averroes regarding the unity of the active intellect. The rational soul, he taught, was one with the eternal soul and different from the vegetative soul (the sensitive soul). Actually, what he did was make the soul divisible, but this is an impossibility since immaterial substances cannot have individuation. Of Siger’s followers was Boethius of Dacia who taught that life is found in its supreme good while in its understanding of philosophy.

Augustinian theologians opposed the teachings of these extreme philosophers. In 1267 and 1268 Bonaventure wrote against them and in 1273 he defended Augustinianism’s exemplarism. Thomas Aquinas also wrote against them and took the intermediate position between the Augustinians and of the extreme Aristotelians. In 1270 the Bishop of Paris, Stephen Tempier, condemned a list of thirteen errors of the extremists especially their denial of divine providence. Boethius and Siger were banished from the land and were condemned as heretics for their extreme philosophical and deviant views.

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