Jacques Maritain Center : Aristotle and the Christian Church



A PRELIMINARY statement that will prevent grave misconception in the course of the following pages, is this: The Church is not in any sense a School of Philosophy; she is a living, organic body, informed by the Holy Spirit for the regeneration of the world. With this view does she teach definite doctrines, and inculcate definite practices, and, by means of the prayer of ritual and ceremonial and sacramental blessing, impart to men grace and strength to live up to her teachings. Her Divine Founder was of no School; He was bound by no system; He defined not; He gave no syllogistic demonstrations. With a sublime simplicity, in the power of the Divinity alone to assume, He laid down His doctrines, confirmed His disciples, and organized His Church. Whatever was good and humanizing in the Mosaic law He retained; all that was harsh and hardening He abolished, and taught by precept and example the universal law of Love. And the Church, like the Truth on which she is founded, has ever remained above all systems and all schools. She allows her children, as best they can, in the light of such philosophic truth as they find at hand, to endeavour to explain her doctrines and her dogmas. Being a living organism, she speaks to each age in the language that each age best understands. And so it happens that, in defining and affirming the doctrines of which she is the sacred depository, as against schism or heresy, she from time to time adopts some term or other from the prevailing philosophic school -- when that term most clearly expresses her thought. In the Catechism that she places in the hands of the child just arrived at the age of reason, she teaches in philosophical language the nature of the Sacraments that she administers; and in distinguishing between what constitutes their Matter, and what their Form, she is using a nomenclature familiar to the Schools hundreds of years before her Divine Founder breathed into her His sanctifying Spirit.

Thus it is that, under her influence, "doctrines concerning the nature of God, the immortality of the soul, and the duties of men, which the noblest intellects of antiquity could barely grasp, have become the truisms of the village school, the proverbs of the cottage and the alley."{1} All this is to be looked for in a living organism addressing herself; not to one portion of humanity, but to every portion, be it of the learned or the ignorant, of the rich or the poor, of the savage or the civilized. Hers must needs be a teaching and a practice to satisfy intellect as well as heart. She must needs contain within herself a fulness and a wealth of grace to calm the stormy heart, and of truth to bring repose to the restless brain of an Augustine, to satisfy the intellectual cravings of a Novalis and a Frederick Schiegel, and to meet the questionings of the acute intellect of a Cardinal Newman. But if she were not equal to all this, would her Divine Founder ever have spoken of Himself as the Fountain of living waters, at which whoso drinks will never feel thirst?{2} And therefore it is, that as she grows with the growth of the ages, is she found equal to the wants of every age. Whatever there is of the good, or the true, or the beautiful; whatever tends to bring home to a people's heart her sublime teachings; whatever appeals to man's highest reason, and satisfies his noblest aspirations, she absorbs and assimilates and presents for his contemplation, blessed and purified and consecrated as an instrument of holiness. There is no truth too elevated for her grasp; there is no detail too trivial to be beneath her notice, if it can only avail for the main purpose. Jesus comes to establish a regenerative religion. He takes up His abode amongst that people the most intensely religious upon the face of the earth. He establishes the Christian principle. And an impartial witness to the worth of that principle says of it: "Infinitely greater and more fruitful than Jewish tradition, the Christian principle was large enough to comprise all, and powerful enough to absorb all. . . . All that speculation conceived of the profound and elevated in metaphysics, all that practical good sense found most certain and most efficacious in morality, Christianity hastened to gather up and make its own."{3}

The disciple whom Jesus loved in an especial manner, and who fully understood the spirit of the New Religion, before recording the sayings and doings of his Master, premised his Gospel with a vindication of the Godhead of Jesus, and with giving, in opposition to the teachings of Philo (circ. B.C. 25 to circ. A.D. 50) and the Alexandrian School, a proper place in Christian philosophy, to the Word, in language as clear, simple, and sublime as ever dropped from the pen of inspiration. Therein does he establish the co-eternity of the Word with the Father: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. According to Philo, the Word was a mere attribute of God: now the Divine Reason, now the Divine Creative Power, now the child of His wisdom; never God Himself.{4} John identifies the Word with the Godhead, and states His Divine Personality: And the Word was God . . . In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. . . . And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt amongst us.{5} Henceforth in Christian philosophy Jesus shall be known as the Word, bringing to men light and life, regeneration and redemption. This is the touchstone of all systems: By this is the Spirit of God known. Every spirit, which confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is of God: And every spirit that dissolveth Jesus, is not of God.{6} And yet, though an inspired Gospel, in a sublime preamble, dissolves the philosophical myths in which vain imaginings would cloud the Divinity of Jesus, it is not as a system of philosophy competing with other systems that the Church steps upon the world's scene. The trained intellect of a St. Paul contrasting her simple teaching with Hellenic culture, on the one hand, finds it to be foolishness for the Greek; on the other hand, comparing it with Jewish history and Jewish traditions, he calls it a stumbling-block to the Jew.{7} Still, the Gnosticism of the day concentrated all its energies in a desperate struggle to crush out of existence the foolishness and the stumbling-block. St. Paul raises his voice against the false science that has crept into the Church, and cautions Timothy not to allow himself to be ensnared by fables and genealogies without end,{8} and to avoid foolish and unlearned questions, knowing that they beget strifes.{9} We know what havoc this Gnosticism played in the early Church. That the world was the work of a delirious God; that the body was evil in itself; that only an elect few were redeemed, only an elect few were predestined to salvation: such were some of its most pernicious doctrines, which were carried out to their full consequences in all the affairs of social and daily life, Loud and fierce did those winds blow; but the Church calmly abided her hour, and the truth prevailed. So was it with the Alexandrian School, with her strange jumble of doctrine. Hard, indeed, were it for the world to become regenerate upon a syncretism in which attempt was made to reconcile Plato with Aristotle, Chaldaic theurgic rites with Judaic mysticism. It was the last bulwark thrown up by an exhausted and expiring civilization against the encroachments of Christianity. It failed; and the Church continued her mission of regenerating and reconstructing the world.

{1} Lecky, History of European Morals, vol. ii. p. 3.

{2} John iv. 13.

{3} Vacherot, Histoire Critique de l'École d'Alexandrie, tom. i. pp. 168,169. The author adds those words, no less true: "On n'a voulu voir le plus souvent dans la philosophie chrétienne que l'origine de toutes les erreurs qui ont infesté l'Église; on aurait dû y voir également la source de toutes les grandes vérités qui composent la partie supérieure et vraiment métaphysique du Christianisme." Later on we shall have occasion to note a practical application of their truth.

{4} Ueberweg, History of Philosophy, vol. i. pp. 230, 231.

{5} John i. 1, 4, 14.

{6} John iv. 2, 3.

{7} 1 Cor. i. 23.

{8} 1 Tim. i. 4.

{9} 2 Tim. ii. 23.

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