Pagan Riches for God’s Temple?: Clark, Van Til, and Muller on Aristotle’s Influence on Protestant/Reformed Orthodoxy

One of the things that I have mentioned in the past here on Reformissio (and about which I have learned much from Bobby Grow) is the influence of Aristotle on Protestant, and specifically Reformed orthodox theology. Recently I interacted with a dyed-in-the-wool classic Calvinist on this point, but I was staunchly opposed and subsequently banned from the Facebook group he runs. According to this individual, Reformed orthodox theology – such as that set forth by the Westminster Standards – is, pure and simple, what the Bible teaches in an unadulterated form. The problem is that what this person, and a number of aristotle-faceothers like him deny in knee-jerk-reaction-like form is simply a point of historical fact, as evidenced by R. Scott Clark who posted the following quote from Cornelius Van Til (who we will remember as the fiercest critic of Karl Barth) over at the Heidelblog:

It should be carefully noted that our criticism of this procedure does not imply that we hold it to be wrong for the Christian church to make formal use of the categories of thought discovered by Aristotle or any other thinker. On the contrary, we believe that in the Providence of God, Aristotle was raised up of God so that he might serve the church of God by laying at its feet the measures of his brilliant intellect. When Solomon built the temple of God he was instructed to make use of the peculiar skill and the peculiar gifts of the pagan nation that was his neighbor. But this was something quite different than to build together with pagan nations. The Samaritans wanted to help the Jews construct the city and the temple. Hence they were rejected by the true Jews. The Phoenicians merely wanted to bring their treasures to Solomon and let him construct the way he saw fit. Hence they were gladly received by Solomon.

Van Til, and Clark who quotes him approvingly, are not alone in acknowledging the critical role that Aristotelian thought has played in shaping Reformed orthodox theology. Reformed historian extraordinaire Richard Muller likewise notes that “much of the orthodox theology of the time had developed” along “the more or less Christian Aristotelian or modified Thomistic trajectory”[1] on account of “the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic world-view it presupposed”.[2] He goes on to illustrate this by offering the following account of the development of Reformed scholasticism’s doctrine of God:

The decade following 1590 was as crucial for the development of the scholastic Protestant doctrine of God as it was for the development of theological prolegomena—and for much the same reason. The rise of prolegomena, as evidenced by Junius’ magisterial treatise De vera theologia, signaled an interest among Protestants in the clear and precise definition of theology and in the identification of specifically Protestant theology as a legitimate scientia in the classic Aristotelian sense, in and for its study in the universities. Directly related to this development was the beginning of a Protestant interest in prolegomena, the enunciation of principia, and specifically in some of the preliminary questions of the nature of the discipline itself—notably as found in an earlier form in the older scholasticism and, indeed, in the tradition of Christian Aristotelianism. By way of example, we now see discussion of theology as a scientia or study of first principles and of the conclusions that can be drawn from them. We also see the establishment of a Protestant, indeed a Reformed, discussion of metaphysics, as evidenced by the appearance of the first Protestant textbooks on the subject. Indeed, the Protestant theologians and philosophers of this generation viewed Aristotelian metaphysics as a crucial source for definitions and arguments needed in the construction and defense of their theological systems.[3]

Elsewhere Muller makes the significant observation that so great was the dependency of Protestant orthodox theology on Aristotelian philosophy that the loss of the latter (as occurred during the inbreaking of Cartesian thought) necessarily implied a drastic change in the former:

It should also be clear that the shift in philosophical perspective that took place in the latter half of the seventeenth century, as the older Aristotelianism gave way before various forms of rationalism was a shift that was recognized at the time as having a massive impact on thinker2Christian theology. As Verbeek has noted, Voetius recognized that the Cartesian view of reason and its abilities “would imply a complete revision of theological method.” We also have the significant testimony of the English writer, Simon Patrick, that “philosophy and divinity are so interwoven by the schoolmen, that it cannot be safe to separate them; new philosophy will bring in new divinity.” Of course, as the Cartesian inclinations of a fair number of the Reformed thinkers of the era demonstrate, there is no immediate correlation between alteration of philosophical perspective and heterodoxy or, indeed, the loss of scholastic method. Nonetheless, the decline of Protestant orthodoxy and the decline of the traditional Christian Aristotelianism (one might also add, the decline of traditional, so-called, “precritical” exegesis) occurred in the same era and for many of the same reasons and that, with the alteration of philosophical perspective at the close of the seventeenth century, there was also a fundamental alteration of theology and of the exegesis that underlay its formulations.[4]

According to Clark, Van Til, and Muller, the fact that Protestant and Reformed orthodox theology was highly dependent on Aristotelian metaphysics, philosophy, and language should be fairly uncontroversial. Apart from those who will nevertheless continue in their denials, I’ve heard another kind of reaction to all of this: “So what?” This is not a skeleton in the Reformed closet that Clark, Van Til, and Muller are trying to hide; quite the contrary! For Van Til, the riches of pagan Aristotle are crucial for building the temple of God! So what’s the problem?

Let me quote Muller one more time as he highlights one substantial difference between the Reformed orthodox and the Reformers themselves:

Whereas there is considerable explicit agreement between the Reformed orthodox perspectives on religion and natural theology and the views of the Reformers on those subjects, when it comes to the use of philosophy in theology there is a certain degree of discontinuity. Some distinction, of course, must be made between declarations made in polemic and the actual use of philosophical concepts. The Reformers, typically, had little good to say about philosophy, particularly about the pagan philosophy of antiquity and the philosophical speculations of the later medieval scholastics. Aristotle in particular was the target of polemic, inasmuch as the philosophical development of the later Middle Ages could be traced to the varied appropriations of Aristotelian philosophy by the medieval doctors. Still, the Reformers themselves did not remove all philosophical issues from their theology or fail to use traditional understandings of such basic categories as substance and attributes, cause and effect, relation, or disposition.

The Protestant orthodox, by way of contrast, faced issues similar to those confronted by the medieval scholastics in their work of system building. Luther and Calvin had argued pointedly against the use of philosophical concepts—particularly Aristotelian concepts—in the construction of theology and had consistently ruled out, if not the implicit acceptance of a largely Christian Aristotelian worldview, at least the explicit use of philosophical models. Both Luther and Calvin were reluctant to develop metaphysical discussions of the divine essence and attributes—though neither disputed the truth of the traditional attribution to God of omnipresence, omniscience, eternity, infinity, simplicity, and so forth. This perspective on metaphysical discussion and the related avoidance of the language of essence marks a major difference between the theology of these two Reformers and that of the Protestant orthodox. Much of that difference relates to the problem of the use of philosophy in theology.[5]

This is a significant and telling admission on the part of Muller. As key figures in the Reformation, both Luther and Calvin strongly opposed the very integration of Aristotelian philosophy into theology that the later Protestant orthodox advocated, because they believed that it had no place in, nor could it ever produce, a truly Christian theology that needed to ground itself ultimately in God’s own self-revelation in Christ. While it is of course true that neither Luther nor Calvin were themselves wholly unaffected by the philosophical currents of their day, it is important to realize what they were at least attempting to do, even if they were not thoroughly consistent in their doing of it. Now I realize that someone will object at this point, claiming that I fail to see Muller’s overarching point relative to the fundamental continuity between the Reformers and the orthodox despite whatever discontinuity there may be. Having read much of Muller’s work, I am very familiar with his thesis. I am just not convinced, based on what he himself says, that the discontinuity in this particular area is as insignificant as Muller would have us believe. Since this post is already somewhat long, I will just simply say – in view of a arts-graphics-2008_1183027apotential follow-up post to this one – that I am far more persuaded by Ron Frost’s contention that expunging Aristotelian philosophy from its corrupting infiltration into the medieval church was one of the driving ambitions of Luther in his reforming efforts:

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed—measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles—a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther—who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week—chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[6]

As I (following Bobby Grow before me who referred me to Frost) have suggested many times here on Reformissio, the Evangelical Calvinism that I am promoting is nothing less than the attempt to return to these primal reforming impulses and resuscitate the “stillborn” Reformation. I simply do not agree with Clark, Van Til, and Muller that Aristotle provides pagan riches with which to construct the temple of God. If it is true, as the church fathers like Irenaeus taught, that God can be known only through God, then it is simply folly to think that he can be known through a man, however brilliant, like Aristotle.


[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 3: the divine essence and attributes, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.122.

[2] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.p.139.

[3] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 3: the divine essence and attributes, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.107, emphasis added.

[4] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.120, emphasis added. In-text citations from Verbeek, “Descartes and the Problem of Atheism,” p. 222. and Simon Patrick, A Brief Account of the New Sect of Latitude Men (London, 1662), cited by B. C. Southgate, “Forgotten and Lost: Some Reactions to Autonomous Science in the Seventeenth Century,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, 50 (1989), p. 253

[5] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.360-361, emphasis added.

[6] Frost, R.N., 1997. ‘Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?’. Trinity Journal 18NS, p.225, emphasis added.


7 thoughts on “Pagan Riches for God’s Temple?: Clark, Van Til, and Muller on Aristotle’s Influence on Protestant/Reformed Orthodoxy

  1. Bobby Grow 16 October 2016 / 08:27

    This is definitely a uniquely styled evangelical Calvinism when we blend it with Frost’s insights :-). It adds a sense of Augustinianism to it that is absent in TFT and Barth. The affective theology that Frost develops (constructively on his own front) is an unheard of development in the academy — really, and Ron himself isn’t promoting it anymore, academically (although he does so devotionally through his blog — and then the influence he has at his church and at CorDeo); so any exposure people are going to get of that online will come from me and now you too; that’s a good thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Kleis 16 October 2016 / 13:18

      Uniquely styled definitely! I will always be indebted to you for turning me to Frost. I wish I could have studied under him myself.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Bobby Grow 16 October 2016 / 08:29

    In fact I’m about to write a post using McGrath’s Luther’s book which details the critique Frost makes of created grace. In fact the book I have checked out from Multnomah’s Library has Frost’s notes penciled in in the margins; I can tell there his :-).

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.