Aristotle in Catholic/Orthodox doctrine

I am posting the following article in the hopes of initiating a recognition of Aristotle’s role in the doctrinal and dogmatic concepts employed by eastern patristic fathers and theologians. We can discuss or simply use this thread to store pertinent articles as we find them.

This is an elaboration and variation on the original unsupported assertion with one difference. Which Eastern Orthodox thinkers when literally claim that “they have purged neo-Platonism from their thinking by slight changes in Plotinus’s system.” No names named. And it ignores the very important distinction of ousia and hypostasis. If one looks at number of citations, the Fathers actually quote Aristotle more than Plotinus or the Platonists. Aristotle is a common conceptual framework to Orthodox and Calvinist theology. Much of the Fathers Platonist vocabulary comes from Origen’s attack on Celsus or from Pseudo-Denis whose neo-Platonism is Syriac, not Plotinean. Nicene vocabulary is a critical re-construction of Origen’s conceptual vocabulary. This is inherited by both Orthodox and Calvinists. And where Orthodox Trinitarian theology departs from the west, it is more Biblical than the west’s! Consider.

Towards late antiquity, two words were in philosophical use which meant substance or substantive being as Aristotle put it, being can be said in many ways or there are many meanings of Being. He isolated and identified Being according to the different categories of which substance (ousia) was the most fundamental, Being as act and potency, Being as true, and Being as contingent as opposed to necessary/essential. There has been on and off again the debate over the question of whether this listing of the meanings of Being is complete. We will return to that in a bit. The Byzantine answer was it was incomplete.

As indicated, there were two words used for substantive being in late classical philosophy. The first was Aristotle’s ousia. The second was hypostasis from Stoic origins. But they each developed a meaning that made them not exactly synonymous. Ousia increasingly came to mean a substance/thing to the extent it was a kind of substance/thing or a thing of a typical nature or essence. Hypostasis increasingly came to mean a substantive mode of existence in its unique and distinctive particularity and individuality.

Into this context comes the tradition of Judaism. Philo uses these distinctions to suggest that the personal God of Israel is a uniquely distinctive and singular reality or hypostasis in contrast to the impersonal thought thinking itself thing (ousia) of Aristotle. One branch of Middle Platonism picks this up and God and souls become hypostases while impersonal things, including cups, chairs, etc., become ousias. The other branch of Middle Platonism represented by Numenius of Apamea pushes the God as impersonal monad and ousia interpretation which nevertheless reinforces the ousia = non-personal substance/thing of a typical kind and hypostasis = personal substance of a uniquely and distinctive individual (usually God as person).

We have here the elements of a conceptual revolution in ancient philosophy and religion. It was the characteristic trait of ancient philosophy, religion, and humanism that the individual was not valued in and of itself in its particularity but only as an paradigmatic instance of a universal ideal type. Person was just an epiphenomenal mask. By contrast, as Tillich brings out, even the post-Christian humanism of the modern world is Judeo-Christian to the extent the unrepeatable individual per se is valued in and of itself. The roots of this contrast is in the Trinitarian controversy and the debt the parties owed to Philo and Origen.

I am surprised that none of our Orthodox correspondents picked up on this article. Has anyone read it?


I read it, but it’ll take me a while to digest it. Let me get back to you.

I’ve read it several times and could not paraphrase it yet without looking up the history of one or two of his comments or assertions. Don’t worry if it does not all come clear all at once…:wink:

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit