About 1000 years before Aquinas, Christians had an encounter with Aristotle. It is an interesting bit of history.
The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, Robert L. Wilken
Galen was a second century writer, studied in philosophy and medicine. He was a native of Pergamum, located in western Asia Minor near the Aegean Sea. Pergamum had a library second only to that in Alexandria; it was a wealthy city.
Galen would arrive in Rome at the time when the Christian community was still not very large, yet it was one of the more significant Christian communities of the time. Several of the most prominent Christian intellectuals and apologists were in Rome, including Justin Martyr. Galen would write what became twenty-two volumes; while never directly writing of Christians, they were often mentioned.
He commented several times on Christians who were like physicians that wrote with no scientific basis:
“For one might more easily teach novelties to the followers of Moses and Christ than to the physicians and philosophers who cling fast to their schools.”
The arguments presented by the Christians were little more than “God commanded” or “God spoke.” Christians had developed a reputation for appealing to faith. This was unsatisfactory for Galen. Despite this – and due to the virtuous living that Galen saw in them – Galen treated the Christians with respect, not referring to them as a superstition, but instead as a philosophical “school.” It was a dignified term.
It was also precisely at this time when writers like Justin Martyr were working to change this view. There were other writers, such as Theodotus, who would lean on a rational foundation in the tradition of Aristotle. This did not sit well with many of their fellow believers:
“They have tampered with the Holy Scriptures without fear. …They put aside the holy scriptures of God, and devote themselves to geometry, since they are from the earth and speak from the earth, and do not know the one who comes from above. Some of them give all their energies to the study of Euclidian geometry, they admire Aristotle and Theophrastus, and some of them almost worship Galen.”
The use of Greek learning to interpret the Bible was frowned upon by most Christians at the time; in the few Christian sources where “philosophy” is mentioned, the word was used pejoratively.
As mentioned, Galen gave Christianity a bump up the ladder by referring to it as a philosophical school instead of a superstition. This was because despite the flaws, as Galen saw these, he saw that Christianity was leading men to a virtuous life, and this was the sign of a good philosophy.
But the Christians were the simple people. Simple people could not follow any demonstrative argument; they needed parables. A good story beats a rational argument every time. These Christian parables led to a virtuous way of living – and the proof of a good philosophy was if it brought people toward living a moral life, not merely a way of thinking about one.
Piety and respect toward the gods; philanthropy and justice toward one’s fellow man. These were the hallmarks of good philosophy, and Galen saw these in the Christians of his time.
…they preached to men and women about how to live amid the twists and turns of fate and fortune. …Christians led people to embrace lives of discipline and self-control, to pursue justice, to overcome the fear of death.
It was through their way of life, not their teaching, that Christians would catch the attention of the larger society. This was somewhat difficult for Galen to understand, as there were aspects of Christian teaching that made little sense to him. Like others educated in the Greek tradition, he believed it was impossible to do good without knowing the truth.
In his view, there was much truth that the Christians did not know, and much untruth that they did know. The Mosaic view of creation falls squarely into this chasm. Moses omitted the material cause and went straight to the efficient cause, with God creating something out of nothing merely by speaking.
What follows is the debate that continues to this day: can God do anything, even that which against nature? I am swayed by C.S. Lewis here:
His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to him, but not nonsense.
Meaningless combinations of words cannot suddenly make sense just by adding the words “God can” to these. I might go further and suggest that God created that which would not require Him to have to go against nature. He is God, after all.
But at the time, the Christian view offended the sensibilities of the Romans and the Greeks. All things are possible to God – even, it seems, the nonsensical (to borrow from Lewis).
Galen was the first pagan author to place the Christian religion on the same footing as Greek philosophy. Christianity would begin to be taken seriously in intellectual circles. Obviously, a large part of this was due to the manner in which Christians lived – a real problem today, suggesting one reason Christians are no longer taken seriously.
But returning to the purpose of this post: Aristotle might have been lost to Christianity for 1000 years, but he was there in the beginning. One can also see, perhaps, something of the roots of the divide – even animosity – between the Eastern and Western traditions. It was there, temporarily and due to Aristotle, in the first century after Christ.