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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
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VAN DER WALT, B.J.. Aristotelian-philosophical influences at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) and the liberating perspective of a Reformational philosophy on divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2012, vol.52, n.2, pp.174-195. ISSN 2224-7912.

The clash between the Reformed and Arminian parties at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) and its Canons (1619) can be explained philosophically as the result of different interpretations of the philosophy ofthe pre-Christian Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BC), which were sanctioned through the methods of eisegesis-exegesis and nature-grace.1 The present article firstly investigates more in detail Aristotle's philosophy, especially his idea about being, God, doctrine of causality and syllogistic logic. It will explain why this pre-Christian thinker's philosophy (which experienced a revival in Europe from about 1500 to 1650) was attractive to Reformed theologians of the 17th century. At the same time the investigation will reveal the impossibility to achieve a synthesis between an unbiblical philosophy and the Bible when looking for a solution to the problem of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Therefore, the second main part of this contribution provides an alternative to this age-old problem from the perspective of a Reformational philosophy, founded on God's revelation in his creation and in his Word. The study develops in the following way. The first main section contains an attempt to provide a brief summary of Aristotle's philosophy, mainly derived from his book De mundo, as well as secondary sources. The following aspects are analysed. First his hierarchical ontology or "great chain of being", from the lowest form of being to the godhead, from pure matter (an abstraction) to pure form, from a lack of being to the perfect being (god) are described. Although it does not seem so on the face of it, this is a purely cosmological philosophy, a static way of thinking in which everything has a fixed place in an ontological hierarchy. Secondly, Aristotle's view of god is investigated against his dualistic ontology, dividing reality in two parts, namely, transcendent (god) and non-transcendent (the cosmos). According to Aristotle his god is the first mover or cause, while he himself is immovable, as well as the final aim of everything. As an entirely self-centred and dispassionate being, no religious relationship with him is possible. Apart from superficial similarities between this notion of the divine and that of the Bible, Scripture does not proclaim a deus immutabilis, but a God fully participating in his creation. God's Word also does not teach about a predetermined human being, but a responsible one. In the third place Aristotle's hierarchical and dualistic ontology is causally determined. He distinguishes four different basic causes and explains reality from the transcendent god above to the lowest reality as a chain of cause and effect. In the light of biblical revelation God, however, cannot be regarded as a cause since the relationship of cause and effect is of a cosmic nature. Created reality is also much richer than simply a chain of causes and their consequences. In the fourth place it is argued that Aristotle's syllogistic reasoning cannot be applied to the Biblical concept of God, since he transcends human logical categories. The second and third last phases of Aristotle's development are especially insightful in the light of the philosophical conceptions of Gomarus (1563-1641) and Arminius (1560-1609), discussed in the preceding article in this journal (Van der Walt 2011). Gomarus' philosophical conception, underlying his theology, is in every aspect identical to Aristotle's third last conception (intellectualistic semi-mysticism). And Arminius 'final conception is exactly the same as the second last phase of Aristotle's development (inconsistent empiricism). The only difference being that Aristotle was a pre-Christian thinker, while these two theologians were synthetic Christian thinkers from the 17th century. The significant conclusion is that the real controversy at Dort was not that between the (correct and wrong) interpretations of the Bible of the two opposing parties, but a struggle between different interpretations of the pagan philosopher, Aristotle, possibly based on different phases in his thinking. As mentioned above, the second main section of this investigation is an attempt to find a genuine, Reformational answer to the relationship between God and mankind. The Christian philosopher, D.H.Th. Vollenhoven (1892-1978), provided a starting-point with a new ontology and his definition of religion as "the relationship of humankind to the God of the covenant in obedience or disobedience to his fundamental law of love". His viewpoint is explained as a liberating alternative to that of Reformed Scholasticism at Dort, based on Aristotle's philosophy. Instead of religion being viewed as something supernatural and mystic, and thus only part of human life, Vollenhoven regards religion as an inherent part of human existence, encompassing every aspect of human life. It can, however, be either directed in obedience to God's law of love or in disobedience. In conclusion it is mentioned that the Canons of Dort were initially intended to be a judgement, butfinally they became accepted as a confession. Following a brief discussion about how Reformed people today view the authority of this creed, new creeds or testimonies are suggested which, instead offocussing on dogmatic-ecclesiastical controversies, formulate human beings' various responsibilities in God's worldwide kingdom in different spheres of life. If this happens, the relationship between the sovereign God and the human being's responsibility can be expressed in a new, inspiring way in the contemporary world.

Keywords : Aristotle (384-322 BC); Aristotle's development; ontology; dualistic philosophy; idea of God; doctrine of causality; syllogistic logic; Synod of Dort (1618-1619); Gomarus (1563-1641); Arminius (1560-1609 ); D.H.Th. Vollenhoven (1892-1978); religion; covenant; confession; determinism; eternal divine decree; predestination; election; reprobation; human responsibility.

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