Why Protestants Read Aristotle’s Ethics

Recently, the online Ethics Reading Group that I lead at the Pastors’ Academy in London has been studying Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. At first blush, this seems a strange choice. Here in the UK, the study of great books in general—and, among pastors, of old books outside a rather narrowly circumscribed set of Reformed classics—is rarer than in the USA. Why would a group of Protestant pastors spend time on a pagan text? A pagan ethics text. When we could be studying Scripture. Isn’t it almost… unethical?

The puzzle is more acute for those familiar with Luther’s declaration in his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology (1517) that “Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace”,[1] a sentiment from which much hay has been made. Similarly, the second part of Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (1518) gives Aristotle a firm tongue-lashing, and warns that “He who wishes to philosophize by using Aristotle without danger to his soul must first become thoroughly foolish in Christ”.[2] One starts to wonder: what kind of fool am I?

It is less often grasped, however, that Luther outgrew his early polemics against Aristotle, which were perhaps shaped less by hostility to Aristotle and the sounder scholastics, and more by Luther’s rejection of the late medieval theologians of the via moderna. To those attuned to Luther’s early polemics, his lecture on Genesis 48:17-18 from the last year of his life is startling.[3] Luther discusses the legal doctrine of ἐπιείκεια (equity) and states, “Aristotle also has a very fine passage about ἐπιείκεια in the fifth and most brilliant book of his Ethics.” In Ethics Book V, Chapter 10, Aristotle recognizes that law cannot cover all the circumstances of life, and sometimes must be mitigated. Luther argues that “Aristotle has pointed out the best way”, which is related to his definition of virtue as “a middle course based on some reason, as a wise man judges”.[4] Here Luther deploys Aristotle’s accounts of equity and of virtue as a mean to aid right exegesis of Holy Scripture. His discussion demonstrates a careful reading and appropriation of Aristotle’s teaching in Ethics, which is the more striking for being introduced without fuss or any need to defend the use of Aristotle. More striking still, Luther then deploys Aristotle’s discussion polemically against monkish legalism.[5] If Aristotle is not exactly a doctor of grace, Luther recognises him, on this point at least, as a pre-Christian ally against the real “enemies of grace”.

This obviously calls into question simplistic citation of Luther against Aristotle. Moreover, viewed from the perspective of the wider history of the Reformation, it is Luther’s earlier, negative posture towards Aristotle, rather than his later (partially) positive appropriation, that is anomalous.

The past decade has seen important developments in scholarship of Protestant appropriations of Aristotle’s ethical writings. These build on the work of Richard Muller et al, applying the same approach to Protestant ethical writings.[6] In the 150 years following the Reformation, Ethics was a standard work among both Lutherans and the Reformed for teaching ethics. As David Sytsma summarises: “As a historical fact… Protestants produced an astonishingly rich corpus of ethical texts based on Nicomachean Ethics”. At least fifty-three commentaries on Ethics were written by confessional Protestants, as well as hundreds of other ethical works highly influenced by Aristotle.[7] A large percentage of 5000 ethical disputations also discuss topics from Ethics.[8] In addition, Protestant cities produced at least twenty editions of Ethics from 1530-1720, as well as many subsequent printings.[9] Manfred Svensson refers to “the vitality of the Aristotelian tradition of practical philosophy in the Protestant territories”,[10] and summarises the situation with regard to the commentaries in this period as follows:

The interest in the Nicomachean ethics is not only geographically and confessionally wide. It is remarkably continuous. Rarely do ten years go by without a new commentary being published. If we take the multiple editions of these commentaries into account, Europe was steadily flooded with them.[11]

The esteem in which Aristotle was held is indicated by John Case in the dedicatory epistle of his Speculum moralium quaestionium (1585), comparing Aristotle to the French Huegenot Petrus Ramus: “I am not condemning Ramnus, for he was learned. Rather, I am extolling Aristotle, for he was the greatest.”[12] Similarly, Peter Martyr Vermigli, contrasting Aristotle’s Ethics with Plato, referred to him as “a man of singular genius, who subjected the whole relevant material to methodological analysis and arranged it with the greatest accuracy”.[13]

Unsurprisingly, the majority of these works were written by philosophers. However, four notable theologians also wrote commentaries on some or all of the Nicomachean Ethics. The first, that of Philip Melanchthon has been described as “he undisputed fountainhead” of Protestant commentaries. The first edition of 1529 dealt with Books I and II of Ethics; by 1532, this had been expanded to consider Books III and V—the fifth book being Aristotle’s treatment of justice, which we saw Luther drawing on in reference to Genesis 48:17-18. The other three commentaries by theologians were written by Reformed authors: Andreas Hyperius (1511-64), Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562), and Antonius Walaeus (1573-1639). We shall consider Vermigli’s commentary in a little more detail, but for Reformed Christians who are suspicious of Aristotle, the career of Walaeus is of particular note. He was one of the Dutch delegates at the Synod of Dort (1618-19), was appointed to the theological faculty of Leiden in 1619, and was one of the co-authors of the Synopsis Purioris Theologiae. He thus stands at the heart of seventeenth century Reformed confessionalism. And he also wrote a commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics that went through at least fifteen editions in Leiden, Rouen, Paris, London and Amsterdam between 1620 and 1708.[14]

Vermigli’s Commentary was posthumously published, based on lectures given during his sojourn in Strasbourg (1553-1556). At the same time, another Reformed theologian, Girolamo Zanchi, was lecturing there on Aristotle’s Physics.[15] In his introduction to the Commentary, Vermigli distinguishes philosophy from theology, the latter given through revelation, the former acquired by human enquiry. But philosophy is not a wholly secular pursuit; Vermigli defines it as “a disposition given by God to human minds, increased through effort and exercise, by which things are perceived as surely and as logically as possible, which enable man to attain happiness”.[16] Vermigli further distinguishes speculative, or contemplative philosophy, and practical philosophy. The former is divided into metaphysics, which considers things separate from matter; physics, which considers things inseparable from matter; and the “middle course”: things that cannot exist without matter, e.g., mathematics. The latter consists of ethics, if one person is concerned; domestic economy, if a few people are involved; and civics, or politics, if many people are involved. These distinctions are clearly indebted to Aristotle.

Focusing on ethics, he notes the etymology, from ἔθος, or custom; and states that “the only way for us to acquire morals and good habits is by custom”.[17] Thus, the Aristotelian understand of virtue as an acquired habit is to the fore. Summarising Ethics, he states that “The whole book is concerned… with man: how one becomes endowed with virtues and attains the happiness that may be acquired in this life”; ethics is “concerned with the harmony of the parts of the mind with reason”.[18] Once again, so far, so Aristotelian. It is important to recognize, however, that Vermigli here is focusing on man’s natural end, in this life; Aristotle’s ethics do not teach the remission of sins through Christ, and cannot teach the way to eternal happiness in the beatific vision, which is known only through Holy Scripture, received by faith.

Vermigli’s method is significant: he is not an uncritical expositor of Aristotle. Some Protestant commentaries on Ethics do no more than expound Aristotle’s meaning. However, Vermigli is more ambitious, and is theological as well as philosophical. First, he analyses the text, then explains its meaning, before exposing “any doubts that have arisen”, and then finally he compares Aristotle’s teaching to Scripture.[19] This enables him not only to appreciate the ‘singular genius’ and ‘accuracy’ of Aristotle,[20] but also to expose his shortcomings. This leads to a twofold benefit for Christian students of Aristotle. First “the pleasure derived from this science is not small”, and it reveals the boundaries within which natural knowledge is valuable. Secondly, and more significantly, “the Christian religion is inflamed by knowledge of pagan ethics, for we understand through comparison how far those things taught in Scripture surpass philosophy”.[21] If the teaching of Aristotle is wonderful, how much more wonderful is God’s instruction in his Holy Word. In following this method, Vermigli is consistent with his Thomistic understanding that grace does not destroy, but perfects nature.[22]

Vermigli lists a number of contrasts between philosophical ethics and Christian piety. First, in philosophy, active knowledge precedes contemplative knowledge, because it is only as we grow in virtue that our emotions come to rest. But in Scripture, “speculation occurs first”, because first we must believe the Gospel and be justified by faith; only then do good works (action) follow. Vermigli here adduces the structure of Paul’s epistles (first doctrine, then moral instruction); the Exodus (first deliverance from Egypt, then the giving of the law); and the structure of the Decalogue itself, which begins “I am the Lord your God”.[23]

Secondly, the goal of philosophy is the “happiness that can be acquired in this life by human powers”. Both qualifications are important: the happiness attainable through philosophy is purely temporal happiness; and that happiness is acquired by human powers. This is no small benefit of course. But it pales next to the goal of Christian piety, which is the daily growth in knowledge of God and renewal of God’s image in holiness and righteousness, until we pass beyond this life and see God face to face.[24]

Lastly, whereas philosophical ethics is governed by human reason, requires unaided human effort, and is driven by love of self, Christian morality is guided by what God judges to be good in Scripture, arises from trust in God and love for him, and is done “by the impulse of the Holy Spirit of God”.[25] Implicitly here, Vermigli is, again, operating along Thomist lines, contrasting acquired civic virtue with true, infused virtue.[26]

Before proceeding to his commentary, Vermigli feels the need to refute one potential objection to studying a work of philosophy, namely Paul’s injunction in Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ”. Vermigli argues that Paul is not speaking of true philosophy, which ‘derives from knowledge of created things’ and has been “implanted” by God in human minds (note Vermigli’s definition of philosophy quoted above).[27] Rather, “Paul censured that philosophy that is corrupted by human invention and by bitter disputes of philosophers”.[28] Vermigli reads “empty deceit” as epexegetical: the philosophy Paul is condemning is empty deceit, which has its origins in human tradition and the elemental spirits of the world. Christians are therefore bound to reject such sophistry and illusion, but are free to pursue true philosophy, which is in accord with nature and understood through the God-given light of natural reason. It is clear that he regards Aristotle as the pre-eminent example of such true philosophy, and seeks to understand him, learn from him and, where necessary, correct him by the light of Holy Scripture.

Joseph McLelland recognizes Vermigli’s deep knowledge of Aristotle, but also that his “final criterion for truth is not philosophy, but scripture”. He adds that, “There is ample evidence in his close reasoning to show that while he values the contribution of Aristotle to a philosophy of human being and an ethic of virtue, he feels entirely free to criticize his errors and shortcomings in light of a superior Christian revelation”.[29] Here, surely, is the path of true wisdom.

Can we, then, read Aristotle? Of course: all things are ours, and we are Christ’s. Should we? Herman Bavinck was right, in my view, to describe the Nicomachean Ethics as ‘a practically useful, measured morality that was satisfying in practice’.[30] As he told his ethics students, “We can profit from Aristotelian thought, and without doubt, Aristotle’s Ethics is the best philosophical ethics available”.[31] In a world of moral fragmentation and confusion, the recovery of sustained, but not uncritical, Protestant appropriation of Aristotle cannot come soon enough.

Matthew Mason is Tutor in Christian Ethics at the Pastors’ Academy in London, and a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen.

  1. Martin Luther, Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, LW, 31:9-16, Thesis 41.

  2. Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, LW, 31:39-58, Thesis 29. One does note here that Luther’s rejection of Aristotle might not be absolute: one must first become foolish in Christ; cf. the analogy of marriage in Thesis 30.

  3. Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis 45-50, LW, 8:171-72.

  4. LW, 8:171; quoting EN, Book II, chap. 6.

  5. LW, 8:172.

  6. Most notable in relation to Aristotle is the bibliographical, interpretative and translation work of Manfred Svensson and David Sytsma. See Manfred Svensson and David S. Sytsma, ‘A Bibliography of Early Modern Protestant Ethics, ca. 1520-1750’, https://www.academia.edu/39959737/A_Bibliography_of_Early_Modern_Protestant_Ethics_ca_1520_1750_updated_Aug_27_2020_; Manfred Svensson, ‘Aristotelian Practical Philosophy from Melanchthon to Eisenhart: Protestant Commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics 1529–1682’, Reformation & Renaissance Review 21/3 (2019): 218–38. https://www.academia.edu/40491688/Aristotelian_Practical_Philosophy_from_Melanchthon_to_Eisenhart_Protestant_Commentaries_on_the_Nicomachean_Ethics_1529_1682; ‘The Use of Aristotle in Early Protestant Theology’, in Without Excuse: Scripture, Reason, and Presuppositional Apologetics, ed. David Haines (Davenant Press, 2020), 183–98; David S. Sytsma, ‘John Calvin and Virtue Ethics: Augustinian and Aristotelian Themes’, Journal of Religious Ethics 48/3 (2020): 519–56. https://www.academia.edu/43830806/_John_Calvin_and_Virtue_Ethics_Augustinian_and_Aristotelian_Themes_in_Journal_of_Religious_Ethics_48_no_3_2020_519_556_Open_Access_; ‘Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Protestantism’. Academia Letters (2021), Article1650. https://doi.org/10.20935/AL1650. Sytsma also has some short translations of Protestant ethical theses that are heavily influenced by Aristotle; https://tci.academia.edu/DavidSytsma/translations.

  7. Sytsma claims “at least fifty” (‘Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics’, 3); Svensson claims forty-six (‘Aristotelian Practical Philosophy’, 219-20); the most recent version of their bibliography, dated 27 August, 2020, lists fifty-three commentaries and a further fourteen synopses and introductions to EN; the discrepancies indicate that new discoveries are still being made.

  8. Sytsma, ‘Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics’, 4.

  9. Sytsma, ‘Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics’, 3.

  10. Svensson, ‘Aristotelian Practical Philosophy’, 219.
  11. Svensson, ‘Aristotelian Practical Philosophy’, 227.

  12. John Case, Speculum Moralium Quaestionum in universam ethicen Aristotelis (1585), trans. Dana F. Sutton, online at http://www.philological.bham.ac.uk/speculum/.

  13. Peter Martyr Vermigli, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, ed. Emidio Campi and Joseph C. McLelland (Truman State University Press, 2006), 11.

  14. Svensson, ‘Aristotelian Practical Philosophy’, 221-22; Sytsma, ‘Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics’, 3.

  15. Joseph C. McLelland, ‘Introduction’, in Vermigli, Commentary, x-xi.

  16. Vermigli, Commentary, 7.

  17. Vermigli, Commentary, 10.

  18. Vermigli, Commentary, 10-11.

  19. Vermigli, Commentary, 13.

  20. Vermigli, Commentary, 11.

  21. Vermigli, Commentary, 16.

  22. Cf. McLelland, ‘Introduction’, xxx.

  23. Vermigli, Commentary, 14.

  24. Vermigli, Commentary, 14.

  25. Vermigli, Commentary, 15.

  26. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II.55.4; 65; cf. Paul Miner, ‘Infused Virtue as Virtue Simply: The Augustinian Definition in Summa Theologiae I/II.55-67’, International Journal of Systematic Theology, 71/4 (2018): 411-24.

  27. Vermigli, Commentary, 13.

  28. Vermigli, Commentary, 13.

  29. McLelland, ‘Introduction’, xxix-xxx.

  30. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Ethics, Vol. 1: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity, ed. John Bolt (Baker, 2019), 3.

  31. Bavinck, Reformed Ethics, Vol. 1, xxxviii.


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