Practical Theology ReformedSystematic

Aristotle on Knowledge, Paul on the body of Christ, and Intellectual pride in the Reformed church

Aristotle on Knowledge

In what many describe as his greatest work, the Philosopher Aristotle distinguishes between several types of desirable knowledge. He teaches us about a practical knowledge of how to organize one’s life (he calls this Phronesis). In other words, Phronesis refers to practical knowledge for practical good. Related to Phronesis is what Arisotle calls techne. Techne refers to knowledge of how objects work. The man who knows how to operate a combine or any other machine is exercising the intellectual virtue of techne. Without techne and phronesis, life could not be lived in any durated sense. These are virtues necessary for the survival of humanity. For this reason, Aristotle says they are, in one sense, more valued than pure knowledge. Yet, Aristotle distinguishes a third type of knowledge, what he calls episteme. Episteme refers to knowledge theoretical and abstract knowledge which is known for its own sake. Knowledge of Philosophy is an example of episteme.

I utilize Aristotle’s threefold distinction not only for the sake of explicating an interesting taxonomy, but also in conjunction with one other principle: that humans, though united in their humanness, do differ, and sometimes in significant degrees. They differ, for example, in bodily size, in skin tone, and in food preferences. They differ in economic output, mood, and worldview. And, for the purposes of this article, we note that they differ in mental abilities. Some men are knowledgable of objects. Other men are knowledgable about how to order daily affairs. Still yet, some men are knowledgable as such, they seek knowledge for its own sake. And still others, which Aristotle does not include, are knowledgable of the self and others. They are gifted with a type of relational knowledge. Most people are gifted with one of these four categories: knowledge of the life, knowledge of objects, abstract knowledge, and knowledge of others. I am convinced that God values each form of knowledge. He values knowledge of the organized life because he values, inherently, human flourishing. He values knowledge of objects because he created objects to be used by men, for the betterment of mankind. He values abstract intelligence, because He Himself is a spirit who knows all things. Knowledge reflects His attributes. And He values personal knowledge because God is a Tri-Personality. He is Himself personal, and knows the depths of all persons. Therefore He values this form of knowledge in His creatures.  The point is this: God values all the types of knowledge herein described.

The Apostle Paul on the Body of Christ

In 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Paul uses the analogy of the human body to describe the communion of the saints, the church. In what follows I will be explaining Paul’s main points in this passage, not providing a thorough exegesis of every jot and tittle of the text. Paul’s first assertion is that the body is not composed of one member but of many. By member, he means part. The body is more than just a head. It is also feet. It is more than just feet, it is hands. And so on and so on. Another of his points is that each member of this body, in order for it to work properly, is dependent on the others. No part is indispensible. And so it is with the body of Christ. Though some in the body of Christ are given to be teachers of Scripture, others are called to practice hospitality. Though some are called to practice hospitality, others are called to pastor. In any case, God has so constituted the church that each member, with his own set of gifting, is to serve and be served by the other. In other words, God has made the Christian church dependent, each of its members, on one other. They are to live in communion, as the eyes are to lead the feet. This being the case, all members are valued. All members receive honor. There is, in fact, an equality of necessity. Since all in the church are necessary in Paul’s Theology for the flourishing of the whole, all men receive that honor and respect. The result of this, logically, is a humility among the members and a due regard for each other. In some manner, shape, or form, God has given to the brethren something for which I am dependent. Being dependent on the brethren, I should view the brethren with respect and love.

What has this to do with Aristotle and intellectual distinctions amongst individual personalities? Much in every way. This doctrine, the doctrine of multiple intelligence types (Abstract, Practical, Technical, and Relational), allows us, in light of God’s own nature, to value those who are gifted differently than we are. God has given to the body of Christ those who are wise in episteme (abstract knowledge), those who are wise in practical life, those who are wise in the workings of God’s creation, and those who are wise regarding relations with others. We are in need of each type of intelligence if we are to experience true flourishing. Therefore we are necessarily dependent upon our brothers for what we lack. Is it not the case that God has refrained from blessing me with technical knowledge that I might grow to appreciate and be humbled by those whom he has? And has he not given technical knowledge to the technical man that he might serve and care for those who are different than he? It is a great sorrow to my soul that men view the intellectual lacks of the others as vices to be criticized rather than as opprotunities to serve the other. What i’m saying is this: do not regard your own God given form of intelligence above that of your brother. Neither regard his as greater than yours. Regard each form as rooted and grounded in God, and therefore respectable.

The Reformed Communion

In the Reformed community one form of knowledge is primarily valued. Episteme, theoretical knowledge, the knowledge of the abstract, is viewed as the most important. This is interesting because it is the direct opposite of American culture. American culture presupposes the superior value of the practical to the theoretical, the visible to the invisible, and the consequence to the principle. Most Americans couldn’t tell you a thing about Philosophy outside of a reference to Plato or Aristotle. American school systems hate Philosophy (because the Philosophy they assume, Pragmatism, without warrant, rejects Philosophy as such). They reject the deepest form of critical thinking. The motivation for you to be successful, within their system, is so you can go to college. You must go to college so that you can make more money. You must make more money so you can accumulate more things. You must accumulate more things to give to your children so that they can repeat the same meaningless empty process. And on and on the circle goes, without rhyme, reason, or any satisfaction for anyone other than those who are addicted to this dead world. And yet our circle is different. We value the abstract. We value the critical thinking. We value the mind (or so we tell ourselves). It is reflected in our Theology and Ethics. Have you ever heard someone, in Reformed communions, downplay the significance of emotions in favor of the mind? “Don’t trust your heart!” they say – without realizing that “heart” in Scripture refers to the whole man, not simply to the emotions. The whole man is depraved; the mind is not more valued over the will or the emotion in the Bible (maybe this would be the case if the mega-anthropomorphists were correct). And yet such is the dogma at large. Discusting. This is a man-made Anthropology more akin to platonism than the Holy Scriptures.

The sad reality is that many of us were drawn to the Reformed communion because our form of intelligence was rejected by the world. We are the Philosophers. We are the academics. We are the intellectuals, right? Yet the world rejects us. The system rejects us. We didn’t get the best grades in school did we? And it’s because we did not believe in their pitch. They were petty and boring, without reason or justification for the things they held so dear. Yet simultaneously, I fear that the temptation for us in the Reformed communions is to sin against our brothers in the same way they sinned against us. We who are skilled in episteme, the intuitives and the analytics, are rejected by culture at large, but we same analytics have a tendency to huddle only with each other and show partiality to those gifted in objects, practical life, and relationships with others. Shame on us if this is our action. We have hurt others with the same hurt that we ourselves have felt from the world, and those we exclude are our own brothers in Christ.

And yet in all of this, I am deeply hopeful and thankful to our God. From the majesty of the Triune God, God has caused in His body to reflect not one part of His wisdom but many: some are gifted with abstract wisdom, others with practical, others with technical, and yet others with relational wisdom. In each case, God’s own wisdom is reflected. Because this is true we should be grateful to God for His gifting and respect our brother even if his gifts are different than ours.  

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