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Mistaking Aristotle for the Bible

By Dr. Douglas Groothuis

Dr. Larry Arn is the president of Hillsdale College, an institution for which I have great respect. I am proud that one of my students is pursuing a doctorate in political philosophy from this august beacon on American ideals. For many years, Hillsdale has been publishing a speech digest called Imprimus, which I have been reading with profit since the late 1980s. They claim that over 6,400,000 people read Imprimus each month. The list of contributors is impressive, including Milton Friedman, Victor Davis Hanson, Jack Kemp, Richard John Neuhaus, Ronald Reagan, Jason L. Riley, Margaret Thatcher, Clarence Thomas, and evangelical luminaries such as Carl Henry and Ronald Nash. I can remember when the numbers were well under a million. This is a heartening trend, and I recommend Imprimus and Hillsdale College strongly. 

Notwithstanding, I was shocked when I read the following in the November 2023 issue of Imprimus, in a piece by President Arn called “Hillsdale’s Mission and the Politics of Freedom.” I was appreciating the piece until I read the following statements, when, before addressing the modern Machiavellian concept of politics, Arn adverts to the ideal view:

The older philosophic idea, the idea that informs the Constitution, was described beautifully by Aristotle. It is the idea that human beings are fallen creatures, and yet partake of the divine. Human passions are strong and can lead us astray, but we are also capable of reason. We are born with knowledge of the good and the capacity to make choices or judgments for good or ill. We feel the pressures of our needs, of pains and pleasures, yet something outside these pressures in the human soul—some call it conscience—asks us if our intentions or actions are right or wrong. And it is through this process that each of us makes ourselves into what we are.

Aristotle did not claim that human beings are “fallen creatures,” which is a distinctly biblical idea. Aristotle believed in a Prime Mover (God) who gave purpose to nature, including humans. However, this being did not create human beings in his image and likeness as the Bible teaches (Genesis 1-2). Nor did Aristotle have any sense that our race had rebelled against God through pride, which is the essence of the idea of the fall (Genesis 3). Aristotle was non-utopian in his political philosophy, claiming that humans are limited in the good they can do and he had no sense of making earth into a heaven (as in classical Marxism). That is all good, but it is not the doctrine of the fall, which is true and, thus, far more profound for religion, culture, and politics.

According to biblical revelation, the first man and woman were made in the image and likeness of God and were given dominion over creation. After the first five days of creation, we are told this:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

   So God created mankind in his own image,    

in the image of God he created them;    

male and female he created them.

   God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:26-28; see also Psalm 8, NIV).

In Genesis chapter two, we learn that God created Adam first (which does not contradict the statement about human creation in the first chapter). “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). God then took the woman from the man, but both equally bear the image of God.

This creation of human beings is not a spark flying off of a fire. We are not “sparks of the divine.” In fact, if we were sparks of the divine, given that God is self-existent and eternal, we would be self-existent and eternal, since we would share in the divine substance. A spark is fire, after all. But we are emphatically not self-existent and eternal. We are finite all the way down and all the way through. We are limited and we die. As John Calvin observed, to say we share one substance with God is quite an insult to God:

But before I proceed further, it is necessary to advert to the dream of the Manichees, which Servetus has attempted in our day to revive. Because it is said that God breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life (Gen. 2:7), they thought that the soul was a transmission of the substance of God; as if some portion of the boundless divinity had passed into man. It cannot take long time to show how many gross and foul absurdities this devilish error carries in its train. For if the soul of man is a portion transmitted from the essence of God, the divine nature must not only be liable to passion and change, but also to ignorance, evil desires, infirmity, and all kinds of vice. There is nothing more inconstant than man, contrary movements agitating and distracting his soul. He is ever and anon deluded by want of skill, and overcome by the slightest temptations; while  feels that the soul itself is a receptacle for all kinds of pollution. All these things must be attributed to the divine nature, if we hold that the soul is of the essence of God, or a secret influx of divinity. Who does not shudder at a thing so monstrous?[i]

Rather, biblically understood, the creation of human beings means that we are analogous to God as personal beings. He is an infinite-personal being and we are finite-personal beings. Being made in God’s image does not mean that we share originally God’s substance or essence, but that we are, as Cornelius Van Til said (somewhere), “finite replicas of God.”

One might think I have written too much about a few errant words, especially given my agreement with President Arn’s essential vision for society and given my respect for him and Hillsdale College. But never mind. Words matter because they make truth claims about ultimate realities. When it comes to who we are as God’s fallen images bearers, we need to get it right for the sake of our own redemption and for the common good (since the biblical view provides the best philosophy for social order).[ii]

[i] Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion (p. 95). Kindle Edition.

[ii] On this see, Douglas Groothuis Fire in the Streets (Washington, DC:  Salem Books, 2022), particularly Section IV: A Better Fire, and Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1981).

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