What Aristotle Can Teach Us about Christian Living

Philippians 3:17, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”

Imitation. This word brings to my mind both a high-minded literary device—the doppelgänger—and an annoying habit I formed as the youngest sibling in my family—copying everything my older sister said.

In both scenarios, the act of being a double to another person incurs real-life consequences. For Dr. Frankenstein (the scientist), it meant no matter how ashamed he was of the monster he created, it still existed, and its fate was caught up with his forever.[1] For my sister, it meant increasing frustration until she could take it no longer and raised her hand to hit me

The imitation that Paul calls for here also has real-life consequences, but they are good ones.[2] To explain these consequences, I want to use a passage from Aristotle’s Poetics,[3] an early authority on imitation theory, as his thoughts point to general truths about the world that have been made plain to all (Rom. 1:19).

Imitation Fulfills Our Nature

“The instinct for imitation is inherent in human beings from our earliest days; we differ from other animals in that we are the most imitative of creatures, and learn our earliest lessons by imitation.” (Aristotle)

As humans, we imitate what we see. Sometimes it is intentional—we say a joke that someone else said to us, or dance a dance that we saw online. Other times is unintentional—like how I pause for long gaps of time in the middle of telling a story, just like I’ve seen my dad do a million times.

I want to point out two words Aristotle uses here that are particularly helpful: instinct and learn. First, imitation is an instinct. That means it comes naturally to us. We were created to imitate—the only question is why. Second, imitation is a means of learning. This answers our question. The reason we naturally imitate is that we are meant to learn, to grow, to become better.

The obvious stipulation here is that not all objects of imitation will be beneficial for our growth. The only object of imitation that will fulfill us is the subject who created us to be imitative in the first place. Read what Paul says:

“For we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:9, italics mine)

The Creator puts some of His glory into His workmanship, and so the workmanship naturally reflects (imitates) the glory of the Creator. We are the workmanship of God—that means our purpose is to walk in the good works that God “prepared beforehand.” This isn’t determinism—it’s imitation.

What’s the overall goal of the Christian life? To become more Christlike—that is to say to get so good at imitating Christ that we reflect him in all that we do.

Imitation Stirs Up Joy

“Also inborn in all of us is the instinct to enjoy works of imitation. . . . For we enjoy looking at the most accurate representations of things which in themselves we find painful to see.” (Artistotle)

Imitation is something we not only do by instinct but also enjoy by instinct as well. It is joyous when we can see progress in ourselves and in others.

Speaking of others, one of the greatest joys connected to imitation is when someone you know has grown into a more spiritually mature person. They have become a workmanship of God that better resembles the image of their Maker. Just like a grandiose, watercolor landscape that seems more like a window than a painting, there is a sense of awe just seeing how closely it resembles the real thing.

I wonder what it would be like to be a Christian on a stranded island, who only had the words of Jesus Christ to read. They would surely benefit from them, and they would cherish those words their whole life. But if all they had to imitate was the example of Christ, they may feel a sense of perpetual disappointment in their progress—they can never be as good as Jesus.

But in imitating the disciples and apostles, or our pastors and fellows church members, we see examples of Christians who were once great sinners and, through God’s power, matured (and continue to mature) in Christlikeness. To “keep [our] eyes on those who walk according to the example” we have in the spiritually mature is a joyous thing indeed!

Imitation Displays Truth

“[And people] enjoy seeing images because they learn as they look at them, and reason out what each thing is (for instance, that ‘this is a picture of so and so’).” (Artistotle)

When a Christian keeps her eye on another Christian who is spiritually mature, she is bound to learn more about who God is and how He displays His glory.

Perhaps you can think of someone you know who has profoundly touched your life. Perhaps when you think of God’s love, grace, sovereignty, patience, or kindness, you think of this person and what they have done for you. You can look back on their actions and say, “Oh, that was a picture of God’s love for us!”

So the benefit of imitating the spiritually mature as they imitate Christ has not only internal benefits but also external benefits as well. As you imitate Christ, the Christians you are in fellowship with will be able to learn more about Him!

Imitation Increases Our Witness

“For if by any chance the thing depicted has not been seen before, it will not be the fact that it is an imitation of something that gives the pleasure, but the execution or the colouring or some other such cause.” (Aristotle)

What about for non-Christians? Will our imitation of Christ evangelize to them? Some have said the odd phrase, “Share the gospel at all times; when possible, use words.” But even Aristotle knew that a person couldn’t know about “the thing depicted” just through the act of imitation.

The gospel must be shared through words! How else can someone come to know the Word (John 1:1)?

So what then does our imitation of Christ by itself do for non-Christians? First and foremost, it blesses them. They get a taste of His goodness, patience, and love through us. God uses His people to bring blessing to the world. That is a wonderful thing to play a part in.

Secondly, our imitation set us up very well for the critical gaze of the outside world. The person we are really talking about here is your next-door neighbor, your coworker, your family member you see every holiday, or your friend who does not know the Lord. They’ll notice how you live and how you react. They will notice the peace of Christ—but they won’t know what it is or what to call it. But they’ll want to know.

Your behavior will be a joy to them, and they will likely ask you about it. What are you doing different? What diet are you on? What do you know that I don’t know? Your imitation of the Lord will bring increased opportunities to share the gospel with them.

So, brothers and sisters in Christ, join me in imitating Paul as he imitates Christ so we can increase our witness, display truth, stir up joy, and be fulfilled.

This article was originally posted on Servants of Grace.

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[1] Irish folklore has another name for a doppelgänger —that is, a fetch. They called the double this word because its destiny was to find you, catch you, and kill you.

[2] See also this list of the uses of imitation in the NT.

[3] From the book Classic Literary Criticism, translated by Penelope Murray and T. S. Dorsch, Penguin Classics, 2004, 60–61.