Scott Postma

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On the Profit of Pagan Literature

One of the ongoing questions often asked–and it’s one that is frequently addressed in ancient Christian literature–is why Christians should incorporate ancient pagan literature in their own education and literature.

In other words, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?”

Basil the Great, in a work titled, To Young Men, on How They Might Derive Profit from Pagan Literature, says, “This pagan learning is not without usefulness for the soul has been sufficiently affirmed; yet just how you should participate in it would be the next topic to be discussed.”

According to Basil, it’s not a matter of should it be, but rather a matter of how it can be, appropriated into Christian usage. He illustrates how it is to be accomplished by looking to the work of bees which do not “approach all flowers equally, nor in truth do they attempt to carry off entire those upon which they alight, but taking only so much of them as is suitable for their work, they suffer the rest to go untouched.”

He affirms that the Christian, in wisdom, can appropriate that which is true and “pass over the remainder.”

This too is Jerome’s position. In his letter to Magnus, the Roman Orator, he responds to a charge of quoting in his writings “Examples from secular literature and thus defile the whiteness of the church with the foulness of heathenism.”

To this criticism, he cites the inspired writers of the Old and New Testaments—Moses, the prophets, Solomon, and the Apostle Paul—who all used the “passages cited from Gentile books” to communicate the inspired truth of God’s Word to a pagan world, the same way David used the sword of Goliath to cut off the giant’s head.”

Finally, Augustine, in On Christian Doctrine, exhorts Christians that, “for the sake of the necessities of this life we must not neglect the arrangements of men that enable us to carry on intercourse with those around us…[albeit] we must hold the maxim, “Not too much of anything.”

He further asserts that if the “philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.”

About Scott Postma

Scott is a writer and teacher living in North Idaho. He loves teaching the Great Books, writing and blogging, and collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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