snubnosed in alpha

Christian reflections on the way the world is and ways the world might be

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Egyptian Gold

"If those, however, who are called philosophers happen to have said anything that is true, and agreeable to our faith, the Platonists above all, not only should we not be afraid of them, ut we should even claim back for our own use what they have said, as from its unjust possessors. It is like the Egyptians, who not only had idols and heavy burdens, which the people of Israel abominated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and indeed better, use as they went forth from Egypt; and this not on their own initiative, but on God's own instructions, with the Egyptians unwittingly lending them things they were not themselves making good use of."
-St. Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, ยง2.60
To Augustine, the truths discovered by unbelievers are like "their gold and silver, and not something they instituted themselves, but something which they mined, so to say, from the ore of divine providence, veins of which are everywhere to be found." As such, they belong to God and ought to be utilized by God's people. All truth is God's truth and God's people need not fear the truth no matter who discovers it nor how iconoclastic it may be. On the contrary, the people of God ought of all people to relentlessly pursue, explore and proclaim the truth.
Some would say that unbelievers can't have anything to say that Christians ought to appropriate because their unbelieving presuppositions somehow prevent them from obtaining any true knowledge. Somehow, it is sometimes thought that the noetic effects of sin manage to blind unbelievers to not only the truth of God's existence and character, but to any truth whatsoever. "What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?," asks Tertullian.
Interestingly, the Biblical writers seem to side with Augustine rather than Tertullian on this issue. Paul does not shy away from quoting and alluding to Pagan writers: Aratus' Phaenomena (or Cleanthes?) in Acts 17:28, Epimenides' de Oraculis in Titus 1:12, and Menander's Thais in 1 Corinthians 15:33. The Book of Proverbs also draws upon the stores of gold in Egyptian wisdom writings. For instance, compare Proverbs 22:17-18 and the Instruction of Amenope 3:9-16.

Instruction of Amenope___________________Proverbs
your ears__________________________________your ear
the sayings_________________________________the sayings
your heart_________________________________your heart
it is beneficial_______________________________it is pleasing
in the casket of your belly_______________________in your belly
for your tongue______________________________on your lips*
We could multiply examples, but these should suffice. Brothers and sisters, the tendency of evangelicals in America to isolate ourselves from secular and non-Christian academia is simply unbiblical. To only read books by evangelicals, go to schools run by evangelicals and wrestle with questions raised by evangelicals is simply wrong. If we would follow the example of Paul and many of the other Biblical authors, we must wisely appropriate the Egyptian gold mined from the ore of divine providence to be found in the works of non-Christian academia, just as the best of Christian thinkers have always done.
* you can find this chart in Peter Enns' Inspiration and Incarnation, p.38


Blogger Lisa said...

David, do you think we can learn about God from other religions?

5:24 AM  
Blogger Alcibides said...

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9:18 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Hey Lisa,
That's quite a sticky question. Let me say "yes" and then qualify it. I think it's pretty obvious that we Christians can learn a great deal from the Jews. And if we believe as Calvin did that there is a sense of the divine within all people and that that sense is, as later theologians would call it, the semen religionis (the "seed of religion"), it would seem that some knowledge of God is common to all men. Of course, aspects of that knowledge are suppressed in unrighteousness. But so also, by the common grace of God, some of that knowledge is imparted to unbelieving men and women and that knowledge may play a part in shaping other religious traditions. Indeed, with some of the more venerable forms of non-Christian religion, a true knowledge of God almost certainly is the root of their venerability. Now, I'm not saying that the venerable character of a non-Christian religion makes that religion salvific. There is no salvation outside of Christ. But perhaps other religions do indeed flow from a genuine recognition of something of God, and perhaps there are some things they have recognized and acted in accord with better than we. Some Pagan religions had a sense of reverence and awe that seems to be lacking in modern evangelicalism. Though, of course, you can make up for that by tapping into other areas of the Christian tradition as well.

A helpful thing to note is that the OT often appropriates language used by the Canaanites for Baal and applies it to Yahweh. It was as if to say that what the Canaanites sought in Baal, Yahweh was. Baal was a shadow, Yahweh the reality. So there was something to Baal worship. But that did not prevent it from being idolatrous and in some respects exceedingly perverse.
Like I said: that's an especially sticky question. In our context you cannot say anything like what I'm saying without people jumping to the conclusion that you're advocating a John Hick sort of religious pluralism, you've capitulated to the spirit of the age and are saying all paths lead to God in the end. That's not what I'm saying. I am saying that other religions, like non-Christian philosophies, usually contain grains of truth that we as servants of the Truth must acknowledge, honor and even celebrate. By honoring the truth that is in other religions we may open avenues for leading the adherents of those relgions to our Lord, Truth Himself.

9:28 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

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9:32 PM  
Blogger Mark Traphagen said...

I was passed some Egyptian Gold at a concert once and I agree...great stuff, man!


3:21 PM  

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