Christianity and Pagan Knowledge: Three Approaches

Christianity and Pagan Knowledge: Three Approaches July 22, 2022

In the history of the Christian Church, there are roughly three kinds of people to speak of when it comes to how one approaches pagan, or non-biblical, knowledge. The course the Church takes in a particular time and place in culture will often depend on which approach to pagan knowledge is assumed by the majority of the people in the Church at that time. Before I continue, however, let me define some terms.

The Church, General Revelation and Pagan Knowledge

By “Christian Church,” I mean something quite broad. I am referring basically to all three ecumenical traditions of Christianity: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant as they exist in various times and within various cultures. By “pagan knowledge,” I mean knowledge of the world that comes through general revelation and common grace.

General revelation, in the history of theological judgements, refers to a generic knowledge of God that can be known solely through His creation. General revelation is any knowledge of God one can have prior to receiving special revelation (or in addition to after receiving it). Special revelation is found most concretely and objectively in the words of the Bible, but can also take more subjective forms (like religious experiences). General revelation is presented to us in our experience of and meditations on nature, as well as our reflections on our own conscious life–especially on our moral awareness. Paul speaks explicitly about this kind of knowledge in Romans 1:18-32. He also tells us what mankind does with this knowledge; he “suppresses it in unrighteousness.”

Common grace is the grace that God gives to all human beings, regardless of their salvific status (whether or not they are predestined to salvation or not), and regardless of whether they are aware of that predestined status or not. Common grace applies to all and it enables everyone to have some knowledge of God and His ways. Without common grace man would be a cognitive and cultural brute, not to mention morally dissolute. God’s common grace to all human beings everywhere in every time allows for non-biblical civilizations to produce vast storehouses of art and knowledge and to excel in some virtues, even if  they are always deficient in the most central things (Acts 17:16-34). When common grace is removed, civilizations crumble.

Finally, when it comes to “non-biblical knowledge,” what I mean is knowledge that is not necessarily “unbiblical.” Unbiblical knowledge would not be true knowledge. It would be claims to knowledge that, being clearly contrary to the Holy Scripture, are necessarily false and only masquerade as knowledge. By “non-biblical” knowledge, however, I simply mean knowledge that comes from outside of the Scriptures. In this sense, mathematical knowledge is a typical type of “non-biblical” knowledge. Mathematical knowledge is also the least controversial type of non-biblical knowledge, its truths being self-evident. In fact, mathematical knowledge itself, or the possibility of it, has often been seen as evidence for the existence of God, as well as purposeful design in the universe.

This said, however, there are other kinds of “non-biblical” knowledge that are not nearly as universal or self-evident as math. There is non-biblical, human speculation about all areas of life. Some of these speculations clearly fall within the common classification of “philosophy.” It is within the domain “philosophy” that I will now discuss these three approaches of the Church in culture.

What the Church is approaching, therefore, is non-biblical, philosophical speculation by (usually) non-Christian thinkers who are presented with general revelation and who possess God’s common grace. This is what I am referring to as “pagan knowledge.” Admittedly, this is a rather anachronistic use of the term “pagan” (the term originally referred to Roman citizens who in the 4th and 5th centuries fled to the countryside, paganus, to  continue worshipping the old gods and practicing their dead religion), but it is a term that is common within theological parlance to denote this kind of knowledge.

The First Approach: Faithful, Synthetic Appropriation

In a 1930 textbook on Roman Catholicism, entitled simply (and rather prejudicially), Church History, Fr. John Laux describes how some great Catholic thinkers of the 14th century approached the revival of classical Greco-Roman literature in Europe. This epoch came to be known as the “Renaissance,” and one of its fundamental tenets was the idea of Humanism, or the notion that apart from classical learning one could not become a “perfect human being.”

Humanism had, almost from the first, both a pagan and a Christian aspect. Men like Dante, Petrarch, Vittorino da Feltre, Aleandro, Vegio, Vida, Pico della Mirandola, Rudolph Agricola, Cardinal Cusa, Hegius, Thomas More, Cardinal Fisher, John Colettes, Lincare, Louis Vives, made free use of the treasures of antiquity without sacrificing Christian principles; they combined classical materials with Christian ideals, held fast to the teachings of Christ, and used the classics only as a means to embellish those teachings.

In other words, at a time when the very best of non-biblical, pagan knowledge (Virgil, Cicero, Horace, et al.) was being reintroduced into European culture, there were those who were able to faithfully appropriate and synthesize that general knowledge with the knowledge of special revelation. They were faithful in that they did not deviate from “the teachings of Christ,” even though they “combined classical materials with Christian ideals.” The pagan knowledge of the ancient world was nothing more than a means to “embellish” biblical knowledge, a means to further demonstrate the fullness of God’s truth and the validity of the Gospel. This approach echoed Paul’s approach to the philosophers of Athens as recorded in Acts 17.

Now, whether or not men like Dante or della Mirandola or Nicholas of Cusa were entirely successful in this project of faithful, synthetic appropriation is not my concern here. For the most part, or so it seems to me, most Christians today would grant they were faithful in their approach and did no significant damage to the Gospel in their use of pagan knowledge. While I realize some Protestants might balk at this claim, I would contest that any Catholic accretions to the Gospel are independent of any 14th century appropriation of ancient Greek and Roman classics. Most Roman Catholic dogmas that Protestants find objectionable already existed prior to the Renaissance and are the result of faulty hermeneutics, not of pagan appropriation as some fundamentalists falsely claim. Furthermore, even Evangelicals can read The Divine Comedy and appreciate its greatness, and anyone who presses the words and works of C.S. Lewis into the service of the Church is appealing to one of the great synthesizers of Christian and pagan knowledge in recent times. Other examples of faithful appropriation and synthesis by Protestants could be easily found.

Thus, starting with Augustine, moving through Boethius and Aquinas, then to the faithful Catholic thinkers of the Renaissance and to our own day and age, there has been a long history in the Christian Church of faithfully appropriating and synthesizing non-biblical, pagan knowledge. This faithful synthesis can and has supplemented divinely revealed biblical knowledge, often in very robust ways, usually in the form of argumentation or the use of metaphor aimed at illustration. Theologians, missionaries, evangelists and apologists of all ecumenical convictions have performed this act of faithful synthesis throughout the Church’s history, “plundering Egypt” of her intellectual riches in order to build the new temple of God on earth, the Church.

The Second Approach: Wholesale Abandonment and Exchange

However, there is a good reason why many are skeptical that there can be a faithful appropriation and synthesis of pagan knowledge. There is a second type of person within the Church that in his or her enthusiasm for pagan knowledge, doesn’t remain faithful to the teachings of Christ. Laux, continuing in his exposition on Renaissance Humanism, elucidates the issue:

But there were others, such as Lorenzo Valla, Boccaccio, Beccadelli, Filelfo, and Ariosto, to mention only the most prominent, who in their infatuation for the classics absorbed the pagan conception of life which those classics embodied. They looked down with scorn upon everything that savored of the supernatural and the unworldly, and ridiculed the writings of the Scholastics for their barbarous Latin. ‘They gave themselves up,’ says a modern writer, ‘body and soul to the worship of the ancients. They were pagans because the ancients were pagans and, according to the energetic expression of Holy Writ, they became like to their idols.’

Unlike Dante, Petrarch or Cusa, men like Valla and Boccaccio, in their unbridled enthusiasm, simply abandoned the Gospel in favor of the pagan view. They did not seek to supplement the truth of Christ’s teachings with non-biblical knowledge, rather they simply exchanged biblical knowledge for pagan “knowledge.” They threw away the scriptures, and the Church’s faithful synthesis (Scholasticism), for the pagan authors’ conception of the world. In short, they denied special revelation and embraced the speculations of those who only had general revelation.

By doing this, these men became like the ancient pagans themselves, very similar to those who Paul mentions in Romans 1:18-32 that suppress the true knowledge of God in unrighteousness. For the likes of Valla or Beccadelli, men who were beneficiaries of special revelation and even a Christian culture, this suppression of the true knowledge of God was more like a “re-” suppression. For they suppressed that which the ancient pagans did not have, namely, the very Word of God, the Bible!

There are many in the Church today who fall into the same trap as these earlier Humanists and who too are guilty of “re-suppressing” the truth about God as found in the Bible. And while these contemporary Humanists do not turn back to the ancient pagans per se, they abandon the Gospel of Christ in exchange for more modern idols. For these Christians, their heroes are the pagan thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries. These “abandon and exchange” Christians do not exchange the clear teachings of the Bible for the teachings of Virgil or Cicero, but instead abandon biblical knowledge for the claims of Karl Marx. They exchange the Church’s biblical tradition not because they are enthralled with Horace, but because they have fallen for Foucault.

One example of this approach to pagan knowledge can be found in the writings of the former Roman Catholic theologian Margaret Farley, who states in her book on sexual ethics (a book that has been censured by the Vatican):

New philosophical links between sex and freedom, sex and power, sex and history, gender and just about everything else, are in some respects so important that there can be no turning back to simpler ways of interpreting human experience.

Margaret Farley, Just Love

By “no turning back to simpler ways of interpreting human experience,” Farley really does mean there is no turning back to the Bible itself, or at least to Paul when it comes to sexuality. And it is not just on issues of sex or gender, it is in regard to “just about everything else.” Farley could be considered a kind of modern-day Boccaccio with an attitude like this. And it is not just individuals who have succumbed to a love for “the spirit of the age,” it is entire faculties of “Christian” education.

But who are the beloved philosophers for today’s “abandon and exchange” Christian? Farley tells us. Just a few paragraphs earlier, Farley mentions some of the modern humanists who she believes have forged these apparently new philosophical links:

After World War II, Western philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Simone de Beauvoir, attempted to construct new meanings for human sexuality not only in the light of new scientific data but of new philosophical theories of freedom and interpersonal love. The work of Michel Foucault may be as yet unsurpassed in influence on questions of sex and sexual desire.

It is these same neo-Marxist thinkers that so many Evangelicals today also find themselves in love with and who, in their infatuation with the neo-paganism of our times, give themselves up, “body and soul,” to the pagan worldview and the worship of humanity. In doing so, they too scorn the supernatural and ridicule those who, in their view, are barbarous in virtue of holding on to their “simpler ways” of interpreting human experience (perhaps like holding on to the fact that there are only two sexes, male and female).

One resulting attitude in light of these men and women who abandon the Gospel and exchange biblical revelation for pagan speculation is an overreaction to pagan knowledge. This is the third and final approach to address.

The Third Approach: Total Condemnation and Isolation

The final approach to pagan knowledge that we see in the Church’s history could be called “total condemnation and isolation.” It is the kind of reaction that occurs when too many people in the Church seem to capitulate to pagan knowledge wholesale, giving themselves over “body and soul” to their pagan intellectual idols. These are the fundamentalist movements in the Church’s history. Some of these movements may be more theologically grounded (like the Pietist or Anabaptist movements), while others simply reactionary to the culture mood (like mid-20th century Protestant fundamentalism or certain forms of anti-Vatican II Catholicism).

The reason for this third approach tends to be the moral dissolution of the Church that usually follows when too many have succumbed to the second approach. Laux again elucidates this in the context of the Renaissance:

Many pious and zealous men, alarmed at the rebirth of pagan immorality which accompanied the rebirth of pagan science, art, and poetry, condemned the whole movement as evil.

This overreaction, Laux goes on to say, “was not the attitude of the Church” (meaning the late-medieval Catholic Church). But today we know that such a reactionary attitude has often lead to the various manifestations of the Church, especially the Protestant churches, isolating themselves from the culture. In more recent history, Protestants saw this dynamic play out in the split between American fundamentalists and evangelicals in the post-WWI era. The “total condemnation” approach often leads to intellectual isolation, as parts of the Church seek to insulate themselves from the moral rot that accompanies an unfaithful appropriation of pagan “science, art and poetry.”

Conclusion: Always Grounded in The Word of God

Today we see this dynamic being play out again, as more and more Evangelical Christians, and Roman Catholics, capitulate to the pagan ideologies of the prior century, enamored with the thought of late modernism and consumed by an inordinate allegiance to its more sophisticated proponents. Of course, with the advent of certain technologies, one has the sense that this embrace of the new humanism will itself not last very long. We already see it being crushed under the weight of its own ideological demands.

However, there is an interesting component to this cultural dynamic being played out in America. That component is the recapturing of earlier, faithful syntheses of the Church with pagan knowledge to combat current unfaithful approaches to “neo” pagan knowledge. And so we see traditional Catholics and historic Protestants combining forces in their retrieval of older paradigms that successfully, or mostly successfully, balanced the best of pagan knowledge with biblical knowledge. After all,  retrieving Augustine is, in some way, retrieving Plato. Renewed interest in Aquinas is, in some way, a renewed interest in Aristotle. And recapturing Dante is, in effect, recapturing Virgil. Thus, there is a defense not only of the Bible in the face of 19th and 20th century critical theories, but a revivifying of the classical canon of literature as interpreted through prior faithful, Christian synthesizers.

While this is an important project and one worth advocating, especially as we continue to experience the rapid, moral decline of Western culture, nevertheless we must be cautious. For the best syntheses of older pagan knowledge with special revelation are still only as good as they are grounded in the Word of God. Thus, even as we reappropriate and repurpose older paradigms to save the Church in America today, we cannot be ignorant of the fact that those paradigms must always be held up against the words of Scripture. For nothing in the past has been carried out perfectly, and all theological systems must ultimately find their validity in the revealed Word.

About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.
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