Christian Annexation and Transformation of Pagan Learning: From Augustine and Boethius to John Calvin

I. Augustine: Putting Pagan* Learning to Right Use

CHAP. 40. Whatever has been rightly said by the heathen, we must appropriate to our uses

60. Moreover, if those who are called 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. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves were not making a good use of [Exod. 3:21, 22; 12:35, 36]; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also—that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life—we must take and turn to a Christian use.

61. And what else have many good and faithful men among our brethren done? Do we not see with what a quantity of gold and silver and garments Cyprian, that most persuasive teacher and most blessed martyr, was loaded when he came out of Egypt? How much Lactantius brought with him? And Victorinus, and Optatus, and Hilary, not to speak of living men! How much Greeks out of number have borrowed! And prior to all these, that most faithful servant of God, Moses, had done the same thing; for of him it is written that he was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians [Acts 7:22] And to none of all these would heathen superstition (especially in those times when, kicking against the yoke of Christ, it was persecuting the Christians) have ever furnished branches of knowledge it held useful, if it had suspected they were about to turn them to the use of worshipping the One God, and thereby overturning the vain worship of idols. But they gave their gold and their silver and their garments to the people of God as they were going out of Egypt, not knowing how the things they gave would be turned to the service of Christ. For what was done at the time of the exodus was no doubt a type prefiguring what happens now. And this I say without prejudice to any other interpretation that may be as good, or better.[Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book 2]

Comment: Augustine is describing how the Israelites took along with them the gold and sliver of Egypt during the Exodus (Exod. 12:36). Augustine allegorizes the gold and silver as referring to the “liberal disciplines” and “useful precepts” or God’s truth drawn from “the mines of providence” in order to encourage Christians to make proper use of the pagan learning since Christians are the rightful possessors of God’s truth.

Plato and the Roman Stoic philosopher Cicero played a crucial role in Augustine’s journey into Christian faith even though he fully appreciated the positive role played by these pagan philosophers only from hindsight. He appropriated the intellectual tools from his old pagan learning to analyse his early life through the lens of faith. Still, he was mindful that he must purge his pagan learning of their spiritual corruption and in order to make proper use of it.

II. Boethius: The Legitimacy and Limitations of Pagan Philosophy

[Boethius in his work, The Consolation of Philosophy] suggests that Philosophy can go a long way towards the truth, but there comes a point where it fails. It can devise excellent individual arguments, but cannot put them into a coherent whole, whilst in some areas, such as the compatibility between human freedom and divine preordination (as opposed to prescience), it fails almost entirely. Philosophy is not, however, depicted as being full of pride, based on an overestimation of its abilities. Boethius draws on the trend in late ancient philosophy to limit the scope of discursive thought so as to make it clear that the philosophers themselves are aware of the limitations of their reasoning—a strikingly anti-Augustinian judgement. If this is the implied position in the Consolation, then Boethius is being very consistent with the stance he had already adopted in two of the theological treatises, where he took philosophical reasoning as far as he could, before indicating where reasoning about God has to diverge from thinking about his creation. In the Consolation, too, Boethius the prisoner, a Christian, follows Philosophy’s path. So far as that path leads, it is the Christian’s path too. It is only at the point, dimly indicated beyond the Consolation’s horizon, where human understanding fails that the two paths diverge, and only the Christian takes the right one. [John Marenbon, Pagans and Philosophers (Princeton Uni. Press, 2015), pp. 52-53]

Comment: John Marenbon identifies three approaches to the relationship between pagan learning and Christianity:
(1) The “unity” approach represented by Thomas Aquinas who incorporated Aristotelian philosophy as much as possible.
(2) The “selective rejection” approach represented by Bonaventure who willingly adopted pagan terminology but rejected any adoption of Aristotelian insights that were in conflict with the Augustinian tradition.
(3) The “relativism approach” which allows for different levels of discourse in natural philosophy (science). A modern example may be found in the coexistence of different scientific theories like Newtonian physics and Einstein theory of relativity. But pagan learning reaches it limit and must give way to insights from Christian revelation when it comes to absolute religious truth claims.

III. John Calvin: Pagan Learning Acknowledged and Consecrated

15. Science as God’s gift
Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn and reproach the Spirit himself. What then? Shall we deny that the truth shone upon the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us to speak reasonably? Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labor to our benefit? What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how pre-eminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude, into which not even the pagan poets fell, for they confessed that the gods had invented philosophy, laws, and all useful arts. Those men whom Scripture [1 Cor. 2:14] calls “natural men” [ψυχικούς] were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good.

16. Human competence in art and science also derives from the Spirit of God
Meanwhile, we ought not to forget those most excellent benefits of the divine Spirit, which he distributes to whomever he wills, for the common good of mankind…Nonetheless he fills, moves, and quickens all things by the power of the same Spirit, and does so according to the character that he bestowed upon each kind by the law of creation. But if the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance. For if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloths. [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.2.15, Trans. F.L. Battles (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), pp 273-275]

Comment: Calvin marvels that a great diversity of gift and knowledge continues to be exhibited by unbelievers even after the Fall. Indeed, the creative excellence of unbelievers is evidence of the generous gifts of the Holy Spirit given to the whole human race.

“For the invention of the arts, and of other things which serve to the common use and convenience of life, is a gift from God by no means to be despised and a faculty worthy of commendation…Let us then know, that the sons of Cain, though deprived of the Spirit of regeneration, were yet endued with gifts of no despicable kind; just as the experience of all ages teaches us how widely the rays of divine light have shone on unbelieving nations, for the benefit of the present life; and we see, at the present time, that the excellent gifts of the Spirit are diffused through the whole human race. Moreover, the liberal arts and sciences have descended to us from the heathen. We are, indeed, compelled to acknowledge that we have received astronomy, and the other parts of philosophy, medicines and the order of civil government, from them. Nor is it to be doubted, that God has thus liberally enriched them with excellent favors that their impiety might have the less excuse. But, while we admire the riches of his favor which he has bestowed on them, let us still value far more highly that grace of regeneration with which he peculiarly sanctifies his elect unto himself.” [John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 4:20]

Conclusion: The limitations of philosophy

And this is the main difference between the gospel and philosophy: for though the philosophers speak excellently and with great judgment on the subject of morals, yet whatever excellency shines forth in their precepts, it is, as it were, a beautiful superstructure without a foundation; for by omitting principles, they offer a mutilated doctrine, like a body without a head…But as philosophers, before they lay down laws respecting morals, discourse first of the end of what is good, and inquire into the sources of virtues, from which afterwards they draw and derive all duties; so Paul lays down here the principle from which all the duties of holiness flow, even this, — that we are redeemed by the Lord for this end — that we may consecrate to him ourselves and all our members. [John Calvin, Commentary on Romans 12:1].

Comment: Christian philosophers testify that reason is able to give satisfactory answers to questions of life only when it is consecrated by the Holy Spirit and when the goal of philosophical pursuit is not just understanding but obedience to God. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).

* Pagan: In classical Latin, the word paganus refers to a villager from the countryside who continued to adhere to the old gods after the Christianization of Roman towns and cities. Paganism was associated with the “religion of the peasantry.” Over time “pagan” simply refers to anyone who practices a religious tradition other than that of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

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