Christians and pagan literature

Should Christians study and teach the non-Christian literature — the Greek and Roman philosophers, poets, and dramatists — held in such high regard by the pagans about them, or were these writings so in contrast with the Gospel that to read them would contaminate the faith of Christians?

Here Christians did not fully agree. We have noted that such outstanding moulders of Christian thought as Clement of Alexandria and Origen were students of the Greek philosophers and, while not uncritical of them, levied tribute on them in forming their own conceptions of the Christian faith. They were by no means alone in this. We have remarked the fashion in which Ambrose was indebted to Stoicism and Augustine to Neoplatonism. The list could be lengthened. Moreover, it was through Christians that such of Greek and Roman literature as has survived to our day was preserved and transmitted. Yet Jerome came to believe that he must give up his passion for the Greek and Roman classics as a kind of idolatry. Many Christian writers poured scorn on the philosophers and denounced the accounts of the gods in the literature of the day for their immoralities and puerilities. Numbers of Christians, moreover, feared to have any contact with Greek and Roman literature, holding that the Scriptures were sufficient.

We must remind ourselves that between the Christian and the Greek approach to the intellectual life a great gulf existed, a gulf which helps to explain the distrust of many

Christians for pagan philosophy. The Greeks relied on reason as the primary way to truth, but underneath that reason they had, consciously or unconsciously, certain presuppositions to which they applied reason. Among many Christians the non-Christian use of reason and its presuppositions were rejected. Jesus had thanked God that He had hid the Gospel from the wise and prudent and had revealed it unto babes, and Paul had declared that in the wisdom of God the world through wisdom had not known God. The road to the truth most important for man was held to be the acceptance by faith of what God had done in the incarnation, the cross, and the resurrection. Augustine declared: "Believe in order that you may understand." By the fifth century a loss of confidence in the Greek use of reason was fairly widespread in the Roman Empire, outside as well as within Christian circles.

Yet reason in itself was not universally disavowed either among non-Christians or Christians. In succeeding centuries the effort to determine the relation of reason to faith was to constitute a continuing problem in Christian circles. Jesus himself appealed to men to use their minds. Leading Christians, including Paul and Augustine, applied reason to the data derived through faith. In rejecting the Greek use of reason they did not reject reason itself. They maintained that through reason men could attain to an understanding of some aspects of truth. Bur they held that in the Gospel fresh and essential data had been given by God, of which reason must take account, that in Christ God had assumed the initiative, that it was through faith, the faith which is a full commitment of themselves to God in Christ, that men gain the central insights into the meaning of life, lay hold on true life, and enable God to lay hold of them, and that, having made this commitment and having gained these insights, they can apply reason to what has thus come to them.

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