Skip to comments.From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians should Read the Pagan Classics
Posted on 06/22/2019 11:46:09 AM PDT by CondoleezzaProtege
Tertullian, the toughest and most uncompromising of early church fathers, once asked a question that is still with us today: What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? That is to say, is there indeed, should there bea meeting ground between the Judeo-Christian strain that proceeds out of Jerusalem and the Greco-Roman (humanist) strain that proceeds out of Athens?
As far as Tertullian was concerned, the answer to his question was simple: nothing.
Nevertheless, despite Tertullians rejection of the link between Athens and Jerusalem, Christian thinkers for the past two millennia have continued to ponder his question. Can the basic tenets and chief embodiments of both Christianity and humanism be combined in a way that will pay homage both to the glory of God and the dignity of man, the truths of Christ and the wisdom of the ancients? What business does a Christian have devoting time and energy to reading works written by pagans who lacked the light of the Christian, or even the Jewish, revelation? Are not all the really important answers to be found in the Bible and the Sacred Tradition? Have not the pagan writers of the ancient world been so superseded by Christianity as to be irrelevant as sources of wisdom in the life of the believer?
Many Christiansparticularly evangelicals like myselfare prone to make the claim that the Bible is the ultimate source of Truth. That is not technically true, however. It is Christ, not the Bible, that is the ultimate source of Truth; the Bible is the most perfect and reliable embodiment of that Truth that resides in Christ alone. The distinction here is vital.
(Excerpt) Read more at equip.org ...
We have all been programmed by our Creator with a desire to seek and yearn after the God who is Truth. If it is trueas Paul teaches in Acts 17:2628that we were all made in His image, that He is not far from us, that it is in Him that we live and move and have our being, then surely it must also be true that those timeless works of ancient Greece and Rome that record the musings of some of humanitys greatest seekers and yearners will contain traces, remnants, and intimations of that Wisdom that made us.
Truth is limited neither to Scripture nor to the Sacred Tradition; the Bible, though it tells us all we need to know to find salvation in and through Jesus Christ, does not attempt or purport to be an encyclopedia of all knowledge and wisdom. Yes, the Bible (the Word of God) is the only perfect written revelation of the truths of Christ (the Word of God), and it is sufficient for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training (2 Tim. 3:16 NIV), but I would nevertheless contend that our understanding of the written and incarnate Word of God can be enriched and enhanced by wrestling with the pagan classics. God speaks to us in many ways and through many mediums, and, though Scripture should act as the touchstone against which all such communications are to be measured, we must not allow any puritan suspicions of the moral value and doctrinal status of humanistic pursuits to prevent us from accessing these messages from our Creator.
Who, or What, Enlighteneth Us to Truth?
What then shall we say if we would build a bridge from Homer, Plato, and Virgil to Christ, the Bible, and the church? Shall we say that Christianity is not the only truth? Certainly not! But let us also not say that Christianity is the only truth. Let us say, instead, that Christianity is the only complete truth. The distinction here is vital. By saying that Christianity is the only complete truth, the possibility of other philosophies, religions, and cultures having hit on certain aspects of the truth is left open. The Christian need not reject the poetry of Homer, or the teachings of Plato, or the myths of the pagans as one hundred percent false, as an amalgamation of darkness and lies, but may affirm that there are moments when Plato and Homer leap past their human limitations and catch a glimpse of the true glory of the Triune God.
I reject the all-or-nothing, darkness-orlight dualism that Tertullian seemed to advocate. But I also reject the modern relativist position that truth is like a hill and that there are many ways around it. Or, rather, I modify that position. Yes, truth is like a hill, but the Truth that stands atop that hill is Christ, and Him crucified. To arrive at the truth of Christ, the peoples of the world have pursued many different routes. Some have only scaled the bottom rim of the hill; others have made it halfway. But many have reached the top, and have experienced that joy that only comes when the truth they have sought all their lives is revealed to them.
Such is the case with the Magi. The Magi were not Jews, and they were obviously not Christians. Most likely they were Zoroastrians whose main vehicle for discovering Gods nature and uncovering His plans was the stars. These astrologers, bereft of the Old Testament, ignorant of the Law and the Prophets, were yet able to identify the divine significance of the Star of Bethlehem. They sought after Godthe true Godwith all that was available to them, and they opened their hearts to the astounding possibility that what they might find at the end of their journey would draw them to a different and higher truth than the one in which they were raised. They did not know what that truth would be, and yet, as they werelike Cornelius and the Ethiopian eunuchGod-fearing men with a sensitivity to Gods spirit, they knew that when they finally encountered it, they would recognize it. The path they trod to Bethlehem may have led them, geographically, toward the west, but the true spiritual direction in which they journeyed was north, up the hill of truth. At the top they found Christ, the endpoint not only of their Yuletide journey, but of their lifelong yearning for God.
Rediscovering Light and Truth.
It is to such pagan seekers, I believe, that Paul refers in the second chapter of Romans: For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another (1415 KJV). If we are to accept these verses in a manner that is in any way literal, then we must confess that unregenerate pagans have an inborn capacity for grasping light and truth that was not rendered totally defunct by the Fall.
Indeed, though the pagan poets and philosophers of Greece and Rome did not have all the answersthey couldnt, as they lacked the special revelation that is to be found only in Christthey knew how to ask the right questions, the kinds of questions that build within the readers of their works a desire to know the higher truths about themselves and their Creator. Such is the case with the pagan Virgil, whose Aeneid was so Christian in its themes and virtues that Virgil was considered by many medieval theologians and laymen to be a proto-Christian. Even more, his Fourth Eclogue, with its Isaiah-like celebration of the coming of a divine child who will bring peace and order to the earth, was interpreted by most as a pagan prophecy of Christ.
Thus, in the twenty-second canto of the Purgatorio, Dante introduces us to Statius, a first-century pagan poet whom he portrays as having converted to Christianity late in life. Statius ascribes both his early yearnings for Christ and his final conversion not to the Christian martyrs and theologians, but to Virgil. In an ecstatic moment in which pagan past reaches out to Christian present and the two embrace, Statius exclaims:
You [Virgil] were the lamp that led me from that night. You led me forth to drink Parnassian waters;
then on the road to God you shed your light. When you declared [in the Fourth Eclogue], A new birth has been given.
Justice returns, and the first age of man. And a new progeny descends from Heaven you were as one who leads through the dark track holding the light behinduseless to you, precious to those who followed at your back. Through you I flowered to song and to belief. 1
He goes on to add that when he first heard the gospel preached, he hearkened to it immediately, for it agreed so well with what he had read in Virgil.
The passage demonstrates how man, though he cannot save himself, can, of his own free will, both move himself and others toward God. In the lovely testimony of Statius, Virgil emerges as a Christ figure, as one who sacrifices himself for others, who devotes his life to uncovering truths that, though useless to him, will provide light and guidance for those who come after. He is a bearer of good news, not of the full gospel of Christ, but of a lesser gospel that yet points to the greater: a candle that directs our eye to the moon; a moon that directs our soul to the sun. Such a man should be included, even if only partially, in Isaiahs messianic blessing: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace (52:7 KJV).
Louis Markos is a professor in English at Houston Baptist University and the author of Lewis Agonistes: How C. S. Lewis Can Train Us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World (Broadman and Holman, 2003) and Pressing Forward: Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and the Victorian Age (Sapientia Press, 2007). This essay is adapted from the Introduction to From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (InterVarsity Press, 2007).
This article starts with calling Tertullian the toughest and most uncompromising of the church fathers.
Well, if so, I wonder why he later converted to Montanism, which the catholic church then considered heretical..m
Yes, but he says he does not agree with Tetullian.
I spent time studying Greek Drama on site in Greece and it shaped my understanding of the Hellenic world of the New Testament in a whole new way...Putting me in touch with the “Greek soul” as it were.
Now I can’t read Saint Paul’s address to the Aeropagus in Athens (as described in Acts 17) without welling up with emotion.
Leo Strauss also has something to say about the tension.
oo? LoL I know the great Austrian composer RICHARD Strauss did an opera version of the Greek play ELEKTRA...
but not familiar with Leo, please feel free to share any of his writings. thank you!
“If there be any virtue, if there be any praise, think on these things.”
If Christians ignored the good in this fallen world, we would have no basis of commonality with those who need the truth. We would also ourselves be diminished.
Clive Staples Lewis, an atheist, shared with John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, a Catholic, a passionate love for Norse Myth.
Out of that bond grew friendship, and Tolkien’s witness played a crucial role in Lewis’s later conversion.
Without Tolkien’s immense lore - he was one of the greatest scholars of Beowulf - there would have been no Middle Earth, no Valinor, no Numenor, no Gondor, no Shire. There would have been no trilogy called The Lord of the Rings.
Some of the greatest music, writing, painting, and sculpting in human history were done by pagans. The beauty in them is real in its own right.
“If there be any virtue, if there be any praise, think on these things.... <— I did not think of that verse as applying this way in this context. Thank you for that! You’re so right. It’s also better that we evangelize from a place of humility and respect for how God is already at work in the lives of all people...in their use of innate gifts, in the positive attributes of their cultures etc...
...Rather than merely viewing everyone as hopelessly lost by default.
And Amen. Beauty is Beauty. Goodness is Goodness. and Truth is Truth, even when the fullness of it has not been revealed or embraced yet.
Leo Straus was an eminent Jewish philosopher/political scientist who taught in the US after escaping Nazi Germany. He created his own school of Straussians”, taught at the University of Chicago and generally was considered a conservative and influential teacher and thinker. He wrote many books and articles. One essay was called “Athens And Jerusalem” in which he describes the healthy but uneasy tension between reason and revelation.
Wonderful! Will take a look. Thank you :)!
C. S. Lewis called the accumulated wisdom of the ages the “Tao.” He opined that the complete person will not ignore that truth, lest he/she become untethered from his/her humanity. This is the truth the left is trying to usurp.
Since Tertullian insisted that the Holy Spirit was divulging no new doctrines, and since Montanus established the “office” of prophet to deal with local discipline questions, and since this infringed on the growing power of the bishops, perhaps the problem was less heretical than it was political. Maybe, who knows?
What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?
There is a great essay by Matthew Arnold called “Hebraism and Hellenism,” the point of which is that the greatest good in hebraism (Jerusalem) is obedience, while in hellenism it is understanding. I’d suggest that this is the reason that Paul’s writings spend considerable time describing Hebrew concepts (historical, e.g. covenants,the cross, and the resurrection) in Greek categories, since he was an apostle to Greeks. In contrast, Jewish writers to the diaspora tend to emphasize obedience, e.g., James and Peter.
I’d also suggest that the victory of hellenism in the western world is one reason there are so many splinters in Christianity. The quest for detailed analytical and systematic understanding of the ultimately holistic processes of God’s plan leads to splits over the details.
Interesting. Will take a look at both Leo Strauss and Matthew Arnold.
in conclusion at the end of the bible it should impart this: God saying talk to me for real..the bible is just a start, God can teach all who seek
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