WHEN I WAS AN UNDERGRADUATE at Haverford College in the late 1970s, Philosophy 101 was one of the most popular courses on campus. The professors who taught it were known to be stimulating and inspiring teachers, and students formed long lines to register for the class.
Not me. I never joined the lines and chose not to take Philosophy 101. Though philosophers might be asking the right questions, I felt they were drawing upon the wrong sources for answers. I wanted to learn about the divinely inspired words of the Bible, not the human reasoning of Plato and Aristotle. As far as I was concerned, those who asked "What is truth?" with Pontius Pilate (John 18:38) could find the answer in John 17:17, "your word is truth."
My attitude toward philosophy began to gradually mature, guided by a better understanding of theology and history. I learned that all people are created in the image of God and that our benevolent Creator has made certain foundational truths available to all, like the fact of his existence and basic principles of right and wrong (Rom 1:18-32; 2:14-15). Our ability to think well also comes from God, so the strict dichotomy that I had imagined between reason and revelation is not valid. Even though we live in a fallen world, we use the power of reasoning to make valuable discoveries in areas like mathematics, science, and yes, even philosophy.
Historically servants of God, beginning in ancient times, have often benefited from the wisdom of the world. Stephen tells us that Moses, "was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians" as part of his preparation to lead the nation of Israel (Acts 7:22). Later, when Moses became overburdened as the nation's sole judge and prophet, he received sage advice from his father-in-law Jethro the Midianite. Jethro recommended that Moses establish a judicial system with lower courts to handle routine cases. In that way, Moses could concentrate on the more difficult cases (Exod 18:13-23). Moses implemented this wise suggestion (vv. 24-26), which was consistent with God's intention that Israel become "a kingdom of priests" (Exod 19:6), with every member sharing responsibility for carrying out their divine mission.
When Paul took the gospel to the Greco-Roman world, his knowledge of Greek thought proved to be an invaluable asset. We see this especially in his discussions with philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). At the Areopagus Paul was able to communicate with the Athenians in terms familiar to them. For example, he quoted Greek poets in explaining characteristics of the true God (vv. 25-29). Paul's familiarity with Greek literature undoubtedly gave the gospel a more sympathetic hearing in Athens than it otherwise would have received.
As Christianity spread, there was a growing need for educated leaders and teachers who could engage surrounding cultures effectively, as Paul had done. This raised the question of how Christians should approach classical Greek learning. One answer, in the form of an analogy based on the Exodus, was articulated by the renowned theologian Origen (185-254 AD), bishop of Caesarea. Origen laid out his analogy in a letter to his disciple Gregory Thaumaturgis (c. 213-270).(1)
In his letter, Origen compared classical learning, including philosophy, to the treasure that the Israelites obtained as they departed from Egypt (Exod 12:35-36). According to a familiar tradition, Israel devoted these riches to a holy purpose by using them to construct the tabernacle and its furnishings. Similarly, Origen urged Gregory to devote his classical education to the cause of Christianity.
Origen observed that the Egyptian bounty must have contained materials of various types and qualities, which the Israelites skillfully employed in making the numerous articles associated with the tabernacle. By doing so, they put this treasure to better use than the Egyptians had. Similarly, Christian students should apply the various aspects of their education appropriately to obtain a deeper understanding of God's word, thus making better use of this knowledge than pagans had.
Unfortunately, the Israelites misappropriated some of this wealth to create the golden calf. To properly work with these materials the guidance of the Holy Spirit was required, as God granted to Bezalel and Oholiab (Exod 31:1-11). Analogously, Origen cautioned that education could be misapplied to produce false teachings. The discovery of spiritual truths requires divine guidance, sought through prayer and study of the Scriptures, at every stage of learning.
Origen's analogy is based on the conviction that there are treasures to be found in human knowledge, and that Christians should seek them out. Caution is required, however. Not all of this knowledge is valuable, and wisdom and discernment are necessary to identify the real treasure. Origen told his students to study all of the different philosophical schools, but to espouse none of them. He wanted them to find the gold but not construct any golden calves.
Over the centuries countless Christians have followed Origen's advice to Gregory and become treasure hunters, using every bit of their education to advance the kingdom of God. (In fact, Greek philosophical texts are still available for Philosophy 101 students because Christians have preserved them.) Also, Christian thinkers have developed persuasive arguments for God's existence using philosophical tools.(2)
The history of mathematics and the sciences show that followers of Jesus who sought to glorify the one, true God as Creator and Savior are responsible for many of the significant discoveries that have blessed the world and alleviated needless human suffering. The same is true in other fields of study. The heart cry of Christian treasure hunters is, What treasures are yet to be found and shared? May our good Father raise up many like this in our generation!
To that end, our Jewish roots can help us stay grounded and growing. The Hebrew word for knowing is da'at, the same word used for intimacy between a husband and wife. It forms an excellent play on words in English. Da'at is more than mere data. All beneficial knowledge is a gift from God intended for intimacy with him and blessing for our neighbor. History suggests that with a solid Hebraic foundation in His Word, we can cautiously but confidently appropriate the contributions of the Greeks.
(1) For a helpful discussion of this analogy, see "The Despoliation of Egypt: From Stolen Treasures to Saved Texts" by Joel S. Allen, pp. 347-356 in Israel's Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective, Springer, 2015.
(2) A good place to learn about these arguments is William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, Crossway, 2008.
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