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Patrick Halbrook

"Why do you read all these books by pagans?"

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"Why do you read all these books by pagans?" As a classical educator, how many times have you been asked this question?

Or perhaps the question has been more forceful and personal: "I thought this was a Christian school! I really am not comfortable with my child being exposed to all these immoral writings of the Greeks and Romans. Shouldn't students be reading more Christian literature instead? Isn't it already hard enough fighting off all of the bad influences they encounter outside of school?"

Many Christians have sought to answer this question, going all the way back to Augustine (and even further).

What do you think?

  • What resources have you found most helpful in formulating a good response to these sorts of questions?
  • How do you answer the question when people ask?
  • What kinds of responses have you received?

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I have wrestled quite a bit with this. I actually wrote an entire paper on this for my MACCS class on Augustine, and it includes the main resources I use when I am asked this question. These are:

  • Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book I.40
  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.ii.xv
  • Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?,” Weight of Glory
  • Lewis, Prince Caspian

If you want to read my paper, I posted in on my blog.

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I'm reminded of a lengthy passage in which Charlotte Mason discuss this, too. The question has been asked forever, hasn't it?



It has been said that 'man doth not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God'; and the augustness of the occasion on which the words were spoken has caused us to confine their meaning to what we call the life of the soul; when, indeed, they include a great educational principle which was better understood by the mediæval Church than by ourselves. May I be allowed once again to describe a painting in which the educational creed of many of us is visibly expressed? ... At the highest point of the picture we see the Holy Ghost descending in the likeness of a dove; immediately below, in the upper chamber are the disciples who first received His inspiration; below, again, is the promiscuous crowd of all nationalities who are brought indirectly under the influence of that first outpouring; and in the foreground are two or three dogs, showing that the dumb creation was not excluded from benefiting by the new grace. In the lower compartment of the great design are angelic figures of the cardinal virtues, which we all trace more or less to divine inspiration, floating above the seated figures of apostles and prophets, of whom we know that they 'spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.' So far, this mediæval scheme of philosophy reveals no new thought to persons instructed in the elements of Christian truth. But below the prophets and apostles are a series of pictured niches, those to the right being occupied by the captain figures, the ideal representations, of the seven Liberal Arts, figures of singular grace and beauty, representing such familiar matters as grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic, all of them under the outpouring of the Spirit of God. Still more liberal is the philosophy which places at the foot of each of these figures him who was then accepted as the leader and representative of each several science,––Priscian, Cicero, Aristotle, Tubal Cain, Zoroaster, Euclid, Pythagoras; men whom a narrower and later theology would have placed beyond the pale of the Christian religion, and therefore of the teaching of the Spirit of God. But here all are represented as under the same divine outpouring which illuminated the disciples in the upper chamber.

A Creed which unifies Life.––Our nature craves after unity. The travail of thought, which is going on to-day and has gone on as long as we have any record of men's thoughts, has been with a view to establishing some principle for the unification of life. Here we have the scheme of a magnificent unity. We are apt to think that piety is one thing, that our intellectual and artistic yearnings are quite another matter, and that our moral virtues are pretty much matters of inheritance and environment, and have not much to do with our conscious religion. Hence, there come discords into our lives, discords especially trying to young and ardent souls who want to be good and religious, but who cannot escape from the overpowering drawings of art and intellect and mere physical enjoyment; they have been taught to consider that these things are, for the most part, alien to the religious life, and that they must choose one or the other; they do choose, and the choice does not always fall upon those things which, in our unscriptural and unphilosophical narrowness, we call the things of God. Let us bless [the artist] for placing before our eyes a creed..., which shows that our piety, our virtue, our intellectual activities, and, let us add, our physical perfections, are all fed from the same source, God Himself; are all inspired by the same Spirit, the Spirit of God. The ages which held this creed were ages of mighty production in every kind; (From School Education)


My short answer is that all truth has its origin in God, and all the truth given by direct revelation in Scripture is not all the truth that there is to know (mathematics and language--the liberal arts--being cogent examples). Daniel in Babylon refused to eat the king's meat and wine, but he didn't refuse to learn everything they wanted to teach him.

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Here's another take on this question, from John Calvin's commentary on Titus 1:12 (which you can find in Richard Gamble's The Great Conversation):

(Titus 1:12 is, of course, the passage where Paul writes, "One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said..." and quotes from him approvingly.)


From this passage we may infer that those persons are superstitious, who do not venture to borrow anything from heathen authors. All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God. Besides, all things are of God; and, therefore, why should it not be lawful to dedicate to his glory everything that can properly be employed for such a purpose? But on this subject the reader may consult Basil's discourse pros tous neous [To Young Men, On How They Might Derive Profit from Pagan Literature].

Basil's work to which Calvin refers (also included in The Great Tradition) uses various arguments, including an analogy involving bees, to describe how Christians ought to approach pagan writings. He says:


...But we shall take rather those passages of theirs in which they have praised virtue or condemned vice. For just as in the case of other beings enjoyment of flowers is limited to their fragrance and colour, but the bees, as we see, possess the power to get honey from them as well, so it is possible here also for those who are pursuing not merely what is sweet and pleasant in such writings to store away from them some benefit also for their souls. It is, therefore, in accordance with the whole similitude of the bees, that we should participate in the pagan literature. For these neither approach all flowers equally, nor in truth do they attempt to carry off entire those upon which they alight, but taking only so much of them as is suitable for their work, they suffer the rest to go untouched. We ourselves too, if we are wise, having appropriated from this literature what is suitable to us and akin to the truth, will pass over the remainder. And just as in plucking the blooms from a rose-bed we avoid the thorns, so also in garnering from such writings whatever is useful, let us guard ourselves against what is harmful. At the very outset, therefore, we should, examine each of the branches of knowledge and adapt it to our end, according to the Doric proverb, "bringing the stone to the line."


Edited by Patrick Halbrook

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