An interesting debate opened up recently after a post by Dr. Mark Jones entitled, “Reformed Theologians Using Pagan Sources,” over at The Calvinist International. Dr. Jones seems to want to correct the mistake against Reformed “Catholicity” that decries the alleged rampant Aristotelianism that shackled the purer theology of Calvin and many of his contemporaries. This argument can only be made when one chooses to actually disregard what the primary sources say and also the fact that Aristotelian–like terms were used in the same way by Calvin and his “heirs.”
After showing a sampling of instances in which Reformed theologians, including Calvin, quoted pagan sources or employed their concepts or categories, Dr. Jones concludes that they were “not afraid to quote pagans.”
All truth is God’s truth, and certain pagans possessed a certain special endowment of natural knowledge that Christian theologians were happy to make use of them if it enabled them to make a point more forcefully.
The general idea of interacting with and quoting nonbelieving sources is not only perfectly acceptable, but if a theologian is going to have any meaningful impact in the world at all, he is going to have to engage in the practice of quoting pagan authors almost of necessity. Sometimes, perhaps even often, we will find ourselves quoting them approvingly.
That does not, however, serve us with a blanket justification of indulging in that medieval torture device known as scholasticism, or any other pagan foundation or methodology for that matter.
We have to be very careful not to make the mistake of thinking that just because Calvin quoted Aristotle in a helpful way in one place, on one issue, therefore we can give equal assent to “quoting pagans” elsewhere. His use elsewhere on some foundational epistemological issues is precisely why someone like Cornelius Van Til could criticize Calvin—and much of the rest of the Reformed tradition—profoundly on that point. It is also why men like Rushdoony, Bahnsen, North, DeMar and others can so easily criticize him on issues of natural law, government, and more. He was eaten up with classical paganism in his views of government and law—not just quoting them in a helpful way, but wrongly adopting the pagan worldview in which those quotations were most at home.
In such a discussion over the use of pagan sources, we also have to be careful not to talk past each other. Is it alright to quote pagan authors? Sure. Can even pagan methodologies and insights not made anywhere else by Christian authors also provide help and illumination for Christian theologians? Absolutely. I see D. A. Carson making references to hermeneutical “horizons” which came from Anthony Thistleton who got a ideas from Gamader and Wittgenstein. I see Van Til himself appropriating terminology from Kant, “limiting concepts.”
Then what’s the fuss? The fuss is when people neglect the preeminence of the biblical worldview and the impossibility of anything else ultimately being true or foundational. Carson is reapplying the concept of “horizons” within a proper biblical worldview. Van Til was reinterpreting the concept of “limiting concepts” and filling it with biblical meaning which Kant absolutely did not have. These men are going into the enemy’s camp and taking back what he stole from us.
The problem underlying so much of scholasticism was the move from finding Aristotle useful to using him as foundational. This does not mean that every time Aquinas quoted from Aristotle he did it in a bad way. But often he did. And every other scholastic must be interpreted in every instance—but always the standard by which we judge is Scripture. No matter how hard we try, the question will always be “By What Standard?” No matter how hard the Reformed Theologians today try, they will never escape the echo of Van Til, Rushdoony, and Bahnsen in their ears.
In some cases, the scholastic love of Aristotle even went from foundational to obsessive. Anyone who thinks it did not become a great problem has not read the history. I’ve written on this before. So fiercely did the scholastics of the 1600s era defend their Aristotle that
Oxford University decreed “that Bachelors and Masters who did not follow Aristotle faithfully were liable to a fine of five shillings [about $150 today] for every point of divergence, and for every fault committed against the logic of [Aristotle’s] the Organon.”
Likewise, the earliest Reformers all maintained undue reverence for pagan sources. Luther loved the platonic mystical work Theologica Germanica and said it was the second best book ever written next to the Bible. Melanchthon was a huge classicist and also dabbled in astrology and Kabbalah. Zwingli loved the pagan authors so much he thought he would see some of them in heaven. He called Seneca a “holy man” and a man of faith in his heart. (See my Blaming Moses for such instances during the Reformation.)
I doubt we would want to follow any of these guys in these areas. Yet abuse is never a blanket condemnation of mere use if we do it right. So what’s a good rule of thumb?
A good rule is this: it’s not that you quote pagan authors, but what you do with what you quote that matters. Sure, all truth is God’s truth, but since that is the case, all truth only fits properly within the true worldview of God’s truth. When a pagan hits on truth, Christians do not need to praise paganism for its ability to produce truth, and then try to imitate the pagans. Instead, Christians should reclaim the nuggets of truth and place them within the context of Christian worldview.
There is no neutrality in life. All truth is God’s. But that means all truths must be made to serve Him. When we come across truth in pagan hands, there are only two options for the Christian: syncretism or reclamation. The Canaanites may possess the promised land that God has decreed belongs to us. We can take what belongs to us and conquer (either through conversion, restoration, or displacement), or else we will inevitably become like the pagans and allow their idols to pollute our thinking.
Here’s the bottom line: if a pagan has stumbled onto a useful intellectual tool, bit of wisdom, bit of truth, or helpful categorization, he or she did so despite their fallen nature and pagan worldview. Whether we chalk it up to common grace or whatever doesn’t matter. What matters is that the truth in question is not consistent with the presuppositions of their worldview, and cannot be—no truth, meaning, morality, or understanding can be—and it is the job of the Christian thinker to judge and discern this.
In the long run, the theological nuggets from pagans that are useful to Reformed theologians in some way are aberrations from the pagan worldview. It’s the old blind squirrel finding a nut once in a while. When Reformed theologians—biblical theologians—rely upon such pagans for their understandings, methodologies, intellectual tools, etc., they are relying upon the theology of blind squirrels. Perhaps more accurately we might say they are collecting the nuts that the blind squirrels happened to come across—but the nuts themselves belonged to God and the Christian worldview all along. If we think more of it than that and invest too much in the value of the pagan sources these nuts came from, we are indeed relying upon the theology of blind squirrels—i.e., a theology of blindness.
But when we acknowledge that the nuggets are mere nuts that belong to the Christian worldview already, it means that, honestly, we could have derived or deduced those ideas ourselves all along, yet within the proper boundaries of a proper biblical worldview. We may actually be able to refine them further into a more faithful version by going through such an exercise even after we collect them from the blind squirrels. But I don’t want to be in a position of relying upon the blindness. I prefer to walk in the light. In God’s providence, we may in unpredictable ways obtain a valuable nugget once in a while, but it is our duty before Him to discern those nuggets of truth within the worldview of truth, and not find ourselves feeling haplessly about in the blindness of the source by which they came to us, especially while thinking we are uniquely enlightened.
This also brings up the issue of time management and stewardship. If it is in fact true that God has given us “all things that pertain to life and godliness” through the knowledge of Christ (2 Pet. 1:3), then we really need to discern all truth through and within that worldview. Reading scores of volumes of scholasticized theologians so enamored with pagan authors may yield a nugget of truth here or there that was gleaned by pagan authors, but is this really the best use of a theologian’s time? Why not study Scripture and Scripture-based worldview applications, biblical law, etc., and spend your time deducing your worldview from that?
Personally, I really don’t care ultimately how many times Calvin quoted Plato (it was a bunch), or his successors quoted Aristotle, or modern theologians can quote others. If those quotations line up Scripture, I don’t need them, and if they don’t line up Scripture, I don’t want them. There are the limited few times that a pagan source provides some insight no Christian has yet derived from Scripture, but should have. I don’t like being the one that eats the whole briar patch to get one berry, so as a general rule I’ll leave that work to others. But when they feel they need to make us all Aristoteleans in order to be good Reformed folk, I say nah. That’s wrong headed, and we’ve all got better things to do.
One deeper concern might be that the whole fight on behalf of pagan sources is really a fight against Van Til and his disciples, Bahnsen, Rushdoony, etc. It’s just like the fight the followers of Meredith Kline led out west in the OPC, and lost, only that was on the law and this is on epistemology and methodology.
If that’s true, the whole upsurge in the study of Reformed Scholasticism over the past decades in order to justify angles like Dr. Jones’s is really a huge compliment to Van Til. It’s got to be kind of flattering for Van Til, looking down from heaven. They have started a whole army of scholars on a project to prop up the dead carcass of Reformed Scholasticism, with probably millions spent on digitizing projects, seminary courses and programs, study centers, and collections like Mueller’s 5 tedious volumes (which somehow misses the discussion of God’s law and social theory almost altogether).
The enlightenment writers parodied the medieval scholastics for arguing how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. It wasn’t exactly true but it was effective satire because it was true enough in type. But it was a joke.
Not everyone got the joke, however.
The Reformed Scholastics were the ones who didn’t get the joke, and then spent the next 400 years replicating its mistakes—in Latin. It really is the deadest of the dead spots in the history of Christian thought. But now the modern guys want to spend another 400 years learning that Latin and translating those mistakes by which to train the next generations to fill their pulpits. Why anyone with a Bible would need to go there is beyond me.
But the modern proponents who have reacted against the Van Til-to-Reconstructionist stream of thought have to go there, because they have nothing else to go to. They have denied Presuppositionalism, they have denied Theonomy, and they have denied Postmillennialism, so they must go back to natural law, paganism, syncretism, and evolutionism. Where else can they look for inspiration?
But if the scholastics had developed their views upon Biblical law instead of the classics, the West would likely have been spared the horrors of the Slave Trade, Inquisition, Socialism and Communism. Biblical law would have prohibited all of these things, but also would have met the needs upon which they preyed. The pagan classics not only could not and did not prevent these things, they laid the cultural and legal foundations for them—all.
One of the reasons I vehemently oppose “scholasticism” is because all these things can be a reality once again, and in fact some of them already are. Christians need to 1) recognize that, and 2) care. They need to take their Bibles more seriously than their traditions—especially the traditions which have caused so much pain.
And that’s one more reason you won’t find me too often quoting pagan sources: the modern Christian sources have enough bad ideas that need correcting already.