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Letting Mainstream Thought Enrich Biblical / Christian Thought?

We have introduced the idea of Christian thinkers engaging with mainstream thought by Listening, Affirming, Critiquing and Enriching (LACE) it, with some tips on how to enrich. This piece looks at reverse enriching, whereby mainstream thought, or extant thought, might enrich Christian thought.

We begin with a disaster that shows us when or how this should not happen, then briefly suggest how and when it might. (Draft, for discussion and refinement)

Can enrichment proceed in the opposite direction, with the world's thought enriching Christian thought? Augustine thought so, but his approach led to major problems. There might be a way, however.

"Plundering the Egyptians"

Augustine of Hippo believed that the 'treasures' of non-Christian thought could be used to enrich Christian thought, and he likened it to the Childrren of Israel "plundering the Egyptians" when the Egyptian people gave them gold, clothes, etc. when they left. He explains:

"If those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it . . . all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them... These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel." [my emphasis]

Notice several things here. (a) Augustine believes that the truths and "excellent precepts" that he sees the "heathen" holding are held "unlawfully" by them and can be put into "proper use" by Christians. (b) The "proper use" mainly concerns morality and worship, rather than what we might today call "secular" aspects of life. (c) Christians are to "claim" them. (d) This is about those things that are "true and in harmony with our faith".

Augustine especially picks out the Platonists for favour. In fact, however, it has been mainly Aristotle's thought that has been adopted in European (Roman Catholic) Christian thought. For example, the credal statement that God is "three persons" but "one substance" presupposes Aristotle's idea of substance as that which defines the type of an entity. Over the centuries, a lot more of Aristotle's thinking was brought to bear to understand Christian things, especially after its rediscovery via Islamic thought. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church began to treat belief in Aristotle's views as almost as sacrosanct as belief in the Bible, and some were martyred for questioning Aristotle [Holland 2019:].

Aristotle's views led European Christianity into very un-Christlike avenues of cruelty and oppression, which we find horrendous these days and which enemies of Christianity still use as a whip to beat Christianity with. One root of the problem was that Aristotle believed in hierarchies in humanity, with some human beings of much less worth than others. This contrasted with Jesus Christ's valuing of those not valued - and also with what was revealed of the character of God as a whole in the prophets and the Torah. (c.f. Holland 2019: )

So, the attempts to enrich Christian thought by means of what was seen as the best of the world's thought proved to be a disaster.

See also a longer discussion of On Plundering the Egyptians.

Why did this happen?

However, we might ask: (a) Why did this happen? (b) Might there be a way that is not disastrous?

The philosopher Dooyeweerd argued that this happened because the Mediaeval church adopted the Greek presuppositions about the nature of reality (self-dependent entities) and did not notice that these presuppositions were fundamentally at odds with the Biblical idea of Creation, in which all entities depend on the Creator and their Being is never self-dependent. (Roy Clouser's Myth or Religious Neutrality offers an excellent explanation of that.) In ways that we won't try to explain here, this also led to the idea that some human beings are worth more than others.

I believe that Augustine's approach to the world's thought enriching Christian thought is fundamentally problematic, especially in the areas (b) and (d). Augustine sees Christian thought as mainly concerned with morality and worship, and perhaps such things as understanding theoretically the nature of God. This implies that there is no Christian thought on the 'secular' areas of life like economics or technology. (Right-wingers claim that free-market economics is "Christian" but we can ignore that for now, because we are concerned here about whether there can be Christian thought on economics etc. as such, rather than which side Christians might take in the war between what is currently seen as left and right. I have argued above that Christian ideas can enrich secular thought, and right-winger claims do not enrich but narrow down.)

The other problem is Augustine's fourth presupposition, of "true and in harmony with our faith". But what is true and what is in harmony with our faith, given that we interpret Scripture? It is not always so easy to tell.

How might it be valid for Mainstream Thought to enrich Christian Thought?

I believe there might be a way in which secular thought or thought from other religions might enrich Christian thought, but in a different way. I do not believe that it is possible to get good Christian thought on all things that is completely independent of non-Christian thought as though it does not need it. Even if possible, I do not believe it would be desirable.

The different way is not to adopt the speculations of non-Christian philosophers like Aristotle, but to make use of some of the findings of the sciences. The reason I believe it is valid and useful is because those working in the various sciences like linguistics, sociology, psychology, physics, etc. are discovering something of the way the various aspects of Creation work. Much is distorted, but also much is valid and faithfully expresses the way Creation works.

I believe, for example, that a mature understanding of linguistics and the nature of language can benefit our interpretation of the Bible. (This is not the same as the rationalistic understanding of linguistics that was applied by those who wanted to undermine the authority of the Bible a hundred years ago.)

One challenge is to know which is which, of that which distorts and that which expresses something of the way Creation works. Indeed, I do not believe we can ever be 100% certain about that, so humility is needed. Another challenge is: what are our own heart attitudes and motivations, deep inside?

Here are the elements of LACE:

Author: Andrew Basden.

First created 26 September 2020. Last updated. 16 January 2021 links. 18 January 2021 links; new intro.