Monday, August 17, 2015

So You Often Quote Him? Augustine of Hippo on Philosophy and Theology

Pic from the Movie 'Restless Heart' based on Augustine's The Confession
In this writing, originally written in Latin around 397, Augustine of Hippo deals with the relation between Christianity and pagan philosophy. Using the exodus from Egypt as a model, Augustine argues that there is no reason why Christians should not extract all that is good in philosophy, and put it to the service of preaching the gospel. Just as Israel left behind the burdens of Egypt, while carrying off its treasures, so theology can discard what is useless is philosophy, and exploits what is good and useful. He writes:

If those who are called philosophers, particularly the Platonists, have said anything which is true and consistent with our faith, we must not reject it, but claim it for our own use, in the knowledge that they possess it unlawfully. The Egyptians possessed idols and heavy burdens, which the children of Israel hated and from which they fled; however, they also possessed vessels of gold and silver and clothes which our forebears, in leaving Egypt, took for themselves in secret, intending to use them in a better manner (Exodus 3:21-22; 12:35-36)….

In the same way, pagan learning is not entirely made up of false teaching and superstitions… It contains also some excellent teachings, well suited to be used by truth, and excellent moral values. Indeed, some truths are even found among them which relate to the worship of the one God. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and their silver, which they did not invent themselves, but which they dug out of the mines of the providence of God, which are scattered throughout the world, yet which are improperly and unlawfully prostituted to the worship of demons. The Christian, therefore, can separate these truths from their unfortunate associations, take them away, and put them to their proper use for the proclamation of the gospel

What else have many good and faithful people from amongst us done? Look at the wealth of gold and silver and clothes which Cyprian – that eloquent teacher and blessed martyr – brought with him when he left Egypt! And think of all that Lactantius brought with him, not to mention Marius Victorinus, Optatus, and Hilary of Poitiers, and others who are still living! [at the time of Augustine writing this]. And look at how much the Greeks have borrowed! And before all of these, we find that Moses, that most faithful servant of God, had done the same thing: after all, it is written of him that “he was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians’ (Acts 7:22)” [bracket mine].

I would like to add, not only Moses was a learned man from pagan Egypt; but Daniel, Shadrach, Mishael and Azariah also men learned pagan philosophies of the Babylon empire. And yet, all of these men are considered great among God’s people and who showed great theology of the One true God and remain faithful until their last breathe.

1) de doctrina Christiana (or On Christian Doctrines or On Christian Teachings), II.xI.60-61; in Florilegium Patristicum, vol. 29, ed. H. J. Vogels (Bonn: Peter Hanstein, 1930), 46.7-36.
2) The Christian Theology Reader, edited by Alister E. McGrath (Oxford UK: Blackwell Publishers Inc, 1995), p. 6

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