It has long seemed clear to me that a Christian can learn from someone of another faith or even of no faith, although many half-thinking Christians have disagreed with me or, worse, looked past me while declaring their purified principles to the air. But which of us Christians hasn’t had a teacher, a professor, a work supervisor that taught us things without agreeing with us on the Being of God? I’ve even learned spiritual things from Hindus and Greek Pagans and Atheists – without coming one step closer to converting. So I’m always happy to find a Christian author who recognizes what seems to me an obvious fact. Paul commending the Athenians for being “in every way very religious” and then quoting approvingly one of their own poets. Augustine declaring that “wherever truth may be found, it belongs to [the] Master.” Lewis calling myth “a splintered fragment of the true light.”
I discovered two more sympathetic souls this month in Lactantius and Justin Martyr. Acting on a tip, the source of which I’ve forgotten, I read just book VII of the Divine Institutes of Lactantius, who was an advisor to Constantine in the early fourth century. At that point in this apologetical work, Lactantius gives arguments for believing in the immortality of the soul and in divine judgment, using Greek philosophers, poets, Cicero, and even the Sibyls as evidence. He goes on to more specifically Christian doctrines, which of course he must support using the New Testament, not Cicero. (Of special interest to me was Lactantius’ belief in a literal Millennium between the reign of the Antichrist and the end of the world.) But starting with the pagan classics was a technique worthy of the Apostle’s sermon on Mars Hill.
Writing a couple hundred years earlier than Lactantius, Justin Martyr also had read the classic philosophers and even opened his own little philosophical college in Rome. Justin believed that some of the Greeks’ “splintered fragments” were pretty hefty shards. He thought that Homer had access to Christian truth that he did not understand and that the Sibyls were inspired by the true God and spoke their oracles unwittingly. Most amazing of all, he believed that Plato had read the books of Moses in Alexandria and understood them in all their prophetic sense to the extent that he could be called a Christian believer before the birth of Christ. Plato’s dialogs, says Justin, don’t reveal his Mosaic beliefs more explicitly only because he had to disguise the truth out of fear for the authorities. Justin himself had reason to fear the authorities: the Romans beheaded him for the doctrines he taught in his academy.
I read some Augustine this month, as well, but it had little to do with Roman gods or God’s truth being found in the mouths of pagan philosophers. In books I-V of his treatise On the Trinity, Augustine began laying out his views on this most important and most mysterious of Christian beliefs. The Bishop of Hippo lived and wrote just after the Church had worked out its teaching on the Trinity at the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople and had enshrined their conclusions in the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed. This creed kept the Latin and Greek churches together for seven hundred years before the two split, presumably over the addition of one word to the Latin version: the word filioque. The Greek-speaking half objected that the word represented a recent idea and, more importantly to them one would hope, a false one. But I was fascinated to see that Augustine very clearly states, six hundred years before the Great Schism of East and West, that the Holy Spirit proceeds both from the Father and from the Son (filioque). As for myself, I agree with Augustine, but I also believe that we understand so little what we mean by “proceeds” that the Churches had (and have) no business hurling anathemas at each other over either the word or the idea.