CHRISTIANITY AND UNCHRISTIAN LITERATURE. - Titus 1:12-13
THE hexameter verse which St. Paul here cites from the Cretan poet Epimenides is one of three quotations from profane literature which are made by St. Paul. Of the other two, one occurs in 1 Corinthians 15:33, "Evil communications corrupt good manners"; and the other in the Apostle’s speech on the Areopagus at Athens, as recorded in the Acts: [Acts 17:28] "For we are also his offspring." They cannot be relied upon as sufficient to prove that St. Paul was well read in classical literature, any more than the quoting of a hackneyed line from Shakespeare, from Byron, and from Tennyson, would prove that an English writer was well acquainted with English literature. It may have been the case that St. Paul knew a great deal of Greek classical literature, but these three quotations, from Epimenides, from some Greek tragedian, and from Cleanthes or Aratus, do not at all prove the point. In all three cases the source of the quotation is not certain. In the one before us the Apostle no doubt tells us that he is quoting a Cretan "prophet," and therefore quotes the line as coming from Epimenides. But a man may know that "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears," is Shakespeare, without having read a single play. And we are quite uncertain whether St. Paul had even seen the poem of Epimenides on Oracles in which the line which he here quotes occurs. The iambic which he quotes in the letter to the Corinthians, although originally in some Greek play (perhaps of Euripides or Menander), had passed into a proverb, and proves even less than the line from Epimenides that St. Paul knew the work in which it occurred. The half-line which is given in his speech at Athens, stating the Divine parentage of mankind, may have come from a variety of sources: but it is not improbable that the Apostle had read it in the "Phaenomena" of Aratus, in which it occurs in the form in which it is reproduced in the Acts. This astronomical poem was popular in St. Paul’s day, and he was the more likely to have come across it, as Aratus is said to have been a native of Tarsus, or at any rate of Cilicia. But even when we have admitted that the Apostle had read the "Phaenomena" of Aratus or Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus, we have not made much way towards proving that he was well read in Greek literature. Indeed the contrary has been argued from the fact that, according to the reading of the best authorities, the iambic line in the Corinthians is quoted in such a way as to spoil the scanning; which would seem to show that St. Paul was not familiar with the iambic meter. If that was the case he can scarcely have read even a single Greek play.
But the question is not one of great importance, although doubtless of some interest. We do not need this evidence to prove that the Apostle was a person, not only of great energy and ability, but of culture. There are passages m his writings, such as chapters 13 and 15 in 1 Corinthians, which are equal for beauty and eloquence to anything in literature. Even among inspired writers few have known better than St. Paul how to clothe lofty thoughts in noble language. And of his general acquaintance with the moral philosophy of his age, especially of the Stoic school, which was very influential in the neighborhood of Tarsus, there can be no doubt. Just as St. John laid the thoughts and language of Alexandrian philosophy under contribution, and gave them fuller force and meaning to express the dogmatic truths of the Gospel, so St, Paul laid the thoughts and language of Stoicism under contribution, and transfigured them to express the moral teaching of the Gospel. Cleanthes or Aratus, from one or both of whom one of the three quotations comes (and St. Paul seems to know both sources, for he says "as certain even of your own poets have said"), were both of them Stoics: and the speech in which the quotation occurs, short as it is in the Acts, abounds in parallels to the teaching of St. Paul’s Stoic contemporary Seneca. If St. Paul tells us that "the God that made the world and all things therein dwelleth not in temples made with hands," Seneca teaches that "temples must not be built to God of stones piled on high: He must be consecrated in the heart of man." While St. Paul reminds us that God "is not far from each one of us," Seneca says "God is near thee: He is with thee; He is within." Again St. Paul warns his hearers that "we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and device of man"; and Seneca declares "Thou shalt not form Him of silver and gold: a true likeness of God cannot be molded of this material." But the quotations are of other interest than their bearing upon the question as to the Greek elements in the education and teaching of St. Paul. They have a bearing also on the question of Christian use of profane authors, and on the duty of self-culture in general. The leading teachers of the early Church differed widely in their estimate of the value of heathen literature, and especially of heathen philosophy. On the whole, with some considerable exceptions, the Greek Fathers valued it highly, as containing precious elements of truth, which were partly the result of direct inspiration, partly echoes of the Old Testament. The Latin Fathers, on the other hand, for the most part, treated all pagan teaching with suspicion and contempt. It was in no sense useful. It was utterly false, and simply stood in the way of truth. It was rubbish, which must be swept on one side in order to make room for the Gospel. Tertullian thinks that heathen philosophers are "blockheads when they knock at the doors of truth," and that "they have contributed nothing whatever that a Christian can accept." Arnobius and Lactantius write in a similar strain of contemptuous disapproval. Tertullian thinks it out of the question that a right-minded Christian should teach in pagan schools. But even he shrinks from telling Christian parents that they must allow their children to remain uneducated rather than send them to such schools. The policy of permitting Christian children to attend heathen schools, while forbidding Christian adults from teaching in them, appears singularly unreasonable. Every Christian teacher in a school rendered that school less objectionable for Christian children. But Tertullian urges that one who teaches pagan literature seems to give his sanction to it: one who merely learns it does nothing of the kind. The young must be educated: adults need not become schoolmasters. One can plead necessity in the one case; not in the other ("De Idol.," 10.). But the necessity of sending a child to a pagan school, because otherwise it could not be properly educated, did not settle the question whether it was prudent, or even right, for a Christian in after-life to study pagan literature; and it required the thought and experience of several centuries to arrive at anything like a consensus of opinion and practice on the subject. But during the first four or five centuries the more liberal view, even in the West, on the whole prevailed. From Irenaeus, Tatian, and Hermias, among Greek writers, and from various Latin Fathers, disapproving opinions proceeded. But the influence of Clement of Alexandria and Origen in the East, and of Augustine and Jerome in the West, was too strong for such opinions. Clement puts it on the broad ground that all wisdom is a Divine gift; and maintains that the philosophy of the Greeks, limited and particular as it is, contains the rudiments of that really perfect knowledge, which is beyond this world. Origen, in rebutting the reproach of Celsus, that the gospel repelled the educated and gave a welcome only to the ignorant, quotes the Epistle to Titus, pointing out that "Paul, in describing what kind of man the bishop ought to be, lays down as a qualification that he must be a teacher, saying that he ought to be able to convince the gainsayers, that by the wisdom which is in him he may stop the mouths of foolish talkers and deceivers." The Gospel gives a welcome to the learned and unlearned alike: to the learned, that they may become teachers; to the unlearned, not because it prefers such, but because it wishes to instruct them. And he points out that in enumerating the gifts of the Spirit St. Paul places wisdom and knowledge before faith, gifts of healing, and miracles. [1 Corinthians 12:8-10] But Origen does not point out that St. Paul himself makes use of heathen literature; although immediately before dealing with the accusation of Celsus, that Christians hate culture and promote ignorance, he quotes from Callimachus half of the saying of Epimenides, "Cretans are always liars" ("Con. Cels.," III 43.). What Origen’s own practice was we learn from the "Panegyric" of his enthusiastic pupil, Gregory Thaumaturgus (13.).
With the exception of atheistic philosophy, which is not worth the risk, Origen encouraged his scholars to study everything; and he gave them a regular course of dialectics, physics, and moral philosophy, as a preparation for theology. Augustine, who ascribes his first conversion from a vicious life to the "Hortensius" of Cicero ("Conf.," III 4. 1), was not likely to take an extreme line in condemning classical literature, from which he himself frequently quotes. Of Cicero’s "Hortensius" he says, "This book in truth changed my affections, and turned my prayers to Thyself, O Lord, and made me have other hopes and desires." He quotes, among other classical authors, not only Virgil, Livy, Lucan, Sallust, Horace, Pliny, and Quintilian, but Terence, Persius, and Juvenal, and of the last from those Satires which are sometimes omitted by editors on account of their grossness. In his treatise "On Christian Doctrine" (II 40.), he contends that we must not shrink from making use of all that is good and true in heathen writings and institutions. We must "spoil the Egyptians." The writings of his instructor Ambrose show that he also was well acquainted with the best Latin classics. In Jerome we have what may be called an essay on the subject. Ruffinus had suggested to Magnus, a Roman rhetorician, that he should ask Jerome why he filled his writings with so many allusions and quotations taken from Pagan literature, and Jerome in reply, after quoting the opening verses of the book of Proverbs, refers him to the example of St. Paul in the Epistles to Titus and the Corinthians, and in the speech in the Acts. Then he points to Cyprian, Origen, Eusebius, and Apollinaris: "read them, and you will find that in comparison with them we have little skill (in quotation)." Besides these he appeals to the examples, among Greek writers, of Quadratus, Justin Martyr, Dionysius, Clement of Alexandria, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, etc.; and among Latins, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Arnobius, Hilary, and Juvencus. And he points out that quotations from profane authors occur in nearly all the works of these writers, and not merely in those which are addressed to heathen. But while Jerome defends the study of classical authors as a necessary part of education, he severely condemns those clergy who amused themselves with such writers as Plautus (of whom he himself had been very fond), Terence, and Catullus, when they ought to have been studying the Scriptures. Later in life his views appear to have become more rigid; and we find him rejoicing that the works of Plato and Aristotle are becoming neglected.
It was the short reign of Julian, commonly called "the Apostate" (A.D. 361-363), which had brought the question very much to the front. His policy and legislation probably influenced Augustine and Jerome in taking a more liberal line in the matter, in spite of Latin dislike of Greek philosophy and their own ascetic tendencies. Julian, jealous of the growing influence of Christian teachers, tried to prevent them from lecturing on classical authors. From this he hoped to gain two advantages.
(1) Secular education would to a large extent be taken out of Christian hands.
(2) The Christian teachers themselves would become less well educated, and less able to contend with heathen controversialists. He sarcastically pointed out the inconvenience of a teacher expounding Homer and denouncing Homer’s gods: Christians had better confine themselves to "expounding Matthew and Luke in the Churches of the Galileans," and leave the interpretation of the masterpieces of antiquity to others. And he seems not to have contented himself with cynical advice, but to have passed a law that no Christian was to teach in the public schools. This law was at once cancelled by his successor Valentinian; but it provoked a strong feeling of resentment, and stirred up Christians to recognize and hold fast the advantages of a classical education.
But while the influence of the first three of the four great Latin Fathers was in favor of a wise use of the products of pagan genius, the influence of the last of the four was disastrously in the opposite direction.
In the period between Jerome and Gregory the Great two facts had had a calamitous effect upon the cause of liberal education.
(1) The inroads of the barbarians almost destroyed the imperial schools in Gaul and Italy.
(2) The miserable controversies about Origen produced an uneasy suspicion that secular study was prejudicial to orthodoxy. It is perhaps to this latter influence that we may attribute two ecclesiastical canons of unknown date and origin. In the "Apostolical Constitutions" (I 6.) we read, "Abstain from all heathen books. For what hast thou to do with such foreign discourses, or laws, or false prophets, which subvert the faith of the unstable? For what defect dost thou find in the law of God, that thou shouldest have recourse to those heathenish fables?" etc., etc. Again in a collection of canons, which is sometimes assigned to a synod at Carthage (A.D. 398), the 16th canon in the collection runs thus: "Abishop shall read no heathen books, and heretical books only when necessary." The Carthaginian synod of 398 is a fiction, and some of the canons in the collection deal with controversies of a much later date: but we need not doubt that all the canons were enacted in some Church or other in the course of the first six centuries. The spirit of this one is very much in harmony with the known tendencies of the sixth century; and we find Gregory the Great (A.D. 544-604) making precisely the same regulation. He forbade bishops to study heathen literature, and in one of his letters ("Epp.," 9:48) he rebukes Desiderius, Bishop of Vienne, for giving his clergy instruction in grammar, which involved the reading of the heathen poets. "The praises of Christ do not admit of being joined in the same mouth with the praises of Jupiter; and it is a grave and execrable thing for bishops to sing what even for a religious layman is unbecoming." The story that he purposely burnt the Palatine library is not traced earlier than the twelfth century, and is probably untrue; but it indicates the traditional belief respecting his attitude towards classical literature. And it is certainly true that he was twice in Constantinople, and on the second occasion remained there three years (A.D. 579-582), and yet never learnt Greek. In his time, as we learn both from himself and his contemporary, Gregory of Tours, the belief was very prevalent that the end of the world was at hand; and it was argued that mankind had more serious things to attend to than the study of pagan literature - or indeed any literature that was not connected with the Scriptures or the Church. Henceforward, in the words of Gregory of Tours, "the study of literature perished": and, although there were some bright spots at Jarrow and elsewhere, yet on the whole the chief services which Christianity rendered to classical learning during the next few centuries, were the preservation of classical authors in the libraries of monasteries and the preservation of the classical languages in the liturgies of the Church.
The question will perhaps never cease to be argued, although it is hardly probable that so extreme a view as that of Gregory the Great will ever again become prevalent. Let us take a statement of the question from the utterances of one who will not be suspected of want of capacity or experience in the matter, or of want of sympathy with stern and serious views respecting education and life.
"Some one will say to me perhaps," wrote John Henry Newman in 1859, "our youth shall not be corrupted. We will dispense with all general or national literature whatever, if it be so exceptional; we will have a Christian Literature of our own, as pure, as true as the Jewish." You cannot have it. From the nature of the Case, if Literature is to be made a study of human nature, you cannot have a Christian Literature. It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless Literature of sinful man. You may gather together something very great and high, something higher than any literature ever was; and when you have done so, you will find that it is not Literature at all. You will simply have left the delineation of man, as such, and have substituted for it, as far as you have had anything to substitute, that of man, as he is or might be, under certain special advantages. Give up the study of man, as such, if so it must be; but say you do so. Do not say you are studying him, his history, his mind, and his heart, when you are studying something else. Man is a being of genius, passion, intellect, conscience, power. He exercises his great gifts in various ways, in great deeds, in great thoughts, in heroic acts, in hateful crimes. Literature records them all to the life
"We should be shrinking from a plain duty, did we leave out Literature from Education. For why do we educate except to prepare for the world? Why do we cultivate the intellect of the many beyond the first elements of knowledge, except to fit men of the world for the world? We cannot possibly keep them from plunging into the world, with all its ways and principles and maxims, when their time comes; but we can prepare them against what is inevitable; and it is not the way to learn, to swim in troubled waters, never to have gone into them. Proscribe (I do not say particular authors, particular works, particular passages) but secular literature as such: cut out from your class books all broad manifestations of the natural man; and those manifestations are waiting for your pupil’s benefit, at the very doors of your lecture room in living and breathing substance. They will meet him there in all the charm of novelty, and all the fascination of genius or of amiableness. Today a pupil, tomorrow a member of the great world: today confined to the Lives of the Saints, tomorrow thrown upon Babel; - thrown on Babel, without the honest indulgence of wit and humor and imagination ever permitted to him, without any fastidiousness of taste wrought into him, without any rule given him for discriminating ‘the precious from the vile,’ beauty from sin, the truth from the sophistry of nature, what is innocent from what is poison."
Many Christians are apt to forget that all truth is of God; and that every one who in an earnest spirit endeavors to ascertain and to teach what is true in any department of human knowledge, is doing God’s work. The Spirit, we are promised by Christ Himself, "shall lead you into all the Truth," and "the Truth shall make you free." Our business is to see that nothing claims the name of truth unlawfully. It is not our business to prohibit anything that can make good its claim to be accounted true.
Those who enjoy large opportunities of study, and especially those who have the responsibility not only of learning, but of teaching, must beware of setting their own narrow limits to the domain of what is useful and true. It has a far wider range than the wants which we feel in ourselves or which we can trace in others. Even the whole experience of mankind would not suffice to give he measure of it. We dishonor rather than reverence the Bible, when we attempt to confine ourselves and others to the study of it. Much of its secret and inexhaustible store of treasure will remain undiscovered by us, until our hearts are warmed, our intellects quickened, and our experiences enlarged, by the masterpieces of human genius. "To the pure all things are pure." In the first century, in which the perils of heathenism to Christianity were tenfold what they are at present, St. Paul in plain terms told his converts that if they liked to accept the invitations of their heathen friends and acquaintances, they need not scruple to do so; [1 Corinthians 10:27] and by his own example, he shows them that they may enjoy and use what is beautiful and true in heathen literature. Let us beware of narrowing the liberty wisely allowed by him. Each one of us can readily find out what is dangerous for himself. There is plenty that is not dangerous: let him freely enjoy that. But the limits that are wise for ourselves are not to bind others. Their liberty is not to be circumscribed by our conscience. "The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof."