For my write-up today on The Cambridge History of Christianity: Constantine to c. 600, I’ll quote or refer to passages from Brownen Neil’s “Towards defining a Christian culture: The Christian transformation of classical literature”. These passages pertain to the question of whether Christians should draw from extra-biblical sources, such as philosophy, or if they should treat the Bible (or the teachings of their religion) as sufficient in terms of guiding them on what life and the world are like.
Page 321: Julian in Against the Galileans 229C (Burr’s translation) says, “If it is enough for you to read your own Scriptures, why do you sample the reading of the Hellenes?”
Page 322: Jerome said, “O Lord, if ever I possess or read secular writings, I have denied thee.”
On pages 328-329, Brownen talks about how certain early Christians drew from the insights of philosophy, while also holding to their beliefs about what the Scriptures teach. For example, John Chrysostom told a man who lost his brother to bear the death with equanimity and to remember the virtue of the departed, advice which coincides with Stoicism. But Chrysostom departs from Stoicism in his belief that death is not the end because there is immortal life, and so the one who lost his brother should rejoice and remember that virtuous and godliness lead to immortality. Similarly, Theodore of Cyrrhus “emphasises the Christian viewpoint, while at the same time insisting on philosophical reasoning as the correct antidote to sorrow in bereavement.”
Page 331: In Graecarum affectionum curatio, “Theodoret sought to discredit the writings of Greek philosophers…by comparing them with scripture passages on the same subject. By this means he offered a caricature of Greek learning’s inconsistencies as opposed to the ‘quiet certainty of revelation’. His position was ‘faith before knowledge’.”
Should Christians draw from secular sources as they seek insight on how to live, or should they stick with the Bible alone, viewing the Bible as sufficient?
I remember when I was interviewing to be in the Honor Scholars’ program at DePauw University. A professor and another student had read my application essays, which were very pro-Christianity. The professor’s first question to me was: “If you already know all the answers on account of your faith, why do you need to learn, or read anything outside of the Bible?” I answered something, since I was pretty glib at coming up with answers back then, a talent that I don’t have to the same extent in my confused adulthood. But, notwithstanding my outward confidence in the meeting, the professor’s question still perplexed me.
During dinner-time that night, when I asked my Dad why a Christian should read other things besides the Bible, he replied that the Bible tells us to love our neighbors, but how to do so is really complicated. Consequently, one can gather from extra-biblical insights and the realm of real life ways to love one’s neighbor. I agree with this sentiment. From real life and from books, one can learn about the complexities of what makes people tick, and that can enable us to understand ourselves and others, and to love ourselves and others.
The thing is, there are so many ideas about what we should do, and so I can identify with Theodoret’s yearning for “the quiet certainty of revelation”. There’s something attractive about the certainty of religious people, including the authors of the Bible: Here is the way, so walk in it! But is the certainty an illusion? After all, religious people, including the authors of the Bible, have diverse (even contradictory) ideas about what to do in life.