Catherine asked me to address you all today on the topic of studying ancient cultures which is no small task and I will say upfront that there are a number of answers to this question which I will probably not even touch. The question is broad; but before I begin, let me say that I’m answering this question with two things in mind: 1.) that this is an objection that might be raised by a well-meaning Christian who thinks the Bible and a little American history are sufficient curriculum for a young believer. 2.) That the definition of “ancient” encompasses pre-Christian societies such as Greece and Rome.
The first reason we study the ancients is that the Bible is not the complete source of all Truth. I think that Christians are often prone to making the mistake that when it comes to questions of theology, philosophy, ethics, or anything you might study which isn’t related to our narrow definitions of math and science, the Bible is the starting and finishing place. What I’d like to suggest is that while we hold the Bible to be completely true, it is not the only source of Truth. We have the great privilege of special revelation through Jesus Christ and the Scriptures. But there is another path toward God, what we call natural revelation-that which can be discerned by examining nature and by virtue of being created in the Image of God. Because this is what the ancients relied on solely, they became awfully good at discerning Truth without having any special knowledge of what, or more specifically, who Truth was. Using the Light of Reason alone, the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and other Pagans bequeathed to us a lively tradition of literature which explores the Truths of God, Humanity, Nature and so on.
For instance, let us consider Virgil. He was born some seventy years before Christ and is considered the foremost poet of Ancient Rome. Writing one of Western Civilization’s five great epic poems will earn you that distinction. But though he would be rightly famous for the Aeneid’s composition, it is another of his works, the Eclogues to which I’d like to direct your attention. In the 4th eclogue, Virgil discusses a boy who will usher in a golden age of peace; an age marked by lions who will no longer attack herds of sheep; a boy who would take away the world’s guilt; a boy who converses with the gods. Many of the church’s theologians regarded Virgil’s words as prophetic of Jesus’ coming-and indeed, the words of the poem certainly hearken back to the prophecy of Isaiah. It is for this reason that Dante chose Virgil as his guide through Hell and Purgatory. With that in mind, it seems reasonable to believe that we ought to examine Virgil’s other works for wisdom. That is why our 10th graders read the Aeneid.
It shouldn’t surprise us that an ancient pagan has things to teach Christians. Not only are they guided by reason, but if we accept the biblical account, we are all descendants of Noah. It is not long after the flood waters recede that men decided to build a tower that would reach to the heavens. It was here that men were scattered and their languages confused. Yet, while confused, would they not have carried with them the same oral tradition as those who were dispersed in another direction? The oral tradition which would have featured the Creation of God, the Judgement of God, and the Mercy of God? And so it is that cultures the world around are infused with elements of Truth that shine through the musings of their philosophers and poets.
Now, I briefly summarized the contents of Virgil’s eclogue as a way of showing the Messianic character of some pre-Christian writing. One might object though, it sounds like passages in the Bible already-why do we need to add anything? Well what about virtues that are latent in Scripture which are more fully expounded in other literature?
One such virtue, which repeatedly leaps off the pages of Homer’s Odyssey, continually inspires conversation and questions among my Great Books students. It is the virtue of Xenia-that is Hospitality. In the Odyssey it is not uncommon to read about a guest arriving at someone’s home and being offered dinner, entertainment, lodging, various gifts, and ultimately, conveyance to their next location. In some cases, this is done without even asking for the name of the recipient. Why is such grace extended? Overall, it seems that levels of mutual trust were much higher. This leads naturally to a conversation on what has eroded trust. The overarching answer to this question is “fear”. Whereas the Homeric characters are seen welcoming the stranger into their midst (with several notable exceptions) the modern American Christian shies away from the unfamiliar on the off chance they may encounter a serial murderer or rapist.
In the time the Odyssey was written, extending hospitality was not only expected by Zeus and the travelling stranger, but it was an opportunity for the host to sow goodwill. In an age where hotels were not as prevalent as they are today, any sort of trip required dependence on hospitality. Under this system, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where the pilgrim would be refused since the host would count on the reciprocation of his kindness at a later time. It is equally difficult to see why the guest would commit a crime knowing that he would not be welcomed on future trips, thus prohibiting said trips. I don’t think I have to spell out for you the modern political issues that Homer is addressing-and I won’t since I have no desire for half the room to hate me when I’m finished speaking.
But I think Christians would do well to learn from the unfettered hospitality of the Ancient Greeks. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews echoes the sentiments of Homer when he writes“be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” This is certainly a broad call to a more hospitable existence, but it is nowhere near as well fleshed our as the Odyssey. And so, I reiterate, the Bible is completely true, but by far, not the only source of Truth and that is a central reason we read and study ancient cultures and literature.
A second reason I would like to posit is because the New Testament, particularly St. Paul’s letters, use the language of Plato and Aristotle. If Platonism and Aristotelianism undergird the writings of Paul, we should certainly be familiar with their ramifications for doing theology. And again, this should not surprise us, remember, what we sometimes refer to as “books of the New Testament” are mostly letters to specific regions-many of them, Corinth for example, in Greece, the place where Plato and Aristotle would be widely accepted and where, if St. Paul wanted to make an impact, he would have to speak “Greek”. One of the initial places we can see this is in the first letter to the Corinithians. “Since by man came death by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die,even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” Paul, on first blush, denies the existence of the will and its corollary doctrine of Hell. Christ’s coming has made everyone alive whether they want to be or not. But this seeming difficulty is very easy to resolve if you understand Paul is speaking Plato. One of the integral themes in Platonic writing is the existence of Forms. The shortest way to summarize what these are is to consider beauty. Mountains and oceans may both be said to be beautiful even though they are obviously different. They are beautiful according to Plato, because they reflect or participate in a universal form of Beauty. Why does this matter for Theology? When Paul writes to the Corinthians-he uses humanity as a universal. As all of humanity is corrupted by the Fall of Adam, so too all of it is restored by the Perfect and True Form of Humanity-namely Christ. This is not universalism in the sense that all men are automatically going to heaven-but it rules out any notion that Christ’s death and resurrection are not sufficient for all-precisely because we are all linked together by the universal of humanity.
Paul also uses Aristotle. Aristotle is famous for talking about the “ends” of things. The most familiar example is that of the acorn. Built into the Acorn is the potential for an oak tree. It is the telos or the purpose of the acorn’s existence. Aristotle would jump from that to discussing humanity. We too have an end or purpose toward which we are striving. Paul latches on to this idea and language in his Epistle to the Ephesians. “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.”
What he means is that man has a telos, an end, or a purpose. Our destiny is comformity to the image of God and adoption into the family of Jesus Christ-that is our final Cause, our end. The predestination Paul speaks of is sometimes mis-interpreted to mean the inclusion of some and rejection of others-as some being chosen and others not. It would make sense if you didn’t see the Aristotelian language to interpret it this way. But knowing that Paul is aping Aristotle, we conclude that predestination has more to do with the end for which we were created than it does with God picking favorites
In all, we study the Ancients to better know Christ, to better understand how we ought to live, and finally, to better comprehend theology. Knowing this, the Scriptures are sufficient for our salvation, but superbly supplemented by other sources and traditions.