Should We Read the Pagans?

God's common grace says, "Yes."

Should church leaders read works by unbelieving writers? Can anything be gained by this.

It was a question which arose in the fourth century, and for which Basil - the great Cappadocian father - argued in the affirmative.

Alan Jacobs comments on Basil's argument for reading pagan writers: "The pagan writers can, when read in this way, be used even if they cannot strictly speaking be enjoyed - their dependence on false gods and inadequate understandings of human beings must not be ignored or minimized, but rather overcome by the determination to love God and neighbor better through reading them."

Jacobs strikes a blow against the politicization of the humanities by calling for a hermeneutics of love in place of special-interest reading of literature and other texts (A Theology of Reading).

His target is the academic world of literary studies, where every text becomes a tool for advancing a political or moral agenda. Such a hermeneutic, pursued in the name of "justice," violates the tenets of charity by depriving students of the skills of discernment, and unbelieving writers a fair reading of their intentions.

Mr. Jacobs argues that Christians alone have the worldview and community to provide such a consistent hermeneutic; and he believes that, just as politicized academics hope to strike a blow for their peculiar cause by their hermeneutics of injustice, Christians might, especially in their charitable reading of the works of unbelievers, strike a similar blow, albeit small - but expanding - for charity and the Kingdom.

His counsel is simple and valuable: Receive every text as a gift from an image-bearer of God (witting or not), composed under the constraints of common grace, as a resource for advancing the divine economy. Take whatever pollen such flowers may offer, and be nourished, in gratitude to God for His gifts to men, and charity toward the writer, even when you must disagree.

Sound advice, that.


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