At the risk of greatly oversimplifying things, Christianity has treated pagan antiquity in one of two major ways. On the one hand, the pagan antiquities have a long and noble history of coming in for heavy weather in the realm of Christian thought (think: Tertullian). On the other hand, Augustine, for example, thought of the heritage of pagan antiquity as “Egyptian gold,” something to be appropriated by the Church for its purposes. More recently, C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man elaborates his understanding of the natural law (whose clearest distillation is found in the divine Decalogue, Ex. 20) and its representation within not only the cultural tradition of the West, but also of the manifold cultures of the world. Abolition of Man, in other words, represents something of an apologetic for the Christian use of pagan source material.
Within the cacophony raised by Luther’s screeds against Aristotle and pagan philosophy (which he regarded—rightly—as having been misappropriated by scholastic theology) it is difficult to hear anything but a Tertullian-esque stance. But if you listen more closely, you can discover that the situation on the ground in Wittenberg was much more nuanced. Even as Luther was dropping some of his juicier anti-Aristotle comments, his colleague Philipp Melanchthon was working out a theory for the inclusion of the pagan humanities in the Wittenberg arts/philosophy faculty. His ability to do so was opened up by nothing less than Luther’s coming to clarity, in the early 1520s, on the Scriptural distinction between Law and Gospel. Now, with some qualification, the Law could be seen reflected and taught in antique pagan ethics, literature, and philosophy (so Melanchthon).
But how did this come to be? Melanchthon offers a tradition-theory for the presence of the natural law in the pagan works of the West:
[Homer] says, “Ill deeds do not attain to virtue, and even a slow man catches up with a fast one” [Od. 7.329]—that evil deeds do not lead to success or have a good outcome, and that the wicked man, however fast he may be and however versed in deceit, is nevertheless caught, and even by one who is lame. There is no doubt that this kind of saying was first uttered by the holy fathers [i.e., the patriarchs] and transmitted to posterity. Then they were passed on from one to the other, one could say from hand to hand, and finally extended to the men by whom they were included in these written monuments [the classical heritage], so that, put in an illustrious and perspicuous place, they could be kept in the memory of all posterity and beheld with admiration. [“Preface to Homer,” Kusukawa & Salazar, 43; brackets 1, 3, and 4 added]
Herein Melanchthon supplies at least a partial answer to the question on the minds of many a Wittenberg student who had developed Luther’s venemous attacks on Aristotelianizing scholasticism into a self-chosen educational program that rejected all learning but the theological.
Why does pagan learning matter? Because it evidences God’s providential guardianship of His Law, so that, here on earth and among men, the pagan authors can and in fact do offer no little guidance for a proper life. Indeed, because God has made all His established orders holy by, well, establishing them (that of the Church, of the household, of the state), savvy living within those orders is also a holy thing. And the pagan authors can excellently serve this end. Egyptian gold, indeed.
[Graphic: The Blinding of Paul, epitaph for Veit Winsheim, who delivered “Preface to Homer;” City Church, Wittenberg]