You Can’t Get There From Here! by G. Tyler Fischer
A family vacation gone wrong. Suddenly, they see a gas station. The father swallows, gulping down that last bit of stubborn pride that kept him from getting directions hours ago. Before him sat two old men on squeaky rocking chairs staring off into the pale sunset apparently oblivious to his presence. He inquires, “How do you get to Laramie?” The gray men remain stone-like. One of them, however, squints as if accessing a lost memory bank. The silence continues, as the father’s discomfort grows. Suddenly the ancient sage announces his verdict. “You can’t get there from here!”
This line has been the declaration of many great Christian thinkers. No, they were not traveling from Boise to Laramie or even Moscow. They were speaking of Athens and Jerusalem. One extreme is represented by the second century theologian Tertullian who said, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Basically, he meant that pagans had nothing in their writings of use to Christians. The scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas took the opposite extreme. His synthesis of Christian and pagan thought watered down Christianity and unduly exalted heathen philosophy. Tertullian’s kind end up burning pagan classics and the Aquinas’s of the world so confuse things that Plato and Aristotle have pictures on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. The question remains: Can we find truth in pagan writers and if so, how can we reclaim it?
Thankfully, Scripture has given us a starting point. Daniel was trained at the best Babylonian schools. He learned their wisdom (and became a great statesman in part because of it). When the time came, however, he would not compromise righteousness when threatened with the lion’s den. At Mars Hill, Paul chose to quote Greek poets. This shows that they did see some truth even though they denied the God that is Truth.
Understanding God’s common grace will help us to see how this could be possible. Pagan writers understand great truths. Foolishly, they believe that they have figured these things out on their own. Unbeknownst to them, however, our God revealed these truths to them. Of this work of God, Calvin said, “But if the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like disciplines, by the work and the ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance.” Common grace does not save pagans, nor earn them places on the Sistine Chapel’s roof. It does, however, explain how nonbelievers often have great skills and understanding.
This is especially true in literature. We want our children reading excellent books. This means that they will traverse Bunyan and C. S. Lewis, but it also means they will peruse Homer and Twain. These men were gifted writers with skills that outstripped many of their Christian counterparts. This talent given to them by God was not destroyed by their unbelief (although they are more culpable for their godlessness because of God’s extraordinary goodness toward them).
As our children go through these books, we must be watchful guides. Teachers, especially those in the lower grades, will need to carefully show students where an author’s views of presuppositions depart from the Christian faith. This does not mean that parents are without responsibility, however. There are some areas where the school purposefully does not take a stand. On things like baptism, the age of the earth, and the existence of dinosaurs, Evangelical Christians have not historically agreed. These issues, however, remain important. Parents must be ready to give their children instruction in these areas. To do this, parents must carefully watch what their children read.
Christians can appreciate and learn from the truth that God shows to pagans. We must not, however, accept it uncritically. We must protect our children, but not by keeping them from ever being exposed to any non-Christian writers. Instead, we must protect them by teaching them how to defeat and plunder the enemy. t we fail to do so we impoverish them, and leave them defenseless.
G. Tyler Fischer is the Headmaster at Veritas Academy in Lancaster, PA. His article was originally published in Verbum, the newsletter of Veritas Academy, and is copied by permission.