In our education, let us plunder the Egyptians

posted in: classical | 1

Returning to the great debate which is nothing new at all, but a significant part of the Great Conversation: What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?

No, Tertullian, who asked that famous question, is not featured in The Great Tradition, for the Great Tradition itself thoroughly answered his question to the satisfaction of those who moved education forward.

If you’re interested in more of the historical backdrop as well as significance of the conversion of Greek philosophy into the medieval period (which was not without its blunders and errors, certainly – however, we in the modern period can hardly throw stones; at least they believed truth existed and wanted to know it), I recommend John Mark Reynold’s When Athens Met Jerusalem.

The famous response to the famous question is that we are to plunder the Egyptians. Augustine used this metaphor himself when speaking of philosophy and education, but the first to make the comparison was Origen (c. 185-250).

Origen held many unorthodox views and was condemned as a heretic, yet his contribution to the conversation on education has been kept – even, as mentioned, adopted and expanded by Augustine.

The Greeks Do Bear Gifts

I wish to ask you to extract from the philosophy of the Greeks what may serve as a course of study or a preparation for Christianity.

Origen clarifies what these studies include: geometry, music, astronomy, grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy itself. After all, what is philosophy? Wisdom-love.

He likens this to the Israelites asking of the Egyptians – and being given – gifts of gold and other valuables before they left captivity. God caused the Egyptians to give up their riches to furnish the Israelite’s future nation. What became of the gold?

Some was turned into the golden calf and worshiped instead of God. This is abominable, but possible. If the philosophy of the Greeks corresponds to the Egyptian’s gold, we must beware lest we use it to create idols and false doctrine.

However, the gifts of the Egyptians most likely also supplied the gifts the Israelites gave for the creation of the Tabernacle and the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant and the priests’ garments.

How useful to the children of Israel were the things brought from Egypt, which the Egyptians had not put to a proper use, but which the Hebrews, guided by the wisdom of God, used for God’s service?

Just so, we should take the Greeks’ gifts and turn them to their proper use: service of God and love of true wisdom.

Do you then, my son, diligently apply yourself to the reading of the sacred Scripture.

If we are to wisely and properly use the gold of the Greeks – their philosophy and knowledge – we can only do so when saturated in Scripture, when Scripture is our rule for faith and practice.

…be ever increasing your inheritance…

Then The Great Tradition includes a funeral speech given in honor of Origen from one of his pupils, who expounds on how Origen taught them virtue by being and becoming what he was asking them to be and become – that is, he was not above them in a perfected state, but always seeking that which he hoped they too would seek: virtue and wisdom.

So should we be, as well, increasing our cultural inheritance and passing it on to our children with love and joy.


Get more great quotes & recommendations at ladydusk’s Wednesday with Words!

My Book Bag

Current stack
  • Thought-Provoking: Beauty in the Word by Stratford Caldecott - school planning time is nearly at hand! Time to make sure of my principles and approach.
  • Light Reading: The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker - this is a pre-David-Allen time management classic I've seen quoted for years and decided to read for myself. After all, what is a homeschool mom but an executive? She's more, but she's not less.
  • Kindle app: Habits of Grace by David Mathis - this qualifies as a light read, too, but I like to keep a theology or Christian living book in the mix
  • Audio: A History of the Medieval World by Susan Wise Bauer & City of God by Augustine
Reading slowly all year, including book club titles:
(Mostly) Daily devotional reading (and listening)
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One Response

  1. Erika
    |

    Thanks for the ESV podcast recommendation. This will help me keep up our breakfast time Bible read aloud even as life gets shaken up with a new baby in a few weeks (or so…). And the OT reading is exactly where we are at, too!