Big Questions

Should a Christian education include pagan literature?

Posted June 22, 2023

by Caleb Gottry

As Christians strive to follow Christ well, many believe in the importance of an education that includes pagan literature.

Across the United States, Christian universities educate their students using pagan literature, including the works of Homer and Virgil or the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. There are 429 Christian-affiliated universities in the United States that offer a major in liberal arts or humanities, according to CollegeBoard’s college search.

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Many Christian liberal arts universities study pagan literature along with the Bible. These universities are dedicated to forming an educated mind in addition to a Christian character.

For example, the Azusa Pacific University mission statement reads, “Azusa Pacific University is an evangelical Christian community of disciples and scholars who seek to advance the work of God in the world through academic excellence in liberal arts and professional programs of higher education that encourage students to develop a Christian perspective of truth and life."

The pairing of pagan literature, most notably of the ancient Greeks and Romans, with educated Christian thought is not uncommon. Early church figures like Augustine and Aquinas referenced Plato and Aristotle many times in their writings. In “Augustine of Hippo,” Saint Augustine writes, “I have read in Plato and Cicero sayings that are wise and very beautiful.”

Paul also lived in the time when early Greek literature was first written. In fact, the apostles were surrounded by polytheistic beliefs, as chronicled in Acts.

David Weeks, dean of the APU Honors College, said a liberal arts education must rely in some way on the work of pagans in order to prepare students for their professional career, where Christians give glory to God with their work.

“Christians don’t operate in an intellectual vacuum,” Weeks said. He used the Pythagorean theorem as an example.

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“Christians cannot say that the Pythagorean theorem is not valid because it was discovered by a pagan,” Weeks said. “That doesn't really make any difference whether it was discovered by a pagan or by a believer. It's either true or it's not true — or valid or not valid are usually the terms you use with theorems — and so I think there are certainly many things that we can learn from the so-­called pagans.”

Jim Hubek, a Christian scholar and occasional preacher acknowledged this sentiment as well.

“God still uses them to accomplish great things, accomplished by mankind that bless all of mankind,” Hubek said. “Cures for diseases, technological aims, the ability to go land on the moon and come back: that's pretty amazing stuff by people who presumably, many of whom were not Christians. Some were, but many weren’t.”

Joey Willis, co-publisher of Koinesúnē and higher education professional, said Christians should discern what claims of pagans are true and what claims go against the Gospel. He said, “Must we throw the baby out with the bath water?”

Pagans certainly have made a historic, studiable impact on the world, but it is also helpful to study pagan beliefs, as seen most significantly in Homer’s representation of the ancient Greek pantheon. The Greeks were always seeking to understand the will of the gods. Weeks said this is a key aspect to wisdom.

“Both Cicero and Augustine suggested that wisdom is really knowledge of things human and divine,” Weeks said. “I like that definition of wisdom — knowledge of things, human and divine — and Christian institutions are those institutions who still believe that you can know something about the divine that is going to impact the way you live your life as well as impact your eternal destiny.”

The APU Honors college works to cultivate moral and intellectual virtue in students. Classes in the Honors college are small and discussion-based. Students read and socratically discuss primary works of great literature from pagans and theologians alike.

Some liberal arts charter schools also have a Socratic approach to learning.

Jamin Metcalf taught at Chandler Prep, a GreatHearts school in Chandler, Arizona. He is a professing Christian, and he believes a liberal arts education is paramount for any student.

The GreatHearts academies, which are for students from Kindergarten to 12th grade, are located in Arizona, Louisiana, Florida and Texas. Their core purpose is “To cultivate the minds and hearts of students through the pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.” Most GreatHearts academies are not religiously associated.

“I think that the very nature of a good liberal education is that it is training people for freedom,” Metcalf said. “That's why we call it liberal. It's a way of preparing a human being for the responsibility of freedom, and that entails wrestling with worldviews that we ourselves don't hold.”

Metcalf also spoke about the importance of studying other cultures and religions to further clarify one’s own beliefs and cultivate empathy.

“We don't expect any of our students to be ancient Greek pagans,” Metcalf said. “And yet, we think that it's very important that they take the works of ancient Greek pagans very seriously, because there's something about stepping into the shoes and seeing through the eyes of someone in a culture or in a religion that is vastly different from yours, that opens up your horizons and expands you as a person. And it helps you to see the blind spots in your own thinking.”

Metcalf also believes a liberal arts education should include the Bible — if not just for the truth it offers, then for the historical background of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Scott Williams, a professor at Texas Christian University and an ancient Greek scholar, put it this way: “The New Testament was certainly written by people who wrote Greek in the Greco-Roman world, and they approach it with a certain mindset and they're influenced by a lot of developments of culture.”

One of the classes Metcalf taught was called “Humane Letters,” a class focused on the study of great books, including Homer and the Bible, and socratically discussing the truths that can be gleaned from the texts.

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Metcalf said, “You can’t make saints by force.” He believes students should have the freedom to explore the truths found in all texts.

“At the end of the day, some of them are wrong and some of them are right, and figuring that out is the great task of education,” Metcalf said. “We don't just learn in order to be pleased by great ideas, but to actually find the truth and to hold to it.”

Williams echoed Metcalf’s sentiment in a separate interview. Unlike APU, TCU does not ask its students to agree to adhere to a Christ-centered education, so many more students of different religious backgrounds study at TCU.

“It's not my job to tell you what to think.” Williams said. “It's my job to teach you how to think. Everybody teaches from their own standpoint, but what I can do is say ‘this is where I come from,’ but I need to be open and let you approach things in your own way.”

Education should include exposure to other cultures and ideas, Williams said. Not only should Christian students be exposed to ancient paganism and other modern religions other than Christianity, but they should also learn something about themselves or their own faith through their studies.

Williams recalls watching Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets play in the NBA Playoffs while fasting for Ramadan. As a Christian, Williams admired Olajuwon’s commitment as a Muslim. He began to think about what he could learn from this act of devotion.

Williams teaches a class at TCU called “The Afterlife of the Classical Greek Tradition,” which explores how Greek antiquity has made an appearance in literature and life, especially in Germany and America post-1945. Williams encouraged his students to wrestle with what they were learning in terms of their own perspective coming into the class.

“You come at the course from wherever you start,” Williams said. “It's neither a prerequisite that you'd be a Christian to be in the course, nor is it a requirement to complete the course.”

Williams went on to say that his goal is to help students live in the modern world as educated and ethical people, Christian or not.

In contrast, Weeks explained how APU implements Christianity in every class. This faith integration takes what students believe to be true as Christians and applies that to their academic discipline.

In the Honors College, Weeks said, students first read the text with a “good-faith effort” to understand what the author is saying and why, then weigh the truths against a Christian worldview.

Weeks quoted “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” by theologian John Calvin, who wrote, “If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver.”

Metcalf views his own continued education in the same way, defining the difference between the Truth of Jesus and the truths of laws and morality.

“I really do deeply believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life,” Metcalf said. “But, I also believe that all truth is under the umbrella of Jesus as the capital T truth.”

Metcalf said that students must explore many views of the world to find the ideas that are true, good, and beautiful, ultimately pointing to the Gospel.

Willis agreed, saying, “Nature, the longing souls of mankind, and every other aspect of the created order are evidence of the divine.

“When someone discovers an aspect of it, why in the world would we try to shut that down rather than celebrate it for what it is: a proclamation of the Gospel.”

Weeks said there is much to learn from being humble and accepting the wisdom pagan literature and philosophy offers. Williams echoed this belief.

“Even within Christianity, there are different belief systems,” Williams said. "Probably the only thing we can agree on is the resurrection and life eternal.” The rest, he said, people should approach with humility.

According to these teachers, professors and leaders, a Christian education greatly benefits from including pagan literature. It provides wisdom and well-roundedness. Some, like Weeks, are more wary about the use of pagan literature in church teaching.

Weeks said only the Bible is necessary, but the inclusion of pagan literature could be helpful in some circumstances.

“I would say it depends a little bit on what it is you're teaching,” Weeks said. “So, for example, if you want to understand why non-believers do not believe, then you probably ought to read what they say. You'll actually gain insight into the world of unbelievers.”

Paul might agree, as his approach to evangelism to pagan culture is found in Acts 17. One example is found in verses 22-23.

“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Paul used a pagan altar as a starting point to explain the nature of the one true God.

Hubek said only the Bible is necessary to Christian teaching in the church, but much of pagan literature does point to God — even ancient Greek philosophers proved there was a logical necessity for a god.

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While a formal Biblical education from the church is paramount for many Christians, the study of pagan literature is important as well to understand the context of Biblical teaching. The pagan influence on the Bible is seen in the Old Testament, too.

In Daniel 4, the longtime pagan king Nebuchadnezzar praises God. Whether Nebuchadnezzar was truly saved or not, his words teach the reader something of the nature of God.

In a similar way, pagan literature can teach the reader about morality and virtue. Hubek compared this idea to Marvel movies teaching people about what it is to be a hero.

“Today's Greek gods and Roman gods are like the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” Hubek said. “The stories that we see in a Marvel movie — they're very similar to the stories of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” and all those men who are heroic, overcoming evil and just flat out bad characters. There's actually some moral lessons that can be learned from those stories.”

Metcalf echoed this sentiment in a separate interview, referencing how Homer can teach the virtue of courage in a similar way to how parables in the Bible teach virtue.

Biblical teaching, as Hubek and Weeks said, is all that is necessary to be a Christian, but a well-rounded education that includes other viewpoints can help further one’s faith.

It is also important to embrace and accept the truths of other viewpoints. If Christians do not, “we render ourselves incapable of seeing what God is doing in and through people because they are not 'one of us,’” Willis said.

The role of paganism in Christian movements throughout history is seen throughout the Bible. Today, the body of Christ is still surrounded by modern paganism or people and religions that do not follow Christ.

The inclusion of different perspectives by teaching pagan literature is paramount to a good education — Christian or otherwise. But, more impactfully, the exploration of pagan thought from a personal Christian viewpoint can help people understand more about their own faith journey and modern paganism around them.