Non-Christian Literature and God’s Truth

Jesus Christ:  “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.”

Pontius Pilate:  “What is truth?”

The Bible teaches that truth is knowable, that Jesus is the Source and Witness of truth, and that truth is found in the Scriptures.  Yet, it also clearly reveals that other sources can include statements or illustrations of those Biblical truths, and that those other sources can be useful in communicating Biblical truth.

Perhaps one of the clearest statements of this principle came from Augustine of Hippo, who perhaps erred in some other areas but got this one correct:

A person who is a good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature, but rejecting superstitious vanities and deploring and avoiding those who ‘though they knew God did not glorify him as God…’

Some have boiled it down to this:  “All truth is God’s truth” — wherever truth may be found.  But many doubt we should “gather it” (Augustine’s wording) from atheistic / pagan literature.  Such writings would seem to be best avoided — but the Scriptures do not agree.

Paul in Athens

Acts 17:28

For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.

Perhaps few believers know that this contains not one, but two, quotes, nor do they know just how idolatrous these poets were.  The first quote is from Epimenides of Crete, who in Cretica rebuked the people of Crete for building a tomb for Zeus:

They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being.

Paul did not identify this quote, but his Athenian hearers certainly knew it (and Paul was very familiar with this passage from Epimenides).  They knew it referred to Zeus.  Paul used the quote as part of the theme of his message — your knowledge of God is deeply flawed and incomplete.  Some of what you know is true, but you don’t really know Him.

In the second part of the verse, Paul specified that he was quoting a poet, this time Aratus:

From Zeus let us begin; him do we mortals never leave unnamed;
Full of Zeus are all the streets and all the market-places of men;
Full is the sea and the havens thereof;
Always we all have need of Zeus.
For we are also his offspring;

Romans 1:19-20

19 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.
20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

In a centre of idolatry, Paul was saying God had showed them some knowledge of truth, but they did not know that true God.  He used their own literature to illustrate truths from Scripture, truths written in their hearts, and to show that even their own pagan poets knew there must be a God to whom all must answer, to whom all owe their life and existence.

Though pagans were wrong to apply God’s truth to a false god (Zeus), Paul used their writings to illustrate and teach the nature of the true God.  He was not appealing to their poets for truth (he’s obviously NOT teaching the same thing they were teaching) so much as he was using poets to show that God had given knowledge of Himself to every person — and thus, every person is accountable to that true God.

Paul to the Corinthians

I Corinthians 15:33

Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.

Paul quotes from Menander (and/or Euripides):  “Bad company corrupts good character.”  It is as if Paul said, “Even the pagans know — too much time with evil companions will corrupt you.  Why do you tolerate those who deny the resurrection?”  This warning against evil influences is taught repeatedly in Proverbs, but the Holy Spirit chose the wording of pagan poets to communicate it to a Greek audience.

Paul to Titus

Titus 1:12-13

12 One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said, The Cretians are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies.
13 This witness is true. Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith;

I said above that Paul was very familiar with a passage from Epimenides.  Here he cites it again.  This time I’ve put a different line in blue:

They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being.

This time, Paul uses a pagan author to describe the nature of his society.  Again, he is citing a passage which praises Zeus, a false god — but the true statement, about the dishonest and lazy tendencies of the Cretans, serves the purpose of the Holy Spirit, anyway.

Epimenides Paradox

One more (rather fun) point on Titus/Epimenides: this passage is called the Epimenides Paradox.  If the statement was true and Cretans are “always liars,” then Epimenides (a Cretan) was a liar, so his statement wasn’t true — it is self-refuting.  (See here for more, especially the enjoyable quote from Thomas Fowler under the Logical Paradox heading.)

Paul quoted it as a proverbial statement, not an absolute one.  He was too much of a logician to miss its self-refuting nature — instead, he emphasised it, calling him “one of their own” and then emphatically saying, “This witness is true.” 🙂 Paul is having a laugh while making a clear point — the strong tendency in the Cretan culture towards dishonesty and laziness.  It’s not that every Cretan was invariably dishonest or stupid, but that they must be corrected from the pattern of their culture.

By using Epimenides’ statement, and humourously emphasising its self-refuting aspect, Paul (guided by the Spirit) communicated the need to Titus in a very memorable and powerful way, one Titus would never forget.

Some Concluding Thoughts

  1. If we are to think on things that are pure, lovely, etc. (Philippians 4:8), then we should be careful about too much exposure to the corrupt productions of an evil world.
  2. Yet, Paul’s example shows he was knowledgeable in the cultural output of the society in which he lived and ministered, and that he (AND the Holy Spirit) found this helpful in his ministry.
  3. Acts 17:  non-Christian literature / culture can “put legs” to Romans 1:19-20, showing the lost that they believe some Biblical truth already, but need to seek the true God, the One to whom that truth in their hearts is pointing.
  4. I Corinthians 15:  literature / cultural references can provide a thought-provoking way to express Scriptural truth.
  5. Titus 1:  literature can give insight into the way sin most often manifests itself in a particular time and place.
  6. Titus 1:  even idolatrous literature can give opportunities for effective communication.
  7. Scripture has other passages which may be quotes from paganism, and multiple cultural references (for instance, to some rather pagan athletic competitions).

I use quotes and cultural references in my preaching, teaching, and writing.  It doesn’t mean I approve the sources, but rather that these can be effective tools in communicating God’s Scripture-revealed truth.  They are not needed, but since God Himself used quotes and cultural references, they are profitable.  The following from Acts 10 was not talking about literature, but perhaps the underlying principle applies:

Acts 10:15

What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common (unclean).

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
This entry was posted in The Christian and Culture and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Non-Christian Literature and God’s Truth

  1. Boyd Jahnke says:

    Sound thinking, Jon. Thank you. I seldom comment but you should know that through your son, Michael, I often read and profit from your posts. I suspect many others do so as well. Warm regards from Canada.

Comments welcome! (but please check the comment policy)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s