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Common Grace and Theological Scholarship

Resident Faculty, Dennis E. Johnson   |   July 27, 2010   |  Type: Articles

Titus 1:5-16

Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. (Titus 1:12-13)

These verses illustrate in a vivid way a tension that we constantly confront as we study biblical interpretation, theology, church history, preaching, counseling, administration, or any other subject: Can non-Christians make true observations and statements? Can Christians learn aspects of truth from non-Christians? Should students who believe in the inspiration of Scripture be expected to read the works of biblical scholars who reject the Bible's divine origin and authority? Should students who want to address people's personal problems with a biblical counseling method be open to the possibility of learning something from medical science or from secular psychology? Should students who want to follow God's pattern and method for the government and growth of his church even consider what sociologists and teachers of management have said about the ways in which human beings often interact with each other in groups?

Reasons To Distrust Non-Christian Scholarship

Several foundational convictions may incline us to give a quick and confident “No” to all these questions:

The Sufficiency of Scripture

Since the Bible is our only infallible rule for our faith and life, we may be inclined to conclude that to listen to sociology or psychology or astronomy or ancient history or archaeology or philosophy would be to challenge the authority of the Word of God. Then again, on further reflection we realize that the Bible itself speaks of God speaking through the created world and not exclusively in the Scriptures themselves. There is such a thing as general revelation. We also realize that it is not a compromise of the sufficiency of Scripture if we at least pay attention to the vocabulary and syntax of non-biblical Greek literature as we try to read and understand the New Testament. And we know that descriptions of the Greek nominative case and its uses will not differ greatly from each other, whether we read them in a secular Greek grammar or in J. Gresham Machen's New Testament Greek for Beginners. To (discerningly!) use resources outside the Bible in order to understand the Bible's message is not in itself a compromise of the Bible's authority over our thoughts and actions.

Reformed Theology and Presuppositional Apologetics

We may be tempted to suspicion regarding ideas and information from non-Christian sources because of what we have learned from John Calvin about the radical intellectual effects of sin, and what we have learned from Cornelius Van Til about the radical antithesis between the foundational assumptions of Christian and non-Christian thought.

- Total Depravity
Sin has damaged our ability to gain true knowledge about ourselves, the universe, and God. Humanity's disobedience in Adam has affected every aspect of our personality, including our ability to think. We have no unfallen and neutral reason that can objectively process the evidence that God presents through general and special revelation. This leads us to recognize that no one thinks about God or the world from a standpoint of neutrality.

- The Absence of Neutrality
Apart from the Holy Spirit's regenerating work, we will, as human beings, naturally use our intellectual resources to evade and push from our consciousness the reality of God's existence and our guilt. Our thinking, learning, and knowing are bound to be colored by our relation to God the creator, whether a person is in rebellion against God or reconciled to God.

- The Influence of Presuppositions on Methods and Conclusions
We recognize that what people see, the facts people notice and consider important, and the ways they connect those facts, are all influenced by prior commitments and deep-seated beliefs. If someone who denies the God of the Bible makes a statement about what is true, that statement is part of the person's larger system or worldview, which is rooted in Satan's great lie. How, then, could such a statement have a shred of truth in it? Or how could any method that has arisen in non-Christian circles have a shred of validity to it?

Personal Discomfort

This is not a foundational conviction, but it is a factor that may motivate us more than we realize, inclining us to avoid intense mental interaction with the work of non-Christian scholars. But here we need to honestly sort out the reason or reasons for our discomfort.

On the one hand, we find ourselves righteously repulsed by contact with a sinful, unbelieving mindset. If we do, we are in good company: “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16).

On the other hand, we may find ourselves unsettled by our own personal inability to refute the specific arguments of intelligent unbelievers. This too is nothing to be ashamed of, but it can lead to unhealthy reactions. You might be tempted to confuse your ability to refute unbelief with trustworthiness of the Word of God itself, so that your faith is shaken. Rather than being driven back to the Word and to the writings of others who have joined intellectual battle with the attackers who are troubling you, you may be tempted to doubt. If this is what reading the works of unbelieving critics does to you, it may be a signal that you have slipped into a form of self-trust, rather than trusting in God and his Word.

Or, when you can't immediately answer a critic, you may take refuge in a single foundational truth as an all-purpose defense: “Since all non-Christian thought is polluted at the spring by unbelieving presuppositions, this truth releases me from all responsibility to deal with the specifics of the observations and arguments that non-Christian scholars have made.” This is a relatively easy way out: “Non--Christians hate God anyway; why should I dignify their views by reading them, thinking about them, or answering them in specific detail?”

Reasons to Take Non-Christian Scholarship Seriously

But if we take the path of withdrawal, we are failing in our role as servants of Christ and protectors of his people. We fail in two ways:

Our Apologetic Duty to Understand the Opposition

We diminish our usefulness in refuting those who oppose sound doctrine, a responsibility enjoined upon elders in our text (verse 9). Paul's example can instruct us. Although he did not argue as a Greek philosopher, he certainly was not ignorant of Greek philosophy, nor of the theologies of his opponents at Corinth or Colossae or Galatia. Like Paul, we are called to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and to take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). To do that, we must know the arguments, the arsenal, of the enemies.

Common Grace and Human Inconsistency

But I want to focus our attention this morning on the second danger in withdrawing from interaction with the secular or unbelieving thought-world. If we justify our withdrawal by appeal to the doctrine of total depravity and the insights of presuppositionalism, we have failed to see an aspect of the truth that Paul and the other Spirit-controlled writers of the Bible have seen and have shown to us.

How can Paul quote a pagan prophet in Titus and then pronounce, “This testimony is true”? How can he quote the Greek poet Aratus on Mars Hill, “We are his offspring,” as part of Paul's own argument against idolatry (Acts 17:28)? How can he quote the Greek playwright Menander, “Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Cor 15:33)? How can Solomon and the other authors of Proverbs place in Scripture certain maxims that have parallels in the wisdom sayings of Mesopotamia and Egypt? How can Paul appeal to the pagan standards of family ethics to indict an incestuous couple in the Corinthian church, stating that such immorality would not be tolerated among unbelievers (I Cor. 5:1)?

The answer is found in the corresponding truths of God's common grace and of human inconsistency. God's common grace not only bestows rainfall and sunshine on the rebel as well as the righteous. Common grace is also demonstrated when, in his forbearance and kindness, God holds sinful humans back from expressing consistently their hatred of God, his world, each other, and the truth.

Apart from the Spirit's regenerating work, our father is the devil, who was a murderer from the beginning. Were it not for the restraining power of God's common grace, we would so consistently follow the nature of our father the devil that we would destroy the human race in a generation. Our father the devil is also a liar, and fallen humanity “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25). But even the children of the father of lies don't speak lies in every sentence they utter; and this is because common grace also functions in the area of our intellectual activities. As Van Til has pointed out, if non-Christians were consistent with their own starting point and worldview, they would deny the possibility of knowing anything. But, God has kept rebellious sinners back from the deadly brink of that foolish consistency.

Epimenides of Cnossus in northern Crete, a pagan “prophet” (as the Greeks called him) (1), could make a true observation about the character of his countrymen – even as he called all Cretans liars. No doubt the irony of this was not lost on Paul. William Hendriksen in his commentary mentions someone who has tried to accuse Paul of self-contradiction here by arguing as follows:

A Cretan, Epimenides, said that Cretans always lie. He must therefore himself have lied when he said this. Therefore it is not true that Cretans always lie. (2)

But, as Hendriksen shows, this is simply playing with words. Six centuries before Paul wrote to Titus, Epimenides had summed up the deceitful character for which the people of Crete were generally known in the ancient world. The verb cretizo meant to lie, cheat and deceive. (3) But that did not mean that a citizen of Crete was incapable of speaking a truth.

Paul says that Epimenides got it right when he called his countrymen “liars, brutes, and gluttons.” The enemies of the gospel on Crete fit that description to a “T.” They are liars, for Paul says in verses 10- 11 that they are deceivers who ruin households by teaching things they ought not to teach. They are brutes, for they are rebellious, insubmissive, out of control (v. 10). And they are gluttons, for their teaching activity is motivated by a thirst for dishonest gain (v. 11). They need rebuke and they need repentance, if they are ever to submit to the truth of the Gospel and actually come to know the God whom they claim to know (v. 16).

What do we learn from Paul's example in quoting Epimenides, Aratus, and Menander? John Calvin comments on this verse:

From this passage we may gather that it is superstitious to refuse to make any use of secular authors. For since all truth is of God, if any ungodly man has said anything true, we should not reject it, for it also has come from God. (4)

You see how careful Calvin is to follow what Scripture says. If Paul, under the inspiration of the Spirit, says that the testimony "All Cretans are liars" is true, then certainly it is true. And the fact that a pagan "prophet" said that sentence first does not make it false. Calvin does not take the doctrine of total depravity in isolation from other biblical truths, and then reason from that one doctrine that because Epimenides was an unregenerate person, everything Epimenides said must be false. Calvin has learned from the teaching of Scripture and from the example of Paul the apostle that God in his common grace restrains even those who deny him from that utterly foolish consistency that would make thought itself impossible.

Or, to take another example, Joseph Addison, who wrote the words that we sang a few minutes ago, was a Deist. But Addison's serious theological error does not mean that we sing a lie when we say: “The unwearied sun, from day to day, does his Creator's power display.” (5)

In a similar vein, Van Til says in his booklet Common Grace and Witness-Bearing:

Christians and non-Christians... are together confronted with the natural revelation of God are all of them together, made in the image of God… they have in them the ineradicable sense of deity so that God speaks to them by means of their own constitution... all men have to think according to the rules of logic according to which alone the human mind can function... all men can weigh and make many scientific discoveries. All these things are true and important to maintain. (6)

Now, Van Til goes on to point out, however, that these common resources and methods available to Christian and non-Christian alike must not obscure for us the radical presuppositional opposition between the two worldviews, the two systems or frameworks in which "the facts" are placed. The non-Christian assumes that the facts of this world come from chance. The Christian presupposes that the facts of this world are created and controlled by God. (7)

Extremes to Avoid

Undiscerning Consumption

Van Til shows us the balance that we need. Surely to take Calvin's observation and turn it into a slogan, "All truth is God's truth," and then to forget what Calvin and Van Til and (far more importantly) Scripture say about the deceitful effect of sin in human life will leave us open to an undiscerning consumption of anti-biblical academic methods and conclusions. We have to evaluate every method, every observation, and every conclusion in terms of the foundational worldview, the interpretive framework in which it is presented to us. Is that presuppositional starting point an expression of faith and submission to the God of truth, or of rebellion against him?

Proud isolation

But we cannot, on the other hand, fall into a sort of Christian solipsism in which we refuse to examine alternative explanations and observations brought by people outside the faith. By his grace – and only by his grace – God has given believers a correct presupposition about the foundational issue: the facts of this world are created and controlled by God. But that does not guarantee that we automatically see every aspect of God's truth, in general revelation or in special revelation, with absolute clarity. Sanctification is progressive, not immediately complete at the moment of our conversion. And this applies to the sanctification of our thoughts and understanding, as well as our motives and behavior. You don't know everything yet, and neither do I. You don't understand God's Word (or his world) perfectly and completely, and neither do I. That fact summons us both to humility. In fact, it even calls us to a humility that is ready to hear truth, whoever may speak it. If Paul can call immoral Corinthian Christians to repentance by referring them to pagans' ethical standards, who are we to think that we have nothing to learn from God through the things that he, in his common grace, has allowed unbelieving scholars and thinkers to discover?

Discernment: Dangerous and Difficult Labor

You realize, of course, that this makes our study of theology less outwardly secure. We cannot simply compile a list of "safe" authors, stamp them with the Reformed equivalent of imprimatur or nihil obstat, and then confine our reading to them. We must do the hard work of exercising discernment – sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, argument by argument. Facts, insights, perspectives, and methods must all be tested in the light of the principles of Scripture. And we must keep alive our consciousness of dependence on Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Our safety is not in avoiding the ideas of the unbelieving world; our safety is in union with Christ, who transforms the mind of those who trust in him.

There is hard work to be done in sorting and sifting the teachings of other humans, especially when we realize that we cannot simply cubbyhole the unpleasant or challenging ideas away and ignore them. But this hard work, like other exercise, gives us the necessary muscle tone to serve and lead God's people. "Solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil" (Heb. 5:14).


1 Plato called Epimenides "a divinely inspired man" (Laws 1.642 D, E). John Calvin comments that the Greeks regarded their poets as "seers" or prophets, suggesting that Paul uses "prophet" in this sense – a spokesman for the gods (The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians and the Epistles to Timothy, Titus and Philemon [trans. T. A. Smail; edd. D. W. Torrance and T. F. Torrance], Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1964; p. 363). Others refer to Caiaphas' prophecy in John 11:51, but this is tied in to Caiaphas' theocratic office as high priest so the parallel is not exact. [back to text]
2 William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles (New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids; Baker, 1957), p. 354. [back to text]
3 J. N. D. Kelly, A Commentary on the Pastoral Epist1es: Timothy I & II, Titus (Harper's New Testament Commentaries). San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1960, p. 235. [back to text]
4Calvin, Commentary pp. 363-64. [back to text]
5 Joseph Addison, “The Spacious Firmament on High,” 1712 (Trinity Hymnal #103). [back to text]
6 Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and Witness--Bearing (Phillipsburg: Grotenhuis, n.d.), p. 24. [back to text]
7 Van Til, Common Grace, pp. 24-25. [back to text]

Dennis E. Johnson is Professor of Practical Theology and Academic Dean at Westminster Seminary California. This meditation was first delivered in the seminary's Morning Devotions on April 16, 1991.

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