Plundering the Pagans: Reformed Theology and Pagan Authors

Occasionally, I see and hear comments about the relationship between Reformed theology and the pagan world. Some are nervous and hesitant to appreciate non-Christian authors whereas others sometimes express deep appreciation and admiration for those who do not profess the faith but say things that may directly or indirectly help us in our expression of the truth.

For Reformed Catholics, appreciation extends well beyond our Reformed heritage. For our appreciation of the Christian tradition to cease to move beyond our Reformed borders is in fact to cease to be Reformed.[1] But just how far can appreciation extend? Even to pagan sources? Yes, indeed. Natural theology, despite the noetic effects of sin in those inside and outside of the Christian tradition, has yielded many acute and important observations about the world in which we live.  

After Calvin, in the time of Protestant Scholasticism, all sorts of mistakes were made, according to the older scholarship. One such mistake was the rampant Aristotelianism that shackled the purer theology of Calvin and many of his contemporaries. This argument can only be made when one chooses to actually disregard what the primary sources say and also the fact that Aristotelian–like terms were used in the same way by Calvin and his “heirs.”

The Reformation and Post–Reformation scholastic method was not indebted to any one thinker. To be sure, Aristotle (384–322 BCE) was helpful in relation to terms, distinctions, and logic. But the scholastic method was a great deal more than simply learning how to distinguish. Where Aristotle’s terms or distinctions could be used to explicate truth, both the Reformers and their successors made use of Aristotle. In 1554 Girolamo Zanchi lectured on Aristotle’s Physica. He published an edition of the Greek text with an introduction.[2] His own writings evince the type of help Aristotelian categories could offer for explicating the truth.[3] Aristotle has, perhaps more than any other pagan philosopher, impacted the Christian church in significant ways.

Even before the Reformers, the medieval scholastics held to a fourfold schema of causality that is quite obviously Aristotelian. These are:

1)     The efficient cause (causa efficiens).

2)     Material cause (causa materialis).

3)     Formal cause (causa formalis).

4)     Final cause (causa finalis).

In a rather well–known passage in Calvin we see him making use of Aristotelian terminology to clarify his exegetical point on Ephesians 1:4: “The efficient cause is the good pleasure of the will of God; the material cause is Christ; and the final cause is the praise of his grace” (Causa efficiens est beneplacitum voluntatis Dei. Causa materialis est Christus. Causa finalis, laus gratiae).[4] He does mention the “formal cause” later on in Ephesians 1:8. The formal cause is the preaching of the gospel.  

Against the Arminians (i.e., Remonstrants), Roman Catholics, and Socinians, the Reformed aimed to explain, by using the terms above, how God’s foreknowledge, providence, and predestination related to each other. They added to this list the “instrumental cause” (causa instrumentalis). The causa instrumentalis is a subordinate efficient cause. God is the efficient cause of all that happens. But to guard from a fatalistic understanding of salvation and providence, the Reformed claimed that humans were not mere “blocks” (i.e., they did not remain simply passive), but that God involves us in his purposes as causa instrumentalis. The act is ours in believing, according to the instrumental cause, but the power is God’s, according to the efficient cause. Arminian and Roman Catholics not infrequently castigated the Reformed for compromising human freedom. The Aristotelian categories, whereby the causa instrumentalis is a subspecies of the causa efficiens, enabled the Reformed to insist that salvation truly is of the Lord and yet we are willing agents in this salvation. These categories, going back to Aristotle, were helpful in the explication of many theological points that required a sophisticated way to avoid errors.

In another example of a Reformed theologian making use of a pagan source, the Westminster divine, Thomas Goodwin (1600–1680), shows a good acquaintance with a number of pagan philosophers. Aristotle, referred to by John Owen as “the philosopher,”[5] appears to be Goodwin’s favorite heathen philosopher. Almost always, he uses Aristotle positively, principally to reinforce a theological point. For example, Goodwin notes Paul’s use of philosophical speech, which has similarities with Aristotle:

“But if a man have never so good an Eye, if he be in the dark, he can see nothing: therefore the second thing that concurs to Spiritual Knowledge here, is, To give you eyes enlightened; as to give you a new Eye, so to give you a new Light: For Eph. 5:13 it is Light that makes all things manifest: it is a Philosophical speech the Apostle there uses, it agrees with what Aristotle says, ‘Lumen, it is actus perspicui,’ it is that which puts life into colours and acts them.”[6]

Here, Goodwin uses Aristotle as he defends the idea that believers depend upon the Holy Spirit, alluded to in Ephesians 1:18, to understand spiritual things by “enlightening the eyes.”

However, attaining true knowledge belongs to those who possess and enjoy God’s Word. So, regarding the corruption of man’s nature, the Reformed largely insisted that the great philosophers were aware of the universal corruption in humanity and the miseries resulting from our corruption. Pagan analysis of why this is so leaves much to be desired, with many thinking it result from an evil planet or evil angel/being.

Still, the Reformed were prepared to admit that the light of nature still shines in the heathen philosophers. Indeed, Goodwin refers to Seneca as the “highest instance among them for Moral Knowledge that ever was.” Claiming men are moved more by examples than rules, he appeals to Seneca.[7] Moreover, the “highest instance” of the power of the “light of nature” working on a heathen “was Socrates, who suffered for that Truth of God manifested to him.” If Aristotle, Plato, or Seneca, by virtue of the “light of nature,” can help Goodwin make a salient point, he seems to have no hesitation in using their genius, even if they are pagan.

In one other fascinating example of Reformed theologians borrowing from pagans, Herman Witsius, arguing against William Twisse, cites a pagan against Twisse! Against Twisse who said it is better to be damned than not exist, Witsius argues: “I think Sophocles formed a sounder judgment than the very acute Twiss, when he said, ‘Better not to be, than to live miserable.’ And Aeschylus, in Ixion, ‘I think it had been better for that man who suffers intolerable pains never to have been born, than to have existed.’”[8] Witsius is merely arguing that even the Pagans understand the non-existence is better than misery, especially endless torments.

Reformed theologians in Britain and on the Continent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were not afraid to quote pagans. All truth is God’s truth, and certain pagans possessed a certain special endowment of natural knowledge that Christian theologians were happy to make use of them if it enabled them to make a point more forcefully. “Catholicity” then really does have a universal flavour in the writings of Reformed theologians.

Mark Jones (Ph.D., Leiden) has been the minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA), Canada since 2007.

[1] On the relationship of Reformed Catholics to the earlier Christian tradition, see the work of E.P. Meijering, “The Fathers and Calvinist Orthodoxy: Systematic Theology,” vol. 2, in The Reception of the Church Fathers in the West: From the Carolingians to the Maurists, 2 vols. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997).

[2] Aristotelus Physikēs Akroaseōs, Hē Peri archōn: Aristotelis De Naturali… (1554)

[3] The doctrine of absolute predestination stated and asserted. Translated by Augustus Toplady. (New York: George Lindsay, 1811).

[4] Ioannis Caluini Commentarii in omnes Pauli Apostoli epistolas, atque etiam in Epistolam ad Hebraeo (Genevae, 1580), 338.

[5] Owen, A Display of Arminianism in Works, 10:5.

[6] Works, 1:301.

[7] Works, 11:32.

[8] Economy of the Covenants, I.4.XIV