When the people of Israel were thrust out of Egypt in the time of Moses, they took at God’s command some of Egypt’s riches with them. To a Christian observer of the Western Heritage, the phrase “plundering the Egyptians” may have an additional, metaphorical meaning. From Tertullian’s “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” to Clement of Alexandria’s “The way of truth is therefore one. . . . into it, as into a perennial river, streams flow from all sides,” the early church writers ran the gamut of attitudes towards extra-biblical philosophy. Augustine’s use of imagery from the book of Exodus, arguing for a sanctification of pagan philosophy, has prompted enthusiastic battle cries of “Plunder ALL the Egyptians!”
Before we take their stuff, can we make positively certain our use for it is better than theirs? Otherwise, what’s the point? That was Augustine’s very stipulation: He believed that the Christian’s use of reason was meant to be better, more right, more true, than the pagans’. Moreover, the Holy Spirit Himself says plainly in the book of Proverbs that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: a philosophy, that is, a love of wisdom, is false if it is not informed, ruled, and nurtured by the fear of the Lord.
Melted and Purified to Adorn God’s Dwelling Place
Let’s look a little further into the tale of the Israelites’ Egyptian gold. Having gathered the gold in bits and trinkets from neighbors, the Israelites assembled near the mountain God had appointed, where He would give His word to them. They had a bond in blood, that is, a covenant with God: Moses literally threw blood on them as they took an oath of obedience, and Moses as their representative ascended Mount Sinai to hear the Lord speak His will. He heard of God’s plans for the generations to come, for the sabbath and the priesthood, for the sacrifices and the tabernacle–and what plans! Much of the furniture and decor for the tabernacle was to be covered in pure gold: the Egyptian gold. It was to be melted down, purified, and used to adorn the dwelling place of God.
Meanwhile, Israel was worshiping a statue of a cow. Israel had used the gold to build an idol, to which they gave the name of the Lord.
In light of that, let’s jump back to Augustine’s analogy. When we “plunder the Egyptians” by borrowing phrases from Plato or Aristotle, do we unwittingly fall into their error by employing their underlying beliefs about the nature of God, man, and the world as well as their terminology, as the Israelites fell into Egyptian error with their idolatry? Or do we break down their thoughts, refine them, and use them to bring our own thoughts into obedience to the commands of God? When we speak of reason and faith, are they two separate ways to gain two separate spheres of knowledge? Or is the faculty of reason a part of the image of God in man, and fallen, as is the rest of human nature?
The True Philosophers
As Christians, we are to be the true philosophers. We are the ones who are to fear the Lord, who are to love the wisdom that was with God in the beginning and by which he established His creation. We don’t do this by our own power, certainly not—we love because He first loved us—and we understand rightly by His work in powerfully and effectively communicating to us, “savingly enlightening” our minds, in the words of the Westminster divines (Larger Catechism, Q. 67), and speaking to us plainly in Scripture. If we allow anything but the Wisdom of God to stand as our guide, we are surely fools. John M. Frame says,
Scripture presents Christ as “self-attesting.” That is to say, he is Lord. All authority in heaven and on earth is his. He will not submit to man’s standards, to sinful man’s pathetic ideas of what he must be. He speaks for himself.
And he speaks with a voice that is unmistakable, in Scripture, in the world, and in man himself. He is the cosmic Lord in whom all things consist; therefore nothing in all creation can be rightly understood apart from him. His mark is on everything he has made, including ourselves, his creatures, made in his image. “Logic,” “fact” and “value” are what he says they are. They do not validate Christ until he first validates them.*
* For further information on this perspective, feel free to leave a comment or contact Emily in another way—or begin by poking around in the excellent works of Frame and Poythress at the above website. Emily would be delighted to discuss the implications of Christian Presuppositionalism with regard to logic, ethics, natural law, and anything else, but for brevity’s sake has limited the scope of this article.
Let’s look at the truth Augustine expressed in a slightly different way. We have been called out as a new nation, 1 Peter 2 states, and are already sojourners and exiles. We await our inheritance of the New Earth at the final day, and so perhaps are more in the position of Israel before coming into the land of Canaan than that of Israel before leaving Egypt. Still there is knowledge to be gained from the pagan scholars of the world, just as there would be grapes to be harvested from the vineyards that the Canaanites had planted in the promised land—but now the Israelites would be taking dominion over the land and its fruit, to tread its grapes into wine for drink offerings to the Lord, as well as “to gladden the heart of man” as the Psalmist sings (Psalm 104:15).
Using Rationality to Encounter Truth
Now, this may not seem to be much of a difference from the Egyptian gold imagery. The Israelites didn’t use their land perfectly any more than they used their gold perfectly to God’s glory. But this image puts the good things of the pagans into a larger package of Israel’s inheritance from God, rather than having the Israelites as refugees, taking what they can as they are cast out. We have such riches in wisdom, such a vast wealth of knowledge in Christ as our inheritance—including, but not limited to, what unbelievers have helped to make clear by the grace of God.
Christians and pagans alike use rationality to encounter truth, because they are rational creatures: Rationality is part of the framework with which human beings were created to operate as the image of God (Colossians 3:10). The image of God, however, was marred when Adam sinned. Paul writes of humanity, “since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:28, emphasis mine). However, it’s not as though we should therefore forsake rational exercise because of the fall. Our bodies are fallen and susceptible to ills, but we use them because they’re what we have to work with, even if they’re not perfect. We can work to make our bodies less imperfect, as it were, by making healthy lifestyle choices and using knowledge of medicine; it doesn’t make our bodies less fallen, but it mitigates the symptoms of the fundamental flaw. In the same way, human reason is part of the nature we have to work with, and we are commanded throughout Scripture to be obedient to God in our mindset—in repentance, in studying Scripture, and in discipline, taking “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). By training our minds on the Word who was in the beginning with God, who is the Truth, we can see truth more clearly.
So, let’s plunder the Egyptians! Let’s gather Canaanite grapes and make our hearts glad with wine! In and through all of that, let us be lovers of true wisdom, fearing the Lord and taking every thought captive to obey Him.