Four Approaches to the Study of Ancient Literature

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The purpose of this article is to help Christians to develop their own Biblical approach to evaluating literature. We cannot describe every possible approach, but we will briefly describe three common approaches to the study of classical literature, then we will explain our own distinct approach.

Nobody has appointed us judge over what others think or do, but we do have to judge what we ourselves think and do, and others may be able to use our opinions to help them explore the issues themselves.

1. A Secular-Intellectual Approach
Secular literally means of the generation or age, and refers to temporal and worldly matters to the exclusion of spiritual matters. The idea, or thesis, of a Secular-Intellectual Approach is that everyone should be intimately familiar with the standard collection of classical literature in the Western tradition – a collection often called the Western canon. Canon is a Greek word meaning a measuring line, a standard for measurement, a rule, a basis for judgment.

This Western canon – or standard literature in Western culture – includes such works as those of Homer, Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Shakespeare, Gibbon, and so forth. The Harvard Classics or the Great Books philosophy represents this approach.

Robert M. Hutchins describes this approach in terms of engaging in “the great conversation:”

The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to the present day. . . . No dialogue in any other civilization can compare with that of the West in the number of great works of the mind that have contributed to this dialogue. The goal toward which Western society moves is the Civilization of the Dialogue. . . . The exchange of ideas is held to be the path to the realization of the potentialities of the race. (Robert M. Hutchins, “The Tradition of the West,” published in The Great Conversation: Substance of a Liberal Education, Vol. 1, The Great Books of the Western World [Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952], 1-6)

The idea of “the great conversation” is that Western man is perfecting himself toward an understanding of intellectual truth, moral virtue, and aesthetic beauty, by means of an historical dialogue with his cultural past.

Mortimer Adler describes it this way:

People who scorn the study of the past and its works usually assume that . . . we can learn nothing worthwhile from the past. . . . But, although social and economic arrangements vary with time and place, man remains man. We and the ancients share a common human nature and hence certain common human experiences and problems. . . . The ancient poets speak across the centuries to us, sometimes more directly and vividly than our contemporary writers. And the ancient prophets and philosophers, in dealing with the basic problems of men living together in society, still have something to say to us. . . . Exclusive preference for either the past or the present is a foolish and wasteful form of snobbishness and provinciality [sic]. We must seek what is most worthy in the works of both the past and the present. When we do that, we find that ancient poets, prophets, and philosophers are as much our contemporaries in the world of the mind as the most discerning of present-day writers. Some of the ancient writings speak more directly to our experience and condition than the latest best sellers. (Dr. Mortimer J. Adler, Great Ideas from the Great Books [New York: Washington Square Press, 1961], 127)

This approach highly esteems the traditions of Western civilization. It is humanist in principle because it implicitly measures all things by human standards. We are reminded of Paul’s expression in II Corinthians 10:12, “they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.” Humanism implicitly rejects all absolute standards, and replaces them with man’s ever-changing and progressively evolving standards. Man’s supposed progress leads us ever upward to as close to a god as man can get.

2. A Religious-Devotional Approach
This approach is the opposite, or antithesis, of the Secular-Intellectual Approach. The Religious-Devotional Approach holds to a smaller, more denominational canon consisting of religious and devotional literature, which may include confessions and catechisms, theologies and commentaries, devotional and practical works. The religious tradition or denomination will determine what particular literature is included. Many of those who follow this approach will discourage reading outside of the canon of their own denomination. They tend to withdraw from the secular world into their own private circle. They particularly fear the defilement which can come from reading much worldly literature, particularly the Western canon of classical literature.

William Penn serves as an example of this approach.

Have but few books, but let them be well chosen and well read, whether of religious or civil subjects. . . . Shun fantastic opinions; measure both religion and learning by practice; reduce all to that, for that brings a real benefit to you; the rest is a thief and a snare. And indeed, reading many books is but a taking off the mind too much from meditation. . . . Reading yourselves and nature, in the dealings and conduct of men, is the truest human wisdom. The spirit of a man knows the things of man, and more true knowledge comes by meditation and just reflection than by reading; for much reading is an oppression of the mind, and extinguishes the natural candle, which is the reason of so many senseless scholars in the world. (William Penn, Advice to His Children [1699])

It would be unfair and uncharitable to brand this approach with the uncomplimentary label of “anti-intellectual,” for many of these men are great thinkers. Nevertheless, the contrast is between the first approach, which has a secular outlook and focuses on the abstract, academic, and intellectual, and the second approach, which has a religious outlook and focuses on the devotional and practical.

3. A Religious-Intellectual Approach
This approach uses the identical Western canon of classical literature of the Secular-Intellectual Approach, to which it adds some religious literature, although the religious literature is much broader in perspective than the denominational canons of the Religious-Devotional Approach.

Os Guinness explains his perspective:

We can be assured that the classics have an intrinsic human, cultural, and spiritual worth. . . . Their value far transcends such commonly claimed benefits as adult education or personal self-improvement – let alone such false motivations as “culture snobbery.” . . . The classic works are a “great conversation,” the Western contribution to the ongoing discussion of the primary themes of life and death, right and wrong, triumph and tragedy, which we all confront in being human. . . . [I]t is time and past time for a new championing of the great literary classics of our Western civilization. . . . [W]ith endless controversies swirling around the Western masterworks, individual followers of Christ and the church of Christ as a whole have a unique responsibility to guard, enjoy, and pass them on. (Louise Cowan and Os Guinness, editors, Invitation to the Classics [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998], 14)

If the Secular-Intellectual and the Religious-Devotional Approaches were opposites to each other (the thesis and the antithesis), then the Religious-Intellectual Approach is the compromise between them (the dialectical synthesis). By blending the two more extreme approaches, more territory is covered and a broader balance is thus achieved – or so it seems.

However, the Religious-Intellectual Approach uses the same Western canon as the Secular-Intellectual Approach, which places Humanism in the driver’s seat, and improperly exposes the young to graphic descriptions and clever justifications of the degeneracies of men. We believe the authority of the Word of God must be brought forward as the absolute standard by which to measure all literature. So we propose yet a fourth way.

4. A Distinctively Christian Approach
What we need is a distinctively Christian approach. By distinctively Christian, we mean identifiably and unmistakably built upon Christian principles and absolutes.

A Secular-Intellectual Approach obviously is not Christian. A Religious-Devotional Approach is too narrow and truncated and withdrawn. A Religious-Intellectual Approach compromises distinctive Christian principles in order to gain the broader perspective. Christians should step outside of this dialectical atmosphere of extremes and compromises, and into the world of real principles, and of moral absolutes, and of ultimate accountability to God. We should begin with the principle of the absolute authority of the Word of God, and we should stand upon this principle alone, reason carefully from it, apply it everywhere, defend it always, and never back down from it. The authority of God’s Word will never change. The Word of our God is a Rock. Whatever falls upon it will be broken, and whatever it falls upon will be crushed (Matt. 21:44).

Christians should focus neither upon the academic and the intellectual, nor upon the religious and the practical, nor upon a compromise – a synthesis – between the two, but upon the God of both intellect and of practice. A mature Christian intellectual is someone who is thoroughly familiar with the Scriptures and who knows how to apply practically the truths of Scripture to every facet of human culture. So Christians should hold to Scripture alone as their canon – their rule of measure – and they should use this canon to judge all other literature: the Western canon of the Secular-Intellectual, the private canon of the Religious-Devotional, the hybrid canon of the Religious-Intellectual, and any other literature.

Everything which we need to know is found – at least in seed form – in the Scriptures. As John Wycliffe put it, “There is no subtlety, in grammar, neither in logic, nor in any other science that can be named, but that it is found in a more excellent degree in the Scriptures.” The Bible alone is the best foundation for culture, and the only foundation upon which to build a civilization. Again, John Wycliffe said, “The Bible is for government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Christians should not necessarily shun nor should they necessarily embrace other literature until they first determine from where it comes, and to where it leads. Whatever will not measure up to the standard of Scripture we must either transform for use in service to God, or else we must confine to the catalogue of historical relics. We recognize that Western civilization has been influenced by a Biblical culture, but we also recognize many other influences upon Western civilization, not the least of which is the pagan humanism which received its thrust forward with Homer and the Greeks.

As Michael Kelley writes:

[Should] the older traditionalists who believe in the goodness of Western culture . . . be heeded who suggest that the ideals of classical man need to be recovered in order to revive the lost vision of culture that made the West what it is . . .? Should we accept the argument of those who wish to restore . . . the medieval synthesis of Christianity and Humanism? . . . From a Christian perspective, each and every cultural endeavor of man . . . must be subjected to a careful scrutiny based upon what . . . does not derive from man in any sense. . . . [T]he Christian perspective on all human life and endeavor must ultimately rest upon . . . the Divine point of view, in other words, on revelation! (Michael W. Kelley, The Impulse for Power: Formative Ideals of Western Civilization [Minneapolis, Minn.: Contra Mundum Books, 1998])

We should not blindly accept any work of literature. Each family is accountable to God for what they choose to use. So, in submission to the Word of God, each family should determine for itself whether something meets the standards which they have established for their family under God.

If we are mature in our faith, then we will neither blindly accept, nor blindly reject, but we will test and prove all things, and we will hold fast to that which is good (I Thess. 5:21), proving what is acceptable to the Lord (Eph. 5:10). There is often more than one way to apply Biblical principles, especially in different situations. What one family cannot use, another family may have the skill and the resources to be able to transform and use. But to press some classical standard beyond a family’s ability to handle it is to cause that family to stumble, which is not Christian at all (Matt. 18:7; Rom. 14:13,20,21; Rev. 2:14). We must each apply the principles of Scripture in proper balance to our own situation, recognizing that exceptional situations may call for exceptional applications. It is nevertheless perfectly appropriate for each of us to establish such rules within our own home with our own children.

The proper balance between Christian principles and any literature – classical, religious, or whatever – is that Scripture always wins, and literature always submits. We can call ourselves both classical and Christian as long as we understand that the classical must always submit to the Christian.

In summary, the Secular-Intellectual Approach ends up making man the master; the Religious-Devotional Approach ends up throwing out works of man which may be made to serve the true Master; the Religious-Intellectual Approach ends up attempting to serve two masters. We think a more mature approach would put everything in its proper place: God’s Word is master, and man’s works must either be made to serve the true and living God or else be set aside – lest they serve the gods of humanism.

Some persons may find much use in certain classical authors. We find most of the ancient histories useful. But though these writings may supply us with some practical information, we nevertheless know that we cannot properly evaluate them apart from the Scriptures. We must maintain a proper balance between Christian principles and our appetites.

However, it may be quite inappropriate to impose upon others our passions for certain things. If someone can consume a quart of strawberry cheesecake almond fudge ice cream a day and maintain a healthy nutritional balance, that’s fine. But most people may have difficulty in maintaining that same balance, and we would be causing them to stumble if we should urge them to try it. We are not judges of other men’s uses. They must answer for their own uses. There may be things which they can use but which we cannot, and vice versa, simply because of the differences in our constitutions, abilities, and experiences.

The presupposition with which we approach the subject of literature is that we should employ cautious reserve and prudent discretion.

But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Hebrews 5:14 k.j.v.)

There is such a thing as age appropriateness, and there are also some things which are not ordinarily appropriate for any age and therefore must be approached with the highest discretion.

Harvey Bluedorn


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