I’ve always loved Raphael’s painting The School of Athens. And for many reasons - too many to address here, in fact. But there’s one thing I want to quickly point to. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s a portrayal of many different thinkers, from all different times, interacting with one another, sharing ideas. There doesn’t seem to be anger, nor contempt towards another’s contrary view. Instead, we’re given a picture of many people trying to edify one another’s view, with one another’s view.
Again, you might not be familiar with it, and to that, I do intend to dedicate an entire post to it in the future. But for now, do you remember Paul’s conversation with the Greeks on Mars Hill in Acts? You might. But can you say that you believe in his tactics? If you’re a bit shaky with that story, here’s Acts 17…
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
I’ll stop there for a moment just to point out that Paul’s fear of their “world” did not hinder his desire to help them, nor prevent him from offering a clear presentation of Truth. In other words, he didn’t ask them to tailor their discussion to his comfort. Instead, he used the already established context to segue into a Gospel presentation. He continued
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’;as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
“Meeting them where they were at” didn’t hurt his witness. Reason: he didn’t conform to it, but used it for the Gospel. He not only refrained from dismissing their pagan referencing, but he actually applied it himself - quoted it, even… right there in our Bible! Seriously, though, it should be noted that his use of their pagan works did not deter him from boldly professing the objective truth of God’s supremacy to those works. Their works were Paul’s tool.
Fast forward many years later, and you’ll find that Church father St. Augustine applied the same tactic. In his De Doctrina Christiana, or On Christian Doctrine, he wrote
Whatever has been rightly said by the heathen, we must appropriate to our uses… Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.
The first time I heard this, I was struck by the phrase “who have unlawful possession of it.” But, in his context, it makes absolute sense. If truth is not a lie, then it only comes from one place: Truth. So, as “2+2=4” might belong to the World-of-Math, it has its birth in God. Furthermore, if a non-Christian mathematician spends his entire life praising that equation’s validity, his joy is still inhibited. He’s unable to wholly appreciate it, because he cannot fathom its origin, and thus only praises a fraction of it.
Augustine’s implication is that those who are of God are the more appropriate inheritors of what is God’s, rather than those not of Him. In offering an example, he carries on
For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves were not making a good use of…
He’s not saying that they’re fools, or thieves - stealing something away from us. No, he’s just implying that they’re simply naive. They’re unaware that the stones they’re flippantly skipping over the waters of pride, are actually precious jewels from God.
Fast forward much further… to now. I have to ask, are we applying these same tactics? I understand that while evangelizing we should “show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” as Jude 22–23 states. But that doesn’t restrict you completely. It is a warning. Sure, it’s easy - too easy sometimes - to be ensnared by the trends, luxery, fads, and thoughts of a given time (Colossains 2:8, Ephesians 4:14). But it’s not necessarily biblical to burn the few bridges that connect us with the unsaved on account that it’s “just not the Bible”. I say “connect us” because we’re on our side enjoying most of the same things that the unsaved enjoy: books, movies, t.v. shows, songs, ideas, sports/teams, etc. The unsaved have only so many avenues for seeing God. Why dwindle that list further?
As this might be a culture shock to you, or just plain scary, know that you’re not alone. Bridging that gap to the unsaved - no matter the means - can be a scary venture. So, however you feel the Lord urging you should be considered, as He won’t leave you, nor forsake you. I just want to affirm that using this specific tactic, though seemingly rare these days, historically speaking, is actually a very popular and efficient one. And to that, I’ll end with one last quote.
Now in one sense it is theology, not philosophy, which is most important domain for thought and intellect. As the medievals rightly saw, theology is the queen of the sciences, to be studied as the crowning discipline only after one has been trained in the other disciplines. Unfortunately the queen is currently in exile from the Western university. But her handmaiden, philosophy, still has a place at court is thus strategically positioned so as to act on behalf of her queen. - J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig (Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview)