Plundering the Egyptians: Patristic Humanism’s Vision of Cultural Engagement

For as long as there has been Christian theology, there have been a multitude of perspectives regarding how the church ought to engage the world in humility and in truth. Recently, Fr. John Behr of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary recalled the vision of Origen in a lecture entitled “Patristic Humanism: The Beginnings of Christian Paideia” at Trinity Western University [click here for the presentation in its entirety]:

The disciples had read Scripture, but they weren’t expecting this crucified Messiah born of a virgin. But in the light of this they can look back and see Scripture always speaking this. Moses and all prophets spoke about how I had to suffer. So Origen puts it very neatly. He says, “Since the Savior has come and has caused the gospel to be embodied, he has–by the gospel–made all things as gospel.” It’s a really beautiful statement. . . . His point is we can only understand retrospectively. By standing upon the truth of the gospel, the proclamation of Christ–proclaimed by the apostles, according to the Scripture–we can now read the Scriptures as an open book: to understand all that was written by the prophets; to understand that Christ had to suffer to enter into his glory. And then we can likewise–standing upon that same point–look further afield. We can see the same light of Christ shining through the whole creation.

And the medium by which the light of Christ shines through the whole of creation is ourselves. So we are called not only to behold the light, but to become beacons by plundering the Egyptians and seeing what’s good in that and allowing God’s work to shine in that. We, by being in the light, become beacons ourselves so the light can shine further afield. So plundering the Egyptians, honing our intellectual skills, really is the indispensable means–along with the whole formation of Christian paideia–whereby we learn how to use words so that we can use words to convey the word of God. And in this way, we can finally see God at work in all things. And so we can take what the Apostle Paul says, whatever is good, wherever we might find it. . . . And that, I suggest is really the mark of a true human being.

With characteristic oratory skill and encyclopedic knowledge, Fr. Behr covers two important points: 1. That the interpretation of Scripture and the world of which it speaks truthfully is thoroughly christological; and 2. that church members are called upon by Christ to explore and appreciate the entirety of what is good in his created order. In other words, Christians are within a “hermeneutic circle,” of sorts, that is unmistakeably and unapologetically informed by the reality of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The Christian imagination is constituted by the work of Christ, so it is impossible to step outside of it. Yet it is not it is not despite this but rather because of it that these same churchpeople must take it upon themselves to be mindful of what is good and true in the rest of the world. This remarkable challenge is at the heart of what it means to be a human being.

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