“Since Moses descended from the mountain with two loose-leaf stones under his arms,” Tony Reinke says, “all literature can be divided into two genres: Genre A: The Bible . . . Genre B: All other books.” Most every Christian recognizes the need to read the Bible. But to fully develop our faith and to grow in wisdom we should read from both of these genres.
The Bible is naturally the most important. We would be better off, as Charles Spurgeon claimed, to lose all that is beautiful, cheering, or profitable in human literature rather than “lose a single syllable from the mouth of God.” Scripture is the most important element in the formation of our imaginations. Yet works from “Genre B” also have value, even when they come from pagan or secular authors.
In Exodus 3:22, God tells the Israelites, “Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.” Throughout church history, Christian thinkers have used this passage as an analogy for the way in which God’s people can use the best things of this world, and especially the wisdom of the world, for the sake of God’s glory. For example, Augustine argued in On Christian Doctrine that Christians should “plunder the Egyptians”—with the wisdom of their thought the “gold being plundered—and use them for God’s purposes:
Moreover, if those who are called philosophers . . . 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. For, as the Egyptians had . . . 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 . . . in the same way all branches of heathen learning . . . contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel.
Here are five ways we can “plunder the Egyptians” in our reading of works by non-believers:
1. Read in the light of the Bible
All our reading, though especially works by non-Christian authors, must be read in light of Scripture. As Reinke adds, “Scripture is the ultimate grid by which we read every book. Scripture is perfect, sufficient, and eternal. All other books, to some degree, are imperfect, deficient, and temporary.”
2. Read for shared truth
Because all truth is God’s truth, we can search for what is the works of non-Christians. John Calvin reminds us that “in reading profane [i.e., non-Christian] authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator.”
3. Read for common life experiences
Although there is a wide gulf in our spiritual experiences, Christians and non-believers share a broad range of common life experiences. We all have much in common in the way we fall in love, suffer hurt and pain, sire and raise children, grieve loss and death. For this reason we can learn much about life through the experiences of others who don’t share our faith in Christ.
4. Read for an understanding of our shared history
Since before the days of Noah, the lives of believers, scoffers, and skeptics have been intertwined in the making of history. If we limit our understanding of human history to the perspective of Christians we miss out on a broad and valuable range of presentations and interpretations of facts and events. Because God is sovereign over all human life, we can learn from any worthy historical account.
5. Read for an understanding of sin and grace
G. K. Chesterton once noted, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” While they may deny the term and the doctrine, non-believers can’t deny the consequences of sin. While we should avoid books that glorify sinful behavior or that can tempt us to sin ourselves, we can learn much from reading about how rebellion against God affects our world. We can also gain a greater appreciation for the grace of God and for the one who is the “atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).