Should Christians Borrow Ideas from Non-Christians?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In the Book of Exodus, God commands Moses to tell the Israelites to take plunder from the Egyptians, and the Israelites did so as they were preparing to leave:

The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians. (Ex. 12:35-36)

There is an interesting application of these verses to the thinking Christian. Saint Augustine noted, in his On Christian Teaching, the following:

The Egyptians not only had idols and crushing burdens which the people of Israel detested and from which they fled. They also had vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and clothing, which the Israelites leaving Egypt secretly claimed for themselves as if for a better use. Not on their own authority did they make this appropriation, but by the command of God. Meanwhile, the Egyptians themselves, without realizing it, were supplying the things which they were not using properly. In the same way, all the teachings of the pagans have counterfeit and superstitious notions and oppressive burdens of useless labor. Any one of us, leaving the association of pagans with Christ as our leader, ought to abominate and shun them.

In other words, the Israelites took things (i.e., gold, silver, and clothing) from the Egyptians, things which the Egyptians were using to oppress, and put them to a better use. In the same way, says Augustine, just like gold, silver, and clothing, Christians may take ideas (or teachings) from non-Christians and put them to good use. However, we should shun the improper ways non-Christians use these same ideas.

Some have argued that Christians should shun all teachings by non-Christians. One example of this is the accusation sometimes heard from neotheists that the medieval church fathers borrowed illicitly from the Greek philosophers. Philosopher and theologian Norman Geisler responds to these critics:

Christian theologians of every age have been influenced to one degree or another by the prevailing philosophy of their day. But neotheists themselves are not immune from this: They reveal the influence of the prevailing process theology of our time. This in itself does not make their view of God wrong; neither does any influence by Greek philosophy make the classical view of God wrong. In the final analysis, the question is whether it was a good influence or a bad one—whether there are biblical and rational grounds for it or not. Rejecting a view because of its source is the genetic fallacy. It is not a matter of whether the reason is Greek, but whether it is good.

What is important about borrowing from non-Christians is that we take only what can be put to a proper Christian use. We leave what is intrinsically antithetical to Christian belief behind. In addition, we should avoid denigrating any idea just because of where or whom it came from. As Geisler points out, this is the genetic fallacy.

In my own education at Southern Evangelical Seminary, we frequently read books and articles written by non-Christians in order to familiarize ourselves with the most prominent thinkers of the past and present. Although much of what I read is antithetical to Christianity, some of it is not.

We are not reading these materials simply to learn how best to counter their arguments – though that is one reason to read them. We are also reading the material to gain insights on important philosophical and scientific issues.

Here is an example. One of the most famous agnostic philosophers of the 20th century was Bertrand Russell, a man who was strongly anti-Christian. Yet in reading some of his works I learned that he was a neutral monist.

What is interesting about neutral monism is that it rejects metaphysical materialism (which affirms that all that exists is matter and energy). Since materialism is the primary metaphysical opponent of Christian dualism in the 21st century, Russell’s arguments against materialism can be put to use by Christians who believe that materialism is an entirely inadequate metaphysical position.

On the other hand, an example of an idea intrinsically opposed to Christianity would be the Hindu teaching that God is all and all is God. If we tried to apply this idea directly to God, we would be in grave error. The Bible clearly teaches that God created the world, and that He exists independently from it. God can never be equated with the world, as if they are one and the same. In this case, we cannot borrow this Hindu idea and apply it to God.

Countless other examples could be given, but what is imperative is to always ground everything we learn in the biblical Christian worldview. If we stay in that framework, there are many ideas from non-Christians, and even anti-Christians, that we can rightfully borrow. Likewise, it follows that we cannot rightly discern what to borrow, or what to leave behind, unless we truly and thoroughly understand biblical Christianity.

  • Good morning Bill. I am not sure if you realize that Christianity has “borrowed” much from other religions –since, well–the dawn of Christianity!

    From prayer beads (“borrowed” from the Buddhist monks) to the halos around their gods’ head (found around the heads of the “sun” gods of Krishna and Buddha)–Christianity has been “borrowing” for a long time now.

    Perhaps the reason for this is that many ancient religious scholars gathered together at the Library of Alexandria–where much of the knowledge of antiquity was stored. This is where many came to know Buddha, Krishna and the religions of other ancient peoples. There are many gods who have been claimed to be “resurrected” as well–from Adonis to Krishna. This is not unique to Christianity.

    Now of course, that would not be the only reason why many elements were “borrowed” It is much easier to convert people to a different religion, when the new religion has similarities to the old. This is why Constantine made Dec 25 Jesus’ birthday (the festival of Saturnalia) and the Spring equinox as the celebration of Easter (Named after the Germanic pagan goddess Eostre) It is also why he changed the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday. Why, even the “Sermon on the Mount” and the Buddhist Dhammapada both share some of the same core and fundamental beliefs.

    So you see, Christianity is not “unique” at all, and in fact it is quite plagiarized–from all the “borrowing”…:)

    As a final note, if a poor person “took” i.e., “stole” money from a multimillionaire to buy food for her children, would you consider that putting the money to a “better use”–or would you have that mother prosecuted for breaking the law?–and do you advocate such behavior?

  • A is for Atheist,

    you do realize that this post is about using ideas and arguments from non-christians, not stealing material things, right?

  • Yes, I do, but Bill’s example uses “objects” i.e. the “gold and silver” that was plundered by the Israelites via the command of their god. If it was the case that he was only making references to ideas that were “borrowed” he should have used a different example.

  • Now, let us focus on his main point, because it too illustrates a problem with the Christianity and the methodology of those that follow it. According to Bill Pratt:

    “What is important about borrowing from non-Christians is that we take only what can be put to a proper Christian use. We leave what is intrinsically antithetical to Christian belief behind.”

    A good philosopher and scholar focuses on the arguments and the ideas that they express. If the premises and the argument and ideas expressed therein, disproves or disagrees with their position, this is not a grounds for dismissal. As the great pragmatist Peirce would point out, Bill is promulgating the method of authority and tenacity–which is only accepting those “ideas” which are in agreement with your currently held “ideas,” in this case, Christianity–without regard to whether or not the arguments and ideas are better or not. If the ideas happen to go against Christianity, then according to Bill you are to dismiss them–purely on the grounds that they do not agree with Christianity. As Peirce further points out, the Hypothetico-Deductive method does a better job of fixing our beliefs because it is self correcting. The method of tenacity promotes ignorance.

  • Christian belief is characterized by a love for truth. Why? Because God tells us He is truth. Any person who claims to hold a Christian worldview will always want to know what the arguments are for an idea in order to figure out whether the idea is true or not. It is un-Christian to believe that which is false, that which fails to stand up under scrutiny.

    With that in mind, we would greatly frown upon the methods of authority and tenacity, as Peirce explained them. Neither of those methods care anything about finding the truth. The method of authority is merely the use of institutional bullying and threats to force people to believe certain things. The method of tenacity is practiced when a person avoids hearing arguments from their opponents, and digs into their own position regardless of what the evidence is. Again, both of these methods are antithetical to Christian belief.

  • If you would like to know the truth about alleged early Christian borrowing from pagan religions, I refer you to the exhaustive article at the Christian Thinktank on this subject.

    His comment on Adonis is the following (quoting J. Smith):
    “There is no suggestion of Adonis rising (in either the Panyasisian form or the Ovidian form of the myth).”

    So Adonis never rose from the dead at all, so how could he be an example of resurrection that Christian copied? The article provides the text of the myths as well, so you can read for yourself.

    With regard to Krishna:
    “At Balarama’s death Krsna sat meditating; a hunter, Jara, pierced Krsna’s feet by mistake, but afterwards, recognizing the hero, repented. Krsna left his body and entered heaven where he was greeted by the gods.” [The Indian Theogony, Sukumari Bhattacharji, Cambridge:1970, p.305; note the difference between this and a ‘bodily ascension of Jesus’]

    Here again, Krishna was not resurrected at all.

    For anyone that is interested in this topic, I cannot recommend enough the article I cited above at the Christian Thinktank. It is extremely well documented and full of scholarly citations.

  • What is important about what Peirce wrote about fixing our beliefs is not whether or not you hear the idea, or you know of them, but whether or not you will adopt them IF they happen to be the best ideas. i.e., the germ theory vs the “demon theory”.

    Clearly, Bill, you expressed the idea that a Christian ought to dismiss ideas that are in disagreement with their ideas. To quote you again:

    “What is important about borrowing from non-Christians is that we take only what can be put to a proper Christian use. We leave what is intrinsically antithetical to Christian belief behind.”

    Note, that you said take ONLY what can be put to proper Christian use, and to LEAVE what is antithetical to Christian belief–this is the method of tenacity! It is at this point where the Christian abandons truth for faith.

  • I would like to recommend a text that was once used at Harvard Seminary which you can download in its entirety from books.google.com. It is called “Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions” by TW Doane.

    There are many various resurrection stories in many of the world religions. Whether or not the are “identical” to the Christian version is a moot point. For as a follower of Dionysus might say, “Oh, Jesus wasn’t cut up into pieces like Dionysus, so Jesus cannot be a “true god” and therefore, he was not actually resurrected, like Dionysus–so Jesus doesn’t count.”

    See how pointless this type of reasoning is? Not only can it be done with the concept of resurrection, it can be done with almost any subject.

  • No. What I said is that part of Christian belief is the love of truth, so the method of tenacity is un-Christian. I’m not sure how to be any more clear on this.

  • Cathy,
    I suggest you re-read the biblical text. The Israelites did not steal from the Egyptians. Here it is again:

    “The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians.”

    The Egyptians were happy to get rid of the Israelites. Giving them silver, gold, and clothing was evidently not a problem, as long as they would leave.

  • That is the whole point. Christians mean something very specific by “resurrection.” It means that your physical body dies, some time goes by, and then the same body comes back to life in a new physical form. This new physical form then lives forever.

    Neither of your examples of resurrection (Adonis and Krishna) come anywhere close to the Christian meaning of resurrection, so it seems highly unlikely that there was any borrowing from Adonis and Krishna.

  • Bill, the definition of ‘plunder’ is as follows:

    1.to rob of goods or valuables by open force, as in war, hostile raids, brigandage, etc.: to plunder a town.
    2.to rob, despoil, or fleece: to plunder the public treasury.
    3.to take wrongfully, as by pillage, robbery, or fraud: to plunder a piece of property.

    i.e., the Israelites ROBBED, STOLE, or TOOK WRONGFULLY that which belonged to the Egyptians. Also, in other passages in the Bible, they “plunder and loot” from the Canaanites and other groups.

  • I offer a bit more information and ideas in reference to the notion of the resurrection. There are multiple gods who are claimed to have been resurrected from the dead. In fact, numerous gods such as Bacchus, Hercules were said to have been resurrected from the dead. Also, Asclepius, was killed by Zeus only to be resurrected and transformed into a major deity. Achilles, after being killed, was taken from his funeral pyre by his divine mother Thetis, and resurrected, brought to an immortal existence in either Leuce, the Elysian plains, or the Islands of the Blessed. Memnon, who was killed by Achilles, was said have experienced a similar fate. Alcmene, Castor, Heracles, and Melicertes were also among the figures sometimes considered to have been resurrected to physical immortality. Quetzalcoatl, a South American god, is also claimed to be resurrected; and in Hinduism Krishna was resurrected, and in fact, according to Hinduism, EVERYONE is claimed to be resurrected. The concept of resurrection is found in the writings of some ancient non-Abrahamic religions in the Middle East. Some Egyptian and Canaanite writings claim there are dying and rising gods such as Osiris and Baal.

    Now, I understand that this information and ideas are “antithetical” to the Christian view, and therefore, as you recommend, Christians ought to dismiss them as a result. But I offer them anyway.

  • None of these alleged resurrections comes anywhere close to matching the resurrection of Jesus. If you’ll just go read the Christian Thinktank article on this topic, he covers almost all of these gods in detail.

  • You also realize that the Israelites asked the Egyptians for it and the Egyptians gave it to them, right?

  • Like many other passages in the bible, this passage is odd and is very badly written. For as you point out, it says they “asked” but it also states that they “plundered.” You do realize however, that Bill SUPPORTED the passage with an Augustinian interpretation which states that:

    “They also had vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and clothing, which the Israelites leaving Egypt SECRETLY CLAIMED FOR THEMSELVES” as if for a better use. NOT on their own authority did they make this appropriation, but by the command of God.”

    To “secretly claim something for yourself” is a “Humpty Dumpty” way of saying they “STOLE it, and GOD TOLD THEM TO STEAL IT!!

    We can also cite other passages in the Bible where Yahweh orders the Israelites to kill every living thing among PEACEFUL PEOPLE (including women and children)i.e., commit MURDER, and to PLUNDER AND LOOT. Please see the definition below for “plundered.” Or take my word for it. To plunder means to “steal.”

    Now note, these “peaceful people’ were not asked, but they were plundered and looted, via Yahweh’s “evil plan” See the following passages from Ezekiel:

    7“‘Get ready; be prepared, you and all the hordes gathered about you, and take command of them. 8After many days you will be called to arms. In future years you will invade a land that has recovered from war, whose people were gathered from many nations to the mountains of Israel, which had long been desolate. They had been brought out from the nations, and now all of them live in safety. 9You and all your troops and the many nations with you will go up, advancing like a storm; you will be like a cloud covering the land.

    10“‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: On that day thoughts will come into your mind and you will devise an evil scheme. 11You will say, “I will invade a land of unwalled villages; I will attack a peaceful and unsuspecting people—all of them living without walls and without gates and bars. 12I will plunder and loot and turn my hand against the resettled ruins and the people gathered from the nations, rich in livestock and goods, living at the center of the land.” 13Sheba and Dedan and the merchants of Tarshish and all her villages will say to you, “Have you come to plunder? Have you gathered your hordes to loot, to carry off silver and gold, to take away livestock and goods and to seize much plunder?”’ Ezekiel 38:7-13

    Therefore, there are many instances where plundering and looting are claimed to be “justified” by your god–even if it means killing “peaceful people”–which include women and children.

  • Your interpretation of Augustine is tortured. He could read the text just like we can, and he knew that the Israelites asked the Egyptians for the gold, silver, and clothing. And besides, how exactly could they have secretly taken all of those things from the Egyptians? Were they all asleep during the Exodus?

    Clearly Augustine was referring to the Israeiltes secretly taking these things for a better use. In other words, the Egyptians would not have known what uses the Israelites had for the plunder, and thus, in that sense, it was the Israelites’ secret.

  • Well, I’ll let Bill and Augustine handle themselves. So far as I can see, asking someone for something is not secretly spiriting it away.

  • The text is very clear about what it means when it uses the word ‘plunder’.

    “The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; *so* they plundered the Egyptians.”

    You know what the word ‘so’ means when used like that, right?
    You know how a semi-colon works in a sentence, right?
    And you didn’t miss the part where it says the Israelites asked them for it?

  • I have already pointed out the multiple passages where the Israelites PLUNDER and LOOT.

    Now, surely you must understand that the great Christian philosopher, Augustine, that Bill cited, clearly knows how colons and such work–does he not?

    And as Augustine pointed out, they asked for some stuff, and they “secretly claimed for themselves” i.e., “plundered” i.e., STOLE the rest!

    But nevertheless, there are PLENTY of other passages (as I have already pointed out) that clearly illustrates that the Israelites PLUNDERED, i.e. “STOLE” from others. And in some instances, they were COMMANDED to do so by the Christian god, YAHWEH.