How are Christians to view systems of thought that are rooted in pagan or secular beliefs? Are non-Christian belief systems so filled with error that Christians can learn nothing from them? Are they so foreign that they only corrupt Christian truth?

Or is there important revelatory common ground made available to all people that allows non-Christians to discover critical truths about life and the world? Could that discovery of truth mean that Christians can learn from pagan or secular sources?

This controversial question of how Christians should view non-Christian belief systems goes back a long way in Christian history. In the ancient world, the question centered on Christianity’s relationship to Greco-Roman philosophy. Two early and prominent Christian church fathers in the ancient world came up with different answers to this challenging issue. Interestingly, both of these Christian thinkers were noted North African church fathers.

Tertullian’s Antithesis Perspective

Tertullian (c. 160–220) was a Latin, North African church father who was educated in the subjects of law and rhetoric and was an engaging writer. He converted to Christianity in midlife. Unique, bold, and temperamental, he served as an apologist and polemicist for early Christianity at a time when the faith encountered a hostile Roman culture.

Tertullian’s view of Christianity’s relationship to pagan philosophy reflects a clear antithesis (a clash of opposition). He strongly believed that Christians had no need or use for pagan philosophy. In his mind, pagan philosophy contaminated and corrupted the one true Christian faith.

Here’s Tertullian at his polemical best:

What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon who himself taught that the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the Gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.1

Augustine’s Critical Appropriation Perspective

Augustine (354–430) was a prolific author, a robust theologian, an insightful philosopher, and a tenacious apologist for the truth of historic Christianity. He is a universal Christian voice within Western Christendom and remains as important to Protestants as he is to Catholics.

Augustine recognized that pagan philosophy certainly involved false beliefs about God, the world, and the human condition. He saw a clash of worldview between Christian theology and pagan philosophy. But he also recognized that pagans were made in the image of God and were the recipients of general revelation and common grace. Thus, pagans got certain things wrong but also some things right about reality and moral goodness (Acts 17:22–30).

Here’s Augustine commenting on the Platonist philosophers’ nearness and farness to truth:

Platonist philosophers excel all others in reputation and authority, just because they are nearer to the truth than the rest, even though they are a long way from it.2

For Augustine, philosophy is a handmaid (servant) to theology. But pagan philosophy should not be accepted or rejected in totality. Rather, pagan philosophy needs to go through a critical appropriation. In Augustine’s thinking, the Platonists possess the divine image, general revelation, and common grace; thus their keen philosophical insights put them near or “nearer to the truth.” But original sin distorts truth and without special revelation (Christ, the gospel) they are still “a long way from it.”

Augustine’s thinking on this topic became the consensus position. For example, the great Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) followed Augustine’s critical appropriation model when forming his Christian-Aristotelian synthesis. Here’s Christian theologian Gerald McDermott’s description of Aquinas’s approach to evaluating the philosophy of Aristotle:

Thomas accepted from Aristotle what he thought was in accord with Christian doctrine, rejected what he thought was not (and explained why), and used some of Aristotle’s categories to help teach Christian faith.3

What We Can Learn

Though they got some important ideas wrong, the great Greek philosophers still had deep insights about such realities as truth, goodness, and beauty. But how do the ancient pagan religions compare to today’s world religions? Well, the ancient pagan religions were a lot like contemporary non-Christian world religions. They got a lot wrong (false gods and false beliefs about humanity) but they also got some critical issues right (for example, a sense of the divine and important aspects about morality).

I think Augustine’s model is superior to that of Tertullian when it comes to explaining how Christianity can relate to other belief systems. As Christians, we grant that people in other religious systems get important things right by a revelation of truth that is given to all (Psalm 19). Yet we must also appreciate the inevitable errors and distortions due to idolatry (false gods and immoral practices) that are inherent in non-Christian religions (Romans 1:18–28). This common ground affords Christians the opportunity to build responsible bridges that can hopefully lead to sharing the gospel message with people who don’t know Christ.

Reflections: Your Turn

Is it biblical to think non-Christian religions will always combine some basic truths mixed with deeply false ideas about God? If so, why? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.



Check out more from Reasons to Believe

  1. As cited in Alister E. McGrath, ed., The Christian Theology Reader, 2nd. ed. (Oxford, Blackwell, 2001), 7-8.
  2. St. Augustine, The City of God, Henry Bettenson trans. (New York: Penguin, 1984), Book 11, section 5, 434.
  3. Gerald R. McDermott, The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2010), 65.


About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.

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