Archive Nota Bene Philosophy Reformed Irenicism Stephen J. Hayhow

Edward Reynolds On the Use of Pagan Learning

Edward Reynolds, in the Preface to his A Treatise of the Passions and Faculties of the Soul of Man (1647) gives a brief apology for the use of pagan learning and natural knowledge in this Christian treatise. Reynolds was a puritan preacher, sometime bishop of Norwich, but a conformist Presbyterian by persuasion. He was preacher at “the honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inne” as well as an active member of the Westminster Assembly.

First, Reynolds argue that there is an “Inferiour and Naturall knowledge”, he explains,

In the first Creation, when hee gave unto man the Dominion over other Creatures for his use he gave him likewise the contemplation and knowledge of them, for his Maker’s Glory, and his own Delight (for God brought them unto him to give them Names) (preface, xxiii)

This does not displace the Scripture in any way, “ the holy Scriptures are all over full of the Mysteries of Gods Wisdome in Naturall Things.”  In fact, we have only to turn to Moses and Solomon, and here he sites Job 38-41 and Psalms 104 and 147 as proof texts (xxiii-xxiv).

Secondly, the great teachers of the Church support this view, says Reynolds, as there are “Philosophicall and Poeticall labours” that are useful to us. At this point Reynolds names Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Eusebius, Augustine, also Venerable Bede, Basil, Ambrose, Gregory of Nyssa, Lactantius and others (xxiv).

Moreover, he also includes the Schoolmen, and “very many of the Reformed Churches abroad, some of whose younger labours have seen the Light : as also  in Oratory, Logicall, Morall, Historicall, Mathematicall, Miscellanious writings of many learned Divines of our own Church”(xxiv).

Thirdly Reynolds moves to the theological and Scriptural justification for the use of pagan and natural knowledge in the service of the Kingdom. There is an “Excellent Use” of subordinate human learning “unto divine learning”. Here are the arguments:

First of all, it is not possible to understand Scripture without this learning. The “Words and Idiomes” require this external help. We depend upon  “upon the customes, Rites, Proverbes, Formes, Usages Lawes, Offices, Antiquities of the Assyrian, Persian, Greeke, and Romane Monarchies, as might be shewed in sundry particulars, and were a labour most worthy the industry of some able and learned pen.”

Secondly, there follows a series of exegetical arguments, which I shall list (xxv):

  • The spoils of the Egyptians “were by God allowed to enrich Israel”;
  • The spoils of the Gentiles were reserved for the building of the Temple;
  • “That a Gentile by legall Purification and Marriage, might become an Israelite”;
  • “That the Crowne of Rabbah was put upon the head of David..”;
  • The “Sword of Goliah used to slay himself”;
  • “That the a Gold and Myrrh, and Frankincense of the Wise men of the East, was offered unto Christ”;
  • “when I find the Apostle convincing the Jews out of their Law, and the Philosophers out of their Maximes”;
  • “ And that every guift, as well as every Creature of God is good, and may be sanctified for the use and delight of Man”
  • “I then conclude with my selfe, That this Morall and Philosophicall Glasse of the humane Soule may be of some service even unto the Tabernacle, as the Looking glasses of the Israelitish women were unto the Altar.”

Finally, Edwards adds that this does not mean there are no dangers. However, the answer is to not avoid this literature, says the Puritan Edwards, but “That to the pure all things are pure. And even of harmefull things when they are prepared, and their malignancy by Art corrected, doth the skillfull Physician make an excellent use” (xxvi).

This is not say that there are no dangers, nor warnings required.  There are temptations to pride, replacing Evangelical truth with pagan wisdom and so forth, but “with such care as this, there is no doubt, but secular Studies prepared and corrected from Pride and Prophanesse, may be to the Church, as the Gibeonites were to the Congregation of Israel, for Hewers of Wood, and Drawers of Water” (xxvii).

So we have a Westminster divine of impeccable Puritan credentials, defending the careful use of pagan learning but also defending that there is a realm of natural things, all under God, subject to Scripture, worthy of study and contemplation.

By Stephen J. Hayhow

Steve Hayhow is married to Kristine and they have seven children, where they reside in London, UK. Steve is an elder at Emmanuel Evangelical Church (