A Biblical Basis for Secular Knowledge (Scholar’s Compass)

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Reading

Daniel 1

Reflection

In an evangelical world in which “secular” knowledge is sometimes not valued, it’s important to remember that the Bible itself, at least in a couple of instances, supports the learning and use of what’s sometimes termed “secular” knowledge. Of course, there is no such thing as “secular” knowledge, really. There is simply knowledge, and God has all of the knowledge it’s possible to have, including the “secular” and “sacred” kind. So, we really shouldn’t have to defend the use of “secular” knowledge. Nevertheless, the following places in Scripture are useful:

In Acts 7, Stephen gives a speech in defense of his faith before the Sanhedrin prior to his martyrdom. In his speech, he briefly recounts the history of Israel, and he discusses, as part of that history, Moses’ leadership. In verse 22, Stephen declares, “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.” Notice that it is Moses’ education among the Egyptians, not the Israelites here, that prepared him to become the leader that God used. Clearly, God allowed Moses to grow up in Egypt to receive such training.

And in Daniel chapter one, Daniel and his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are captured from Jerusalem and taken to Babylon. They are Israelite royalty, and they are captured and brought to the king’s palace in order to be trained leaders in Babylon. Near the end of chapter one in verse 17, we find this interesting comment: “To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.” We know from verse 4 they were to learn “the language and literature of the Babylonians.” What would this entail? According to John Goldingay’s Word Biblical Commentary on Daniel,

Babylonian sages were guardians of traditional Mesopotamian lore, including natural history, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, myth and chronicle and also pagan forms of divination and magic.

It is clear from the Biblical text that Daniel and his friends would have learned all of these subjects and more, and that in verse 17 God gave them this knowledge. When they took King Nebuchadnezzar’s oral exam at the end of the chapter, they tested higher than anyone else, and were given significant leadership roles in Babylon. Apparently it was God’s sovereign plan to bring them to Babylon, give them the Babylonian education they received, and make them leaders in that kingdom. We know from the remainder of Daniel that they were wise leaders, and they didn’t compromise their faith in the God of Israel, even in the face of death.

What these passages suggest is that God sovereignly uses “secular” training to place people in important positions of leadership. He uses all the knowledge and training that we can receive to make us into the leaders he desires us to be. May God use us in great ways, in the positions he has granted us, to bring him glory.

Questions

How do you think Daniel and his friends would have reacted when they were first captured? What do you think may have given them hope while they were captives in Babylon? What gives you hope in learning situations that initially seem difficult?

After Moses had fled Egypt and become a shepherd, it’s likely that he thought he would never use his Egyptian training again. How might God have given him hope while he was in the desert? In what ways did God make his presence known to him while he was leading the Israelites? Are there moments of your own academic life where God has used previous training in ways you hadn’t expected?

As you reflect on your own leadership, in what ways do you depend on God’s presence to lead? Are there instances in your work in which you feel God’s presence is superfluous? Why or why not?

Prayer

O Sovereign Lord, make us leaders who glorify you every day. Use our backgrounds, our training, and our education to follow you and be a light for you on our campuses. God, may students and colleagues see you as we work with them every day. Amen.

Further Reading

John E. Goldingay, Daniel (Word Biblical Commentary, vol 30). Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.


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Mark Hansard

Mark is on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Manhattan, Kansas, where he ministers to Faculty at Kansas State University and surrounding campuses. He has been in campus ministry 23 years, 12 of those years in faculty ministry. He has a Master's degree in philosophy and theology from Talbot School of Theology, La Mirada, CA, and is passionate about Jesus Christ and the life of the mind. Mark, his wife and three daughters make their home in Manhattan.

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2 Comments

  • jmulholl@uchicago.edu'
    John Mulholland commented on April 9, 2015 Reply

    Very important ideas here, Mark. Here is a very important new resource from a professor out your way. You might want to have him speak to your IV groups.

    Robert K. Johnston, God’s Wider Presence: Reconsidering General Revelation [Baker, 2015]
    http://www.bakerpublishinggroup.com/books/god-s-wider-presence/348650

    Quoting the blurb for this book – “What are we to make of those … illuminating experiences of God’s presence that occur outside both church and Scripture? We may encounter God’s revelatory presence as we experience a beautiful sunset, the birth of a child, or a work of art, music, or literature.
    [ I would want to add experiences in scientific research and a host of other experiences of both doing and studying – i.e., the academic enterprise is full of such opportunities.]
    While theologians have tended to describe such experiences abstractly as mere traces or echoes, those involved often recognize such moments of transcendence as transformative….”

    For more on and by Robert Johnston, professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, go to his faculty page.
    http://fuller.edu/faculty/rjohnston/ and once there, click on “Additional Information” for his “Dossier.”

    Scroll down his “Dossiier” for articles he has published at the Colson Center, all with links to be read online. See especially “Letting Movies Deepen Our Theology.”
    http://www.colsoncenter.org/the-center/columns/call-response/17014-letting-movies-deepen-ourtheology

    A little more than halfway down, Johnston quotes Calvin –

    “It was John Calvin, himself, who rightly counseled us:

    “The human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. . . . We will be careful. . . not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears” (Institutes 2.2.15).

    And again,

    “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole foundation of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? . . . No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. But if the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like disciplines [would Calvin include film if he were writing today?], by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance. For if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloths” (Institutes 2.2.15-16)….”

    There is an immense amount of work that needs to be done here, work that would greatly enhance IV’s efforts at engaging the academic enterprise, the core of college and university work.

    God bless your ongoing efforts.

  • Mark Hansard commented on April 11, 2015 Reply

    Thank you, John. That’s very helpful!

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