From Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses:
The loftier meaning [of the Israelite’s plundering the wealth of Egypt] is therefore more fitting than the obvious one. It commands those participating through virtue in the free life also to equip themselves with the wealth of pagan learning by which foreigners to the faith beautify themselves. Our guide in virtue commands someone who “borrows” from wealthy Egyptians to receive such things as moral and natural philosophy, geometry, astronomy, dialectic, and whatever else is sought by those outside the Church, since these things will be useful when in time the divine sanctuary of mystery must be beautified with the riches of reason.
Those who treasured up for themselves such wealth handed it over to Moses as he was working on the tent of mystery, each one making his personal contribution to the construction of the holy places. It is possible to see this happening even now, for many bring to the church of God their profane learning as a kind of gift. Such a man was the great Basil [of Caesarea], who acquired the Egyptian wealth in every respect during his youth and dedicated this wealth to God for the adornment of the Church, the true tabernacle.
In this classic of Christian mysticism, Gregory reads the entire story of Moses as an allegory of the spiritual life. Whenever the bare historical details of the text create moral or rational difficulties, he finds a “spiritual” meaning beneath the surface. This is what he did with the detail that the Israelites on their way out of Egypt plundered the wealth of their former oppressors. He equates the “Egyptian wealth” with the learning of pagan cultures–the Egyptians of Moses’ time and the Greeks and Romans of his own. He praised Basil the Great for his extensive learning in pagan arts and sciences.
One of my majors in college was geography, and as a Neutestamentler I have also had some training in the study of history. Both are “field-encompassing fields.” You can’t just learn history or geography; studies in those fields will eventually lead one to dabble in a handful of other disciplines. Sociology and linguistics are more or less obvious examples, but sometimes a historian must go even further afield. He or she may be called on to learn a little astronomy to interpret the timing of events such as comets and eclipses as an aid to establishing ancient chronology, agriculture and animal husbandry in order to understand farming practices and technology, medicine in order to interpret physical conditions described in texts written before the advent of modern medicine, and so on. The field-encompassing nature of these disciplines is probably one of the main reasons I am personally drawn to them, which may be a highly academic way of confessing that I have a very short attention span.
Hopefully, however, I’ve acquired a small bit of “Egyptian wealth” in this sense. A liberal arts education exposes one to a little bit of a lot of disciplines (science, economics, history, mathematics, etc.)—for some, enough to make them think they know something; for others, enough to convince them there is much more to learn. In the spirit of Gregory, I would like to think that my meager “wealth” is at God’s disposal, to bring beauty to his spiritual house.
Not every Christian would agree with Gregory about the value of this “Egyptian wealth,” however. Tertullian famously asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” By that he meant, What does profane learning have to do with the things of the spirit? There are plenty of Tertullianists around today who reject the idea that Christians can learn anything from unbelievers. There was a fairly recent outbreak of this attitude at Patrick Henry College when a couple of faculty members wrote a paper about “The Role of General Revelation in Education.”
Others—thankfully the majority over the course of Christian history—have seen the wisdom of learning whatever can be known, even if pagans teach it. Justin Martyr was an early proponent of this view, which is also found in Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and many others. These heroes of the faith would have agreed with the concluding paragraph of the paper cited above:
When we examine the writings of any author, professed Christian or otherwise, the proper question is not, “Was this man a Christian?” but “Is this true?” Nor should we spend much time looking for points of disagreement. Rather we should focus on taking what has been rightly said and submitting it to the service of Christ.
I hope my students figure this out early in their college careers. When they take their classes in economics, physics, or English literature, they are storing up treasure they can place at Christ’s disposal. It doesn’t matter where that knowledge came from. It only matters if it’s true.