Can a Christian learn from non-Christians? Can you enjoy a painting by an atheist artist? Can you see life more clearly by listening to secular music?
Whatever your stated views on these questions, we all do this all the time. The reality we all experience is that non-Christians have solid insights and an eye for beauty from which we frequently benefit.
Look no further than your morning commute. Your car was designed, built, and sold to you by a team of people, many (most? all?) of whom profess no faith in Christ. The roads and bridges you drive to work every day follow the same pattern. If non-Christians had no ability to perceive truth about God’s world, you couldn’t get to work in the morning.
We take this for granted, yet we rarely consider it theologically. It would make the most sense if those whose hearts and minds have been transformed by the Spirit of God saw God’s truth most clearly in all aspects of life. That seems to be in the indication of verses like 1 Cor. 2:14, Rom. 1:21, and 2 Tim. 3:7.
But John Calvin insisted that we ought to learn from and appreciate the insights and skills of non-Christians. This is a bit surprising, given his emphasis on human depravity. But the knowledge and abilities of unbelievers, Calvin confidently asserts, are gifts they received from the Spirit:
“Whenever we come upon these matters [skill and understanding] in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain 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. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn [deride, demean, blaspheme] and reproach the Spirit himself.”
Did you catch that? Not only do we need to acknowledge that non-Christians have “that admirable light of truth shining in them,” but had better be careful to heed and appreciate their insights lest we demean the Spirit. Those are strong words. He says again:
“We cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects [law, philosophy, medicine, and math] without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude, into which not even the pagan poets fell, for they confessed that the gods had invented philosophy, laws, and all useful arts.”
If the Spirit is the source of the engineer’s knowledge and skill, the artist’s aesthetic sensibilities and prophetic voice, and the philosopher’s quest for and apprehension of the truth, then we had better admire what we see, receive, and learn from non-Christians. If we fail to rejoice in the beauty and truth created and taught by non-Christians, then Calvin tells us to be ashamed of our ungrateful selves. The “pagans” don’t even demean the Spirit in this way because they see a divine source behind these good things.
So when you listen to the music of John Mayer, ride in a BMW, fly in an elevator to the top floor of a skyscraper, or float through the air in a 747, are you led to worship? If not, you demean the Spirit of God, from whom all of God’s good and perfect gifts flow. Don’t be an ingrate. Glorify God for all of the truth and beauty that his Spirit has brought into this world from all sides.