The insignificance of the amount of gold, silver, and clothing which that people took away with it from Egypt, in comparison with the wealth that it later attained in Jerusalem, as shown particularly in the reign of Solomon, is the measure of the insignificance of all knowledge, I mean useful knowledge, that is collected from pagan books, when compared with the knowledge contained in the divine scriptures. For what a person learns independently of scripture is condemned there if it is harmful, but found there if it is useful. And when one has found there all the useful knowledge that can be learnt anywhere else, one will also find there, in much greater abundance, things which are learnt nowhere else at all, but solely in the remarkable sublimity and the remarkable humility of the scriptures.
— On Christian Teaching, Augustine, last para of Book 2.
Augustine recognised that there is a lot of good to gained from knowledge from the writings of the ‘pagans’. This is of course rooted in the doctrine of God’s creation and his common grace. So Christians should learn what they can. Of course there is a lot of nonsense out there and stuff that is downright evil, but with discernment there is much to be gained.
However, Christians need to have the right perspective, and seeing clearly is one of our problems. If we see the Scripture as another ‘subject’, a kind of add-on to all that other knowledge, then we have the wrong perspective. We have not got the right prescription for our knowledge glasses.
Augustine helps us get the right perspective by using an analogy drawn from the biblical story. He notes that when the Israelites finally left Egypt, they were able to take with them much gold, silver and fine cloth that belonged to the Egyptians – things of this world but which furnished them with the materials necessary for making the Tabernacle. But it was nothing compared to the splendour of the kingdom under Solomon, by the grace of God.
It is just an analogy, but it helps us vividly see that whatever we gain from the world’s knowledge, it is small compared to the benefit to be obtained from knowing and plumbing the depths of God’s word. For many of us, that is hard to see. We don’t have this perspective. That’s why we need writers like Augustine, godly friends and faithful preachers, who can help us get the perspective we need so that we can see more and more clearly the riches found in scripture.