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§ 39. The Defense against Heathenism.


I. The various Objections and Accusations of the heathens, which we have collected in §

(1) The attack upon the miraculous in the evangelical history the apologists could meet by pointing to the similar element in the heathen mythology; of course proposing this merely in the way of argumentum ad hominem, to deprive the opposition of the right to object. For the credibility of the miraculous accounts in the Gospels, particularly that of the resurrection of Jesus, Origen appealed to the integrity and piety of the narrators, to the publicity of the death of Jesus, and to the effects of that event.

(2) The novelty and late appearance of Christianity were justified by the need of historical preparation in which the human race should be divinely trained for Christ; but more frequently it was urged also, that Christianity existed in the counsel of God from eternity, and had its unconscious votaries, especially among the pious Jews, long before the advent of Christ. By claiming the Mosaic records, the apologists had greatly the advantage as regards antiquity over any form of paganism, and could carry their religion, in its preparatory state, even beyond the flood and up to the very gates of paradise. Justin and Tatian make great account of the fact that Moses is much older than the Greek philosophers, poets, and legislators. Athenagoras turns the tables, and shows that the very names of the heathen gods are modern, and their statues creations of yesterday. Clement of Alexandria calls the Greek philosophers thieves and robbers, because they stole certain portions of truth from the Hebrew prophets and adulterated them. Tertullian, Minucius Felix and others raise the same charge of plagiarism.

(3) The doctrine of the resurrection of the body, so peculiarly offensive to the heathen and Gnostic understanding, was supported, as to its possibility, by reference to the omnipotence of God, and to the creation of the world and of man; and its propriety and reasonableness were argued from the divine image in man, from the high destiny of the body to be the temple of the Holy Spirit, and from its intimate connection with the soul, as well as from the righteousness and goodness of God. The argument from analogy was also very generally used, but often without proper discrimination. Thus, Theophilus alludes to the decline and return of the seasons, the alternations of day and night, the renewal of the waning and waxing moon, the growth of seeds and fruits. Tertullian expresses his surprise that anybody should deny the possibility and probability of the resurrection in view of the mystery of our birth and the daily occurrences of surrounding nature. "All things," he says, "are preserved by dissolution, renewed by perishing; and shall man ... the lord of all this universe of creatures, which die and rise again, himself die only to perish forever?"104104    Apolog. c. 43. Comp. his special tract De resurrectione Carnis, c. 12, where he defends the doctrine more fully against the Gnostics and their radical misconception of the nature and import of the body.03

(4) The charge of immoral conduct and secret vice the apologists might repel with just indignation, since the New Testament contains the purest and noblest morality, and the general conduct of the Christians compared most favorably with that of the heathens. "Shame! shame!" they justly cried; "to roll upon the innocent what you are openly guilty of, and what belongs to you and your gods!" Origen says in the preface to the first book against Celsus: "When false witness was brought against our blessed Saviour, the spotless Jesus, he held his peace, and when he was accused, returned no answer, being fully persuaded that the tenor of his life and conduct among the Jews was the best apology that could possibly be made in his behalf .... And even now he preserves the same silence, and makes no other answer than the unblemished lives of his sincere followers; they are his most cheerful and successful advocates, and have so loud a voice that they drown the clamors of the most zealous and bigoted adversaries."


II. To their defence the Christians, with the rising consciousness of victory, added direct arguments against heathenism, which were practically sustained by, its dissolution in the following period.

(1) The popular religion of the heathens, particularly the doctrine of the gods, is unworthy, contradictory, absurd, immoral, and pernicious. The apologists and most of the early church teachers looked upon the heathen gods not as mere imaginations or personified powers of nature or deifications of distinguished men, but as demons or fallen angels. They took this view from the Septuagint version of Ps. 96:5,105105    Πάντες οἱ θεοὶ τῶν εθνῶν δαιμόνια. Comp. 1 Cor. 10:20.04 and from the immorality of those deities, which was charged to demons (even sexual intercourse with fair daughters of men, according to Gen. 6:2).

"What sad fates," says Minucius Felix, "what lies, ridiculous things, and weaknesses we read of the pretended gods! Even their form, how pitiable it is! Vulcan limps; Mercury has wings to his feet; Pan is hoofed; Saturn in fetters; and Janus has two faces, as if he walked backwards .... Sometimes Hercules is a hostler, Apollo a cow-herd, and Neptune, Laomedon’s mason, cheated of his wages. There we have the thunder of Jove and the arms of Aeneas forged on the same anvil (as if the heavens and the thunder and lightning did not exist before Jove was born in Crete); the adultery of Mars and Venus; the lewdness of Jupiter with Ganymede, all of which were invented for the gods to authorize men in their wickedness." "Which of the poets," asks Tertullian, "does not calumniate your gods? One sets Apollo to keep sheep; another hires out Neptune to build a wall; Pindar declares Esculapius was deservedly scathed for his avarice in exercising the art of medicine to a bad purpose; whilst the writers of tragedy and comedy alike, take for their subjects the crimes or the miseries of the deities. Nor are the philosophers behindhand in this respect. Out of pure contempt, they would swear by an oak, a goat, a dog. Diogenes turned Hercules into ridicule; and the Roman Cynic Varro introduces three hundred Joves without heads." From the stage abuser the sarcastic African father selects, partly from his own former observation, those of Diana being flogged, the reading of Jupiter’s will after his decease, and the three half-starved Herculesses! Justin brings up the infanticide of Saturn, the parricide, the anger, and the adultery of Jupiter, the drunkenness of Bacchus, the voluptuousness of Venus, and he appeals to the judgment of the better heathens, who were ashamed of these scandalous histories of the gods; to Plato, for example, who for this reason banishes Homer from his ideal State. Those myths, which had some resemblance to the Old Testament prophecies or the gospel history, Justin regards as caricatures of the truth, framed by demons by abuse of Scripture. The story of Bacchus, for instance rests in his fanciful view, on Gen. 49:11 sq.; the myth of the birth of Perseus from a virgin, on Is. 7:14; that of the wandering of Hercules, on Ps. 19:6; the fiction of the miracles of Esculapius on Is. 35:1 sqq.

Origen asks Celsus, why it is that he can discover profound mysteries in those strange and senseless accidents, which have befallen his gods and goddesses, showing them to be polluted with crimes and doing many shameful things; whilst Moses, who says nothing derogatory to the character of God, angel, or man, is treated as an impostor. He challenges any one to compare Moses and his laws with the best Greek writers; and yet Moses was as far inferior to Christ, as he was superior to the greatest of heathen sages and legislators.

(2) The Greek philosophy, which rises above the popular belief, is not suited to the masses, cannot meet the religious wants, and confutes itself by its manifold contradictions. Socrates, the wisest of all the philosophers, himself acknowledged that he knew nothing. On divine and human things Justin finds the philosophers at variance among themselves; with Thales water is the ultimate principle of all things; with Anaximander, air; with Heraclitus, fire; with Pythagoras, number. Even Plato not seldom contradicts himself; now supposing three fundamental causes (God, matter, and ideas), now four (adding the world-soul); now he considers matter is unbegotten, now as begotten; at one time he ascribes substantiality to ideas, at another makes them mere forms of thought, etc. Who, then, he concludes, would intrust to the philosophers the salvation of his soul?

(3) But, on the other hand, the Greek apologists recognized also elements of truth in the Hellenic literature, especially in the Platonic and Stoic philosophy, and saw in them, as in the law and the prophecies of Judaism, a preparation of the way for Christianity. Justin attributes all the good in heathenism to the divine Logos, who, even before his incarnation, scattered the seeds of truth (hence the name "Logos spermaticos"), and incited susceptible spirits to a holy walk. Thus there were Christians before Christianity; and among these he expressly reckons Socrates and Heraclitus.106106    Also the Stoics and some of the poets as far as their moral teaching went, Comp. Just. Apol. II.c. 8, and 13.05 Besides, he supposed that Pythagoras, Plato, and other educated Greeks, in their journeys to the East, became acquainted with the Old Testament writings, and drew from them the doctrine of the unity of God, and other like truths, though they in various ways misunderstood them, and adulterated them with pagan errors. This view of a certain affinity between the Grecian philosophy and Christianity, as an argument in favor of the new religion, was afterwards further developed by the Alexandrian fathers, Clement and Origen.107107    See the introduction of E. Spiess to his Logos spermatikos, Leipz. 1871.06

The Latin fathers speak less favorably of the Greek philosophy; yet even Augustin acknowledges that the Platonists approach so nearly to Christian truth that with a change of some expressions and sentences they would be true Christians (in theory).108108    De Vera Religione IV. 7: "Proxime Platonici a veritate Christiana absunt vel veri Christiani sunt paucis mutatis verbis atque sententiis." Retract. I. 13: "Res ipsa quae nunc religio Christiana nuncupatur, erat apud antiquos, nec defuit ab initio generis humani., quousque Christus veniret in carnem, unde vera religio, quae jam erat, coepit appellari Christiana." Comp. Lactantius, De Falsa Religione, I. 5; De Vita Beata, VII. 7; Minucius Fel., Octav. 2007



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