This article is another in the series on the early Christian apologists. Minucius Felix, a lawyer, came from Latin speaking Africa. On a certain day, he and two friends and colleagues were walking along the seashore near the Tiber at Ostia, a seaport of Rome. During their excursion they engaged in a discussion and debate regarding the Christian religion. Octavius was a Christian; Caecilius was a pagan.
After Caecilius makes a worshipful gesture toward a statue of the god, Serapis, Octavius criticizes his friend, Minucius, for being remiss in urging his friend to avoid pagan idolatry. The three men find a place to sit with Minucius sitting in between his two friends. Caecilius disturbed by Octavius’ criticism proposes a discussion between him and Octavius.
Caecilius begins by criticizing Christians, largely ignorant and illiterate, for being so certain about the divine majesty when things are uncertain and doubtful. By observing the world one should not conclude that providence is guiding it, but rather chance and fortune. He concludes that it is better to adhere to traditional forms of religion rather than the recent opinions of the Christians.
Caecilius continues in severe criticism of the Christians, who though they are willing to die for their faith, are fearful of death after dying. Our interlocutor condemns the Christians for worshipping a crucified man who is said to have the head of an ass (depicted in ancient graffiti). The Christians also are said to be initiated with the blood of an infant and practice incestuous sexual immorality, for they call one another brother and sister. They despise the temples and altars of the public religion of the gods, meeting at night when they hide their abominations.
The Christians are criticized for performing their rites in secret, having no temples or images or altars. What do they have to hide, crimes and shameful things? Caecilius goes on to condemn the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead and the judgment of human beings. Human beings are judged not because of what they will but according to destiny, so that they are punished for that which is not in their control.
In this life Christians are in want and poverty and other sorts of suffering including persecution for their faith. God does not come to their aid which shows He is ineffective and weak. A God who cannot rescue you now is not able to bring you back to life through resurrection from the dead.
Caecilius points out that Christians abstain from the public entertainments. Believers in Christ neither live in enjoyment of life or rise from the dead. Caecilius counsels Christians who are a rustic people to stop digging into the mysteries of the world. They don’t understand civil matters, how can they understand divine ones? He advises Christians to take the counsel of Socrates who didn’t delve into divine matters. He said, “What is above us is nothing to us.” Socrates was wise in that he realized that he knew nothing. To confess that one is ignorant is the epitome of wisdom. The lesson to be learned is that things uncertain should be left alone.
Caecilius challenges Octavius to reply to his arguments. Octavius takes up a defense of the Christian faith. He maintains that what is important is not the authority of the one who is arguing but the truth of the argument itself. Octavius asserts that the first thing of importance is to know oneself, that is, a person should look around to see what he is, whence he is and why he is. We were meant for such reflection; for, we unlike the beasts look toward heaven and not as they toward earth. When we look around at earth and sky it should be evident that God exists by whom nature is inspired, moved, nourished, and governed.
God orders the world, arranges and perfects it. He is beyond our sight and grasp. We are too limited to understand the immensity that is God. We must understand that the name of God is simply God. We need names to describe a multitude; but, God is alone and One.
Octavius then reviews the theology of the philosophers beginning with Thales of Miletus who believed that God created all things out of water. Others taught that air was God out of which all things were created. Democritus, the discoverer of atoms, maintained that nature is God. Though opinions varied among them, generally the ancient philosophers taught the unity of God. Plato wrote of the One God that because of His power is difficult to comprehend. Like Plato and others we believe in God, the parent of all, whom we do not speak of in public except when interrogated. Octavius comments that one would think that the philosophers were Christians or the Christians philosophers.
The gods are associated with silly myths and are corrupting to the youth. Their origin really has to do with the regard the ancients had for their heroes and leaders who were elevated by them to the status of deity as recounted by Euhemerus. The poets like Homer are complicit in this corruption that follows people to old age. The gods are born and die, though a god actually does neither. The gods are men whom the people worship with fabricated images.
The claim that the Romans owe their power to the gods is false. It was their fierceness that gained them an empire. Their greatness comes from sacrilegious behavior.
The demons have been involved in superstitions leading the people into depravity. They influence religious practices that call people away from the true God to material things.
The demons sow hatred of Christians who take possession of the mind so that we are hated before people know us. Demons stir hatred of Christians, accusing them of terrible crimes, though unproven. Christians are accused of incest, adultery, and parricide that are actually crimes of the Gentiles. Christians are accused of sacrificing infants; but in fact, it is the Gentiles who expose and abort their children. These practices, based on pagan teaching, are abhorrent to Christians who shrink from shedding human blood. They do not permit incest, though pagan gods engage in it as do the Gentiles. Christians teach the bond of a single marriage, love one another, and act modestly.
Against the charge of concealing what they worship, Octavius says that no image need be made, for humans are in the image of God. The whole world is God’s temple. The might of God who dwells far and wide should not be shut up in one small building. The best sacrifice is a dedicated mind and consecrated heart. Our sacrifices are innocence, justice, and uprightness. The most just are the most religious. In His works we see God like the sun in heaven diffused everywhere. God is present everywhere.
All things that come into being come to an end. The philosophers concur in this belief which they learned from prophetic truth. Pythagoras and Plato adhere to the doctrine of reincarnation. God can reform human beings but through resurrection, not reincarnation. Since God created humanity, He can resurrect us. Human beings were nothing before they existed, so they are nothing before being resurrected.
Christians shall be rewarded with eternal felicity; the evil with everlasting punishment. Christians exceed non-Christians in righteousness. Human beings are not punished for the star under which they were born, but for their disposition, wishing to be good rather than prodigal. We are disciplined by adversity.
All are called to the true religion. Christians reject the superstitions of the Gentiles.
At the end of the dialogue Caecilius responds to Octavius with conversion to the Christian religion.
What do we learn from this conversion that took place along the banks of the Tiber? Included would be:
- Avoid hearsay in your witness and defense and at all times. It is most often wrong. Christians have suffered because of false rumor. Let us make sure our information is correct. With gentleness and respect correct false information about Christ and Christians in one’s conversations with others.
- Stand firm on the certainty of truth. Truth is not impossible to establish. God does exist and works among us. We don’t know everything about Him; but, we know what is essential to living and salvation.
- We are responsible for our moral behavior. Repentance, not excuses, is the appropriate response to wrongdoing and sin.
- Important is the truth of an argument. Defend the truth and avoid falsehood.
- It is important to know oneself. Only by knowing God can we know ourselves.
- Idolatry is to be avoided. We are not to worship the creature, but the Creator.
Michael G. Tavella
Baptism of Our Lord
January 7, 2024