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THE ADVERSUS GENTES OF ARNOBIUS: A STUDY IN CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS.
BY ALFRED W. NEWTON, M.A. I DIVIDE my paper to-night into two parts. The first will deal with Arnobius and his work; the second with the question which is suggested by his writings, namely: whether it is consistent with the character of God, as worshipped by Christians, to believe Him to be the sole author of the physical world and of the laws regulating it.
Part I. There is very little known about Arnobius himself. He is believed to have been a native of Africa, and a teacher of rhetoric at Sicca Veneria, in Numidia Proconsularis. His work, Adversus Gentes, which may be translated, “ An Attack on the Heathen,” is believed, from internal evidence to have been written just before the great persecution begun by Diocletian, in 303 A.D., and which lasted about ten years. It is also believed that Arnobius died as a martyr during that persecution. As it was only severe in the West during the first two years, it is probable that his martyrdom took place between 303 and 305 A.D.
The region where he lived is remarkable in the early history of Christianity for the fervour of its disciples and the number of the apologists that it produced.
During the first five centuries of Christianity there lived fifteen apologists of note whose works have come down to us. Of these fifteen, six were natives of Africa, and four of the six came from this region. These were Tertullian, Arnobius, Lactantius, and Augustine, all of whom, it is interesting to note, were professors of rhetoric.
The population of this part of Africa was a mixed one, composed of the descendants of Phænician settlers, Roman colonists, Greek traders, and the native Numidians or Berbers. Although Sicca was a Roman colony, and was noted for the worship of Venus (hence its name, Sicca Veneria), still the account of that worship that has come down to us shows that it was really the Phænician goddess, Astarte, who was the object of worship, under another name. The revolting character of this worship no doubt disgusted Arnobius, and helped to make him a Christian. For he himself tells us that he had been an idolater. His book is a storehouse of knowledge for those who study the ancient myths and religions of Greece and Rome.
Sicca has become the modern Keff, about a hundred miles from Tunis, now in the occupation of the French. Some thirty miles from Sicca lay Madaura, the birthplace of Apuleius, and, about ten miles from it, Thagaste, the birthplace of Augustine. From the Novel of Apuleius and the Confessions of Augustine, a good idea may be gathered of the manners of the people among whom Arnobius lived, taught, and suffered martyrdom.
Gibbon, in his History (vol. ii, ch. 15), speaks thus of the early Christian Apologists :-" They exposed with superfluous wit and eloquence the extravagance of Polstheism; they interest our compassion by displaying the innocence and suffering of their injured brethren; but when they would demonstrate the Divine origin of Christianity, they insist much more strongly on the predictions which announced, than on the miracles which accom
panied, the appearance of the Messiah.” He adds, that. their favourite argument might serve to edify a Christian or to convert a Jew, but that this mode of persuasion loses much of its weight and influence when it is. addressed to those who neither understand nor respect the Mosaic dispensation and the prophetic style.
On the whole, Gibbon's description is correct. But Arnobius is an exception to this rule, for he lays great stress on the miracles performed by Christ, as well as on his teaching, as evidence of his divinity.
It is true that he also dwells on the innocence and suffering of the Christians. But every apologist was obliged to do this, because the lying calumnies spread abroad by their enemies were continually renewed, and had to be as continually met. The epithet, “superfluous," applied by Gibbon to the wit and eloquence with which the apologists exposed the extravagance of Polytheism, is surely misplaced. It would have been superfluous to expose Polytheism to Gibbon, but was it superfluous to expose it to those who were slaves to its superstitions ?
Arnobius is also an exception to Gibbon's description in so far as he never quotes Jewish prophecies of the Messiah, and, in fact, appears to be absolutely ignorant of the 0. T.* He only once mentions the Jewish sects, and then with contempt.
We are, therefore, face to face with an interesting problem. . We have in Arnobius a man of learning, well read in Greek literature, living within a hundred miles of the town where Tertullian had written his Apology a century before, and where Cyprian had been bishop fifty years before, who seems to have acquired his Christianity from written accounts of Christ (for he speaks of the Christian books), as well, probably, as from oral teaching, * Throughout this Paper 0. T. = Old Testament; N. T. = New Testament.
and who is yet ignorant of the 0. T. How can this be explained. Perhaps that fragment of nóyou lately discovered at Behnesa (the ancient Oxyrhynchus), in Egypt, may give us some clue. Such collections of Abris, in no way resembling the connected and narrative histories of our Gospels, may have been rapidly disseminated in the same way that Wicliffe and his poor priests spread the knowledge of the Gospel. With the addition of oral teaching, these pamphlets of sayings of our Lord would be sufficient. In Carthage, and in all large centres where there were synagogues and Christian Jews, the teaching would be more exact and more comprehensive.
One explanation is that Arnobius was a Gnostic, a member of one of those sects who claimed a higher knowledge, or yoãows, whose beliefs seem strange and incomprehensible to us in these days, but who, without doubt, have left a strong imprint on Christian thought and even ritual practice (e.g., the use of the holy oil at death).
But it is difficult to believe that Arnobius was a Gnostic. He never uses Gnostic terms, never speaks of the pleroma, the demiourgos, æons, etc., and his confession of faith is of the simplest. It is this :-“We Christians are nothing else but worshippers of the Supreme King and Ruler, with Christ for our Master. If you examine carefully, you will find that nothing else is included in that religion” (Bk. I, c. 27).
It is true that he says that Christ did not die on the cross, but only the human form which he had put on, and which he bore about with him. This statement is supposed by some to be taken from the teaching of Corinthus. But, according to Irenæus, Corinthus taught that Christ was one of the æons, that he descended on Jesus in the form of a dove at baptism, and left him before his crucifixion. Arnobius, on the other hand, never refers to