Friday, October 11, 2013

Firmicus Maternus: Early Christianity's Theonomy Apologist

Firmicus Maternus was an important figure during early Christendom in the fourth century. A learned member of the senatorial class, he was a public advocate and a pagan astrologer before becoming a Christian. As a Christian, he was an apologist[1] who aggressively opposed paganism. He is known for his polemical work, The Error of the Pagan Religions

As seen in this book, Firmicus is one of early Christianity's firstif not the firsttheonomy apologists. Throughout Error of the Pagan Religions, Firmicus addresses co-emperors and sons of Constantine, Constantius II and Constans.[2] This includes frequent appeals to the emperor-brothers to restrain idolatry. It is possible that such appeals had a positive effect on imperial legislation. Clarence A. Forbes writes:
Surely Firmicus knew the recent imperial decree of 341: "Superstition shall cease; the madness of sacrifices shall be abolished"; and the watered-down affirmation of the same in 342. But he also knew that these decrees were being honored more in the breach than in the observance, and he was clamorous for stronger decrees with definite penalties attached and aggressive enforcement. Turning to the Theodosian Code (16.10.4), we encounter an imperial decree whose date is clearly given as 346 (though scholars have disputed the correctness of the date): the temples are to be closed everywhere "so as to deny to all abandoned men the opportunity to commit sin"; anyone guilty of the crime of sacrificing must be struck down with the avenging sword; and provincial governors who fail to enforce the edict are subject to execution. This sterner decree has been thought by Alfons Müller to have been evoked partly by the appeal of Firmicus to the Caesars, and indeed it is not only in accord with Firmicus' wishes but also, unlike any other antipagan decree in the Theodosian Code, employs a favorite appellative of Firmicus for the pagans: perditi, "abandoned men."[3] 

Excerpts  from The Error of the Pagan Religions by Firmicus Maternus

Firmicus on how idolatry promotes evil; the need to eradicate it; and the "medicinal value" and blessings for suppressing it

3. Call them tombs, Most Holy Emperors, not temples. Rather call them the pyres of unhappy wretches. For in honor of children of perdition the pathetic servility of mankind has built temples instead of sepulchers. Here are kept the ashes of cremated bodies, here in accord with a godless law are laid away the ashes of the dead, so that the daily blood of victims may commemorate afresh their bitter end, so that the mournful lament for their doom may be revived in sad memorials year by year, so that a fresh wailing may awaken again the slumbering tears, so that from the rituals of cult the wretched mentality of human beings may learn to honor parricide and incest and murderand learn to do them, too. 

An Appeal to the Emperors to Smite Paganism

4. These practices must be eradicated, Most Holy Emperors, utterly eradicated and abolished. All must be set aright by the severest laws of your edicts, so that the ruinous error of this delusion may no longer besmirch the Roman world, so that the wickedness of this pestilential usage may no longer wax strong, and so that whatever aims at the downfall of the man of God may no longer prevail upon the earth. Some people object and resist, and passionately crave their own ruin. But rescue these poor fellows, and deliver them from perishing! The Supreme Deity entrusted to you the sovereignty precisely that through you the affliction of this wound may be healed. We know the dangerous nature of their crime, and we know what punishments are appropriate for delusion; but it is better for you to save them against their will than to let them follow their wishes into perdition. 
[editor's note: hopefully, Firmicus is not hear teaching that restraint of idolatry is sufficient to save souls; hopefully what he means instead is that the restraint of idolatry removes stumbling blocks (so as not to exclude the sufficiency of faith in Christ for salvation)]
5. Sick persons like what is not good for them, and when ill health takes control of the human frame the sufferers make perverse demands, counter to their own welfare. The mind, preyed upon by the languor of affliction, incessantly craves what will merely aggravate the disease, spurns with contempt the healing arts, and hastens with impatient desire to its own downfall. Then if the mischief of the disease grows worse, stouter remedies are invoked; the medical art, solicitous for the patient's welfare, resorts to sterner measures. Disagreeable foods and bitter potions are forced upon the unwilling sufferer, and if the trouble worsens both cautery and knife are tried. So when the patient recovers his health and has his well-being restored, he acknowledges with a revival of sound judgment that whatever was done to him against his will for the infirmity of his sick body, was all done for his own good.[4]

Take away, yes, calmly take away, Most Holy Emperors, the adornments of the temples. Let the fire of the mint or the blaze of the smelters melt them down, and confiscate all the votive offerings to your own use and ownership. Since the time of the destruction of the temples you have been, by God's power, advanced in greatness. You have overthrown your enemies, enlarged the Empire, and, to add greater luster to your exploits, altering and scorning the fixed order of the seasons you have done in the winter what was never done before or will be again: you have trodden upon the swollen and raging waters of the Ocean. The wave of a sea already become almost unknown to us has trembled beneath your oars, and the Briton has quailed before the unexpected visage of the Emperor. What more would you have? Vanquished by your exploits, the elements have bowed to you.[5] 

Let the Emperors Stamp Out Paganism and Be Rewarded by God

Ch. 29] But on you also, Most Holy Emperors, devolves the imperative necessity to castigate and punish this evil, and the law of the Supreme Deity enjoins on you that your severity should be visited in every way on the crime of idolatry. Hear and store up in your sacred intelligence what is God's commandment regarding this crime. 

In Deuteronomy this law is written, for it says: But if thy brother, or thy son, or thy wife that is in thy bosom, or thy friend who is equal to thy own soul, should ask thee, secretly saying: Let us go and serve other gods, the gods of the Gentiles; thou shalt not consent to him nor hear him, neither shall thy eye spare him, and thou shalt not conceal him. Announcing thou shalt announce about him; thy hand shall be first upon him to kill him, and afterwards the hands of all the people; and they shall stone him and he shall die, because he sought to withdraw thee from thy Lord. 2. He bids spare neither son nor brother, and thrusts the avenging sword through the body of a beloved wife. A friend too He persecutes with lofty severity, and the whole populace takes up arms to rend the bodies of sacrilegious men. 
[editor's note: in the previous and upcoming Bible quote, I'm not sure what Bible translation Firmicus here uses - he may be roughly summarizing, as he doesn't include all the word the KJV uses]
Even for whole cities, if they are caught in this crime, destruction is decreed; and that your providence may more plainly learn this, I shall quote the sentence of the established law. In the same book the Lord establishes the penalty for whole cities with the following words, for He says: Or if in one of the cities which the Lord thy God gives thee to dwell in, thou hear men saying: Let us go and serve other gods which you know not: killing thou shalt slay all who are in the city with the death of the sword, and shalt burn the city with fire. And it shall be without a habitation, nor shall it be built any more forever, that the Lord may turn from the indignation of His wrath. And He shall give thee mercy, and pity thee, and multiply thee, if thou shalt hear the voice of the Lord thy God and observe His precepts. 

3. To you, Most Holy Emperors, the Supreme Deity promises the rewards of His mercy and decrees a multiplication on the greatest scale. Therefore do what He bids; fulfill what He commands. Your first efforts have been crowned abundantly with major rewards. While in the status of neophytes in the faith you have felt the increase of the divine favor. Never has the worshipful hand of God abandoned you; never has He refused you aid in your distress. The ranks of your foemen have been laid low, and always the arms that warred against you have been dropped at sight of you. Proud peoples have been subjugated and the Persian hopes have collapsed. Cruelty in its evil array has been unable long to stand against you. You have seen God's power, both of you, each by a different event; on you has been conferred a celestial crown of victory, and by your happy success our troubles are relieved.

4. These rewards, Most Holy Emperors, the Supreme Deity has given you in recognition of your faith; as you are repaid for the time being with these distinctions, He invites you in to the secrets of the worshipful law. With a pure heart, a devout conscience, and incorrupt mind let your clemency ever fix its gaze upon heaven, ever look for help from God, implore the worshipful godhead of Christ, and offer spiritual sacrifices to the God of salvation for the welfare of the world and your own. So will all things come to you in happy success: victories, riches, peace, plenty, health, and triumphs, so that borne forward by the power of God you may govern the world in fortunate sovereignty.[6]  


[1] Firmicus Maternus, The Error of the Pagan Religions, trans. Clarence A. Forbes (New York, NY: Newman Press, 1970), 2, 3
[2] Ibid., 9.
[3] Ibid., 17
[4] Ibid.,  77, 78.
[5] Ibid., 110, 111.
[6] Ibid., 115-117.

photo credit:

Constantius II coin (coin on the left)

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