Was Firmicus Maternus a Christian?

In every age there are those who adopt their religion and their values from the society in which they live, often without considering that this is what in effect they do.  Indeed most people today do this, for instance; and often would say that they “think for themselves”.  But in truth their way of life, their way of thinking, is merely a subset of the menu of values and ideas characteristic of the late 20th century USA.  This is often easier to see in men of a century ago, who all seem “Victorian” to us in every important regard, but who would most certainly have protested their intellectual independence.

In the fourth century, Christianity was becoming fashionable.  This had the evil consequence of creating people who were Christian in name, and unregenerate in heart, word and deed.  Such behaviour might be called hypocritical; but is merely natural, to any man who follows his nose rather than some predefined set of principles.  (Indeed if we mention “principles” to such a man, he may consider us a fool!)  Such men are beneath reason, but none the less normal honest human beings.  The issue of integrity is one that they are not awake enough to perceive.

Anyone who has read the letters of Augustine will encounter many such people.  The letters of Isidore of Pelusium, a little later, show the same process.  “Christianity” is the religion of the state; more, it is the religion which is socially on the rise.  To stand out against this peer pressure is socially dangerous; to profess it opens doors and at least removes one ground of possible offence.  Consequently men adopt it, with as little interference with their lives as may be.  It is merely words.

Today I have been translating Firmicus Maternus, On the error of profane religion, and have reached chapter 6.  I admit that I was predisposed against him.  His work was described as a crude and unsuccessful attack on paganism.  Unsuccessful in literary terms it certainly was;  Ambrosiaster is the only author who might show any knowledge of the work from the time that it was written, ca. 350, to the time that it was discovered in the 16th century.  A quick read of the chapter on Attis revealed nothing against this perceived wisdom.  The work contains a great deal of hard information about late paganism, and is not online. It is routinely referred to by the sort of scribbler who affects to believe that Christ was just a reinvention of Attis or Osiris, so it really should be online.

Yet… in every age, there are also those who sincerely have chosen Christ.  In an age when “Christianity” is fashionable, it will be hard for us to know them unless we meet them.  But as I transcribed his words, I found myself wondering whether he was one.  Firmicus Maternus was an adult convert.  He had participated in the mystery cults, and knew them well; and he detested their superstition and general moral grubbiness.  His anger towards these cheats, these attempts to divert the impulse that leads us towards the light into lust and superstition, is genuine, and appropriate.

In chapter 4 he attacks the Syrian cult of the goddess.  The depraved and effeminate priests draw his lash, and quite rightly too:

It is still necessary to consider what indeed this divinity can be, who enjoys staying in a debauched body, who attaches itself unchaste members, which is placated by the contamination of a polluted body. Blush, O most wretched! God made you otherwise. When your troop arrives before the court of the divine judge, you will bring nothing with you that the god who created you might recognize.

So far, so good.  But then he goes on to address the members of this cult:

Reject this error, source of so many difficulties, give up before it’s too late the profane studies of your mind. Do not damn your body, the work of God, while subjecting yourself to the criminal laws of the devil, and put an end to your disgraces while there is still time. God is rich in mercy, He forgives readily.

4. He leaves ninety sheep to seek the only one which was mislaid; the father returns his robe and prepares a feast for the returned prodigal son. Do not let the multitude of your crimes throw you into despair. The supreme god, through His son Jesus-Christ, our Lord, delivers those who wish it, He forgives readily those who repent, and He does not ask great things to forgive. Faith and repentance are enough for you to repurchase what you have lost by yielding to the wicked urgings of the devil.

Condemnation is easy.  But Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, not to condemn them.  And Firmicus Maternus is able to see this, applied to these vile dancing priests; to implore them to save their souls, to repent, and to come to Christ.  None of this reads like “Join my party.”  Those who see the battle of factions will know that these seek to win, not to convert; to persecute, not to convince.  The words of Firmicus Maternus seem to me to breath the pure air of the gospel.  Would that many of the anti-heretical writers of antiquity had remembered the same.

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