Minucius Felix and His Answers to Unbelievers
Minucius Felix and His Answers to Unbelievers
The leisurely walk on the beach Marcus Minucius Felix took with his friends Octavius and Cecilius sometimes between the second and third century is reminiscent of the walk J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Hugo Dyson took on the grounds of Oxford University in 1931. In both cases, an open discussion of topics related to faith in Christ generated a spark leading to a conversion.
Three Men on the Italian Shore
Marcus Minucius Felix was probably born in North Africa, a region where Christianity had rapidly developed since its earliest days. His name, as well as the names of his friends, had been found on inscriptions in that region.
Of Minucius’s works, only the Octavius, describing the conversation between these two friends, has come down to us. But it has been sufficient to place Minucius among the greatest rhetoricians of ancient Rome.
No one knows if this conversation actually happened, and if it did in exactly this format, but it doesn’t matter. From its first pages, the reader is taken to the beach in Ostia, the main port near Rome, and is immediately immersed in the experience.
It was early morning on a mild autumn day, when the fierce heat of summer has passed, and the three men decided to take advantage of a brief holiday from their busy lives as lawyers to walk along the shore, so “that both the breathing air might gently refresh our limbs, and that the yielding sand might sink down under our easy footsteps with excessive pleasure.”
Both Minucius and Octavius were converts to Christianity, and this common experience had strengthened their long-standing friendship. Octavius was in Rome temporarily, partially to visit Minucius, who was grateful for his friend’s sacrifice in leaving his family at a time when children are most charming, “while yet their innocent years are attempting only half-uttered words.”
Cecilius, who lived in Rome as a close associate to Minucius, was a firm believer in the Roman religious traditions. The reader is immediately aware of this reality when the three pass by an image of Serapis, an Egyptian god which had become popular in Rome, and Cecilius raises his hand to his mouth and presses a kiss – a gesture of devotion.
This act makes Octavius uncomfortable. Annoyed by Minucius’s apparent indifference, he tells him that friends don’t let friends worship stones.
The camera moves back to the seashore, where the gentle breeze crisped and curled the waves while shaping the sand into a leveled walkway. The soft, fleeting touch of the water on their feet before “retiring and retracing its course” managed to distract Octavius, who began to tell stories on navigation. And the excitement of a group of kids who gesticulated while skipping smooth shells on the water caught both his and Minucius’s curiosity.
But Cecilius was not easily distracted. Offended by Octavius’s suggestion that he had to be rescued from religious ignorance, he could only think of the many arguments he wanted to retort against him.
Concerned about the friend’s distress, Minucius and Octavius agreed to sit on some rocks and hear Cecilius’s reasons. Since Minucius knew both men well, he was chosen to sit in the middle as moderator in the ensuing debate.
Cecilius’s Arguments Against Christianity
Cecilius started his arguments with rational considerations. If all things in human affairs are uncertain and the universe seems to function without rhyme or reason, how can Christians, who are mostly unlearned, pretend to know the truth about God and life? And how could one single God take care of all human events? Besides, if he really ruled over all, why would he allow unjust men to rise to power and just men to be killed, ot allow vital crops to be destroyed?
In uncertainty, Cecilius said, it is best to stick with traditional religions that have stood the test of time. For example, the Romans, with their religious system, had conquered the world. Who would save Christians? A criminal who was executed by crucifixion? He was obviously not providing much help, given that many Christians were poor and miserable.
Besides, Cecilius found the Christians’ belief in life after death quite irrational. If human beings live on after they die, how do they live? “Without a body? Then, as far as I know, there will neither be mind, nor soul, nor life. With the same body? But this has already been previously destroyed. With another body? Then it is a new man who is born, not the former one restored.”
From these legitimate questions, which would be faced by many later Christian authors, Cecilius slips into pure prejudice and hear-say. Although his time was still far from the widespread persecutions that came later, biases were brewing and spreading. Many Romans believed that the absence of images, altars, and temples in Christian worship showed that Christians had something to hide and that they were meeting in secret to celebrate obscene rites (which Cecilius describes in disconcerting detail). Among these, was the sacrifice of children. Moverover, the fact that Christians were predicting the end of this world as we know it was, to many Romans, a sign that they were willing to let it go to ruin.
Cecilius felt better after his speech, being confident that Octavius could not refute his reasons. But Minucius advised him to be cautious, “for it is not worthy of you to exult at the harmony of your discourse, before the subject shall have been more fully argued on both sides; especially since your reasoning is striving after truth, not praise.”
In fact, since truth is sometimes obscure and, in some cases, an “abundance of words imitates the confidence of acknowledged proof,” Minucius found it imperative “as carefully as possible to weigh each particular, that we may, while ready to applaud acuteness, yet elect, approve, and adopt those things which are right.”
Octavius answered Cecilius’s accusations one by one, pointing out where and how they were unfounded. The slanders against Christians are pure hear-say, he said. Far from promoting violence and immorality, Christians honor marriage and value the life of children. It is the pagans, he said, that sacrifice children on altars, abandon newborns, and practice abortion.
As for the power of Rome, it was a result of aggression and crimes, not a gift of its gods. And Christians are not miserable. If they suffer for their faith, they do it with joy. Why are Romans quick to praise heroes who gave their life or limbs for Rome, while denigrating Christians who sacrifice their earthly life for a better hope?
Christians would indeed be miserable if they were truly worshiping wooden crosses or a mere man, and a criminal at that. But that is what pagans do. The Egyptians, for example, worshiped their pharaohs.
As for this world and all that happens in it, an accurate observation suggests order rather than disorder. “Now if, on entering any house, you should behold everything refined, well arranged, and adorned, assuredly you would believe that a master presided over it, and that he himself was much better than all those excellent things. So in this house of the world, when you look upon the heaven and the earth, its providence, its ordering, its law, believe that there is a Lord and Parent of the universe far more glorious than the stars themselves, and the parts of the whole world. ... He orders everything, whatever it is, by a word; arranges it by His wisdom; perfects it by His power.”
But this God is so much greater than our finite minds and can’t be properly represented or explained. “He can neither be seen — He is brighter than light; nor can be grasped — He is purer than touch; nor estimated; He is greater than all perceptions; infinite, immense, and how great is known to Himself alone. But our heart is too limited to understand Him, and therefore we are then worthily estimating Him when we say that He is beyond estimation.”
This, Octavius said, is something all men intuitively believe. Even the pagans, when they raise their hands to the sky, say things like, “Oh God,” “God is great,” “God is true,” and “If God shall permit,” and instinctively think of Jupiter as all-powerful. And many pagan poets and philosophers have come to the same conclusion as Christians about the oneness of God.
As for the lack of ceremonies and outward shows, Christians just don’t feel a need for them. They don’t need, for example, to put garlands on their dead. “We adorn our obsequies with the same tranquility with which we live; and we do not bind to us a withering garland, but we wear one living with eternal flowers from God, since we, being both moderate and secure in the liberality of our God, are animated to the hope of future felicity by the confidence of His present majesty. Thus we both rise again in blessedness, and are already living in contemplation of the future. .... We who bear wisdom not in our dress, but in our mind, we do not speak great things, but we live them; we boast that we have attained what they have sought for with the utmost eagerness, and have not been able to find. Why are we ungrateful? Why do we grudge if the truth of divinity has ripened in the age of our time? Let us enjoy our benefits, and let us in rectitude moderate our judgments; let superstition be restrained; let impiety be expiated; let true religion be preserved.”
This is how Octavius ended his speech. After some time of silence, Cecilius admitted that Octavius’s words were wise. Even though he lost the argument, Cecilius considered himself a winner, since he was now “triumphant over error.” He still had questions, “not as resisting the truth, but as necessary to a perfect training of which on the morrow, as the sun is already sloping to his setting, we shall inquire at length in a more fitting and ready manner.”
The Octavius has come down to us as one of the greatest works of third-century Christian apology, with a clarity, immediacy, and freshness that surpasses the works of other better-known apologists. It also gives a good idea of the arguments Romans wielded against Christian teachings and the prejudices they harbored against Christians, some of which still find uncanny echoes today.
 Marcus Minucius Felix, Octavius, chapter 2.