The Invisible God and the Visible Image

AROV/ND THE TV/RN of the third century, just before the earliest known date that Roman Christians began to adorn the walls of their burial plates (with figurative art), a professional advocate and North African Christian convert, Marcus Minucius Felix, summarized a (probably fictional) debate between a Christian named Octavius and a polytheist named Caecilius. The dispute was over the credibility, morality, and value of Christian faith> and, although at the end Caecilius is converted, he offers some expected pagan criticism of Christian teachings and practices, including their lack of divine images. That Christians did things in secret surely indicated their shame and perversity. That they believed their god to be invisible, omniscient, and omnipresent demonstrated their gullibility:

Why else should they go to such pains to hide and conceal whatever it is they worship , . . why do they have no altars, no temples, no publicly known images?... Eiesidess look at the fantastic, unnatural creature that these Christians have devised! They make that god of theirs—whom they are unable to show to others or see for themselves—they make him pry with scrupulous care into the moi"als and ¿idiom; of all men, even down to their words and hidden thoughts; he has to rush to and froN he has to be present everywhere!1

Octavius answered Caecilius s objections by asserting God's essential transcendence of human vision and knowledge:

Now you think that if we have neither temples nor altars we are concealing the object of our worship? Bui what image would 1 fashion for God, seeing that humans rightly consider themselves the image of God? What temple would I erect to him> seeing that this. enlire universe, ihe work of his hands, cannot contain him? Would I enclose the might of such majesty within the

Lon ñ nci ai s ii ngle diapcl, while ]. j mjnh ni .n lodge marc spaciously? Hua bcller course h yuu " u-i asjce, il m he dlûuld be dtdifated in Our mindg, di rather consecrated Ln om hearts.

Octavius's response clearly echoes Pauls speech to the Athenians» -is retour ted i:i AcI,h l7.ThctCit ^i^iMs that i\nA\ address was given at the behest of devout jews as well as Stoii and Epicurean philosophers, with w Ik > m h l- h,i d bien a rgu ing. Although hi- wa líí^i res sec I to .see that their city w« full of idols, Paul opened, smnewlut surprisingly; by mm -plutienting his audience on theii extreme religiosity. In particular lit rtnk'd. 111 L1 y fi ad an altar dedicaled to an "unknown god." Making this altar his object lesson and undoubtedly hoping to lind some common ground wilh his intellectually sophisticated listeners, Paul announced that christians ic -.1 -¡i|.-i this "unknown Cïod,71 a god who "does not live in shrines'" and is not made of gold, silver, or stone, "an image formed by the art and imagination OÍ mortals'" [Acts 17:22-29).

Octavius, like PauL draws upon the teachings of Greek and Roman poets and philosophers to support his contention rh.n rrn- Christian C:od is far above needing a human shelter or service, far beyond human vision or knowledge, I his God, he says, "cannot he seen; he i^ too bright for sight, 1 II.' \ .Liiinii \k grasped; he i-ï um> pure Itir touch, I le cannot be measured; he is too great for our senses a boundless infinity, sharing with himself alone the knowledge or Iti-^ vastness^ Octavius continues, denying that anyone can know the magnitude oí God or seek a name tor God. Tide or personal names distinguish individuals in a unuip. ^hiL t ¡od is unique. "Should I c,ill Him father you wou (.1 consider lIilU He is earthly; should I call II im kiiii;. you ^ i ■ L^ i suspect [hat He i^]ll of flesh; should I call I tim lord, you would certainly understand that He is mortal Remove the aggregate of names and you will see clearly Iii-* splendor."' All these ^ i li t h are well known to the common people as well ^ poets and such philosophers Pythagoras, ^ntisthenes, Epicures Aristotle, /am. ,n;d IN.lih. All these philosophers hold opinions Lpretty well iiril-.hI irH ours"1

After pronouncing those who fail tu understand the definitive unknnwahility of ihi- unique, unrepresentable, and unnamahle (.¡mil. Octavius goes on to ridicule anyone deluded and superstitious enough to offet ;itlIvl'i lir sacrifice ro images nf the pagan gods. Nu matte* how artistically elegant, i1il>l t h i n v; could be nothing more than dead i ih i ec L-- in lkI e ;i y l i rd i nry human l i ,i ft. Even animals, birds, a ixl i n sect s realized their worthlessness as they trampled oven perched on, and built nests or webs in such idols, leaving them for "you to wipe, dean, and nwnr, thus prnk'Lii:^, und yel dreading gods you have made ytnn-selves." Anyone3 Ik- who would take part in rituals involving these images nr their supposed guds iL- h nth laughable and piliahle, deluded and of unsound mind.


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