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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:
City of God: Chapter 6

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 6.—That All Marvels are Not of Nature’s Production, But that Some are Due to Human Ingenuity and Others to Diabolic Contrivance.

At this point they will perhaps reply, “These things have no existence; we don’t believe one of them; they are travellers’ tales and fictitious romances;” and they may add what has the appearance of argument, and say, “If you believe such things as these, believe what is recorded in the same books, that there was or is a temple of Venus in which a candelabrum set in the open air holds a lamp, which burns so strongly that no storm p. 457 or rain extinguishes it, and which is therefore called, like the stone mentioned above, the asbestos or inextinguishable lamp.”  They may say this with the intention of putting us into a dilemma:  for if we say this is incredible, then we shall impugn the truth of the other recorded marvels; if, on the other hand, we admit that this is credible, we shall avouch the pagan deities.  But, as I have already said in the eighteenth book of this work, we do not hold it necessary to believe all that profane history contains, since, as Varro says, even historians themselves disagree on so many points, that one would think they intended and were at pains to do so; but we believe, if we are disposed, those things which are not contradicted by these books, which we do not hesitate to say we are bound to believe.  But as to those permanent miracles of nature, whereby we wish to persuade the sceptical of the miracles of the world to come, those are quite sufficient for our purpose which we ourselves can observe or of which it is not difficult to find trustworthy witnesses.  Moreover, that temple of Venus, with its inextinguishable lamp, so far from hemming us into a corner, opens an advantageous field to our argument.  For to this inextinguishable lamp we add a host of marvels wrought by men, or by magic,—that is, by men under the influence of devils, or by the devils directly,—for such marvels we cannot deny without impugning the truth of the sacred Scriptures we believe.  That lamp, therefore, was either by some mechanical and human device fitted with asbestos, or it was arranged by magical art in order that the worshippers might be astonished, or some devil under the name of Venus so signally manifested himself that this prodigy both began and became permanent.  Now devils are attracted to dwell in certain temples by means of the creatures (God’s creatures, not theirs), who present to them what suits their various tastes.  They are attracted not by food like animals, but, like spirits, by such symbols as suit their taste, various kinds of stones, woods, plants, animals, songs, rites.  And that men may provide these attractions, the devils first of all cunningly seduce them, either by imbuing their hearts with a secret poison, or by revealing themselves under a friendly guise, and thus make a few of them their disciples, who become the instructors of the multitude.  For unless they first instructed men, it were impossible to know what each of them desires, what they shrink from, by what name they should be invoked or constrained to be present.  Hence the origin of magic and magicians.  But, above all, they possess the hearts of men, and are chiefly proud of this possession when they transform themselves into angels of light.  Very many things that occur, therefore, are their doing; and these deeds of theirs we ought all the more carefully to shun as we acknowledge them to be very surprising.  And yet these very deeds forward my present arguments.  For if such marvels are wrought by unclean devils, how much mightier are the holy angels! and what can not that God do who made the angels themselves capable of working miracles!

If, then, very many effects can be contrived by human art, of so surprising a kind that the uninitiated think them divine, as when, e.g., in a certain temple two magnets have been adjusted, one in the roof, another in the floor, so that an iron image is suspended in mid-air between them, one would suppose by the power of the divinity, were he ignorant of the magnets above and beneath; or, as in the case of that lamp of Venus which we already mentioned as being a skillful adaptation of asbestos; if, again, by the help of magicians, whom Scripture calls sorcerers and enchanters, the devils could gain such power that the noble poet Virgil should consider himself justified in describing a very powerful magician in these lines:

“Her charms can cure what souls she please,

Rob other hearts of healthful ease,

Turn rivers backward to their source,

And make the stars forget their course,

And call up ghosts from night:

The ground shall bellow ’neath your feet:

The mountain-ash shall quit its seat,

And travel down the height;” 1502

if this be so, how much more able is God to do those things which to sceptics are incredible, but to His power easy, since it is He who has given to stones and all other things their virtue, and to men their skill to use them in wonderful ways; He who has given to the angels a nature more mighty than that of all that lives on earth; He whose power surpasses all marvels, and whose wisdom in working, ordaining, and permitting is no less marvellous in its governance of all things than in its creation of all!


Footnotes

457:1502

Æneid, iv. 487–491.


Next: Chapter 7

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