Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Arnobius
Arnobius, an eminent Latin apologist for Christianity. The records of his life are meagre and somewhat uncertain; consisting in a few brief notices by St. Jerome, and another by Trithemius, aided by his own few incidental allusions to himself.
The outbreak of the last great persecution (303‒313) found Arnobius a professor of rhetoric at Sicca, in Africa. His reputation was high, and his pupils numerous and distinguished; among them was Lactantius. Arnobius was a sincere pagan; versed in schemes of philosophy; but none the less an unhesitating and even abject idolator. He was, moreover, active as a lecturer in attacks upon Christianity. The sight, however, of the martyrdoms which followed the edict of Nicomedia appears speedily to have touched him; and a dream or vision (says St. Jerome) warned him to submit to Christ. He presented himself to the church at Sicca; but "they were afraid of him," and demanded from their late enemy some hostage for sincerity. The result was the composition of the Disputations against the Pagans; whether in their present form or not. He was thereupon baptized, and (according to Trithemius) attained the rank of presbyter. Of his subsequent history we know nothing. Some doubt attaches to the exact date of the conversion of Arnobius and publication of his treatise. On the whole the evidence points to some date between 303 and 313 (Hieron. de Scr. Eccl. c. 79; id. in Chronicon Eusebii; Trithemius, de Scr. Eccl. p. 10 a).
The title of Arnobius's work usually appears as Disputationes adversus Gentes; occasionally, adv. Nationes. It is divided into seven books of unequal length. The first two are devoted to the defence of Christianity, the remainder to the exposure of paganism.
Of God, he speaks in the noblest and fullest language of adoration. His existence is assumed (i. 33) as a postulate in the argument. He is the First Cause; the Father and Lord of things; foundation of all; author of only good; unborn; omnipresent; infinite, incorporeal; passionless; shrouded in light; to be known only as the Ineffable (see especially i. 31). Arnobius hesitates, however, over the details of creation; thinking apparently that alike the human soul and the lower animals—insects and reptiles—are the work of some intermediate creator (ii. 36, 47).
Of the Lord Jesus Christ he uses the most glowing language. As a man He is the supreme philosopher and teacher, both of nature and religion. But He is also God: "Deus re certâ: Deus, homo tamen natus; Deus interiorum potentiarum; Deus sublimis; radice ex intimâ; ab incognitis regnis; sospitator, ab omnium principe missus"; His pontificium is to give salvation to the soul; He is the only path to light; His followers alone are saved; He is stronger than fate. Some doubt may, perhaps, be thrown over the extent of these ascriptions of deity by the vague language with which Arnobius speaks of the gods (see below). But with every deduction they are magnificent, and at least lie in the direction of the fullest orthodoxy. The allusions to the incarnation, life, and death of the Redeemer are numerous. The first is somewhat vaguely described as the assumption of a man to the self, the God; its motive was the presentation of the God to human senses, and the general performance of Christ's mission. His resurrection and the subsequent appearances are insisted upon; it is asserted (apparently) that He still appears to the faithful. To the Second Advent there is at most only a doubtful allusion (i. 39). (See generally, i. 36, 65 ; ii. 60.)
On the origin of the Soul he is far more speculative than is his wont. Its sin, imperfection, and inborn infirmity (he holds) forbid the belief that it comes direct from the Supreme Cause. It cannot for the like reasons be immortal (i.e. absolutely and per se); it outlives the body, but depends wholly on the gift of God for eternal duration. After death there awaits the evil a second death, a Gehenna of unquenchable fire, in which gradually they are consumed and annihilated (see especially ii. 15‒54). The resurrection of the flesh is emphatically asserted, but in somewhat obscure terms (ii. 13).
Of the existence of gods he speaks with much ambiguity. The actual objects of heathen worship he concludes from the nature of their mythology and ritual to be real but evil beings. But he nowhere denies that there exist also dii boni; only he views them (if existent) as mere reflexes of the Supreme Nature, and as in no sense distinct objects of worship and prayer. In worshipping the Supreme (he argues), we worship by implication—if to be worshipped they are—such gods as are gods indeed.
On the nature and efficacy of prayer he uses perplexing language. His belief apparently is that in the present life all externals are fixed by an immovable destiny (vii. 10); that prayer is useful only as a means of divine communion; but he yet describes the prayers of the Christian church as petitions for peace and pardon for all classes of mankind; the emperor, the magistrate, the armies, etc. (iv. 36). Prayer is regarded as (in some sense not specified) efficacious for the dead (l.c.). Arnobius asserts the "freedom of the will"; God calls man "non vi sed gratiâ" (ii. 64).
In the latter books his arguments against heathen sacrifices are so managed as logically to exclude altogether the sacrifices both of the Jewish temple and of the Cross. Of idol-worship and incense he speaks in terms which prove that he can have known nothing of images, or incense, or a local presence, in the conventicula of the Christians.
Of the Holy Scriptures Arnobius appears to have known very little. He makes some acute remarks (i. 58) on the rude style of the evangelists, but only one text (I. Cor. iii. 19) is quoted verbatim; and even this is introduced as illud vulgatum (ii. 6). He records apocryphal miracles as evangelical (i. 46, 53); he knows nothing of any promise of temporal happiness (ii. 76); he confuses the Pharisees with the Sadducees (iii. 12). Of the O.T. he was apparently quite ignorant. In one passage (iii. 10) he even seems to speak of it with disrespect; though the passage has been explained of the Rabbinical books. In many places he shews by implication a total ignorance of the national election and the ritual of the Jews (to whom he scarcely alludes at all), and of the Scriptural prophecies and chronology. These phenomena are, of course, in great measure accounted for by the alleged circumstances of the composition of the work. They render more remarkable the faintness of the tinge of Gnosticism in its pages. Obviously the authority of Arnobius on points of Christian doctrine is reduced almost ad nihilum by these indications; and we can hardly wonder that in the 5th cent. his treatise was banished by pope Gelasius to the index of apocryphal works.
Critical opinions on the merits of Arnobius have been very various. St. Jerome's verdict varies between praises of his libri luculentissimi and censure of his defects as inaequalis, nimius, confusus, in style, method, and doctrine. Dr. Woodham (in his edition of Tertullian's Apology, preliminary Essays, ed. 1850) protests against the obscurity and neglect which have attended his name; holds that his "peculiar position and character invest his sentiments and reasoning with very singular interest and value"; pronounces him to be in some respects "the keenest of the apologists," and to be remarkably apposite to the popular arguments of modern times (pp. 21, 29, 52, 53).
To the whole of this verdict we subscribe. Arnobius presents as a man a mind and character combining much ardour with much common sense. His sincerity is eminently manifest. He has apprehended to a degree nowhere and never common the great fact of human ignorance. As a writer, he appears as the practised and facile, but not very fanciful, rhetorician of his time and country; and is even a master and model of that peculiar style of a declining age which consists in a subtle medium between the dictions of poetry and of prose.
As a storehouse of old Latinity and of allusions to points of antiquity—to heathen mythology and ceremonial; to law, education, and amusements—his work is of the greatest interest and importance.
The following editions of Arnobius may be mentioned:—1816, Leipz., J. C. Orellius (excellent for a full and learned commentary); Halle, 1844, ed. G. F. Hildebrand; Paris, 1844, Migne's Patr. Lat.; Reifferscheid, Vienna, 1875 (Corpus Script. Eccl. Lat. iv.). For an Eng. trans. see Ante-Nicene Lib. (T.& T. Clark).