Saint Boniface, Celsus, and Power Missions

English: A statue of Zeus, found at Kameiros, ...
Statue of Zeus. Image via Wikipedia

In some previous posts, I have looked at Saint Boniface as a traditional model for Power Encounter. He used Ecclesiastical power (orders from the pope) and Political power (letters from Charles Martel) to go into pagan German villages and (among other things) desecrate pagan shrines (a clash of Divine power).

I have questioned the value of this, but I admit that it might be effective in Animist cultures where religion is often strongly linked to control of supernatural power. The fact, however, that they eventually killed St. Boniface might be regarded as a vote against his methodology. But how might such behavior be perceived by a non-Christian from a culture that is not animistic?

A possible answer is from the writings of Celsus, an ancient Greek Philosopher (Middle Platonist… with perhaps a bit of Epicurean). He wrote against Christianity probably around 178 AD. He gives his interpretation of Christian Power Encounter via desecration. (True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians, Section X)

“… they assume that by pronouncing the name of their teacher they are armored against the powers of the earth and air and that their God will send armies to protect them. And they teach that no demon, lest it be an evil one, could want to do them harm anyway. And they are quite insistent on the efficacy of the name as a means of protection: pronounce it improperly, they say, and it is ineffective. Greek and Latin will not do; it must be said in a barbarian tongue to work.
Silly as they are, one finds them standing next to a statue of Zeus or Apollo or some other god, and shouting, ‘See here: I blaspheme it and strike it, but it is powerless against me for I am a Christian!’ Does this fellow not see that I might do the same without fear of reprisal to an image of his god? And further, those who do stand next to your little god are hardly secure! You are banished from land and sea, bound and punished for your devotion to [your Christian demon] and taken away to be crucified. Where then is your God’s vengeance on his persecutors? Protection indeed!
You ridicule the images of the gods; I doubt you would be so brave were you to come face to face with Herakles or Dionysus himself; but that is hardly my point. I would call your attention to the well-known fact that the men who tortured your god in person suffered nothing in return; not then, nor as long as they lived. And what new developments have taken place since your story proved false– something that would encourage someone to think that this man was not a sorcerer but the son of God? What are we to think of a god so negligent that he not only permitted his son to suffer as cruel a death as this Jesus did, but who allowed the message he was sent to deliver to perish with him? A long time has passed since then, and nothing has changed. Is there any human father so ruthless as your god? Your answer, ‘It is God’s will that things should happen as they happened.’ And this is as I have said, your answer to everything; he subjected himself to humiliation because it was his will to be humiliated. I would be negligent indeed if I did not suggest that the gods you blaspheme might say it was their will, and better sense would come of the episode if I did. Or one could say that anytime a god is blasphemed he endures it, and that endurance alone does not prove someone a god: one endures unalterable situation as much out of necessity as by choice. Who is to say necessity is not to be reckoned in the case of Jesus? When one considers these things objectively, it is evident that the old gods are rather more effective in punishing blasphemers than is the god of the Christians, and those who blapheme the former are usually caught and punished: just how effective is the Christian god in that respect?”

So what is Celsus arguing?

To Christians who defile pagan statutes/shrines without repercussion:

  • If I, Celsus, defiled Christian religious artifacts would I suffer… probably not.
  • Christians regularly suffer… does their god lack power, or lack will?
  • Jesus was tortured and crucified but those that did it did not suffer punishment. Either Jesus was a sorcerer (and not the son of God), or God is ruthless and negligent.

To Christians who say that bad things happen to Christians because it is God’s will.

  • If it is the will of the Christian god to suffer and endure indignities, who is to say that it is not the same for the Greek gods. If the Christian god can endure blasphemies, who is to say that the Greek gods can endure them any less.
  • Looking at history, it seems like the Greek gods have done a better job of punishing blasphemers and evil doers than the Christian god anyway.

Elsewhere, Celsus makes two more points regarding power:

  •  The Christian god is not all-powerful, else he would have been able to bring creation into line with his purposes.
  • The existence of a willful and disobedient creation that operates contrary to the will of the creator suggests that he is not good; he is ready to reward those who do his will, but is constrained to punish those who do not.

Now, getting back to the issue of Missions… or more specifically, “power missions” (the use of power encounter as a form for spreading the Christian faith):

I am not saying that God has no power. I am not saying that God doesn’t reveal Himself at times by power. Rather, I am suggesting that in many circumstances, power encounter is not missionally beneficial. Although there is evidence of occasional miracles during the centuries leading up to the time of the Emperor Constantine (and I would say up to the present), the moral character, conviction, and love shown to enemies and the needy were more instrumental to its spread (supporting its theology of hope). I really don’t think that has changed. The selfishness, bitterness, immorality, disunity, and (frankly) mediocrity of Christianity today has done far more to stifle its growth than any lack of power.

Demonstration of God’s love in a manner that can be understood and appreciated, tied to a clear presentation of God’s message of hope, should always be given priority. Almost always the power of God through Jesus was done, first of all as an act of compassion, rather than an act of proclamation. The Bible says that He healed because He had compassion on those who were suffering. On those occasions when He did miracles that were not directly linked to compassion (walking on water, the transfiguration, and the ascension, as examples) they were for His disciples, not for the unbelieving masses. Power missions may be appropriate in animistic societies, including such societies with a thin World Religion veneer. Nevertheless, such power should be motivated by, and directed towards compassionate meeting of needs.

Frankly, having to suggest that Christians should interact with the world primarily by expressing the character of God rather than (again primarily) the power of God speaks volumes to the degraded state of much of the church today. This really should be pretty obvious.

One thought on “Saint Boniface, Celsus, and Power Missions

  1. Pingback: From Power Encounter to Love Encounter « MMM — Munson Mission Musings

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