Enter the Critic Celsus

A second century pagan weighs in on the Supreme Court’s Ten Commandments rulings

In the early years of the church, there appeared Celsus, a pagan critic whose work, “On the True Doctrine,” was refuted point-by-point by the church father Origen. Celsus was a syncretist who sought to combine the religious and philosophical systems of the world. He advocated a universalist religion culled from the writings of Plato, Socrates, the Gnostics, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the religions of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians and Hindus.

Ironically, we would not know of Celsus’ work had it not been for Origen. Although there is no existing copy of Celsus’ work, Origen cites about nine-tenths of the original text in his diatribe, “Against Celsus” (Contra Celsum). It is possible with some guess-work to reconstruct the entire text of Celsus from Origen. In fact, there have been at least two modern English publications of “True Doctrine” by Celsus without Origen’s rebuttal.

Modern critics of Christianity have delighted in Celsus. He foresaw the secular humanist argument in favor of the neutral public square in which pluralism is the state policy. Celsus anticipated the objections that have been raised by modern rationalists and evolutionists. This second century opponent of Christianity argued against the Christian idea of a divine creation of man. Instead, Celsus insisted that the men and animals had a common origin.

Celsus felt insulted by the biblical idea that there could be a “chosen race” or that the Savior of the whole world would be sent to Palestine. Echoing the Platonist idea that all divinities were subject to one God, Celsus wrote, “Why, if God wanted to deliver the human race from evils, did He send this spirit into one corner? He ought to have breathed it alike into many bodies, and have sent them out into all the world” (Contra Celsum 6.78).

However, Celsus’ work is different from other pagan attacks on Christians in the second century. He did not falsely accuse Christians of atheism, cannibalism and incest, as did his contemporaries Marcus Fronto and Lucian of Samasota. Instead, he used the Old and New Testament scriptures and personal knowledge gained from conversations with Christians. His tactic was to expose alleged contradictions in biblical doctrine. Sound familiar?

Celsus appealed to his Christian contemporaries to abandon their separatism and work to bring all men into the ideal of “one religion.” If Christians would only integrate their beliefs into the state-sanctioned religion of polytheism, they could live in peace. Burn a pinch of incense in honor of the cult of Emperor worship and be done with persecution.

Celsus thought that each race ought to honor its own god. Instead of advocating disrespect for the Empire and its ancestral gods, Christians ought to join the neutral public square. Since many religions were tolerated, Christ could be tolerated too as one of the many gods of the Empire.

So there really is nothing new under the sun. In 2005, the Supreme Court sent what some in the media called a “mixed message” in two cases deciding whether monuments of the Ten Commandments could be displayed on public property.

Writing for the majority in McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, Justice David Souter said that government officials had acted with an improper purpose in posting the Ten Commandments in courthouses. According to the majority opinion, there is a difference in the frieze above the Supreme Court’s own chamber depicting Moses holding tablets with seventeen other lawgivers. Souter wrote that the high court might integrate a display of the Ten Commandments as long as it is in the context of the history of law.

The Supreme Court’s message is consistent with the philosophy of Celsus. Moses’ God, after all, is just one of many gods. The various religions of ancient and modern times are part of the natural order. For no matter how the religions of the world may differ among themselves, they all hold that there is one Creator God who is supreme. Religion may be tolerated as long as it is not exclusive and intolerant of other faiths.

This viewpoint also underlines why the idea of origins has become such a hot item of contention in the debate. Was America founded as a Christian nation, or was it the experiment of religious pluralists who wanted all belief systems to peaceably co-exist in the neutral public square? The secularist understands correctly that it is not enough to maintain that Christians originally founded America, but now we ought to become a pluralistic nation. Instead they must contend that pluralists founded America.

Early church polemicists such as Origen, Tertullian and Ireneaus understood that when they were arguing against pagans and heretics there needed to be a public canon of truth from which to argue. The church fathers read the Bible as the narrative of God’s activity in history as truth. There could be no competing pluralistic truths existing in universal harmony.

Likewise, Christians today need only to point to the existence of America and the United States Constitution as evidence that we are a Christian nation. Instead of missing the forest for the trees, we need only to cite the obvious necessity that a nation founded on a Constitution must be a Christian nation.

In proving this, we need only point to the Pentateuch, the books of Moses, to see the history of a nation that was founded on God’s law, that believed one God created the world and established commandments to which all men are subject. The United States government, first in its state charters and later in the Declaration and the Constitution, was the only nation in history after ancient Israel to be founded on such a premise.

All pagan nations have been founded on the rule of man. All Christian nations are based on the rule of written law. We must either stake our foundation on man’s pluralistic polytheism or on an eternal divine law. The rule of man or the law of God: take your pick. The future of our culture depends on whether we as Christians understand the concept that there can be no neutrality in the public square and then act accordingly.

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