An Argument from the Early Church Fathers
Greetings comrades in the war!
I’ve been sharing various arguments defending the S.I.N. hypothesis over the last dozen or so blogs (go back to July 12 to start from the beginning). I come now to my final argument (though I reserve the right to add to these in the future as further insights present themselves). This argument comes not from the Bible, but from the early church fathers.
These earliest theologians aren’t inspired, of course, and thus can’t hold a candle to the authority of the Bible. At the same time, their proximity to Jesus and the New Testament church gives their teachings more weight than theologians of later periods, all other things being equal. While we can certainly detect various pagan influences in some of these second and third century fathers — especially in their increasingly Hellenistic conception of God — we have many reasons to think that their basic theology and worldview was inherited from, and remained true to, the apostolic tradition.
What’s significant for our purposes is that the primary way these early theologians explain evil in nature is by appealing to the work of Satan, powers and demons. These fathers uniformly believed that angels, like humans, were created free and given a sphere of influence and responsibility over creation. As with humans, angels could use this influence for good, as God intended, or they could choose to use it for evil. They understood that this is simply what it means for God to have given us free will. The earliest fathers thus believed that, just as God had given humans “say-so” over the earth, which we could use for better or for worse, so God gave “say-so” over aspects of the cosmos, and to some degree over humans, to angels.
For example, Athenagorus – who in my mind is one of the most insightful of the earliest fathers – argued that “the Maker and Framer of the world distributed and appointed….a multitude of angels and ministers…to occupy themselves about the elements, and the heavens, and the world, and the things in it, and the godly ordering of them all.” Then he adds,
“Just as with men, who have freedom of choice as to both virtue and vice….so is it among the angels. Some, free agents, you will observe, such as they were created by God, continued in those things for which God had made and over which He had ordained them; but some outraged both the constitution of their nature and the government entrusted to them” (A Plea For the Christians, 10).
So too, Origen — who in my mind was the single greatest thinker in the early church — held that every aspect of nature was under the care of “invisible husbandmen and guardians” (Against Celsus, 8.31). St. Gregory at a later date reiterates the prevailing view of the early church when he says, “In this visible world…nothing can be achieved except through invisible forces” (Dialogues, IV.5).
“Natural” evil was consistently explained in the early church as resulting from these spirits rebelling against God and thus abusing their authority over creation. Hence, for example, Origen argued that famines, scorching winds and pestilence were not “natural” in God’s creation; they were rather the result of fallen angels bringing misery whenever and however they were able (Against Celsus, 8.31). These rebel guardians were also “the cause of plagues…barrenness…tempests… [and] similar calamities” (Against Celsus,1.31).
So too, Tertullian argued that “[d]iseases and other grievous calamities” were the result of demons whose “great business is the ruin of mankind.” When “poison in the breeze blights the apples and the grain while in the flower, or kills them in the bud, or destroys them when they have reached maturity…” one can discern the work of these rebellious guardian spirits (Apology 22). For Tertullian, as for Origen and Athenagorus (and we could add Tatian, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and others), creation doesn’t consistently reflect the beauty of its Creator because it has been, and is being, corrupted by demonic forces.
Following the teachings of the New Testament, these early theologians all understood that the leader of the rebel army that ravaged nature was Satan. In the words of Athenagorus, Satan was “the spirit” originally entrusted with “the control of matter and the forms of matter” (A Plea, 24). The entire material creation was to be administrated by this highest ranking angel, according to this theologian! Unfortunately, this “spirit” used its free will to rebel against God. He now exercises his tremendous authority over material creation against God. He abuses “the government entrusted to [him].” Given the nature of moral responsibility, God could not simply revoke Satan’s sphere of influence. Hence, Athenagorus argued, “the prince of matter exercises a control and management contrary to the good that is in God”(A Plea, 25).
Reflecting the basic vision of the early Church, Athenagorus concluded that everything in nature that obviously looks contrary to God’s character appears that way because it is contrary to God. It didn’t arise from the omni-benevolent hand of the Creator (as the atheists of his day and ours object) but was rather due to the activity of an evil “ruling prince” and “the demons his followers” (A Plea, 25).
Much more could be said about this, but I hope this suffices to show that the early church fathers all saw creation as a war torn battle field. It had been corrupted to its very core. And this is why nature is violent, both toward animals and people. I don’t believe this view would have arisen in the church were the foundation for it not laid in the apostolic tradition. These early fathers are simply working out the implications of the biblical view that satan is the “lord of the earth,” the “ruler of the air” and the “god of this age” who “controls the entire world.”
And if you ask me, they were on the right track.
So when a tsumani wipes out an entire village or an earthquake massacres thousands of people; next time you consider the millions dying from AIDS or the millions tortured by parasites; next time you hear about the millions suffering from drought and famine, or consider the untold pain of millions suffering and dying from any number of other diseases, don’t say “This is the work of God.”
Say rather, “An Enemy has done this” (Mt 13:28).
Blessings on you as you wage the war of love against all that opposes it!