and fails

Where has all the magic gone?

and failsIf you’ve never read a Tim Powers book, go do yourself a favor and check out The Anubis Gates, which ranks in my top 3 favorite works of fiction. One of the underlying themes in the book is the idea that over time, magic has become more and more difficult to perform, and that the spread of Christianity is somehow responsible for this.

Now, this is neither here nor there, because Anubis Gates is very much a work of fiction. The primary theme, after all, is time travel, and his other books have revolved around voodoo, Kabbalah, and in one case, magical beer. The curious thing is that if you read very old books, you will often find exactly the same idea expressed: magic was real, but Christ has stopped it.

I noticed it particularly in Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. There, he is addressing non-Christians, and uses the death of magic as a proof of Christianity:

When have oracles ceased and become void of meaning, among the Greeks and everywhere, except since the Savior has revealed Himself on earth? … When did the practice and theory of magic begin to be spurned under foot, if not at the manifestation of the Divine Word to men?

Again, in former times every place was full of the fraud of the oracles, and the utterances of those at Delphi and Dordona and in Boeotia and Lycia and Libya and Egypt and those of the Kabiri and the Pythoness were considered marvelous by the minds of men. But now, since Christ has been proclaimed everywhere, their madness too has ceased, and there is no one left among them to give oracles at all. Then, too, demons used to deceive men’s minds by taking up their abode in springs or rivers or trees or stones and imposing upon simple people by their frauds. But now, since the Divine appearing of the Word, all this fantasy has ceased, for by the sign of the cross, if a man will but use it, he drives out their deceits.

And what is one to say about the magic that they think so marvelous? Before the sojourn of the Word, it was strong and active among Egyptians and Chaldeans and Indians and filled all who saw it with terror and astonishment. But by the coming of the Truth and the manifestation of the Word it too has been confuted and entirely destroyed.

What is noteworthy here is not so much the argument as the axioms. Athanasius takes it as a given both that magic exists, and that it is fading, and he assumes that his critics will think the same. This was apparently something that would be so obvious to anybody living in this time period (ca. 320AD) that it can simply be taken as an axiom. What his readers may doubt is that Christ is the cause of this, and in this case Athanasius actually invites them to try it out for themselves:

Anyone, too, may put what we have said to the proof of experience in another way. In the very presence of the fraud of demons and the imposture of the oracles and the wonders of magic, let him use the sign of the cross which they all mock at, and but speak the Name of Christ, and he shall see how through Him demons are routed, oracles cease, and all magic and witchcraft is confounded.

In a book filled with Platonic-style proofs, this is the only part where he actually gives the reader an experiment that they can try themselves. That is how confident Athanasius is in this argument. It is hard to imagine that he would have felt this way if he had not personally witnessed the experiment carried out on numerous occasions.

Athanasius is not alone. The great pagan historian Plutarch, born not long after Jesus died, also noticed a great weakening of magic, to the point that he dedicated one of his dialogues to explaining it. It is here that we first hear of the death of Pan:

Suddenly from the island of Paxi was heard the voice of someone loudly calling Thamus, so that all were amazed. Twice he was called and made no reply, but the third time he answered; and the caller, raising his voice, said, ‘When you come opposite to Palodes, announce that Great Pan is dead.’ On hearing this, all, said Epitherses, were astounded and reasoned among themselves whether it were better to carry out the order or to refuse to meddle and let the matter go. So, when he came opposite Palodes, and there was neither wind nor wave, Thamus from the stern, looking toward the land, said the words as he had heard them: ‘Great Pan is dead.’ Even before he had finished there was a great cry of lamentation, not of one person, but of many, mingled with exclamations of amazement. As many persons were on the vessel, the story was soon spread abroad in Rome, and Thamus was sent for by Tiberius Caesar.

Tiberius reigned from 14-37AD; it is not hard to see why this tale later became beloved by Christian apologists, including the historian Eusebius.

All of this implies an intriguing possibility: what if magic really was real, but is simply no longer effective? Sadly, I can think of no way to test this, so it will have to remain nothing more than an intriguing possibility.

Now what?

Our church history class is over, but I’m hoping that won’t be the end for you. Obviously, there is plenty more history that we did not cover, even in the small time periods that we did discuss. If you want to fill those in, the best way is to read. You don’t even need to read a lot; I have committed myself to only 10 pages a night, but over the past 8 years, that has really added up.

If you read only two books as a result of this class, let them be On the Incarnation and Confessions of St. Augustine. I would even encourage you to make a study of them with whatever small group or bible study you’re a part of. If you’ve already read them, skip ahead to the rest of the resources you should check out.

On the Incarnation, by Athansius

Athanasius was the greatest defender of Trinitarian Orthodoxy during the turbulent times after Nicea. On the Incarnation, written before he even turned 30, is a brilliant explanation of the incarnation of Christ. C.S Lewis praised it especially highly:

Athanasius stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, “whole and undefiled,” when it looked as if all the civilised world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius—into one of those “sensible” synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.

When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity.

As you read, you would also do well to listen to relevant episodes from this podcast, as he walks his own class through this book.

On the Incarnation is available in a variety of formats:

The Confessions of St. Augustine

It’s a classic for a reason. Augustine explores human nature and whole range of other topics in this masterpiece, and even comes close to deriving the Big Bang from an analysis of Genesis. If you want to study this with your small groups, contact me and I’ll pass my notes along to you from when I did the same.

Please note that there are many translations, and you would do well to find one in modern English, which will likely mean getting an actual physical book.

More History!

For a good overview of church history, I recommend this book: Church History in Plain Language. It goes all the way up to the present time.

If you’re online, you can do even better. A number of college courses make recordings of their lectures available online for free. The best part about audio resources like this is that you can let them play while you do other things. The following two were particularly helpful in preparing this course:

However, if you really want to know what’s going on, you need to dive into primary sources. I have made sure to include primary sources in every class partly for this reason, and partly to show you that they’re still perfectly approachable. We can learn directly from the greats.

Luckily for us, all of these primary sources are available on the internet. However, they’re almost all from the Roberts-Donaldson translation from the early 1800s, and the language is very King Jamesy. You are better off finding an actual book with a modern translation. I’m sure you can get these from fine publishers such as Zondervan or Baker Books. Your local college library is also likely to have some more obscure texts.

If you stick to the online world, you will likely find yourself visiting the Christian Classics Ethereal Library often. Early Christian Writings is also a handy site. If you like your books electronic, Orthodox e-books may interest you.

Test everything. Hold on to the good.I Thessalonians 5:21

See the rest of the Church History posts

The End of the World

“The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” – Isaiah 40:8

Sack of 410

In the year 410 AD, the Visigoths, led by Alaric, besieged and plundered Rome. This was the first time in 800 years that Rome had fallen to an enemy, but it was a long time in coming. The empire had long been plagued by German incursions, and in many cases solved the problem by paying other Germans to fight them off. Theodosius signed a treated with the Visigoths which declared them to be subjects of the empire, but autonomous subjects. Alaric later fought alongside Theodosius in the battle that would unite the empire for the last time under one rule. In that battle, Theodosius made sure to order the Visigoth troops to charge before sending in his Roman troops, killing half of them. We can be sure Alaric took that lesson to heart.

He resumed hostilities with Rome not long after the emperor’s death, and laid siege to the city twice, each time leaving when he was bought off. The third time the payoff did not come, and on August 24, 410, slaves opened the gates to the barbarians, who poured in and looted it for three days. The city’s great buildings were ransacked. The mausoleums of past Roman emperors were raided and their ashes were scattered to the wind. The city was devastated, and many Romans were taken captive. Jerome, voicing what many felt, wrote, “My voice sticks in my throat. The City that took the whole world captive is itself taken.”

There was one notable exception to the devastation. Alaric, who considered himself a Christian, left the churches alone, and made sure that his troops did the same.

Sack of 455

In 455, Rome was besieged again, this time by the Vandals. Emperor Maximus fled the city rather than fight them off. The only authority left in the city was Pope Leo. He negotiated with the Vandals, and got them to agree not to destroy the city or murder its inhabitants. The gates were opened for them, and they plundered Rome for the next 14 days. However, they largely kept their word, refraining from violence or burning down buildings.

This was the second time Leo had acted in such a capacity. A few years earlier, Attila the Hun had invaded Italy, and sacking cities and making his way to Rome. Leo was sent with an envoy to negotiate with Attila, and he succeeded in convincing Attila to not only spare the capital, but withdraw from Italy altogether.


It is not hard to imagine what this did for the position of the church. Rulers and political leaders had failed at their most basic task of keeping people safe. But where they fled for their own lives, the Pope stayed behind and did the job that they were supposed to do. It is here that the Papacy really starts to become the Papacy as we know it. Staying out of politics and away from temporal power was no longer even a possibility; when it mattered most, the church was the only temporal power left.

City of God

Tens of thousands of refugees fled Rome, and many of them made their way to Hippo, where they were welcomed by St. Augustine. They needed answers for why this great tragedy had befallen the Eternal City, and Augustine provided those in the form of his great work City of God.

The City of Man is bound together by a common love for temporal things, while the City of God is bound together by the love of God. The former exists largely to suppress the crime and some of the more blatant results of sin, but it’s the City of God which we were truly made for. Most importantly, all works of man, and all the civilizations they build will ultimately die; only the City of God is eternal. “The Heavenly City outshines Rome, beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity.”

While Augustine lay on his death bed, the Vandals made their way into Africa, and laid siege to Hippo. He spent his final days in prayer and penitence, reading the penitential psalms and convinced that the end of the world was at hand. Not long after his death, his own city of man did fall. The Vandals burned down Hippo, leaving only Augustine’s cathedral and library intact.

This is a happy ending

This seems like a downer, but looking back I consider it somewhat comforting. The end of the Roman world turned out not to be the end of the world. Western civilization carried on, and even surpassed the rest of the world in spite of all of that. We look around the world today and we see a lot of things going wrong. History reminds us that though things are bad today, things have been bad before. The Church survives.

Class Materials