Arnobius of Sicca was a Feminist

Click to OrderWhen we speak of God, we use a masculine word, but let no thoughtless person accuse us of saying that God, is a man. It is not gender that is expressed but rather his name, its customary meaning and the way in which we habitually use words. The deity is not male, even though his name is of the masculine gender. In contrast, [pagans] attribute gender to the gods, by calling them either “god” of “goddess.” We cannot believe that God has a body, because if he did, he would have to be either male or female. (Against the Nations, 3.8, ACD vol 1, p38)

We should remember that he is a new convert, coming directly from the rhetorican school of the Greeks.

Update – Suzanne has posted on this passage.

Joel L. Watts
Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

29 thoughts on “Arnobius of Sicca was a Feminist

  1. right.  I realize Arnobius writes about the Greek philosophers.  But according to rhetoric historian, George Kennedy, philosophy was much different from rhetoric for the “eight greatest Latin fathers of the church” – including Arnobius.  There was a “distrust of philosophy and acceptance of rhetoric” which “seemed to be useful, concrete, and manly.”  Kennedy is talking about the later Roman rhetoric (as formalized by Cicero and Quintilian) with respect to the “Christian Latin writers” (Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times, 2nd ed, p 146).  Kennedy is quick to note that all of the prominent church fathers were rhetoricians, and five of the eight, including Arnobius, were rhetoric experts before they became Christians.  Of course, Arnobius’s treatise on rhetoric has been lost – so we can’t know for sure how much he formalized from the Greeks.

  2. And yet with the Incarnation, and even before (Gen. 18:1-8, etc.) The Hebrew word Ish is used, and has regard to sex, a male. The first occurrence in the feminine is Gen.2:23, ishah= woman. Therefore, ‘ish= male, or husband a man, in contrast with a woman.  It is rendered “husband” 69 times, “person” 12 times, and once or twice each in thirty-nine different ways.
    But, again, the body of Christ is still “incarnate” at the right hand of the Father. “We also, in our heart of hearts, tend to slur over the risen ‘manhood’ of Jesus, to conceive Him, after death, simply returning into Deity, so that the Resurrection would be no more than a reversal or undoing of the Incarnation.” (CS Lewis, Miracles, page 151)
    Yes, Christ is forever the God-Man!  “He being one Son, dual in nature, not dual in Person. Wherefore we do confess, preaching the truth that Christ is perfect God and perfect Man.” ~ Troparion of the Resurrection (Eastren Orthodox)
    Fr. R.

  3. Your questions are excellent.  If you do read Kennedy, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  To be sure, I read Kennedy with a big grain of salt.  He himself is an aristotelian rhetorician, disparaging of philosophers as if Aristotle was first a rhetorician who disparaged philosophy.  (On Kennedy, on rhetoric, I blogged something once upon a time:
    What’s fascinating to me is how little rhetoricians and bible scholars talk in the recent centuries.   Some Greek and Latin terms are actually defined much differently by the respective experts – and the histories diverge.  It’s frustrating when trying to do scholarship that acknowledges both.  Every so often, a theologian will attempt to help rhetoricians, such as BWIII did here:  And rhetoricians such as Kennedy, and James Kinneavy with his Greek Rhetorical Origins of Christian Faith, have tried to show Christianity in terms of their rhetoric historiography.
    But back to your post:  I confess I’ve studied classical rhetoric under the rhetoricians, who mostly see a huge reinterpretation of Greek rhetoric by the Romans, and a bigger reinterpretation of Latin rhetoric then by the Christians.  These distinctions seem much more important to historians of rhetoric per se, than they do to bible scholars or theologians with a historical interest in religious rhetorics.

    Cheers to you, nonetheless, for bringing to the forefront the issues of feminism and gender in rhetoric, even in the rhetoric of one of the earliest Christian rhetoricians!!


  4. But what does the scripture say about men & women?  Awe, now that is the real issue!  We simply cannot overlook the different “roles” of men and women in Scripure and God’s revelation!  But this is just part of the bane of Postmodernism!
    Fr. R.

  5. Yes, this may be the sad situation there. But, we still must maintain the differences that God has chosen for male and female!  I know this issue swings from right to left, but there again we must maintain the balance of Scripture. Yes? I am certainly not advocating the denigration of women…God forbid!  But, today’s “feminism” is hardly neutral either.
    Fr. R.

  6. Joel, the fact that I take this stand (just for balance) causes me more bad mail than you can believe!  And within Evangelical circles!  I come from the opposite end (Church) then yours…liberals!  I mean on scripture and these issues.
    Fr. R.

  7. Joel,
    It is true that some of the early Fathers did not see God in gender. But they did see God as “person”. Perhaps Gen.1:26 is helpful. God or Elohim is a plurality within the divine unity (Augustine). The special dignity of humanity is that as men and women we may reflect and reproduce, at our levels of our own created and creaturely “person” the theos of God. Thus the redeemed are a triune reality of God Himself!
    Fr. R.

  8. I believe he did. He followed in the tradition of Alexandria in ‘Christianizing’ Plato, and is shown to know the Greek Philosophers:

    2.9. What, have you seen with your eyes, and handled with your hands, those things which you write yourselves, which you read from time to time on subjects placed beyond human knowledge? Does not each one trust this author or that? That which any one has persuaded himself is said with truth by another, does he not defend with a kind of assent, as it were, like that of faith? Does not he who says that fire or water is the origin of all things, pin his faith to Thales or Heraclitus? he who places the cause of all in numbers, to Pythagoras of Samos, and to Archytas? he who divides the soul, and sets up bodiless forms, to Plato, the disciple of Socrates? he who adds a fifth element to the primary causes, to Aristotle, the father of the Peripatetics? he who threatens the world with destruction by fire, and says that when the time comes it will be set on fire, to Panaetius, Chrysippus, Zeno? he who is always fashioning worlds from atoms, and destroying them, to Epicurus, Democritus, Metrodorus? he who says that nothing is comprehended by man, and that all things are wrapt in dark obscurity, to Archesilas, to Carneades?-to some teacher, in fine, of the old and later Academy?

  9. That does put a spin on it then. I am not sure that he had a deep distrust of the philosophers, as he seems to follow Justin and Clement of A in holding Plato as one of the Church’s own.

    Is Kennedy saying Arnobius, as a rhetorician, would have distrusted philosophy, relying more upon the ‘manly’ rhetoric schools? If so, then doesn’t his objection to the masculinity of God go against his training? Perhaps, then, there were more egalitarian strains in the early church, more so than thought?

    I’ve ordered that book, so perhaps I can read more about Arnobius and the rhetoric in the Latin Fathers. Maybe it will explain some of Tetullian’s brashness.

  10. Fr. Robert, I would agree with you that the bible does assign roles – but not just for men and women, but even among people; however, let me add that many times in Fundamentalist circles, God is seen as a man as a point of subjugating women.

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