The Preparation of the Gospel: A Contribution from Eusebius to Christian Theology Part 1

During the transition from paganism to Christianity in the Roman empire, Eusebius of Caesarea became a significant player in controversies at that time. He took part in the debate over the deity of Christ and engaged extensively with pagan philosophies during his life time.  Several of his works survive till modern time, displaying his meticulous scholarly mind.

Biography[1]

While many of his works survive, not much is known, however, about his personal life. At one point, one of his successors wrote a biography of his life, but this work is no longer extant. What is known about his has been cobbled together from several sources.

His Life

He was born around AD 260, presumably in Caesarea Marittima. His education began under Pamphilus, who became his lifelong friend and mentor. In addition, he had access to one of the most significant libraries in Christian circles at that time, which was maintained by Pamphilus. Because of this library, Caesarea was intellectual hub and allowed young Eusebius to interact many of the intellectuals of his time, both in their writings and in person.

Eusebius also lived through the final persecution of the Roman empire during the reign of Diocletian (AD 303). He and his mentor were imprisoned and tortured for their faith. Eventually, he was released, but his mentor was not so fortunate. After his release, he traveled to Tyre, where he probably was imprisoned again. The persecution, however, ended when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan (AD 313). He returned to Caesarea where he was appointed as bishop until his death (about AD 339).

Finally, Eusebius was involved in the Arian controversy, in which he tentatively sided with Arius. It seems, however, that he sided with Arius because he desired to see the unity of the church, rather than a full subscription to Arian theology. However, in the council of Nicaea, he presented the creed from his church in Caesarea to be used as the creed for all Christendom. The council added to it the lines “of the substance of the Father,” “begotten, not made,” “of the same substance” which excluded Arianism from the church. Further, they added an anathema against Arius at the end of the creed. With some hesitancy, Eusebius signed the creed, choosing to side with the unity of the church.

His Works

Eusebius was a prolific author, filling over forty volumes. His most famous work was Ecclesiastical History, the history of the church  from the apostles up till his time. It was the first Church history to be written that is still extant today. As such, modern scholarship relies heavily on his work for information concerning the early church, because without it much about the early church would remain unknown. Originally, he wrote in Greek, but his work was so significant that it was translated into Latin, Arminian and Syriac.

He wrote a few other significant works. He wrote The Life of Constantine which provides information concerning Constantine and his relationship to the church. Also, he wrote Onomasticon, in which he lists all the place names in the Bible and attempts to locate them with Roman reference points. Another interesting work was the Chronicle, a brief history of the world since the time of Abraham.

Finally, Eusebius completed two large apologetic works,  Praeparatio Evangelica and Demonstratio Evangelica. These works were an attempt “to show the nature of Christianity to those who know not what it means.”[2] In Praeparatio he argues for the supremacy of Christianity of Greek religion and philosophy while in Demonstratio he argues for the supremacy of Christianity over Judiasm.[3] Combined, these two works comprise thirty-five volumes and are full of excellent primary source information concerning third-century philosophical thought.

Modern scholarship often restricts Eusebius’s usefulness to church history. The Lexham Bible Dictionary summarizes this view point: “Although he was not considered an especially gifted theologian, he was one of the most learned and capable church historians of his time.”[4] While this view is over simplified, Eusebius is mainly to blame for this view point because his writing style is tedious and boring. He often overlaps his arguments, causing redundancies in his presentation. And, above all, he quotes in extensio ad nauseam from his sources when a simple summery would have sufficed. However, these aside, his works are some of the greatest apologetical works from that era, as Lightfoot notes:

This [Praeparatio et Demonstratio] is probably the most important apologetic work of the early church. Its frequent, forcible, and true conceptions, more especially on the theme of “God in history,” arrest our attention now, and must have impressed his contemporaries still more strongly; while in learning and comprehensiveness it is without a rival.[5]

Therefore, it is the purpose of this paper to explore Praeparatio Evangelica and to summarize its usefulness for modern theological scholarship. This paper is limited to only one of the two works because of the shear length and depth of its contents.

Summary of Praeparatio Evangelica

Similar to Luke, Eusebius introduces his work with a dedication to the Bishop Theodotus. This dedication is short and gives way quickly to his definition and purpose section. He defines Gospel as good news that man can be brought into a friendship with God through the promises which are fulfilled in Jesus.[6] His desire, it seems, is that people believe the Gospel. But he recognizes that there are objections keeping people from believing. First, as he says, “some have supposed that Christianity has no reason to support it.” Second, “they require their converts to adhere to faith only, and therefore they are called ‘the Faithful,’ because of their uncritical and untested faith.”[7] His whole treatise, then, is to dispel these objections and show that the Gospel is worth believing.

Outline of Praeparatio Evangelica

Eusebius provides the clearest outline for his work in the last book of the series.[8] His first section (books 1-3) is his argument against the Greek pantheon and its theologians. His second section (books 4-6) discuss the foolishness of the Greek oracles and their contacts with daemons. His third section (books 7-9) is about the supremacy of the Hebrew oracles, including both the Scriptures and general practice. His fourth section (book 10) is on the dependence of the Greek philosophers on Barbarian (non-Greek speaking) philosophy. His fifth section (books 11-13) attempts to show the agreements and disagreements between Greek philosophy and Hebrew philosophy. Finally, his sixth section (books 14-15) covers the disagreements between the Greek philosophers themselves.

Layout of Eusebius’s Argument

Book One: The Atheistic Origins of Religion

After his introductory remarks, Eusebius begins his arguments against the religion of the Greeks (p. 18).[9] First, he argues that the Greek philosophers, at their core, were really atheists. Quoting from a number of Greek authors, he shows that they did not believe the universe came into existence by God, but rather it came together by chance (p. 30). Second, he probed the history of religion and concluded that the earliest of mankind did not worship the gods of the pagan pantheon, but rather they simply worshiped the sun, moon, and stars. Only later did men create the pantheon. Therefore, the Greeks were following superstitious fables invented by men (p. 34). Third, he discusses Phoenician theology, finding that the pagan gods were not originally deities, but mere men who were deified because of their exploits.[10] Therefore, the Greeks who inherited these deities, were not worshipping gods as they supposed, but mere men (p. 35). He concludes at the end of his first book, that because pagan religion comes from theological madness, Christians are justified in rejecting it. Thus, “the word of salvation in the gospel teaches us to flee [pagan theology] with averted eyes” (p. 47).

Book Two: Against the Historical Theory of the Gods

In this book, Eusebius covers the theology of the Greeks as borrowed from the Egyptians. He argues that Christians are justified in leaving pagan theology, because the history of the gods are violent and crass stories of men who are honored as gods (p. 74). He further justified this position noting that the Greeks themselves were embarrassed by the histories, finding different ways of explaining them. Some openly derided the histories as myth. Others rejected the accounts as history and labeled them as analogies of physical phenomenon.[11]  Many times, this latter group disagreed with each other regarding their interpretations of the legends. Further, sometimes they would adopt some of the legends for their physical theories, but at other times they rejected them. (p. 82). Thus, He concludes: “It can no longer be denied that there is good reason for our Saviour’s teaching in the Gospel, which bids us to abandon these legends, seeing that they have been rejected even by their own friends” (p. 85).

Book Three: Against the Physical Theory of the Gods

Eusebius continues his argument against the physical theory position in the beginning of his third book. After examining the works of philosophers on the subject, he concludes that they are merely worshipping the physical elements of the world—earth, air, fire, and water—giving them physical shapes of man and beast (p. 103). But these philosophies fail to account for supernatural phenomenon, because limiting themselves to the physical world, they cannot account for the origin of the spiritual world (p. 104). Further, he pointed to the preposterous proposition that the cosmic gods could give oracles to men, concluding instead that these oracles were the speech of demons (p. 138-9). Thus, these oracles did not give the truth about the world, but were fables intended to deceive.

Books Four and Five: Against the State Religion

Eusebius moves from the historical and physical theories of the gods to arguments against the state religion.[12] The state religion honored deities who shown supernatural power in the past, and because they wielded such power, the worship of the gods was enforced by the civil laws. The chief means that the power of these gods became manifest was through the oracle. But Eusebius argued that these oracles were in the most part fraudulent predictions given to steal the money of the naïve (p. 149). Further, while the state religion required the worship of the good gods and only to pacify the demons, in reality they worshiped the demons and forgot the good gods (p. 155). Then he proves how abusive these demons were, in their worship (book four, cf. p. 179) and in their interactions with men (book five, cf. p. 239). In contrast, Christ came to liberate mankind from the power of the demons (p. 198) and to empower Christians to live “by chastity, and a pure disposition, and by a life of prudence and perfect virtue” (p. 187). Therefore, because of this nobler life, Christians break from the customs of the Greeks.

Book Six: Against Determinism and Fate

Eusebius then turns to the discussion of the oracles and fate. He shows that Greek mind there were two options concerning fate: either everything was unchangeably predetermined, or things can be by the will of the gods. If then fate is determined, one is enslaved to fate and there is no reason for sacrificing to the gods, because they can do nothing (p. 257). But if fate is not fixed, then one is enslaved to necessity and must pursue the gods (p. 257). Both scenarios remain undesirable. However, Eusebius points to a third option: The Gospel. The Gospel liberates man from blind fate and necessity so that he is free to pursue “the divine dispensation of salvation” (p. 257).

Book Seven: The Origins of the Hebrew Religion

In book seven, Eusebius justifies why he chose the Hebrew religion over the Greeks.[13] He styles the Hebrews as having been rational thinkers from the ancient past, and therefore it is entirely rational for the Christians to choose to follow in their footsteps.[14] He then walks through a brief history of the Hebrews, noting how they pursued God and lived righteous lives (p. 329). He then discusses their doctrine as given by Moses, covering such topics as the causes of creation, the constitution of rational creatures, the origin of evil, and the constitution of man (cf. p. 320). In all this, he points to the piety and rationality of the Hebrews as the reason for following them (p. 377).

  1. 1. Biographical information taken from Benjamin Laird, “Eusebius of Caesarea,” The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016). Also, Everett Ferguson, Church History, Volume One: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2013), 367. Finally, J. B. Lightfoot, “Eusebius of Caesarea,” ed. Henry Wace and William Piercy, A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography: And Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principle Sects and Heresies (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999).

[2]. E. H. Gifford, trans., Ευσεβιου Του Παμφιλου: Ευαγγελικης Προπαρασκευης Λογοι ΙΕ, vol. 1 (New York: Oxonii e Typographico Academico, 1903), 1.

[3]. Since, this paper focuses on Praeparatio, the introduction to Demonstratio is limited here. For a complete introduction to Demonstratio, see W. J. Ferrar, The Proof of the Gospel Being the Demonstratio Evangelica of Eusebius of Caesarea, vol. 1, Translations of Christian Literature: Greek Texts 1 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1920).

[4]. Laird, “Eusebius of Caesarea.”

[5]. Lightfoot, “Eusebius of Caesarea,” 327.

[6]. Gifford, Ευσεβιου Του Παμφιλου: Ευαγγελικης Προπαρασκευης Λογοι ΙΕ, 1:2–4.

[7]. Ibid., 1:4.

[8]. E. H. Gifford, trans., Ευσεβιου Του Παμφιλου: Ευαγγελικης Προπαρασκευης Λογοι ΙΕ, vol. 2 (New York: Oxonii e Typographico Academico, 1903), 848–850. See also, Gifford, Ευσεβιου Του Παμφιλου: Ευαγγελικης Προπαρασκευης Λογοι ΙΕ, 1:17.

[9]. Parenthetical citations for Praeparatio will follow Gifford’s page numbers.

[10].        According to Eusebius’s thought, the earliest theology came from the Phoenicians. Thus, he quotes Sanchuniathon, a Phoenician priest who lived before the 13th century BC. Apparently, Eusebius had little knowledge of the Babylonian and Sumerian pantheons which existed sometime before the 13th century. This omission, however, does not negate his point, because their theologies are strikingly similar to the Phoenician and Egyptian theologies.

[11].        Page 75. The physical theories according to Eusebius are the identification of the gods with natural phenomenon. For example, Apollo is identified as the sun, Artemis as the moon, etc. Thus, they conflate the stories of the bygone heroes with the worship of the elements in order make sense of their religion.

[12].        Again, he is answering the question: why do Christians forsake the theology of the nation? This question is important to keep in mind as the book progresses.

[13].        Eusebius differentiates the Hebrews from the Jews. The Jews are the nation of Israel after Moses delivered the law to the people. The Hebrews are those who go back in history as following the true God. This follows the ethnic line through Abraham back to Adam (p. 327).

[14].        On the origin of their thought, he says, “For of all mankind these were the first and sole people who from the very first foundation of social life devoted their thought to rational speculation and having set themselves to study reverently the physical laws of the universe, first as to elements of bodies, earth, water, air, fire, of which they perceived that this universe consisted, the sun also, and moon, and stars, they considered them to be not gods, but works of God; for they perceived that the nature of bodily substance is not only irrational but also lifeless, inasmuch as it is ever in flux and liable to perish” (p. 324).

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