Marsilio Ficino’s argument in chapter 8 of his De Christiana Religione is quite similar to St. Paul’s argument in the first chapter of his Epistle to the Galatians regarding the origin of his Gospel message. There Paul argues that his preaching is not κατὰ ἄνθρωπον (from man) but δι’ ἀποκαλύψεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (from a revelation of Jesus Christ). In a similar way, Ficino argues that Jesus’ preaching was not persuasive in the manner of the classical Greek or Roman orators such as Demosthenes and Cicero, yet Jesus did persuade some of those in his audience. They were by no means forced to believe that he was the prophesied Messiah. The solution to this paradox of persuasion is given in the Gospels themselves, namely, that Jesus did not speak in the typical manner of the Jewish authorities but as one with divine power.
One might read this as a theological critique of the humanist recovery of classical rhetoric in the nascent “culture of persuasion” (as Andrew Pettegree terms it). Ficino, however, like Nicholas of Cusa who saw in Christ’s teachings a “coincidence of opposites” which functioned as the impetus of the inward (rational) conversion of the mind, upholds the unity of persuasion and conversion in the experience of believers, and while establishing the limits of human persuasion Ficino nonetheless sees persuasion as essential and natural, even if miraculous in this case. It is a persuasion of dissuasion, he argues. In fact, Ficino claims that persuasion is the key feature of what we might call Christian identity that distinguishes it from other religions, since it is this persuasively dissuasive faith that has “conquered the world,” as John the disciple tells us. Christian societies should imitate Christ’s method of persuasion, Ficino argues, by seeking to convert those of other faiths, not by coercion and threats of violence, but by persuasion and tolerance. 1
The Christian religion was established by the power of God alone.
The Christian religion was by no means established by human power, wisdom, or pleasure – on the contrary, actually, no sooner had it arisen than it immediately spread throughout the whole world against the will [of man], against the labors of many powers far and wide, and [against] learned men and human pleasures; regarding which Paul writes to the Romans [saying], “your faith is proclaimed in all the world” [Rom. 1:8]; and to the Colossians [he says], “the gospel is in the whole world” [Col. 1:6]; John also says, “everyone who is born from God conquers the world: this is the victory that conquers the world – our faith” [1 John 5:4]. Therefore, it is necessary that this religion was itself established by divine power, wisdom, and hope. How [else] did it happen that all of these things were predicted many centuries prior by a long succession of Prophets and Sibyls? (We will discuss [the Sibyls] later). How [else] did it happen that Christ, the Instructor of life, both predicted by himself and inspired his disciples to teach that he would die and his disciples would be persecuted everywhere; [that] the proclamation and immutability of his religion and the miserable ruin of the Jews would soon come; and [that] the conversion of the Gentiles and the persistence of the Jews would endure until the end of the world? And how extraordinary is it that no one other than Christ predicted the destruction [of Jerusalem] which Josephus wrote [about] afterwards, [that is], [about] a siege that would happen on the Sabbath and of the Gentiles inflicting an unheard of slaughter, of death by the sword and famine, [and] of the captivity of the Jews in every nation after this?
In addition to [their] labors, it is of value [precium est] to hear what sort of speech Jesus and each of his disciples used for persuading their audience: “Give all of your things to the pour; reject any gifts; extend your cheek to your persecutor; do good to your enemies; consider this life and all of its pleasures as nothing; deny yourselves; take up this cross of ours, a dreadful cross; we implore you to follow us to the utmost degree. For if you follow us you will, without a doubt, endure every evil that is thought to come from mortality for [your] whole life.” This [is] their [persuasive message]. Oh persuasion, abounding in each and every dissuasion! Do you think that Demosthenes and Cicero could have persuaded anyone of anything by this method? Nevertheless, this speech persuaded, no indeed, the Speaker [persuaded] many great men all at once. But, how? God did it by means of a miracle more extraordinary than all [miracles], in that, Jesus did not speak like a Scribe or Pharisee, as those who heard testify, but as one who had power.
Moreover, it was so thoroughly persuasive to them that the followers of Christ delighted [amaverint] in him at all times, more than human nature is capable of in itself. Indeed, by no means will he deny that [this persuasion] is completely divine who has closely examined the writings and deeds [of Christ’s followers] with a clear mind. If there is anyone who doubts, let him diligently read and reread the books of the Prophets and the Gospels, and let him read the commentaries of those who followed them in that era. [Then] the truth of the matter will immediately shine forth. For, there is a new power in these [writings], and a remarkable intelligibility, a reasonableness and attractiveness, [and there is] dignity, depth, and majesty [in them]. This, indeed, reveals that [they] do not lack divine power and radiance, nor does the truth itself [and] divine power depend upon fraudulent reports or human schemes. Add to this that in so many [different] books of the Old and New Testaments nothing has been found to be without harmony, and this is an indication of the highest divine truth, because this has not been confirmed [about] any other [book]. I cannot say what pious and majestic [gift] these writers had, a [gift] which is extraordinary and, indeed, common between them, [but] deeply foreign to all other [writers], which shows that God influenced [aspirasse] them all rather than others.
What shall we say to this, that though all other writers wander about and move back and forth [vacillent], nevertheless, these never doubt anything, but the children of the omnipotent God speak with so much certitude that they complete every [argument] with the most unwavering courage? Hear that fisherman, John the Evangelist, [who says]:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed jour fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all [1 John 1:1-5].
Again consider [John’s words], how he speaks with so much affirmation:
[…] See how [John] with great earnest proclaims:
And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. […] We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. […] For there are three that testify in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood and these three agree in one. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater [1 John 5:11-15; 18-20; 7-9a].
[…] If anyone will diligently read the Holy Scriptures he will be impelled to confess that Christian teaching [legem] was instituted by divine power. Because, our steadfast heroes held fast to an unmovable foundation with a clear mind, inflamed wills, intelligible and persuasive [certi] words, by tireless acts [and] unconquerable determination. The [teachings] of other [religions], by means of [their] petty [and] ambiguous reckonings, strive for too much; and, as David says [in Psalm 11:9], “because the wicked wander in a circle they are neither sufficient leaders of themselves nor of others.” And finally, if purity is the greatest characteristic of religion, those [teachings] are certainly most divine which permit neither the vile superstitions of the later Jews and the most depraved insanity [deliramenta] of the Talmud, nor the obscene and perverse fables of the pagans [gentilium], nor the despicable license of the Mohamedans and the absurdities of the Koran. [Christian teachings] do not promise an earthly reward as the other [religious] teachings [leges] do, but a heavenly [one], neither do they command that the adversaries of the Faith and [its] teachings be killed as the Talmud and the Koran require, but that they either be instructed by argument [ratione], converted with persuasive speech [oratione], or patiently tolerated. [Christian teachings] not only prune the vices but tear them up by the roots [extirpat] and persuades the virtues [to grow] by doing before speaking, as was most clearly [and] really visible in the first Christians. For, their condition and fate was such that they could not persuade [anyone] by any other [means] than by practicing both the virtues and miracles. Furthermore, they practiced the virtues passionately, not out of ambition or for pleasure, or for human leisure, but by the grace of God alone, and they put this world out of sight and held it as nothing in order that they might pursue another world. 2
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it [John 1:1-5].
Eric Parker is a Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University in Montréal, where he is writing his dissertation on the Cambridge Platonist, Peter Sterry. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children.
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