Christian Attitudes Towards Astrology


The Art Of Astrology

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While Christianity was illegal, there were few Christian discussions of astrology. Indeed, in the period when there was no institution able to create and enforce orthodoxy, many Christians might find encouragement to take astrology seriously in the New Testament itself. Most important was the tale of the Magi, clearly envisaged as astrologers, who followed a star which they saw as presaging the birth of a great king.29 Apart from this sign of Christ's birth, there were also a number of celestial omens associated with his death, and his return.30 In Genesis, too, there was a passage referring to God's creating the stars as signs.31

It was not only sects defined as heretical who sought to follow Jewish precedent in investing the zodiac with a symbolic relationship to cherished religious concepts. Bishop Zeno of Verona, who died in 380 CE, has left us a sermon to new converts just baptised, which offers the first Christianised zodiac to survive.32 The theme is that the converts are born again under a new set of zodiac signs, destining them all to heaven. He links Aries and Taurus with Christ as sacrificial victim (lamb and calf) and Gemini with the Old and New Testament. Both Cancer and Capricorn represent the variety of vice. Virgo brings forth Libra, as Mary brought forward Christ as bringer of justice, while Leo is Judah the lion-cub and Christ resurrected. Scorpio recalled the passage where Christ was given authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and thus refers to the Devil, like Sagittarius, whose fiery arrows recall St Paul's description. Aquarius stands for baptism and Pisces for the unity in Christ of Jews and Gentiles.33 We know nothing of the reception given this unusual document, but we do know that Zeno's work in general was still circulating in Gaul, in the first half of the sixth century.34

Sidonius Apollinaris, Bishop of Lyons, writing letters on a pagan model, gives some indication of the accommodation which might be afforded to astrology by Christians as late as the fifth century. He refers to astrology with respect, as a serious and lofty matter, when writing to a friend who studies it. He reveals the names of several who dabbled in the art, including Leo, the great jurist of Narbonne, Magnus, a consul in 440, and the orators Lampridius and Lupus, and mentions the textbooks of Julianus Vertacus and Fullonius Saturninus. However, while showing off his knowledge of the technical terms, Sidonius does condemn astrology as contrary to the faith on an occasion where his friend Lampridius, who resorted to astrologers, has been strangled by his slaves. He seems to suggest that his fate was deserved: 'Death enmeshed our reckless enquirer exactly when and where foretold...I fear that he who presumes to probe forbidden secrets sets himself beyond the pale of the Catholic faith.'35

Astrology seems to have been perceived as a threat to the authority of the Church, since it could be seen as an independent means of discovering the future. The discipline is almost invariably discussed in the context of fatalism and free will, as part of an argument which condemns the idea that the stars determine human behaviour rather than God. Astrology thus can be seen to rival Christian prophecy. It is intriguing, given this focus, to see that astrology is connected with movements regarded as heretical by the Church, though the association is not made by the earliest writers. Heretical sects were also, obviously, a threat to the Church.

Naturally, the notion of heresy could not hold much importance before the Church was established and united, but writings against Gnostics, theosophical sects, some of which drew on Christian ideas, are found as early as the mid-second century. Tatian, born in Assyria but converted in Rome, writing in about 180, in the context of a polemic against fatalism, ascribes astrology's invention to daemons. Man misused his freedom of will and became the slave of the daemons. But escape is possible by renouncing all worldly things.36 Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215) also refutes astrology in discussion of fatalism. He rejects the attitude of most people, shared by philosophers, according to which material changes are mainly the work of the stars; it is an impious view, since the stars are subject to divine providence. But he does not mention astrology in his assaults on Gnosticism.

Tertullian of Carthage, writing in about 200 CE, refers to the relationship of astrologers, magi and philosophers to heretical sects in The Prescription of Heretics: they all have curiositas, or desire to know what should not be known. In his On Idolatry he presents an attack on astrology as a response to a Christian's claiming his right to continue practising the art. He tells him:

You know nothing, astrologer, if you did not know you would become a Christian. If you did know it, you should have known that you would have nothing to do with the profession . The hope of the kingdom of heaven cannot exist with the abuse of heaven.

He says that fallen angels introduced astrology.37

The first to argue against astrology as part of a polemic against Gnosticism is Hippolytus of Rome, who was martyred in 235. Dealing with the Peratic sect, he engages in a detailed discussion of the discipline, having disclaimed expertise. He is the first in a long line of Christian writers who re-use the arguments of pagan philosophers who argued against astrology as a fatalistic doctrine. He justifies the digression as follows:

But since, estimating astrology as a powerful art, and using the testimonies given by its patrons, they [the Peratics] hope to gain credence for their own attempted conclusions, I shall now, as seems necessary, show the astrological art to be untenable, as my intention is to refute the Peratic system, as a branch springing from an unstable root.38

Christians were initially seen as philosophers, and indeed sometimes encouraged this impression. Thus, philosophers, perhaps because they were uncomfortably close to Christians, could be seen as heretics -we have already seen the association in Tertullian. Epiphanius of Salamis, in his Medicine Chest for the Cure of All the Heresies, written in 375-7, attacks eighty heretical sects, including Stoicism. It is in consideration of the Stoics that he discusses astral fatalism.

It is often difficult to reconstruct the role of astrology in heretical sects. In the case of the Gnostics, since the finding of the Nag Hammadi library of Gnostic and Hermetic texts in Upper Egypt, it has been clearer that there is a close connection between Hermetism and Gnosticism. As with Hermetic texts, the stars are seen as evil powers controlling humans. Devotees aim to free their souls of this tyrannical power, ascending through successive stages of true Gnosis, or knowledge, with the help of a redeemer, till they reach the celestial home from which they came originally.

From the hostile Christian sources, Irenaeus (c. 130-202), Hippolytus (c. 170-236) and Epiphanius (c. 315-403), who all wrote about Gnostics in their works attacking heresies, we glean odd references to the astrological entities peopling the Gnostic cosmos. The Phibionites supposedly treated as gods (probably daemons, evil powers intermediate between gods and humans) the single degrees of the zodiac (Monomoiriai in astrological terminology).39 The Monomoiriai also feature in the cosmogony of the Marcionites, followers of the preacher Marcion who was expelled from the Church in 144, along with the zodiac divisions, decans, planets and constellations. The Marcionites assigned numbers to all such entities, and engaged in numerological speculation.40 The Gnostic Basileides, who taught in Alexandria in 120-40 CE, adheres to the doctrines of astrological geography, according to which different stars influence the physique and mores of different zones of the world, and to that of melothesia, according to which different parts of the body are controlled by different astrological elements.

One important Gnostic text which has been preserved is the Coptic Pistis Sophia. It illustrates the esoteric nature of such texts. In it the astrological entities are seen as heavenly powers, the twelve signs are aeons, the five planets are archons, and so on (see Plate 10).41 This is in description of punishments. Elsewhere, the second of several spheres is called Heimarmene, or Fate. Christ overcomes the tyrants of Heimarmene by turning them so that they spend six months facing left, and six facing right, as they complete their spheres of influence. He has 'turned' their squares, triangles and figures of eight—this seems to be some version of the theory of aspects. When Mariam, the most important of the disciples in this text, asks whether the astrologers will be wrong, Christ replies that they will still predict correctly when the spheres are turned to the left. Here Christ's power to liberate his followers seems to be limited, and the astrologer's art guaranteed, at least for half the time.

There are theoretical compromises also evident in Origen (c. 185255), though he does not compromise about the use of astrology in his congregation. In a sermon, he says that the anathema (curse of damnation) should be pronounced against those who seek in the stars the secrets of life, for they pollute the camp of the Lord and cause the defeat of the people of God.42 He stops to attack astrology in the course of his Commentary on Genesis, as he reaches the reference to the creation of the stars as signs.43 He gives an account of the points to be argued:

1 How our freedom is safeguarded when God knows in advance for all eternity the acts that each man is judged to have accomplished.

2 How the stars are not agents but signs.

3 That humans cannot have accurate knowledge of these signs, but that they are revealed for the sake of powers greater than humans.

4 The reason for which God has created these signs in order to obtain knowledge for the powers is examined.

In his discussion, Origen testifies to the powerful hold astrology had on the imagination. On the one hand, he attempts to remove the power of decree over human fates from the stars and give it to God instead, thus illustrating just how close the two forms of predestination were. This points up the challenge of astrology to the Church. The first two points are an explication of this. But on the other hand, he ends up by conceding a great deal to astrology, as part of his explanation of the sense in which God made the stars as signs.

His argument is that the stars are to be seen as a kind of moving writing traced by God's hand in the sky, for the divine powers to read. These divine powers are something like angels, or good daemons. The writing prefigures all cosmic events from creation to the end of the world, and is put there to instruct the divine powers and make them happy. It reveals to them all divine mysteries, and in some instances communicates instructions for their missions, which they freely accept. The idea of the stars being there to be read like writing seems close to Gnosticism or Neoplatonism. The stars seem to be perceived as intelligent entities with souls, rather than as objects manipulated by divine will.

Origen thus concedes a good deal to astrology. He says that the stars offer information about a fixed future from beginning to end, and that in some cases they are part of the medium by which fate is played out; he also goes further. Evil powers, as well as good, seem to achieve access to the knowledge in the stars. Origen says that they act maliciously in accordance with their own wishes when they execute events prefigured by the stars, rather than reading the writing to discover what God wants. Even his argument about human access to this knowledge seems to offer a loophole. Though their knowledge may not be accurate, they may find some things out.

As the other Church Fathers, Origen re-uses old anti-fatalist arguments from the Hellenistic philosophers. Unusually, he adds the theory of the precession of the equinoxes to his arsenal. However, these secular objections are rather left behind in his elaborate account of the Christian version of Fate. Origen himself was declared a heretic in 399, 150 years after his death, thanks in great measure to the efforts of Epiphanius, who included him in his list of eighty heresies. Despite this he remained influential, and this fragment of his commentary is preserved in a collection of excerpts made in the fourth century. His concessions to astrology are not unique: Eusebius of Caesarea (265-339) seems to have allowed a non-fatalist astrology.44

Astrology continued to be attacked with the help of pagan philosophers in the course of discussions of fatalism. Diodorus of

Tarsus, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century, followed by Nemesius in the fifth, all addressed the question of astrology in Greek discussions of fatalism. Of Latin writers, 'Ambrosiaster', the author of Questions about the Old and New Testaments in the late fourth century,45 and Augustine (354-430) did the same. Others dealt with it in the course of biblical commentaries: Basil of Caesarea (329-79), Ambrose (33997), Procopius of Gaza (d. 538), and an anonymous subscriber to Arian theology of the fourth or fifth century. These polemicists used the old questions: how large numbers of people share characteristics, or manner of death, when they must have had different horoscopes, while twins show that those with the same horoscopes do not have the same fates. Another standard argument attacks the idea that the stars determine the mores of different zones.

However, even after these perfunctory attempts to demolish astrology, puzzled congregations might well demand answers to problems like the accounts of the birth of Christ in the Gospels. There is an implication in the tale of the Magi that Christ is subject to the decrees of the stars, which the Church Fathers wanted to avoid in their disquisitions. In effect they faced the same difficulty as Firmicus did in explaining the emperor's position. The stories about the Star of Bethlehem were doubtless first told in order to legitimate Christ's role as future king.

Ignatius and Tertullian, in the second century CE, argued that astrologers had indeed had true knowledge of the future, but that this had ceased from the birth of Christ.46 Others, following the Gnostic example, saw baptism as freeing Christians from the astral determinism to which pagans were subject.47 In the fourth century, Basil, John Chrysostom, Diodorus of Tarsus and Gregory of Nazianzus tried the tack of arguing that the Star of Bethlehem was not a star. John argued that this was clear from its path. Rather than being a subject for astrological investigation, it was a 'divine power with the form of a star, announcing the birth of the lord of the universe', as Diodorus of Tarsus put it.48 But if so, how had astrologers been able to determine the significance of this apparition? Gregory solved this one in his poem 'On Foreknowledge' by explaining that the Magi were converted when they saw Christ, and renounced their art.49 This was a development of Tertullian's argument that the command to the Magi to go back by another way was a coded order that they give up their occupation. Tertullian elsewhere tried the line that the three visitors were kings,50 an interpretation generally accepted by the sixth century: this had the double advantage of abandoning the problematic figures of the Magi and fulfilling Old Testament prophecies.

John Chrystostom, at the end of the fourth century, exemplifies the worry about Christians succumbing to what he saw as the pernicious doctrines of astrologers:

Fear the shortest conversation with those who are infested with this doctrine. We give this advice, not because we fear the force and efficacity of their dogmas but because we fear your feebleness...In the same way as murder and adultery are sins and forbidden actions, so also trust in astrology and belief in Fate are perverse, forbidden. in truth, no doctrine is so depraved and bordering on incurable madness as the doctrine of Fate and astrology.51

The Church was becoming less and less tolerant of rivals, as it consolidated its hold on the Roman state. Augustine brought a new harshness to the pursuit of heretics. He largely succeeded in stamping out Donatism, which had coexisted with the Catholic Church in Africa for eighty-five years, and was a prime mover in instituting the condemnation of Pelagius and Pelagianism. He associated astrology with heresy as a result of personal experience, and thus had every reason to treat it like other heretical doctrines. He had studied the art while he was a Manichean, for some ten years. (Manichaeism was a sect founded by the Syriac-speaking Babylonian Mani, who drew on the ideas of the Mandaean Gnostic sect to which he had belonged.) Augustine knew something of the technical side, as is clear from the fact that a friend asked him whether the stars indicated that his worldly ambitions would be fulfilled.52 Manichaeans were regarded by the Church as heretics, and influenced other heretical sects. Astrology was mentioned in connection with the Manichaean heresy in the expulsion decree of 425. In Augustine's sermon on Psalm 61 he advises the congregation to watch a former astrologer carefully to prevent backsliding: a commentator suggests that he was talking of himself.53 If not, it is certainly a surprisingly harsh attack on someone present in the congregation. He complains elsewhere that congregations are full of people who receive astrological advice on when to undertake enterprises of all sorts.54 For him, astrology was an evil to be stamped out.

In the City of God, Book V, Augustine argues against the Ciceronian argument that divine foreknowledge removes free will. However, he seems to see human wills as in the order of causes determined by God (certus Deo). When it comes to astrology, he finds himself in agreement with Cicero, and indeed trots out some of the old pagan arguments against astrology. The argument is tortuous. Christian prophecy is allowed, but pagan divination of the future, including astrology, is condemned as the work of evil daemons. This allows a small concession to the validity of astrology: the daemons sometimes obtain revelations from divine signs, which are mixed in with their otherwise lying predictions.

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