"Let those who are famished come that they may lay aside perpetual hunger and be filled with heavenly food."
-Lactantius, Divine Institutes, VII
1 He is denigrated as "neither a philosophical or theological or linguistic genius."2 (Vincenzo Loi)
So why should a Catholic even remotely bother to read him? What could this ancient North African Father have to say to us now?
I think the virtue of Lactantius lies in the fact that he wrote for a pagan audience. One criticism of the man's writings is that he rarely quotes Christian sources; indeed, his writings are rife with references to Sibylline oracles, and great pagan philosophers such as Plato and Cicero. To the Scripture-only Protestant, this would probably be an unspeakable sin; to the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian, a great mistake involving the ignorance of Tradition and Scripture alike.
In defense of Lactantius, I think he did a great service to Christendom by doing this. If one wants to speak to a certain group of people effectively, one must speak their language. I believe Lactantius did this: by using the high-rhetorical style of Cicero and Demosthenes, by quoting extensively from the writings of the greatest minds of the ancient Greek and Roman world, and by fearlessly debunking and reproving the philosophies of paganism, Lactantius made a valiant attempt to defend the truth of the Christian faith.
Like some other Church Fathers, his efforts seem to have gone in vain. He seems now lumped in with Origen, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria as simply an unorthodox father. But this does not mean that he is not worth reading, that he is not worth gleaning wisdom from. In fact, quite the opposite. And in our day and age of neo-paganism, I think it is well-worth the time to take a look at the apologies and treatises of this man.
1 - A Treasury of Early Christianity, pg. 77
2 - qtd. in Apocalyptic Spirituality: Treatises and Letters of Lactantius, Adso of Montier-en-der, Joachim of Fiore, the Spiritual Franciscans, Savonarola, pg. 17