Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Christian Cicero: Getting to Know Lactantius

"Let those who are famished come that they may lay aside perpetual hunger and be filled with heavenly food."

-Lactantius, Divine Institutes, VII

Lactantius is not a name that is often heard of these days.  Though he was one of the first in the Latin West to write systematic defenses of the Christian faith (much like Origen), though he wrote a vivid and detailed account of the deaths of the Christian martyrs, and even though he experienced a brief resurrection in the Renaissance where he became known as "the Christian Cicero", Lactantius is hardly ever spoken of these days.  In fact, his reputation has been very much tarnished over time; Anne Fremantle writes that "His theology is mediocre; indeed, he almost confounds Christianity with theism.  His style has been rated 'bland and insipid.'"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

1 comment:

  1. He's quoted in Catholic blogs as being a witness on behalf of chastity in marriage but his view is that of the Stoic Musonius Rufus:
    (Divine Institutes 6:23:18 [A.D. 307]).
    ” the genital [’generating’] part of the body, as the name itself teaches, has been received by us for no other purpose than the generation of offspring”.
    Jerome said a similar thing because he read Seneca. That exact position is now rejected by the Church.
    Lactantius however could have saved the Church from the entire Inquisition period had he been listened to from 308 AD:

    Religion being a matter of the will, it cannot be forced on anyone; in this matter it is better to employ words than blows [verbis melius quam verberibus res agenda est]. Of what use is cruelty? What has the rack to do with piety? Surely there is no connection between truth and violence, between justice and cruelty . . . . It is true that nothing is so important as religion, and one must defend it at any cost [summâ vi] . . . It is true that it must be protected, but by dying for it, not by killing others; by long-suffering, not by violence; by faith, not by crime. If you attempt to defend religion with bloodshed and torture, what you do is not defense, but desecration and insult. For nothing is so intrinsically a matter of free will as religion. (Divine Institutes V:20)

    That is basically the exact position the Church now holds in sect. 80 of "Splendor of the Truth" and in Vatican II.