Monday, February 25, 2008

The Theology of Lactantius

Lucius Caelius Firmianus Lactantius (b. 240AD, d. 320AD) was born in North Africa and became a renowned teacher of philosophy and taught in many cities around the Roman Empire. He converted to Christianity and subsequently authored the first Latin Christian Systematic Theology, titled Divine Institutions. Of all the pre-Nicene writers he is one of the easiest to read due to his clarity of writing style and comprehensiveness. There are none of the normal problems with concepts left undefined or cryptic indecipherable references - he spells out his views simply, clearly, and at great length.

The theology he presents can be summed up very simply:
  • Monotheism, One Creator God.
  • Jesus, Teacher of Virtue, both Human and Divine,
  • The importance of humans living virtuously
  • Eternal judgment by works
Here are a few one-liners:
The spirit must earn immortality by works of righteousness (D.I. 4.25)
No other religion is true except that which consists of virtue and justice. (D.I. 6.25)
He has given us this present life, that we may either lose that true and eternal life by our vices, or win it by virtue. (D.I. 7.5)
Immortality, then, is not the consequence of nature, but the reward and recompense of virtue. (D.I. 7.5)
Whoever by his virtue has trampled upon the corruptions of the earth, the supreme and truthful arbiter will raise him to life and to perpetual light. (D.I. 7.27)
For those interested, here are some longer extracts:
I will first show for what reason Christ came to the earth, that the foundation and the system of divine religion may be manifest. When the Jews often resisted wholesome precepts, and departed from the divine law, going astray to the impious worship of false gods, then God filled just and chosen men with the Holy Spirit, appointing them as prophets in the midst of the people, by whom He might rebuke with threatening words the sins of the ungrateful people, and nevertheless exhort them to repent of their wickedness; for unless they did this, and, laying aside their vanities, return to their God, it would come to pass that He would change His covenant, that is, bestow the inheritance of eternal life upon foreign nations, and collect to Himself a more faithful people out of those who were aliens by birth. But they, when rebuked by the prophets, not only rejected their words; but being offended because they were upbraided for their sins, they slew the prophets themselves with studied tortures: all which things are sealed up and preserved in the sacred writings. ... On account of these impieties of theirs He cast them off for ever; and so He ceased to send to them prophets. But He commanded His own Son, the first-begotten, the maker of all things, His own counsellor, to descend from heaven, that He might transfer the sacred religion of God to the Gentiles, that is, to those who were ignorant of God, and might teach them righteousness, which the perfidious people had cast aside. And He had long before threatened that He would do this... Therefore (as I had begun to say), when God had determined to send to men a teacher of righteousness, He commanded Him to be born again a second time in the flesh, and to be made in the likeness of man himself, to whom he was about to be a guide, and companion, and teacher. But since God is kind and merciful to His people, He sent Him to those very persons whom He hated, that He might not close the way of salvation against them for ever, but might give them a free opportunity of following God, that they might both gain the reward of life if they should follow Him (which many of them do, and have done), and that they might incur the penalty of death by their fault if they should reject their King. He ordered Him therefore to be born again among them, and of their seed, lest, if He should be born of another nation, they might be able to allege a just excuse from the law for their rejection of Him; and at the same time, that there might be no nation at all under heaven to which the hope of immortality should be denied. (D.I. 4.10-11)

He had to be clothed with flesh on the earth, that having assumed the form of a man and the condition of mortality, He might teach men righteousness; ... [many people now] adore His name, confess His majesty, follow His teaching, and imitate His goodness (D.I. 4.12)

Therefore the Most High God, and Parent of all, when He had purposed to transfer His religion, sent from heaven a teacher of righteousness, that in Him or through Him He might give a new law to new worshippers; not as He had before done, by the instrumentality of man. (D.I. 4.13)

For God, when He saw that wickedness and the worship of false gods had so prevailed throughout the world, that His name had now also been taken away from the memory of men (since even the Jews, who alone had been entrusted with the secret of God, had deserted the living God, and, ensnared by the deceits of demons, had gone astray, and turned aside to the worship of images, and when rebuked by the prophets did not choose to return to God), He sent His Son as an ambassador to men, that He might turn them from their impious and vain worship to the knowledge and worship of the true God; and also that He might turn their minds from foolishness to wisdom, and from wickedness to deeds of righteousness. (D.I. 4.14)

For nothing among earthly things can be venerable and worthy of heaven; but it is virtue alone, and justice alone, which can be judged a true, and heavenly, and perpetual good, because it is neither given to any one, nor taken away. And since Christ came upon earth, supplied with virtue and righteousness, yea rather, since He Himself is virtue, and Himself righteousness, He descended that He might teach it and mould the character of man. (D.I. 4.16)

If any one gives to men precepts for living, and moulds the characters of others, I ask whether he is bound himself to practice the things which he enjoins, or is not bound. If he shall not do so, his precepts are annulled. For if the things which are enjoined are good, if they place the life of men in the best condition, the instructor ought not to separate himself from the number and assemblage of men among whom he acts; and he ought himself to live in the same manner in which he teaches that men ought to live, lest, by living in another way, he himself should disparage his own precepts, and make his instruction of less value, if in reality he should relax the obligations of that which he endeavours to establish by his words. For every one, when he hears another giving precepts, is unwilling that the necessity of obeying should be imposed upon him, as though the right of liberty were taken from him. Therefore he answers his teacher in this manner: I am not able to do the things which you command, for they are impossible. For you forbid me to be angry, you forbid me to covet, you forbid me to be excited by desire, you forbid me to fear pain or death; but this is so contrary to nature, that all animals are subject to these affections. Or if you are so entirely of opinion that it is possible to resist nature, do you yourself practice the things which you enjoin, that I may know that they are possible? But since you yourself do not practice them, what arrogance is it, to wish to impose upon a free man laws which you yourself do not obey! You who teach, first learn; and before you correct the character of others, correct your own. Who could deny the justice of this answer? Nay! a teacher of this kind will fall into contempt, and will in his turn be mocked, because he also will appear to mock others. What, therefore, will that instructor do, if these things shall be objected to him? how will he deprive the self-willed of an excuse, unless he teach them by deeds before their eyes that he teaches things which are possible? Whence it comes to pass, that no one obeys the precepts of the philosophers. For men prefer examples rather than words, because it is easy to speak, but difficult to accomplish. Would to heaven that there were as many who acted well as there are who speak well! But they who give precepts, without carrying them out into action, are distrusted; and if they shall be men, will be despised as inconsistent: if it shall be God, He will be met with the excuse of the frailty of man's nature. It remains that words should be confirmed by deeds, which the philosophers are unable to do. Therefore, since the instructors themselves are overcome by the affections which they say that it is our duty to overcome, they are able to train no one to virtue, which they falsely proclaim; and for this cause they imagine that no perfect wise man has as yet existed, that is, in whom the greatest virtue and perfect justice were in harmony with the greatest learning and knowledge. And this indeed was true. For no one since the creation of the world has been such, except Christ, who both delivered wisdom by His word, and confirmed His teaching by presenting virtue to the eyes of men. (D.I. 4.23)

[Christ needed a mortal, fleshly, body because] if He should come to men as God, not to mention that mortal eyes cannot look upon and endure the glory of His majesty in His own person, assuredly God will not be able to teach virtue; for, inasmuch as He is without a body, He will not practice the things which He will teach, and through this His teaching will not be perfect. Otherwise, if it is the greatest virtue patiently to endure pain for the sake of righteousness and duty, if it is virtue not to fear death itself when threatened, and when inflicted to undergo it with fortitude; it follows that the perfect teacher ought both to teach these things by precept, and to confirm them by practice. For he who gives precepts for the life, ought to remove every method of excuse, that he may impose upon men the necessity of obedience, not by any constraint, but by a sense of shame, and yet may leave them liberty, that a reward may be appointed for those who obey, because it was in their power not to obey if they so wished; and a punishment for those who do not obey, because it was in their power to obey if they so wished. How then can excuse be removed, unless the teacher should practice what he teaches, and as it were go before and hold out his hand to one who is about to follow? But how can one practice what he teaches, unless he is like him whom he teaches? For if he be subject to no passion, a man may thus answer him who is the teacher: It is my wish not to sin, but I am overpowered; for I am clothed with frail and weak flesh: it is this which covets, which is angry, which fears pain and death. And thus I am led on against my will; and I sin, not because it is my wish, but because I am compelled. I myself perceive that I sin; but the necessity imposed by my frailty, which I am unable to resist, impels me. What will that teacher of righteousness say in reply to these things? How will he refute and convict a man who shall allege the frailty of the flesh as an excuse for his faults, unless he himself also shall be clothed with flesh, so that he may show that even the flesh is capable of virtue? For obstinacy cannot be refuted except by example. For the things which you teach cannot have any weight unless you shall be the first to practice them; because the nature of men is inclined to faults, and wishes to sin not only with indulgence, but also with a reasonable plea. It is befitting that a master and teacher of virtue should most closely resemble man, that by overpowering sin he may teach man that sin may be overpowered by him. But if he is immortal, he can by no means propose an example to man. For there will stand forth some one persevering in his opinion, and will say: You indeed do not sin, because you are free from this body; you do not covet, because nothing is needed by an immortal; but I have need of many things for the support of this life. You do not fear death, because it can have no power against you. You despise pain, because you can suffer no violence. But I, a mortal, fear both, because they bring upon me the severest tortures, which the weakness of the flesh cannot endure. A teacher of virtue therefore ought to have taken away this excuse from men, that no one may ascribe it to necessity that he sins, rather than to his own fault. Therefore, that a teacher may be perfect, no objection ought to be brought forward by him who is to be taught, so that if he should happen to say, You enjoin impossibilities; the teacher may answer, See, I myself do them. But I am clothed with flesh, and it is the property of flesh to sin. I too bear the same flesh, and yet sin does not bear rule in me. It is difficult for me to despise riches, because otherwise I am unable to live in this body. See, I too have a body, and yet I contend against every desire. I am not able to bear pain or death for righteousness, because I am frail. See, pain and death have power over me also; and I overcome those very things which you fear, that I may make you victorious over pain and death. I go before you through those things which you allege that it is impossible to endure: if you are not able to follow me giving directions, follow me going before you. In this way all excuse is taken away, and you must confess that man is unjust through his own fault, since he does not follow a teacher of virtue, who is at the same time a guide. You see, therefore, how much more perfect is a teacher who is mortal, because he is able to be a guide to one who is mortal, than one who is immortal, for he is unable to teach patient endurance who is not subject to passions. Nor, however, does this extend so far that I prefer man to God; but to show that man cannot be a perfect teacher unless he is also God, that he may by his heavenly authority impose upon men the necessity of obedience; nor God, unless he is clothed with a mortal body, that by carrying out his precepts to their completion in actions, he may bind others by the necessity of obedience. It plainly therefore appears, that he who is a guide of life and teacher of righteousness must have a body, and that his teaching cannot otherwise be full and perfect, unless it has a root and foundation, and remains firm and fixed among men; and that he himself must undergo weakness of flesh and body, and display in himself the virtue of which he is a teacher, that he may teach it at the same time both by words and deeds. Also, he must be subject to death and all sufferings, since the duties of virtue are occupied with the enduring of suffering, and the undergoing death; all which, as I have said, a perfect teacher ought to endure, that he may teach the possibility of their being endured.(D.I. 4.24)

Let men therefore learn and understand why the Most High God, when He sent His ambassador and messenger to instruct mortals with the precepts of His righteousness, willed that He should be clothed with mortal flesh, and be afflicted with torture, and be sentenced to death. For since there was no righteousness on earth, He sent a teacher, as it were a living law, to found a new name and temple, that by His words and example He might spread throughout the earth a true and holy worship. ... if He had been God only (as we have before said), He would not have been able to afford to man examples of goodness; if He had been man only, He would not have been able to compel men to righteousness, unless there had been added an authority and virtue greater than that of man. (D.I. 4.25)

But with reference to the cross, it has great force and meaning, which I will now endeavour to show. For God (as I have before explained), when He had determined to set man free, sent as His ambassador to the earth a teacher of virtue, who might both by salutary precepts train men to innocence, and by works and deeds before their eyes might open the way of righteousness, by walking in which, and following his teacher, man might attain to eternal life. He therefore assumed a body, and was clothed in a garment of flesh, that He might hold out to man, for whose instruction He had come, examples of virtue and incitements to its practice. But when He had afforded an example of righteousness in all the duties of life, in order that He might teach man also the patient endurance of pain and contempt of death, by which virtue is rendered perfect and complete, He came into the hands of an impious nation, when, by the knowledge of the future which He had, He might have avoided them, and by the same power by which He did wonderful works He might have repelled them. Therefore He endured tortures, and stripes, and thorns. At last He did not refuse even to undergo death, that under His guidance man might triumph over death, subdued and bound in chains with all its terrors. But the reason why the Most High Father chose that kind of death in preference to others, with which He should permit Him to be visited, is this. For some one may perchance say: Why, if He was God, and chose to die, did He not at least suffer by some honourable kind of death? why was it by the cross especially? why by an infamous kind of punishment, which may appear unworthy even of a man if he is free, although guilty? First of all, because He, who had come in humility that He might bring assistance to the humble and men of low degree, and might hold out to all the hope of safety, was to suffer by that kind of punishment by which the humble and low usually suffer, that there might be no one at all who might not be able to imitate Him. (D.I. 4.26)

There are two ways, O Emperor Constantine, by which human life must proceed—the one which leads to heaven, the other which sinks to hell; and these ways poets have introduced in their poems, and philosophers in their disputations. And indeed philosophers have represented the one as belonging to virtues, the other to vices ...the two ways belong to heaven and hell, because immortality is promised to the righteous, and everlasting punishment is threatened to the unrighteous. ... he who follows truth and righteousness, having received the reward of immortality, will enjoy perpetual light; but he who, enticed by that evil guide, shall prefer vices to virtues, falsehood to truth, must be borne to the setting of the sun, and to darkness. (D.I. 6.3)

The first step of virtue is to abstain from evil works; the second, to abstain also from evil words; the third, to abstain even from the thoughts of evil things. He who ascends the first step is sufficiently just; he who ascends the second is now of perfect virtue, since he offends neither in deeds nor in conversation; he who ascends the third appears truly to have attained the likeness of God. (D.I. 6.13)


Blogger Peter Kirk said...

[God] sent from heaven a teacher of righteousness, that in Him or through Him He might give a new law to new worshippers ...

Lactantius may be a clear writer, but he has abandoned the heart of biblical Christianity for a new legalism. The cross is only "in order that He might teach man also the patient endurance of pain and contempt of death", and there is no mention in what you write of the Resurrection. So in what meaningful way can we call him Christian?

Blogger Andrew said...

I personally would argue that the heart of biblical Christianity is precisely that 'legalism'. It is certainly the heart of the Christianity of the pre-Nicene Fathers.

(I prefer the German derived word 'moralism' that Patristic scholars use. The word 'legalism', whatever its historic meanings in English, seems far more suitable for describing Reformation Christianity than it does moralistic Christianity - since moralism is about obeying the spirit and not the letter of the law and free grace and forgiveness with repentance, whereas Reformation Christianity is about God acting in a Legal paradigm, and requiring legalistic perfection without room for error.)

Lactantius does believe in the Resurrection but only comments briefly on it that it was a proof of the resurrection to come, and that we will likewise attain immorality if we imitate Christ's passion.

So in what meaningful way can we call him Christian?
Well I suppose you could arbitrarily make up a definition of 'Christian' today and apply it anachronistically throughout history and find he doesn't meet it. I don't see the benefit of that. He was Christian by the standards of the time, indeed as I have argued and demonstrated in other posts, the doctrines he held and taught were orthodoxy by the standards of the time. Therefore I would say he is Christian by their definition whatever you happen to think. Perhaps he would think you're not Christian because you don't agree with the Christian doctrine he lays out?

Blogger Peter Kirk said...

OK, Andrew, I will allow "moralism" rather than "legalism". But that is still a variety of justification by works, so decisively rejected by Paul even from the newest perspectives on him. It seems to me that Lactantius was not so much typical of the ante-Nicenes as a prototype of a new kind of post-Nicene human, who is still with us today especially in liberal churches: someone who took the best of secular morality and put a Christian gloss on it because that was the expected respectable thing, was faintly embarrassed by the resurrection, and had no real concept of the power of God to do anything at all to change their life, let alone to change the world.

No doubt Lactantius would have had the same kind of doubts about my faith as I have about his. How should such a disagreement be resolved? In my understanding, by appealing to the foundation documents of Christianity, the Bible. The kind of Christianity I see in the Acts of the Apostles and in the letters of Paul is much more similar to my concept than to that of Lactantius, surely?

Blogger Andrew said...

>that is still a variety of
>justification by works, so
>decisively rejected by Paul even
>from the newest perspectives on

You are incorrect here - most New Perspective writers endorse a form of justification by works (generally they endorse a system known as "Augustinian Double-Justification"). eg
"Final Judgment According to Works: ...was quite clear for Paul (as indeed for Jesus). Paul, in company with mainstream second-Temple Judaism, affirms that God’s final judgment will be in accordance with he entirety of a life led – in accordance, in other words, with works. He says this clearly and unambiguously..." -NT Wright

In the NPP Paul is not rejecting justification by works he is rejecting justification by a certain type of works and endorsing a different type of works. That's kind-of the whole point of the New Perspective on Paul.

>It seems to me that Lactantius was
>not so much typical of the
>ante-Nicenes as a prototype of a
>new kind of post-Nicene human

Lactantius, as I said in an earlier post, is typical of pre-Nicene Christian theology. Justin Martyr, Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian etc all say much the same things. Lactantius is chronologically the last of the Moralists in Patristic theology - after Nicaea the church shifted away from Moralism. Moralism is the primary theology of the universal pre-Nicene Church and I can cite you dozens of quotes from Patristics scholars saying this if you really want. (I intended to post some of these quotes anyway in a future post that I've already drafted)

>The kind of Christianity I see in
>the Acts of the Apostles and in
>the letters of Paul is much more
>similar to my concept than to that
>of Lactantius, surely?

Well I don't know what your concept is, but I believe that the Moralism of the pre-Nicene fathers captures the essentials of NT Christianity far better than most Reformation views. As a New Perspectiver I would say that the Reformation views are founded on mistranslations of key terms in Paul and misunderstandings of important concepts, and that the better understanding of Greek and the social context in which Paul wrote has now allowed us to gain a better understanding of his words as he meant them - an understanding which just so happens to match that of how the pre-Nicene Fathers understood Christianity.

Blogger Peter Kirk said...

But, Andrew, according to your own description "Augustinian Double-Justification" is not justification by works, but justification by faith at conversion followed by final judgment by works. This sounds totally different from Lactantius' moralism.

I give you that there is some similarity between Lactantius' teaching and that of Justin which you recently summarised. But What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Tertullian? Surely not!

Blogger Andrew said...

The Augustinian double-justification schema is a form of justification by works - it makes eternal salvation dependent on us doing good works, so I don't see why you see that as essentially different to Moralism.

Tertullian? Absolutely - the only conception of Christ's redemption in his writings is Christ as a the Teacher of the New Law which by following we achieve eternal life. (Lactantius in D.I. 5.1&4 makes it clear he has read Tertullian's writings.)


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