Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume VII/Lactantius/Introductory Notice to Lactantius
[a.d. 260—330.] Reaching, at last, the epoch of Constantine, perhaps the reader will share my own feelings, as those of—
“One who long, in thickets and in brakes
Entangled, winds now this way, and now that,
His devious course uncertain, seeking home,
But finds at last a greensward smooth and large,
Courageous, and refreshed for future toil.”
How strange it seems, after three centuries since John the Baptist suffered, to gain a moment when kings are not actually persecuting Christ in His servants!
How marvelous the change must have been in the experience of the primitive faithful; the Roman Emperor not ashamed of Jesus, and setting up the cross on the standards of his legions! Tertullian, De Fuga, and the troubles of Cyprian about The Lapsed, are matters of the past. As in a moment, God has changed the world for His people, and their perils become as suddenly reversed. The world’s favor begins to be the trial of faith, as its hatred before. The mild contemplative attitude of the Church at this period is something surprising. It accepts with little exultation this miracle of the Master; but so long has it been habituated to persecution, that it finds much of its discipline, and not less of its prevailing spirit, neutralized by its very triumph. No more the martyr’s heroic testimony and his crown beyond this life; no such call for the celibate as had been enforced before in tomes of the Christian literature; and what need now of Antony’s invitation to the desert and the cell? But, on the other hand, these ascetic forms of heroic faith were all that were now left to minister to the martyr-spirit, and to perpetuate the habits enforced upon the early believers. The hermitage and the monastery assumed a new attractiveness, and became dear to sentiment, as to principle before. We must not be surprised, then, at the tendencies of the age now rapidly developed; but let us rejoice for a moment in the times of refreshing from the Lord now at last vouchsafed to that “little flock” to which He had promised the kingdom.
The “conversion of Constantine,” as it is called, introduced the most marvelous revolution in human empire, in practical thought, and in the laws and manners of mankind, ever known in the history of the world. It is amazing how little the men of the epoch itself glorified their own introduction to “marvelous light,” and how very little the Church has left us, to tell the story of its emotions when first it found itself at rest from fiery persecutions, or when came forth from the Emperor the Edict of Milan for the legal observance of “the Day of the Sun.” What a day that Easter was, when, emerging from the catacombs and other dens and caves of the earth, the Church herself seemed as one risen from the dead!
We may be sure there were tears of joy and warm embraces among kindred long torn asunder by their common exposures to fire and sword. We cannot imagine, indeed, all, that was in the hearts of those Christian families that now kept holyday together in the face of the world, and sang fearlessly in holy places their anthem, “Christ is risen from the dead.” But a moment’s thought we ought to give, as we pass into a stage of history entirely fresh and new, to the power of God thus manifested. The miracle thus wrought by the ascended Christ needs no aid from the supposed “vision of Constantine” to make it a supernatural exhibition of His glory who is “King of kings and Lord of lords.”
Arnobius wrote to the minds of perplexed Pilates asking “What is truth” in a new spirit, and not indisposed to wash their own hands of the blood of Jesus, though not prepared to believe and be baptized. His pupil finds a better sort of Pilate in the Emperor and in his period. Constantine is a pagan still at heart, but he is convinced of the truth that Christ has a kingdom “not of this world;” and he must have this credit, above the Antonines, that he recognized in the Chris tians not only his best and most loyal subjects, but men of a character altogether superior to that of the heathen, who had so long been the councillors of the empire. He was one, also, who accepted “the logic of events,” and who came to terms with the inevitable in time to turn it to his own advantage.
I think Constantine had read the Apologies addressed to the Antonines by Justin Martyr, and was at first disposed only to accept the plea for Christians so far forth as Justin had urged it. Going so far, he was led beyond his positive convictions to measures of policy which identified him with the Church. That the Church was distrustful of him, and doubted how long the Imperial favor might be relied upon, is also apparent. This doubt accounts, in some degree, for the great moderation of the Church in accepting benefits from him, and in withholding notes of triumph. She instinctively foresaw Julians in the way, and expected reactionary periods. She forbore to baptize the Emperor, and encouraged his disposition to postpone. It was as when “the wolf of Benjamin” was introduced to the disciples: “they were afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple.”
Lactantius, moved, perhaps, by Hosius or Eusebius, undertakes the instruction of the Emperor, while seeming only to copy the example of Justin writing to Antoninus Pius. The Institutes, it is true, had been begun at an earlier date; but he economizes, for a new purpose, the material, in which, perhaps, he had only purposed to follow up the work of his teacher, in language better fitted to the polite, for refuting heathenism. I cannot doubt that he aimed, in pure Latinity, to win the Emperor and his court to a deeper and purer conviction of divine truth: to more than a feeble and possibly superstitious idea that it was useless to contend with it, and that the gods of the empire were impotent to protect themselves against Christian progress and its masterly exposures of their shame and nothingness.
In language which has given him the title of the Christian Cicero, Lactantius employs Cicero himself as a defender of the truth; correcting him, indeed, and overruling his mistakes, rebuking his pusillanimity, and justly censuring him, (1) in philosophy, for declaring it no rule of action, however ennobling its precepts; and (2) in religion, for not venturing to profess conclusions to which his reasonings necessarily tend. All this is admirably adapted to carry on the work of Christian Fathers and Apologists under the change of times. He and Arnobius furnish but a supplement to the real teachers of the Church, and are not to be always depended on in statements of doctrine. They write like earnest converts, but not like theologians; yet, although their loose expressions are often inconsistent one with another, it is manifest that their design is to support orthodoxy as it had been defined by abler expounders. I think the large respect which Lactantius pays to the testimony of the Sibyls was addressed to the class with which he had to deal. Constantine was greatly influenced by such testimonies, if we may judge from his own liberal quotations and his comments on the Pollio of Virgil, to which, as a Christian oracle, our author may have introduced him. In short, the day had come in which it could no longer be said with strict propriety of phrase, “Not many mighty, not many noble, are called;” and Lactantius accepted, as his mission, the enforcement, before such a class, of despised truths which the great had persecuted in vain for centuries. He drew them thus to the conclusion that God had indeed “chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to naught things that are.” Such was the prophecy of St. Paul, and the Labarum uplifted by Cæsar’s legions proclaimed the fulfillment.
I have little doubt that Lactantius was of heathen parentage, and was converted late in life. To his eternal honor he was not a “fair-weather Christian,” but boldly confessed the faith amid the fires of the last and most terrible of the great persecutions. Its probable date suggests that his treatise on the persecutors may have been a far-reaching effort to dissuade the Cæsars of a later age from trying to restore “the gods to Latium.” I confess my own partiality to our author, and the interest with which his writings continue to impress me, even now. In youth (Consule Planco) I brought to his pages an enthusiastic appreciation of the genius which had adorned the very dawn of Christian civilization by works of literary merit not inferior to those of the Augustan age. The crabbed Latinity of Tertullian has charms, indeed, of its own sort: it was the shaggy raiment of the ascetic and the confessor, “always bearing about in his own body the dying of the Lord Jesus.” It befitted the age and the man, and those awful realities with which Christians had then to deal. Not words, but things, were their one concern. It is pleasant to find, however, that Christianity is not incapable of meeting all sorts and conditions of men; and Lactantius’ was doubtless the instrument of Providence in bearing the testimony of Jesus, “even before kings,” in language which promised to Roman letters the new and commanding development imparted to its language by Christianity, which has made it imperishable, and more truly “eternal” than Rome itself.
The following is the Introductory Notice of the reverend translator:—
Lactantius has always held a very high place among the Christian Fathers, not only on account of the subject-matter of his writings, but also on account of the varied erudition, the sweetness of expression, and the grace and elegance of style, by which they are characterized. It appears, therefore, more remarkable that so little is known with certainty respecting his personal history. We are unable to fix with precision either the place or time of his birth, and even his name has been the subject of much discussion. It is known that he was a pupil of Arnobius, who gave lectures in rhetoric at Sicca in Africa. Hence it has been supposed that Lactantius was a native of Africa, while others have maintained that he was born in Italy, and that his birthplace probably was Firmium, on the Adriatic. He was probably born about the middle of the third century, since he is spoken of as far advanced in life about a.d. 315. He is usually denominated “Lucius Cælius Firmianus Lactantius;” but the name Cæcilius is sometimes substituted for Cælius, and it is uncertain whether Firmianus is a family name or a local designation. Some have even supposed that be received the name of Lactantius from the milky softness of his style.
He attained to great eminence as a teacher of rhetoric, and his fame far outstripped the reputation of his master Arnobius. Such, indeed, was his celebrity, that he was invited by the Emperor Diocletian to settle at Nicomedia, and there practise his art. He appears, however to have met with so little success in that city, as to have been reduced to extreme indigence. Abandoning his profession as a pleader, he devoted himself to literary composition. It was probably at this period that he embraced the Christian faith, and we may perhaps be justified in supposing some connection between his poverty and his change of religion. He was afterwards called to settle in Gaul, probably about a.d. 315, and the Emperor Constantine entrusted to him the education of his son Crispus. He is believed to have died at Trèves about a.d. 325.
His principal work is The Christian Institutions, or an Introduction to True Religion, in seven books, designed to supersede the less complete treatises of Minucius Felix, Tertullian, and Cyprian. In these books, each of which has a distinct title, and constitutes a separate essay, he demonstrates the falsehood of the pagan religion, shows the vanity of the heathen philosophy, and undertakes the defense of the Christian religion against its adversaries. He also sets forth the nature of righteousness, gives instructions concerning the true worship of God, and treats of the punishment of the wicked, and the reward of the righteous in everlasting happiness.
To the Institutions is appended an epitome dedicated to Pentadius. The authorship of this abridgment has been questioned in modern times; but it is expressly assigned to Lactantius by Hieronymus. The greater part of the work was wanting in the earlier editions, and it was not until the beginning of the eighteenth century that it was discovered nearly entire.
The treatise on The Anger of God is directed mainly against the tenets of the Epicureans and Stoics, who maintained that the deeds of men could produce no emotions of pleasure or anger in the Deity. Lactantius holds that the love of the good necessarily implies the hatred of evil; and that the tenets of these philosophers, as tending to overthrow the doctrine of future rewards and punishments, are subversive of the principles of true religion.
In the treatise on The Workmanship of God, or The Formation of Man, the author dwells upon the wonderful construction of the human frame, and the adaptation of means to ends therein displayed, as proofs of the wisdom and goodness of God. The latter part of the book contains speculations concerning the nature and origin of the soul.
In the treatise on the Deaths of Persecutors, an argument for the truth of the Christian religion is derived from the fact, that those emperors who had been most distinguished as persecutors of the Christians, were special objects of divine vengeance.
To these treatises are usually appended some poetical works which have been attributed to Lactantius, but it is very questionable whether any of them were really written by him.
The poem on the Phœnix appears to be of a comparatively modern date.
That on Easter is believed to have been composed by Venantius Honorianus Clementianus Fortunatus in the sixth century.
The poem on the Passion of the Lord, though much admired both in its language and style of thought, bears the impress of a later age.
There is also a collection of A Hundred Enigmas, which has been attributed to Lactantius; but there is good reason to suppose that they are not the production of his pen. Heumann endeavored to prove that Symposium is the title of the work, and that no such person as Symposius ever existed. But this opinion is untenable. It is true that Hieronymus speaks of Lactantius as the author of a Symposium, but there are no grounds for supposing that the work was of a light and trifling character: it was probably a serious dialogue.
The style of Lactantius has been deservedly praised for the dignity, elegance, and clearness of expression by which it is characterized, and which have gained for him the appellation of the Christian Cicero. His writings everywhere give evidence of his varied and extensive erudition, and contain much valuable information respecting the systems of the ancient philosophers. But his claims as a theologian are open to question; for he holds peculiar opinions on many points, and he appears more successful as an opponent of error than as a maintainer of the truth. Lactantius has been charged with a leaning to Manicheism, but the charge appears to be unfounded.
The translation has been made from Migne’s edition, from which most of the notes have been taken. The quotations from Virgil have been given in the words of Conington’s translation, and those from Lucretius in the words of Munro.
- He borrows from Justin, vol. i. note 1, p. 186.
- e.g., Thomas, vol. vi. p. 158.
- While Lactantius was tutor to his son.
- See his Address to the Assembly of the Saints, preserved by Eusebius.
- William Fletcher, D.D. head master of Queen Elizabeth’s School, Wimborne, Dorset.
- i.e. of Firmium.
- [I see no force in this suggestion. Quite the reverse. He could not then anticipate anything but worse sufferings.]
- [To supplement, rather.]
- In an ancient ms. at Turin.
- Lord Hailes’ translation has been adopted in the present edition.
- De Paschâ.
- It has an allusion to the adoration of the Cross. [Hence must be referred to a period subsequent to the pseudo-council called Deutero-Nicene. Comp. vol. iv. note 6, p. 191; and see Smith’s History of the Christian Church in the First Ten Centuries, vol. i. p. 451, ed. Harpers, New York.]
- The Enigmas have not been included in the present translation, for the reason mentioned.
- The title prefixed to them in the mss. is Firmianus Symposius (written also Symphosius) Cælius. See Dr. Smith’s Dictionary of Biography, under the names Firmianus and Lactantius.
- This question is fully discussed by Dr. Lardner in his Credibility of the Gospel History, Works, vol. iii. [p. 516. The whole chapter (lxv.) on Lactantius deserves study].
- [Which reduces many of Virgil’s finest and most Homeric passages to mere song and ballad, and sacrifices all their epic dignity.]