Saturday, April 07, 2007

Was Lactantius an Arian?

As indicated above, most historians analyzing the Lactantian corpus exhibit a predilection for the non-theological aspects of his work. They usually concede the graceful eloquence of Lactantius[1] or his patent ability to rebuff ideological onslaughts mounted against the Christian faith; or scholars laud the natural facility of Lactantius to sway eminent political leaders in favor of the church.[2] But not every writer extols the virtues of Lactantius. Notably, Jerome (340-420 CE) and a number of contemporary scholars[3] have called into question his proficiency as a theologian or Christian thinker.[4] Some ecclesiastical chroniclers alternately describe the African rhetor as shallow, naïve, or inept in the matter of articulating sound Christian doctrine.[5] For instance, Hagenbach states: “Unfortunately, the quality of his [theological] thought does not correspond to the excellence of its expression.”[6] He argues that Lactantian theology is “an isolated phenomenon” of ancient Christianity that “has always been regarded as heterodox.”[7] Yet, Hagenbach’s negative assessment of Lactantian thought lacks requisite subtlety and it is possibly at variance with the extant historical data available to modern students of ecclesiastical history. Consequently, there appear to be three substantial reasons for critically assessing Hagenbach’s evaluation of Lactantian theology.

First, one already witnesses doctrinal phenomena in Latin theology that resembles the christology or paterology of Lactantius.[8] Hippolytus of Rome (c. 160-236 CE)[9] evidently thought of Jesus Christ as “a created being to whom divinity had been arbitrarily and temporarily assigned.”[10] Hippolytus in all likelihood does not affirm the eternal generation of the Son and even refers to him as a “creature,” although speech relating to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit admittedly was somewhat fluid in his day.[11] Tertullian also believes that the Son is “derivative” (portio totius) or ontologically subordinate to the Father[12] but he is not alone in this regard, since “Fourth-century inscriptions [from North Africa] if anything emphasize the subordination of Son to Father.”[13] Indeed, few Christians living in North Africa took umbrage with the so-called Arian theology of Donatus (De viris illustribus 93).[14] Lactantian paterology or christology, therefore, does not appear to have been an isolated phenomenon in Christian antiquity.[15]

Second, antecedent to Nicea, the Christian tradition[16] tout court evidently did not supply an unambiguous answer to queries concerning the Son of God’s ontological identity or his putative immanent relationship with God the Father (De Principiis, Preface 2).[17] Norbert Brox recounts that there was no universal definition of the belief in a tripersonal God prior to Nicea, “only rival [triadic] traditions and schemes.”[18] Jaroslav Pelikan has even argued that it may not be advisable to think of the pro-Nicene Christians or “heterodox” Arians as diametrically opposed groups since both movements “worshiped” the Son of God in that Arians and pro-Nicenes mutually intoned hymnic praises to Christ while simultaneously lauding his presumed timeless generation from the Father.[19] Arius adjudged Christ as “fully God,” despite the fact that he admittedly believed the Father created the Son from nothing (ex nihilo).[20] In any event, it seems that the orthodox pro-Nicene party had not yet disambiguated or formalized its doctrine of Christ when Lactantius composed his apologetic treatises.[21] Therefore, it is difficult to affix the label “heretic” to him; the assignation of this descriptive term (in this case) is anachronistic.

Robert Wilken states that orthodox pre-Nicene Christians typically were inclined to believe that the Son is not “fully God.”[22] These early followers of the risen Messiah possibly did not affirm that he instantiates every divine-constituting property exemplified by the Father.[23] Pre-Nicene writers thereby appear to have conceived the Son’s divinity as relative rather than absolute; they considered the Son’s mode of being God ontologically dependent on the Father’s godhood.[24] The pre-Nicenes generally maintain that Christ derives his divine-constituting properties from the Father. Hence, Sergius Bulgakov is exceedingly critical of patristic christology. He contends that “ontological subordinationism” pervades the writings of western theologians in the early church.[25] Therefore, the formative theology of Lactantius on balance is not a solitary phenomenon.

A third reason for not accepting uncritically Hagenbach’s evaluation of Lactantian theology has to do with ecclesiastical formality. In nuce, no conciliar body has ever determined Lactantius’ doctrine of Christ or God to be heretical[26] nor is there good reason to believe that the apologist was, strictly speaking, an Arian (as Hagenbach claims) although he may not have circumvented subordinating Christ to the Father per essentiam.[27] Much depends on how one defines “Arianism.” It is possible that Lactantius avoided being an Arian (formally speaking) by conceptually devising a supernatural generation for the Son of God that palpably differed from the christological origin postulated by Arius. He certainly does not state that God created the Son ex nihilo (Divinae institutiones 4.8.6-10). Consequently, although Lactantius might be an ontological subordinationist respecting his christological orientation, he probably is not an Arian regarding his doctrine of Christ.[28]

While appraisals of Lactantian theology now and again can be stringent in nature, some historians note that he was attempting to illuminate the Christian understanding of God the Father and his Son before the church had defined (formulaically or precisely) the transcendent relationship purportedly obtaining between God, Christ and the Holy Spirit.[29] At any rate, when judged against the standards of his own socio-historical or religious context, Lactantius may not appear to be so inept or heretical since he reflected on God within a particular early Christian matrix or distinctive ancient cultural milieu. It accordingly seems that Lactantius availed himself of theological, literary or conceptual materials that were accessible to him.[30] Hence, along the lines of other seminal Christian thinkers, one probably should evaluate Lactantius based on the resources that were at his disposal: Lactantius should be appraised with respect to the socio-religious environment wherein he lived, thought, and articulated theological concepts.

Having given an overview of Lactantian studies and scholarly assessments of him, this study will now outline Lactantius’ employment of father imagery in speech concerning God. He seems to construe “Father” as a metaphor that delineates God’s intimate affinity for his Son and the world. Hence, it seems that Lactantius does not impute masculinity to God’s inner life. The subsequent portion of this investigation will thus propose that early Christians (including Lactantius) generally viewed the paternitas of God metaphorically. They thought of God as an emblematic Father.

1 See Hans Lietzmann, A History of the Early Church. Two Volumes. Translated by Bertram Lee Woolf (Cleveland and New York: Meridian Books, 1961), 1:174; Otto Bardenhewer. Patrology: The Lives and Works of the Fathers of the Church. Translated by Thomas J. Shahan (Freiburg im Breisgau and Saint Louis: Herder, 1908), 203-204; Marcia L. Colish. Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition: 400-1400 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997), 14; Johannes Quasten. Patrology (Utrecht-Antwerp: Spectrum, 1975), 393-394; McGuckin, “The Christology of Lactantius,” 813; Campenhausen, Fathers of the Church, 64; Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 451. Cf. Jerome Epistle 70.5.

2 Digeser, Making of a Christian Empire.

3 Jerome writes: “Utinam tam nostra confirmare potuisset quam facile aliena destruxit” (Epistle 58.10). See Bardenhewer, Patrology, 203; Greer, “Cicero’s Sketch,” 155.

4 Colish refers to Lactantius’ “rather sketchy grasp of Christian theology” (Medieval Foundations, 14). See Micka, Problem of Divine Anger, 100; Pichon, Lactance, 17; Labriolle, History and Literature of Christianity, 199. Studer, Trinity and Incarnation, 191 calls Lactantius a “simpleminded theologian,” which sounds like a backhanded compliment.

5 See Bowen and Garnsey, Divine Institutes, 5. For what appears to be a balanced assessment of Lactantius, see Robert L. Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (Yale University Press, 2003), 297. He acknowledges the Lactantian lack of theological depth, but still points out that he had insights that eluded other ancient theologians.

6 K. R. Hagenbach, A Text-Book of the History of Doctrines, (NY: Sheldon and Company) 1:244. While Jerome appears to downplay Lactantius’ skill as a theologian, he states regarding Lactantian eloquence: “Vir omnium suo tempore eloquentissimus, quasi quidam fluvius eloquentiae Tullianae” (ibid). See Bardenhewer, Patrology, 203-204.

Jerome (Epistle 84.7; Comm in Gal ad 4.6) also contends that Lactantius denied the existence of the Holy Spirit as a divine person in a work entitled Letters to Demetrianus that is no longer extant. He thus believed that Lactantius was not well versed scripturally (Quasten, Patrology, 407). For an opposing interpretation of Jerome’s words, see Bowen and Garnsey, Divine Institutes, 5.

7 Hagenbach, Text-book, 1:244. Grillmeier contends: “Methodius of Olympus, Lactantius and an unknown preacher on the ‘three fruits of the spiritual life’ would seem to be much nearer to the suspicion of Arian heresy” (Christ, 61). See J. Barbel’s Christos Angelos, 181-195.

8 W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 344-346. Reinhold Seeberg, 1:126. The History of Doctrines. 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), 1:169-171.

[9] The present author recognizes that Hippolytus did not write in Latin. However, it seems appropriate to mention him since Tertullian influenced his christology and Hippolytus was part of the church in Rome. Moreover, his christological thought exemplifies that of the apologists, who did compose their works in Latin.

10 Frend, Rise of Christianity, 345. Refutatio 10.33 ostensibly corroborates this intuition.

[11] Bigg, Origins of Christianity; Jenson, The Triune Identity, 82.

12 See Frend, Rise of Christianity, 345; Gerald Bray, Doctrine of God, 130-131. Adversus Praxean 9 refers to the Son as a “derivation” and “portion of the whole” divine substance.

13 Frend, Rise of Christianity, 346.

14 Ibid.

15 Admittedly, a number of scholars argue that the subordination of Tertullian and other pre-Nicenes was economic, not immanent subordinationism. But there is historical evidence that alternatively favors either side of the argument. See Jenson, Systematic Theology; Lacugna, God for Us; W. Markus, Der Subordinationismus: als historisches Phanomenon (München: M. Hubner, 1963), 171; S. H. Mellone, Leaders of Early Christian Thought, 178.

16 By “tradition,” in this study, we mean “the handing down of Christian teaching during the course of the history of the church, but it also means that which was handed down” (Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 1:7). The term encompasses orthodox teachings handed down in both the East and the West.

17 See Gregory J. Riley, The River of God: A New History of Christian Origins (HarperCollins: New York, 2001), 81; Bowen and Garnsey, Divine Institutes, 5.

18 Brox, History of the Early Church, 154.

19 Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 1:200.

[20] Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History 1.4.

[21] Greer, “Cicero’s Sketch,” 156.

22 Robert Wilken, The Myth of Christian Beginnings (London: SCM Press, 1979), 179; Bray, Doctrine of God, 130-131. For a contrasting but nuanced viewpoint, see Wagner, After the Apostles, 112.

23 The expression “divine constituting property” here denotes a characteristic or attribute that constitutes an entity as divine in the unmitigated sense that the entity is (with respect to its being) “God.” A similar expression that Alvin Plantinga employs for God is “great making property.” Hence, in Plantinga’s estimation, God is the greatest conceivable being in that he exemplifies great making properties. See Hasker and Peterson, Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings. This study uses the verbs “exemplify” and “instantiate” interchangeably.

24 See C. C. Richardson, Ignatius of Antioch; Kelly, Doctrines, 125-126 on Novatian. Grant (Gods and the One God) presents evidence that subordination was a universally accepted datum among the pre-Nicenes. Compare R. P. C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988), 3.

25 The Comforter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 9-15.

[26] See Gelasius, Pope. Decretum de libris recipiendis et non recipiendis (Texte und

Untersuchungen 38.4). Ed. Ernst von Dobschutz. Leipzig, 1912.

27 Hagenbach, History of Doctrines, 1:244. See Loi, Vincenzo, S.D.B. “Cristologia e soteriologia nella dottrina di Lattanzio,” Rivista di Storia e Letterature religiosa 4 (1968) 237-287.

28 This investigation will explore the Lactantian doctrine of Christ and its relation to his teaching regarding God the Father in Chapter 5 of this study.

29 Macdonald, Divine Institutes; Bowen and Garnsey, Divine Institutes, 5 (note 23).

[30] Schneweis notes that Lactantius adheres closely to the Christian writers of the African Church with respect to the content of his apologetics (Angels and Demons, 14). This apologetic approach no doubt contributes to Lactantius’ theological methods and expressions.


Anonymous said...

Hello Edgar.

Just a question.

I couldn't locate the reference about Hippolytus of Rome.

Refutatio 10.33.

Is that Book 10?

Or Book 1:10.33?

I looked at Book 10 on CCEL and it only went up to .30.

Are you able to assist?

Always interested in finding another ANF reference to Jesus being "...created..."


Edgar Foster said...

Hello Matt13weedhacker,

I started my research on Lactantius some 7-8 years ago. Moreover, I used a research library which had books I do not have in my possession today. So in reconstructing what I wrote about Hippolytus, there may be two ways to explain this reference. I believe that you can find the passage I cited in the English version of the Refutatio 10.29. The note in my paper may be 10.33 because it is based on a critical text of Hippolytus or it just might be a typo. The critical text often used in studies of Hippolytus is by Wendland. See

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