Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Lactantius on God the Father and Evil

Therefore, God discharged the office of a true father. He Himself formed the body; He Himself infused the soul with which we breathe. Whatever we are, it is altogether His work. (Divine Institutes 2.11.19-20).[1]

Lactantius believes that the utmost good (summum bonum) of created rational beings is to contemplate and worship God. Humanity’s creator discharges the office of an authentic father by shaping the human body and infusing the human soul with breath. The germane point for the present study is how Lactantius delineates divine fatherhood. Father appears to be a functional, not an ontological term for Lactantius so far as God’s paternitas relates to humankind. Masculinity certainly does not seem a concern for the apologist. God is humankind’s Father in that he creates sentient rational existents body and soul: “And so of man alone the right reason, the upright position, and countenance, in close likeness to that of God the Father, bespeak his origin and his Maker” (De ira Dei 8). Even the human body testifies to the workmanship of God since it bears a likeness to its Maker.[2] Lactantius in this way suggests that Christians should not denigrate human flesh. It is not the body of flesh, per se, that is at odds with the human endeavor to seek and honor God the Father. Rather, the problem lies in the sinful nature of infralapsarian humanity. The principle of evil that resides in human flesh is what brings about enmity between intelligent corporeal existents and God. However, the body proper, as Lactantius notes, bespeaks the vouchsafed splendor of its illimitable Fashioner. It is a testament to God’s benevolence or solicitude for his crowning glory, humans. If God deeply loves the creature that he has invested with reason, namely, the finite entity made in his image, then why does God allow evil to obtain? Why does the one who has discharged the office of a true Father permit rational creaturely essences to undergo suffering, cruelties and death?

One of the most critical questions to ever preoccupy the human mind is “whence evil?” Where does evil come from and why does God allow it to persist? Let us define evil as that which brings about harm, distress or pain (physical or mental). In turn, one can make an epistemic distinction between natural and moral evil. The former refers to phenomena such as earthquakes, hurricanes or floods while the latter entails behavior that causes harm or pain to sentient or non-sentient beings. While evil is not necessarily immoral, it does analytically entail suffering and pain. Why, however, does God allow suffering and grief to befall his esteemed creation? Lactantius essays a retort to the ancient query “whence evil" (unde malum) by appealing to the notions of virtue, vice and God’s paternity. In answer to the question, “Then why does God let these [evil] things happen and not come to the rescue of such awful mistakes,” the apologist replies that God lets unjust acts occur in order that “evil may fight with good, so that vice may be set against virtue, so that he may have some to punish and some to honour.”[3] Lactantius accordingly provides three answers to his hypothetical interlocutor:

(1) God allows evil so that it may struggle vigorously with good.

(2) God permits atrocities so that vice may be manifestly contrasted with virtue: “God is like a most indulgent parent, however: when the latter days were approaching, he sent a messenger to restore that time long gone and to bring back judgment from exile” in order that humankind might be delivered from error. Nevertheless, God allows evil to exist in order that vice and virtue may clearly be contrasted (DI 5.7.4-6).

(3) God wills that certain rational agents suffer punishment, but others experience divine honor. There is a divinely appointed time for the living and the dead to receive judgment from God.[4] On some God will bestow honor, on others he will bestow everlasting punishment. The deity will reveal his unmitigated wrath at the “end of time” when the “dread forewarnings of the prophets of old” come to fruition.[5] Lactantius thus maintains that God’s permission of evil is not purposeless or in vain. The Father will rectify all wrongs committed in the here and now (hic et nunc); he has stored up his wrath for the eschaton. For now, Christians must adamantly struggle with evil; virtue must stand in stark contrast to vice and vessels of mercy perforce must be demarcated clearly from vessels of wrath (Romans 9:22-23).

[1] DI 2.11.19-20.

[2] McDonald, Minor Works, 25.

[3] DI 2.17.1.

[4] DI 2.17.1.

[5] DI 2.17.2.

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