Monday, February 06, 2006

Lactantius on the Son's Deity and Suffering

Once Lactantius sets forth an explanation of the Son’s mission and nature, it becomes apparent that his use of the proper noun “God” as a title designating Christ probably should be understood in a mitigated sense. For the rhetorician asserts that Christ is “God in the spirit,” drawing a parallel between the Son and Apollo.[1] By fulfilling his God-given mission, the Son demonstrated faith and trust in Almighty God: “he taught that there is one God and that he alone is to be worshipped, and he never said that he was God himself: he would not have kept faith if after being sent to get rid of gods and to assert a single God he had introduced another one besides.”[2] The Son did not come proclaiming his own Godhood. In fact, Lactantius reasons that if the Son had arrived declaring or publicly making known his own divine nature, then Christ would have breached strict monotheism. Moreover, Lactantius believes that he would not have demonstrated faith in the one true God of Scripture.[3] However, because the Son proved himself “so faithful and because he took nothing at all for himself, in order to fulfill the instructions of the one who sent him, so he received the dignity of eternal priesthood, the honour of supreme kingship, the power to judge and the name of God.”[4] Hence, it seems that the Son progressively becomes God in the writings of Lactantius. First, the apologist teaches that the Logos does acquire the epithet “Son” until he shows himself trustworthy in the face of extreme duress.[5] Then Lactantius states that God rewards the Son’s faithfulness vis-à-vis his earthly mission by granting him the eternal priesthood, supreme kingship, the power of judgment and the name of God. It therefore appears that the Son does not truly become Deus for Lactantius until he assumes flesh, instructs others about the one God, suffers, dies and experiences a resurrection at the Father’s hands.[6] The term “God” (Deus) only applies to Christ in the fullest sense, Lactantius believes, after he fulfills his divine commission.[7] Yet, the Son evidently is subordinate to the Father per essentiam before and subsequent to his resurrection and ascension.[8] At least, this is how Lactantius ostensibly interprets the Scriptural witness concerning the Son’s person and work.

Lactantius also explains why God the Father permits his Son to suffer and die in behalf of rational creatures. Both Scripture and the Christian tradition bear out the Father’s immense and peerless love for the Son (John 3:35; 5:20; 10:17; 15:9-10; 16:32; 17:24-26). However, if God wholly pours himself out ecstatically to the Son in a supreme act of love that is temporally or logically prior to the Son’s enfleshment, then how could the Father permit the Son to undergo the reproach associated with crux Christi? The Lactantian response is that Christ qua the preeminent teacher of virtue endured “the torture, the wounds and the thorns” for a higher good.[9] He subjected himself to the excruciating and ignominious death befitting a criminal, in order that humans might conquer death (QANATOS) by means of his expitiatory sacrifice.[10] Lactantius avers that Christ (as King qua King) will further overcome death, placing it in symbolic eternal chains, thereby making it inoperative or powerless.[11] Why, though, does the “supreme father” not only allow, but also prescribe this type of death for Christ? For what reason did the indulgent or loving father of Christ will that his Son undergo this specific form of execution?

[1] DI 4.13.11-13.

[2] DI 4.14.18-20.

[3] Ibid.

[4] DI 4.14.20.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. See Alvin Lamson, The Church of the First Three Centuries, 237. Lamson points to DI 4.18, wherein Lactantius professes that the Son is “mediam inter deum et hominem substantiam gerens.” He concludes that in Lactantian thought, the Father is supreme in relation to the Son, who is ontologically subordinate to the Father.

[7] See Martin Werner, The Formation of Christian Dogma.

[8] DI 2.8.7.

[9] DI 4.26.27.

[10] DI 4.26.28.

[11] Ibid.

No comments: