Saturday, June 03, 2006

Lactantius on the Son's Deity

Lactantius asserts that there is a sense in which Christ is motherless and fatherless. The Son, so that he might resemble the Father in all respects, was generated “motherless” in his preexistence since God generated him without the assistance of a feminine consort. Furthermore, Lactantius holds that God produced the Son by means of his spirit.[1] He accordingly believes that Christ is fatherless in that the Virgin Mary bore him sans a male parent: “He had a spiritual father in God, and just as God was father of his spirit without a mother, so a virgin was mother of his body without a father.”[2]

In view of Christ’s unique generative circumstances, Lactantius confesses that the Son is simultaneously God and man (simul deus et homo).[3] He supports his belief in the Son’s divinity by appealing to such texts as Psalms 45:6-7, which Lactantius interprets to mean that Christ is God, in some sense of the word.[4] In a manner comparable to Tertullian (Adversus Praxean 13.3) and other pre-Nicenes,[5]Lactantius evidently construes the Greek/Latin syntax of this biblical psalm as vocatival, believing that it exemplifies the nominative of address case. Regardless of how one construes the grammar of Psalms 45:6-7, it seems certain that Lactantius does not regard the construction in Psalms as a subject nominative, although the LXX allows for either reading.[6] Nevertheless, in what sense is Christ God, according to Lactantius? Does the apologist profess the Son is fully God—that he exemplifies all divine-constituting properties?

Once Lactantius sets forth his 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 conceptual parallel between the Son and Apollo.[7] 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.”[8] 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 divinity, then Christ would have breached strict monotheism. Moreover, Lactantius believes that Christ would not have demonstrated faith in the one true God of Scripture, if he had focused on his own divine nature.[9] Nevertheless, 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.”[10] Hence, it seems that the Son progressively becomes God in the writings of Lactantius.

First, the apologist teaches that the Logos does not acquire the epithet “Son” until he shows himself trustworthy in the face of extreme duress.[11] 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.[12] The term “God” (Deus) only applies to Christ in a fuller sense, Lactantius believes, after he fulfills his divine commission.[13] Yet, the Son evidently is subordinate to the Father per essentiam before and subsequent to his ascension.[14] At least, this is how Lactantius ostensibly interprets the Scriptural witness concerning the Son’s person and work.

[1] Ibid. 4.13.5.

[2] Ibid. 4.25.4. Lactantius employs the rhetorical device of chiasm here. Moreover, he answers the question, Cur Deus homo, though it is debatable what he means by “God” (Deus).

[3] DI 4.13.6; 4.25.5-6.

[4] DI 4.13.9.

[5] See Biblica Patristica.

[6] Brooke F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews (London: 1889), 25-26. Metzger, George Buchanan and Lane.

[7] DI 4.13.11-13.

[8] DI 4.14.18-20.

[9] Ibid.

[10] DI 4.14.20.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. See Alvin Lamson, The Church of the First Three Centuries, 237. Lamson points to DI 4.25.4, 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 (cf. DI 4.25.1).

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

[14] DI 2.8.7.

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