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§ 173. Lactantius.
I. Lactantius, Lucius Caecilius Firmianus: Opera. First edition in venerabili monasterio Sublacensi, 1465. (Brunet: “Livre précieux, qui est en même temps la première édition de Lactance, et le premier ouvrage impr. en Italia avec date.”) Later editions by J. L. Brünemann, Lips. 1739; Le Brun and N. Lenglet Du Fresnoy, Par. 1748, 2 vols. 4to; F. E. a S. Xaverio, Rom. 1754–’9, and Migne, Par. 1844, in 2 vols. A convenient manual edition by O. Fridol. Fritzsche, in Gersdorf’s Bibliotheca Patrum ecclesiast. selecta, Lips. 1842, vol. x. and xi.
II. The introductory essays to the editions. Jerome: Cat. vir. illustr. c. 80. Notices in Dupin, Ceillier, Cave (Vol. iii. pp. 373–384), Schönemann (Biblioth. Patr. Lat. i. 177 sqq.), &c. Möhler: Patrologie, i. pp. 917–933. On the Christology of Lactantius, comp. Dorner: Entwicklungsgeschichte der Lehre Von der Person Christi. Th. i. p. 761 ff.
Firmiamus Lactantius stands among the Latin fathers, like Eusebius among the Greek, on the border between the second period and the third, and unites in his reminiscences the personal experience of both the persecution and the victory of the church in the Roman empire; yet in his theological views he belongs rather to the ante-Nicene age.
According to his own confession he sprang from heathen parents. He was probably, as some have inferred from his name, a native of Firmum (Fermo) in Italy; he studied in the school of the rhetorician and apologist Arnobius of Sicca, and on this account has been taken by some for an African; he made himself known by a poetical work called Symposion, a collection of a hundred riddles in hexameters for table amusement; and he was called to Nicomedia by Dioclesian to teach Latin eloquence. But as this city was occupied mostly by Greeks, he had few hearers, and devoted himself to authorship.20602060 He says of his heathen life, Inst. div. i. 1, that he trained youth by his “non ad virtutem, sed plane ad argutam malitiam.” In his manhood, probably shortly before or during the persecution under Dioclesian, he embraced Christianity; he was witness of the cruel scenes of that persecution, though not himself a sufferer in it; and he wrote in defence of the hated and reviled religion.
Constantine subsequently (after 312) brought him to his court in Gaul, and committed to him the education of his son Crispus, whom the emperor caused to be executed in 326. At court he lived very simply, and withstood the temptations of luxury and avarice. He is said to have died in the imperial residence at Treves at a great age, about the year 330.
Jerome calls Lactantius the most learned man of his time.20612061 Catal.c.80: “Lact. vir omnium suo tempore eruditissimus.” In Ep. 58 ad Paulinum (ed. Vall.), c. 10, he gives the following just view of him: “Lact. quasi quidam fluvius eloquentiae Tullianae, utinam tam nostra affirmare potuisset, quam facile aliena destruxit.” O. Friedol. Fritzsche, in the Praefatio of his edition of his Opera, thus estimates him: “Firm. Lactantius, qui Ciceronis felicissimus exstitit imitator, non solum sermonis castitate et elegantia orationisque flumine, sed, qua erat summa eruditione, rerum etiam copia et varietate inter reliquos ecclesiae latinae scriptores maxime eminuit, eoque factum est, ut, quamvis doctrinam ejus non satis esse sanam viros pios haud lateret, nunquam tamen prorsus negligeretur.” His writings certainly give evidence of varied and thorough knowledge, of fine rhetorical culture, and particularly of eminent power of statement in clear, pure, and elegant style. In this last respect he surpasses almost all the Latin fathers, except Jerome, and has not unjustly been called the Christian Cicero.20622062 Or, as Jerome, l. c., calls him: “Fluvius eloquentiae Tullianae.” His is the famous derivation of the word religion from religare, defining it as the reunion of man with God, reconciliation; answering to the nature of Christianity, and including the three ideas of an original unity, a separation by sin, and a restoration of the unity again.20632063 Instit. div. l. iv. cap. 28 (vol. i. p. 223, ed. Fritzsche): “Hoc vinculo pietatis obstricti Deo et religati sumus; unde ipsa religio nomen accepit, non ut Cicero interpretatus est, a relegendo” Cicero says, De natura deorum, ii. 28: “Qui omnia quae ad cultum deorum pertinerent, diligenter retmetarent et tamquam relegerent, religiosi dicti sunt ex relegendo, ut elegantes ex eligendo, itemque ex diligendo diligentes.” This derivation is not impossible, since we have legio from legere, and several nouns ending in io from verbs of the third conjugation, as regio, contagio, oblivio. But the derivation of Lactantius gives a more correct and profound idea of religion, and etymologically it is equally admissible; for although religare would rather yield the noun religatio, yet we have optio from optare, rebellio from rebellare interneciofrom internecare, &c. Augustine(Retract. i. 13), Jerome(Ad Amos, c. 9), and the majority of Christian divines have adopted the definition of Lactantius.
But he is far more the rhetorician than the philosopher or theologian, and, as Jerome observes, has greater skill in the refutation of error than in the establishment of truth. The doctrinal matter of his writings, as in the case of his preceptor Arnobius, is very vague and unsatisfactory, and he does not belong to the narrower circle of the fathers, the authoritative teachers of the church. Pope Gelasius counted his works among the apocrypha, i.e., writings not ecclesiastically received.
Notwithstanding this, his Institutes, on account of their elegant style, have been favorite reading, and are said to have appeared in more than a hundred editions. His mistakes and errors in the exposition of points of Christian doctrine do not amount to heresies, but are mostly due to the crude and unsettled state of the church doctrine at the time. In the doctrine of sin he borders upon Manichaeism. In anthropology and soteriology he follows the synergism which, until Augustine, was almost universal. In the doctrine of the Trinity he was, like most of the ante-Nicene fathers, subordinationist. He taught a duplex nativitas of Christ, one at the creation, and one at the incarnation. Christ went forth from God at the creation, as a word from the mouth, yet hypostatically.20642064 According to a statement of Jerome(Ep. 41 ad Pammach. et Ocean.) he denied the personality of the Holy Ghost.
His most important work is his Divine Institutes, a comprehensive refutation of heathenism and defence of Christianity, designed to make Christianity better known among the cultivated classes, and to commend it by scholarship and attractive style.20652065 Institutionum divinarum libri vii. The title was chosen with reference to the Institutiones juris civilis (i. 1). The several books then bear the following superscriptions: 1. De falsa religione; 2. De origine erroris; 3. De fan sapientia; 4. De vera sapientia; 5. De justitia; 6. De vero cultu; 7. De vita beata. Lactantius himself made an abstract of it under the title: Epitome ad Pentadium fratrem, in Fritzsche, Pars ii. pp. 114-171. He seems to have begun the work during the Dioclesianic persecution, but afterwards to have enlarged and improved it about the year 321; for he dedicated it to the emperor, whom he celebrates as the first Christian prince.20662066 L. i. c. 1: “Quod opus nunc nominis tui auspicio inchoamus, Constantineimperator maxims, qui primus Romanorum principum, repudiatis erroribus, majestatem Dei singularis ac veri cognovisti et honorasti, ” &c. This passage, by the way, does not appear in all the codices. Comp. the note in the ed. of Fritzsche, Pars i. p. 3.
To the same apologetic purpose was his work De morte, or mortibus, persecutorum, which is of some importance to the external history of the church.20672067 In the ed. of Fritzsche, P. ii. pp. 248-286. This work is wanting in the earlier editions, and also in several manuscripts, and is therefore sometimes denied to Lactantius, e.g., by Dom de Nourry, in a learned dissertation on this question, reprinted in the Appendix to the second volume of Migne’s edition of Lactantius, p. 839 sqq. But its style, upon the whole, agrees with his; the work entirely suits his time and circumstances; and it is probably the same that Jeromecites under the name De persecutions. Jac. Burckhardt, in his monograph on Constantinethe Great, 1853, treats this book throughout as an untrustworthy romance, but without proof, and with an obvious aversion to all the fathers, similar to that of Gibbon. It describes with minute knowledge, but in vehement tone, the cruel persecutions of the Christians from Nero to Dioclesian, Galerius, and Maximinus (314), and the divine judgments on the persecutors, who were compelled to become involuntary witnesses to the indestructible power of Christianity.
In the treatise De ira Dei20692069 Ibid. ii. 208-247. he shows that the punitive justice of God necessarily follows from his abhorrence of evil, and is perfectly compatible with his goodness; and he closes with an exhortation to live such a life that God may ever be gracious to us, and that we may never have to fear his wrath.
We have also from Lactantius various Fragmenta and Carmina de Phoenice, de Passione Domini, de resurrectione Domini, and one hundred Aenigmata, each of three hexameters.20702070 Ibid. ii. p. 286 sqq. Other works of Lactantius, cited by Jerome, are lost.
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