Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Bad to Quote Lactantius?

Roman Catholic reader Mike Burgess commented on yesterday's post (link), which quoted from Lactanatius, thus:
St. Jerome, whom you enjoy quoting when the occasion suits, said of Lactantius, "If only Lactantius, almost a river of Ciceronian eloquence, had been able to uphold our cause with the same facility with which he overturns that of our adversaries!" Lactantius was not a good theologian; indeed, he was, in the words of those who know his works best, a fine Latin rhetorician but woefully ignorant of the Scriptures and Christian doctrine. When one reads his writings, especially the Divine Institutes, this becomes quickly apparent. A fine theologian does not relate the story of Heracles/Hercules as though it were true. A fine theologian well studied and well versed in doctrine and systematic theology does not say "But let us leave the testimony of prophets, lest a proof derived from those who are universally disbelieved should appear insufficient. Let us come to authors, and for the demonstration of the truth let us cite as witnesses those very persons whom they are accustomed to make use of against us—I mean poets and philosophers. From these we cannot fail in proving the unity of God; not that they had ascertained the truth, but that the force of the truth itself is so great, that no one can be so blind as not to see the divine brightness presenting itself to his eyes. The poets, therefore, however much they adorned the gods in their poems, and amplified their exploits with the highest praises, yet very frequently confess that all things are held together and governed by one spirit or mind. Orpheus, who is the most ancient of the poets, and coeval with the gods themselves—since it is reported that he sailed among the Argonauts together with the sons of Tyndarus and Hercules,— speaks of the true and great God as the first-born, because nothing was produced before Him, but all things sprung from Him."

Perhaps you and Pastor King ought to rethink the citation. And rethink the other Fathers, ones not eventually considered heretical as Lactantius was, as concerns their views on prayers through the faithful departed, starting with, say, Augustine.
Before we get to the heart of matter, namely whether it is appropriate to quote from Lactantius in general or whether it was appropriate to quote from Lactantius in particular, let us dispose of a few tangential stones that Mr. Burgess throws:

1) "St. Jerome, whom you enjoy quoting when the occasion suits"

Mr. Burgess' comment here seems to be an insinuation that somehow the quotations of Jerome at this blog are unduly selective. If that's what he thinks, he ought to man up and say so. The problem is, for Mr. Burgess to make such a criticism, he would have to employ a double standard. How so? He would have take the position that if one is ever to quote from Jerome, one must agree with all Jerome has to say. Yet Mr. Burgess himself does not agree with all that Jerome has to say, particularly on issues such as natural family planning (link) and the apocrypha (link).

Perhaps Mr. Burgess is simply confused about why we quote from Jerome. We do not quote from Jerome as though he were our rule of faith, accepting teachings because Jerome gives them. Instead, we use Jerome in two ways (1) for his teachings to the extent that they are persuasive, having been founded upon Scripture and (2) for historical reference. Oftentimes, the latter category is more significant than the former category, especially when discussing the issue of tradition with those who claim to follow tradition.

2)"Perhaps you and Pastor King ought to rethink the citation. And rethink the other Fathers, ones not eventually considered heretical as Lactantius was, as concerns their views on prayers through the faithful departed, starting with, say, Augustine."

Mr. Burgess seems to remain confused about the difference between prayers, to, through, and for the dead. We have clarified that distinction previously and will not repeat it now (here is the link to that clarification). On this general topic, Augustine is sometimes brought to bear as though his word should be accepted in favor of such necromancy, as Mr. Burgess has attempted to do, through allusion.

This again raises the question as to whether Mr. Burgess even understands the argument being presented. There is no question that eventually many professing Christians came to think that there was value in making prayers to, through, or for the dead. The question is whether this was an apostolic teaching or a later innovation. The historical testimony of Lactantius helps to demonstrate that it was a later innovation.

3) "A fine theologian well studied and well versed in doctrine and systematic theology does not say"

The combination of hubris and ignorance in this comment are startling. As even the so-called Catholic Encyclopedia points out, Lactantius' Divine Institutes "was the first attempt at a systematic exposition of Christian theology in Latin." (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913, p. 736) Lactantius was, in essence, the pioneer in systematic theology among the Latin-speakers.

What's worse, though, is that Mr. Burgess then goes on to provide a quotation from Lactantius that is completely untroubling. In fact, it sounds rather like Paul the apostle who quotes from a pagan poet to make a Christian point. Undoubtedly there were problems in Lactantius' theology, but who is free from error? That's rather the point about the early church fathers - they did not transmit an oral apostolic tradition to us, rather they were our predecessors in trying to search out the meaning of Scripture. Where they do a good job they are to be commended, and where they err they are to be corrected.

4) "A fine theologian does not relate the story of Heracles/Hercules as though it were true."

Again, this is a most ignorant remark. Mr. Burgess is referring to an apologetic that Lactantius used to demonstrate that the very myths about Hercules (by Hercules' supporters) show Hercules to be subject to human authority (link). But whether Lactantius himself thought that Hercules was a man who had been magnified in legend or whether he thought Hercules to be a myth, is less clear. Nor does it particularly matter. Should it be surprising that a very strong man would become the subject of myths in later days. Is Mr. Burgess not aware that Athanasius (link) and Athenagoras (link) similarly treat of Hercules as though he were a mere man, not only as though he were a fable (though perhaps Mr. Burgess would rush to condemn them as well).

5) "Lactantius was not a good theologian; indeed, he was, in the words of those who know his works best, a fine Latin rhetorician but woefully ignorant of the Scriptures and Christian doctrine."

One wonders from whence Mr. Burgess arrived at this conclusion. Perhaps he read it in the "Catholic Encyclopedia," which asserts: "The beauty of the style, the choice and aptness of the terminology, cannot hide the author's lack of grasp on Christian principles and his almost utter ignorance of Scripture." (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913, p. 736)

The translator of Lactantius has a somewhat different take:
The style of Lactantius has been deservedly praised for the dignity, elegance, and clearness 7of expression by which it is characterized, and which have gained for him the appellation of the Christian Cicero. His writings everywhere give evidence of his varied and extensive erudition, and contain much valuable information respecting the systems of the ancient philosophers. But his claims as a theologian are open to question; for he holds peculiar opinions on many points, and he appears more successful as an opponent of error than as a maintainer of the truth. Lactantius has been charged with a leaning to Manicheism, [footnote: This question is fully discussed by Dr. Lardner in his Credibility of the Gospel History, Works, vol. iii. [p. 516. The whole chapter (lxv.) on Lactantius deserves study].] but the charge appears to be unfounded.

But the same translator reminds us that: "Lactantius has always held a very high place among the Christian Fathers, not only on account of the subject-matter of his writings, but also on account of the varied erudition, the sweetness of expression, and the grace and elegance of style, by which they are characterized." (Ibid.)

4) Quoting Jerome as "If only Lactantius, almost a river of Ciceronian eloquence, had been able to uphold our cause with the same facility with which he overturns that of our adversaries!"

a) First of all, let's read Jerome in context:
Tertullian is packed with meaning but his style is rugged and uncouth. The blessed Cyprian like a fountain of pure water flows softly and sweetly but, as he is taken up with exhortations to virtue and with the troubles consequent on persecution, he has nowhere discussed the divine scriptures. Victorinus, although he has the glory of a martyr’s crown, yet cannot express what he knows. Lactantius has a flow of eloquence worthy of Tully: would that he had been as ready to teach our doctrines as he was to pull down those of others! Arnobius is lengthy and unequal, and often confused from not making a proper division of his subject. That reverend man Hilary gains in height from his Gallic buskin; yet, adorned as he is with the flowers of Greek rhetoric, he sometimes entangles himself in long periods and offers by no means easy reading to the less learned brethren. I say nothing of other writers whether dead or living; others will hereafter judge them both for good and for evil.
- Jerome, Letter 58 (A.D. 395), Section 10

Notice that Jerome groups Lactantius in with Arnobius, Victorinus, Hilary, Cyprian, and Tertullian. If some Romanist wishes to suggest that Jerome's comment about Lactantius is negative, let him consider the impact on the others whom Jerome identifies! Shall we also imagine that Jerome condemns each of these others, simply because he finds some minor imperfection in them?

But in case some ignorant person might still have a question about Jerome's view of Lactantius, let him consider Jerome again in a letter that he wrote two years later:
I will pass on to Latin writers. Can anything be more learned or more pointed than the style of Tertullian? [An African writer who in his last days became a Montanist. Flor. a.d. 175–225.] His Apology and his books Against the Gentiles contain all the wisdom of the world. Minucius Felix [A Roman lawyer of the second century. His Apology—a Dialogue entitled Octavius—is extant.] a pleader in the Roman courts has ransacked all heathen literature to adorn the pages of his Octavius and of his treatise Against the astrologers (unless indeed this latter is falsely ascribed to him). Arnobius [Fl. a.d. 300. A professor of rhetoric at Sicca in Africa and a heathen. He composed his apology to prove the reality of his conversion.] has published seven books against the Gentiles, and his pupil Lactantius [An African rhetorician and apologist of the fourth century. His works are extant.] as many, besides two volumes, one on Anger and the other on the creative activity of God. If you read any of these you will find in them an epitome of Cicero’s dialogues. The Martyr Victorinus [A celebrated man of letters at Rome in the middle of the fourth century, the story of whose conversion is told in Augustine’s Confessions (viii. 2–5).] though as a writer deficient in learning is not deficient in the wish to use what learning he has. Then there is Cyprian. [Bishop of Carthage. He suffered martyrdom a.d. 358. His works are extant.] With what terseness, with what knowledge of all history, with what splendid rhetoric and argument has he touched the theme that idols are no Gods! Hilary [Bishop of Poitiers (died a.d. 368). A champion of the orthodox faith against Arianism.] too, a confessor and bishop of my own day, has imitated Quintilian’s twelve books both in number and in style, and has also shewn his ability as a writer in his short treatise against Dioscorus the physician. In the reign of Constantine the presbyter Juvencus [A Spanish Christian of the fourth century. His “Story of the Gospels,” a life of Christ in hexameter verse, still exists.] set forth in verse the story of our Lord and Saviour, and did not shrink from forcing into metre the majestic phrases of the Gospel. Of other writers dead and living I say nothing. Their aim and their ability are evident to all who read them.
- Jerome, Letter 70 (A.D. 397), Section 5 (editor's footnotes bracketed, final incestuous footnote omitted)

Or likewise consider the comments of Augustine (to whom we are commended by Mr. Burgess himself):
And what else have many good and faithful men among our brethren done? Do we not see with what a quantity of gold and silver and garments Cyprian, that most persuasive teacher and most blessed martyr, was loaded when he came out of Egypt? How much Lactantius brought with him? And Victorious, and Optatus, and Hilary, not to speak of living men! How much Greeks out of number have borrowed! And prior to all these, that most faithful servant of God, Moses, had done the same thing; for of him it is written that he was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. And to none of all these would heathen superstition (especially in those times when, kicking against the yoke of Christ, it was persecuting the Christians) have ever furnished branches of knowledge it held useful, if it had suspected they were about to turn them to the use of worshipping the One God, and thereby overturning the vain worship of idols. But they gave their gold and their silver and their garments to the people of God as they were going out of Egypt, not knowing how the things they gave would be turned to the service of Christ. For what was done at the time of the exodus was no doubt a type prefiguring what happens now. And this I say without prejudice to any other interpretation that may be as good, or better.
- Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book 2, Chapter 40, Section 61

And, of course, we might further note how Jurgens relies on Lactantius in his Romanist quote book "Faith of the Early Fathers," (pp. 264-72) to whom so many lay apologists for Rome are indebted. One even finds Lactantius quoted on the Vatican web site (here - Italian). But perhaps Mr. Burgess thinks himself advanced to the point of letting Jurgens and the Vatican know whom they should be quoting.

What's more, even if we are only to consider the fact that Lactantius is good at pointing out error (as per his translator and Jerome) that's really good enough for us, since we are noting that Lactantius was pointing out an error that is part of Roman Catholic practice today.

So, while we appreciate Mr. Burgess attempt (whatever his intentions may have been) to help us remember why we find Lactantius of interest, we will respectfully continue to quote from this church father where his comments are either persuasive from Scripture or of historical interest.


UPDATE: I see that Mr. Burgess has not only left his comment on my original post but provided his comment on his own web page as well - so important he thinks his correction to be (link).

Commodianus, while he was engaged in secular literature read also our writings and, finding opportunity, accepted the faith. Having become a Christian thus and wishing to offer the fruit of his studies to Christ the author of his salvation, he wrote, in barely tolerable semi-versified language, Against the pagans, and because he was very little acquainted with our literature he was better able to overthrow their [doctrine] than to establish ours. Whence also, contending against them concerning the divine counterpromises, he discoursed in a sufficiently wretched and so to speak, gross fashion, to their stupefaction and our despair. Following Tertullian, Lactantius and Papias as authorities he adopted and inculcated in his students good ethical principles and especially a voluntary love of poverty.
- Gennadius of Marseilles (died about A.D. 496), Supplement to De Viris Illustribis

But as well, Jerome himself include Lactantius in his Lives of Illustrious Men:
Firmianus, [Died 325.] known also as Lactantius, a disciple of Arnobius, during the reign of Diocletian summoned to Nicomedia with Flavius the Grammarian whose poem On medicine is still extant, taught rhetoric there and on account of his lack of pupils (since it was a Greek city) he betook himself to writing. We have a Banquet of his which he wrote as a young man in Africa and an Itinerary of a journey from Africa to Nicomedia written in hexameters, and another book which is called The Grammarian and a most beautiful one On the wrath of God, and Divine institutes against the nations, seven books, and an Epitome of the same work in one volume, without a title, [without a title “that is a compendium of the last three books only” as Cave explains it. Ffoulkes in Smith and W. But no.] also two books To Asclepiades, one book On persecution, four books of Epistles to Probus, two books of Epistles to Severus, two books of Epistles to his pupil Demetrius [two books…Severus…Demetrius e a H 10 21 Val.; omit T 25 30 31 Her.] and one book to the same On the work of God or the creation of man. In his extreme old age he was tutor to Crispus Cæsar a son of Constantine in Gaul, the same one who was afterwards put to death by his father.
- Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men (De Viris Illustribis), Chapter 80 (editors' footnotes bracketed)

So, Jerome puts him in his "Of Illustrious Men" and Gennadius views Lactantius as having good ethical principles. But Mr. Burgess is not so fond of Lactantius. We report, you decide.


Mike Burgess said...

At the risk of further disapprobation of my hubris and ignorance, I have replied to this post (which is itself not merely a reply in the original combox) with a new post of my own at my own site, not because I think it terribly important, but because comment publishing here is hit-and-miss, as you know better than anyone.

Don said...

And one mustn't forget Lactantius gems such as this one.

And it's noteworthy that, although Jerome is counted as a Doctor of the Church, he came up with some things that have given Roman Catholic apologists heartburn ever since, such as this.

Kenneth Howes said...

There is nothing wrong with quoting Lactantius, as long as one keeps the source in view. There are a good many early Fathers who wrote things that are right and things that are wrong.

Tertullian wrote wonderful, orthodox Christian theology for most of his life, but about 205 AD began drifting toward Montanism. The later his work, the more skepticism is necessary.

Origen, one of the great early exegetes and church historians, began soundly enough, though from the first there was a Neo-Platonist influence on him. That philosophy would eventually lead him into serious errors.

Vincent of Lérins, remembered primarily for the "Vincentian canon" that helps us identify the catholic faith among errors, drifted into the heresy of semi-Pelagianism.

So do we reject and disregard everything Tertullian, Origen and Vincent said? Absolutely not! All three wrote much that is of value. Applying Vincent's canon, one will be able to separate the dross from the gold.

Use the Fathers, but use them wisely and with discernment. An excellent book that exercises such discernment is Martin Chemnitz's Examination of the Council of Trent, written between 1565 and 1585 and still a classic.

Turretinfan said...

Mr. Burgess:

To respond to your post (numbers corresponding to paragraphs):

1) Yes, "for" can have more than one sense in English. As you say, "try again."


a) Yes, you often seem confused. At least, you give evidence either of confusion or deliberating wasting of time. I think confusion (not malice) is the issue.

b) Your mischaracterization of my usage of the fathers suggests your continued confusion is the result of wishful thinking.

c) Pastors King and Webster (among many others going back at least to Whittaker) have adequately demonstrated that Sola Scriptura is not only Scriptural but patristic as well.

3) I'm sure minor grammatical corrections to my post could be made but the "it" in question is the general field of necromancy. Yes, prayers to the dead is a pagan practice, not a Christian one. It crept into Christianity later. Lactantius could hardly fairly have criticized the pagans for something practiced by the Christians. Given that I provided not only the quotation but the quotation in a larger context, the suggestions that I didn't bother to check the quotation are about as intelligent as the attempted reliance on Jerome in the previous post.

4) just a quotation from me

5) No, you don't have to believe "first is best" to think that it is silly to demand that the first guy have a familiarity with a prior body of work in that area.


a) No, the Jewish prophets were not free from error. Scripture was free from error. The Jewish prophets were mere men.

b) Lactantius doesn't "dismiss" them, he simply moves on from them to something that unbelievers will accept. After all, the Scriptures of those prophets are only accepted by faith.

7) is just a part of a poorly formatted quotation from Schaff

8) I'm glad to see that I've overlooked no important source that you had your disposal.

9) No response required.

10) You neither apologize for your misuse of Jerome nor attempt to revitalize it in your new post. Your answer regarding Lactantius seems to me to be nothing more than simply saying "nuh-uh" to which my "yeah-huh" response may be taken as a given. Unless you are trying (most absurdly) to suggest that Lactantius was saying that he himself did not believe the Old Testament, your attempted demonstration of style over substance falls short.

Aside from all that, Lactantius' credibility has been revitalized by reference to Jerome, Augustine, and Gennadius, as well by the usage of modern Romanism. Was he free from error? Of course not. None of the church fathers were. That's not the issue.


Mike Burgess said...

I made a reply to the above reply at my place.

Mike Burgess said...

By the way, Don, there are 33 Doctors of the Church, not 4, and Jerome's quote doesn't give me heartburn. I don't know anyone to whom it does, either, and I know some pretty good Catholic apologists.

Don said...

Kenneth Howes: I think with Origen it's the other way around. His most speculative works, like the Peri Archon, were relatively early in his writings, and the orthodoxy gets better with age (esp. the Commentary in Matthew, where he explicitly repudiates transmigration of souls.)

To bad we don't see more of that trend these days...

Turretinfan said...

Mike wrote: "By the way, Don, there are 33 Doctors of the Church, not 4, and Jerome's quote doesn't give me heartburn. I don't know anyone to whom it does, either, and I know some pretty good Catholic apologists. "

It really ought to give you heartburn, just as Lactantius should, and (above all) Scripture should.

But tradition and Scripture are really not honored with that kind of respect in Romanism. What matters to a devoted follower of Rome is what "the Church" says today, not whether her claims are really apostolic.

That's why when we turn to Scripture they pretend that the Scriptures are either ambiguous or otherwise not authoritative over their church, because of a need for tradition. When we turn to tradition, they dismiss that as well when it disagrees with their church. So it can be seen that they hold neither to Scripture nor Tradition.


Turretinfan said...

Mike wrote: "I made a reply to the above reply at my place."

I reviewed it and there doesn't seem to be anything new. I've responded to all those arguments already either in the comments above, in the post to which these comments relate, or in the comments on the original post.


louis said...

Great work, TF!

Paul Pavao said...

>>That's rather the point about the early church fathers - they did not transmit an oral apostolic tradition to us, rather they were our predecessors in trying to search out the meaning of Scripture. Where they do a good job they are to be commended, and where they err they are to be corrected.<<

I'm a little astonished you can say this. I'm not Roman Catholic, but the early church's appeals to the rule of faith/rule of truth are common. Irenaeus (A.H. III:2:2, I think) makes it clear that they referred gnostics to both the Scriptures and the traditions derived from the apostles.

There was obviously a rule of faith. It's summarized by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and later writers. Justin refers to it by talking about teachings that came from the apostles. (He even gives a reason for baptism that he said came from the apostles.)

There was an oral apostolic tradition passed down to the church, as well as an attempt to be Scriptural. So your statement's confusing because no one familiar with the pre-Nicene writings would agree with you. (There's a couple summations of the idea of the rule of faith in BakerAcademic's Evangelical Ressourcement Series; those are Evangelical and they treat the oral apostolic tradition as obvious as well.)

I haven't even brought up 2 Thess. 2:15.

Turretinfan said...

Paul Pavao:

A full response to your comments may be found here.