Archive for the ‘Lactantius’ Category

Formal Sufficiency of Scripture: Fourth Century Fathers (Guest Series)

November 20, 2010
Formal Sufficiency of Scripture
Stated and Examined from Scripture and the Fathers, with scholarly confirmation regarding the Fathers’ views.

We began by explaining the nature of formal sufficiency (i.e. the Reformed view) in an introduction section (link). After that we explored Scripture’s own testimony to its sufficiency (link). We could rightly have stopped the series there, but instead we continued by exploring some of the patristic testimony on the subject, starting with the earliest Christian writers (link), and then continuing with the fathers of the 3rd century (link).

The fourth century ushers in a period during which Christianity did not experience persecution on a large scale. Consequently, there are more and better preserved writings from this period than from some of the previous periods.

Using the century boundaries as the dividing line as to which fathers to include may seem a little arbitrary. For example, Epiphanias of Salamis and Chrysostom both died in the first decade of the 5th century, having lived most of their lives in the 4th century. Nevertheless, I’ve tried to select only those fathers who died or flourished (in the case of fathers whose date of death is not known) in the fourth century.

We begin our exploration of the fourth century with a theologian born in the 3rd century in Africa, but who later became an adviser to the Roman emperor.

Lactantius (260-330):

For this is especially the cause why, with the wise and the learned, and the princes of this world, the sacred Scriptures are without credit, because the prophets spoke in common and simple language, as though they spoke to the people. And therefore they are despised by those who are willing to hear or read nothing except that which is polished and eloquent; nor is anything able to remain fixed in their minds, except that which charms their ears by a more soothing sound. But those things which appear humble are considered anile, foolish, and common. So entirely do they regard nothing as true, except that which is pleasant to the ear; nothing as credible, except that which can excite pleasure: no one estimates a subject by its truth, but by its embellishment. Therefore they do not believe the sacred writings, because they are without any pretense; but they do not even believe those who explain them, because they also are either altogether ignorant, or at any rate possessed of little learning.

ANF: Vol. VII, The Divine Institutes, Book V, Chapter I.

There are two things to particularly note in Lactantius’ comments above. The first is that the Scriptures are generally written in simple language. The second is that they are believed and explained by those who are either uneducated or have little education.

Lactantius (260-330):

For all those things which are unconnected with words, that is, pleasant sounds of the air and of strings, may be easily disregarded, because they do not adhere to its, and cannot be written. But a well-composed poem, and a speech beguiling with its sweetness, captivate the minds of men, and impel them in what direction they please. Hence, when learned men have applied themselves to the religion of God, unless they have been instructed by some skillful teacher, they do not believe. For, being accustomed to sweet and polished speeches or poems, they despise the simple and common language of the sacred writings as mean. For they seek that which may soothe the senses. But whatever is O pleasant to the ear effects persuasion, and while it delights fixes itself deeply within the breast. Is God, therefore, the contriver both of the mind, and of the voice, and of the tongue, unable to speak eloquently? Yea, rather, with the greatest foresight, He wished those things which are divine to be without adornment, that all might understand the things which He Himself spoke to all.

ANF: Vol. VII, The Divine Institutes, Book VI Of true Worship, Chapter 21 Of the Pleasures of the Ears, And of Sacred Literature.

The quotation above builds upon the previous one. It reemphasizes that Scripture is written simply, and it explains the reason, which is that it will be understood by all.

Regarding Constantine (325, Nicea):

The excellent emperor next exhorted the Bishops to unanimity and concord; he recalled to their remembrance the cruelty of the late tyrants, and reminded them of the honourable peace which God had, in his reign and by his means, accorded them. He pointed out how dreadful it was, aye, very dreadful, that at the very time when their enemies were destroyed, and when no one dared to oppose them, they should fall upon one another, and make their amused adversaries laugh, especially as they were debating about holy things, concerning which they had the written teaching of the Holy Spirit. “For the gospels” (continued he), “the apostolical writings, and the oracles of the ancient prophets, clearly teach us what we ought to believe concerning the divine nature. Let, then, all contentious disputation be discarded; and let us seek in the divinely-inspired word the solution of the questions at issue.” These and similar exhortations he, like an affectionate son, addressed to the bishops as to fathers, labouring to bring about their unanimity in the apostolical doctrines.

According to Theodoret, cf. NPNF2: Vol. III, Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, Chapter 6.

Note that Constantine is not just saying that the Scriptures are clear, but that they clearly teach even on the challenging issues of the Arian controversy. Furthermore, they are the ones from whom the solution of the question will come, the one source he identifies.

We should not be too surprised that Alexander of Alexandria shares similar ideas, since he was one of the bishops at Nicaea.

Alexander of Alexandria (d. 328), the spiritual mentor of Athanasius, testified of the Arian heretics in a letter to Alexander of Constantinople:

They are not ashamed to oppose the godly clearness of the ancient scriptures.

Alternative translation:
The religious perspicuity of the ancient Scriptures caused them no shame . . .

Greek: Οὐ κατήδεσεν αὐτοὺς ἡ τῶν ἀρχαίων Γραφῶν φιλόθεος σαφήνεια . . .

Theodoreti Ecclesiasticae Historiae, Liber I, Caput III, PG 82:904; translation in NPNF2: Vol. III, Theodoret’s Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, Chapter 3; alternative translation in ANF: Vol. VI, Epistle to Alexander, Bishop of the City of Constantinople, §10. The mistranslation of these words in J. Berington and J. Kirk, The Faith of Catholics, with preface, corrections, and additions by Rt. Rev. Monsignor Capel, Vol. 1, Third Enlarged Edition (Ratison: Fr. Pustet & Co., 1909), p. 45, represent a distorted view of what Alexander of Alexandria said, “Neither the explanation, well-pleasing unto God, of the ancient Scripture has shamed them.”

The quotation above is fairly self-explanatory. It is simply confirming that Alexander thought that the Arians were not simply interpreting Scripture differently, but rather that they were opposing the clear teachings of Scripture.

Anthony (c. 251–356) (recounted by Athanasius):

One day when he had gone forth because all the monks had assembled to him and asked to hear words from him, he spoke to them in the Egyptian tongue as follows: ‘The Scriptures are enough for instruction, but it is a good thing to encourage one another in the faith, and to stir up with words.

NPNF2: Vol. IV, Life of Anthony, §16.

Anthony’s comments are a fairly concise statement of formal sufficiency. Unsurprisingly, Athanasius’ own views are similar.

Athanasius (297-373):

The knowledge of our religion and of the truth of things is independently manifest rather than in need of human teachers, for almost day by day it asserts itself by facts, and manifests itself brighter than the sun by the doctrine of Christ.

Still, as you nevertheless desire to hear about it, Macarius, come let us as we may be able set forth a few points of the faith of Christ: able though you are to find it out from the divine oracles, but yet generously desiring to hear from others as well.

For although the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth,—while there are other works of our blessed teachers compiled for this purpose, if he meet with which a man will gain some knowledge of the interpretation of the Scriptures, and be able to learn what he wishes to know,—still, as we have not at present in our hands the compositions of our teachers, we must communicate in writing to you what we learned from them,—the faith, namely, of Christ the Saviour; lest any should hold cheap the doctrine taught among us, or think faith in Christ unreasonable.

NPNF2: Vol. IV, Against the Heathen, Part I, §1-3.

Again, we see explicit affirmation of the sufficiency of Scripture. Athanasius even says what some of our Roman opponents beg us to find in the fathers, namely that human teachers are not necessary. And, of course, such sentiments about Scripture’s formal sufficiency are not a unique occurrence it Athanasius.

Athanasius (297-373):

But this all inspired Scripture also teaches more plainly and with more authority [than the light of nature in the form of the testimony of the stars themselves], so that we in our turn write boldy to you as we do, and you, if you refer to them, will be able to verify what we say.

For an argument when confirmed by higher authority is irresistibly proved.

NPNF2: Vol. IV, Against the Heathen, Part III, §45, points 2-3.

Notice that again Athanasius is affirming the plainness of Scripture, and the ability of the reader to be taught from them.

From Alexandria, we make a dramatic move westward to France and hear the testimony of the somewhat younger Hilary of Poitiers.

Hilary of Poitiers (c 315-67):

If any man propose to express what is known in other words than those supplied by God, he must inevitably either display his own ignorance, or else leave his readers’ minds in utter perplexity.

NPNF2: Vol. IX, On the Trinity, Book 7, §38.

The above quotation is a pretty strong way of stating that Scripture is plainly written and easy to understand.

Hilary of Poitiers (c 315-67):

I do not know the word ὁμοιούσιον, or understand it, unless it confesses a similarity of essence. I call the God of heaven and earth to witness, that when I had heard neither word, my belief was always such that I should have interpreted ὁμοιούσιον by ὁμοούσιον. That is, I believed that nothing could be similar according to nature unless it was of the same nature. Though long ago regenerate in baptism, and for some time a bishop, I never heard of the Nicene creed until I was going into exile, but the Gospels and Epistles suggested to me the meaning of ὁμοούσιον and ὁμοιούσιον. Our desire is sacred. Let us not condemn the fathers, let us not encourage heretics, lest while we drive one heresy away, we nurture another. After the Council of Nicaea our fathers interpreted the due meaning of ὁμοούσιον with scrupulous care; the books are extant, the facts are fresh in men’s minds: if anything has to be added to the interpretation, let us consult together. Between us we can thoroughly establish the faith, so that what has been well settled need not be disturbed, and what has been misunderstood may be removed.

NPNF2: Vol. IX, On the Councils or the Faith of the Easterns, §91.

According to his own testimony, Hilary learned the doctrine that the Son shares the same substance with the Father from Holy Scripture before he had ever heard that it was taught by the Council of Nicaea.

Hilary of Poitiers (c 315-67):

Now we ought to recognize first of all that God has spoken not for Himself but for us, and that He has so far tempered the language of His utterance as to enable the weakness of our nature to grasp and understand it.

NPNF2: Vol. IX, On the Trinity, Book VIII, §43.

The above quotation is another fairly straightforward statement of formal sufficiency in the sense that the wording of the Scriptures is specifically designed to permit us to understand it. This is, you may note, very similar to the explanation we gave in the first two posts of the series.

Hilary of Poitiers (c 315-67):

The Lord enunciated the faith of the Gospel in the simplest words that could be found, and fitted His discourses to our understanding, so far as the weakness of our nature allowed Him, without saying anything unworthy of the majesty of His own nature.

NPNF2: Vol. IX, On the Trinity, Book IX, §40.

I feel like I’m piling on with that last quotation, because it says nearly the same thing as the previous one.

Hilary of Poitiers (c 315-67) commenting on John 10:30:

But this passage concerning the unity, of which we are speaking, does not allow us to look for the meaning outside the plain sound of the words. If Father and Son are one, in the sense that They are one in will, and if separable natures cannot be one in will, because their diversity of kind and nature must draw them into diversities of will and judgment, how call They be one in will, not being one in knowledge? There can be no unity of will between ignorance and knowledge. Omniscience and nescience are opposites, and opposites cannot be of the same will.

NPNF2: Vol. IX, On the Trinity, Book IX, §70.

The passage above may seem to be a relatively obscure reference to formal sufficiency, but it shows one way in which such a view plays out in Hilary’s hermeneutic.

Hilary of Poitiers (c 315-67):

Human judgment must not pass its sentence upon God. Our nature is not such that it can lift itself by its own forces to the contemplation of heavenly things. We must learn from God what we are to think of God; we have no source of knowledge but Himself. . . . Of all this he could have known nothing except through God Himself. And we, in like manner, must confine ourselves, in whatever we say of God, to the terms in which He has spoken to our understanding concerning Himself.

NPNF2: Vol. IX, On the Trinity, Book V, §21.

One interesting aspect about this is not so much the aspect of perspicuity in itself, but the fact that Hilary views God’s description of himself as enough. Someone might try to argue that this is really more related to material sufficiency, but by saying “to the terms in which He has spoken,” it appears that Hilary means to suggest not only the material but also the form.

Hilary of Poitiers (c 315-67):

In our reply we have followed Him to the moment of His glorious death, and taking one by one the statements of their unhallowed doctrine, we have refuted them from the teaching of the Gospels and the Apostle. But even after His glorious resurrection there are certain things which they have made bold to construe as proofs of the weakness of a lower nature, and to these we must now reply. Let us adopt once more our usual method of drawing out from the words themselves their true signification, that so we may discover the truth precisely where they think to overthrow it. For the Lord spoke in simple words for our instruction in the faith, and His words cannot need support or comment from foreign and irrelevant sayings.

NPNF2: Vol. IX, On the Trinity, Book XI, §7.

Notice how the hermeneutic of letting the text speak for itself is here explained in terms of the plainness of the text. Scripture interprets Scripture is one of the hermeneutical outworkings of a belief in formal sufficiency.

You might think that was enough from Hilary, and perhaps it is, but he says the same thing in other ways too.

Hilary of Poitiers (c 315-67):

The Lord has not left in doubt or obscurity the teaching conveyed in this great mystery; He has not abandoned us to lose our way in dim uncertainty. Listen to Him as He reveals the full knowledge of this faith to His Apostles; — I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no man cometh unto the Father but through Me. If ye know Me, ye know My Father also; and from henceforth ye shall know Him, and have seen Him. Philip saith unto Him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us. Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and ye have not known Me, Philip? He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father also. How sayest thou, Shew us the Father? Dost thou not believe Me, that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I speak unto you I speak not of Myself, but the Father that dwelleth in Me, He doeth His works. Believe Me, that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me; or else believe for the very works’ sake.

He Who is the Way leads us not into by-paths or trackless wastes: He Who is the Truth mocks us not with lies; He Who is the Life betrays us not into delusions which are death. He Himself has chosen these winning names to indicate the methods which He has appointed for our salvation. As the Way, He will guide us to the Truth; the Truth will establish us in the Life. And therefore it is all-important for us to know what is the mysterious mode, which He reveals, of attaining this life.

No man cometh to the Father but through Me. The way to the Father is through the Son. And now we must enquire whether this is to be by a course of obedience to His teaching, or by faith in His Godhead. For it is conceivable that our way to the Father may be through adherence to the Son’s teaching, rather than through believing that the Godhead of the Father dwells in the Son. And therefore let us, in the next place, seek out the true meaning of the instruction given us here. For it is not by cleaving to a preconceived opinion, but by studying the force of the words, that we shall enter into possession of this faith.

NPNF2: Vol. IX, On the Trinity, Book VII, §33.

Notice how clearly Hilary states the matter, as making it perfectly apparent that he views the recorded teachings of Jesus as sufficient.

Hilary of Poitiers (c 315-67):

Salvation is far from the wicked, because they have not sought the statutes of God; since for no other purpose were they consigned to writing, than that they should come within the knowledge and conceptions of all without exception.

Ob id enim longe a peccatoribus salus est, quia non exquisierunt justificationes Dei: cum non utique ob aliud consignatae litteris maneant, quam ut ad universorum scientiam notionemque defluerent.

Psalmi CXVIII, Littera XX, 5, PL 9:633; translation in William Goode, The Divine Rule of Faith and Practice, 2nd edition, 3 Volumes (London: John Henry Jackson, publisher, 1853), Vol. 3, p. 246.

We Calvinists may be hesitant to speak in such unqualified terms (since Arminians will think we mean all individuals without exception rather than all classes without exception). Nevertheless, Hilary’s point is really an unmistakable affirmation of formal sufficiency.

Hilary of Poitiers (c 315-67):

But the word of God [and in the context he speaks explicitly of Scripture] has consulted the benefit of all who shall ever live, being itself the best adapted to promote the instruction of all without exception.

Latin text:
Sed universis qui in vitam venirent Dei sermo consuluit, universae aetati ipse aptissimus ad profectum.

Psalmi CXVIII, Quindecim Graduum., Gradus 15, PL 9:643; translation in William Goode, The Divine Rule of Faith and Practice, 2nd edition, 3 Volumes (London: John Henry Jackson, publisher, 1853), Vol. 3, p. 246.

This is quote similar to the immediately previous quotation.

From France, we can jump back east to Caesarea and hear from the only slightly younger Basil the Great.

Basil of Caesarea (AD. 329-379):

What seems to be said in an ambiguous and veiled way in certain passages of inspired Scripture is made plain by the obvious meaning of other passages.

Alternative translation:
Whatsoever seems to be spoken ambiguously or obscurely in some places of holy Scripture, is cleared up by what is plain and evident in other places.

Τὰ ἀμφίβολα καὶ ἐπικεκαλυμμένως εἰρῆσθαι δοκοῦντα ἔν τισι τόποις τῆς θεοπνεύστου Γραφῆς ὑπὸ τῶν ἐν ἄλλοις τόποις ὁμολογουμέων σαφηνίζεται.

In Regulas Brevius Tractatas, Responsio CCLXVII, PG 31:1264; translation in W. K. L. Clarke, The Ascetic Works of Saint Basil, Translations of Christian Literature Series I, Greek Texts (London: S.P.C.K., 1925), The Shorter Rules, Answer #267 (CCLXVII), p. 329; alternative translation in William Whitaker, A Disputation on Holy Scripture Against the Papists, Especially Bellarmine and Stapleton, trans. and ed. William Fitzgerald (Cambridge: University Press, reprinted 1849), p. 491.

The quotation above comes at the issue of the formal sufficiency of Scripture from a little different angle from some of the statements we’ve seen before. Basil here addresses the imagined problem that there are some parts of Scripture that are hard to understand. It is true that there are some difficult parts of Scripture, to be sure, but this is not a problem because there are also clear parts of Scripture, and the clear parts explain the more difficult or obscure parts.

Basil of Caesarea (AD. 329-379)(To a widow):

Enjoying as you do the consolation of the Holy Scriptures, you stand in need neither of my assistance nor of that of anybody else to help you to comprehend your duty. You have the all-sufficient counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead you to what is right.

Ἔχουσα δὲ τὴν ἐκ τῶν θείων Γραφῶν παράκλησιν, οὔτε ἡμῶν οὔτε ἄλλου τινὸς δεηθήσῃ πρὸς τὸ τὰ δέοντα συνορᾷν, αὐτάρκη τὴν ἐκ τοῦ ἁγίου Πνεύματος ἔχουσα συμβουλίαν καὶ ὁδηγίαν πρὸς τὸ συμφέρον.

Epistola CCLXXXIII, PG 32:1020; translation in NPNF2: Vol. VIII, Letters, Letter 283.

Again, a very clear statement of the formal sufficiency of Scripture. This statement also provides a negative aspect – the widow does not need any additional teachers besides the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. This sort of comment should satisfy our Roman disputants, though perhaps they will be dissatisfied because Basil said “nor that of anybody else,” instead of saying “nor that of the pope.” But, of course, Basil was not familiar with the modern papacy and its claims of infallibility, so he could hardly be expected to specifically disclaim such a view.

Basil of Caesarea (329-379):

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful, composed by the Spirit for this reason, namely, that we men, each and all of us, as if in a general hospital for souls, may select the remedy for his own condition. Greek:
Πᾶσα Γραφὰ θεόπνευστος καὶ ὠφέλιμος, διὰ τοῦτο συγγραφεῖσα παρὰ τοῦ Πνεύματος, ἵνʼ, ὡσπερ ἐν κοινῷ τῶν ψυχῶν ἰατρείῳ, πάντες ἄνθρωποι τὸ ἴαμα τοῦ οἰκείου πάθους ἕκαστος ἐκλεγώμεθα.

Homilia in Psalmum I, §1, PG 29:209; translation in FC, Vol. 46, Saint Basil: Exegetical Homilies, Homily 10 on Psalm 1 (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1963), p. 151.

I’m sure that there are folks today who would have a heart attack at the idea of a self-service pharmacy, but Basil views Scripture as such a thing – a place where a person in need can find what he needs. It’s not just a high view of Scripture, it’s a formally sufficient view of Scripture.

From Caesarea, we turn … who knows where! We’re not quite sure where Ambrosiaster lived or who he was. He’s sometimes treated as a church father, and his writings were – for a long time – confused with those of his contemporary, Ambrose. Perhaps he was even from the same part of the world – certainly we think he was from the West, and his surviving works are known in Latin.

Ambrosiaster (fl. c. 366-384):

The fact is that Scripture speaks in our own manner so that we may understand.

Sed Scriptura more nostro loquitur, ut intelligere possumus.

In Epistolam Beati Pauli Galatas, v. 4:7, PL 17:360; translation in Mark J. Edwards, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament VIII: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p. 57.

The quotation is pretty self-explanatory. It’s a simple statement of the fact that the Scriptures are written so as to be understandable to the reader.

From Ambrosiaster, it only makes sense to turn directly to Ambrose, one of the youngest of the 4th century fathers, living mostly in the second half of the century.

Ambrose (c. 339-97):

Trust to no one, to guide you, but where the light of that lamp [i.e. Scripture] goes before. For where you think it shines, there is a whirlpool; it seems to shine, but it defiles; and where you think it is firm or dry, there it is slippery. And, moreover, if you have a lamp, the way is long. Therefore let faith be the guide of your journey; let the divine Scripture be your path. Excellent is the guidance of the heavenly word. From this lamp light your lamp; that the eye of your mind, which is the lamp of your body, may give light.

nulli credas tuum, nisi praeeunte lucernae istius luce, processum. Nam ubi putas quod luceat, gurges est; videtur lucere sed polluit; et ubi putas solidum esse vel siccum, ibi lubricum est. Sed et si lucerna tibi, iter longius sit. Sit ergo fides tibi itineris tui praevia, sit tibi iter Scriptura divina. Bonus est coelestis ductus eloquii. Ex hac lucerna accende et tu lucernam; ut luceat interior oculus tuus, qui lucerna est tui corporis.

In Psalmum David CXVIII, Expositio, Sermo 14, §11, PL 15:1394; translation in William Goode, The Divine Rule of Faith and Practice, 2nd edition, 3 Volumes (London: John Henry Jackson, publisher, 1853), Vol. 3, p. 148.

Ambrose, in the quotation above, is simply reaffirming the points that we had previously raised about the fact the Scripture illuminate our way. The Scriptures illuminating our way implies not only that they have the right material, but also the right form, to enlighten us.

Ambrose (c. 339-97):

In most places Paul so explains his meaning by his own words, that he who discourses on them can find nothing to add of his own; and if he wishes to say anything, must rather perform the office of a grammarian than a discourser.

In plerisque ita se ipse suis exponat sermonibus, ut is qui tractat, nihil inveniat quod adjiciat suum; ac si velit aliquid dicere, grammatici magis quam disputatoris fungatur munere.

Epistola XXXVII.1, PL 16:1084; translation in William Goode, The Divine Rule of Faith and Practice, 2nd edition, 3 Volumes (London: John Henry Jackson, publisher, 1853), Vol. 3, p. 262, Chemnitz, Vol. 1, p. 167, and Whitaker, pp. 398, 492, who all render plerisque as “most.” Cf. also The Letters of S. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, trans. H. Walford (Oxford: James Parker and Co., and Rivingtons, 1881), Letter 37, §1, pp. 46-47. The translation found in FC, Vol. 26, Saint Ambrose: Letters 54. Ambrose to Simplicianus (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1954), p. 286, has mistranslated this word plerisque to read “in some instances” rather than the correct translation of “most places.”

This is another example of Scripture interpreting Scripture. It is also particularly interesting, because Ambrose is addressing the Pauline corpus – that portion of the the Bible that does include some things that are hard to understand. Nevertheless, there is no need (in Ambrose’s view) for external interpretative authority – the interpretation is to be derived from Paul’s own writings.

Ambrose (c. 339-97):

Divine Scripture confers salvation on us and is fragrant with the perfume of life, so that he who reads may acquire sweetness and not rush into danger to his own destruction.

FC, Vol. 42, Saint Ambrose: Hexameron, Book 1, 2nd Homily, Chap. 8.30 (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1961), p. 34.

Notice, that Congar ascribes this view of Holy Scripture to Protestant orthodoxy. See the first post of this series, quoted from Yves Congar, The Meaning of Tradition (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1964), pp. 87-88. But, whether or not Congar is correct, the expressions “he who reads” and “Scripture confers salvation” is pretty strong language for the formal sufficiency position.

Ambrose (c. 339-97):

I wished that they be arrayed in the unadorned words of Scripture in order that they may gleam in their own light and that in due order they may speak out plainly for themselves. The sun and the moon need no interpreter. The brilliance of their light is all-sufficient a light that fills the entire world. Faith serves as an illumination for the inspired Word. It is, if I may say so, an intestate witness having no need of another’s testimony, yet it dazzles the eyes of all mankind.

FC, Vol. 42, Saint Ambrose: Cain and Abel, Book 1, Chap. 6.22 (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1961), p. 380.

Notice the very strong wording of formal sufficiency in the quotation above. The Scriptures themselves speak plainly – they are comparable to the sun for light and have no need of another’s testimony. It seems that Ambrose is trying to outdo Hilary in terms of stating formal sufficiency in such a way as it will be hard for someone to deny that he is teaching it.

Ambrose (c. 339-97):

Frequent reading of the Scriptures, therefore, strengthens the mind and ripens it by the warmth of spiritual grace. In this way our powers of reasoning are strengthened and the influence of our irrational passions brought to naught.

FC, Vol. 42, Saint Ambrose: Cain and Abel, Book 2, Chap. 6.19 (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1961), p. 421.

We end our discussion of the fourth-century fathers on this slight softer note, but one that shows the functional outworking of a view of formal sufficiency. If we believe in formal sufficiency, we will be encouraged to read the Scriptures often, and we will likewise encourage others to do the same. One can contrast that with the Reformation-era attitude of the Roman church.

(to be continued)


Bad to Quote Lactantius?

October 6, 2009

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.

What did the Early Church think of Prayer for the Dead?

October 5, 2009

Doubtless there were a variety of thoughts, but here is one (courtesy of Pastor David King):

Lactantius (260-330): But if it appears that these religious rites are vain in so many ways as I have shown, it is manifest that those who either make prayers to the dead, or venerate the earth, or make over their souls to unclean spirits, do not act as becomes men, and that they will suffer punishment for their impiety and guilt, who, rebelling against God, the Father of the human race, have undertaken inexpiable rites, and violated every sacred law. (ANF: Vol. VII, The Divine Institutes, Book II, Chapter 18.)

I think that in the full context, it is even more powerful:

I have shown that the religious rites of the gods are vain in a threefold manner: In the first place, because those images which are worshipped are representations of men who are dead; and that is a wrong and inconsistent thing, that the image of a man should be worshipped by the image of God, for that which worships is lower and weaker than that which is worshipped: then that it is an inexpiable crime to desert the living in order that you may serve memorials of the dead, who can neither give life nor light to any one, for they are themselves without it: and that there is no other God but one, to whose judgment and power every soul is subject. In the second place, that the sacred images themselves, to which most senseless men do service, are destitute of all perception, since they are earth. But who cannot understand that it is unlawful for an upright animal to bend itself that it may adore the earth? which is placed beneath our feet for this purpose, that it may be trodden upon, and not adored by us, who have been raised from it, and have received an elevated position beyond the other living creatures, that we may not turn ourselves again downward, nor cast this heavenly countenance to the earth, but may direct our eyes to that quarter to which the condition of their nature has directed, and that we may adore and worship nothing except the single deity of our only Creator and Father, who made man of an erect figure, that we may know that we are called forth to high and heavenly things. In the third place, because the spirits which preside over the religious rites themselves, being condemned and cast off by God, wallow [Roll themselves.] over the earth, who not only are unable to afford any advantage to their worshippers, since the power of all things is in the hands of one alone, but even destroy them with deadly attractions and errors; since this is their daily business, to involve men in darkness, that the true God may not be sought by them. Therefore they are not to be worshipped, because they lie under the sentence of God. For it is a very great crime to devote [Addico, “to adjudge,” is the legal term, expressing the sentence by which the prætor gave effect to the right which he had declared to exist.] one’s self to the power of those whom, if you follow righteousness, you are able to excel in power, and to drive out and put to flight by adjuration of the divine name. But if it appears that these religious rites are vain in so many ways as I have shown, it is manifest that those who either make prayers to the dead, [[Let this be noted.]] or venerate the earth, or make over [Mancipo. The word implies the making over or transferring by a formal act of sale. Debtors, who were unable to satisfy the demands of their creditors, were made over to them, and regarded as their slaves. They were termed addicti. Our Lord said (John viii. 34), “Whosoever committeth sin, is the servant of sin.” Thus also St. Paul, Rom. vi. 16, 17.] their souls to unclean spirits, do not act as becomes men, and that they will suffer punishment for their impiety and guilt, who, rebelling against God, the Father of the human race, have undertaken inexpiable rites, and violated every sacred law.

– Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, Book 2, Chapter 18 (editors’ footnotes placed in brackets)

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