Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lactantius: The Natural Law Delivered to the Christians

TAGGED CICERO CHRISTIANUS, THE CHRISTIAN CICERO, Lactantius is the next early Christian writer that we turn to for the early Church's acceptance of the natural law as a universally-binding law, one, moreover, that Christ had personified, and that remained normative for all Christians notwithstanding the advent of the Gospel. Lucius Caelius Firmianus Lactantius (ca. 240-ca. 320) was a native of North Africa born of pagan parents. Deeply steeped in the Roman rhetorical tradition, Lactantius was a teacher of Rhetoric, at first perhaps in the city of Cirta in Numidia, then later under Imperial auspices, in Nicomedia. Lactantius lost this prestigious position when he converted to Christianity and lost imperial favor. He lived in relative poverty until the emperor Constantine the Great, institutional friend of Christians and the Church, appointed him to be the tutor of his son Crispus.

The Aged Lactantius

Lactantius is best known for his work The Divine Institutions (Divinarum Institutionum Libri VII). Written between 303 and 311, this work is an apologetic against the pagans. Some of his lessor known works include his De Mortibus Persecutorum, an Epitome or shortened version of the Institutions, De Opificio Dei, and the poem de Ave Phoenice.

In the Sixth Book of his Divine Institutions, Lactantius, not unlike the Catholic Church's Catechism (§ 1956, quoting Cicero, Rep., iii, cap. 22, 33.), amply quotes Cicero's Republic's paean of the natural law in significant detail. As a Christian, Lactantius clearly suffers no scruple in adopting the Ciceronian description of the Stoic understanding of the natural law as a testimony of the pagan knowledge of it, while recognizing that the pagan spoke with a natural voice of the philosopher, and not the supernatural voice of the prophet. The compatibility between the Stoic concept of the natural law and the Christian teaching, particularly as contained in the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, is remarkable, indeed Providential. This philosophical and theological symbiosis, this marriage of reason and revelation, has been carried on to the present day as a prized possession of the doctrinal and moral patrimony of the Church.
Therefore the law of God must be undertaken, which may direct us to this path; that sacred, that heavenly law, which Marcus Tullius [Cicero], in his third book respecting the Republic [Rep., iii. cap. 22, 16.] has described almost with a divine voice; whose words have subjoined, that I might not speak at greater length: "There is indeed a true law, right reason, agreeing with nature, diffused among all, unchanging, everlasting, which calls to duty by commanding, deters from wrong by forbidding; which, however, neither commands nor forbids the good in vain, nor affects the wicked by commanding or forbidding. It is not allowable to alter the provisions of this law, nor is it permitted us to modify it, nor can it be entirely abrogated. Nor, truly, can we be released from this law, either by the senate or by the people; nor is another person to be sought to explain or interpret it. Nor will there be one law at Rome and another at Athens; one law at the present time, and another hereafter: but the same law, everlasting and unchangeable, will bind all nations at all times; and there will be one common Master and Ruler of all, even God, the framer, arbitrator, and proposer of this law; and he who shall not obey this will flee from himself, and, despising the nature of man, will suffer the greatest punishments through this very thing, even though he shall have escaped the other punishments which are supposed to exist.” Who that is acquainted with the mystery of God could so significantly relate the law of God, as a man far removed from the knowledge of the truth has set forth that law? But I consider that they who speak true things unconsciously are to be so regarded as though they prophesied under the influence of some spirit. But if he had known or explained this also, in what precepts the law itself consisted, as he clearly saw the force and purport of the divine law, he would not have discharged the office of a philosopher, but of a prophet. And because he was unable to do this, it must be done by us, to whom the law itself has been delivered by the one great Master and Ruler of all, God.

Suscipienda igitur Dei lex est, quae nos ad hoc iter dirigat, illa sancta, illa caelestis, quam Marcus Tullius in libro de re publica tertio paene divina voce depinxit: cuius ego, ne plura dicerem, verba subieci. Est quidem vera lex recta ratio, naturae congruens, diffusa in omnis, constans, sempiterna, quae vocet ad officium iubendo, vetando a fraude deterreat, quae tamen neque probos frustra iubet aut vetat nec inprobos iubendo aut vetando movet. Huic legi nec obrogari fas est neque derogari aliquid ex hac licet neque tota abrogari potest, nec vero aut per senatum aut per populum solvi hac lege possumus, neque est quaerendus explanator aut interpres Sextus Aelius, nec erit alia lex Romae alia Athenis, alia nunc alia posthac, sed et omnes gentes et omni tempore una lex et sempiterna et inmutabilis continebit unusque erit communis quasi magister et imperator omnium Deus: ille legis huius inventor disceptator lator, cuid que non parebit, ipse se fugiet ac naturam hominis aspernatus hoc ipso luet maximas poenas, etiamsi cetera supplicia quae putantur effugerit. Quis sacramentum Dei sciens tam significanter enarrare legem Dei posset quam illam homo longe veritatis notitia remotus expressit? Ego vero eos qui vera inprudentes loquuntur sic habendos puto, tamquam divinent spiritu aliquo instincti. Quodsi ut legis sanctae vim rationemque pervidit, ita illut quoque scisset aut explicasset, in quibus praeceptis lex ipsal consisteret, non philosophi functus fuisset officio, sed prophetae. Quod quia facere ille non poterat, nobis faciendum est, quibus ipsa lex tradita est ab illo uno magistro et imperatore omnium Deo.
Div. inst., VI, 8 (PL 6:660). What the Pagan saw darkly of the law through Reason, the Christian saw face to face through Reason and Faith. What the Christian saw darkly of the mysteries of God through Faith, the Pagan saw nothing at all. Both Faith and Law, then, have been given to the Church by the Word of God made flesh, Our Lord Jesus Christ. For Lactantius, the Church, it follows, is the custodian of the natural law.

Marcus Tullius Cicero


  1. Cicero, in his speech defending Murena, says this about Cato and his Stoicism; "...the Spartans, who invented your life-style and way of talking". (Cicero, On Government, trans. Michael Grant, Penguin Classics, 1993, pg 150.)

    The Classicist Michael Grant also said somewhere that Cicero may have plagiarised Dicaearchus of Messana's lost work, Tripoliticus, which is about Sparta's form of government. What you read in Cicero's De republica is most probably from the Spartans.

  2. I glanced at your article on Sparta. I'm going to have some time off work, and I will be able to read it. Although I vaguely remembered the Spartan references, I have never seen them handled the way you handled it. I guess in short you are saying there is more of Sparta in us than Athens. Maybe Tertullian would have better said, "What has Sparta to do with Jerusalem?"

  3. Probably very true.

    Classical studies is very important to not only knowing classical antiquity but also philosophy and natural theology and Hellenism and the Hellenistic Age in which Christianity was born. It is also very important to understanding the Greek words and ideas in the New Testament! I find a lot of Eastern Orthodox adverse to Classical studies. One must have a good and true classical education in order to know and understand the New Testament and the works of St. Paul.

    The Lacedaemonians would not nor ever created prose writing. They were first adverse to (A) writing anything down, though they all knew how to write (B) lengthy speaking of any sort was also an aversion. Two points against them. Yet, they were the seat of philosophy. It was to others, non-Dorians, to write and witness to their stuff. They passed a lot of things around.

    Plato started out writing tragedies before he met Socrates. Plato was destined to be a student of Socrates and hence start writing this down. (Socrates didn't write either.) It was kind of hard, I suppose, for God to find somebody down here to take diction!!! Everybody he inspired, didn't want to write! Finally, God found Plato! (I could see God getting a little exasperated here, the Spartans didn't write, and then God transferred it to Socrates, and he didn't write---I can see a little frustration, on God's part, going on:)