Lactantius the Proto-Pelagian?

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. II: The Ante-Nicene Literature After Irenaeus (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 405.

Lactantius was a Christian thinker who lived in the third-fourth centuries C.E. (click here for his life story). In this post, I want to discuss his views on the human ability to be virtuous.

A manuscript at Milan (Codex Ambrosianus F 60 sup. saec. VIII-IX) contains a small fragment with the marginal note Lactantius de motibus animi. Consisting of a few lines only, it deals with the affections of the soul and explains their origin. They have been implanted by God, to help man in the practice of virtue. If they are kept within limits they lead to righteousness and eternal life, otherwise to life and eternal damnation. Form and content make it probable that the fragment is really Lactantius’.

This quote stood out to me because many Christians claim that humans in their natural state cannot be truly virtuous. That’s why they need God’s grace, which includes the power of the Holy Spirit to live a righteous life. Paul in particular presents the human flesh as sinful and hostile to God, meaning that it inhibits people from obeying God’s will (Romans 8:3, 7). Through the Holy Spirit, however, the righteous requirements of God’s law are fulfilled in the believer (Romans 8:4).

Christians differ on the extent of human sinfulness. Calvinists maintain that unredeemed humanity is totally depraved, meaning that people cannot even have saving faith without God’s spirit compelling them to do so (irresistable grace). Arminians think that God’s spirit works on everyone, giving each person the free will to receive or reject God. That must mean that even they see human beings as bad! And, according to Matthew Bellisario’s post here, Roman Catholics believe on the basis of the church fathers (in part) that people can choose to reject evil, meaning that they have free will, and yet they still need supernatural assistance to live a righteous life.

Lactantius seems to believe that humans in their natural state have some capacity to do good, since God has implanted in their soul certain affections to assist them in virtue. That strikes me as different from Christian notions that “You in your natural state are bad, so your old self needs to die for you to become a new man, renewed by God’s Holy Spirit.” In Lactantius’ scenario, God has naturally equipped people with the ability to make right decisions.

At the same time, Lactantius appears to agree with Paul that the flesh is corrupt, for he believes that the soul is righteous, whereas the flesh is evil. Yet, he seems to think that the flesh is evil on account of God’s design. For Lactantius, the human’s struggle with himself allows him to make moral decisions, plus “[j]ust as there can be no light without darkness, no war without an enemy, so there can be no virtue unless vice exists” (Quasten 407, referring to Lactantius’ Divine Institutes). In a sense, Lactantius overlaps with elements of rabbinic Judaism, which saw a good purpose behind humanity’s evil inclination (see The Evil Soul). And a rabbinics professor once told my class that Adam and Eve’s “fall” was necessary, since God wanted humans to struggle, grow, and develop.

Quasten states that Lactantius “is quite enthusiastic about martyrdom, the love of God and of neighbor, the virtues of humility and chastity, but he hardly mentions the supernatural gift of grace, that enables man to live up to this ideal” (406). If the recreation of sinful humanity into something new and good was not really on Lactantius’ radar, why did he believe that God sent Jesus?

Lactantius would probably agree with the praise song “Lord, I Lift Yor Name on High,” or at least one of its lines: “You came from heaven to earth to show the way…” For Lactantius, pagan religion and philosophy had obscured God and justice, so Jesus came to teach people about the true God (before whom all human beings are equal), as well as principles of kindness and mercy (Quasten 396-397). According to Quasten, Lactantius “speaks of the transformation wrought by the new faith without giving enough attention to the redeeming of mankind by a divine Saviour” (Quasten 406).

Part of me likes Lactantius’ ideas, as proto-Pelagian as they may sound. I’m suspicious of the notion that God waves a wand and magically transforms people into righteous human beings. There are many Christians with the same character defects as non-Christians, plus I would like to think that God is a God of process: he changes us by putting us in situations that build character.

I was recently talking with a Christian friend about fundamentalism, and how it once discouraged political activism because it thought that people would be supernaturally changed after receiving the Gospel, leading them to be nicer to one another and thus solve society’s ills. I expressed skepticism about such an idea, for there are people who have received Christ who have greed, a desire for power, indifference to others, etc.

I thought about Tim Keller. Although he believes in God transforming people, he tends to emphasize the power of believing the Gospel, not so much God’s work of changing a person from the inside (at least that’s my impression). For him, the Gospel offers us a new way to see ourselves, others, and society, and that shapes how we act. When we believe in God’s love for us, we’re no longer seeking worldly things to satisfy us, and we view others as objects of God’s love. In this case, Tim Keller reminds me of Lactantius, who held that believing the right things had a power in itself.

At the same time, there are plenty of people who believe that they can’t change–either because of their habits, or their pasts, or their temperaments, or their desires, etc. As Jeremiah 13:23 inquires, “Can Ethiopians change their skin or leopards their spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil” (NRSV). Somewhere within them, there are the affections that lead people to goodness, such as love or a conscience, but these things have been seared (I Timothy 4:2) or buried. Also, while believing the right things can be transformative in itself, how does one move from head-knowledge to heart-knowledge? I can understand the Gospel without it changing me! In light of these considerations, I choose to believe in a God who wants to change me, or, as Alcoholics Anonymous asserts, restore me to sanity and remove my defects of character.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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3 Responses to Lactantius the Proto-Pelagian?

  1. Polycarp says:

    I have added this series of books to my Amazon wishlist.

    James, I am Arminian, for the most part, but hold to some view of the depravity of man. I do believe that people can do good things – look at Cornelius in Acts. He was ‘unregenerate’ and yet devout – not to Christ, but to a god. His alms was counted to him, surely.

    Your statement “I can understand the Gospel without it changing me!” is so very true. At the university, I met an homosexual activist, Marxist – you name the left wing group, and he was there. Yet, he understood the Gospel, as well as could look at the doctrinal divides (1 in 3 vs 3 in 1) with a balance – and yet, he wholeheartedly disbelieved it. His head knowledge could not help his heart.

    Another excellent post, James.


  2. Pingback: The Gospel, Depravity and Change | The Church of Jesus Christ

  3. James Pate says:

    Hi Polycarp! Thanks for the endorsement on your blog. I’ll be adding you to my blogspot blogroll so I can keep track of what you write.

    Here are some points:

    1. Something funny that I found about Quasten is that volume 2 is somewhat like your blog, in that it acknowledges the complexity of early Christianity on the nature of Jesus/the logos. In volume 3, however, it seems like that goes out the window: Arius is now a heretic, Athanasius is a hero, etc. At least that’s my impression so far.

    2. I write some about Cornelius in my post:

    The post is rather liberal, but my beliefs aren’t set in stone.

    3. I like your point about the Marxist. I once assumed that the Word of God could inspire anyone, but I’ve learned that such is not always the case.


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