Thursday, January 31, 2019

Lactantius on the figure/form of God

In the previous thread the dissertation by Gordon Allen Carle, which I linked to, has elicited a robust discussion concerning the issue of whether or not God in some sense has a 'body'. An important element of the topic concerns whether or not any extant writings of early post-apostolic Christians support the view that God in some real sense possesses bodily form. Support for God having bodily form is explicitly found in the extant writings of Tertullian and in the collection of Jewish Christian writings commonly known as the Clementine literature. A consensus of Patristic scholars also believe that Melito of Sardis held to the belief.

In the above referenced discussion the question of whether or not Lactantius affirmed the notion that God has a bodily figure/form was raised. One of the participants—TOm—included Lactantius with Tertullian and Melito as those folk who affirmed a bodily form of God. This was the first time I had seen Lactantius associated with the view. TOm related that he inherited this understanding from two sources: first, The Harvard Theological Review article, "Augustine and the Corporeality of God" by Griffin and Paulsen [link]; and second, The Catholic Encyclopedia entry, "Anthropomorphism". The HTR article merely mentions the name along with Tertullian (see page 107). The following is an excerpt from the TCE entry:

Anthropomorphites (Audians)

A sect of Christians that arose in the fourth century in Syria and extended into Scythia, sometimes called Audians, from their founder, Audius. Taking the text of Genesis, i, 27, literally, Audius held that God has a human form. The error was so gross, and, to use St. Jerome's expression (Epist. vi, Ad Pammachium), so absolutely senseless, that it showed no vitality. Towards the end of the century it appeared among some bodies of African Christians. The Fathers who wrote against it dismiss it almost contemptuously. In the time of Cyril of Alexandria, there were some anthropomorphites among the Egyptian monks. He composed a short refutation of their error, which he attributed to extreme ignorance. (Adv. Anthrop. in P.G., LXXVI.) Concerning the charges of anthropomorphism preferred against Melito, Tertullian, Origen, and Lactantius, see the respective articles. The error was revived in northern Italy during the tenth century, but was effectually suppressed by the bishops, notably by the learned Ratherius, Bishop of Verona.  (The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I, 1907, p. 559.)

Once again, we have merely the mention of Lactantius, with no reference/s to his extant works. But the TCE entry prompts one to, "see the respective articles." Under the "Lactantius" entry we read:

Another treatise, "De Ira Dei", directed against the Stoics and Epicureans, is supplementary to the "Divine Institutions" (II,xvii,5) and deals with anthropomorphism in its true sense. (The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VIII, p. 736.)

"De Ira Dei"—The Anger/Wrath of God—is one of Lactanitus' minor works. It had been over three decades ago since I last read Volume Seven of the Nicene and Post-Nicene series, which contains the English translations of many of Lactantius' works, including his De Ira Dei. I pulled down the volume from the self a couple of days ago and found the following:

But we say that those fall from the second step, who, though they understand that there is but one Supreme God, nevertheless, ensnared by the philosophers, and captivated by false arguments, entertain opinions concerning that excellent majesty far removed from the truth ; who either deny that God has any figure, or think that He is moved by no affection, because every affection is a sign of weakness, which has no existence in God. (Lactantius, A Treatise on the Anger of God, Chapter 2 - NPNF 7.260 - bold emphasis mine.)

An, 'ah hah moment' for sure! Next step for me was to find out what the Latin reading was. From Migne's Patrologia Latina we read:

qui aut figuram negant habere ullam Deum (Migne, Patrologiæ Cursus Completus, Tomus VII, Columns 82, 83.)

Armed with the Latin and Google, I found two contributions that are germane to our issue at hand. From the first:

Lactantius, as is usual with him, displays considerable acuteness in detecting the weak points of his adversary's argument ; but a deficiency of soundness and clearness in his own views. He describes the steps towards Truth, from each of which he represents the fall into fatal error as prone and easy ; and he shows how low were the attainments even of those among the philosophers who made the nearest approaches to right opinions. But in speaking of those who attributed absolute quiescence to the Deity, he himself employs language from which it may not unfairly be inferred that he considered God to have both a body and bodily affections. "They entertain sentiments wide of the Truth, who deny that God has any shape, or can be excited by any feeling ." (Jacob Henry Brooke Mountain, A Summary of the Writings of Lactantius, Page 133 - bold emphasis mine.)

And the second:

The crudest form of anthropomorphism, proceeding from a misapprehension of the expression "Image of God" in Genesis, represented God as Man per eminentiam. It was held by Melito, bishop of Sardis in the second century, who wrote a book entitled περί ἐνσωμάτου θεοῦ, which treated not, as some suppose, of the Incarnation, but of the corporeity of God in a sensuous human figure, as Origen testifies. Somewhat more refined is another form according to which God was conceived of as an ethereal being of light. This view is maintained in the Clementine Homilies, and even by Tertullian ; notwithstanding the depth and purity of his religious feelings, he says—"Who shall deny that God is a body, although God is a Spirit.";* He maintains that there is nothing uncorporeal, except what does not exist.† Spirit is Body of a peculiar quality.‡ Some have tried to excuse him as if he only wanted another word in order to express real existence. But this is certainly unfounded. The errors of thought and language here exactly coincide. Tertullian, with his vivid religious feeling and his robust realism, knew not how to separate the ideas of Reality and Corporeity. We remark similar representations in Lactantius, who combats those who deny that God possesses form and affections. When we read in writers of this period that God is sine corpore, it does not follow that they conceived of him as a purely spiritual Being, but possibly they only meant to express a contrariety to earthly bodies. (Neander, The History of Christian Dogmas, Vol. 1, pp. 103, 104 - bold emphasis mine.)

And so, it seems that Lactantius must be included with the Clementine literature, Tertullian, and Melito as one of the early Christian writers who believed that God exists in some bodily form.

Grace and peace,


1 comment:

Nick said...

I'm surprised this got no interaction. I can see how this does play into Mormon sensibilities. The issues that would need to be clarified is whether these Church Fathers saw this as Eternal Progression, and whether this 'body' (of whatever shape) is akin to the human body (and if so how could this be without a material human body to model after in the first place).